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Improving D&D Combat

So what's new? Your party tries to sweet-talk their way past the city guard when the barbarian of the group decides that punching them in the face is clearly a better idea. Guess that's gonna be another combat encounter then! Everybody roll initiative! When done poorly, though, combat in DnD can really drag! We've probably all been there: the party of 6 all wailing on one monster, who just stands there and takes it (heck, I know I've run sessions like this!). Players switching off between turns and checking their phones because it takes 15 mins for things to get back round to them - and all that's changed in the interim is that the monster now has 40HP less. Only another 200HP to go, guys! Before you know it, your 3 hour session has elapsed, and you're basically just exactly where you started. Same time next week, everyone?

Fortunately, there's a better way! Here are four tips you can use to turn your combats from a snooze-fest to an edge of your seat experience.

Give your players a stake in the battle

There's nothing more frustrating than being in a battle that you really don't care about. Where the monster just comes out of thin air, is in no way tied to the story, and offers no real peril to the party. If anything, this kind of combat just feels like time-wasting before you can get on with the actual storyline. This is easily fixed though - by giving your players an emotional stake in what's going on. Firstly, the antagonist should be in some way tied to at least one of your characters (if they've written half-decent backstories, this shouldn't be difficult, as you should have a variety of story threads on which to pull). The difference for your players between fighting a random bandit, and fighting the bandit that kidnapped your sister and almost killed you 6 sessions ago is immense (yet for you as a DM, it takes basically the same amount of prep).

As well as having ties to your characters, having a combat session in some way advance the plot is another way to give them a stake in the story. Knowing that if you fail to defeat your enemy right here and right now will give them the opportunity to regroup makes the consequences of success a lot more immediate for your party. And talking of consequences, there should be genuine risk for your players. Now, as a DM, it's not your job to beat up on your players, and give them massively overpowered enemies who can steamroller them. That gets old pretty quick. But at the same time, if there's no real challenge, and no real fear for their characters' safety, then they'll be far less invested in the outcome of the battle. Don't have your NPCs pull their punches, as those characters certainly wouldn't if it was a fight to the death!

Talk to your players about being ready on their turn

Particularly in big parties, combat can drag on a bit. It's not unusual for a single round of combat to take 20 minutes - so it can get pretty frustrating when it gets round to a player who clearly hasn't been paying attention, and they have no idea what they want to do, and begin looking through all their spell cards, discussing their options at length with other players, and in general just slowing everything down. There can be various causes for this - sometimes it means that the encounter (or campaign) isn't exciting enough to keep them engaged (well we're here to fix that if that's the case), but sometimes it can just demonstrate a lack of respect from the player. If that's the case, there's nothing wrong with having an honest conversation with your players about what you expect from them, in an effort to make the game more enjoyable for everyone.

And if necessary, well sometimes, you've just gotta resort to good old-fashioned bribery, you know? If your party doesn't really respond to just chatting about being ready when their turn comes around, think about giving them a bonus for when they are: +1 to their attack, for example. I tend to find this approach better than the alternative of giving them a penalty (say -1 to their attack) if they're not ready - because you want the game to be an enjoyable experience. You want them to like sitting at your table and not feel like they're being punished for when they misbehave. As such, giving them incentives rather than punishments is usually a better way to keep the atmosphere light. Want to know the best thing about this approach? It doesn't even have to mess up your finely planned combat encounter. Think that handing out +1 bonuses is gonna make it too easy for your party to overpower their enemies? Well, then just increase the opponents AC by 1. The challenge remains the same, but the party feel good about themselves getting a little extra bonus for being switched on and paying attention. Happy days.

Make the terrain interesting

It's pretty dull if all your encounter consists of is everyone just crowding around a villain and taking turns to smack them with an axe. Come on, we can do better than that. Instead, think about how the terrain could make the encounter more interesting. If you're in a cavern, are there any stalagmites that could give partial cover? If you're on a hill, are there any boulders that your party (or indeed their opponents) could try to roll down towards their enemies? If you're fighting in a forest, is there anyone up in the trees firing down upon your party? If you're involved in a naval battle, is there anyone swinging across on a rope to board your party's ship? Or climbing through the gunport and sneaking in below decks? How about a sharp-shooter up in the rigging somewhere? You see my point. The possibilities are pretty much endless when you think a little about the surroundings where the combat is taking place. And if you start to enable the NPCs to make use of this space, you're subconsciously giving your players license to do the same. This should make combat far more creative, and hopefully lead to encounters that your players will be talking about years from now.

Make the fight dynamic

Linked to the above, try to make the fight as dynamic as possible. Static fights can be pretty dull and repetitive - but dynamic ones should keep your players engaged and the tension high. What does this mean in practice? It means that as the battle goes on, the encounter changes. This can happen in many ways. Physically the terrain itself may change. Perhaps the combat is on horseback, or on a train, a boat, a spaceship etc. Anything that moves also gives you the opportunity to alter the surroundings as you go. Perhaps your boat is heading to a waterfall, or the train heading towards a station where the Town Guard are waiting for you. Perhaps you're riding a motorbike through crowded streets and having to miss innocent pedestrians, or piloting your spaceship through an asteroid field while simultaneously trying to avoid enemy fighters. Whatever you choose, different terrains as combat progresses can keep things interesting.

You can also include different components going on in the battle, forcing your party to choose how to prioritise their actions. Are you going to try take on the General in the hope that with him dead his minions will surrender? Or what about attack the messenger trying to flee the scene with an order for the rest of the army to attack? What about the priests about to sacrifice the friendly NPC you've got to know and love? Or the wolves dragging away the party member who's currently unconscious and rolling death saves? The more components you have like this, the more you force your party to choose how they want to spend their actions. This also leads to more unpredictable outcomes for you as a DM, and more memorable fights in general. Finally, these kind of dynamic fights also make it easier to raise the stakes as the fight progresses. Forcing players to choose between killing the assassin who murdered their mother before they escape once again, or letting them leave in order to save a fellow player who's about to be sacrificed to an Eldritch god is exactly the kind of dilemma that you want to give your players. It's what will keep them engaged at your table in the short term, and what can drive their character progression and the overall story development over the longer-term. Give these tips a go, and see the impact they'll have at your table!


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