People often talk about the three pillars of Dungeons & Dragons and how crucial they are when making a well rounded campaign. Of the three pillars, exploration, role-playing and combat, I usually tend to focus on the role-playing pillar the most while paying less attention to the others. I’ve always felt that exploration was the toughest one for me, but as I run more Dungeons & Dragons games with different groups, I find that combat ends up feeling the weakest and least interesting.
Combat always seemed like a layup to me, wherein I could just launch enough monsters at the players and call it a day. It wasn’t until I had to deal with a real slog of a combat encounter where everyone was rolling terribly, that I realized just how bad at these encounters I actually was. Simply pitting stronger enemies against a party doesn’t make for an inherently fun encounter, so I wanted to outline some things that I’ve started to fold into my combat scenarios to make them more interesting.
One of my biggest issues with a lot of Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules, particularly the lower level ones, is that they don’t provide much in the way of variety for the players. Take the 5e book of one-shots, Tales from the Yawning Portal (TYP) for example. In TYP there’s a level 1-3 scenario called The Sunless Citadel, in which a group of adventurers has to go to this mysterious citadel that exists at the bottom of a ravine. While I’ve enjoyed running my players through this scenario, I’ve found that the majority of the fights they’ve gotten into basically turn into slug-fests where it’s just about standing your ground and hoping you hit more than your enemy does.
Most of the battles in The Sunless Citadel go this way, where there isn’t enough space or location variety to do any of the crazy stuff that makes Dungeons & Dragons so special. No one is going to swing from a chandelier or knock a dude into a pit if that stuff just isn’t there, and that’s the problem. These locations tend to lack a lot of variety often just being some dusty old dungeon where something was worshiped in a time long forgotten.
My solution to this is to invite people to flex their creative muscles by allowing them to basically manifest room features (within reason) if they succeed on a good enough investigation or other appropriate check. It can be something as simple as letting them scoop up dust to throw in an enemy’s eyes to blind them, or finding an empty bottle to hurl at a threat. I’m not gonna let them just find a rocket launcher or anything like that, but I think it’s important to allow players to get wacky and shake up the mundanity of just rolling dice to hit armor classes.
Most of the wildest stories you here when people describe their experiences with Dungeons & Dragons tend to come out of some wacky combat scenario, but planning for wackiness is an impossibility. Sure you can put some fun stuff in every room to entice the players, but they might not always take the bait. Instead, I tend to entertain just about every wild thing they want to search for in the midst of combat, and will make a decision then and there.
Level design is incredibly important when making a combat scenario, and I often find that limiting the playing field both in width or height makes for a boring encounter. It’s easy to craft a battle in a single story room, but that doesn’t really afford the players or enemies any opportunities to do much besides just run at or away from each other. Things like pillars and furniture can help for sure, but I find that the best encounters are the ones where the enemies aren’t always in your line of sight.
I prefer battles that span larger areas as opposed to confined spaces, but that’s a broad sentiment that needs to be explained. You can make a combat encounter be on the first floor of a house and call it a day, but it would be far more engaging if the entire house and both front and backyard were in play as well. Sure a battle could just naturally spill out into those areas, but that might not happen which could lead to a bland encounter.
What really makes these encounters slow down to a crawl is when the party starts out all bunched together and there’s no incentive for any of them to move. That’s why you need a diverse location with plenty for the players to explore beforehand that could have them start the encounter off a little scattered. It isn’t a way for me as a DM to punish the party for splitting up, instead it’s a way to make combat encounters more than just a war of attrition. Are the wizard and rogue looking through an office on the second floor while the fighter and cleric explore the lower floors? Great, now the players have to really take into account their strengths and weaknesses and open their decisions up beyond just “what attack do I use?”
If they’re determined to group up again, make that an exciting event that might involve them using a full dash or disengage action. The act of self-preservation shouldn’t feel laborious, it should feel like a triumph. As a DM, you have be able to paint these less flashy actions as a victory for whoever needs to utilize them. Players have so many non-combat oriented abilities they can utilize, but no one will ever do any of them if it’s just about making sure the tank can take all the hits while casters do their work from a distance. My method is to make sure that every player has the opportunity to shine in a given combat encounter, while also putting them in positions where their characters might not be primed to be in. Just don’t be malicious about it.
Make sure everyone has the chance to bail out and regroup if they need to, but give them a chance to be the focal point at all times in combat. Sure all the characters combined are a party that needs to work together, but being a party shouldn’t steal their individualism as characters. The line is quite thin, but making sure that a character both feels capable and under powered on their own is difficult, but I find that when it’s done right it makes for some very memorable moments.
LESS FREQUENT & MORE INTERESTING COMBAT SCENARIOS
This final point also builds on the previous one, but it’s important enough to be its own thing. There is nothing less interesting than opening a door to a small room, rolling initiative, beating the bad guys, then opening another door a few minutes later to do it all over again. It’s tedious and makes battle feel more like a chore than an opportunity for fun. I think combat scenarios should be bigger than just combat in general, which is confusing at first, but let me explain.
So you’ve got your big open mine where a bunch of goblins hang out. There are various natural ramps along the walls allowing for miners to reach new areas, there’s a mine cart track and a large molten lava pit in the center that’s used for smelting. We’ve got ourselves a big open combat scenario right there, but the party is bunched up together as they entered the room and don’t really have a reason to split up. That’s why you need to give them a reason.
Adding multiple objectives to combat scenarios beyond just killing everything is key. Have the players take a look around and find that there are half a dozen detonator plungers with wires leading off of them in various directions. If you visually track those wires, you can see a few of them are attached to explosive charges that are crammed into cracks in the walls. Also, this mine is right below a village of unsuspecting innocent people! Oh no! Now the party has to survive and accomplish a goal to truly be victorious.
But you need to have a contingency plan for when your players just try mage hand the wires off the explosives or something. Maybe some goblins with fire arrows will show up to detonate the charges themselves, or some fire elemental gets summoned to do it. Maybe the goblins are protected by a massive troll who is going to run interference for the party, thus emboldening the slinkier and more nimble characters to go and deal with the charges while the tankier classes try to push the troll into the lava.
That combat encounter alone is way more interesting than just a flat room with 7 goblins running up to you with swords. I firmly believe that adding in objectives, having waves of enemies show up at different times, and having a big space with a lot of different tiny stories going on in them is key. Some goblins are on planting charges duty, some are running defense, that troll is protecting both of those parties. Having all of that going on at once will make for a longer and more memorable combat scenario than the firing squad of goblin archers standing opposite the party.
I’m not the ultimate authority on this stuff, but I’ve had plenty of experience in making boring combat encounters. Adding in some of these elements alone made for a more engaged party in my experience. It’s a shame that Dungeons & Dragons often paints combat encounters into these random occurrences like something out of a Final Fantasy game where you open a door and enemies pop out.
The beauty of Dungeons & Dragons is that it empowers your players to use their imagination to conquer any challenge in their way. Too often I find that new players will use the rules and their abilities as static things, like it’s all they can do. The rules are there to guide you and give you a way to navigate the crazy shit you want to do and not the other way around. Regardless of if you take my advice in this article or not, make sure you’re emboldening your players to be creative whether they’re in combat or not.