Hello and welcome to Only On Tuesdays! This week I am finally back to writing about Dnd in order to talk about combat. Combat is one of my favorite things in Dnd, and I strive to make each encounter different from the last. Battles can be one of the most interesting things in Dnd, but can also become a boring slog if not handled correctly. Today I am going to identify what makes combat interesting and provide methods on how you can apply it in your sessions.
What’s in a Good Combat?
Combat comes in all different shapes and sizes. It can be a random encounter in a dungeon or have the fate of the world resting on the actions of the PCs. What makes combat so interesting, is that depending on how things play out, the random encounter could potentially be more enjoyable than the finale of the campaign. Learning what makes combat tick is important to making it interesting and awesome.
There are 3 things that I have identified as key components in excellent combat scenarios.
In every single successful combat that I have ran, these 3 elements have been vital to making it fun and exciting for everyone at the table. Danger represents the tension of the scene. Choices are the tactical options that are available to the players during the combat. Flow is how fast the encounter is moving along and helps to keep the players engaged.
Danger is an important aspect of combat because it is what will create the tension in the scene. Tension comes from not knowing what will happen, and danger can provide this uncertainty if handled correctly. Make the combat to easy, and the players will zone out. Make it to difficult, and the players will feel cheated and as if they have no options available to them. As the DM, we are empowered with the ability to make combat as difficult or easy as it needs to be. Often, the enjoyment of the battle comes down to how dangerous it feels to the players.
Dangerous battles are fun because they provide tension. As the fight progresses the danger level should slide up and down as enemies die or retreat, and the party uses up resources and/or fall unconscious. This constant change during the battle creates great tension as the battle is in constant flux, and it isn’t clear how it is going to end. Determining how dangerous the fight is, is important for deciding what to do in the encounter. You want to keep it balanced between the players and enemies, without it sliding too far in one direction or another.
Controlling how dangerous an encounter is, is as easy as determining how the monster behaves. If the battle is getting too difficult for the players, you can adjust it by having the monster go after the players with the most health. If it’s too easy, adjust the monsters so that they start to make intelligent decisions that will spell doom for the players if they don’t act appropriately. Tucker’s Kobolds is a fantastic example of turning one of the weakest monsters in the game into a terrifying foe. Adjusting the difficulty slider is often as simple as adjusting how the monster behaves. This tool of tuning the encounter as you go can provide drama for the entire encounter and creates for intense combat all the way through.
Another very important aspect of combat is providing choices. Combat becomes boring when the only choice each round is to stand still, do your main attack, and pass the turn. What makes combat interesting is viable choices for both the players and the enemy. Having multiple options in a turn is important to have, and gives the players a chance to show off and do memorable things.
One of the best and easiest ways to introduce choices into combat is through the environment. The terrain offers plenty of ways to spice up combat and make it more than just hitting a guy in an empty room. Offering options outside of what is usually on the character sheet allows for the players to try new things, and combine what they can do with what is around them. Something as simple as a chandelier in the center of the room provides the players with a plethora of options that would not be possible without this piece of terrain. Terrain such as this is not just for the players either. Monsters and enemies can and should use the environment around them to their advantage, breaking up a static room and providing new challenges on the fly.
Choices in combat are far more than just terrain though. Providing choices is giving the players options that are not available on their character sheet. Saving innocents from the crossfire, offering terrain that can be interacted with, or throwing neutral combatants in fights are just the tip of the iceberg and are what lend Dnd to having limitless creativity and fun. Expanding beyond the limitations of what the characters are used to doing is important for creating interesting combats.
Flow is one of the least obvious things about great combat but is vital to its success. Flow is the pace at which things occur and is important because it creates a sense of urgency. In my post Keeping Players Engaged, I talk about the importance of pacing, and why it can be the difference between success and failure. Pacing is just as important to combat, and will often determine if combat is enjoyable or not. One of my favorite methods for setting up the pace of combat is by quickly snapping from one player to the next immediately as their turn ends. This sets a fast pace for combat and keeps the players on their toes as they could be called upon at any moment.
The Angry GM wrote an excellent article explaining flow in combat by comparing it to a dolphin. In his piece, he explains that the flow of combat is similar to a dolphin diving in and out of the water. The key to flow is in the transitions. Depending on the speed and urgency of the transition, you can determine the flow of combat. If you transition into a players turn slowly and describe what happened during the last turn in detail, there is little sense of urgency. If you transition into it quickly, and briefly describe what happened and then hit them with “What do you do?” you can create a pace that is quick and snappy. A good flow will create an encounter that feels fast and exciting and will keep your players hooked waiting for what will come next.
Combat is one of my favorite parts of Dnd, and executing good combat is key to creating fun and engaging sessions. Entertaining combat has 3 elements to it that make it exciting and awesome. First, it is dangerous. We don’t play Dnd to see if the players can defeat the lonely goblin. A good balance in fights creates for interesting combat. Second, there are choices. Choices in combat are what make Dnd fun to play and providing choices that expand or are beyond the character sheet create for fun and immersive gameplay. Finally, good combat has a good flow. Flow allows for the combat to feel fast and intense and keeps the players entertained even when it is not their turn. Combining all of these things together can turn any encounter into something memorable. Thank you for reading, have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!