I've wondered, while patiently waiting an opportunity to DM, if this exact brand of combat storytelling wouldn't be aided by actually withholding mechanical information from the players.
In other words, don't tell the players anything more than they absolutely need to know to make tactical decisions, eg you lost 4 hp's, or you killed the orc, until the end of the round. They don't need to know, necessarily, what they got hit with or whether they even hit the enemy - only info that affects decisions. But imagine at the end of the round, when the DM can spin the whole round's events into an interrelated summary where Pagor's teammate interrupted an attack Pagor wasn't even aware of, and what Pagor seethingly thought was a spear thrust in his armor turned out to be a crossbow bolt.
This is an idea that gets kicked around a lot. I certainly don't think it's a bad one; truth to tell, I'd love to banish numbers entirely from the mechanics. Discussions of armor class, bonuses, and saving throws don't really add to the verisimilitude of the game. In a very real sense, the verisimilitude turns off as soon as combat begins.
This is, quite honestly, one of those areas where D&D fails me. I endure this, in large part, because combat is one of the least interesting parts of the games that I run. Combat in pre-third edition D&D
is simple and quick. It gets the job done, and then gets out of the way.
Numbers are quick and easy and unambiguous. So I continue to use them. Another virtue of D&D combat is that it gives you lots of chances to see the combat is going poorly before you get into real trouble. Without the death spiral of other games, you could fight on to the last hit point. If you're really stupid. The point, however, of lots of hit points is to give you time to pull out if you get in over your head.
This, of course, assumes a style of play in which combat is not the primary focus. That's perfect for my games, and for games where the focus is on investigation or exploration. The key, however, is to give the players accurate information of what is going on in the fight. This isn't terribly realistic; Tripper's idea of telling players after the fight that what they thought was spear wound actually came from a crossbow more accurately reflects my incredibly limited experience with melee, as well as descriptions we read and hear of real combat.
That said, I'm hesitant to go too far with it. In my experience, players make things more complicated already without any help from the DM. Misleading information in the middle of a combat sounds like a recipe for mass confusion. Again, that's often what combat really is. If I was running a game with stronger combat focus, I'd be really tempted to do something like this. Ditto if one of the primary themes of the game was perception and I was drawing on Philip K. Dick for inspiration.
Has anybody tried something like this? If so, I'd be very curious to hear how it turned out.