The fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons goes a long way toward making the game more accessible, character driven, and adaptable. However, one of the things that can easily slow down fun at the table is a long, grindy fight. Having run (and endured) plenty of these, here are some ideas about how you can make sure combat in your duet or group game remains as exciting as it should.
1. Create Compelling Combats
If you are trying to create a fantasy world, even though this is all make-believe, there must be a feeling of order or verisimilitude to the events. This is something that several of the published campaigns and many online encounter tables ignore. Just like you wouldn’t have your BBEG suddenly pop out and strike down your level 1 party, your party should be able to understand why there’s a goblin ambush or a pack of aggressive wolves attacking them. There needs to be a reason for combat to be happening.
Stay Grounded in the Story
Even more than running combat for combat’s sake, having sudden fights break out with no provocation or reasoning behind them ejects your players out of the carefully constructed world and reminds them that they are playing a game. It’s like really bad pop-in, when your processor is lagging in a video game and a random creature appears from out of nowhere. It’s not something anyone likes to see happen in video games, and it’s best avoided at the table too. If a fight is happening, it should make narrative sense and serve a purpose in the larger story.
Adapt as Necessary
If, for whatever reason, the combat you prepped or are excited for is not contributing to the narrative, save it or tweak it till it is. The player doesn’t know that by deciding to teleport to the next spot, they skipped a whole big thing. Transform that roaming band of mountain giants that you spent so much time on into a roaming band of hill giants for the next session. The players will never know that Greg the Terror of the Foothills used to be Greg the Terror of the Mountains.
2. Colorful Combat Descriptions
Combat feels like it turns into a slog the moment that people at the table are not imaginatively together in an epic fantasy battle and instead are just players rolling dice and searching through spreadsheets. The mental movie that combat creates in 5e makes the experience worthwhile. As the DM, you have several responsibilities, but one of the most important roles is the director and writer of that mental movie.
Vivid Detail is Your Friend
You can help aid your players in co-creating the exciting stakes of their combats with detailed descriptions of the die results. Don’t skip over this opportunity, and don’t only save it for critical misses and hits! Each roll of the die should move the story forward.
Instead of informing a player that they didn’t manage to hit the demon knight’s AC, describe the way their arrow snapped when it collided with his heavy armor; this makes the enemy feel scarier and helps the player feel more excited about trying again on their next turn, even changing strategies if they need to.
Addressing In-Game Pacing
I think sometimes people stop describing the effects of combat actions in order to try speeding up the combat. At that point, the DM should ask themselves if that combat is still serving a narrative purpose. If it is something that can be sped through, why are we still rolling dice? If the outcome is a forgone conclusion and not creating any tension, why can’t we ‘handwave’ the last bits?
Describing the effects of combat actions can actually speed up combats instead of slowing them down. Our brains crave narrative. It’s how we make sense of the world, imagined or real.
I might forget that an enemy is suffering from the Blinded condition, but if my DM tells me that as I watch, inky blackness swirls from his pupils to evenly coat his entire eye, leaving him with the black, dead eyes of a shark… I’m less likely to forget that he is Blinded. Players that remember what is going on in the combat don’t have to be reminded as much, have fewer questions, and can take turns faster.
Keep the Stakes High
It’s a good idea for DMs to build in weight for combats as well. Describe enemy combatants and players alike as exhausted, wincing from pain, gathering their resolve. We are just people telling a story together sitting around the table, but for our characters and the people or things they are fighting, this is a life and death struggle. Combats that feel weighty and dangerous almost necessarily add narrative value.
Invite the players to narrate
Invite your players to participate in the crafting of that narrative as well. From what I have observed, most often the players roll the dice, announce a score, are informed whether or not that was successful, and then wait in anticipation for the DM to do something else. It’s ok to let them know that they can narrate parts of what is going on.
Matt Mercer’s “How do you want to do this?” is a famous example that signals to the player that they managed to get the final blow and invites the player to describe what their character would do. The idea does not have to be relegated to the very close of combat. Of course, every table is different and everyone’s preferences and level of comfort must be considered. But sharing the responsibility of describing combat can be a really cool way to collaborate in the game and keep everyone engaged.
3. Make Room for Roleplay
Adding to the first two points, consider how your combatants and players would react to the things happening around them. In real life, people do crazy or difficult to understand things all the time, driven by motivations that even they may not be completely aware of.
Work through how the character would behave in the dire situation of life and death combat. Would they immediately go surging forward bravely into the thick of things? Would they hang back? Would they heal a close friend before healing someone they have been quarreling with, even if it would be better for the party to go the other direction? These are all things for DMs to consider while running bad guys but also important for players to think about.
This affects players too!
Players, how would your character react to seeing their best friend get smashed in the head with a hammer, or enveloped in the flames of a fireball? If you treat it as just scratching numbers off of a Max HP stat, then combat events turn into a missed opportunity to develop your character.
How would your proud duelist react to missing all three of their attacks? They’re going to be even more irritated than you are! Considering such questions during combat and playing them out in roleplay at the table adds greater narrative value to the experience.
What about you?
How do you tend to run combat at your tables? Have you ever been in a situation where you felt like you were just working at a big sack of hit points to no end? Have you run or been in games that were a total grind? How did you deal? Let us know in the comments below.
For further reading, or if your in-game combats ever lead to out-of-game conflicts (though we’re sure this only happens to us!), check out Avoiding Combat-Induced Conflict.
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