I Don’t Just Hit It With My Axe

You have to walk before you run, and this is a big topic.  Today’s entry is about introducing and encouraging role playing in your games.  There will, of course, be many, many more entries on this subject as it is one of the DM’s most important duties in making the game as fun and immersive as possible.  It is also one of the biggest complaints against Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, that the game has become less a role playing game and more a roll playing game*.  This is mainly due to the fact that the game books are written to cram as many rules as possible into as few pages as possible.  The Dungeon Master’s Guide, both volumes, attempt to give you options to inject more role playing into the game, but focus far more on helping DMs create and run a game.  And while this is a noble goal (and sort of the reason I started this blog), adventure and world creation in these books also push to the side.  Anyone experienced in role playing games will be able to get around this, but many new players and DMs (and many experienced ones as well once they get a few power cards sitting in front of them) have issues wrapping their minds around the power system and role playing.  However, there is one very easy way to get around this:  Describe what’s happening.

*Roll play (v): A pejorative term for playing or DMing style where rolls, tables, and character sheets are far more important than acting anything out in-character.  Example: Gary roll-played through the entire session, didn’t even look up from his character sheet once the entire time.

Seriously, that’s it.  As the DM, your style of running the game will rub off on your players.  If you yourself simply describe the actions of the monsters and NPCs in detail, your players will follow suit.  This effect will happen even faster if you have newer players as well as they’ll assume they’re “not doing it right” if they’re not describing things like you do, but even more experienced players will take your lead if you go into detail describing monster attacks and actions.  You are the central figure in your game and everyone’s going to be taking their cues from you, so the more you sell your character’s actions, the more your players will do the same for their characters.

Just like anything else very simple, though, you have to pay attention to the details or things will go horribly wrong.  If you describe every single action of every single creature on the board in excruciating detail, you’re going to burn out and bore your players (as I have mentioned previously on this site before when talking about room descriptions).  Just like with rooms, action descriptions should be treated the same way – describe the first attack in detail, then give the Cliff’s Notes version unless something is different.  You’ll also want to spend more time describing actions that are more iconic for the monster rather than just the basic attacks.  Let’s use the classic red dragon as an example.  There’s the claw and bite attacks, which are probably what will be smacking around your players the most.  However, the first thing any dragon (with those attack powers at least) will do is use their Fear power and breath weapon.  These are iconic, and should be described in detail the first time they happen.

“You see the flames start at the back of the dragon’s throat as it inhales deeply, letting out a roar that shakes you to your bones.  It’s all you can do not to soil your armor as the will of the dragon presses against your very self.”  You can keep chattering while you make your attack rolls, describing the effects as you go and using the clattering of dice as punctuation to your statements.  The more iconic you make your descriptions for the creature, the more you can also give your players clues as to what’s happening without flat-out using game terms.  If you described the fire breath as a spark forming in the back of the dragon’s throat, then described a deep inhale that turned the sparks into flames, then you can use this to let the players know that the power has recharged and is ready for use again (and watch them scramble to get out of the blast zone once you do).  This is most obvious when describing a monster getting Bloodied.  Just announcing “The orc’s bloodied now” is boring, but “Your blow dents the orc’s armor, opening a gash that oozes red.  Your follow-up stroke knocks his helm askew and opens a massive gash in his forehead, dripping blood into his eyes.” is far more exciting.  You can even help the players out if you want by describing the damage to the monsters each round, but only using the word “blood” or “bleeding” once the players have bloodied the enemy.

“Sure,” you say, “that’s easy for dragons because everyone knows what a dragon does.  But how do I come up with interesting descriptions for other monsters that aren’t as iconic?”  Well, this is where reading and re-reading your adventure in detail comes in handy.  There are a lot of clues you can pick up from the flavor text of the monsters and the power names.  I personally got burned once in a game because I didn’t bother reading those descriptions and missed what would’ve been an amazing moment.


I have a fascination with undead, so I use undead creatures a lot in my games.  It’s kinda become a trademark of my campaigns to eventually send PCs to the imaginatively-named City of the Dead at some point just so I can throw a crapload of zombies, vampires, ghouls, etc. at my players.  I was looking for something new to challenge them, and I found a creature in the Compendium named “Lasher Zombie”.  I did like most of us do, skimmed the attack values, damage, and defenses and then moved on.  It wasn’t until halfway through the encounter that I realized that the attacks I kept using were called “Viscera Lash” and “Burrowing Entrails”.  This meant that, when that first attack went off, I could’ve had so much fun describing a zombie digging into his guts, pulling out his intestines, and then whipping them out to grab my players.  Then I’d get to describe those entrails digging into their flesh and ripping their flesh from the inside.

What was the point of that story?  Well, if you just pay attention to the flavor text, you can learn a lot about what the attack actually does and what the creature actually is, even if you only have the stat block from the Compendium rather than the detailed description from the book/magazine.  Using that, you can let your imagination go wild describing what’s going on to all the players.  Even the more boring attacks like Claw or Slam can be aided by describing how the monster moves, how he flourishes his weapon, how its claws are shaped, etc.

But how is this going to make your players do more than name their power, roll, and nothing else?  Well, imagine for a moment you’re the player in a game.  After using the descriptions I did above, would you feel comfortable just saying “I use Sly Flourish” and then rolling the dice?  Probably not.  You wouldn’t want the DM to show you up, would you?

Published in: on December 31, 2010 at 6:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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