Let's play "spot the difference."
Intro 1: "You, er, enter a room. There are ten orcs sitting around a table, playing some sort of game of chance. They stop what they are doing and charge. Roll for initiative."
Intro 2: "You follow the sounds of arguing to a room behind a closed door. Opening the door, you see a group of orcs in a room. They are arguing amongst themselves. They look like Greykin's orcs, and their armour bears the sigil of that foul wizard, your greatest rival.
"You look at them; they look at you. You see them starting to shuffle and spread apart, and one of them goes for their sheathed weapon. The situation is going south, fast. Looks like they've been itching to lock horns with someone for a while. Guess that's you. Roll initiative."
However much you may like it or not, combat scenes are going to happen in any roleplaying game, no matter what the setting. Fighting is inevitable in many settings, and Adventurers are typically created to be singularly gifted in the fine arts of combat, so they might as well put those weapons and Combat Styles to use.
So how can you, the Games Master, elevate combat from mere number crunching to a scene of heartstopping action, thrilling suspense and intense danger? The same way you elevate all the other kinds of scenes - hypnotic language.
Setting Up Combat
The setup is as important as the execution. As the Games Master, you are responsible for putting the NPC and monster miniatures onto the board, whether it be a plastic hex grid sheet or a virtual desktop. You are also responsible for the opponents' tactics, actions, and reactions.
This is where every roleplaying game's combat sections kind of fall over, because they always seem to assume that combat is always a 100% slaughterfest, and the only differences between one combat scene and any other are the number and size of the opposing force, the weapons they use and how many rounds it takes for the player character combat units to reduce them to kedgeree.
This gives every Games Master the impression that all combat scenes must be like this - the first person shooter video game philosophy, where the opponents are only there to be cut down.
Before moving on, please check out "You Know, This Isn't Necessary ...", "Death Is Not The Only Option", and "Killing Has Consequences" on page 284 of the Mythras Core Rulebook. They're there for a reason. Not every random encounter has to be a weapons fest.
Now, having read that, let's go on to those encounters which are weapons fests - where the gratuitous violence is integral to the story. Your most perceptive character has determined, through Insight, that the foe is implacable and bent on your party's destruction; and the only way to the mission's objective is through these miscreants. Negotiation won't work - so it's time to draw weapons and have at it.
Page 285 is a good page to read, for the "Pacing Combat Encounters" and "Action Points are Not the Be All and End All" sections. Games Masters and Players should read these sections, to enrich your enjoyment of combat scenes - they present options which increase the Adventurers' chances of surviving the battle.
"Grading Opponents" on page 286 is a vital read for Games Masters. It helps to gauge how much effort the Adventurers must make to achieve victory, or just to survive a combat which is going against them.
But beyond these considerations, and of course studying the entire Combat section of Mythras from page 86 to familiarise yourself with the combat mechanics, how do you use the linguistic stylings of hypnotic language to describe combat scenes?
Here's a little hint to get the Players engaged mentally in the oncoming conflict. Ask them to get out their favourite combat dice and get them ready. Give them a moment to select their dice, and announce their readiness. Once the entire group has signalled their readiness, then call for initiative rolls.
Players: Battle Dice
Players, here's something you can do to get yourselves into the spirit, if you aren't already doing this. Have a set of dice specifically for combat: a dedicated d100 for Combat Style checks; a dedicated d10 for initiative; and whatever dice you need to roll for damage.
Nothing gets you into the battle mindset more than opening your battle dice bag and drawing out those combat dice. Keep them in their bag until a combat scene is announced, and take them out to show that this just got serious, and your Adventurer means business.
There is one other tool available from The Design Mechanism to help you with battle scenes - the Mythras Combat Cards. If you have them, it would be a good idea to bring them out at the same time as your battle dice. Everything in this "Turn Zero" is about preparing everyone to be in the right mindset for the combat scene.
Running The Battle
Show, Don't Tell
The language you use; the words, your tone of voice; affects and influences your players' mindset and reactions. The Adventurers' actions should have an impact on the opponents, and vice versa. A successful blow could knock a foe back, staggered for a moment before they rally around and charge back, enraged. Even if a blow glances off the armour, describe the thump travelling up the Adventurer's arm.
Use the second person singular (and occasionally plural) - "You duck, and the breeze of the sword narrowly missing your head brushes against your skin," "The jolt of the impact of your war hammer travels up your arm," "The weird, arcane power you just called leaps towards your foes, engulfing them in scintillating flames," for example.
The Adventurers, also, can be affected by the actions of the foe. Describe the pain of the impact on a Hit Location. Don't just say "The foe uses Stun Location on your Right Arm Hit Location": describe the numbness to that arm from the impact. If the Hit Location takes damage from the successful strike, describe the pain - crushing, bruising, cutting, burning, numbness.
The unconscious mind has access to engrams where it remembers the pain of injuries from various sources. Hypnotic language can encourage the mind to experience echoes of those feelings, as long as it is gently reminded that this is only play, not the real thing.
Everybody's imagined experiences are different. One person might imagine a vast chamber as resembling the Hall of Moria scene from the first Lord of The Rings movie, but somebody else might imagine it looking like the interior of Chartres Cathedral, and a third might imagine an abandoned underground Roman tufa quarry with thousand-year-old chisel marks on the rough, sandy-textured walls.
The way to keep the immersion going is to use artful vagueness. Describe the characters' lights flickering, but do not remind each Player what their Adventurers are holding to provide that illumination. Describe the tightness of the armour, but again do not specify what kind of armour - everybody's armour is going to be stiff somewhere, but some of them might be wearing different armour to the others, and not everybody is going to be wearing armour over every Hit Location.
When invoking sense memory, just say "a foul odour, growing stronger," rather than "smells like orcs" or "carrion stench"; or "the texture of the walls" rather than specifying roughness, sandiness and so on - some might be imagining the walls to be of brick, others limestone, and yet others might be imagining sandstone blocks. Use artful vagueness to encompass as many of the Players as possible in the sensory immersion.
Fighting evokes a slew of emotions - excitement, anger, fury, even fear. Again, the language you use can invoke those feelings - but it is better to allow the Players to experience those feelings on their own, and to let the unconscious mind keep rein on those feelings, again by reminding it that this is only play.
Pausing and Wrapping The Battle
One of the most important things a hypnotic Games Master can do is set up safe words, if you will. Every Player can invoke the safe words at any time during play one, such as a "pause" safe word to pause the action; one, a "half time" safe word to allow a Player to drop out of the fight scene for whatever reason, and most importantly a "stop" safe word to bring all the Players back into the room.
As Games Master, it is recommended that you invoke the "half time" safe word to pause the action at least once during a heavy battle scene. This brings the Players into the room for a few minutes to breathe, and perhaps to have some refreshments and take a comfort break before the battle resumes. This is particularly vital during the climactic battle of the scenario, when the action is at its most intense and the emotions are at their highest.
The end of any battle scene is a time of heightened emotions and tension, particularly the climactic scene - if that scene involves a battle, either for supremacy or for survival. As Games Master, you need to know how to defuse those heightened emotions - and, if you have been doing your job right, there will be heightened emotions.
Every battle scene should end with a post-battle ritual. It can be as simple as the Games Master invoking the "stop" safe word to tell the unconscious minds to bring the Players back in the room with a glowing dopamine rush; or you can keep the Players immersed, and encourage them to let off steam with some hearty cheering before bringing them back in the room.
After the battle scene ends, give the Players a moment to reorient in the room, before going through the process of clearing the table and bringing out the refreshments, or - if you are online - give them time to clear their own tables and put aside their minis and dice, then go and grab whatever refreshments they have to hand.
Breaking bread at the end of a battle scene, and at the end of every scenario, is one of the best ways of grounding after your minds have been Elsewhere. You may have noticed that it also bonds Players and Games Master together - sharing mealtimes together is probably one of the oldest community-forming exercises going. Make use of our human need to bond as a unit.
There is more to wrapping up a battle than just totting up numbers. The Players will be vested in the welfare of their Adventurers, and every wound and injury to their Hit Locations, and they'll probably be experiencing anxiety if their characters have sustained damage. As Games Master, you need to provide reassurance. This is especially pertinent if a character is on the verge of death, or has already met their fate - a topic which will be covered in the next post.
Everybody has an unconscious mind, which is a benevolent guardian, keeping body and conscious mind working. By gently reminding the unconscious that this is only play, and by caring enough to give your unconscious mind signals to let it know that the game is being paused, as well as when it's over, you can bring in the unconscious to the story and make it a truly immersive experience.
Combat scenes are meant to be cathartic - a release of emotions, particularly after a stressful period of time. Learning to include the unconscious mind in the play is a challenge, but ultimately rewarding, because the active involvement of the unconscious mind is guaranteed to make combat encounters memorable long after the scenario and even the campaign are over.
Edited by Alex Greene