Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Making Combat Fun

So the other day I had a friend complain that combat was the least interesting part of their D&D game. Admittedly, I’ve felt this way before too depending on how the game has been ran. This post is mostly me stealing from myself from that chat, to try and give you all a better idea of what’s going on in my games and in my head when I invent a combat scenario, and also a bunch of opinions on combat and other stuff.

So, the first question is “which better describes combat in D&D for you: Final Fantasy Turn Based Whack-A-Mole, or brutal Jason Bourne desperate life-struggle, or riveting Musketeer Style Swashbuckling?”

The second and more important question is “What do you want combat to be?”

Personally, I want swashbuckling and brutality in equal measures, but with a focus on swashbuckling. Leiber, Moorcock, and Howard were the heart of D&D’s fictional inspiration, and I want my fights to mimic theirs in speed, tone, and lethality. Or as much as they can, given that this is a game and not fiction. 

To begin, I always try to remember what The Tome of Adventure Design said about combat: that combat encounters are only ever as interesting as they are as a game-board. Meaning that a mob of ten goblins in an empty room is boring. 

A mob of ten goblins riding giant wasps while you climb a latticework of climbing roses, in order to get to their wizard employer’s tower is memorable and fun. 

Granted, not everything has to be in weird and wacky locations. Currently I just finished running the wonderful Deep Carbon Observatory by Patrick Stuart, and had an absolutely lethal dinosaur fight, which ironically took place in a mostly empty room, but was super memorable due to just how bonkers it was. Still, the fight should be interesting or exciting somehow, and fights should take place in interesting locales. The environment should be a danger, a tool, or both. The minute my Barbarian gets two attacks in 5e, I flip the script on the caster with minions every time, because I now have the ability to grapple (as an attack action, doesn’t end rage) and YEET a minion (advantage on athletics checks from rage, it’s an attack so it doesn’t end) INTO the wizard. Concentrate on THAT.  It’s an example, but like, why couldn’t I do that with food at a banquet hall? Or if I’m in a bridge, just kick them off the edge? Why can’t that be my Attack? Interacting with the environment is an onus that is on the player, but you as the GM Set that up.

The other tip I have is that, for me as a player, I know what I’m doing before my turn. And as a Game Master, I expect my players to tell me what they’re doing when I call their name. Combat for me is RAPID pace. I do group initiative between the party and monsters, and for multiple opponents split them into chunks. Only the party’s initiative matters, the monsters go in whatever order I want on their turn. If a player, especially a caster, doesn’t know what they’re doing, or starts flipping pages in a book to find out what their spell does, I’ve told them ahead of time that their character has done a brain fart and is flipping in their spell book during combat and they get skipped this round. We did two rounds of combat last night. Just like boxing, I feel a fight should be three rounds or less. A real fight is over in less than two minutes; D&D should feel that short and lethal.

I also ask my players to briefly describe their attacks when they hit, or describe their misses when they whiff. If they don’t want to, I’ll fill in that gap with a short sentence. I also have them describe Crits and Death Blows, as every player likes to describe their Mortal Kombat Fatalities.

Badguys and players should also be encouraged to do and be things besides chunks of numbers. Have villains tangle and trip the players. Have them take hostages mid fight, have them retreat when half their numbers are killed. Let them try to disarm them.

Honestly, this works so well for me, and this is why I veer much more into low and mid level games. At high levels, monsters and bosses just becomes BLOBs of HP, and it’s a whittling game that’s boring as fuck. No offense to some people’s GMing style, but some people’s boss fights are awful trudges through simple math. As a player, I once had had an excellent boss encounter where we fought in an antigravity room with mystic shields blocking LoS for casters, making athletics checks to astronaut push our way around the room and stop ourselves before overshooting enemies (that would have given them attacks of opportunity). Especially for 5e, that was a great fight, and it owed a lot to an interesting location/gameboard.

By comparison, many years ago I once had my players fight a dragon in an empty room. It was a snore fest, and an important learning point for me. Despite all the working up of the boss narratively and the dread and themed dungeon dressings, by the end of it my players weren’t hooked, and one was actively looking for something else to interact with in the room.

Since then, the outstanding article “A 16 HP Dragon” over at the La Torra blog has informed a lot of my personal Dragon fights. I don’t keep them as low as sixteen HP, but I keep most of my monsters under 200-300hp for a reason. And I put them in better locations. 

Here’s my other combat-related opinion: getting “cool things” per level, like action surge, second wind, etc, is BAD for the game and players. It teaches them to think in terms of what the GAME says they can do and not what THEY think their characters can do. Especially as it encourages players to crave numerical bonuses instead of weird and whacky shit that drives the fantasy genre. 

This is why my humans get no racial bonuses. Humans get a Special Thing. Each player chooses their special thing they can do (typically starting out as once a game session, or once a dungeon room/scene) and if they can’t think of one then I tell them to take a feat, they can do that once a game session/room instead.

“I can teleport 30ft in any direction once a game.” 


“I can echolocate twenty feet in front of me once a room/scene.”


“I can attack with such fury it gives me advantage to hit once a game.”


“I am a kleptomaniac and have accidentally stolen just the right non-magical item once a game.”


“I wear gloves because once a scene I can use psychometry on an item to find it’s history.”


These are all things humans in my world have done.

They aren’t in any books, and are infinitely better than +1 to all ability scores or a feat.

I’m a firm believer that D&D and combat gets creative when players and GMs do.

The other thing to for me is, combat happens when combat is the 1) only choice or 2) the players’ choice.

Meaning that, when the players encounter a Minotaur in The Crawling Gardens, it will attack them back if they choose to attack it. But if they greet that Minotaur with a friendly “Salutations Horned One!” I’m sure the scene will go differently.

And when they encounter cannibal scum cultists of some torture god, they are gonna have to fight no matter what (unless they get cool with some evil shit reeeeal quick).

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