Making Combat Engaging

Wizards of the Coast

Of the three pillars of D&D, combat is the one most defined in the rules, and, for most groups, it’s going to take up a significant part of each session. D&D is a complex game, though, and, handled badly, combat has the chance to become repetitive, frustrating, or tedious. How, then, can we make combat as exciting and evocative as it should be?

1. Not all combats are equally engaging

This may feel like a cop-out, but it’s worth stating at the outset. Some combats are more meaningful, more challenging, or more memorable than others. Sometimes, the purpose of a combat is simply to give the players a chance to feel badass: a quick distraction from the rest of the session. Not every battle is a tense, vivdly described setpiece, and that’s a good thing.

2. Mix it up

Once you accept that combat comes in many different forms, embrace the variety that comes with it. Things to consider:

  • Are there lots of enemies or just a few?
  • Are they big or small? Weak or powerful? Cunning or instinctive?
  • Is this an easy fight, a deadly fight, or something in between?
  • Is there a mix of enemies?
  • Do the enemies come in waves?
  • Is there any interesting terrain?
  • Does either side have the chance to surprise the other?
  • Can the players avoid the fight through stealth or diplomacy?
  • What do the enemy want?
  • What do the players want?
  • Is there a third party involved in the fight?

A common mistake in 5e is to throw too many difficult encounters at a group. Challening ‘life or death’ encounters might seem exciting, but ultimately this style of play pushes the party into having a five-minute adventuring day, with all the problems thay come with it. Justin Alexander makes a good case for roster-style scenarios in a series of essays, starting here.

Wizards of the Coast

3. Keep it moving

This is a big one for me, especially in a group of more than four players.

Let’s say you are playing with a group of five players and a DM. If each person spends two minutes taking their turn, you will have to wait ten minutes before you can do anything. That’s a long time of sitting around listening to other people do stuff. If each player’s turn takes 30 seconds, you’re only having to wait for two and a half minutes. Much better.

People usually take too long on their turns for one of two reasons. Either, a, they are not ready to take their turn, or, b, they are hogging the spotlight. More on this later.

If a player isn’t ready on their turn, this isn’t necessarily their fault. Perhaps something unexpected happened, and their planned course of action has been scuppered. Perhaps, frankly, they are disengaged because other players are taking too long. Perhaps you’re playing online, and they are having connection issues. Perhaps they are new to D&D. Perhaps, though, the player needs to know their character better. Have a conversation with them. Give them a hand. Make a crib sheet for what they can do on their turn. It can be particularly challenging for spellcasters or classes with lots of different options like monks and paladins. But, players, you should understand the core mechanics of your class. If the DM can manage a million different things at once, you should be able to play the same character every session without slowing down the game for everyone else.

Wizards of the Coast

4. Spotlight hogging

Like rules lawyering, this one varies by group. It may not be a huge problem for you. And like rules lawyering, it comes from a good place. If a player is waxing lyrical with florid descriptions of their character’s actions, they are probably fun and wanting to make the game fun for everyone else. But it can get a bit much.

When you deconstruct a player’s turn in D&D, they are – most of the time – making attacks and dealing damage. Do you need to describe every attack? Every hit? Every miss?

An argument can be made that describing every hit and miss is a result of misunderstanding hit points. It’s worth reiterating: hit points are an abstraction. To quote the Player’s Handbook, ‘Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck.’ If a frost giant takes 16 damage from a longsword, what does that mean? A big cut? A little cut? A shock? A visible reduction in his or her ‘will to live’? I often bristle a bit when players ask ‘how damaged does it look?’ and not just because it’s blatant metagaming. It just doesn’t really make sense.

A suggestion, then. Describe the first hit, the killing blow, and the blow that puts an enemy onto half hit points (‘bloodied’ in 4th edition parlance). These are the hits that matter. And DMs, if it seems bathetic for an ancient red dragon to be killed by a club or what you, just because it only had a few hit points remaining, well . . . keep it alive! And likewise, if the paladin gives it a walloping with divine smite, but it technically still has a few hit points remaining, well, fudge it, and let the paladin describe the killing blow. Rule of cool.

5. DM hacks

There are a few tricks you can use as a DM to keep combat moving, too. Some suggestions:

  • Use average damage for NPCs.
  • Use online dice rollers for big hits
  • Pre-roll attacks and damage while players are deciding their actions
  • Have enemies run away on 40 percent of their hp (a tip from Keith Ammann at The Monsters Know What They’re Doing)
  • Round damage and hit points up and down to the nearest multiple of five. Players won’t notice, and it keeps the maths manageable.
  • Eschew the grid for theatre of the mind.

This final point is not for everyone, and it depends on the type of game you want to play. Sly Flourish makes some excellent points as to why theatre of the mind has its place, and I largely agree. In general: if a combat is simple enough that a grid would slow it down, lose the grid. And, conversely, if it is complex enough to make theatre of the mind confusing, map it out.

One more DM trick: ambience! Whether it’s an exciting soundtrack ,or an awesome DM screen, or a set of really cool miniatures, art, music and props can really flesh out a combat and make it memorable. It’s always a great moment when the DM slaps down a massive mini on the table for the big boss fight. Don’t ignore these extra things.

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Marisha Ray on Twitter (@Marisha_Ray)

6. Evocative description

Engaging combat isn’t all about speedy pacing, of course. Evocative description is a key part of the DM’s toolkit.

I say the DM’s toolkit, but players are just as important here. After all, in most battles, the players’ turns will take up much more time than the DM’s. As explained above, you don’t need to explain every action. But when you want to go big, how do you do that?

Essentially, this is all about good descriptive writing. Some tips:

  • Focus on verbs, not adverbs. A sword can swing, slice, stab, slash, parry, whistle, impale, cut . . . These verbs are clear and vivid. Adverbs, by comparison, don’t have quite the same impact.
  • Match your description to the dice roll. A hit of ten damage does not need a paragraph.
  • Make a little thesaurus for your character! If you’re using a sword 99 percent of the time, you don’t want to run out of verbs in the first session.
  • Study action films for inspiration. Pause the action and have a go at describing what you see .
  • Don’t forget the other senses. Battle is noisy, emotional, even smelly. Capture that.

One last thought: DMs, don’t describe the players’ actions! They only have one character to roleplay: if you take that away from them, they might as well stay at home. Give them their chance to shine.

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Battlefield Environments

In a hot, dusty forge, an escaped pirate trades sword blows with the blacksmith’s apprentice. Alarmed by the fighting, a braying donkey starts the grindstone turning, and the two men have to duck in and out of the great rotating cogwheel festooned with swords and chains.

It’s late, and the bartender is alone for the night, when four thugs come to the tavern looking for an artefact. In the ensuing fight, a hot poker is knocked from the hearth and hits a curtain, which quickly catch fire. Before long the flames are working their way across the ceiling. A tables is flipped on its side for cover and glasses come smashing to the floor. The young bartender crawls behind the bar, grabs a burning log, and brings it down on someone’s head with a thwack.

An elf shoots arrow after arrow as more and more orcs threaten to overwhelm the battlements. It’s a narrow walkway, slick with rainwater, and soldiers go flying to their doom. Seeing his dwarf friend in trouble down below, he kicks a shield forward and uses it surf down the steps, peppering the crowd with arrows as he does so.

It’s easy to forget about the battlefield environment when playing a game of D&D. When we come up with adventures, we tend to focus on cool monster encounters and colourful NPCs: the setting is often a bit of an afterthought But as the examples above suggest – from Pirates of the Caribbean, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers respectively – no combat takes place in a vacuum, and even one or two terrain features can make a fight memorable and unique.

Battlefield environments are not just about combat. For roleplayers and storytellers, environments are a way of making combat more descriptive and immersive. For explorers, a battlefield environment enriches the game world, providing new scenes and situations to interact with. The environment of a battlefield can affect every type of character, from sword-and-board fighters to sneaky rogues to spell-slinging mages. This article is about ways to make environments interesting in your game.

Rethinking the battlefield

The environment of a battle is more than just window dressing. It needs to affect both the narrative and gameplay.

In game terms, terrain is probably going to do one of the following things:

  • Restrict movement (a wall, a locked door)
  • Provide new modes of movement (teleports, stairs)
  • Provide cover (a tree, a pillar)
  • Act as difficult terrain (snow, rubble)
  • Deal damage (pit traps, whirling blades)
  • Obscure vision (fog, darkness)
  • Impose a condition (sleep gas, the symbol spell)
  • Offer interaction (an object to throw, a lever to switch)

If it doesn’t meaningfully change gameplay, it is essentially window dressing. That’s still cool, of course, but if it doesn’t affect the game in some way, players are probably going to forget about it (as are you).

Steal, steal, steal. DMs are under pressure to be original, but don’t punish yourself for adapting ideas from elsewhere. That’s creative, too. Films and video games can be great for inspiration, and there are some really good lists online to get you thinking, too (eg, this post from Hipsters and Dragons). The Dungeon Master’s Guide in 3.5 had whole sections on dungeons, wilderness, weather, and environment, and you can read it online at the SRD. The random tables in the 5th edition DMG (Appendix A) are also really good for sparking your imagination.

Visual aids. If you use miniatures, why not invest in some terrain pieces like those from Mantic Games or WizKids. Just having them at the table might be enough to make you use them creatively. (If you are interested in tabletop terrain that works with miniatures, I will be reviewing the new WizKids WarLock tiles when my pre-order arrives over the next few weeks.)

Some other pointers:

Remember the fantastic. It’s right there in the introduction of the Player’s Handbook: ‘The Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game is about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery.’ Instead of a stone wall, have a wall of fire. Instead of a rope bridge, use a force field. Don’t worry about explaining why the magic is there every time. It’s magic, not physics.

Think about the five senses. This is a basic creative writing tip but it works for combat encounters, too. What can the characters hear? Is there an odour in the room? What’s the air like? What’s the temperature? These things matter, and sometimes they even have an in-game effect. A noisy forge makes it easier to sneak up on your opponents. A humid jungle can be a nightmare for characters in heavy armour.

Think in three dimensions. Dungeon maps tend to be more horizontal than vertical, probably because it’s easier to draw on a single sheet of paper, but some of my most memorable battles have been in three dimensions: a mine shaft, a tower, a series of platforms floating in the sky at different heights. Try it!

Even simpler

For an even simpler approach, Fate Core has a neat way of defining Obstacles.

  • Hazards: things that hurt;
  • Blocks: things that get in the way;
  • Distractions: things that force you to figure out your priorities.

This is not a bad starting point for thinking about terrain in your adventure. Focus on your current adventure and see if you can come up with some hazards, blocks, or distractions that could use in encounters. For example, if your characters are making their way through some rocky crags, you could have steep slopes, scree, undergrowth, chasms, and cliffs, all of which are ‘blocks’ but work in different ways. You could also make an encounter memorable with bad weather like snow, wind, or rain. Use the idea of Aspects (Fate’s ‘big thing’) and give your battlefield one or two noteworthy features that the players can engage with.

Final thoughts

Less is more. One or two terrain features is all you need. More than that and you are going to end up with a very complicated encounter, for you and the players. You probably have enough to remember as it is.

Beware the grind. If a character is less effective at hitting the enemy because of the battlefield environment, two things are likely to happen. One, the combat will drag out. Two, the player will get frustrated and feel a loss of agency. If you are adding terrain elements, try to include ways that players can avoid or mitigate their effects.

Not just for boss fights. If you know you tend to forget about battlefield terrain, think about the first encounter of the session (what Mike Shea calls the ‘strong start’). You can do more preparation for this encounter than any other, so it’s a good opportunity to try something new.

Check the difficulty. In most situations, the battlefield favours the defenders, (ie, the enemy). Otherwise, what are the enemy doing there? Advantageous terrain can turn a ‘medium’ encounter into a ‘hard’ one and a ‘hard’ encounter into a ‘deadly’ one. Be careful, especially at lower levels when characters have fewer options (and hit points).

Know the rules. Depending on the environment, you may need to refamiliarize yourself with the rules for concealment, difficult terrain, squeezing into a smaller space, cover (including how it works on a grid), and even underwater combat.

An empty room is OK sometimes. Adventurers need somewhere to rest. Perhaps they want to feel powerful cutting down hordes of enemies. Perhaps the encounter is complicated enough as it is and a fairly bare arena is sufficient. Make life easy for yourself and choose when you want the environment to have the most impact.