Roleplaying in Combat
All too often I hear distinctions being made between “roleplay” and “combat” in Dungeons & Dragons. The comment usually refers to the pace of the game being slowed, and more mechanics becoming implemented to track the actions of the heroes and villains, which is not what the words actually mean… but the terminology bothers me still. Roleplay and combat aren’t mutually exclusive. Roleplay isn’t the thing that happens after combat is over, and it certainly doesn’t stop when combat starts.
Roleplaying is just portraying the actions of a character in a consistent and believable manner. In a high-pressure, life-or-death situation like combat, it is more important to roleplay the goals of the characters involved, not less. When you engage in battle, all facades are stripped away in favor of pure adrenaline and survival instinct. At these times the things that truly matter to the people involved are brought to the forefront: chivalric valor, protecting others, murderous vengeance, or base self-preservation, to list a few. Because combat brings out the best and worst of the people involved, it is vital to roleplay every creature involved… even the monsters.
Roleplaying the monsters doesn’t mean giving each and every monster in all your encounters individual backstories and silly voices. It just means portraying them believably and having them make character-driven decisions. Every turn in combat, the situation changes for each individual creature involved: an ally or foe becomes closer or farther away, the treats presented by enemies rise and fall, spells begin or end. Decisions must be made independently by each character in the combat, including the monsters, to adapt to these fluctuating stimuli.
That said, don’t be afraid to generalize their motivations as a group. It is likely that a troop of soldiers don’t have individual concerns and motives in the heat of combat. They’re trained to follow orders as a unit, so roleplay them following the orders of their commander. Put your focus instead onto the motivations of the commander, as their ideals and priorities will affect not only their own actions, but the actions of the group.
Heroes vs. Bandits
Let’s say the party is tracking a gang of local thieves, and their chase has taken them to a half-buried ruin outside of town. They open a door in a dungeon to see a 40 x 40 room. Supporting the stone ceiling there are four pillars arranged in a square in the middle of the room. At the far end of the room is a door to who-knows-where. In the center of the space, 6 bandits are dividing the spoils from their latest raid. The bandits hear the door opening and see the heroes in the hall. Initiative is rolled, and combat begins! What should the bandits do?
First you should ask, what do the bandits want? Is it to kill all the adventurers? Probably not. Bandits often intimidate their marks into handing over their valuables. These bandits probably aren’t experienced fighters, and seasoned adventurers are likely going to mop the floor with them. The bandits want to secure their treasure haul but aren’t opposed to leaving it behind if it means saving their skins. There will always be more gold to steal, after all. They also know, in the back of their minds, that if any of their mates dies in this fight, that the loot will have to be split fewer ways when all is said and done, and that their individual shares will be greater. The bandits also know that out the other door is a secret exit from their hideout: a narrow tunnel corridor that leads to a copse of trees on a nearby hillside. If they have to fight, the bandits would prefer to fight the party in the corridor, where they only have to worry about one enemy at a time.
The bandits are bold, but not stupid. They see the bare-chested man with a battleaxe in the front and know that their lives are in danger if they just charge to meet the enemy barbarian head-on. They see the robed figure with a wand through the doorway and decide that grouping together is unwise, as mages tend to cook several people at a time with spells like burning hands and fireball. That’s how Eyebrow-less Edgar lost his old crew, after all…. so they instead choose to use their environment to their advantage and work together to escape with what they value most: the treasure.
Roleplaying the Bandits
When it is the bandits’ turn, they separate: two hide behind the pillars farthest from the party, taking cover after firing their crossbows so as not to endure reprisal from the enemy’s spells and arrows. Three of them gather as much of the loot as they can into their arms and make for the secret tunnel. The remaining bandit, their captain, uses his turn to open the door for them, readying an action to shut it again when the rest of his friends are through.
The player characters run into the room and change the plan. They accost one of the bandits hiding behind the pillar, wounding him grievously. The other crossbowman is slain by the wizard’s magic missile spell before he knows what hit him.
When the bandits get to act again, the bandit captain decides that it would be best to abandon his wounded comrade. Any attempt to save him would be futile, and the captain secretly wants a larger share of the loot, the majority of which they are having to leave behind. He enters the tunnel, closes the door, and locks it, running to catch up with his remaining allies. The wounded and abandoned bandit, seeing his captain apparently leaving him to die, immediately drops his weapon and surrenders. He has no wish to die like his friend did. He believes he knows where his former compatriots are likely to be heading and bargains to share that information in return for his own safety.
That encounter was over in only two rounds. Not the longest or most exciting combat, but it lends verisimilitude to the story of these bandits and their plausibility in the world of the game. The crossbowmen hid after firing their shots because they didn’t want to get hurt (a believable and relatable concern). Three other bandits gathered what loot they could because they value the treasure almost as much as they value their own lives, but they then flee because they value their lives more. The bandit captain wants to save the members of his crew if he can because they help him steal the treasure he prizes so highly, so he initially wanted to wait on the rest of his crew before leaving. Seeing that his men have gathered some, and that there is little hope of rescuing the remaining bandit without endangering his own life, he is happy enough to leave a straggler behind. Similarly, the bandit abandoned by his captain and crew and surrounded by the player characters is in no hurry to sacrifice his life covering their retreat. They betrayed him by abandoning him, and he now has no qualms about betraying them in return and telling the players where the others might be going… if it means he gets to keep breathing.
Try It Yourself
This is roleplaying during combat! At a very basic level, sure, but roleplaying nonetheless. It can become much more exciting and complicated by adding monsters and NPCs with more personality than these bandits. A green hag, nothic, spy, or treacherous noble might have much more intricate motivations or devious goals, for example. But the principle remains the same. In every combat, try asking the following questions:
- Which creatures in this combat have individual goals?
- What are those creatures’ top priorities?
- What are they willing to risk to see them achieved?
- What are they NOT willing to risk to see them achieved?
In the previous example, only the bandit captain had an individual goal, and it was to keep his gang together and get money. He was willing to risk the lives of some of his crew to see that achieved but unwilling to risk his own life. His actions in the combat were consistent with these motives. After the abandoned bandit got left behind, his goals as an individual became apparent. His top priority was to live, and he was willing to sacrifice his former confidants to achieve it.
Asking these questions before you roll initiative will change the way both you and your players approach combat. Having your adversaries roleplay their motivations during combat will encourage your players to do the same! Soon the transition between “roleplay” and “combat” will be a distant memory, and you can all enjoy character-driven moments both before and after initiative is rolled!
"Rob Franklin has been behind the screen running Dungeons & Dragons for seven years. Recently having turned his passion into his profession, he loves to share his experience and enthusiasm for tabletop roleplaying. His opinions can be found here and on twitter @dndwannabe."