Question Keith (Yeah, that Keith) #2: Colorful Combat

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You can try anything.

We’re proud to present the 2nd in a series of monthly articles by Keith Baker.  Best known for creating the Eberron Campaign Setting for Dungeons & Dragons and the card game Gloom he’s also worked on at least five games that you’ve never heard of.  Yet.


I have a problem and I need some advice from the experts.  I run a D&D 4e campaign every few weeks as dungeon master and my friends are the player characters.  One player had played D&D growing up and he keeps “targeting” specific spots on the monsters’ bodies.  Here are some examples of things he will say:

“I am going to swing my axe at his hand holding his sword and try to chop it off.”

“I am going to try and chop at the griffon’s wing to cut it off and disable him from flying.”

“I am going to chop into his spine to paralyze him.”

It’s creative and I hate saying no but he will do this right out of the gate and it takes the fun out of the fight.  He cuts off limbs before the monsters have a chance to attack.  He likes to chop at the neck too.  He will perform strength checks to see how hard he can hit them.  I’ve thought about raising the Armor Class for specific shots but I didn’t know if there was a better way to handle it.  In conclusion, I need a way to counter him trying to end fights early by using specific shots.  Any ideas would be GREATLY appreciated.

-Kirk Wiebe from {waiting to hear back from Kirk where he’s from}

Keith’s Answer:

There’s a lot of things to discuss here. But let’s start with the most basic. Your player says:

“I am going to chop into his spine to paralyze him.”

Great! Then he rolls an attack, hits and does 8 hit points of damage. The creature has 50 hit points. So what does this tell us? He failed. He was attempting to take an action that would cripple the creature – in other words, reduce its hit points to zero. He didn’t. Therefore, his attack – while fully successful in game terms – didn’t accomplish his stated goal. Your role as the DM – the storyteller – is to explain what did happen. In this particular situation (and I’m assuming the PC was attacking from behind as he’s striking at the spine), I’d say the following:

“He senses you coming and spins just in time to save his life. He catches your blow on the edge of his blade, but he can’t parry it perfectly and you trace a grazing cut across his shoulder.”

This describes the result of the action. He tried to kill the target with a single blow. He failed to do so, though the attack did successfully inflict damage. Meanwhile, if he’d rolled a critical hit and done enough damage to kill the target in a single blow, you’d know exactly how to describe it – he’d have succeeded in chopping through the victim’s spine. But the key point here is that just because he’s trying for a one-shot kill and succeeds in hitting the target doesn’t mean that he succeeds in doing what he was trying to do.

Personally, I approve of the player’s actions – as long as he’s willing to accept that he may not achieve the result he’s aiming for. Any fight in which players simply say “I try to hit him. I try to hit him again.” is going to be a dull story; one of my favorite RPG systems actually penalizes people whose combat actions are too boring, on the theory that they are predictable and easily blocked. In roleplaying, we create a story together… but the key word there is together. The player says what he’s trying to do, and if it’s a battle to the death, I hope he IS trying to kill his opponent; it would be odd for him to say “I’m going to try to graze him in the shoulder.” As the DM, it’s your job to describe how his action succeeds or fails.

There’s another aspect to this: What is success? When a creature has 80 hit points and you hit it for 10, what does that even mean? One option is to say that any successful attack means a physical injury to the target… but there’s another school of thought that says that a “hit point” doesn’t always represent a flesh and blood injury – that it also reflects general energy and a creature’s ability to defend itself. If a creature has 80 hit points, it could be that for the first 40 hit points you don’t physically harm it at all, but rather you’re wearing it down… that you don’t draw blood until, well, it’s bloodied. This helps to explain how a warlord can “heal” people with an inspiring word, or how a second wind lets you fight on – you aren’t actually causing a spinal injury to magically seal, you are simply building your resolve and fighting on through exhaustion or minor injuries. At the end of the day, it’s something you can decide on a case by case basis – but the point is that hit points are a metaphorical concept, and it’s up to you to decide what any particular injury actually means.

If you like having more flavor to combat, you could choose to reward imaginative descriptions with a mechanical benefit. If the player has a creative or unexpected action – swinging on a chandelier to attack the target from an unexpected angle – you could provide a bonus to attack, or even decide to allow an additional effect on a successful attack, like knocking the target prone. The key is that the player should never take such a bonus for granted: it’s always up to you as the DM to decide if the action is worth a mechanical bonus. What I lay out for my players is that something predictable – even if it’s just predictable to me – is less likely to get a bonus. Essentially, I see 4E as a very cinematic system, so I look to action movies for inspiration. The hero may swing in on the chandelier once in the course of the movie, and it’s a great scene; the audience will eat it up. But if he swings in on the chandelier EVERY scene, soon the audience is going to be bored or start making fun of it. Can you keep it entertaining? If so, you might get a reward. For example, take that spinal blow. If the attacker IS behind the victim and it’s the first time he’s said that, I might actually say that if he drops the victim to 5 or fewer hit points, I’ll call it a kill – because it runs with the flavor. But that’s it. He can’t kill a creature that isn’t even bloodied by saying that he wants to; if he tries, I’ll just come up with a description of how the creature was able to defend itself.

Now… in my Thorn of Breland novels, there are a number of scenes where Thorn does something just like that – killing a powerful enemy with a single precise blow. The key there is that in D&D terms, Thorn was envisioned as an assassin; typically she only gets such a quick kill when she’s had time to study an enemy, as per the 3.5 Edition Death Attack rules. So it’s a case of the description of the action meshing with the mechanics of what she’s doing. In 4E terms, the player’s likely to have better luck severing a spine if he combines it with his 5W damage daily attack that with a 1W damage basic attack.

One way I’ve found to help people ease into more colorful combat descriptions is to ask them to describe death scenes. When I have an extended combat with a powerful foe – a solo or elite who’s been giving the group a difficult time – and a player finally lands the finishing blow, I like to say “Tell me what it looks like as you finish him off.” First, this is a moment of triumph for the players, letting them know that the battle is done. But it also lets the person who strikes that final blow drive the flavor. As the dragon is already dead, it doesn’t matter if the PC severs its head or finds the chink in its armor; it’s all about the flavor.

You can extend this approach to critical hits and fumbles. I especially like to do this when a player has a critical failure when making a skill check. So you rolled a one on your Diplomacy when trying to impress an ambassador. Well, I could decide exactly what you did wrong (You didn’t realize that your hand gesture is a deadly insult in his culture; you made an off-color joke; you laughed at his shoes) – but it can be more fun to ask YOU to tell me what you did that is causing this to be a dramatic failure. The key here is that it has to BE a dramatic failure; you can’t talk your way out of that. But it gives you a chance to come up with a failure that makes sense – something that keeps your character image intact – as opposed to me saying “The ambassador doesn’t appreciate your dirty joke” when you know your character would never do something like that.

Of course, sometimes you or the player might not have a brilliant idea, or you might want to be surprised by the outcome of a critical hit or fumble. Many companies have products describing creative effects for exceptional successes or failures, such as Paizo’s Critical Hit deck; these often specify mechanical effects, so even if you don’t use the randomized aspect of the chart or deck, you might find inspiration for the impact of the ideas your players come up with on their own.

To sum up: far from discouraging your player’s creativity, I would encourage it. But I would make sure that he understands that the system doesn’t provide any mechanical effects for the actions he is describing and that he will not instantly cripple the creature just because he wants to – though you might provide some bonus if you think the action is especially appropriate or creative.

16 thoughts on “Question Keith (Yeah, that Keith) #2: Colorful Combat”

  1. Wow, what a great article! I grew up playing D&D 3e with a group of gamers who play strictly by the rules. Combat rarely has flair added to it and is taken for what it is via the mechanics laid out in the books. Our regular DMs are amazing at building scenes and combats that challenge the group and I have always enjoyed this RP-lite Strategy-heavy style of gaming.

    I recently started running games for a seperate group of newer players (friends from ‘the outside’). I have been having problems grasping how to make the game fun for my second set of players as they are more drawn to the Roleplaying aspect of the game rather than understanding and playing the mechanics of the system as I had been doing for my last 10 or so years of gaming. I bought hundreds of dollars worth of 4e books and ran that for my first group for almost a year… but I found that I liked 3.5e much more because of how combat and skills are laid out.

    After reading this article I have gained some great new insights on how 4e is a great system and also how to make my game much more fun for my second group who would enjoy a better described combat that rewards ingenuity rather than me being a Rule-Monger (trained habit from my first group who have been gaming together since before I was born).

    Thank you Keith for the time you have taken to both write this article and add further insight in comments

  2. I definitely LIKE the AUTHOR’S use of creative dialog as an EXAMPLE of how to smooth play between player-expectations and function of game mechanic: when DM is not out-to-get players, then the dice can fall as they may and play goes on, without anyone being shut-down

    I have adopted a house-rule that I imagined one day that allows for non-lethal damage if the character uses some sort of physical protection, like a shield or armor. That way, folks that don’t equip themselves run the risk of taking hit points right away, whereas armored PCs can take a bit o’damage ‘fore they start feeling the wounds.

  3. The action point idea is definitely a good choice. I would say to the kill-shot player “yeah, you can do that, but it will cost you an action point AND you will still have to roll to hit… you hit, you do what you intended… you miss, you don’t… either way, your action point is gone. Don’t have an action point? You have to fight normally then.”

    Its a starting point anyhow. Tweaking it a bit more is understandable. I like the idea of applying a condition (such as dazed) to a critical hit better though. It just depends on the circumstances. I also like the ideas of a penalty to hit and being left open for an attack of opportunity.

    Explaining the failure doesn’t really seem necessary to me. After all, even as simple as the combats have been made, its still a mechanical and numbers game. Monsters have an assigned HP for a reason and only a rare occurrence (or some necessary DM fudging) should alter that. However, if a deeper explanation is required, the DM should have no qualms about stating that if the high number of liberal kill-shots continues, then it will be necessary to increase encounter difficulties. Which could unfortunately lead to TPKs and ruin the fun for all.

  4. Let me start off by saying, Keith your article was insightful and helpful. This is a topic which is hard to focus on generally, and I know i tend to improvise heavily when these things come up. Being able to take a step back and analyse the situation and fun factors as a whole makes the topic much easier to swallow.

    Secondly, wow, great comments and responses. You guys were really able to flush out some key ideas and examples. Extremely helpful.

    I particularly liked the idea of burning an action point to perform that extra dramatic outside the rules action. This allows the event to take place while keeping it from happening incessantly. A clever thought.

    Thanks guys and keep up the good work.

  5. Lest my comment be taken the wrong way, DA, I’m all for allowing players to have mechanical effects for flavorful actions – on a limited basis. If it makes the story stronger, if it’s more fun for everyone involved, then it should be rewarded. Looking specifically to the question, the player is simply doing the same thing over and over – and not a called shot to the hand or something like that, but rather a kill shot. The DM is asking “My player wants an instant kill on every attack… what do I do?”

    One of the points of 4E’s use of encounter and daily powers is that it innately prevents PCs from using the same attack over and over. In 3.5, you could make a character who’s a spiked chain trip master and he could simply trip the opponent every round – same move, time and again. 4E lets you focus on trip related powers if you’d like, but at the end of the day, it says “You’ve tripped enough this fight… do something else.” It’s not unlike Exalted’s stunt system, which rewards players mechanically for adding color to attacks, but notes that any particular description is only colorful once. This also comes to game balance. The limited set of powers players have available is part of the balance, and monsters are built with that in mind; they have their own encounter powers and recharge powers, and if you allow the PCs ways to consistently perform status effects and such in addition to their core abilities, you may need to adjust the monsters to maintain the level of challenge. This is especially true if you allow the player to perform these moves while using an encounter or daily power. Looking to the pour-the-potion-down-the-monster’s-throat move, I made that an action on its own; the character couldn’t combine it with a normal attack.

    WITH THAT SAID: You are absolutely correct. If a player is committed to a particular concept – spiked chain master, whatever – and you don’t believe that the concept will prevent the other players (or the requesting player himself) from having fun, you could certainly handle it by modifying the mechanics of the class to support it. A good model for EITHER a called-shot specialist or a spiked chain trip master would be the clever shot power of the Hunter ranger, which allows the character to add one of three effects to any basic attack. Of course, the Hunter doesn’t have daily attacks; so it’s about balance, again.

    Another option: Use action points. I always allow players to burn action points in order to perform especially heroic actions that don’t fit the rules. This allows the player to get away with something dramatic and heroic, but creates a clear reason why they can’t simply do that thing over and over again.

    Yet another option: Go back to cosmetics. The character likes hitting the spine. Don’t CHANGE his class features; rename them. If he’s a fighter, you can change his 3W+daze Crushing Blow power to “Spinal Strike”. Boom. Instantly, the player HAS the ability to strike at the spine, do extra damage, and cripple the opponent… because he had that power all along, it just had different flavor. And then it’s clear why he can’t do it round after round after round… because it’s an encounter power.

    There’s certainly lots of options. Though for me, I wouldn’t say that the game should be about saying Yes to players. The game should be about *everyone* having fun. In saying yes, it’s always important to consider the impact both to other players and the player himself. Is allowing the PC to kill the dragon with one blow actually FUN for the group overall? The PC may be excited, but it would be pretty anticlimactic. And if he does it over and over and over, at the end of the day it makes combat less interesting all around. Finding a way to encourage variety in play is likely to create a more interesting experience for everyone. But ultimately, the DM has to evaluate the group and determine what they enjoy. There is no one right answer for any of these things.

  6. Hey Keith,

    I’ll grant you that the house rule I suggested seems to have a better home in 3.5 than it does in 4E. However, I don’t think it has to be that way. You mentioned that characters in 4E rely more on their powers, rather than special attacks, to do cool things. I think that’s a valid point. However, they also have class features that allow them to perform special actions. Perhaps the player can swap out one of his existing class features for one that allows his character to make call shots on a critical hit. It’s in keeping with the game mechanics, and it allows the player to perform an action he’s excited about. After all, isn’t that one of the cornerstones of 4E? Saying yes to your players?

  7. “What I find so invigorating is that you challenge us DM’s to consistently work in partnership with our players. I find that sometimes when I DM I become the antagonist at the table. But while I am playing NPC’s that are antagonists I am also trying to work with them to create a story.”

    This is the challenge. And it’s something every DM has to work out for themselves. I’ve played in games with DMs who embrace the antagonistic role. For me, if I want that, I’ll play a wargame. What I like about RPGs is the opportunity to create a story *together* that’s better than anything we could do alone. Yes, as the DM I am playing the bad guys. I’m laying the traps. But that’s not because I want the players to fail and “my team” to win – but because strong conflict makes a good story for both of us.

    Which is one of the things I see the DM in this example being concerned about with the player who always tries for the instant kill… because even if successful, an instant kill does little to build drama. What I was trying to say with the “Tell him while he fails to kill” wasn’t to rub that failure in his face, but to try to build up the scene. It’s not that he failed. It’s that the opponent heard him and was able to dodge the attack in the nick of time – though the PC’s blade still grazed the side of his head and slashed off his ear. He howls in pain and fury, turning to face his enemy.

    … This is the sort of thing that makes an RPG different from a wargame. The numbers are the heart of it. Is the opponent alive or dead? Is he hurt or uninjured? But beyond that point – it’s a story, and it’s more fun for all of us if we can create a story we’d WANT to watch or read.

    At least, that’s what *I* like about it.

  8. Once again, Keith you offer some great food for thought. As both a DM and a player there are times when I have to do the math because there’s math involved. Other times a little creative flair should be duly rewarded.

    What I find so invigorating is that you challenge us DM’s to consistently work in partnership with our players. I find that sometimes when I DM I become the antagonist at the table. But while I am playing NPC’s that are antagonists I am also trying to work with them to create a story.

  9. Most of my playing days were in the 2e era. A called shot was -4 to hit. A called shot to the head/neck was an additional -4 to hit penalty (-8 total). That’s pretty clear in its intent to discourage kill shots such as described… without taking away the option entirely. But then again, if the only way for a PC to hit is with a natural 20, might as well go for the gold, since the penalty is meaningless at that point. :)

  10. Hey DoveArrow!

    Let me clarify a few points.

    One issue is that Kirk is playing 4E – and 4E is a simple that generally goes for simpler combat, with effects built into the powers, as opposed to a wide range of maneuvers (Sunder, Disarm, Trip, etc – a power innately trips or doesn’t). So the player likely already HAS a power that inflicts greater damage. As I said towards the end – he’s going to have better luck decapitating the dragon if he uses his 5W daily than his 1W basic attack.

    Tied to this, as I see the question, the DM’s problem is that the player is adding lethal flavor to every attack that he performs. It’s not simply a question of doing something creative – it’s doing something LETHAL. From the question:

    “It’s creative and I hate saying no but he will do this right out of the gate and it takes the fun out of the fight.”

    So my answer is based on the issue of “What do I do when every attack the player makes is described as a kill shot?” There’s lots of options:
    * Tell him he can’t do it.
    * Give him a massive penalty to the roll – essentially establishing a mechanical “What you’re trying to do is incredibly hard, are you sure that’s the choice you want to make?”
    * Treat it as a cosmetic description as opposed to a mechanical action.
    There’s lots of other options: I went with the last one. He’s trying to chop off the head. If he drops the guy to zero hit points, he succeeds. If he doesn’t, absolutely tell him why he failed: which most of the time means “because you didn’t reduce his hit points to zero”.

    An intermediate approach is to provide concrete mechanical effects and penalties for requested actions… while I didn’t give a lot of examples, this is what I meant with the paragraph “If you like having more flavor to combat, you could choose to reward imaginative descriptions with a mechanical benefit.” This is true even in 4E. Yes, 4E is a system that intentionally moved away from things like the Trip maneuver and such. But players should always have a chance to make the game more interesting. For example, in one game I ran, the characters ended up with a hallucinogenic potion. In the middle of a fight with a solo, the rogue said “I want to do an acrobatic leap over him and pour the potion down his throat.” There’s no maneuver or power for this, but it was a clever use of a prop they’d acquired, so I had him make an attack at -2, and when he succeeded turned it into a dazing effect. This sort of thing is what makes each game unique. But even there – it made the game more interesting because it wasn’t a one-shot kill. The problem I see is the player wanting EVERY ATTACK to be an instant kill – not simply critical hits or daily powers, but every attack. So one option is to create stiff enough mechanical penalties so he can try it but will be discouraged from doing it all the time. Another – that doesn’t require the creation of new mechanics from a DM who just wants to use the system as it stands – is to embrace it as flavor. Yes, this needs to be made clear to the player: “You can say that, but it doesn’t mean it will work out that way; but hey, try it.” And as we both said – if he gets a critical hit, do play with that flavor. It’s simply about managing expectations and flavor of the fight. But my overall point is that there is a way for the DM to say “No you can’t do that” without simply telling the player no; incorporate the flavor of the request into the description. Make it part of the story of the scene, not simple numbers.

    But it is a situation with many different answers – especially depending on the system you are using.

  11. And when I say ‘in the path,’ I mean ‘in the past.’ I don’t know where that came from.

  12. I like the sentiment in Keith’s answer, but I think you’ll find that if you just rely on flavor text, without really providing a reason why his attempt failed, you’re going to wind up disappointing your player. This is particularly true if the player has already succeeded at trying something like this in the path.

    Personally, I would consider allowing him to succeed on a critical hit, and then determine what that success means in terms of combat. For example, if he strikes the dragon’s spine, you might say that, in addition to taking full damage, the dragon is stunned (save ends). If the character targets a character’s limb, you might say that the character is slowed, in the case of a leg shot, or weakened, in the case of an arm shot. I might also suggest giving him some sort of penalty when making a called shot. For example, the character might take a -2 penalty on his attack roll, or the creature might get an opportunity attack. The point is, it should be harder to target a specific area of a creature’s body than it is to just take a swing, but the rewards should be potentially greater.

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