Few things are as exciting to hear around the gaming table as those two simple words: “Roll Initiative!” It is the intake of breath before rushing forward, swords raised, the hearty laugh in the face of danger, the raucous battle cry as you leap into the great unknown, with either victory or doom awaiting you.
Combat is where the fresh-faced young explorers become seasoned adventurers…heroes even! It’s where your players can really test the abilities of the characters they’ve created and one of the most engaging aspects of playing D&D.
…and yet, how many of us have been in battles that feel, well…boring? The transition between an exciting, swashbuckling feat and a repetitive, drawn-out “grind” can be sneak up on you unexpectedly and leave your players yawning or worse…playing on their phones! This can be risky especially with younger players, who will often become distracted or disinterested if a game starts to lose its edge…but never fear! Here are some things you can do, as the DM, to keep your adventurers sharp!
Give it Meaning
Random encounters can be fun, but if you build a battle that links to the story in some way, the party will naturally be more invested in the outcome. That isn’t to say that everything needs to be associated with a major plot point, but it at least should make sense with the story you are weaving and the world you have created. For example, perhaps your party runs into a pack of Gnolls in a part of the country that hasn’t seen such creatures for generations. This combines the combat encounter with an intriguing story thread as your players try to figure out why the Gnolls are there in the first place.
Provide Interactive Environments
Battles are much more interesting if there are obstacles in the field that can serve as cover, complications, or even improvised weaponry for your party. Perhaps there are trees that they can use for cover from enemy attacks. Maybe some of those trees are old and splintering…are there branches on the ground that the players can use for an attack? Maybe they’re fighting in a swamp and have to be careful not to get stuck in the mud while evading and attacking. You can have the baddies interact more with the environment as well, and experience the same benefits or challenges that you’ve presented to the party.
You could also have a list of randomized “Lair Actions” to mix things up a bit. If you’re in a cave, perhaps the sound of battle will rouse a swarm of bats from slumber, and now they’re darting through the air! All of these things help to create a sense of dimension within the battle-space.
Not another bandit raid? Didn’t we just fight goblins last week?
Combat encounters are like boxes of donuts…most people enjoy them regardless, but they’re better with variety 😀 So give your party a variety of enemies to fight. Think about the story and the environment they’re exploring. There are a plethora of potential monsters to fight when trekking through the forest! You can even have encounters that feature a few enemies, each with different strengths, weaknesses, and styles of attack.
Don’t use repetitive encounters unless there’s a good, narrative reason for it…and even then, try to have a different experience in each battle, whether that’s driven by the environment or the behavior of the bad guys.
Similar to the previous tip, you can add variety by introducing some minions to an encounter. Perhaps they’re in league with a stronger adversary your party has yet to encounter. Regardless, using minions can add suspense to the build-up for a more difficult fight, allow the heroes to feel victorious smashing through low-level opponents, and even add humor to an encounter if they start arguing with eachother. The “Big Bad” can also use the minions as a distraction to the party, to conceal their plans for the next attack…
This one takes a little more time, but isn’t hard to do! If there is a certain “flavor” that you have in mind for the encounter (inspired by a certain story thread or theme), but the enemy you want to use is too challenging for the party, feel free to tweak the stats a bit to make it more level-appropriate! I typically try to find a balance between making it a challenging encounter and avoiding a Total Party Kill (TPK)…particularly when kids are involved! Here are some easy things you can do to balance an encounter:
- Lower HP
- Lower AC
- Adjust multi-attack abilities (either make it a single-attack or have the second attack be less powerful)
- Replace some attacks with a manipulation tactic (something like Charm Person or Frightful Presence) that will impose a disadvantage on a failed Saving Throw versus simply dealing damage
Here’s an example of an adjustment I made to a Green Hag for a party of level-one adventurers:
You can also have some event to interrupt the encounter prematurely, leading to either an early exit for the enemy or have some unexpected help arrive for the party. Keep in mind that 5th Edition D&D gives huge advantages to the party when they outnumber the enemy (or vice versa)…but some monsters will still pose a hefty challenge even when outnumbered. Think about the abilities your party brings to the fight, and try to balance the encounter appropriately. You can also make some of the changes listed above during the battle if the tide turns one way or another…you have that DM screen for a reason 😉
And Finally…Offer Alternate Resolutions
Last tip: not every challenge needs to be won with combat. In fact, some of the most memorable encounters are those in which the party is able to negotiate or talk their way out of a battle. Have your stats and dice ready, because most kids enjoy a good battle, but if you have someone who prefers a more diplomatic route, let them go for it! You can also provide for those high-Charisma players who prefer the tools of Persuasion, Deception, or Intimidation to resolve an issue. Allow your heroes some room for flexibility and creative problem-solving!
How do you craft your encounters? As always, you can share your stories in the comments!