The Billion Dollar Budget of Narrative Combat

by Mike Shea on 22 February 2016

A while back on the Dungeons and Dragons podcast, D&D design lead, Mike Mearls, described one of the great advantages of narrative "theater of the mind" style combat: the limitless nature of our imaginations.

When we think about the mechanics of running combat without a grid, we might tend to oversimplify the battle. After all, if we're fighting four orcs in a square 30 foot room, it's easy to describe and everyone around the table is going to have a good idea what's going on. But how interesting is that environment? Why even have a battle that's so obviously simple?

It's Not Just About the Monsters

Interesting battles in Dungeons and Dragons aren't just about the monsters. They're about the environment, the situation, and the goals. Instead of figuring out how to simplify the environment and focus on the monsters, we can take advantage of the fact that we don't have to build out a gridded map and build something truly fantastic in the imaginations of our players.

Here are a few examples:

Hiding from the Truth

Players and DMs might tend to focus on the mechanical aspects of running narrative combat. How will movement work? What are the distances for ranged attacks? How many monsters will a fireball hit? On the surface, this seems like the harder part of running narrative combat but really coming up with fantastic environments and fun goals is the harder job. We would just rather hide behind mechanical problems than have to let our imaginations run free. That's one of the hard truths of the lazy dungeon master. Real creativity is hard and sometimes we hide behind limited game mechanics and game preparation to avoid having to do it.

Still, this is a game we're talking about. It's important that we codify a good set of rules for our players when running narrative combat. Here at Sly Flourish we've put together a set of narrative combat guidelines for Dungeons and Dragons intended to keep everyone on the same page and keep narrative combat focused on the most exciting parts of the game.

The important thing is to focus on the rules that matter and abstract the rest. With some simple guidelines in place, we can focus on digging into our collective creative brains to come up with the most fantastic battles any of us can ever imagine.

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Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.