Is it: “The blast does 15 points of damage to Ogre #3.”
Or is it….
“Vocu draws deeply through the planar conduits in his body… and in answer the boiling power of the Elemental Planes launches from his fingers to sear the ogre’s shoulder!”
Damage. The Grail of the Beatdown. It is often the goal of many build guides, the fruit of the optimizer’s labor, and the core of bragging rights during out-of-game pretzels and beer. For some gamers it is the point of the session and for others a jarring mathematical train-wreck shattering their immersion. How you handle it can have serious implications at your table.
The Downside of Adding Up.
Many TTRPGs are effectively games about art and math. Most of the art being used to describe the math to establishe verisimilitude. Most of the math being woven into the rules and balances of the “reality” you are creating by playing. Ogre Boss has 76 hit points. Sword does 12. Fire spell does 24. Backstab does 20. Ranger crits for 21. Ogre dies.
Combat’s goal is to end. So this is fine right?
Yes, using only this string of numbers could be an amazing efficient manner for running a combat. It is technically even a serviceable way to run fights. And it will bore many players into comas…
That isn’t all—raw numbers can evoke comparisons causing other party members, often in non-damaging roles, to question their contributions. They can draw focus to modifiers, circumstances, and other mechanics that may slow resolution and pacing to a crawl. Without narrative dressing they are rough edges, jagged corners, and abrupt anticlimax.
Just numbers, 76 – 77 = Dead, might be fast but it’s not all that fun.
Narrative Damage: Who’s in the Director’s Chair?
So if narrative damage instead plain numbers is a good way to build engagement, how does it happen at your table? There are a number of possible implementations. The DM/GM can weave the damage to narrate a cohesive tapestry of actions and resolution. The players can be empowered to render their own glorious moments of triumph. Collaborative techniques can allow players to tag-team on a friends action’s resolutions adding to the excitement. Which answer is the right one?
Narrative Damage Ownership: Pros and Cons
Classically, the Game Master Resolution method each action is a tried and true method of damage narration. The DM or GM has the unseen data and can extrapolate the final interaction with the least disruption to game-flow. There is less shift in attention from GM-to-Player-to-GM, which can lead to the next action faster, decreasing combat “lag” and maintaining narrative-momentum. This method isn’t without downsides. It relies on higher amounts of rules familiarity, improvisational skill, and confidence for the GM. Bad GMs kill games in this method. Also, this style can cause players to feel that they don’t have full control of their actions. It can cause unconscious minimizations of effectiveness in the narrative—A fireball, even resisted, often gets more screentime than a critical from a single arrow for instance.
Player Driven Resolution as a primary method of damage narration can be gratifying for many groups. Each player getting to contribute their own moments of success (or failure) in a combat can lead toward high degrees of ownership and investment in combat. Player intention in the narrative is cleaner and fewer misunderstandings threaten to derail the motion of combat. GMs aren’t required to exhibit as much system mastery as players shoulder some of the burden and more time opens during player narrations to verify rulings. It places responsibility for much of the fun of combat back on the player. This can lead to some issues though. Player Driven Resolution requires less of the GM and a GM who doesn’t have to focus sometimes doesn’t. This loss of GM engagement can derail narratives faster than the worst rules arguments you can imagine. Unprepared or players who lack creative confidence can disrupt narration as well.
Lastly, Collaborative Resolution can mix the above methods to pass narration to the most excited or interested person at the table. This method favors in the moment inspirations and tends to keep tables high energy. It diffuses ownership of rules elements and narration to more people and all for many “best” options to come into play. The expectation of collaboration can keep other players engaged in actions that are not their own to strengthen immersion for the whole table. This can also backfire wickedly. Diffused ownership may result in party favorites becoming “darlings” while less evocative characters become under-supported and lacking exciting narratives. Player agency may be overwritten or lack of sensitivity may result in more casual or insenstive players introducing problematic elements.
Checking Expectations: Being on the Same Battlemap
Regrettably, not everyone comes to your table with the same expectation of damage (or action) resolution. A Dungeon Master who is running an old school style narrative may be completely thrown when the rogue suddenly inserts an unexpected descriptive element to their scene, altering the flow or even physicality of the encounter. Players unused to being called on to explain their critical hit can go full deer-in-the-headlights and grind a game to a screeching halt. Collaborative groups with shy members may find themselves leaning too much on the GM or specific players. Hijacking the narratives with so many Mary Sues or derailing the group into visceral grimdark territory. Getting clear on this method will reduce game lags and disruptions and maintain a slick, smooth narrative.
Damage Resolution Methods: Best Practices
Discuss It: This is mostly here for us old-school grognards. New players, Organized-Play gamers, or players who play multiple campaigns under other GMs are not going to know your jam. They aren’t going to assume or respect your “narrative-dominance” and a lot of them will be straight-up freaked out by it. Discuss damage narration if you have Session Zero, at the first combat, or whenever scouting new prospects to join the game. Set thresholds (“No gore!”) or expectations (“Drown me in the blood of my enemies!”). Do a little group work. It will save drama, we promise.
Respect It: Unless using a Collaborative Method, don’t change it until it’s broken. Constant shifts in narration style are inherently confusing. If you prefer a different method than the rest of the group has opted for, either adapt or find a new group. Constantly disrupting a method or asserting your preferred, unagreed one will upset other players. It probably won’t be a big deal. But it will bother them. Even if they are too nice to say anything about it.
Practice It: Damage resolution can be tough. Not all of us have a background in medieval weapons, global martial arts techniques, or cinematic fight choreography. Few players know what happens when every substance combusts or is electrified. Watching films, live streams, YouTube, or even anime can inspire inventive language. Hit pause and try to describe what you just watched. You might surprise yourself. If your group is all-in for narrative damage (and not everyone will be!) here are a few tips:
- Character in Focus: Avoid using “your character,” “Mike’s druid,” or other language that puts a layer of distancing between the acting character and the damage. Name it. Make it personal.
- Engage the Senses: Make it crackle with static to jar the hair on the player’s arms. Make them scent the copper tang in the air. Hit them with the blast of steam. Sear them with the furnace-like heat as it beads up sweat. Make them feel it.
- Use Your Resources: Spell descriptions often have great springboard language to describe them. It is one of the reasons why many games default to magic getting “more” than weapon –based characters. Products like the “forbidden edition” or martial maneuver based systems have great text for practicing making melee and ranged fighters shine at the table when they damage deal.
Narrative Damage: Landing the Crit
Whether it’s a simplified numeric resolution or cinematic screenshot filled-up by ten-cent vocabulary words, finding a damage style that helps maintain a good balance of action and momentum is key for better games. What are your favorite methods and descriptions of damaging actions, spells, or attacks? Comment below or on Facebook.