1. Fast, fast, fast. Most fights in roleplaying games take place in seconds, so it’s important to try and convey the frantic intensity of this experience. Stay standing while you run action, even move around a little to get the blood pumping. Use an initiative track so you can hurry from player to player and urge the players to make decisions as quickly as possible to emphasise brevity.
2. Describe, repeat, then take another angle. For some reason I’ve found that 3 is the magic number of times it takes for people to strongly visualise an action sequence. Take this example from my recent Masks game:
Player 1:” I strike the cultist for 7 points of damage with my sword.”
GM to player 1: “The cultist turns to run, then you ram the sword through his back as he’s in the doorway and kill him”
GM, to player 2: “You reach the doorway and are confronted by a frantic looking man, suddenly the glinting end of a blade appears in the centre of his chest and you are showered in gore.”
GM to everyone: “Down the corridor a woman has her key out to unlock her door, holding a bag of groceries. At the sound of the commotion, she looks down the corridor and sees the cultist impaled on a sword – for a moment her eyes meet the eyes of [player 2’s character] whose face is now covered in blood, then she screams and drops her groceries.”
You don’t need to use this technique for every action, but it will help for major or significant actions within the combat, and reduce the chance that players haven’t understood or heard what has happened.
3. Emphasise the gore. Violence is terrible and has consequences. Be ready to describe horrific injuries and their impact on NPC’s or even PC’s. Making the hit point loss into a tangible injury helps to emphasise the reality, and the stakes for the PC’s and also helps to de-glorify combat. If you’re not used to this sort of thing consider importing a simplified critical table from another game system.
4. Make sure the PC’s know you’re on their side, then root for the bad guys. This is a neat adversarial technique, which can help bond a group. Simply put, the players need to trust you not to actually be trying to kill their characters – if there is some doubt emphasise that the bad guys are surprised, inefficient or otherwise human -they are not tools of the GM but other characters, just as fallible as the PC’s. Then root for them. Act disappointed every time they miss, celebrate when they hit. It is a little confrontational, but in my experience the players usually get into the spirit of things rapidly – just so long as they trust you won’t skew the results in your favour. Another good technique is to roll everything in the open, ideally telling the players beforehand what the chance of a hit is.
5. Don’t let the fight get away on you. Ideally nothing should happen in the combat that you aren’t ready for. If you’re rolling in the open, then you should have some plan about what happens if you are very lucky, or the PC’s aren’t. Character death should (in my opinion) always be on the table, but a smart GM makes sure that the likelihood of such an outcome is both considered, and prepared for before rolling the dice.