How-to Improve D&D Combat: Part 1
When you start out as a Dungeon Master (DM), there’s a lot to learn. It’s your responsibility to not only run a smooth campaign and know all the rules and procedures, you’re tasked with keeping the players in the game engaged.
You’ve been at it a while and feel comfortable in your role. However, maybe you’ve found that combat isn’t as exciting as it once was. The same scenario of “roll D20, hit, damage” seems to play out over and over again. After a while, players start to find combat monotonous as it boils down to not much more than seeing which side can get their opponent to zero hit points (HP) the fastest.
This routine begs the question, how can you make combat more interesting? Let’s take a closer look.
Experiment with Different Terrain
Have you ever stopped to think about the terrain on which combat takes place? Sure, it might happen in the forest but, what does the topography offer in the way of potential strategic advantage for one side or another. Of course, trees and shrubbery offer some cover. What normally ends up happening is both parties standing face-to-face and going at it until one or the other dies.
If you want to add some dynamism to combat during your campaigns, think about how you can use the D&D terrain or castles to make things more exciting.
How would something like a deep, dark cavernous hole change strategy? What about a cliff with a raging river in the canyon below? Even more, how about a structure or rockface that could be climbed to escape?
When you introduce even some basic variables to the terrain where combat takes place, you open the doors for lots of different ways for combat to play out.
Introduce Different Creatures
Anyone that’s played D&D for any length of time has fought an Owlbear. While combat’s always exciting to an extent, fighting a creature like an Owlbear that’s limited in what it can do, gets old after a while.
Why not introduce some other creatures that bring a little more to the table?
Spellcasters have the ability to completely alter the manner in which combat plays out. In particular, spellcasters can turn some of the strategic advantages that one side has against them. What are they going to do now?
Some spells, when used at the right time, can force the opposition to make some difficult choices about how to proceed during combat. To takes things a step further, casting counterspells can really make combat a thinking man’s endeavor.
Ghosts bring about an interesting dynamic anytime during a campaign. This is especially true during combat.
They have the ability of possession. This means that ghosts have the ability to control the actions of another character. That means a ghost can use a character’s strengths against them. Talk about an advantage during combat!
If a player is having a particularly easy time dealing with an adversary, try throwing a ghost their direction. While they may not like it, it will bring added layers of strategy to the game and make it fun for everyone involved.
What About Enemies that Can Move Faster than Everyone Else?
Let’s face it. Most of the enemies players face during combat don’t move all that fast. As a result, combat has a tendency to look the same in the form of face-to-face fighting.
Why not throw a wrinkle in every once in a while? How about introducing an enemy with lightning-fast speed? If the enemy can quickly chuck and jive away from potential harm, players have to get creative. They have to think of different ways of quelling the opposition other than the standard swing-until-you-hit strategies that are normally employed.
When players come into combat, they usually do so with the assumption that they know all the details of the area where the confrontation takes place. Accordingly, they can position themselves strategically.
To spice things up a bit, make it clear to the players in the game that there are some unknowns about the battle. Maybe there are hidden traps. Perhaps the enemy has additional battlements that can come up unexpectedly at a moment’s notice.
You can get as creative as you want when it comes to introducing unknowns into combat. The important part is to do it on occasion to keep things interesting.
The goal for most combat encounters is pretty simple. Outlast the enemy and kill them. It doesn’t always have to be this way. Maybe combat involves protecting an enclave of the sick and elderly. Certainly, the tactics change from offensively attacking the enemy and killing it at all costs, to a more defensive strategy that protects the weak who can be taken out with a single hit.
Another example might be capturing the enemy without killing it because it possesses important information. This means players have to be especially smart about their aggression toward the enemy. In this instance, there’s a fine line between protecting themselves, and taking the enemy alive. Here again, you have creative freedom to make combat as unique as you want.
As a DM, you want everyone in your campaign to have fun and stay engaged. One of the areas where players lost interest most often is during combat.
It doesn’t have to be that way though. With a little creativity, it’s easy to make combat interesting and keep everyone on their toes.
The list above is by no means exhaustive. But if you’re struggling with finding ways to make D&D combat more dynamic, try some of the ideas above. When you do, rest assured your players will stay engaged and the story you’re telling will be all the more compelling.