Since the early days of role playing games, fighting has been a central theme or the specific purpose of play. This is no surprise for a hobby that grew out of wargaming — the simulation of warfare through the use of maps, dice, and complicated rules regarding the various elements of combat. Look at any game book pre-1990 (and even a few today), and you will often see combat takes up more pages in the rules than the basic mechanics of play: modifiers for range, for being prone, for fatigue or injury, for ammo or blade types, explosives and other area weapons, environmental condition, and on and on… Even in games that are oriented more toward social activities, you eventually get into verbal jousting. Some games go so far as to have mental “damage” you can take from a harsh word or brilliant insult.
In a game, in the end, it’s usually easier to search a room, drive a car, negotiate a price, or hack a computer system, than it is to pull a knife on a guy. Complexity ramps up the instant the fight starts, from the use of initiative (you don’t tend to have to throw dice to decide if you got the last box of Klondike Bars in the supermarket…but that kinda sounds fun, now that I think about it.) Some games look to limit this disparity in complexity. In Fate, you can have a simple challenge between players or players and GM — one roll to beat the two mooks guarding the door. You win the roll, they’re down and you’re in; you lose, take a complication or get “taken out” in some way. some are even more abstract.
The keys to a successful fight scene can be summed up by looking at the difference between two (recent) movies — Quantum of Solace and John Wick. Both have great action sequences…or should. QoS follows the Greengrass “Jason Bourne” style of close shots, quick cuts, and shaky camera action to heighten the sense of danger and confusion of a fight. It is a great way for a guy who doesn’t know how to shoot fight scenes to get a fast-paced, seemingly vicious scene on the screen. The choreography could be excellent, but you wouldn’t know it; your experience of the fight is truncated to claustrophobic space and frenetic movement — not unlike a real fight, where you are tripping over things, missing when you throw punches, bouncing off of people and things.
This method of description in an RPG is best handled by not using more than the most basic of maps, if that Descriptions of the space the fight occurs in should be short, pointed, and designed to either increase peril (that floor-to-ceiling window with the ten story drop outside, for instance), or for use by the character (“you land on the coffee table next to the heavy-looking brass lamp…”) The environment and the actions come into the character/player’s perception as needed to keep the action flowing. It is particularly good for certain kinds of large-scale combat, as well, where the character doesn’t have a complete view of the field, lacks a complete understanding of the objectives, and is being pummeled with the sensory input of war — explosions, smoke, dirt, blood, screams, panic — to the point where they focus too tightly on certain things. (The excellent initial scene of Saving Private Ryan does this very well.)
A game system that does this well is Fate: where fights happen in “zones.” Zones aren’t necessarily consistent in their scale, but are instead defined by a few bits of scenery (aspects) to give the environment character. Here, the players can use the aspect in ways that give the fight the quality we discussed above. Say your intrepid police are staging a raid. Two PCs are involved, and enter a large warehouse from different directions with their teams. Player A goes through a side door into Zone 1: “Cavernous warehouse” while Player B goes through the front door into Zone 2: “Small, cramped reception area”. While A might engage in a firefight with badguys on the ubiquitous “second story catwalks” and “sparsely located crates”, B must get past the tight doors and furnishings of the reception room to Zone 3: “tight corridor with small offices on either side” in which bad guys lie in wait. the ranges are tight and personal, and the details might be lost in the action.
The other end of the spectrum is the surprisingly good John Wick, which was made by stuntmen and film makers tired of the Greengrassian shaky camera fight scenes. All the fight scenes are beautifully choreographed, but still look fairly realistic. They are shot medium frame, so you can see what the hell is going on, and only dive to close shots to show injury or characters grappling. The environments are there to be used for the fight: the rack of something you can knock over to stall your opponent getting to you, or to distract/injure; the pool that you can fall into for the grappling underwater schtick; the stairs — so nice to toss (or get tossed) down your enemy; columns or crates to hide behind. The fights show the character thinking his way through the fight — prioritizing the closer or faster moving enemies for a quick, non-fatal gunshot, to slow them while he takes out the guy at the end of the hall, then returns to the closer baddie. Similarly, the famed hallway fight in Daredevil (the Netflix one, not the…shudder…) does something similar.
In doing combat this way, you’ll want to either give an excellent description of the fight space, or have a solid map for the characters to use, so that they can strategize their actions. This is the traditional Dungeons & Dragons approach: battlemap, minis, well-estabilshed scale. This would work particularly well for the above example of “Zone 1” — the massive interior of the two-story warehouse lets the character find a place to pause and assess before they leap in. A better map, showing the I-beam supports, the locations of crates or vehicles parked inside, the catwalks overhead, the stairs up, the location of the tilting windows on the upper floor, etc. could be filled in to allow this player to have a more clear picture of what is going on than Player B in the dark, tight corridor with people spilling out of the offices on either side.
The key to describing combat in your game is to decide what the emotional and stylistic beats you want or need.