Every character in an RPG should be able to do some cool shit. Now this varies on tone, power and levelling trajectories, and setting. Either way, every character should have the ability to evoke the core emotion of the setting in really strong ways. Most RPGs are playing in a heroic tone, hence the term Cool Shit, the core of any heroic experience.
Often this arises narratively. Holding the Bridge is cool. It doesn’t matter exactly how you did it, you Held the Bridge. If you died, even better. Martyrdom is radical.
But characters should be individually and systemically rad as well. Hence today’s topic of discussion. Oftentimes being a wizard feels like this:
And being a warrior feels like this:
I just want to look at a few examples from media where a martial combatant is a total fucking badass. Some things we might be able to use as descriptive inspiration to bolster great martial moments, or as inspiration for abilities to give martial characters.
I’ve always maintained that this is a fatal flaw of D&D. With ballooning health pools, fights are often attrition based. This can be a neat power fantasy, Gandalf fighting the Balrog for three days and two nights is certainly impressive, but there’s a reason the whole fight is only mentioned and not shown. Compared to the immediate gratification of a fireball, it’s hard to call it cool. When I think of a cool sword fight, I think of this:
Fuck yes. The absolute tension in this scene. the release in a literal shower of blood. I doubt a semi-improvisational story underlaid with algebra can stack up to one of the greatest scenes in the history of film, but it’s important to aim high.
One of the many other scenes inspired by Iaijutsu, this one fantasy focused. The devastating and terrifying speed of this shot. A high level swordsman should be frightening. Lighting fast swordplay is one way to achieve that. Combat that’s over in seconds.
Some martial types aren’t fast, but strong. This one isn’t as complicated, you’ve just got to let high strength scores shine. If you want a masterclass in showing this, watch Princess Mononoke. If you haven’t seen it, just go watch it right now. It’s like a crash course in making fiction compelling. But anyways, the main character has superhuman strength (and a smidge of curse) in his right arm. And the movie shows you, in both subtle and blunt ways. From the heartwarming scenes in the bellows to the scene above where he takes a man’s head clean off with an arrow. Look closely, his uncursed left arm can’t even hold the bow correctly. After he fires it, it’s faced the wrong way.
Here are three other examples, from ludicrous to realistic, and from media with WILDLY different tones.
It’s easy to discount the princess bride there at the end, but those stones probably weigh 20 pounds. A normal person couldn’t throw one more than twenty feet. Those small things help bolster a character’s perceived strength, especially if there’s a regular person to compare to.
Most people don’t want to write their own RPG systems, and sometimes descriptions don’t quite cut it. So how do you spice up your martial’s life in your existing one? Why, use the oldest classic from film sword fights: Lots of dangerous shit everywhere. Duel on a bridge over a pit of lava? It’s good because it adds narrative coolness by raising the stakes, but it also adds mechanical coolness by forcing players to change boring habits to adapt to the circumstances. This is often a breath of fresh air for martial classes who often lack meaningful options in core rules.
I believe all systems should add minions. One HP enemies who roll to attack as a group. They’re as good for spellcasters with area attacks as they are for martials, but nothing makes someone feel cooler than facing down a horde. I know there’s a lot of good material out there for doing this in 5e, and I suggest you check them out.
It depends on the tone, but a little midfight banter is always welcome in my book. It’s easier when the timescale of a fight is more flexible, but you can always say fuck it and use Comic Book Time. You don’t even have to explain it. If players can spend ten minutes strategizing a six minute turn, you can stick fifteen seconds of dialogue in there as well.
Hopefully seeing some visuals can help you next time you’re trying to spice up a swordsman’s life. Remember, a combination of Narrative Stakes, Interesting Mechanical Decisions, and Evocative Narration can make any character really pop. Your players will love you for the extra effort.