Recently at Sly Flourish-blog it was suggested, that your regular D&D-nights were run as D&D-encounters, and that if you were pressed for time, you might want to deal with roleplaying and other things via mail, so that you’d only have to focus on the single encounter that evening.
That kind of playing always makes me wonder about the different approaches to roleplaying. For me Sly Flourishes approach is moving the D&D-game further and further away from roleplaying. If you handle roleplaying by mail, and then fight a huge encounter when you meet, then why play D&D at all? Why not just pick up a boardgame? Plenty of games have room for some in-character-acting and cooperative playing, e.g. Shadows over Camelot, Battlestar Galactica, Pandemic, Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Doom, Descent. I don’t consider D&D that good a ‘boardgame’, that I would play it, if there were no roleplaying left. This naturally comes down to a matter of taste.
Adding bits of roleplaying to combat
For me the approach is to add more roleplaying into the combats. Add descriptions and actions that adds to the roleplaying. More narrative, more drama and less pure diceplay for my D&D-encounters.
One approach was to add Daily Power-Rerolls. In order to acquire them, you had to end up in a situation outside combat, where you could roll (and fail) a skill check. One could add more tricks like these to emphasize the importance of doing other things than fighting and even have these actions adding to the fighting.
Making it more cool
A different approach is to have mechanics that add flavor to combat-scenes. With this I won’t just advocate the praxis of adding vivid descriptions to each die roll or ask the players to do that. I want to make it a tactical choice tied up with the identity of your character. One approach was the ‘Even cooler’-rule. With this rule you get additional bonuses, if you let your fellow players describe your actions.
Flashbacks in combat
A third approach is both known from Asian movies and anime and from indie-games: Adding flashbacks to combat-scenes. Combat is interrupted to play out a flashback-scene. This scene either moves the plot forward or expands the characters’ background story, otherwise you don’t play it, and you must have mechanical reasons for playing the scene, some sort of bonus must be gained. One such approach deals with “knowing thy enemy”. After or while playing out the flashback-scene during combat, you gain insight into a weakness of the monster, either the DM reveals a particular weakness of the monster (radiant attacks deals extra dmg against skeletons) or a particular defense (Skeletons take less damage from piercing attacks) or you gain a bonus to an attack against the monster (you gain a +4 attack modifier to an attack during this combat). This can also solve the problem as to whether or not fire can be applied to trolls in combat.
Basically the concept is adding additional tactical choices to combat, that requires a scene, a description or some other non-combat roleplaying-based action. There is no penalty in not using these options and you do not receive penalty for using them or attempting to use them.