Make Conflict, Not Combat

When most people think of combat in Dungeons & Dragons, they think of a tabletop board with a grid, some type of map or structure placed on it, and miniature figures representing the player's characters. In combat, each player has a turn within a round during which they can take a specific numbers of actions, each of which is divided into various types that can only be used at specific times and under specific conditions.

When most people think of role playing in Dungeons & Dragons, you think of a group of people walking through the woods or a town, talking with people and each other while interacting with anything that peaks their interest. There are (almost) no limitations to what a character can do or say, and the only thing standing in the players way is their creativity.

And the two words separate these states of gameplay in our minds are used every single session by every single Game Master: Roll Initiative.

There seems to be a switch in a players mind when they hear these words. One moment they are walking along as the Game Master describes the sunlight beaming through the trees and the shadows cast upon the undergrowth, when they spot a group of unidentifiable people off in the distance. The group moves ever closer to their interest, occasionally pausing to make sure that they are approaching with stealth and caution. The players are describing what they are doing and asking what is around them, while the GM weaves description in when needed. The entire scenario is very free and more unfolds with each passing moment. Suddenly, one of the strange people hears something and draws his sword. The GM says "roll initiative" and everything changes. Immediately the objective of stealth and observation is tossed out of the window, as now their "enemy" stands before them. Battle ensues. A map is displayed and minis and tokens are arranged. The game has completely changed.

At this point, the encounter has turned from one of study and investigation into combat. And immediately the people who are not in your group are your "targets" and must therefore be dealt with accordingly. They are your enemy and nobody can tell you differently. The players have lost that sense of description and artistry and moved into strategy and science, no longer needing to bother with what something looks or feels like, but rather what mechanics they are using.

So what is it that a Game Master can do in order to remove this feeling of "combat" while still inserting a sense of conflict? Simple – keep it behind the curtain. By removing those two little words and instead keeping to player descriptions of their actions, they will be more open to interaction and development of the encounter. This will also cause the players to become more descriptive with their actions, as it won't simply be "I move my mini 4 squares and use this ability against this." By prompting the player to explain what they are doing rather than simply naming what ability they are using, they will soon begin to create a more narrative combat making things more enjoyable for yourselves the rest of the players.

In the end, these two techniques will be able to merge into a more enthusiastic and descriptive encounter experience, as a player will describe what their actions are as they intertwine technical jargon. The end hope is to create an impactful and exciting time for everyone playing, along with an enjoyable and interactive experience for even those who have no idea what D&D actually is. Ultimately, if you and your players are all invested in creating a story within your combat then you can smoothly transition from RP to encounter and back again, also meaning your players will be less likely to drop out of character and begin to enjoy a more seamless experience at the table.

After all, if you're able to break a game down to the bare bones of its existence and then build up the framework, then your end product will only be that much stronger. And the framework of any good role playing game is the role playing. Pure and simple.