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I'm a fairly new GM, this coming Saturday is going to be about my 4th session, I think, and I'm playing a 5e reskin of a video game with a good group online via Discord and the Owlbear Rodeo VTT. So far the roleplaying (outside of some narrative problems I'm still learning to navigate) is going well; my players seem invested in the world and their place in the story. However I'm running into problems with making combat more interesting with not being able to play on tabletop. Combat right now is mostly just an hour of me directing my players through what actions they can take; they're all fairly new to TTRGs as a whole.

I am trying my best to guide the combat to bring out more roleplay, but they rarely bite and it always just ends up being an hour of "Does it hit?", "Can I (blank)?" etc. By the end it feels like we wasted a good chunk of time that everyone in my party sets out to play.

Any suggestions? I feel like a lot of the research I do just gives very vague and kind of complex ways for me to fix this that I don't feel like I can achieve online.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ We're currently running basically a 5e reskin of a famous videogame we enjoy, so its a bit of a challenge to find resources, but it's just the basic 5e rules outside of name changes and class changes \$\endgroup\$
    – Daniel
    Commented Jan 10 at 21:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ You might want to add a bit more about how you are currently running combat. In the comment to my answer, you mentioned Owlbear. It's not clear from your question that you are using any other tool than Discord for voice. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Commented Jan 10 at 22:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Agreed, because my first question was going to be, "Are you using a virtual tabletop or trying pure 'theater of the mind?'" (Although, that does run the risk of turning this into an shopping question for VTTs.) \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Commented Jan 11 at 1:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ What level are the PCs right now and what sort of visual aids do you use if any (like a virtual table top for example)? \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Commented Jan 11 at 10:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ What does "via Discord" mean? Is this play by chat, a video call, or an audio call? \$\endgroup\$
    – Laurel
    Commented Jan 11 at 15:31

3 Answers 3

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This will get better with experience

Part of this, I strongly suspect, will improve with experience. When you are playing a new game, you often have to spend a lot of mental energy just on figuring out the rules and what you can do. I use "game" broadly in that sentence and it applies to Go or Risk or a lot of sports, but I think it particularly applies to RPGs. That usually passes with time.

Consider leading by example

Different groups have different expectations. You will find groups that are happy to focus on the rules and the mechanical aspects. They want to focus on the tactics.

That is fine. There is nothing wrong with that. If they aren't biting when you try to guide them to more roleplay, perhaps they aren't interested in more roleplay. Fighting them on that may just frustrate everyone without getting anywhere. Though it could just be that they are new and they will relax into it with a little time as they get more comfortable with the rules.

But it may help if you demonstrate more. Use elaborate narration. Have the enemies pull off things like swinging from chandeliers etc. that require reading the rules broadly. They may well follow your example.

Consider Bonuses for Roleplay in Combat

Some systems expressly provide for bonuses for good roleplay in combat. I'm a big fan of Exalted 3e's stunt system. DND 5e has inspiration which can be given by the GM for good roleplaying among other things.

Even systems that don't expressly have something like that built in can easily have it bolted on.

Consider talking with them directly

It's almost cliche to mention talking to your players on this site, but that is because it very often works.

You can tell them directly that you would like them to roleplay during combat more and ask them to do so. Don't be shocked if they push back and say they want to focus on the tactics stay as close to RAW as possible. Some people prefer that. DND specifically originally grew out of earlier fantasy wargames that were purely strategic. But if they are just unused to roleplaying, then directly telling them that such narration is not only allowed but encouraged may go a long way to getting them to do it.

You can also tell them point blank that (within reason) they are allowed to do things in combat that aren't expressly addressed by the rules and that most of the time the answer to a question about whether they can do something that is reasonable is "roll". Let them know that swinging from chandeliers, pushing enemies into hazards, a huge party member throwing a tiny one, etc. are all things that can be at least tried.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for the advice! I think I might fall a bit into a constant worry that my players are actually enjoying my campaign or not. I've been toying with bonuses for roleplay outside of combat, but perhaps as you mentioned it might be good to do it more specifically during combat with all the long (and a but tedious) who's turn it is, what rolls etc. But thank you so much^^ I have a lot more to learn still,,, \$\endgroup\$
    – Daniel
    Commented Jan 10 at 21:48
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You can play an online game on a (virtual) table top

I've caught through one of the comments that you're using Owlbear. It's not a tool that I'm particularly familiar with, but I know that at the very least it supports maps and tokens so if you're making use of this feature, you already have a combat that somewhat resembles playing a physical game. It also has an initiative tracker that you can make visible to your players. When I'm playing with a new(ish) players I also explicitly call out before their turn ("Ok, now is the goblin's turn, Sam, you're up next") so they can start thinking about what they want to do.

Your players are inexperienced and D&D 5E has a learning curve

Questions like "Can I do X?" are typical of new players who don't have the rules internalised to the point of being able to apply them instinctively yet. This is something that comes with experience and it's hard to roleplay when you're just trying to figure out what you can do on your turn. Character progression is set up in a way that level 1 PCs start with a few simple options available to them, then build on that as they level up. Give them enough time to practice their new abilities at each level and you should start seeing improvement. Also make sure their character sheets are always up to date, AFAIK Owlbear doesn't directly support this so wherever you're keeping the character sheets, make sure that they're easily accessible to the players during the sessions and give them once over after each level up.

If you have enough time and goodwill, you could make cheat sheets for them to refer to during combat. This should eliminate questions like "what can I do?", "what do I roll?" and all the others relating to basic functionality.

Give them an example of what you're expecting

Make sure to be descriptive when you run your monsters. Instead of saying "The goblin attacks with his sword, it's 15 to hit, you take 4 points of damage" you can say something like this "The goblin reluctantly moves forward, swings his sword in a haphazard way and by luck more than skill manages to catch you on the back of your calf - you feel a pang of pain but can tell it's no more than just a flesh wound (take 4 damage points)". You don't have to keep doing this for every single attack (I make sure to do a description like that for monsters at the very least for every critical hit or miss and whenever it's an ability the party hasn't seen before, but generally I try to not have a combat round that is just calling numbers) but if you do it often enough, your players will likely naturally pick up on it and start flavouring their actions in a similar way.

Finally, you're a new DM by your own admission so don't be too strict with yourself. As long everyone at the table (including you!) enjoys your game, you're doing a good job! Not everything needs to be perfect and even experienced DMs mess up sometimes.

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I have played for years over Discord as both a player and a GM.

A couple recommendations you might find helpful are to use the Discord channels, and to use an online map.

Use Discord's chat channels

We use a multiplicity of Discord channels. Two in particular might be helpful for your game.

We have one called "dnd". The GM uses it for posting text descriptions or pictures where helpful. This is a fast way to give players information. You specifically asked how to make combat more interesting. Frequently in our game the GM will post pictures, for instance of opponents, which adds some interest and visual appeal to the combat.

We have another one called "initiative". When there's a combat, the GM will poll who has what initiative. We use a very fast way where the GM will say "20 to 25", "15 to 20", until they have a list of all the players' initiative. It's then posted in the initiative channel.

For instance, it might say:

24 - Locke
19 - Paks
15 - Ogre #1
12 - Tuck
11 - Ogre #2
8 - George
7 - Hulking figure

This helps keep combat flowing because everyone sees the order of combat so they know when they're coming up.

We use other channels too, but those two really help with combat.

Use an online map

We don't use a map for every encounter, but we usually do. The map might be anything from something the GM has hand-drawn with various degrees of elaborateness, to something repurposed from the Internet, to something from a WotC resource, to something from a module.

We have used multiple tools for sharing the map. For instance, we've used Roll20, we've used the channel-sharing feature of Discord, and we've used the map feature within D&D Beyond.

They all work well, although the D&D Beyond map feature, which is what we currently use, has given us the best experience.

Finally

Finally, practice will help. Just keep at it. Try things and see what works. Ask your players for their thoughts.

Good luck!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ We're currently running all our games through Owlbear, but I will definitely look into D&D Beyond to see how they compare. Thank you very much for the advice! \$\endgroup\$
    – Daniel
    Commented Jan 10 at 21:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think the "20 to 25", "15 to 20" etc. method is as fast as you say. Asking the players one-by-one saves you the trouble of trying to organise the process into some order (someone being distracted and missing their cue, or multiple people in one "interval" mixing the order up are possible issues, for example), and is not much harder to write down. Especially digitally, where you can just insert a line in between (on paper you can prepare a sheet with numbers, or leave some space for subsequent people). For my online games, I'd even consider a collaborative Excel sheet, very convenient! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 10 at 23:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HoneyBattery The 20-25 method may well be a per-table thing. We're very efficient at it. Our regular GM finds it faster than any other method. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Commented Jan 11 at 12:26

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