This is the second in our series of posts were we dig into the three pillars of play that underpin excellent games of Dungeons and Dragons. The series aims to offer Dungeon Masters some ideas about how to make a particular pillar shine. Last time we offered some ideas about how to have awesome social interaction, but this time we are going to let our weapons do the talking.
Here are 5 tips for DMs to make combat in Dungeons and Dragons exciting!
One of the problems I have found in using random encounter tables for combat is that they can lead to fights that feel like arbitrary speed bumps in an otherwise fun story. The adventuring day calls for 4-6 medium difficulty encounters in a given day, but that number could go up if some of those encounters were those that your party could steamroll through.
From a gameplay perspective, these easier encounters serve a definite purpose. You are taxing the resources of your party and forcing them to o make interesting choices! Do I burn this 3rd level spell to almost certainly end this encounter quickly by throwing a fireball, or do I save it for what I anticipate will be something more dire later?
Draining resources is an important function of easy combat encounters, but combat in 5e can take a long time, even if the party is almost certainly going to win. Those resource expenditures build over time to naturally create drama later on, but I challenge you as a DM to find a way to insert that drama even into more mundane combat encounters!
For instance, perhaps your party could stomp this group of bandits, but can they stomp them before one manages to run off and alert all the others? Or, your party is ready to steamroll this collection of cultists, but what will they do when the cultist’s blood starts funneling into an infernal rune and triggering a summoning? What happens when the squishy band of goblins has the quest-critical gnome NPC in their midst? All of these situations call for the party to choices beyond (or at least in addition to) what is the most efficient way to reduce these creatures to zero hit points?
One of the greatest powers that DMs posses is over time. You get to decide the order of events suggested and attempted at the table. In addition to control over how time flows in your narrative, you also have a ton of latitude in how it flows outside of the table. As we indicated above, combat in 5e can drag on if you aren’t careful!
DMs, do not feel that your party must reduce every rat in the basement to zero hp! Each combat seeks to answer a question. Once that question has been answered, that combat has served its purpose and you can move along. Oftentimes with combat, the question is “can the party survive?” In well-balanced hard or deadly encounters, that question might be… in question right up until the end, but oftentimes it is not necessary to play out the final moments of every creature involved in the encounter.
Perhaps, once the real threat is over, you could narrate the party mopping up the final few, or even more interestingly ask them if they deliver coup-de-graces or if they would like to leave a survivor to question. Now you are blending both combat and social interaction!
Also, try not to forget to play your monsters and creatures as things that have motivations and inherently want to live. Simple bandits in a botched mugging are going to flee when their intended victim turns them into a puddle of quivering goo or a chattering skeleton. Play your creatures like they want to live!
Especially when you have know the joy of playing in a one-on-one game, then you have the space to make your combat cinematic with descriptions of player actions and their consequences. Combat without energetic narration is essentially math and note-taking.
What would your combat look like if Peter Jackson directed it? How can you emphasize how amazing your player is? How could you evoke the senses to enhance the experience?
Keep in mind blocking (the physical location of not only creatures, but also items) when you are describing the combat. Look for opportunities to highlight unique situations by bringing in details. For example, if you mention that the ogre is wearing a beanie, when he misses, remember that small detail and you can narrate the beanie slipping down over his eyes and causing him to miss.
Don’t neglect the environment as well! How does the environmental context open up interesting opportunities to narrate epic-ness? If your combat is taking place in the cold, perhaps your hero’s blade is soon “smoking with bloody execution” (thank you Shakespeare) From the condensation of the hot blood? Or if the combat encounter is happening in the jungle, perhaps the humidity results in stinging sweat dripping into your hero’s eyes causing them to just miss an attack?
Weaving all these opportunities (unique details, environmental circumstances) together with narrative description can make for truly memorable combats in Dungeons and Dragons!
Fudge the Rolls!
As the DM, you have to constantly be asking yourself the question: what will result in the most amount of fun? Different tables and groups will offer different answers to that question.
One of the best parts of running a duet game is that determining the answer to that question gets a lot less complicated and offers far fewer chances for conflict when you have one player and one DM.
For some groups or duets, this will mean strictly following the whims of the dice. For these tables, the DM rolling out in the open adds transparency and accountability.
I would guess that for most tables, the most fun choice is not always strictly up to the dice. That’s why DM screens exist! Rolling in private gives you a second to ask that critical question, is this the most fun? I am not advocating here for not challenging your players or putting them in difficult positions. You should! But if, at the end of a long combat that needs wrapping up, the player tries an epic spell and the dice say your bad guy succeeds on his save… if the most fun thing is to bring the combat to a close, then maybe he doesn’t save.
Another example could be with an NPC healing a player character. Maybe that NPC rolls 1s on his d4s which leaves the PC functionally just as bad off as before. Instead, of your healing NPC being suddenly bad at healing, maybe you ignore those 1s and turn them into 3s or 4s?
And the Rules!
I hope you’re not on a diet right now, because I seem to be serving a crazy amount of fudge in this post. The principal of this idea is essentially the same as above. In combat, your only allegiance is to fun. Just because a creature’s stat block indicates that it can do something, doesn’t mean it should if that is less fun. Again, I’m not suggesting that you should avoid challenging your players and putting them in difficult spots. I am saying that different tables and even across different sessions, the tolerance for the fun found in a challenge varies and it is your responsibility as the DM to be sensitive and reactive to that reality.
I don’t know if this idea a lot of DMs love the convenience of using the averages in monster stat blocks.
For instance, in a recent stream Beth had a Bearded Devil summon another Bearded Devil out of desperation. This was scary and doubled the number of things that could kill us, but she was correct in deducing that extending that combat and making it more deadly would result in more fun. Had it been a slog, she would not have allowed that devil to remember he could summon help.
Temper this with a caveat to use this DM power responsibly.
Overdoing it on the fudge, especially if you are playing with more experienced players, can back fire and mess up the ever-important fun factor.
A lot of people write about this particular pillar of play. Good advice about different or better ways to approach combat can be found all over the place. The tips offered here represent lessons learned in my own journey towards running combat that felt good and kept the fun first and foremost at my table. I think ultimately, the best advice is to reflect on instances when your combat is memorable and adjust accordingly!
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