A lot of effort in RPG circles goes into giving advice to GMs. How do you present an engaging adventure? How do you run a certain style of adventure? How do you take what the PCs give you and integrate it into the campaign?
I have a bit of advice that I want to aim squarely at players. This advice comes from the realm of professional wrestling. If you are in an RPG that has a lot of physical altercations, learning how to “sell” your opponent’s threat level is going to make the campaign much more satisfying.
I’ll also throw this out there at the start—I default to a lot of examples that clearly lean on d20 games for a reference. It is entirely possible to have issues with selling your opponent’s threat level in other games, but I’ve seen it very often in d20 level based games, so it tends to be top of mind.
Professional Wrestling 101
If you aren’t familiar with professional wrestling terminology, if you see someone get hit by a move, and the person getting hit by that move looks like they really got hurt, staggered, or caught off guard by the move, that’s “selling” the move. Professional wrestling may be theater, but there is a logic to the way it works.
If one wrestler does a move to the other wrestler, and that wrestler just stands back up, and then does their move, you don’t get any feel for the stakes of the match, or the ability of either wrestler. Sure, occasionally, someone is going to pull off an impressive dive from the top rope, or they’ll lift someone that you couldn’t lift if you had ten of your best friends helping. But if the other participant just stands there at the end, it loses its effect.
When someone gets “hit” with a move and that wrestler just stands there as if they were not affected, that’s called a “no-sell.” Now, there are appropriate times for a “no-sell,” but you can’t go through your whole career without selling any move, or else your career is going to start looking a little boring. Sure, you are a force of nature. But if you never sell anything, you are always a force of nature that wins everything, and that’s the sum total of the combat narrative you are telling.
Selling in the Face of Stats
Selling your opponent’s threat level is going to mean something different in an RPG. There are stats that show if you hit, or if a spell goes off, and how much damage it does, or what kind of condition might be inflicted. There are often measurable effects in RPGs when an opponent does something to your character.
No-selling an opponent in an RPG can come in many forms, but it happens most often when players are never “in character” in the fight. I’m not a person that demands no metagaming at the table, but if everything your character says is purely analytical and referencing game mechanics, it deadens the effect of what is going on in the narrative of the story.
“That’s less than 10% of my hit points, don’t worry about healing me.”
“I can hit it with a 10 on the dice, so we should be able to keep pace with hitting hit for at least 15 points a round.”
Saying things like the above, and never being in character, takes a lot out of the fight. Many people tend to think that roleplaying ends when a fight begins, but there are plenty of opportunities to keep the story of what is going on moving, informed by the mechanics.
“The hobgoblin hits you for 12 points of damage.”
“Out of character—I should be fine, I’ve still got plenty of hit points left. In character—After the last time we ran into hobgoblins, I wasn’t expecting ones with that much skill with a blade. I need to keep an eye on her.”
Randomly Encountered No-Sells
Some “no-sells” are emergent. When the PCs see a couple of giants walk out onto the battlefield, they assume the big humanoids are going to be a threat. A few unfortunate dice rolls later, and the players might fall into a bad habit.
“These things suck. They’re just slow sacks of hit points. I can’t wait to get to town and talk about how easy it was for us to off these things. I don’t know why anyone is afraid of them.”
The narrative just shifted from “giants are scary,” to “giants are slow and overrated.” If you never run into giants again in the campaign, that’s the impression they have left, and it may have been because the dice were hotter on one side of the screen than the other.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for referring to the reality of the situation.
“The giant rolls yet another 3 on the die, and misses you, again.”
“My character looks at the huge divot in the ground where I was standing a minute ago, and tells the giant that I’m glad his sword arm is stronger than his eyesight.”
In the second instance, referencing the potential for danger, even when the reality of the game isn’t providing that danger, preserves some of the mystique of the giants. The impression isn’t that the giants are universally terrible at combat, but that these giants aren’t doing so well, which preserves their obvious potential threat.
When your character does take a significant hit, make sure to take the time to call that out. Your party cleric may fix it on their turn, but if it was noteworthy, well, note it.
“That’s 54 points of damage.”
“I’ve still got 60, so I can take another hit, but wow, that was a lot. My character’s head spins and they stagger back for a second, and catch themselves before they fall. Then I tell the party cleric I may need just a little bit of divine favor thrown my way before I collapse.”
It becomes very easy to minimize what is narratively happening in stories in games where characters are powerful enough to mitigate consequences. Eventually, characters start to joke about clerics bringing them back from zero hit points, removing curses, or raising the dead. The problem is, a character that has been knocked out from loss of hit points just got battered very hard. They could have died, even if they didn’t. A character that is cursed, diseased, or poisoned could very well be miserable, even if they are still effective until that effect has been lifted.
A character that has died and is brought back has actually seen what happens to souls after people die! Even if that is “common” for high level adventurers, that’s not common to over 99.9% of the population—and before it happens to them, the adventurers are part of the 99.9% of the population.
The Good Kind of No-Sells
Is there a good time to “no-sell” opponents? Sure. There is a term in professional wrestling—the squash match. The point of this match is to make one side look extremely awesome by throwing someone at them that they can take out without any effort at all. Some encounters exist to underscore that adventurers are people that are, themselves, dangerous.
Sometimes it is obvious from how the GM is running opponents that they are just there as a nuisance to the PCs, either to waste their resources or stall them until reinforcements arrive. The clearer the clues the GM drops that these opponents aren’t impressive, the more it’s probably okay to make it clear how much more awesome you are than these characters, and how little threat they represent.
Then, there is the most notorious of professional wrestling no-sells. One wrestler has been dominating the match from the beginning. They have pulled off several impressive moves that look like they have devastated their opponent. And then, the momentum shifts. The person that was down on their luck suddenly gets up, gets a second wind, and nothing can hurt them again for the rest of the match. The danger of their opponent was evident early on, but now it’s time to wrap of the story.
In game terms, you make it to the boss fight. Everyone knows the boss is a big threat. You’ve spent months of campaign time establishing this. It might even be that early in the fight, the boss tossed around a party member or two rather effortlessly. At this point, the no-sell can be used to good effect, but the tone of the no-sell is important. It’s not that the threat of the opponent isn’t great. It’s that you are so awesome, so focused, and so determined, through sheer force of will and awesomeness you will persevere no matter what this boss does to you.
At that point, the no-sell becomes the story of how the boss is dangerous, but because it’s so important that you win, you are more dangerous, and you don’t care what they can unleash.