Right now, the group that I GM for is very, very tactical-combat focused. To some extent, we may as well be playing a dungeon crawl board game for all the role-play we manage.

Now, in and of itself that's not bad, and I enjoy progressing the story that we're telling, but I would like more "theatre of the mind" than we're achieving right now.

The one bit of advice that I always seem to come across is to have the villains and other NPCs in the fight invite role-play by taunting and otherwise engaging in banter with the PCs, but unfortunately I've tried and failed at that - largely because quick witted banter is not my forte, and so it comes across as strained and less than engaging.

What I would like are other play-proven tactics that I as a GM can employ to lead my players towards more role-play during combat, without taking them away from their (and my) roll-play comfort zone.


6 Answers 6


Several things I'v found work fairly well in older D&D editions... and adjusted to D&D 4E terms.

  • Reward descriptive attacks and punish boring or repetitive - a good description is a +2 to the attack. A colorful one is +4. A boring "I attack him" gets a -4. A brief but cool social interaction gets a +4; a "I try to blather him" gets a -4
    • start with bonus only. Later start increasing the penalty for boring from 0 towards the -4.
  • describe the hits - each hit point lost should be one point of impact for most weapons, tho pokey stuff and magic weapons might be 2-3 HP per point hit.
  • each time someone does something really cool in describing an action, hand them a token. Allow them to spend those for rerolls any point that session, or turn them in for (10xLevel)XP at end of session.
  • Make use of the skill challenge system in DMG2.
    • ABSOLUTELY apply the bonus/penalty for creative/boring description
    • Use it especially for paths from encounter to encounter.
    • make more and more XP available from skill challenges as time progresses.
  • have some semi-hostile obviously overwhelming force encounters
    • The opponents will capture & disarm, not kill, survivors
    • The opponents call for surrender prior to the combat, and
    • the opponents surround, but do not engage, the PC's until the PC's attack.
    • following capture or surrender, the PC's get interviewed/interrogated, then kicked loose.
      • Some of these should be "Oops, we got the wrong party"
      • some should be actually looking for the PC's for some slight, which they can skill their way out of.
  • Don't hesitate to kill PC's, and don't allow resurrections; further, replacement characters should be AT LEAST one level lower than the lost character (tho never below 1st). Seriously. When players feel like videogame heroes, with save points, they tend to be much more tactically focused. When they know that this character dies, and a less capable one replaces him, they tend to start being more careful about keeping them around.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that if you're playing Eclipse Phase you can and probably should ignore the last point since in Eclipse Phase you can create save points. \$\endgroup\$
    – mirv120
    Commented Oct 4, 2011 at 16:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for bonuses for exciting and creative descriptions of actions during combat. This works in any system. Also, just refuse* "I attack" actions. Push your player for more. Say, "No, tell me **what you do, and how you do it." If he refuses, skip his turn and ask again on the next combat round. I'll bet he comes up with something! \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Commented Oct 4, 2011 at 18:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @gomad I've done the "skip the player" - it usually doesn't work. It goes too far, and just pisses them off, often to the point of walkout, where a penalty doesn't usually cause them to walk. A very few players are the opposite, but they also tend to not be the ones with the non-descriptive player issue. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 20:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ Allow them to spend those for rerolls any point that session, or turn them in for (10xLevel)XP at end of session. -- Don't reward hording too much. If they are worth XP, they should be worth XP if you used them or not! \$\endgroup\$
    – Yakk
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 19:45

Some Theory

Consider a 3 axis nomogram. One axis is "Tactical Complexity" another is "Narrative Complexity" and the third is "Time spent" These axes need to be calibrated for your group, obviously.

A good, entertaining, tactical combat is its own reward. It moves (relatively) quickly and has engaging amounts of tactical complexity.

A well narrated conflict is also its own reward: creating dramatic tension and resolving it based on the actions of the characters.

One problem is that (to take a system that is quite guilty of this) 4e combats do not contain any narrative conflict. While enemies have the pretense of conflict, the system provides for one outcome: complete player success at the cost of resources. While TPK threats make for tension on the player's behalf, the threat of the TPK is desire, and an actual TPK in any long-running campaign is a complete FUBAR and something to be avoided.

Therefore, all the interesting choices happen at the tactical level. While people may certainly choose to dress up actions in narrative description, It more than doubles the length of a fight: paying attention to the narrative means that people aren't thinking about their next move. At the same time, there are no interesting narrative options in a standard set piece battle. The players have the objective: eliminate the opposing forces, dictated by the conventions of the genre, and the monsters have the objective: try, but not too hard, to win. The monsters are an interesting tactical problem, and superbly uninteresting narrative problem.


(taken from discussions with @Magician)

You can increase the narrative seeming of the combat-without-conflict by allowing players to narrate their attacks. In my wave game, I provided floating "+2 bonus bennies" to people who had entertaining narration of their combat interactions. These bennies could be used on any subsequent roll for any purpose, though not stacked.

Through this, I established a tangible reward that provided interesting RP opportunities. At first. As the game progressed, the RP aspects were more and more an afterthought. Doing this in a live game will significantly increase combat length, however.

Another option is to introduce real conflict into the combat. This is a project I'm currently working on with a friend. From our initial thoughts and experiments.

The way to introduce conflict is somewhat stylized and is the enemy of set-piece battles. Each side must declare their goal for the battle, a goal that if the enemy wasn't there could be met easily. (Therefore no goals of "kill the enemies"... most of the time. Even in big-boss battles, presenting a compelling conflict can be more interesting than simply "I kill the big bad"). Establish formalized victory conditions such as "everyone has to be past this door", "someone needs to burn the rope", etc... Then, allow players to narrate skill uses towards the accomplishment of these goals, much as how the fourthcore adventures allow early exits from incredibly deadly combats when alternate tactical victory conditions are met.

By providing conflict, a tangible benefit to narration, and a reason to not simply wail on the opponent, players will have far more interest in spending their standard actions on something other than simple damage. This provides mechanical support for the narration of taunts (keeping enemies from moving towards their goal-area by making them enraged) interesting movement (swinging on ropes! Awesome! Not pointless!) and all the rest. The early-completion goals mean that combats time won't be trebled.

If the enemies achieve their victory? Allow players to spend 1 HS to deal an enemy's bloodied value to itself and then to narrate how they finish off the enemy. The conflict has completed and prolonging the combat is pointless. This provides narrative reasons and tactical reasons for narration and firmly establishes the narrative conflict's dominance. It also gives the GM headaches, cause prepping encounters on the fly is so much fun in tactically heavy games.

I'd be happy to test your implementation of this advice in chat, for extra data.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, it's pretty simple reward training: if players do things you like, immediately reward them. Not entirely unlike dogs. :) (And yes, paranoia makes that comparison. It's awesome.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 21:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ The declaration of goals need not be made by the players. The goals could be clear. Instead of "fights for fights sake", arrange it so that every fight furthers some goal. "Kill the invaders" is something you only really do if you are (A) mindless undead, or (B) have a massively overwhelming force: "delay the invaders so the alarm can ring", "let my family escape", "escape them", "distract them while the other force kills the king" are more likely goals. No intelligent being makes a habit of fair fights to the death for very long. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yakk
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 20:45

I have a small technique that helps make combat feel a little more real. My group does call-outs.

At the beginning of each round, each player is allowed to make a one-sentence "call-out." No longer than a sentence, though - it is in the middle of combat, between sword swings.

The call can be anything from "you'll never defeat me." to "make a run for it!" to "to infinity and beyond!" One key, though, is that the players aren't allowed to talk amongst themselves except for this call-out. Then the call-out becomes very important for coordination, etc.

Important NPCs should also call out from time to time. It gives a convenient vehicle for a "I am your father." Of course, longer-winded speeches won't work, but those are best reserved for pauses in combat.

At first, players might not be sure what to say. Don't force them - a bad guy saying some catchphrase before he knocks somebody out will be pretty convincing.


If your definition of "roleplaying" is banter, silly voices, amateur acting displays, etc., and your players aren't doing that naturally, you're going to need to learn how to model that as a DM. Generally this is something that happens because on person at the table is good at it, enjoys it, and is willing to break the ice and act silly until the rest of the group starts following along.

If your definition of "roleplaying" is something more like "getting the players to make decisions in character," you're in luck, because it's super easy to merge this with tactical combat: give the characters alternate goals, achievable in combat, beyond "kill this guy so we can move through this area." Easy ways to do this:

  • Target a particular opponent. Maybe they have a grudge against him, maybe he just has information they need. Works best if the rest of the enemies on the board are more dangerous, or at least that going after the one they care about will open them up to attack somehow. Bonus points if it's one character in particular who cares about the guy.
  • Alternatively, one or more of their opponents is someone they don't want to hurt -- too badly. They don't want to kill the mind-controlled townsfolk attacking them, or the druid doesn't want to kill the bear that's just attacking the party because it got chased out of its den by something weird.
  • The bad guys target one PC in particular. Preferably a support character who's not a complete glass cannon, or someone the players can reasonably defend -- as long as they keep their act together. Bonus points if the reason for targeting that PC depends on information that only part of the group knows about so far.
  • The bad guys have hostages! Or there's some other innocent non-hostile mixed in the proceedings.

Basically, my strategy with this kind of game is to turn the "roleplaying" into something that they can actually interact with by moving around on the board. Along with good DM energy for descriptions it seems to do the trick -- They don't have to be long, involved descriptions, or particularly serious, but it helps to demonstrate that you're excited and interested in what you're describing.


Generally, I find that rules get in the way of role playing unless those rules were specifically designed to enhance role playing. The only way to make things better in that sense is to use a carrot/stick approach. If a player describes what their character is doing well, you give them a bonus. If a player describes what their character is doing badly, you give them a penalty. However, you get a problem on average descriptions and the players will game the system. You can, of course, deal experience points as reward for good role play.

Personally, I would ask them before the game starts that you would like them to do more role play instead of playing a tactical board game. Some maybe interested, others may not. They may want to do that but lack the means, or see themselves as bad actors, or ... Deal with this by encouraging them to try -- and reinforce this behaviour when it appears.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is kinda where I'm at... I'd like to invite more opportunity to roleplay and reinforce when it happens, but I find that the ideas that I have come across - essentially in character NPC banter - are ones that I'm not that good at, and so am looking for more techniques to invite roleplay. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 19:53

1st Edition AD&D had Oriental Adventures, which introduced an "Honor" system. This added a "currency" if you will to the existing currencies of coin and XP. Different actions could increase or decrease your Honor, and this could be used to affect NPC reactions, future characters (from the same clan), etc.

There are some good suggestions in the following thread for Honor, Glory, etc: D&D Source Material for Honour Systems This can help give alternate goals besides "smush baddies!" that may change how your players approach combat... especially if you customize and adapt them to your goals.


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