I recently came across a post on Reddit and it really got me thinking about how to make combat and encounters more interesting. To me, there is nothing more boring than combat: Roll dice, subtract, roll more dice. Over and over. Here’s some ideas that I will be using from now on to make it way more interesting.
Don’t make enemies big bags of hp, manage the hp of enemies so that fights don’t drag on for ages, or end too quickly– you’ll probably have to fudge some numbers here.
The enemies aren’t just numbers. They have personalities. The big bandit will jeer and rile up the players while his sly friend sneaks to the side for a flank. The reasonable merc will try to convince the group to stop harassing his employer so he doesn’t have to kill them. The mad noble will try to recruit the players to his cause for exorbitant sums of gold even as his men try to defend him against the group.
I like having an NPC who isn’t directly involved in the fight on the sidelines. A fight in a tavern breaks out? Describe the bystanders betting on whether the PCs will win. Maybe the evil dragon has a simpering kobold minion who’s cheering him on.
Environment. A fight against a group of goblins plays very differently on a featureless grid then it does in the pouring rain in a forest clearing with archers placed up in the trees, the mainline retreating towards the goblin lair as ambush groups hit the PCs from behind.
Where killing the enemy isn’t the objective. What if the bugbears are holding a child dead to rights, and threaten to finish him if the PCs come any closer? Or where they’re fighting a good friend who’s under a compulsion to fight to the death? Or if the wildlife is after the party’s food, not the party members themselves?
Staging. If the PCs approach the fight from above (a balcony looking down, for example), they feel empowered. If you want them to feel powerless, have the enemies looking down on them. Lots of other subtle ways to do that.
Mix it in with skill checks. An example of one fight I had: the PCs were fighting a gang leader in the sewers when the wall collapsed, filling the room with water. The rogue was trying to lockpick a trap door to get the party out before they drowned as the rest of the group struggled to hold off the kingpin and his minions.
Some people are better at D&D than others. If the party find your fights too easy, use harder monsters. It’s that simple.
Combat should make sense within the narrative. Why is combat happening? Does it make sense for that monster to be here and in that way? Why are they aggressive? And so on.
Combat is narrative. Your combat should further the narrative you’re trying to create, enhance the experience of the game you’ve designed, rather than be a roadblock or mini game where the party whacks XP pinatas.
Make something change every round. Round 1, combat starts. Round 2, enemy reinforcements arrive. Round 3, a special ability is used that significantly alters the battlefield. Round 4, more reinforcements, etc. This keeps your players on their toes and constantly requires them to reevaluate the scenario each turn.
Include additional goals on the battlefield. What if special spots on the field provide massive buffs to spell casters? You’ve got yourself king of the hill(s). What if the party has to fight a hoard of monsters off while another party member interacts with an object in the environment for X rounds without interruption? What if the party has to protect an NPC? Kill a specific NPC? Hold out for so many rounds?
Not every fight should be a fight to the death–sometimes people need to surrender rather than die outright. And sometimes, those people can be the party.
Izzynighmare suggests using environmental effects.
To me, making the combat encounters more entertaining is to present some outside force that the PC’s don’t have time to deal with. Make it so the rain begins to fall, it’s overly hot and if they are in their armor then they begin to get exhausted from dodging blows or maybe they get ambushed in a hot or very humid environment without their armor on. This could make the combat more interesting because they don’t have their armor and they will have to use skills and finesse to get through the fight. Make sure to include environmental forces in each day, if it’s windy and a combat starts, maybe through in some air spirits that will cause mischief while they fight. Or a tornado spawns in. Combat isn’t always easy and mother nature doesn’t care if you’re fighting. She does as she will. Maybe while they are dungeon crawling the ground becomes more slick because it’s pouring rain above them and the water is moving through the tunnels in the dungeon.
Make the environment a challenge on its own! Set your fights on a swaying suspension bridge over a chasm, or on the slopes of an erupting vulcanoe so they have to dodge the flows of magma. Or maybe in the mountains, where loud enough sounds trigger an avalanche?
Think of ways that the environment can become a challenge. This creates suspense and action that the players must take into account besides combat and which can turn a ‘normal’ encounter with goblins into an encounter with goblins on ski’s, gliding out in front of an avalanche as it rumbles towards you. Or as I recently tried, animated sword+swaying ropebridge.
Another way to add challenge and fun is adding verticality. Who says your agile elven rangers cant leap from tree to tree? Adding a third dimension enables an extra layer of tactical thinking. Harpies remaining in flight instead of offering their behinds conveniently. Or Merrow dragging PC’s underwater, making use of the depth of the ocean and their swim speed instead of floating belly up before they are even hit.
revkaboose talks about unintended consequences
This is perhaps the hardest one to get the hang of. You’ve been quiet and stealthy up to this point, no one’s noticed you, you’ve avoided combat encounters so far, and now you are fighting.
It sounds like a wrestling match between pots and pans. Someone will hear. And that someone is going to tell one of their friends, who will tell one of their friends, who will tell one of their friends.
Alternatively, an enemy flees from the current fight when things are just starting to not look good for the enemy. There was 8 of them, you just killed one, now one of the remaining 7 is going to run away into the dungeon – and what you don’t say is he is warning his friends.
Now, all of this can result in one of three scenarios.
1 – Enemies come at the party in waves, taking 2 – 5 turns to arrive, make sure to continue acting as combat is still going on otherwise the passage of time is a bit wonky when it comes to movement and what the party can do. “Oh there’s more on the way? Well we heal up and set up traps before they get here”
2 – The enemies group up together and all at once assault the party. This will likely result in a TPK unless you have an overpowered party or they run.
3 – The enemies regroup and quickly plan a large ambush, like a pincer attack.