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Improve your RPG: Combat

From Dungeons & Dragons to Pathfinder, combat is an integral part of any tabletop RPG.  Take in mind that this is coming from a stanch advocate of RPG sessions focusing on a strong story element.  As a DM, I prefer to avoid combat as a main focal point.  That said, I also believe it is important to approach combat in the same way I approach role-playing.

To really immerse players in a game you must find ways not only to tell your story, but to paint it and make it come alive.  Today I will provide you with some new ideas to make the combat portion of your game fresh and exciting.  I’m listing these as ideas because that’s exactly what they are.  You may adopt one or all of these ideas into your game to make combat a lot more exciting than just rolling dice and drinking soda.

Idea #1: Add music to your game

Find some really kick ass music to add to your battles.  You may already play Bach or traditional medieval music while your players explore crypts or parlay with sexy wenches in taverns while in town.  Now crank it up a notch and find some really hot stuff to keep the players engaged in the battles.  Have something prepared for each battle and note the artist and track you want to play right next to your battle in your DM notes.  Que the audio track prior to the battle so the PCs don’t have a tip off that something is coming up.  When the PCs enter the battle let the audio roll.

Suggestions for audio:

Traditional Battles:
Akimbo (Jon who writes for NERD TREK sings and plays bass in Akimbo)
The Sword

Epic Battles:
The Black Mages

Strange Battles:
(Combat on another plane or existence, space, or against odd adversaries)

Idea #2: Craft Model Scenery

A few years ago I had no idea how to build model scenery.  With the help of former Wizards of the Coast cartographer and model scenery extrordinaire Todd Gamble I learned the art of crafting realistic scenery for us in battles.  Although the precise details of hand crafting model scenery would take multiple articles to convey, I will give you the brief version here.

Step 1:  Buy Polystyrene Foam Insulation from your nearest large hardware store (Lowes, Home Depot, etc.)  The foam is blue or pink and is very tough.

Step 2:  Use a small sharp knife to score marks across the foam (if you’re under 18 have an adult score the marks for you).  Break the foam into varying sizes.

Step 3:  Roughly stack a few pieces of the foam, glue with wood glue, and run wood skewers through all the pieces.  Let dry overnight.

Step 4:  Use the knife to carve into the sides of the foam.  I run the side of the blade over the sharp edges of the foam letting random pieces break off to look like rocks.  Use your hands to rub off any loose pieces.  Don’t be afraid to hurt the foam, you want all the little pieces off or it will look weird later.

Step 5:  Mix 1 part wood glue to 1.5-2 parts water in a spray bottle.  Shake up and spray down your project.  Next cover the project in sand, dry dirt, or glue rocks where you want them.  Wait for stuff like static grass or moss.  Put that on last.

Step 6:  Pour latex paint through a paint filter into a spray bottle.  Fill with 1 part paint to 3 parts water, shake it up.  Take project outside and mist with paint.  Let dry in sun or overnight.

Step 7: Follow steps above with black paint but mix 1 part paint to 6-8 parts water for varying results.  Spray heavily on your project and use a hairdryer to push all over your project and into the cracks and crevasses!  This will give it the appearance of shadows and additional texture.  Let dry.

Step 8: Glue on final rocks, static grass, moss, or whatever you want.

Congrats, you have something realistic.  Check out this stuff Todd made and then visit his website here: Todd Gamble Art!

 Idea #3: Don’t stop Storytelling

You’ve been the DM, essentially the narrator of this story through dangerous dungeons and interesting locales.  Why would you stop just because a battle has begun?  Give the players an exciting play by play description as the battle unfolds.  Remember that a real life battle takes only seconds and so many things happen in that time.  In the time it has taken you to read these few sentences a man could have already been killed in battle.

Your adrenaline pumps through your veins, you struggle to shake the horse blinders that encroach upon you threatening to give you tunnel vision.  The evil mage raises his arms in a menacing stance and begins to chant in a deep ungodly voice.  You move as fast as you can, charging forward while you wrestle your blade from it’s scabbard.  The seconds seem stretched for an eternity as you cover the short ground between you and the mage.  His arms lower and just as you are about to make contact a blast of flames explodes from his fingers and slamming into you with such force that you are thrown into the air.  You find yourself lying upon the grass, leather armor partially on fire and your hair scorched and burned.  You look down and see a large black hole in your armor.  Luckily the spell missed your vitals.  You struggle to your feet and return to the fray.

Idea #4: Supplies & Miniatures

Miniatures are a great way to depict where everyone is on the battlefield.  If your battle has only a few combatants don’t worry about minis as they sometimes can take away from the role-playing experience.  If there are a lot of rules, characters with very specific abilities, or lots of combatants- by all means bust out the minis!  I recommend buying plastic miniatures to save time and putting them in bead boxes available at art supply stores or online .  I always carry about 6-8 of these boxes in hiking backpack (link!) along with all my other supplies.  Another ideal investment is a battlemat available at  All of the aforementioned products are shown below in links to the best deals I could find at below.

I recently read an article on a blog called “the Learning DM” about maximizing your storage and transport space for minis and D&D books.  The author recommended this amazing tackle box that he was using for a RPG transportation box.  Here’s one of the pictures of how he maximized the space.


Idea #5:  Mix things up

Don’t have the party battle orcs in a boring old flat circular cavern.  Create an interesting cavern with twists, turns, and elevation changes.  Perhaps a few orc archers are up in a higher cavern that the PCs can only get to by flying, scaling a slippery and dangerous wall, or progressing through the caves further.  Remember also that the enemy isn’t stupid.  They wouldn’t keep treasure chests full of powerful magical items lying around.  They would pick up those items and use them against the PCs.  The next time you see a Longsword +3 or a Wand of Fireballs in a treasure horde take it out of there and pop it into the hands of the enemy.  Yes, this might make the enemy a little unbalanced, but it also makes the combat that much more exciting.

Try throwing a puzzle into the middle of an adventure.  The party enters a room where all of a sudden a spiked ceiling starts to descend and both exits slam shut.  A wall slides away revealing a complex puzzle. While the rogue is trying to disarm the trap undead suddenly lumber out of the shadows.  On top of this there are a few holes in the walls that noxious gas spews from.  The party is going to have to plug those up or die from asphyxiation.  Now the rogue has to disarm the trap or the mage has to solve the puzzle before the gas kills everyone, and the fighter and cleric have to deal with the undead.

That’s an intense battle.


Have a great idea for something which adds suspense or an extra element to RPG combat?  Let’s hear it! 

That’s what this place is all about, NERD TREK- I’m on a TREK for NERDS just like you.  Yes, I know you’re a nerd because only a nerd could get this far into an article about nerdy Role-Playing games!




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