Regardless of the actions that take place during combat encounters in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, it is the responsibility of the DM to ensure the players know what they are fighting for and both how and why monsters are reacting to them in the environment. Earlier in the week, I discussed how DMs can respond to the increase of critical hits by players during Paragon Tier with new monster traits and immediate actions. These design features for critical hit protection may seem like “DM cheese” to players, so it is important to incorporate the mechanics into the story and flow of combat.
I sometimes think of combat encounters as professional wrestling matches. Yes, I’m talking about World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), although I prefer the previous name – World Wrestling Federation (WWF). You have the heel (monsters) and the face (player characters) facing each other in combat in the ring (encounter area). They are both playing to the crowd (DM and players) while executing scripted manuevers (powers, etc). The DM needs to be a combination of Ric Flair and Jim Ross – sell the events that are transpiring in the ring!
The moves of a wrestling match are often quite mechanical and boring, but when you have one wrestler acting like a move just broke his spine while the announcer is selling the audience that the wrestler may have to retire after the match, the viewer cannot help but be more engaged in the outcome. The wrestlers and the announcer are telling a story. During combat encounters, the DM must tell a story as well. Below, I provide examples of how this can be accomplished.
The Zen of Wrestling
While professional wrestling is frequently decried for wide range of legitimate reasons such as portraying characters who are racist or sexist (or both), the art of wrestling is often not understood or appreciated. It takes a special kind of talent to connect with thousands of fans while performing a very strenuous physical activity in a live environment. Only a small group of men and women have been able to capture the combination of athleticism and charisma required to be a truly great professional wrestler (although it helps if you marry the boss’ daughter). For a wrestler to be successful, he or she needs to be a great storyteller.
Ric Flair is often referred to as the Greatest Wrestler of All Time, not because he was the most athletic guy in the ring (although he was no slouch, by any means) but he made the audience care the most. For example, refer to the video below and forward to the 10:30 mark. Ric Flair and Lex Luger have been wrestling for approximately eight minutes by this point when Luger puts Flair in a Bear Hug for almost two minutes.
This is a rest hold, meaning it gives both wrestlers a chance to catch their breath to regain stamina for future moves. Obviously, rest holds can be a boring element to any wrestling match but they are unavoidable because while wrestlers may be of superhuman size, they still need oxygen to breath! While both wrestlers benefit from the rest hold, Flair and the announcer go out of their way to sell the Bear Hug as a legitimate move that is painful. Flair and the announcer are working to convince the audience that the Bear Hug is having an effect when in reality the two wrestlers are reserving strength for later in the match.
In addition, watch portions of the match to view how Flair sells any offensive move hit on him by Lex Luger. Flair is famous for over-the-top reactions to sell the audience on the fact that he was hurt by the attack. DM’s can learn a great deal from Flair to liven up combat encounters. When a monster gets hit by a player character, describe the results. Did the monster cry out in pain? Did it wince in agony? Did it roar in anger? Sell the PCs’ and monsters’ moves!
In a similar vein, Stone Cold Steve Austin may have used The Stone Cold Stunner in 99% of the matches he was in, but it’s the build-up to the move that is interesting; it’s a payoff for the story being told. Why does Stone Cold want to vanquish his opponent? What is at stake? It’s up to the DM to announce and describe the situation and the ramifications of a win or a loss.
Good Ol’ Jim Ross
Jim Ross is a legend. He is to wrestling announcers what Chris Perkins is to dungeon masters. I encourage any DM looking to improve their improvisation and description skills to spend some time watching a collection of Jim Ross’ best calls, but I present three specific videos below. To truly get a sense of how effective Jim Ross is, first watch the videos WITHOUT sound then watch a second time WITH sound.
Go to 36:00 mark above, “What THE hell is this? Stone Cold is shaking hands – with Satan himself! For the love of God, someone tell me this isn’t happening! I don’t believe this. What the hell? Son of a bitch! Why Steve? Why this way?”
Go to 4:00 mark above, “This sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden has erupted! Chris Benoit’s 18-year odyssey has culminated by winning the World Heavyweight Title. Benoit, so many times, has been so close year after year, mile after mile, continent after continent. But Benoit never gave up! Finally, finally – by God! – finally Chris Benoit has become the Heavyweight Champion of this world!”
This next video is perhaps my favorite Jim Ross call of all time, and it’s certainly influenced by the fact that I was a Jeff Hardy mark for the greater portion of a decade. (I even dressed up like him for Halloween once . . . okay, if I’m honest . . . and a second time to attend Monday Night Raw) I recall watching the following match live with my roommate on a Monday night back in graduate school, and going absolutely wild as it played out. Not only does Jim Ross portray one guy slowly climbing up a ladder as the biggest event in the history of the whole damn world, he sells the viewer on how much respect Jeff Hardy earned by his performance in the match after it concludes. The Undertaker and Jim Ross go out of their way to elevate Jeff Hardy in the eyes of the fans to give him a push.
Go to the 2:30 mark above, “Climb the ladder, kid! Make yourself famous! Jeff Hardy, his body wracked with pain from head to toe. He’s inches away from immortality!”
I still get goosebumps watching that clip. I guess I still am a Jeff Hardy mark! As a DM, focus on pushing important monsters and make the player characters feel like stars as they battle through enemies.
How to Sell
Wrestling Matches Combat Encounters
I do not expect to ever blow a gasket like Jim Ross does in the videos above, but it would be quite humorous if I ever tried. Imagine the following interaction at the gamming table:
Griffo (Halfling Rogue): I’m going to use Bloodbath. I have combat advantage so I can use Sneak Attack. Nice, I rolled a 19 so that’s a hit.
DM: My God! Griffo strikes! He just stabbed the great demon in the back. The foul beast from the Nine Hells is spewing blood from the wound! Griffo does it! The precocious Halfling - who has been bullied by the rest of his party quest after quest, adventure after adventure. Now – when the chips were down, and the Cleric was out of Healing Words, he came through with the most vicious attack I have ever seen!
I think I would end up giving myself a heart attack, so probably best if I shy away from all of Ross’ tactics. But there are things to be learned from how a professional wrestling match is presented and sold to the audience.
To this end, I often write scripted dialogue or descriptions of monster abilities so my players have more information about the events in combat. I have utilized this approach in the No Assembly Required monster series because I find it helpful. In all honesty, I do not do this enough in my home campaign and fall into the following trap, “The [monster] tries to attack with [power] . . . and hits. You take . . . [X] damage.” I try to be more descriptive with every attack, but it’s a challenge when I’m monitoring everything else that is going on in a combat encounter. When I have prepared text to work from, it is a reminder to describe the actions of the monsters and sell the story. When I do not add life to the monsters by selling their individual characteristics and reactions, the monsters become generic bags of hit points for the players to bash.
I have also invited players to join in the activity of describing events during combat. The aforementioned Griffo (Halfling Rogue) enjoys adding flavor text to his attacks, and I thoroughly encourage that activity. One method I have used for many months is to ask each player to describe how they killed a monster whenever they drop a foe to 0 hit points. It has produced some memorable moments in our game. Some funny moments like when the Rogue simply stated, “I deliver a downward strike to his plump calf” and everyone responded, “THAT’S IT!?” And other more elaborate moments, such as the Warforged Barbarian settling into a “I just jumped through Agent Smith like Neo at the end of The Matrix and he explodes into tiny pieces so now the walls around me are rippling because I just smashed reality” theme for an evening. It’s like his new finishing move – like the Stone Cold Stunner. See, it all can come back to professional wrestling!
- Professional wresting matches provide a wonderful template for how to sell a series of events between forces of good and evil. Learn how to sell the drama and tell a story like the best in the business. Find your inner Jim Ross!
- Prepare descriptions for monster powers and environmental effects and dialogue for your villains to challenge, taunt and respond to the player characters. Scroll to the bottom of any No Assembly Required column to view examples of flavor text for power descriptions.
- Encourage player involvement in telling the story during combat encounters. At the very least, ask players to describe their kills. They will likely enjoy describing how they just vanquished their foe!