Who says that role-playing stops when the dice drop?

In some recent episodes of Fear the Boot, Chad has made the statement that role-playing stops when combat begins.  He ascertains that the world somehow is put on pause while the dice are brought out, to-hit and damage calculations are made, and monsters are wiped from the field.  Chad makes a very convincing argument, which you should check recent episodes for. 

I will state up front that I think Chad is fan-tastic!  He has a lot of good thoughts, and I truly enjoy him on the show.  

However, I have to call shenanigans on this one.  I have been in too many games where we role-played in combat to think that it doesn’t exist when the dice are brought out.  Are we not role-playing when we make a skill check?  Now, if you say that role-playing changes a bit, I won’t argue there.  There is always a different vibe role-playing out of combat and role-playing in combat.  But the role-playing doesn’t have to go away.

Need an example?  In my current online game, I have a three-way battle going on.  There are no real good guys and bad guys, just folks on different sides of the fence.  Had I just rolled dice, we would all be pretty bored right now.  However, I didn’t.  We have a lot of banter going back and forth.  One character is goading another, who is obsessed about his cause.  Meanwhile a third is trying to stop the combat from escalating.  It’s all very tense.  It’s the type of epic role-playing that really helps to shape and mold the characters.

So how do you keep the role-playing going while in combat?

Imagine what your character is going through in combat, and then act it out.  Is he afraid?  Maybe he stutters a bit when combat begins.  Maybe he begs the bad guys not to hit him. 

Does he use witty banter?   Think of Spider-Man here.  Spider-Man often uses witty banter in combat, whether it’s to calm his own fears or to lure the bad guys into dropping their guard and making a mistake.  This is particularly good for your roguish scoundrels. 

Or perhaps your character is more on the serious side.  Does he like to intimidate his foes?  Personally, I’d be a bit scared if a dwarf yelled at me before going into a rage.  Or maybe your character is very devout and swears an oath to his god before going into combat. 

Also, be sure to play off of the other characters.  When your character is surrounded by three ogres and the other player just dispatched his foe, feel free to say, “Hey, could I get a little help over here?”  Or you may just say, “Not bad, for an elf.”

I will admit that there are some limitations to watch out for.   You don’t want to be so busy bantering that you forget to let everyone have their fair turn.  Many game systems allow you to have a free action during combat.  Banter during that time.  Sometimes, the banter may come up naturally in a combat, so go with the flow.  Just remember that when the turn is over, let the next person join in.

I submit to you that role-playing and combat are not independent.  With a little practice, role-playing can take your combat from being a matter of rolling dice to a scene straight out of Hollywood.

Comments (13)

WayneOctober 19th, 2009 at 4:32 pm

While it is entirely possible for role-play to continue into combat and I have had some that do seem to flow seamlessly, that does not seem to be the norm. More times then not it is an abrupt left turn to the flow of role-playing. I describe this as the Final Fantasy effect where it seems like everything freezes and goes into a smaller more focused battle field with things like minis and maps adding to this feel for me. It is like being taken out of what you are doing placed somewhere else and then being returned once it is done.

I think combat can be an excellent vehicle for role-play though and can provide a real opportunity for character growth. I just never see it happen that way. There is too much focus on rules and what is the best move to win the fight instead of what would your character actually do.

Each group is different though and it sounds like you have a particularly good one.

ChadOctober 19th, 2009 at 4:32 pm

Nice, single me out when all the guys save Pat generally agreed with me. Wayne even compared combat to being like Final Fantasy. :P

I’m all about role playing during combat. I do it and it works but even within your advice you are merely sprinkling bits of RP in with the combat crunch and that is nothing like the RP that takes place during non-combat play. Even Pat admitted that it’s the very nature of combat that you have to pause the RP to work the mechanics. You also say that RP doesn’t stop when you make a skill check. I say it does but it only stops for 15 seconds (granting that everyone knows the rules and we are not dealing with some sort of really rules heavy system) so it doesn’t really interrupt anything. Where as combat takes a really long time (relative to the crunch of the system etc, etc.) when compared to a skill check in the middle of RP.

Can you have RP in combat, sure you can! But what I was trying to say is that my role playing preference is that combat is boring. If you are trying to say (much like Pat was) that my preference is incorrect there isn’t much I can do say to counter that.

ChadOctober 19th, 2009 at 4:34 pm

Booo! Wayne ninja’ed his way in before me! :)

Trampas WhitemanOctober 19th, 2009 at 5:12 pm

Chad, wasn’t trying to single you out, my man. I just remember you in particular speaking out about this issue.

I don’t think our points of view are all that different now that you’ve clarified the issue some. I freely admit, the role-play changes during combat. I’m not certain that I would call it boring, though that may just be a matter of perspective.

RallekOctober 19th, 2009 at 5:55 pm

I don’t think that anyone is suggesting (at least in a non-hyperbolic way) that RP must of a necessity evaporate when initiative is rolled, I think rather, that the issue is RP is a bit restricted once combat begins.

That may not have been an accurate statement of my views either, let me try it this way; Once combat begins the players are more likely to feel restricted in their ability to RP, and this can often lead to frustration with RPing in combat. Yes, I think that’s more accurate.

In my mind, the issue here is one of pacing. When you’re arguing with the count, sweet-talking the servant girl, haggling with the shady pawnbroker, or intimidating the thug, the action is happening as quickly as you can talk. If you have an idea, or want to offer a suggestion, you can just jump right in and do that. Actions are resolved as swiftly as they’re narrated, and (generally speaking) input is accepted from all sides.

Combat picks up a hammer and hits this idea squarely in the face. Combat happens in discreet chunks. You can’t just jump in with an idea or action, it isn’t your initiative turn. You want to use your free action to speak? Ok, but it’s a 6 second round, so there isn’t time for a lot of back and forth. You want to have a verbal sparring match with the young duelist? We’ll give it a shot, but it’s going to be very broken up to account for the other “combat actions” being taken this round.

You can see where a player might feel that the very fact that play is proceeding in combat rounds places a limit on what actions can reasonably be attempted.

I don’t think that combat absolutely eliminates RP, but I do think that it can certainly put a boot on its neck.

Triggerhappy938October 19th, 2009 at 11:10 pm

I have had a GM that thought that it was spelled “Roll Playing Game” before. The worst part… he wasn’t all that good at combat, either.

sbonnerOctober 20th, 2009 at 12:15 am

Well said, Rallek, and Chad.

There’s role play, and there’s role play. Using your skill check counts as one form of role play. But, getting deep into the head of your character and expressing what you find there is a different kind of roleplay entirely. Stuttering and saying pithy sayings during combat is more the former than the latter. It takes some effort to do the “what’s your role” roleplay during combat. It takes Herculean effort to have that deeper kind happening during combat.

When I DM, I like to bring moral quandries and conflicting motivations into the combat, in various ways, to serve as a starting point for those players who want to get as much roleplay into combat as they can. Moral conflict serves as a lever or springboard for getting into the character’s head, and violent confrontation provides one flavor of that opportunity. There are better opportunities than fighting, but I like to throw a combat in every so often so no one forgets how the rules work. ;) :)

It’s still like running uphill to get decent roleplay into combat, though.

Jim RyanOctober 20th, 2009 at 3:44 am

I’ve found that it’s easier to slip role playing into combat in some games than in others. I think the more that the player is encouraged to describe exactly what their character is DOING each round (I kick him in the groin, I try to feint with my blade, I pick up a beer stein and throw its contents in his face, etc.) instead of just repeatedly selecting from the same set of options like push-buttons (I hit him, I use power X, I use power Y, I grapple) the easier it is to keep the RP going. How well that’s accomplished largely comes down to how the GM runs the game and how the players approach it, but admittedly some systems lend themselves more to RP in combat than others.

That said, if the basic question involves putting more role playing into combat using those systems that DON’T lend themselves to it as much, then I think it likely means more work on the part of the GM and the players, but it can be done. One way I can think of is to “hide the strings” — essentially still using all of the mechanics but trying to make them less visible (for example, describing what your character is doing when he uses a power instead of saying which power you’re using, or — to flip it around — describing what you want to do and letting the GM interpret that mechanically as the use of power X).

IsraphelOctober 20th, 2009 at 10:40 pm

It occurs to me that y’all may just be RPing wrong.
If your characters are sitting in the tavern talking, you roll initiative to see who gets to speak first. Let that person talk, and then have everybody do a contested roll agaist the speaker’s Charisma, or Persuasion, or Public Speaking, or what-have-you. And if someone wants to interrupt, they’d better have a high presence or debate skill, otherwise everyone will just ignore them.
There is no reason why you shouldn’t be spending at least a good 2 hours on every drink order to the serving wench. The skills and stats are there for a reason, folks!

MartyOctober 22nd, 2009 at 12:09 pm


ChadOctober 22nd, 2009 at 2:15 pm

@Israphel – That cracked me up!

JimOctober 25th, 2009 at 4:21 pm

I think that the distinction that Chad’s making isn’t between “combat” and “roleplaying” but rather between using the game mechanics and “free-forming” it. When the players and GM are just talking, the pace of the game moves in real time. It’s when the group needs to resort to game mechanics that the difference in the flow of time as perceived by the players versus as experienced by the characters crops up.

Yes, many times this happens in combat. Because that’s where you do the most dice rolling. But it really happens any time you need to make use of the mechanics to determine whether an attempt succeeds or fails. This can be hacking a computer, fast-talking a guard, or almost anything where success or failure is governed by a roll of the dice.

D. Louis MartinMarch 25th, 2012 at 10:36 am

Rallek has really good points as it relates to the relative time elapsed in a combat round versus a social interaction/encounter. In combat the action is faster, but the system – generally speaking – is slower to resolve those actions. In a social situation the encounter is happening in real time with much less dice rolling. Because of this I think it’s inarguable to say that the game doesn’t change a touch when dice hit the table for combat. This doesn’t mean that you have to be snapped out of the moment entirely.

A few things can help contribute to maintaining the illusion, and the first thing that I can think of is the combat system itself. White Wolf’s system (especially the new one) caters to the idea that combat is quick and dirty. There is a dice roll, and health boxes are removed. That maintains the lethal idea of how combat is supposed to be in the gothic-punk setting that is focusing on lethality.

The GM can help as well. It’s all too often that even the best storytellers can get bogged down in the, ” you hit, you miss” mentality. I think this is more true in certain games, and in certain gaming environments, and with certain sized groups. If I am running a White Wolf troupe of 4 players plus me, it’s more likely that the players get some more love in the narrative of the combat. A larger game with 6 or 7 guys in a noisy store environment often calls for a more speedy resolution to things.

Additionally, it is really what the group is into. Some groups want a quick and dirty fight that focuses on narration. Some are chart whores, and both have their merit. It’s up to the GM to identify his group and decide the best approach.

Narration: I think that most DMs have struggled with the idea of a 15th level fighter’s ability to take 30 arrows and keep on ticking, and this is part of my own issue with how D&D is usually approached by the majority of DMs. One of the things that helped me snap out of that mentality is the way in which I described combat in a D&D game, and it starts with reevaluating what you think hit points are. Hit points, to me, also represent a characters experience, stamina, and ability NOT to get hit. I sometimes think of it as another layer of defense. So I may describe a sword fight between two level 12 fighters thusly:

“You’re able to sneak in a quick poke with your sword,” becomes, “You shift your weight forward, and thrust at an opening that quickly disappears behind his pock-marked shield. He returns the favor with a savage downward strike at your head, but you deftly step away. Your heart pounds a little harder at the close call.”

In the above example, a touch self-indulgent I know, it can easily be recorded in game mechanics as hit points lost through damage, even though you didn’t describe any hits. The bloody messy stuff can start happening as the hit points get closer to levels that represent real danger. Or if you want to get really fancy (depending on the story) it could be the killing blow itself. Think of a Samurai duel.

Plenty of players like to describe their own attacks, and I am completely cool with that as well, but it’s important to take their descriptive attack, and spin into the narrative in a cool way.

Sorry for the TLDR. ;)

D. Louis Martin

Leave a comment

Your comment