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I'm DMing a recently-started campaign with 5 new players. They are completely new to RPGs and roleplay. In a combat, they often phrased their attacks in ways such as "I aim at the eyes in order to blind him and shoot my arrow", or "with a swift dash forward, I try to pierce her leg with my rapier so to incapacitate her movements", etc., and expected me to make the enemies suffer the consequences of their detailed actions, especially when they rolled high on the d20.

We are all enthusiasts of roleplaying and narrating and we enjoy describing events in detail. They thought they had a wider range of freedom for various or creative actions in fight, in order to affect the outcome of an attack outside of the loss of HP. However, I tried to explain to them that such an approach in combats can prove to be obnoxious and indeed the rules themselves just plainly avoid the topic.

I managed to convince them to abandon the idea of such complicated mechanics, but they were still disappointed about the side effect - so to speak - on roleplay. They wondered what the point of combat narration is anyway and started to unhappily phrase everything as such: "I attack him", "I throw [spell] at him". This resulted in coldly mechanical fights and dull narration, despite my efforts. I said I won't retract my stand on the topic; it can be quite hard to rule about anything and it's just a spit away from one-shotting an enemy due to a critical hit "aimed at the neck" and I don't want to deal with the balance issues.

However, I don't know how to flavor my battles and involve them in the narration without doing so. I mean, if they come out with a specific move and it succeeds, let's say with a critical hit, what do I say indeed? "Yeah, they lose their leg, but since we don't apply any mechanical effect to that, they still move as normal"? It feels odd. Frankly, I don't have enough experience for this. I wish to have some advices on how to narrate battles.

What can I do to keep my players engaged in combat narration without making it fall into a headshot-seeking madness? How can I encourage roleplaying in fights without allowing crippling and state-inflicting wounds (such as arrows into the eyes) to be made?


Related questions:

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This also reminds me of my Combat without HP question from ages ago, although I'm not sure how useful that will be to you, so it's only tangentially related. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Sep 4 at 11:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Possibly related question about kneecapping an enemy. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 4 at 11:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/72836 — if this does not answer your question, why? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Sep 4 at 13:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor I'm asking from a roleplaying-specific point of view. My focus is narration. I'd like some advice at handling the narrating and roleplaying part of the cases I talked about, without having to fall into advocating the problematic mechanics explained. That question merely asks if and how to implement them. \$\endgroup\$ – StackLloyd Sep 4 at 14:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think "crippling" is a misnomer. Presumably, your players want more meaningful fights, full of details and tactical decisions. They also want colorful descriptions for these fights. Ideally, narrative and tactics should complement each other. You could start from something like "how to describe fights in 5e". \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Sep 4 at 15:40
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They are right that combat is often a bit boring. As such, I would suggest you import a mechanic from another game to fix it and reduce your need to do modifiers.

DCC has a mechanic called Mighty Deeds where you roll a dice, and if it comes up 3 or above you get to do a mighty deed. As you level up your dice get larger, and you can do greater and greater deeds.

You could import this mechanic to the players. If they want to do a mighty deed, they need to first narrate a cool action, and then can roll the dice. You might impose a limit of a +2 or -2 bonus for a 3 on a mighty deed, with +1 for each greater number (+3 or -3 for a 4). That way they get to do dramatic deeds, for a small mechanical bonus, but there's no need to do complicated adjudication.

Non physical combat classes, with smaller dice, will also be doing crazy stuff less often.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I've personally used it as is to good effect in DND games, with the stated modifier. \$\endgroup\$ – Nepene Nep Sep 4 at 14:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Neat. Can you please edit that into the answer? :) Borrowing stuff from other systems is something we did a lot in the fist 10 years I played D&D. (70's - 80's, with varying degrees of success) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 4 at 14:21
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Nothing wrong with combat narration. Just remember that, in a meta-sense, this is a game of chance that depends on dice rolls.

So you or your players can narrate what you are trying to do, but its the dice roll that then determines what actually happens, which is then usually up to you (as the DM) to interpret (though a reasonable sensible player can chip in as well).

For example, the player says "I'm gonna shoot him with my bow and go for the eyes!" Then they roll the dice and one of the following happens:

  • They miss. DM: "Unfortunately, your shot goes wide and the arrow thuds into the door behind them"
  • They hit and roll damage (not a crit and not enough to kill them). DM: "Your arrow misses its mark but skims past their head leaving a nasty wound."
  • They hit (a crit! but still not enough to kill them). DM: "Your arrow plunges into their eye but without the force to go right through. Somehow, they stay upright with blood pouring down their face".
  • They hit and kill them! DM: "Your arrow plunges into their eye, the point exploding out the back of their head as they collapse on to the floor!"

Just as another example of combat narration (stolen unashamedly from the web series Critical Role). If a hit happens to kill an opponent, feel free to ask the player "How do you want to do this?", and leave it up to the player to narrate the exact details of their killing shot.


A slightly different situation is for describing how spells look or work without changing the mechanical properties of them. My current campaign as a druid I occasionally narrate the appearance of my spell-casting.

Examples:

  • When I cast Thorn Whip, I reach out my staff and the end of the staff flexes and extends towards the enemy trying to wrap around their body.
  • When I cast Barkskin, I clutch my wooden quarterstaff and draw on its strength, the wooden effect creeping from the staff, along my arm and up my body (think: Absorbing man from the comics).
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Your arrow plunges into their eye..." - that's the point, if we go with that, now the enemy should be considered blinded. If it is, then the issues I explained arise. If it isn't, then what was that for? \$\endgroup\$ – StackLloyd Sep 4 at 11:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @StackLloyd. You have to be careful with actual mechanical effects. I would say "no" the enemy is not blinded as they still have one eye left (or more for giant spiders!). The narration can depend on the situation, and a critical can leave a horrific wound, but D&D uses only an abstract system of hit points by default. \$\endgroup\$ – PJRZ Sep 4 at 11:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Maybe add a link of some kind to that "Absorbing man" reference? I don't know who that is, so others may not know either, and a link to some wiki or something will help to quickly clear that up. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Sep 4 at 15:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Is this how you've narrated (or how you've seen DMs narrate?) \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 5 at 14:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you add your experience in doing that and how the player reacted to their requested narration being changed? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 5 at 14:16
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Describe attacks and let players describe their final blows

It seems your players want more colorful combat description. They do not want to insta-kill enemies by saying "I shoot them in the eye". Instead, they're interested in more detailed narrative part.

Give them these details! Describe attacks, both PCs' and NPCs' ones. Describe wounds, bruises and scratches instead of simple "you lost 5 hp". Until this does not mess with mechanics, you will be fine.

Matthew Mercer, the Critical Role DM, describes details of players actions and effects of their actions, while a monster still has HP. When it is down — he allows the player to describe the final blow:

— Okay, this shot kills him. How do you want to do this?
— I shoot him in the eye, he falls on the ground with the head pierced through

Here's a quick example how can this look like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLEMb_RIZ3o

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Excellent use of how/when Mercer allow this type of narration - but what does he do when someone tries to do it before killing shots? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 5 at 14:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ Players can always say stuff like 'I try to shoot the monster in the eye'. That doesn't mean that it will actually go down like that. A result could be 'the monster moves just as you take your shot and your arrow lodges into its shoulder instead.' \$\endgroup\$ – Dennisch Sep 25 at 13:42
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There's a few considerations here, but this is how I tend to handle this sort of thing.

First, it's easier to declare an action or intent mechanically, roll, and then describe the outcome in dramatic terms. In other words, not "I try to stab him in the leg so he can't run", but rather "I'll attack with my longsword -- Okay, I deal him 12 damage. Percival swings around behind him and slashes across the back of one leg to hamper his movement..."

But whichever way you go on that, I, as DM, will often let those narrative flourishes inform how the creature acts on its next turn, but that's sort of the extent of it. Slashing a soldier's hamstring might mean I don't move it away from the terrifying barbarian next turn, but it doesn't actually reduce his speed or inflict the prone condition. If you want to do something like that, Shove and Grapple are right there for the purpose.

Those suggestions do need to be reasonable. An archer who claims a normal hit puts an arrow through a creature's eye is just as off-kilter as a ranger who declares that with his short-sword hit dealing a mighty 6 damage, he decapitates the owlbear. Like, no, that doesn't happen, that's absurd. (Assuming, of course, that the creature has not died. If that 6 damage is enough to drop the monster, yeah, of course go to town describing some fantastical God of War fatality where you spin around its neck and decapitate it, whatever. If that's your fun, go for it.) If the ask is too big and it's just a mundane hit, I'll likely respond by describing how they were AIMING for the eye, but instead the hobgoblin jerks to the side at the last moment and the arrow ricochets off his helm, leaving a golf-ball sized dent and staggering him.

But leaving behind the rules as written, I do like to sometimes go off and do something fun to encourage that kind of behavior in my players. If you roll a crit, I'm much more willing to do something wacky, like blinding the creature permanently in lieu of dealing extra crit damage.

I personally think D&D as written doesn't do enough with conditions outside of spellcasting, so I might let a player who really wants to do something like this choose to take disadvantage on their first attack roll, and if it hits, it deals normal damage and also invokes an effect, either for one turn (more likely) or permanently (only if it was a pretty minor condition).

Note that I said "on their first attack roll" -- if you get three or four attacks in a turn, only the first one is eligible for this kind of thing, for balance purposes and to make sure we don't slow down the fight too badly.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This seems to be more about narrating and adding mechanical consequences, which is not what OP is asking for. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 5 at 14:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ These are ways to encourage engaging narration from players without attaching unbalanced mechanics to that -- which is precisely what the OP is asking for. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Sep 5 at 15:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ I had thought OP was saying "MY players are asking for their attack to do X to a target", but then they want to be able to narrate the attack without doing X because X is a mechanical effect. Was that incorrect? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 5 at 15:11

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