Once Upon a Time, There Was a Fistfight: Combat and Narrative

Remember that time we killed a God for my birthday?


Whether you’re fighting your way through a dungeon, running from zombies or ending Odin, there are narrative tricks—and player limits—to keep in mind when combat springs up. This is by no means an exhaustive tool-kit, but the best kits are built by continually trying new techniques to craft a more compelling story.

Yours might have fire breathing dragons.

Tell Us A Story

Narrating combat helps with pacing, engages players, and increases their buy-in. In this case, that buy-in being referred to is their attention and creativity. When a fight is a challenge, stakes are high, and the fight is fulfilling for players, the narrative is working. If you want to cadge a narrative trick, you go to someone who’s been perfecting theirs—like Jack-of-all-Trades GM Cliff Hebner.

Hebner’s spent years waging the good fight against one of the forms of combat with the worst reputation of all time: LARP combat.

In live-action role-playing there’s often a popular set of assumptions about combat:

  • it’s boring
  • it’s all about numbers
  • you’ll be there all night.

LARP or table-top, Hebner’s advice comes from years of straddling the divide between narration and numbers while volunteering for the Camarilla, primarily as a Storyteller. [1]

“If your play group is all Team Number Smash or all Team No Math, then great—it’s not hard to make combat fun for them, since they all want the same thing. The Number Smashers will all want to roll it out down to the last hit point, and the Math Haters will let you take a quick poll of who’s doing what, then narrate the results. So what do you do with a mixed group? You start by talking to the players. Ask them questions.

“Does anyone want to have their PC die in this scene?”

“What’s your goal/intended outcome/victory condition?”

“At what point will you turn tail and run?”

“Is there anyone NOT being attacked/affected that wants to bow out now?” This helps give you a picture of what people want from the scene.


Narrative helps you balance player needs, and it’s one of the backbones of good GMing.


Keeping Combat on Track

Combat has a reputation for being a disorganized mess from which there is no escape. Monica Speca keeps the combat fast-paced and on track by drawing on her past as an athlete.

“I have players write down their initiatives on a note card and keep them in a stack in order. From my years as a track athlete, I then call them like I’d call an event. “Player 1 up, Player 2 on deck, Enemies on standby. Player 3, you’re after them. Go.” This works like a charm. While Player 1 is going, Players 2 and 3 are already thinking about what they’re going to do, and possibly building a stunt in their minds. “

No one technique for keeping combat order is one-size fits all. Experiment with what your table responds to. If there are chronic issues you notice—yours as a GM or theirs as players—find ways to address them. If one of your players has a hard time keeping track in combat, talk to them away from game. Are they still learning the system? Struggling with keeping everything organized? You may be able to brain storm ways to experiment with finding a fix that suits them. If you as a GM have specific issues with keeping combat organized, ask around. Your table, and fellow GMs, may be able to suggest things.


Tapping Out and Fade to Black


If somebody gets into a violent scene and cannot continue, it is always okay to tap out. You can still keep things fun—and include combat—without providing an unintentionally harmful environment. GMs can use content warnings, players can choose to stay out a scene, you can ‘fade to black’ and summarize as a GM or group what happened. If someone crosses a line during combat—or a personal line for people at the table gets crossed—addressing that is usually best done in private. Having that heart to heart in private makes people less defensive. When someone is less defensive, they can do a better job of listening with empathy and responding rationally. Most people will point to sexualized violence and violence against children as unacceptable in their games, but many don’t talk to their players about other forms of violence and trauma.

If you have a player who has seen combat overseas, experienced a traumatic car wreck, or was walking to work the morning a skyscraper fell—those experiences may reemerge for them when strikingly similar events happen in game. You’re not expected to know every traumatic event in the lives of each player, but use your knowledge of the events you do know of wisely. No matter the circumstance, if violence or combat hits an unseen nerve, a five minute break—or calling it an early night—are viable ways to address the tripping of personal triggers.


When the Smoke Clears

A good combat encounter helps heighten the experience of gaming. –Rasmus Rassmussen

Combat in a game has similarities to a good sex scene in a book. It has a narrative point, it enhances the experience of the story, and it feels real. Bad combats, and bad sex scenes, often feel like throwaway scenes that don’t move a narrative forward or explore a vital piece of the story. The heist gone wrong or the gun fight with the undead Sheriff are each pieces of the narrative. Well-done combats have purpose, and like the rest of the game, are parts of a story you don’t want your players to forget.


Have some tips and tricks that help you keep combat organized, exciting or engaging? Feel free to share in the comments.



[1] For those versed in Camarilla abbreviations, Hebner is a former DC, iVST, DST, and AAMST.

About l

L is a freelancer currently working as a writer, editor, journalist and game designer. She hauls a suitcase decorated in stickers as she blogs, travels, and tours. She makes her home in Washington, California, and wherever the tour stopped last night. You can follow L on twitter (@lilyorit )

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