My Golden Rule For Making Combat More Interesting

Generally speaking, I don’t believe in telling people how D&D ‘should’ be played. There are different DM styles and different game styles, and that’s OK. Even now, I’m really offering a tip, not an instruction. But if there’s one easy way to improve combat, it’s this:

Stop describing every hit and miss.

Sacrilige! I hear some of you say. Many players love describing the swings and misses of their sword blows or the targeted shots from their crossbow. And I really don’t want you to stop doing something that stops you having fun! But I have three reasons for writing this post today.

1. Describing every hit and miss might be fun for you, but it can get pretty tedious for everyone else.

Let’s say you’re playing with four other people: three players and a DM. If each of you spend 30 seconds describing your turn, you only have to wait two minutes for your turn to come round. If you spend about three minutes on your turn – which really isn’t that long – you are waiting more than ten minutes for your turn to come round. That’s a long time.

2. Describing every hit and miss is a fundamental misunderstanding of how hit points work.

I covered this in my ‘rules you never knew’ series. Let’s reread how the Player’s Handbook defines hit points (p 196):

Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck. Creatures with more hit points are more difficult to kill. Those with fewer hit points are more fragile.

A hit is not necessarily a wound, and it would be kind of ridiculous if it were. Imagine someone being blasted repeatedly with magic missiles, yet they somehow stay standing. It starts to feel a bit silly, right? Just because someone has been hit does not mean they are bleeding out.

The Player’s Handbook also says this on the next page (emphasis mine):

When your current hit point total is half or more of your hit point maximum, you typically show no signs of injury. When you drop below half your hit point maximum, you show signs of wear, such as cuts and bruises. An attack that reduces you to 0 hit points strikes you directly, leaving a bleeding injury or other trauma, or it simply knocks you unconscious.

For many players, this is a fundamental shift in thinking.

Here’s an example. Imagine a fighter is fighting an orc (15 hp). The warrior ‘hits’ for 5 damage, reducing the orc to 10 hp. According to the Player’s Handbook, the orc shows no sign of injury. Maybe the fighter catches the orc off guard, or flexes her swordsmanship, or gives the orc reason to think twice about its next move. But the orc is not visibly wounded.

If the ranger fires an arrow at the orc and deals another 8 damage, that’s another matter. The orc is now on 2 hp. But again, this is not necessarily a ‘direct hit’. The orc is showing ‘signs of wear, such as cuts or bruises’, but it’s not unconscious.

If the wizard now casts magic missile and hits the orc for 1d4+1 damage, the orc is unconscious. This might ‘feel’ wrong because the ranger was the one who did the most damage, but it’s the ‘killing blow’ that matters.

3. Cut back on superfluous description and the special hits become more cinematic.

Don’t get me wrong, your character is important. But we don’t need to know about it every time they swing a sword. Very often in fiction, when it comes to good description, less is more.

So, which hits matter? I would suggest three only:

  • First blood (half hit points);
  • Knockout blows (0 hp);
  • Critical hits (which very often end up being one of the other two hits).

Every other ‘hit’ is just a hit. Save the description for when it matters.

DMs, this goes for you, too! Even more so, in fact, because you field so many more enemies on the table.

At first it might feel a bit weird to just say ‘7 damage’ and move on, but if everyone at the table does it, you start to notice some cool things happening. Your turn comes round faster, combats don’t drag as much, and those special moves stand out as cinematic flourishes. Try it out.

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7 thoughts on “My Golden Rule For Making Combat More Interesting

  1. 1. a typical description of a hit is going to take 5-15 seconds. if you are taking 3 minutes to describe your turn virtually none of that is due to you describing your hit, probably nearly all of it is players fumbling through unnecessarily complex game mechanics, so if you are serious about streamlining the game the way to do it is by simplifying the ruleset. if you are suggesting eliminating hit descriptions is a way to transform 3-minute turns into 30-second turns i recommend you time yourself while you attempt to speak extemporaneously on the blow you just struck for 2.5 minutes, you are going to find that’s a much bigger chunk of time than you imagine.

    granted, you could reduce session time by a few percent by eliminating hit descriptions. but why would you? what’s the point of skipping over roleplay in a roleplay game? if other players find your hit descriptions tedious there are bigger issues afoot.

    2. i cannot believe this is the hill you have chosen to die on. yes, every hit necessarily produces physical injury, that’s what hitpoints measure, and if the player’s handbook says otherwise the only rational response is to ignore raw in this case, just as you would if the player’s handbook said that 2+2=3. hit point loss doesn’t occur by reducing the character’s mental durability, the will to live, and good luck, those are better measured by other mechanics like exhaustion and morale.

    magic missile leaves a person standing (if he has a lot of hit points, plenty of people in your campaign world will be capable of losing all their hit points to one magic missile) because it is a weak, 1st-level spell. a single magic missile hardly does anything. you want ridiculous? consider this scenario:

    you cast two maximized fireballs on a fighter, one after the other. two identical fireballs, identical hit point effects, the first (thanks to this character’s particular hp maximum and assume he fails both saving throws) reduces your target to 50% of his hit point maximum, the second reduces him to zero hit points. in your bizarre interpretation the first fireball had no physical effect on him at all, all it did was reduce his mental durability and will to live – apparently he became super emo and suicidal due to having his feelings hurt by a physically harmless fireball, even though this is not necessarily reflected in his behavior or other mechanics. apparently he is superman from that scene in batman vs superman where the bomb explodes in the congressional hearing he’s attending.

    then, the second fireball burns all the skin from the fighter’s body where the first, physically identical one left him uncharred. please, try to make this make sense.

    1. 1. Maybe it doesn’t save a huge amount of time, but every little helps. There are, of course, many other ways to streamline combat. This is just one of them. I could correct my post to 15 seconds instead of 30, but honestly, it’s splitting hairs.

      2. Who said anything about dying on a hill? At the very start of the article, I state that this is a tip, not an instruction, and ‘I really don’t want you to stop doing something that stops you having fun’. Could I have been any clearer? Of course you should use common sense and take each situation as it comes! The fireball example is clearly ridiculous, and we could concoct equally ridiculous examples with the ‘hp = wounds’ approach. Play your game how you like – it’s just a suggestion. All the best.

      1. I think the tips here were great, even if I’ll try them out in my own way! The fireball example could be the fighter using a lot of energy to “avoid” the first, or perhaps saying that his armor or environment protected him from a direct impact, while the second fireball (which knocks him out) caught him square in the face. It’d be the magic version of an arrow gracing your arm vs piercing the chest.

        My understanding of this article is that it’s more impactful to emphasize (either more or merely) on particular milestones for dramatic effect while subcommunicating real progress to the players.

      2. You can also be hurt without being injured.
        When higher health, hits are “glancing blows” that can leave superficial cuts, bruising/broken skin for blunt, or an arrow can still score a direct hit but not penetrate deep into armor, hit a body cavity, hit somewhere like the shoulder, etc.
        The term “Bloodied” implies you have taken multiple wounds and are injured/bleeding in several places. You don’t stand there physically pristine one moment and then 1 hp less are suddenly covered in various wounds.

        As DM, it takes me about 3-5 seconds to describe combat actions most of the time. (Longer for special occasions, like killing blows)

        If combat does seem to be sluggish, I’ll switch to the round recap method, describing all the actions in a more simultaneous manner.

    2. “apparently he is superman from that scene in batman vs superman where the bomb explodes in the congressional hearing he’s attending.”
      OH EM GEE spoilers!

  2. I’m a big fan of point #2 and have been for a while. Oddly, I think it was the time I spent playing Fate that helped me overcome that mental block and embrace what you quoted from the PHB for D&D.

    I also agree that describing every “hit” gets challenging (regardless of whether a “hit” represents an actual wound or merely a drain of a little bit of luck/skill/stamina) and I agree that #3 is a worthy goal. I’m looking forward to trying out this approach sometime soon.

  3. One compromise can be to describe a series of strikes, rather than each individual hit. Recap a round or several turns at once.

    Also, read the table to know whether it’s a good time to narrate more heavily, or whether it’s time to expedite combat.

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