For years, I've had trouble keeping the players engaged in the narrative of combat and what happens during their turns.

After the first 4 turns or so, it becomes hard to imagine what everyone does and even my players forget about their allies, and I forget about the villain's allies as well. After a couple rounds it starts becoming a "you hit with a raise, well, throw 1d6 more", and I'm left wondering how I can make things seem more dynamic and cool, however I find it very hard to wait for players to end turns, throw dices, and then proceed to imagine and narrate what they do, it also makes players frustrated as they just want me to be down with other player's narrative and move on to their own turn.


Creative Fatigue

Creative Fatigue is when you get mentally tired having to generate new, creative stuff, in the moment during play. Some game systems this is more, or less of an issue.

Two things influence this:

1) Iterations vs. outcome

How many times do you have to come up with creative descriptions for a given situation? If a whole situation is resolved in one dice roll, you only have to do it once. If you have to do multiple attacks, over and over, then you have to do it over and over.

Consider- how many attacks does a combat typically take? Over how many players? And each one should sound a little different than the other ones? Over how many combats? Over how many sessions?

2) Fiction Support

Different systems give you different levels of support on the mechanical level. If it's just a generic "Attack roll" that results in "hit or miss" you don't have a lot of support.

If the player has to choose between specific attacks ("Upward swing", "Change and bowl them over", "Grapple for a headlock") you now have specific events already chosen you don't have to create in the moment. If the system gives you support in what the outcomes look like ("Solid hit, but you take a glancing hit as well", "Opponent falls down", "They drop their weapon from pain.") you don't have to imagine those bits either. These things become the skeleton around which narration sits, and if solid enough, it even means you may not have to imagine much around it at all and still have fun.


As you can see, the two issues above are pretty much dictated by the mechanics you use. Aside from going to a system that better supports you, your options either become "Let's stop trying to narrate and simply speed through the mechanics with 'I hit I miss'" or trying to off load some of the creative needs to the players - "Tell me what happens" but that, too, often still results in creative fatigue, just a little more spread out.

You could try less/shorter combats and sessions - I know for my group we typically do 2-3 hour sessions and get more fun because we're not reaching points of wearing thin and getting tired creatively.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Genesys is a good system for the Fiction Support mentioned above. It provides a good way of developing a GM's creative threshold, and figuring out how to keep everything continually interesting. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 7 '21 at 15:55

One thing I do to keep a narrative going is to give brief descriptions to normal attacks that have negligible outcomes, like an archer landing a hit that does 12 damage to a creature with 115 hp: "Your arrow sinks into its arm." When the damage reaches lower thresholds, say dealing a total of 100/115 hp, "The creature utters a guttural howl as your blade slices through its bicep. Its arm sags uselessly at its side, and it looks like it is on the verge of collapse." At death, it gets a description of how it dies.

The less important a creature to an encounter, the less effort I put into each death, sprinkling in some bad-assery for the player to make their success more important than the creature's death throes. "With a roar, Vazra swings her greatsword and slashes through the basilisk's neck, its head rolling to the ground at her feet."

A boss will get a much more in depth description. "As Juniper's arrow flies through the air, it lands squarely in the center of the beholder's eye. It roars in pain as it falls backwards, rolling across the flagstones of the dungeon, coming to a stop against the wall. The eyestalks flail as it tries to find the strength to levitate again, before finally falling limp. The eye glazes over and the jaw goes slack. The horror is finally dead before you."

Misses aren't typically worth long narrative. "You dodge under the swing," "The arrow pings harmlessly off the shield," "The blade catches in the armor, unable to penetrate it."

Additionally, imo, it's fine if every attack isn't different. In realistic fights, many of the same blows work against opponents more than once, especially when fighting more than one enemy. While fighters may learn a wide variety of techniques, they don't need to use every single one in every battle. So a decapitating blow against a zombie is completely valid as a go-to.

Lastly, the only time the narrative should pause combat is when a major figure dies or when something important needs to be pointed out. If your other players are waiting for the narrative to be done so they can play, you might be going overboard with some of your more simple interactions.

These are all just things I keep in mind when narrating my combats of course. Your mileage may vary.


To keep the narrative alive, you have to understand what's killing it.

And, spoiler alert, it's probably not you. It's the rules. There are three things that make for a good narrative (as opposed to just a good description) and the rules, unfortunately, are making a hash of all three and whatever narrative you might be trying to keep going in combat. But there's a trick you can pull -- every narrative's built up in retrospect, and if you can just keep combat moving and do some patchwork at the end of the night, you can get people to think about your combats like there was a narrative running through them all along.

From the language you're using, I guess that you're playing Savage Worlds? Whether that's correct or not, it's a useful example here. Savage Worlds bills itself as a game designed to facilitate mass miniatures combats with a simple up/down/off the table philosophy for quick action resolution. And there's nothing wrong about that, as a goal for a game to have! But it's not a game that prioritizes creating a narrative.

You say that you're struggling to come up with descriptions for single events, and I understand how that's slowing down play, but as a means to create a narrative, improving the description of single events doesn't really help. High-quality single events do not themselves create a good narrative. High-quality connections between events create a good narrative.

I'll be borrowing some language from this video on video essays if you'd like this in a longer form or with an internet person reading it to you. The key takeaway is that you don't want your narrative to have a whole lot of "and then" in it, linking events. I'm sure you've seen some media where that's all you could say to sum it up, right? This thing happens, and then this thing happens, and then this thing happens. That's always going to be true, you get the temporal progression of events pretty much for free (except in certain cases like Memento where the point is that you don't). You want to have events linked by causation - "therefore" - or linked by contrast - "but" - and in cases where that isn't possible you want to set up parallels - "meanwhile" - that are satisfying and connected arcs in their own right.

Therefore, but, and meanwhile make for good connections in a narrative. However, you need certain freedoms in order to use them, freedoms that the rules of a game will sometimes deny you. Not in the sense that there are certain things you can't do as a GM, but there are things that you do that will make it really obvious you're bending the rules, and probably at a time in the game when you really shouldn't bend the rules at all. Combat is often much more highly structured than the rest of an RPG, and for good reason - the PCs' future is often up for grabs when things have come to combat, and as GM you're running the forces that are trying to seize that future for themselves. It's going to ruin the whole illusion that you're actually trying to win the game if your thumb shows up too obviously on the scale. Or, you know, foster accusations of killer GMing if it shows up on the other side. (And of course, if you're a player trying to contribute to a good narration you're probably actually as constrained by the rules as the GM is pretending to be.)

What, then, are these freedoms? Let's have a look, starting from this reasonable beginning point.

Fightgar hefts Endbringer in both hands, and stares down the armored hobgoblin guarding the open drawbridge. In a rush of motion, Fightgar charges forward, wide swings battering at the hobgoblin's guard. Surely that guard will falter long before Fightgar's sword arms do.

Therefore - Freedom of Reaction

Fightgar, your powerful swings force the hobgoblin's guard open and the impact of the telling blow sends it stumbling backward, polearm flying from its hands to clatter down the rickety access walkway to the moat, where it comes to a halt, embedded into the wood. The hobgoblin shouts orders to the goblin grunts half-heartedly covering the drawbridge approach, and they snap nervously to attention and begin carefully climbing down to retrieve the weapon.

But the hobgoblin realizes it still has a job to do, polearm or no polearm, and turns a seemingly normal stagger from the impact into a lunge forward at you, Fightgar, trying to bear you to the ground! What are you doing?

It doesn't usually work to connect events with "therefore" or "but" and continue with "nothing changed". Damage numbers may have changed, but in many systems damage doesn't really exist in the narrative unless it takes someone out of the fight. So here's a way to change things up: Fightgar broke through the hobgoblin's guard with force, therefore the hobgoblin is disarmed, and fights on in a different way. To make this "therefore" work, we need to have freedom of reaction, to change the conditions of the fight in ways that follow from the player's approach.

Usually as a GM you'll at least have freedom in action choice, and you've got a lot of latitude to lose. What does the armored hobgoblin really matter to you? You can snap your fingers and make a thousand more, but there's only one Fightgar. You're not setting up the battle to kill Fightgar, but to give Fightgar an exciting battle that he will probably survive, and go on to have more exciting battles. So you can vary up your opposition's actions even if you know what the optimal ones are, have them react in confusion or cowardice or desperation.

One sticking point, and it may vary from system to system, is that taking "actions that follow" like running away or trying to grab an armed opponent can have tremendous downsides like free counterattacks or very low chances of succeeding. Trying to pull them off instead of just continuing to make attacks might risk coming off like you've started to deliberately throw the fight.

Another sticking point is that putting the opposition in suboptimal states is a desirable game outcome, and as such there may be, not only game mechanics for things like disarming the opposition or forcing them to flee, but characters who have specialized in doing just that. "Giving it away for free" denies those characters their specialties, and might also create in characters without those specialties the impression that they can get them "for free" with certain twists of narration. Your "therefores" need to fit the need of the moment, and a player expectation that they can be forced might just leave you scrambling to justify the things that seem capricious to your players.

As a player, how can you play for "therefore"? The GM has a tremendous amount of latitude to lose and you've got hardly any at all. Not only that but you and all your fellow players are probably going to win or lose together. Even if making a cowardly, confused, or otherwise suboptimal choice in the moment might get you some bonus in recognition of your roleplaying, it's not as likely to contribute to your eventual victory as just listening to the cold equations of tactics. You'll need a player group who are all willing to play for drama and not victory now and again, and a GM who isn't plotting things out braced against the full force of your cold equations.

But - Freedom of Innovation

Fightgar, your world narrows for a moment and it's just you and the hobgoblin, powerful swings forcing its guard open and the impact of the telling blow sending it stumbling backward! The polearm flies from its hands to clatter down the rickety access walkway to the moat, where it comes to a halt, embedded into the wood. But despite all that, it's grinning at you. Wait. Not AT you. PAST you.

It couldn't go better if you planned it - as you pivot, a goblin skulk goes sailing past your back, daggers flailing as its easy mark becomes a moving target. There are two more behind you, blades out, waiting to be second and third into the pile-on. An armored footstep shakes the walkway, then another, then another. Just great. The hobgoblin's going to get its weapon back while you're occupied with this pathetic little pincer attack. How are you getting out of this one, Fightgar?

A "but" connection is about contrast. Fightgar's forceful attack disarmed the hobgoblin, but his focus on the assault nearly got him ambushed and there's a new problem to take care of. What makes a "but" work is innovation - introducing something unexpected that still makes sense as a consequence. At first this might seem daunting, because especially in a battle-map scenario, isn't all of your opposition out there already?

But as a GM you have a lot of freedom in mystery. Even if all your figures are out on the battle map, all their stat cards are still behind your DM screen. If there are abilities they haven't used yet that they could use at any time, your players don't actually know that, so introducing them as a sudden new complication in context will be fairly unexpected.

It is true, though, that in a lot of systems you're not going to just be able to poof three goblin skulks onto the battle mat, or otherwise introduce generally new wrinkles into a battle you'd already set up to be a challenge to the PCs. From a rules perspective, of course, especially if your PCs pride themselves on detecting hidden things or providing outside interference, but also from an unexpected consequence perspective: is a new wrinkle going to make this too hot for your PCs to handle?

As a player, how can you play for "but"? As a general rule there's much less mystery about you than the GM can hide behind their screen. Everybody knows what your special combat spice is and that there's no significance to pulling it out at one time or another. However, you often have an advantage that the GM usually doesn't - all of their roster was put together for this battle, while you have a character who's been through multiple adventures. There's a lot on your character sheet that's not at the top of your head when you go into combat, but a rarely-used skill or a useful souvenir might still prove useful and will almost certainly be unexpected by everyone else.

Intermezzo - But Therefore, Attached Minions

You may have noticed a common theme to the examples so far - both of them involve other creatures than the armored hobgoblin getting involved. I was hoping to play into some of the concerns you had about losing track of the various allied units while your big central conflict was playing out. "Attached minions" is a concept from early Fate, but what it would mean in a Savage Worlds context is for each Wild Card to take responsibility for some number of allies and largely give up on tracking them individually, assuming they'll be following you around and helping you. They use the cooperative action rules to aid whoever they're following, but individual twists or consequences may mean some of them go inactive for a bit, or even necessitate them stepping to the fore while you take some time to recover.

Unfortunately, I'm not aware of any tech to adjudicate this sort of attaching/detaching/rotating out in a Savage Worlds framework. More unfortunately, even if you put your shoulder to the wheel and homebrew your own system to do this, you're still going to find yourself lacking that last freedom:

Meanwhile - Freedom of Focus

Fightgar, your powerful swings force the hobgoblin's guard open and the impact of the telling blow sends it stumbling backward, polearm flying from its hands to clatter down the rickety access walkway to the moat, where it comes to a halt, embedded into the wood.

So, Shanksworth, inflitration's going pretty well so far. You're sneaking into the keep, crossing the drawbridge from underneath, and the battle raging up top certainly sounds very distracting. All good things! But then this big important-looking weapon comes clattering down the walkway and comes to a stop just a few feet away from you, and from the way the walkway is shaking it seems like somebody up top is coming down to get it. What's your play here?

Bridging sequences with "meanwhile" means having freedom to focus what you're currently talking about, and it's likely that "meanwhile" has been a good friend to you outside of combats! You know, where your players wanted to split up to do notionally non-perilous things, and you took it in turn to hop between them, rather than giving Fightgar 20 dedicated minutes and leaving him to cool his heels for a while. You snapped over to people when they were in the middle of something exciting, making big decisions, using character abilities, sending the dice tumbling! And then when things slowed down you pulled focus off that scene and rotated around the other players, picking back up with Fightgar some time later, back in the excitement, narrating the predictable interstitials away with a few careful turns of phrase. Great times with "meanwhile"! What a shame it's now out of your control.

Not without reason. Everyone's future is at stake, after all. It makes sense they should all get a fair go, and not just rely on your judgment to make sure they get a fair chance to not die. That bit about how they all go in a random order, though, that's the real killer. What good does it do to play out the hobgoblin's reaction to Fightgar when Fightgar went three places back in the initiative order and three other mini-narratives have started since then? You'll need to wait three more places for Fightgar to react to that! You're not cutting away to maintain tension or cutting back at a pivotal moment, everything's just getting cut up at random without your say-so.

You might think to try "laning the battle off" so you can at least have a back-and-forth between Fightgar and the hobgoblin without someone drifting in for an opportunistic shank, but it'll either be incredibly obvious when you do it by force, or if you're trying to do it by the simple fact of combatant placement you're going to run into some heavy tactical calculus immediately and as an ongoing concern. If everybody's on the same battlemat, there's very little to stop everyone from jumping into the middle of everything, even if they aren't acting in an unpredictable order.

As a player, how can- Yeah, this one's a stumper. If you're not in combat you might be able to prompt the GM to move the focus around a little, but in general either the GM has control of the narrative focus, or nobody really does. There's not a lot you can demand on your own.

So is that it, then? Are you penned in by the rules, except as you're willing to break them with the players' approval?

Not quite. There's one more trick you can pull.

After-Action Report - The Narrative in Retrospect

In Burning Engine games, a conflict is an extremely constrained and numbers-heavy affair with a very limited set of planned actions. Players are encouraged to narrate their leading or helping out during a combat action, but action results are simple and predetermined, innovation during a conflict is almost unheard of, and a conflict receives exclusive focus while it's running.

However, it hasn't been my experience that player narration winds up being wasted, because these games also have an interesting end-of-session procedure that asks players to re-evaluate the session events. They reflect on how well they played to various character elements: they had a goal and therefore accomplished it, they had an instinct and therefore followed it, they had a belief and therefore reinforced it, they had a belief but played dramatically against it, they had a goal but were thwarted. Meanwhile, there were all these big clutch rolls but this one was the clutchest. Meanwhile, there were all these nice roleplaying moments but this one was the best. Meanwhile, we all supported each other but this character is the one we could all rely on.

How would you tweak that for Savage Worlds? A good place to start might be tweaking the benny economy. Instead of clearing your bennies and starting from three, take each character and work out their belief and instinct, and at the start of each session, set a goal. At the end of each session, clear your bennies as normal, then work out next session's bennies as follows.

  • Start with 1 benny for being a Wild Card. Hindrances and Edges apply to this as normal.
  • Your belief is the moral shade you put on the world. If you've got a hindrance like Heroic, Vengeful, or Code, that probably stems from your belief, but you should write it out in plain language. Like a Heroic character might say "My strength is nothing if I can't protect the weak." If your belief informed the way you played, take a benny. If your belief complicated things for you, take 2 bennies. (The Burning Engine analogue is "played dramatically against", but there are Hindrances you can't play against, so.)
  • Your instinct is something you consider a reflex. It might or might not be informed by your belief, but it's a characteristic behavior: "always when", "never when", "if/then". "Always take cover when I fear for my life." If you played out your instinct, take a benny.
  • Your goal is something you want to accomplish during the session, based on what you know about what's going to happen during it. It's something you could be working toward at multiple points in the session, and it doesn't have to align with what the party is necessarily doing. There's a battle going on to liberate Dobravia, and your goal might well be to reclaim the keep, but you might also want to slay some notable foe among the enemy ranks, or find out why this force is laying siege to Dobravia in the first place. If you at least made efforts to accomplish your goal, take a benny. If it actually happened within the session, take 2 bennies!

Then, as a group, award:

  • 2 bennies to whoever made one dramatic roll that was a big turning point. Propose and vote, but ties go to nobody.
  • 2 bennies to whoever kept things ticking over in the background, consistently succeeding if not dramatically. Propose and vote, ties go to nobody, can't be the same person who had the turning point.
  • 2 bennies to whoever pulled off a strong portrayal of their character, comical or dramatic or impressive. Propose and vote, anybody who gets at least one vote gets the prize.

In this way, by putting a spotlight on character motivations and the highlights of narrative play at the end of the session, you can at least get your players to think back on the session in narrative terms, rather than in terms of what you had to do to keep the combat fair and fairly-paced.


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