So, during my monthly review of podcasts during my commute to work, and I’m listening to a seminar conducted by Wolfgang Baur — Kobold-in-Chief over at Kobold Press  (formerly Open Design) — for the most recent PaizoCon  that was recorded and posted by those fine Canadians over at 3.5 Private Sanctuary .
Wolfgang talks about his GMing techniques for room and combat description — a broad topic, to be sure. But of particular interest was his approach to combat description for encounters he writes up for his home game.
In a nutshell, he prepares one or two PC descriptions, and likewise, one or two for the monsters, mostly for situations of high drama, like critical hits or, as he puts it, for an encounter “beat.” Those “beats” are the moments when combat/adventure swings in one direction or the other, such as when the monsters rally or the PCs gain the advantage. And the descriptions aren’t long, just a quick sentence that emphasizes a particular attack.
Being a lazy gnome GM, certainly lazier than the Kobold-in-Chief, who is busy plotting ambushes and setting traps like all evil kobolds do, I’m looking around for ready-made combat descriptions. Mr. Baur may be inclined to write his out — but I want my work done for me. Then I remembered! Someone else HAS done the work for me.
Class, may I direct your attention to the Dungeons and Dragons, Fourth Edition, Player’s Handbook. You know all those text explantations of at-will, encounter and daily powers — the ones 3.5/Pathfinder players eschew and 4E devotees delight in? Well, those ARE combat descriptions. Each and every one of them.
This is a jackpot of flavor — regardless of the game system you are running.
How about this for a fighter’s crit, paraphrased from the Reaping Strike exploit on Page 77? “You punctuate your attack with a wicked jab and small cutting blows that slip through your enemy’s defenses.”
What about highlighting the wizard’s magical acid attack? “A shimmering arrow of green, glowing liquid streaks to your target and bursts in spray of sizzling acid.”
Was your paladin’s attack favored by his patron deity? “You boldly confront a nearby enemy, searing it with divine light …”
You get the point.
What about monsters? Does the same work for them?
I turn to Page 54 of the PH2, and I envision this attack by a rampaging bugbear, rather than for the barbarian class, as it was intended, paraphrasing the entry: “[The bugbear] slams its weapon into you, then gives voice to the fury of its ancestors!”
Now, the 4E Monster Manual is short on this kind of the flavor. The entries are much more in game language, such as the rotting slam of the mummy: +24 vs. AC; 3d8+6 necrotic damage. But you could pull this from the tactics entry on the same page, again paraphrasing: “The giant mummy tries to pound you to death with its fists, focusing all its rage on you.”
The point is, if you have these 4E books, you’ve got a great resource on hand for introducing the sort of combat descriptions that can really liven up a combat sequence beyond simply providing attack numbers and reporting damage by reading the dice.
Is there anything here that you, as a GM, couldn’t come up with on your own or on the fly during play? Not really. But when you’re stuck — and who hasn’t had a brain fart in a situation like this — there’s nothing like knowing you can reach for a particular book, flip open to a random page, and just read something that will work reasonably well.
As Wolfgang points out in his seminar, combat descriptions are important because they help make the PCs’ contributions feel important. If by reading from Page 159 that a “fierce burst of flame erupts from [their] hands and scorches nearby foes” this shines the spotlight a little brighter on them, all the better.