3 Easy Ways to Improve Combat
3 Easy Ways to Quickly Improve Combat at Your Table
You’re running a game of Dungeons & Dragons for your friends tonight, and you’re running a little behind. You got a little held up at work, traffic was unusually bad, and by the time you’re ready to sit down and play, you haven’t had time to properly sit down and consider the combat for this session. Not wanting to lose the momentum of the session, you don’t waste any time setting up the combat, but push ahead, giving little consideration to the strategy of the fight. You put the baddies down in random spaces in the room (kinda clustered in the middle, mostly), and roll initiative. When it’s the monsters’ turns, you use the actions listed on their stat blocks in the best way you can, not giving much thought to what other options they might have. At the end of the encounter, the party has wiped out the foes, looted their corpses, and is on to the next room of the dungeon. There they will find another forgettable brawl that you are similarly unprepared for, and the cycle repeats.
Sound familiar to you? It certainly does to me. That’s how I handled combat in my games for years. I thought very inside the box (the four corners of the monster stat block) without any imagination or variation. This was a disservice to everyone involved. It made combat pretty dull to run, it made fights pretty easy for my players who wanted a challenge, and it was a disservice to the monsters who really would rather not have been killed by a wandering troupe of adventuring monster murderers.
To make my combats more memorable and interesting for both me and my players, I made a few commitments to myself concerning future combats.
- I will never randomly determine where a monster is standing in a room.
- I will always consider actions not listed in the stat block.
- I will make use of the environment as often as possible.
Intentional Monster Placement
It’s the first round of combat! The party has turned a corner in the dungeon and sees some ghasts coming their way down the hall. Initiative has been rolled, and the party rolled low. It’s one of those rare scenarios where the bad guys are going to get to go first! The wizard doesn’t have their mage armor up, the barbarian hasn’t started raging yet, and the sorcerer’s mirror image hasn’t been cast. It’s time to bring the pain!
…at least it would be if the ghasts weren’t 50 feet away with only a 30 foot movement speed and no ranged attacks. They all spend their entire movement running toward the players and are still 20 feet away. They could use their actions to Dash, but then they’d be in melee with no action left to attack with and effectively wasted their first turns. In fact, they’ve made the heroes’ job easier, since now they’re within reach of the party barbarian, who would have had to burn his turn getting into melee if they hadn’t closed the distance for him. The advantage they held over the party by going first completely evaporated because they were just a few spaces too far down the hall when they were placed.
The party just rounded that corner. They had no idea how far away the ghasts were. There was no way to know who would win the initiative, but since ghasts only have melee options in combat, they’re screwed if they’re too far from their targets. Knowing this, a wise DM needs to be mindful of where they position the monsters during combat.
Monsters with ranged attacks like to be positioned farthest from the potential arrival of any perceived threat, much like the characters in the party. Be sure to place them where they have clear line of sight to potential entrances and exits to any room they’re in, preferably with some of their beefier allies in between. Melee powerhouses need to be within spitting distance of those same entrances if they think there is any danger about, so they can quickly inhibit anyone entering. Monster spellcasters want to be somewhere near cover, so they are seen and targeted less and so their concentration on their spells can remain unbroken. A little trip on this train of thought can have a big impact on how your combats feel and function.
A good rule of thumb is to put melee enemies within 30 feet of the party and ranged enemies beyond 40 feet, if the space allows. This way you’ll rarely have to spend a turn getting your monsters into position before they can act on their first turn of the combat. Of course there will be exceptions, but this works well as a general guideline.
Just like the player characters, monsters have a long list of actions they can accomplish on their turns in combat. Many of these options are overlooked by Dungeon Masters simply playing the monsters how they’re represented in their stat blocks. If those listed actions are the only ones considered when the monsters’ turns come up, they’re only being played at a portion of their potential!
This little list of alternative actions that all creatures can take in combat can be found in the Player’s Handbook, and I kept a copy of it beside me while I ran until I had devoted it to memory. On its turn, a creature can use its action to...
Dash- move up to your speed
Disengage- your movement doesn’t provoke opportunity attacks
Dodge- all attacks against you are rolled with disadvantage until the start of your next turn (must be able to see attacker)
Help- give an ally advantage on one skill check or attack roll before the start of your next turn
Hide- make a Dexterity (Stealth) check to prevent enemies from seeing you (must break line of sight)
Ready- prepare an specific action for when a specified trigger occurs (pull the lever when the hero steps on the trap) (uses reaction for the turn when triggered)
Search- make a Wisdom (Perception) or Intellignce (Investigation) check to find something in the area
Use an Object- interact with a nearby object
Player characters, especially rogues and monks who can utilize some of these options every turn as their bonus actions, often make use of these actions to great effect. But we often forget as Dungeon Masters that these options are available to the monsters as well.
For example, imagine you have a handful of goblins and bugbears ambushing the party of heroes. The goblins have a +4 to hit on their ranged and melee attacks with the potential to deal 1d6 + 2 damage and have the Nimble Escape trait which allows them to take the Disengage action as a bonus action. The bugbears also have +4 to hit but deal 2d8 + 2 damage with their morningstars. Obviously, the goblins would rather the bugbears hit with their weapons because one hit from a bugbear is worth almost three goblin attacks. The bugbears are only as likely to hit as the goblins, so it would be beneficial if their odds of hitting the PCs were increased. So how do they take advantage of this?
Have the goblins rush the heroes and take the Help action, each giving a nearby bugbear advantage on their next attack against one of the heroes. Then have them use their Nimble Escape to Disengage as a bonus action, retreating from the heroes without taking opportunity attacks. Then the bugbears swoop in, swinging their devastating morningstars with advantage, increasing their odds of damaging their opponents. In this way, the goblins have made full use of their movement, action, and bonus actions to set their allies up for success without taking any damage themselves or staying in the line of fire.
There are many other ways to use these actions, such as having a monster with a high armor class interpose themselves between the party and the rest of the villains in a narrow corridor. Have that monster take the Dodge action, making them even less likely to be hit, while their allies down the hall pepper the heroes with ranged attacks from a distance. Have an unlucky kobold stand next to a PC and Dodge. His mere presence adjacent to an opponent will give all his kobold allies advantage on their attacks thanks to their Pack Tactics trait. If the party is opening a door into a room full of bandits who heard them coming, be sure the bandits have Readied Actions to fire their crossbows at whatever comes through that door. Have retreating enemies with high movement speeds Disengage before they run, forcing melee heroes to waste their actions Dashing after them.
Using the Environment
No two battles in your campaign are likely to have the same setting. Every fight could take place in a different room, different building, different town, or even a different continent than the one before. As such, the venue for your combat does more to make your combats unique than the monsters your party fights. Taking advantage of this opportunity to use each location to the fullest will make each fight distinct for your players.
When considering the environment in combat, pay attention to these three things:
- What in the environment can be used as cover?
- What in the environment can be used as a weapon?
- What in the environment is hazardous?
Let’s handle cover first. The past decade in video games has seen the rise of cover-based shooters, where the protagonist shows a healthy regard for their own life by diving behind a protective barrier as soon as combat begins. This is employed in real life as well; rarely will a trained warrior stand brazenly in the open to fight, opening themselves to attacks from all sides. But in D&D we see too often monsters making ranged attacks from the center of the room, or melee combatants charging across open territory to engage their foes. In Fifth Edition, standing behind a low wall or piece of furniture (half cover) grants a +2 bonus to the creature’s AC and Dexterity saving throws. Better still, peeking from around a column or tree trunk, or through a portcullis (three-quarters cover) gets a +5 bonus to AC and Dexterity saving throws. And best of all, a creature who completely hides themselves behind any barrier of sufficient size (full cover) cannot be targeted by attacks at all. This means that standing behind a table grants the same bonus to AC as a shield, and behind a tree grants the same bonus as the shield spell! It can be a game changer for low armor class monsters and, since the bonus applies to Dexterity saving throws as well as AC, can be a great way to help your monsters survive the sorcerer’s fireball.
Next, there are often unspoken opportunities on the map that the players and the monsters can use against one another. Not every location will have these, but they’re great to take advantage of when you can! If a lit brazier full of glowing coals is providing light to the room, have a monster kick that brazier into the face of one of the heroes! Some free fire damage, and it will dim the light in the room, inhibiting the players’ visibility. Having a battle on the deck of a whaling ship? Have someone snatch up one of the large harpoons and spear a player with it. Or maybe you’re fighting atop the battlements of a castle, and one of the villains decides to turn one of the many ballistae normally used to defend against dragon attacks against the party. Environmental weapons can be used by the players as well as the monsters, and they will have more fun in future combats searching the map for unique ways to weaponize the battlefield.
Finally, the environments in combat can often be a threat by their very nature. A crumbling temple, a river of lava, the swaying deck of a ship, a pit of acid, or the ramparts of a citadel all pose innate threats to any that enter combat there. Have strong monsters, especially those with a skill proficiency in Athletics, attempt to shove or grapple players and throw them off cliffs, toss them into traps, or simply push them overboard. Ask players and monsters trying to keep their balance on the rain-soaked deck of a ship during a storm to make Dexterity (Acrobatics) checks to keep their footing or fall prone. Have a quiet battle on the rocky ledges of a snow-capped mountain, where any loud noise could start an avalanche that would spell doom for both sides. Be sure to make any damage represented by these environmental threats substantial enough to be enticing and fear-inducing for your players.
Also, be aware of choke points in the area. If you’ve ever seen the movie 300 you know just how important choke points can be. Funneling the party into a tight space where they cannot maneuver as well, where they are packed in and vulnerable to area of effect spells, or just where the number of attackers that can get into melee is limited is a massive advantage! Choke points can work in favor of the heroes as well, but the side that controls it will likely have the upper hand in the fight.
Each and every combat has the potential to be memorable and exciting with just a little consideration for what opportunities are being left on the table. Having the monsters (and the players) use every tool in their arsenal to win will make a great difference towards making combat as fun and unforgettable as it can be!