Imagine you’re watching a boxing match: The bell rings. The fighters dance around light on their feet. They circle each other looking for an opening. Each combatant is just waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Then suddenly, like a thunder flash, one of them lunges in with a looping haymaker punch. The battle begins in earnest as a counterpunch flies in retaliation. The pugilists then plant their feet and just wail on each other. In fact, they stop moving their lower bodies entirely. Not every blow lands, but they’re just going to batter each other until one of them falls over or the round ends- whichever comes first.
This fight went from an exciting contest of skill to a duller version of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. This is also how most combat encounters in TTRPGs play out.
There are a few ways to approach this problem. You could take a mechanical approach by adding house rules to combat where hits can cause combatants to stagger back, you get bonuses for creating space if you’re getting beaten up, or any number of things. However, I’m not super high on this route, as this creates a separate issue of mental overhead for players and the GM. If you mess it up, you could end up with a ton of friction with the game’s native rules. This option would also be extremely difficult to implement if your game uses theater of the mind combat.
The simplest way to address stale combat is to add descriptive narration. The orc doesn’t just swing it’s sword. The orc cocks back its sword arm and swings it in a wild arc above its head on a course for your neck! One benefit of this route is you can democratize the workload by encouraging player characters to describe the way they attack.
But there are drawbacks to this method. It can be difficult for the GM or players to come up with colorful battle descriptions on the fly. It just might be something that’s not someone’s strong suit.
If you think back to exciting, cinematic fights you’ve seen in movies, what’s an element you often see?
Say what you will about the prequel Star Wars trilogy, but the final lightsaber duel between Anakin and Obi Wan is dynamic and exciting. Going into this clash, the audience knows how it’s going to end. The movie is running out of time. They’re on a molten planet, and Anakin has to somehow end up more machine than man. But rather than being a boring foregone conclusion, it ends up being tense and dramatic.
The duel picks up when it spills out onto the machinery of the lava fields. They struggle to balance on narrow scaffolding while dodging jets of magma. When the structure beneath them begins to crumble, they’re forced to scramble to safety or plunge to their doom. They’re then forced to jump to precariously small platforms while still engaging in their life and death struggle.
In the Civil War airport battle, you see similar things. Characters have to dive out of the way of thrown cars, get pinned under piles of debris, and dodge collapsing towers. The heroes are forced to stay aware of their surroundings or get pummeled. If anyone decided to just plant their feet and trade blows they’d be in huge trouble.
The common theme here is their surroundings are dynamic. The location forces them to consider movement. While this isn’t appropriate for every fight, wherever possible the players should be aware of their immediate area. There’s countless ways to accomplish this. Perhaps a spilled barrel of lamp oil is set alight and the combatants have to get out of the way or risk being burned. It could be that an old stone bridge begins to crumble under foot due to the added stress of a dozen or so belligerents. Or maybe both sides find themselves on the gears of a massive machine and if they don’t move they’ll be ground to dust.
It really boils down to incentives. If there’s no benefit to bob and weave through combat, nobody will. Avoiding damage (or even death) can be a very potent motivator. After a kinetic, chaotic melee, the players will feel a greater sense of investment and achievement. It’s also far more likely that they’ll remember these encounters for much, much longer.