Roleplaying Combat

Many have said 4e lacks roleplaying opportunities, that 4e is too combat based.  I would say to those people, every moment is a roleplaying opportunity, if you’re truly roleplaying.

At this last session of Encounters, I got into a conversation with a 4e newb.  He was a 3e veteran, coming to check out 4e for the first time, skeptical because of the onslaught of negativity regarding combat emphasis in 4e.  While I listened and smiled knowingly, he continued to regurgitate what so many have said before; he stressed that he was a role-player and was worried about 4e’s ability to cater to his style.  A fellow gamer heard my reply and told me it could make a good post, so here goes.


If I were to say, “Does a 24 vs AC hit?  14 points of damage.”  I could be any character in the game, but if I chose to roleplay that moment, it might look something like this:

  • I slice furiously at all his vital organs with scalpel like precision.  24 vs AC?  “That’s gonna hurt, right about… NOW,” I say, as he vomits 14 points of damage.
    • What am I?
  • I charge forward with guttural rage, bellowing out to the All-Mother to strengthen my fury. 24 vs AC?  The All-Mother whispers her reply through my crag-hammer, shattering 14 of his ribs.
    • What am I?

You see?  Every moment can be roleplayed.  In game, these moments don’t slow down a game.  They strengthen it.  They solidify who you are in your crew, country, or plane.

Eighty percent of the time, combat is the face of your character.  Therefore, combat in 4e must be roleplayed.

For those new to roleplaying, or for those who just need to jumpstart their imaginations, here’s a phrase to help you get started.  One phrase for each of the 26 classes.  To make it fun and interesting, I’ll describe each attack, then after “24 vs x?” I’ll roll a d20.  If it’s 10 or better I’ll describe a hit, otherwise I’ll describe a miss; because once again, every moment can be a roleplaying moment.

  • Ardent
    • I can feel my angst, my anxiety, my lust for his blood.  All these things I bundle inside me, deep into a reservoir of pain that can only be channelled through my sword.  24 vs Will?  As I approach, I can feel his fear and I bundle that too, deep within his shield arm.  The weight of his burden allows me to slide easily past his defenses for 14 damage.
  • Artificer
    • You hear a clicking and giggling as I wind a little trinket made from shoestrings and caltrops.  24 vs AC?  I carefully toss it as his feet and clap as it explodes for 14 points of damage
  • Assassin
    • I slide my foot into his shadow, holding it in place as slowly dig my blade into his thigh.  24 vs Fort?  I quietly “Shhh” his screams as I twist and yank the dagger out for 14 points of damage.
  • Avenger
    • Surrendering completely, I can feel (deity’s) presence welling up inside me.  He moves… and I move.  He charges… and I follow.  My sword arm raises and I can feel glory wrapped in its hilt.  24 vs AC?  Caught in the moment, I shout “Die you bastard” then swing my blade forward, but my efforts yield no result, tinging off his armor.  It’s not me… it was never me.
  • Barbarian
    • Hoping the creature I see before my blood-soaked gaze is an enemy, I leap toward him screaming through a frothed mouth.  24 vs AC?  Seeing nothing but his eminent death, I land on a sharp rock and twist my ankle, nearly dropping my weapon.
  • Bard
    • I fill my lungs slowly, in quadrants, as if I were about to recite The Ballad of Linky Slain.  24 vs Fort?  I open my mouth still inhaling for that final deafening scream and double over coughing, choking on my own spit.
  • Battlemind
    • I slide off my sandals to feel the dirt between my toes, amused at the charging beasts barreling toward us.  This challenge seems worthy of my efforts, one which may even yield a lesson.  24 vs Will?  I sharpen my mind to obtain the stance of The Everburning Flame.  I become outside of time.  In his stasis I can easily carve the number 14 into his side.
  • Cleric
    • Shooting a quick prayer to (deity), I shrug off my doubt and stride forward in faith.  My god is bigger than him, my size means nothing, my god is bigger than him, my size means nothing… 24 vs AC?  I don’t strike, but my arm moves, my hand knows when to twist.  I see him screaming for 14 points of damage, but I only hear my tongues praise for (deity).
  • Druid
    • I flutter my arms in a twitter, writhing and undulating as the skies darken ominously, swirling and flashing.  Static charges the air, your arm hair stands on end.  24 vs Fort?  A flash nearly blinds you, a split second later he gets slammed for 14 points of damage as a tremendous thunder-clap presses your clothes against your skin.
  • Fighter
    • I check my footing, slide my left foot back four inches.  Waiting.  As soon as he twitches, I twist from the hips up, righting my center of gravity and slice smoothly down his spine.  24 vs AC?  Exactly as predicted, his mail is Tairen made.  My blade finds the leather catch and slices easily through, 14 points of damage leak out of his now blood-soaked armor.
  • Invoker
    • I contemplate the course of man, intrigued by the thought of so many mortals striving for so many lifetimes, to build such an impressive structure.  It’s then I notice those three huddled over there.  24 vs Will?  I tell them the word for “dust” in supernal, then look back to the crown-molding, oblivious to their 14 points of psychic screaming.
  • Monk
    • Arrow Lights the Moon becomes Fading into Roses.  I smile at his confusion, most have never had the pleasure of sparring with Moo Gon Pick.  24 vs AC?  As he shifts his footing apprehensively I explode into Needle on the Skin, sharply jabbing into his exposed armpit 14 times.
  • Paladin
    • I can feel (deity’s) wrath building inside me, marking my mission clear.  My divine sight tunnels as I focus the weight of the church behind my strike.  24 vs AC?  A suppress a surge of satisfaction, it’s not me, it’s (deity) who knocked those 14 teeth out… still, it felt good.
  • Psion
    • Muddling through the chatter of all the feeble minds, I locate the controller and press against his psyche.  I am a boulder, you are a pebble.  I am a hawk, you are a gnat.  I… rolled 24 vs Will?  I… I… flounder for words to persuade him, his mind snaps away.
  • Ranger
    • I center my breath, assume a wide stance, and draw my bow as I exhale.  In that moment when there is no breath left within me, I release.  24 vs AC?  The fletching catches my finger, drawing a razor-thin line of blood that shanks the arrow of course.
  • Rogue
    • I tease him a little bit, testing his style, his traction, his grip.  I juke left and right, left and right, left… then down.  24 vs Reflex?  With one dagger I pierce through his Achilles tendon, straight into the floor boards beneath.  With the other, I jab his calf 14 times.
  • Runepreist
    • Tracing the Rune of Destruction in the air before me, it shimmers then begins to glow a violent hue of blue, when it’s reaches a near blinding white, I smash into it with my warhammer.  24 vs Fort?  It shatters in an explosive wave of radiance.  Time seems to distort for a split second, my hammer still swinging just inches toward the ground, then the radiance itself ignites for 14 points of damage as the ground erupts around me.
  • Seeker
    • Examining the battlefield, I whisper to the Spirits, hoping they might have some inspiration.  Tall Mantle tells me to draw the heavy arrow with the blue string and speak the word of binding, “Pel’loth.”  24 vs. Fort?  My aim is true, but I whisper “Pelloth” and the arrow just bounces off his armor.  Tall Mantle looks at me, disappointed.
  • Shaman
    • I chitter and yipe at my companion, urging him to surge across the water on spectral legs.  He hunkers down, instinctually streamlining himself as he charges forward.  24 vs Reflex?  He snaps and jabs at his reflection in the water, confident of his eminent victory.
  • Sorcerer
    • My long sleeves drop low, baring my arms as I hold them high above my head, gathering a large sphere of crackling blue energy.  It writhes and pulses, making my hair stand on end as I hurl it forward.  24 vs Reflex?  My hands pass through it rather than throw it and it explodes around me, in a wave of brilliant white.  When you can see me again, my hair is a fuzzy halo around my head.
  • Swordmage
    • My sword crackles with lightning as I slice it in quick circles around my body, resonating off my magical shield.  He dances back confused at my advance.  24 vs AC?  Confused or not, he reflexively bats my attack to the side, easily avoiding it.
  • Vampire
    • My form becomes more feral and seems to blur as I advance, supernaturally shifting from shadow to shadow.  I can feel his pulse getting closer.  24 vs AC?  Suddenly I leap toward him, growling low in my throat as I slash out, splattering his throat against the wall for 14 points of damage.
  • Warden
    • Many believe strength to be in the arms of the great oak, but it is truly in its roots.  I plant me feet like a Great Father, swing my arms like the Mother, my movements blessed by the Winds.  24 vs Fort?  My arc swings wide, aiming for his ribs, but he jumps back just in time, sparks flying from his armor as my warhammer screeches past.
  • Warlock
    • I offer this ones soul in exchange for a boon, and of course assistance in his timely demise.  Hadar agrees to the bargain, as darkness coalesces at his feet.  24 vs Fort?  The darkness stretches upward, hungry for the pact to be complete.  14 claws reach out and claw at him as they try to yank him into the deep.
  • Warlord
    • Surveying the battlefield, I can see this is arranged much like the Second Assault on Tyranny Hill.  I shout out, ordering my allies to shift into a different position, General Garlan was an idiot at that battle.  24 vs Will?  I realize before I just bark my orders that I should probably prelude it with the events of the history at the time, else my orders might not make sense.  I’ll be talking for a while.
  • Wizard
    • My fingers twitch with practiced precision as my voice slowly raises, “Charree ot reem quay not sarr…. Charree ot reem quay not sarr…” 24 vs Reflex?  As I reach the third crescendo, “…Quay Not Sarr!”  I outstretch my hands and my magical loom explodes into a web made of 14 lasers that fly straight through him.
What class do you play?  How do you roleplay your actions?

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About j0nny_5

Mid-thirties and work a full-time job in beautiful northern Colorado. In my free time I play D&D, video games, and walk my two beautiful Bouvier des Flandres.
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19 Responses to Roleplaying Combat

  1. Corey Ehmke says:

    Great suggestions… I’ve found myself saying “Tonight is going to be less roleplay than combat” all too often. There’s also the problem of players using combat powers as verbs (“I will Tide of Iron the gnoll”). I’m going to share this with the group for inspiration. Thanks again!

  2. Corey Ehmke says:

    I’ve been considering the idea of starting a wiki for power descriptions (for player as well as monster powers), but I’m not sure if there’s enough interest from the community in contributing. What do you think?

  3. I totally agree. I’ve been away from the hobby for close to 20 years and upon poking my head around various sites, was confused about all of the “combat vs. RP” talk.

    I mainly played the Hero system back in the day, which was fairly “clunky” as far as combat was concerned. That said, I had the best role-playing experiences I’ve ever had, while playing that system.

    I don’t see why the two have to be mutually exclusive at all. A detailed combat system may slow down play or even be harder to write for. However, I don’t see why that needs to have any effect on role-playing.

    • j0nny_5 says:

      Indeed. “Combat vs RP” just doesn’t make sense, it’s like saying “Peanut Butter vs Bread”… umm, why can’t they go together?

  4. Terry Fox says:

    As a relatively new D&D player with heavy Watcher and Thinker type gaming traits, I have some difficulty in spontaneously manifesting my character. I find this to be quite a helpful demonstration of roleplaying.

    • j0nny_5 says:

      Hi Terry! I’m glad I could help out. I’d encourage you to write some phrases down on your own, outside of game time. Thinking like your character, imagine 3 to 5 brief “flourishes” and go from there. Now that you have a mindset of your character, on-the-fly will be a lot easier and you can use your pre-made phrases as back-up.

  5. staceylitch says:

    When 3E was just out and Dragon was an magazine racks, I played a monk. In Dragon 289, it was exploded with monkly goodness. One thing they had was a set of tables that you rolled dice to determine the name of powers. There were 2 tables to begin with, each had a “name” of sort that was created using other tables that were provided, such as:
    (Adjective) (Noun) of (Verb)ing (Noun)
    Some of those were broken down into other tables.

    I pre-rolled 20 “moves” the night before we played and wrote them down. When it came to my turn, I rolled a D20, and said “I’m attacking the goblin with 2 million autumn elephants trip” and rolled my D20 to attack. Some of the other players thought I “created” more powerful attacks, the DM knew what I did gave me a bonus chip for a free action. Later in the night, I used the bonus chip to get an extra attack and rolled a critical on a baby dragon that was about to wipe us.

    • j0nny_5 says:

      Hey Stacey, thanks for the post idea. Sounds like your character had a blast that night. I think all DM’s secretly give out a bonus for good roleplaying… at least they should. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Steve says:

    Ultimately, I think the Power Card itself is to blame for a lack of descriptive combat actions on the part of players.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think they are an excellent teaching tool and an interesting way to customize your character. When I began with 4E, we were all new to the system including the DM. Having a power card to indicate what you were doing and help you navigate the rules was a great asset. It is both natural and good, in the early stages of learning the game, for a player to say “I’m using power X, which goes against Will and does Y on a hit. Does 23 do it?” In this case, everyone at the table has a standardized way to approach he system, even if it is a bit gamey in its language. Also, reading/describing the card itself allows the new 4E DM to assess what is happening mechanically to their monster/NPC and react/describe/improv accordingly.

    However, this can become a trap. Now two years into our semi-monthly game, the vast majority of combat narration is still largely the same as I described in the above paragraph. We still name powers and describe any bonus/effect in a rather dry, mechanical fashion. Why does this happen? Because it’s easy, that’s why. We engage in plenty of roleplay out of combat and our game is a healthy 50/50 split between story and combat. In combat though, it’s all crunch.

    And crunch matters in 4E. How many powers does your PC have? Feats that add bonuses? Class Features that let you do X or Y? Skills you can apply in or out of combat in an average of two or three ways? Do you see where I’m going with this? Do you(or can you even)memorize all this stuff in a fashion that allows you to internalize your PCs abilities and improv? Possibly, but I would suggest that this is beyond the desire of most players.

    Of course, it can be done without academic study. The author rightly suggests a bit of prior planning for your description/flair that can serve as a basis for combat roleplay.

    In my own case, I stopped using powers for a while and went basic to basic attacks so I could describe what I was doing. I felt like powers were a straight jacket in terms of description. Of course, this nerfed my PC, so I had to adapt.

    So, I spent a little time looking at my power suite wondering what it would look like if they went off. What would happen? What would the monster or my PC do if it succeeded that would actually give the bonus/effect the card outlines? How would I try to pull the same trick off in real life? What would it look like in a movie, etc?

    Some of our powers lend themselves to this better than others. As a Warlord, giving out free attacks/movement is easy enough to describe on the fly in character. My healing revolves around Inspiring Word so I often try to do just that; inspire. I play a slightly gruff dragonborn, so there is often a tinge of sarcasm to it, which in my group gets a laugh.

    As for the rest of my powers? The real crunchy ones that don’t exactly lend themselves to flowery scenes? I don’t waste time with names or description any more. I tell the DM who my target is, then tell him the resulting roll vs whatever defence. If anyone else gets a bonus etc, I let them know at the end of my turn. No one is cheating here, so I don’t feel the need to indicate which powers I’ve used and how many I have left etc. I can keep track of that myself, and if one really wants to cheat the game by reusing an Encounter or Daily, go right ahead. I hope you feel special.

    So, freed from having to relate the specific power’s crunch to RP, I can set a scene any way I like and just tag the mechanics on at the end. I found it very enlightening to realize(slow learner that I am)that what I was using a power for didn’t have to look or sound like that power at all when I described it. Now I approach almost everything as a basic attack I can freely describe with my own imagination and I just tag the math on at the end. As long as I know what defence I’m rolling against, the rest of the scene is entirely up to me.

    My advice then to the player struggling with how to narrate a power is to just stop trying. If quadratic equations have taught us anything, it’s that math doesn’t exactly inspire poetry. The only thing you need to know before your turn is what defence you are attacking. Ignore everything else on the card until the end of your turn. The space in between? It’s all you! Enjoy using your imagination and the math will sort itself out.

    PS (also, I’ve probably heard you read that power card name 100 times by now. Here’s a secret: I don’t care. Either tell me a story, or just do some damage so we can blow this thing and go home!)

    • j0nny_5 says:

      Wow. Well said! Sounds like any DM would see you as an asset at his gaming table.

      In the one game I actually get to play in, I play a darkness build, drow swordmage/artificer named Xen’drik. Nearly every attack of his is described as a flourish of his boomerang. “Spike Wire” is described as him imbeding his boomerang into the sensitive spot of some poor creature. Every other ally can bash my boomerang deeper (for +4 extra damage), then my swordbond calls the boomerang back to my hand.

      Of course I don’t really use my encounter power swordbond for this task. The weapon is magical (not to mention a boomerang), it would come back within the rules. So I’m left to describe it’s return as anything I want. The name of the power, “Spike Wire,” means nothing. Obviously I don’t say, “I’m using Spike Wire”. Why would my character, named Xen’drik (after the boomerang), who attacks with a boomerang, attack with a wire?

      Anyway. I think what we’re suggesting is, ignore anything 4e puts in front of you that trys to dominate your imagination. Envision your character… and roleplay.

  7. Dungeon Maestro says:

    A good deal of our players have written their own “flavor text”… Sometimes is quite funny, some are quite gory. But when read with a certain “passion” it definately adds something to the game.
    Good Post!

  8. j0nny_5 says:

    Thanks for reading. I’ve found experienced players are the most comfortable with roleplaying combat. Newbs I let slide a little because they are still learning, but I always ask them if they’d like to describe their kills. Sometimes it’s good stuff, sometimes it lacks imagination, but it always strengthens the encounter.

  9. Svafa says:

    I can’t help but find the assertion that 4E powers lack description odd. As I recall, one of the things I loved about 4E when it first came out was that every power came with sample flavour text. Maybe they stopped including that with Essentials, but it was a huge step up from the generic “I swing at the orc with my sword” of 3.5. Sure, sometimes it still reverted to the simple “I’m using Tide of Iron”, but that’s a player/table issue (whether it’s a problem or not). WotC at least tried to encourage some roleplaying in combat by including a description of the action on the power.

    • j0nny_5 says:

      Sorry. I didn’t mean to steer you astray. 4e powers have typed descriptions for sure, but rarely does a player actually read it. In the first character builder, there was an option (which most used) to leave the flavor text off the card. I’m not sure if the new builder has that option still. I encourage all players to describe their actions how they want to, regardless of the typed description or even the name of the power. I play a character named Xen’drik who uses the power Spiked Chain, but never calls it that because, well, he uses a boomerang of course.

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