As a GM there are some things you can do to speed up combat and give it a completely different feel that might better fit the tone of gameplay you're trying to create. We'll be focusing on D&D, since it's the most popular roleplaying game for many of our readers. But some of these tips can apply to other games, so keep an eye open for compatibilities.
The first suggestion is active defense. I saw this rule, and actually lifted it from Eva Brown (I have an interview with her on my personal blog, she's great.) But let's get to this. At it's core, instead of having monsters roll to hit, you'll have the players roll to avoid getting hit. You allow players to make a roll against a DC, which is modified by the creature's "to hit" numbers. If they pass, they avoid being hit. If not, roll damage. Doing this has the Gm make less rolls, and makes players feel more involved in the combat, because the actions are framed relative to then instead of them just being caught in the crossfire of the actions of an NPC.
Another way to make a battle more cinematic is to utilize terrain. Make these meaningful. if your party is holding a position against enemies fighting uphill, maybe give them a bonus to initiative or something. Or if they're fighting in a waterlogged swamp, maybe slow down movement speed. This can make a boring fight more interesting.
Similarly, provide benefits for teamwork. Let players do things that might be a bit more unpredictable. If the barbarian wants to throw the halfling rouge, let it happen. Reward and encourage player creativity, even if it means you have to improvise more. Because the alternative is players standing in place and hitting things until they break, which gets boring after a while.
Lastly, be descriptive. This is a no brainer, and a lot of GMs properly describe the setup of a combat, but it often tapers off once the dice start rolling. Don't do that. Describe how attacks land. Describe the wounds. Describe the movements of the combatants, and the reactions and expressions of those involved. Have NPCs speak mid combat to remind people that this fight means something in the context of the narrative.
Keeping these ideas in mind can help you enrich your combat and make it feel more alive. Try some of it out, you'll probably be happy with the results.
I hope you enjoyed this and the rest of the content by Digital & Dice. For more from me, feel free to check out my personal blog. Until next time…Game on Internets!
- Draconick, Digital and Dice Contributor
I, Nick “Draconick” Johnson, am a writer and roleplaying enthusiast with over ten years of experience in various tabletop roleplaying games both as a player and as a GM. I am also somewhat involved in other forms of tabletop gaming such as wargaming, board games, and card games. It is my hope that by creating and maintaining this website that I can share my unique take on all things within our hobby and to foster a community of like-minded individuals.