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Tips for Running Narrative Combats: No Minis or Maps Required

Over in the Suggestion Pot [1], Gnome Stew reader renner asked us to write an article on this topic [2]:

How do you handle a narrative combat? Mainly, if you are used to miniatures and maps, and don’t want to use them anymore.

Prior to D&D 3.0, the majority of RPGs used narrative combat — IE, combat that’s largely descriptive, with a sketchy map if a map is used at all. From D&D 3e’s launch onwards, battlemap-driven combat, complete with minis, grids, and tactical movement, has become much more common and popular. (For simplicity, I’m going to call the latter “tactical combat” from here on out.)

My GMing experience is primarily with narrative combat, although I’ve run my share of campaigns with tactical combat, too. As a player, my experience is pretty evenly mixed. I like both styles for different reasons, and this article won’t be about the merits of one approach over the other.

When the gnomes were kicking renner’s request around on our mailing list, DNAphil [3] had this to say:

Here is where you need to think of combat as dramatic and not tactical. Narrative combat exists more in description and less in maps. I like to use a simple map, drawn on a white board, not to scale. Just something to give the players their barrings. In narrative combat, when you finish a player’s turn or full round, give a recap of the action that has just happened. Think of it like a movie. Wave your arms around, make crazy sounds, describe it so the players can feel it.

Finally, in a narrative combat, give your players more leeway with what they want to do. In a tactical combat, you move X squares and your gun reaches Y yards away. In narrative combat, you may have movement rules, but if a player is just outside their range, let them have it, its not like you have a detailed map to scale.

As an overview of the high points of narrative combat, and the ways it differs from tactical combat, this is excellent — Phil knows his stuff. Using Phil’s comments as a jumping-off point, here’s my take on narrative combat.

Get Everyone On the Same Page

Being on the same page with your players [4] is critical, especially if your group is used to tactical combat — switching to narrative combat can take some getting used to.

It seems obvious, but make sure your group knows going in that the game you’re going to run will feature narrative combat, and if necessary explain what that will mean: No tactical grids, no round-by-round tracking of position, no miniatures, and overall a greater emphasis on roleplaying over tactics.

Use the Tools at Hand

If you’re running a game that’s built for narrative combat, the rules should cover not only how combat works but how to make it enjoyable — use those tools. Once your group knows how combat works, they’ll see that pinpointing where PC A is relative to NPC X doesn’t matter so much, and shift their focus elsewhere.

Many games don’t really address narrative vs. tactical combat, though, instead assuming you’ll pick whatever works best for you. With those games, you’ll have to choose what you want to emphasize about narrative combat in play.

Dramatic and Cinematic

Narrative combat tends to focus more on the drama of the scene, and is often more cinematic than tactical combat. This isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty of room for both of those elements in tactical combat, just that in my experience they’re backgrounded. In narrative combat, they’re foregrounded.

Like Phil said up top, play up these aspects of the scene. Use evocative descriptions and encourage your players to do the same. Let players who like to describe the results of their PCs’ actions themselves to it with a flourish, and for those who prefer to have you describe what happens, do it with gusto.

Describe with Precision

If nothing is precisely mapped, everyone has to rely on your description of the combat when deciding what to do. Just because you have a clear vision of the battlefield in your head, don’t assume that your players do.

Sketch out the area on a whiteboard, a sheet of paper, whatever you have at hand. Point out spots that afford cover, dangerous hazards, and whatever else the PCs would know about the area.

To Map or Not to Map?

While drawing a sketchy map of the battlefield up front is almost always a good idea, updating that map as combat progresses is a slippery slope. If you update it every round, you’re now edging into tactical combat territory — and giving up the flexibility that makes narrative combat so much fun.

But if you never update the map at all, or refuse to map anything as a matter of policy, that’s even worse. You can’t be sure your players know what’s going on without mapping things out at least occasionally, so don’t forget that a battle map — however sketchy it may be — is still a valuable tool.

Play Loose

Phil mentioned this, and it’s a great point: In general, play a bit looser than you would with a battlemap and minis. If some aspect of combat needs to be decided and there’s no obvious answer, give the PC(s) involved the edge or the benefit of the doubt.

Don’t ignore the rules, but don’t dick your players over by worrying about how many feet apart everyone is at every moment — and, conversely, don’t be drawn into arguments over precise positioning and the like. In narrative combat, that stuff takes a distinct backseat to just having fun.

Cool Stuff Should Happen Often

One of the things I love about narrative combat is that with the focus shifted off the minutiae of tactical movement, counting squares, precise positioning, etc., it’s a lot easier for cool stuff to happen.

I always find that when the constraints of the rules are less obvious, as tends to be the case with narrative combat, I and my players tend to try more wild stuff, do things that just sound cool, and generally relax and have a different kind of fun. Encourage this.

Give bonuses for doing cool things, hand out action points for awesome descriptions, and generally reward your players for using the narrative aspects of combat to make the game more fun for everyone.

Learn as You Go

Like any other aspect of GMing, if you’re transitioning from a tactical combat-driven RPG like D&D 3.x and 4e to a system that uses narrative combat, expect everyone to make the occasional mistakes.

In play, handle them however makes the most sense at the time: retcon something if it doesn’t require redoing whole rounds of combat, or say “We’ll table that one to discuss after the game” to avoid getting bogged down. It’ll get easier with time!

What Else?

This is a big topic, and I’m sure there are things I missed — what else would be good for renner, or any other GM trying out narrative combat for the first time, to know?

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Tips for Running Narrative Combats: No Minis or Maps Required"

#1 Comment By umbral.fury On July 27, 2010 @ 5:24 am

Six years ago I switched from DnD (3.0, tactical combat) to white wolf’s old world of darkness (narrative combat) I have played the occasional game with tactical combat, but the vast majority of the games I have run/played in have been narrative and I don’t miss tactical at all.

When running narrative combat the most important thing to remember is “how does this fight fit in with the story?” This phrase should guide you through all of your combat scenes, that is if the fight is very important (BBEG or something similar) put a lot of emphasis on it – put a lot of detail into the area, describe his attacks ad the players in detail, etc.

Whereas if the fight is less important (Minions, a fight because it makes sense) move the fight to the background – players are where they need to be to do what they want to do, within a round at least, bad guys simply attack, maybe one or two key points to the description of the area, etc.

P.S. Sorry about the rambling, I just woke up.

#2 Comment By mraaker On July 27, 2010 @ 8:16 am

You missed discussion of stunting. Stunting is key for both major antagonists and especially players to avoid the soul-less ‘medium attack to no specific location’ that narrative combat can devolve into (tactical combat is already there). Feng Shui, Exalted and Scion incorporate stunting into their crunch extremely well.

#3 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On July 27, 2010 @ 9:47 am

If you intend to run narrative combats in an RPG designed for tactical combat then you’ll need to eliminate character options (feats, advantages, etc) that rely on a grid or precise positioning.

Also, if the players bring in pre-existing characters, be prepared for some of them to want to switch. For example, a player that enjoys flanking with her rogue may want to change her PC if you’ve done away with flanking (on a related note, you may “break” the rules if your narrative combat allows for easy flanking).

#4 Comment By John Arcadian On July 27, 2010 @ 11:29 am

[5] – Definitely right on that point Walt. Tactical feats and powers definitely stop being as useful when you switch to narrative play. With some modification I could see them still being valid character choices. Backstab could require an extra acrobatics or tumble roll to get behind a person and then get backstab damage. If we are talking D&D, then attacks of opportunity are going to be an issue but you could set a DC for the roll that needs to be beat to avoid those. I think any rule or power with grid specifics could be modified to make it still useful, but it would be extra work.

#5 Comment By Nojo On July 27, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

Minor nit: I used mini’s with White Box D&D. I think most of us did. Coming from Chainmail, it came from the minis culture. By 2E, most of us were using narrative combat.

One thing to avoid is making things so fuzzy no one has the same picture in their mind. I had too many combats where the players would indeed have dramatic ideas, but they would be mutually exclusive. 🙁

And for minis combat, bring in some of the skills you developed for narrative combat. Make kills memorable, describe the faces of opponents, and so on. When a player says “I know what I want to do, I don’t know the rules for it,” let them try.

#6 Comment By Grim6 On July 27, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

Just a side point, whether you are using tactical or narrative combat, remember to have people describe what any die rolls mean. If anyone ever rolls some dice and then says “You take 4 points of damage”, you have experienced The Fail. It should be “The dusty skeleton swings it’s rusty battleaxe wildly and hits you in the shoulder for 4 points of damage, knocking you off balance.” I like games like Wushu which mechnically mix descriptions and mechanics for that very reason. Also, it seems to draw people into the game more if the players add in the narative, instead of leaving it to the GM to translate rolls into worlds.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On July 27, 2010 @ 6:39 pm

Another good tip is to say yes. Don’t assume that the GM has the only correct vision of the battlefield– listen to player suggestions and assumptions.

If the fight is in an alley and the player asks “Is there a fire escape?”, say yes if it’s reasonable. They’re probably asking because they have something cool in mind. If it doesn’t make sense, but your system has a spendable resource (fate points, dramatic editing, action points, ask them if they are willing to spend a point to make it true.

#8 Comment By evil On July 27, 2010 @ 10:28 pm

I’d suggest that if you have used tactical combat for a long time, and want to transition over, do it a little at a time. Instead of using tactical combat for every fight, use it only for the major battles, or ones that your characters might not survive without the full range of their abilities. For small battles, minor enemies, or even random encounters try to throw in a little narrative combat.

As you do this, have your players tell the story in combat just as much as you do. You’ll find that the story flows more smoothly when everyone takes turns talking, not just the GM.

#9 Comment By E-l337 On July 28, 2010 @ 5:23 am

Having been a GM that runs games over the internet for several years now, I know exactly what you’re talking about when you speak of Narrative combat. I tend to use a fusion of both – most of the rules still apply (distance, etc), but they’re a lot more ‘light’. I don’t restrict things to a grid (though technically it is supposed to) – instead, I try to remember “player is X squares away from target A”, and I mostly work off of that. It’s served me quite well over the years, and the only time I use ‘squares’ is when I need to determine the result of an explosion of some sort (to know the maximum number of things that can be targeted by, say, a bomb).

I think it’s silly of anyone to say that relying on Narrative combat means that feats become useless. That’s just ridiculous in my opinion. With 4E, I’ll admit that Narrative combat is a lot harder to do. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is nearly impossible, simply because the system is so tactics-heavy. It’s doable, still, but in my opinion you lose something without the grid.

Whereas with 3.X or d20 Modern/Future/whatever, you can eliminate the grid and still use movement rules, and many feats are wholly unaffected. You don’t need a grid to know that your gunner can shoot more bullets in a round, and you certainly don’t need a grid to determine if you can ‘flank’ someone. The visual aid is totally optional, especially if you’re a GM who can clearly communicate answers. “You’re just out of range, you can double move and flank him next round, if you like.”

I’ve been doing this kind of thing for years, and my players have never once complained about it. In fact, they seem to like it quite a bit.

As with most things, a careful balance of both approaches is, in my opinion, best.

#10 Comment By renner On July 28, 2010 @ 7:48 am

Great article!
You’ve put some ideas that I didn’t expected.

At the time I made my suggestions, I was worried about how to describe the combat scenes and avoid errors that could put in check the characters’ positions.
After reading this article and the comments, I realized that the main point is the collaboration of the players in the combat description, as stated in “Get everyone on the same page”, “Play Loose”, and the comment about the “fire escape”, by Scott Martin.

Another issue in narrative combats is how the players describe their actions. To “Get everyone on the same page”, I intend to ask the players what their objectives are with their actions. For example, a player can state that she is moving closer to the door, but I think that it will help a lot if she says she is moving closer to the door to block someone’s passage.

Well, probably, next Saturday I’ll run my first game in years, without the use of maps and miniatures.
Wish me luck!

Thanks for the article,

#11 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On July 28, 2010 @ 11:02 am

[6] – That point is spot on. In a narrative game, it’s a collaborative process. Everyone’s helping to “shape” the encounter area by their descriptions.

I think it’s a fair trade — sacrificing mechanical/tactical advantages from feats and special abilities in exchange for “if it seems reasonable, run with it.”

I’m not even sure some of the basics of round-by-round combat (such as initiative) are as necessary in a narrative approach. So long as everyone gets to take a turn and have fun, you can have a free-flowing fun adventure.

#12 Comment By Martin Ralya On July 29, 2010 @ 8:47 am

[7] – Good point! I’ve played few RPGs with explicit stunting rules, but I’d argue that stunts occur naturally if you’re running a good narrative combat — they’re almost encouraged by default, since there are fewer constraints on what you can do and what the optimum choice might be at any given moment.

[8] – I love this approach, but I’ve always found it hard to do as a player and as a GM — my fault, not a failing of the approach itself. Unless the whole group buys in, you backslide pretty quick into “You take 4,” which I agree is boring.

[6] – This is definitely taking to the next level — a great idea!

[9] – Excellent tip.

[10] – Good luck! I’m sure it will go well, and we’d love to hear about the game. 🙂

#13 Comment By Roxysteve On July 29, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

[8] – Yes and no. Works for small combats, but when the action gets longer you set yourself up for protracted DMotR moments with players yelling at you to for the love of Wee Jass stop describing the action. There’s a limit to the attraction of graphic descriptions that take a significant part of a combat round to give. 🙂

#14 Comment By Roxysteve On July 29, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

As you guys rediscover narrative combat, I’m rediscovering the grid.

Years ago (1980-ish) it was all narrative combat, with figures for marching order and as a visual focus only.

In those pre Call of Cthulhu days I ran Traveller for large groups (6-9 people on average)and they were a boarding-action happy crew.

Since they like doing this sort of thing I gave them many opportunities to board derelicts that weren’t, defend from pirates, defend from would-be hijackers and to pre-emptively strike against a commerce raider or two.

There was *always* a point in such combats where someone’s picture of the action would become so far out of sync with mine that it would derail completely and there would be a frank exchange of views.

This grew old for me, so I had a think.

There was available at the time a game called “Snapshot”, a board game of intra-starship combat in the Traveller universe using simplified Traveller characters. I had bought it because due to a persistent misprint in the Traveller rules it was the only way to get the “gas and trank” round rules, but it also had a Traveller-to-Snapshot character conversion process, and that gave me an idea.

I announced at one Saturday session that everyone should make Snapshot versions of their characters, and that for the rest of the day all combat would be done as Snapshot games.

Boy did they whine, but I insisted, saying that we would dump the idea if it proved to be lame. One combat later, everyone was not only sold, but enthusiastically supportive of the idea. No more confusion about where everyone was. No more arguments that if a player could open a door, shoot and close the door again the bad guys could do it too, and everyone found the system easy and fun to use. I had many 15mm deck plans and boxes of the Traveller minis I should add.

It looked remarkably like D&D3.5 grid combat.

Which is why I decided to try running my Delta Green game as a D20 Call of Cthulhu game. I got yelled at by the internetters when I told them what i was going to do, but as I pointed out, my DG game would be a more “pulpy” take on Call of Cthulhu. This almost demanded the possibility of combat (widely viewed as wrong in CofC games- but not by me) and on the scale I was contemplating (6-8 agents against a town of vile, degenerate cultists) the grid was most definitely called for.

It’s working out great. Players that try and machine gun Mythos horrors still die like they should, running away is still a very good option, but combating torch-wielding mobs is now manageable without confusion.

See you on the way back when you tire of narrative combat and I’m gridded-out.

#15 Comment By Diceman On July 30, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

Players don’t need to have the exact battle picture. It’s just an unnecessary tactical habit leftover. All a player needs to know is that there’s a big guy with a spear next to him. Maybe he knows that one of his allies is in distress somewhere over there, and the wizard is behind and needs protection.

Players loosing track of some of the things going around is great. And without any map available – they will. If a player thought there are only two goblins left when in fact there are four and he’s surprised when they jump on him – great! If he was sure his buddy is right behind him, and missed the part when he moved way aside – great! It’s a combat. it’s fast and messy, and when there’s five of you and five of the bad guys – you can’t keep track of it all.

At least that’s the way I run my 4E combats.

#16 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2010-07-30 On August 2, 2010 @ 10:44 am

[…] Tips for Running Narrative Combats: No Minis or Maps Required I’ve always loved narrative combat, but I guess that’s because I grew up with it. As a young child playing D&D, I had no funds for minis, paint, battlemats and the other necessary items for gridded combat. Having said that, I currently run most of my games as gridded combat instead of narrative because I can afford the spiffy things necessary to make it happen. There are still a few combats that I run (small ones mostly) in narrative style just so we’re not spending/wasting time on setting up the map, figures and other items. […]

#17 Comment By Roxysteve On August 2, 2010 @ 11:35 am

[11] – not sure what “unnecessary tactical habit leftover” means.

I find, both as a player and as a GM, that the grid can add much to a game, but reading between the lines you are talking about smaller games anyway.

You may feel the players losing track is great. If they do too, you are jake. I always found players less accommodating when scene dislocation occurred. But that isn’t the only reason I like the grid.

My concern is with the GM losing track of the action. With 6+ players and maybe double that number of hostile sentients (we’re not talking your robotic “bags o’ XP” enemies here either: these guys are motivated to think before they charge) the paperwork needed to track the situation narratively can exceed the effort of running on the grid.

But it all depends on the situation. In my D20 games I often do it both ways in the scope of a single adventure, gridding out the main confrontation and dealing with chance encounters and ambushes narratively.

It all seems to work out in the end.

#18 Comment By d6Danny On August 2, 2010 @ 8:31 pm

[7] – On stunting . . . Yeah – Exalted did a bang up job. Just to add another, Dark Fantasy of Sundrah by Scaldcrow games does a class 1 job of supporting narrative combat, as does Villains and Vigilates (just re released by Monkey House games on RPG Now. A lot of super hero style games rely on the “human” factor.

#19 Comment By Mullet71 On August 3, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

[12] – i played exalted once and kinda liked it. i think V&V is an interesting game to make that comment on. they used paper counters and fairly involved map. however, i can also see why you included it. gms and players had to bring alot of creativity to the table because of the simple rules system. the simplicity of the system is why alot of guys played it though. dark fantasy of sundrah has a wide open theatrical/cinematic feel to the combat system. the ability to spend stamina and push through for more actions makes this really smooth. since you are invoking games from the way-back machine you might also want to consider alot of early gurps, as well as chill. i like narrative combat though there are advantages to the other as well.

#20 Pingback By El combate en la nueva “Vieja escuela” On November 24, 2010 @ 6:26 am

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