Between getting back into martial arts training and also watching a lot of stuff on video game design, I’ve been thinking a bit about combats in tabletop RPGS and how they skip something critical: what you see/know before the fight begins.
There’s a lot of things which you pick up on, before a fight – how aggressive someone is (“changing”, “approaching aggressively, but with caution”, “cautiously circling”), how well they move (“fast, graceful”, “powerful, heavy”, “very comfortable with that axe”), some aspects of emotions in their face (“belligerent, angry”, “fearful, panicked”, “disturbingly calm”, “menacing smile”)… and all of that gives you some inkling of what to expect and how you might want to deal with the situation or the individuals involved.
Of course, for any of this to matter, it also has to come up in play and be something you can interact with – otherwise it’s a meaningless detail. And, without a clear process or step to make these things something that shows up in play regularly, you just forget to put them in. So what’s a way to go with it? Describe something that is a “tell” or indicator about one or more of these factors when a combat begins. If the game involves an initiative roll, that’s a great time to go with it.
Give some indication of how powerful the threat is – is it large, fast? Is it a person who is scared and unsure in their movements, or someone with a loose, relaxed movement? This is a great tool to give players some idea of how they may want to approach (or avoid) such a threat.
Does it look like it’s going to just come straight at you? Will the bandit circle then charge in after his friends help circle you? A lot of the beginning movements tell you what might be happening next.
Does the threat look sure, wild and frenzied or just hoping to get away? Is there a way you can scare off the fight before it happens?
Again, showing these things is meaningless if you don’t give players a way to interact with them. This might be part of the game mechanics naturally (morale rules, etc.) or it might be something you have to add on as a house rule. Regardless, make it clear to the players that these things matter and there’s more options than simply “fight or run” and allow them to take advantage of this.