Tips for Running More Engaging Combat in DnD 5e
Something very strange happens when you enter combat in Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons. You spend most of the game in free-form roleplay, but as soon as the spells start flying and the weapons get drawn the game suddenly screeches to a halt and and you find yourself in a drastically different game.
As a Dungeon Master, I often struggled with making combat more interesting for the kinds of groups I play with. When I play DnD, the first game is the one I’m really there for. But combat is an important part of the game, and it starts to feel a bit wrong when you go for too long between combat encounters. This is because combat plays a pivotal role in creating tense situations and challenges for your players.
In the right hands, it’s an invaluable tool in your arsenal to raise the stakes for your players.
In the wrong hands, though, it can kill all the momentum at the table. I’ve seen it happen too many times, from both sides of the screen.
In this post, I’m going to talk about some of the techniques I’ve developed in an attempt to spice up combat in my own sessions. As always, I hope that you can find some useful wisdom to carry back to your own games so you can reap some rewards from my trial and error!
Describe Actions and Attacks
This one goes right up front because it is absolutely crucial to keeping combat interesting and I see far too many new DMs let it slide.
I get it. Running combat can be difficult, especially if you’re throwing a lot of different monsters at a party as you may find yourself doing at higher levels. It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers game going on behind the screen and let this element slide.
That’s deadly, though, and that is how combats turn into a slog of “I hit it, I do x damage, I pass”. That gets boring fast. When your fighter player makes an attack, don’t just say “You miss” or “You hit”. Describe how they miss or hit! A couple examples:
You swing your sword towards the goblin but strike only air as he dodges nimbly aside. (Miss)
You sweep your sword in an arc upwards into the goblin’s side, opening a nasty wound and spilling his blood onto the dirt. (Hit)
Keep in mind the kind of weapons your players use and how they use them (do they rely more on strength or dexterity?). For spells, read the spell’s entry for inspiration in how you describe its effects. When you start getting more confident, try to weave each turn into a narrative that builds on itself.
(Fighter turn, they move towards the goblin and attack) “You charge towards the goblin, placing yourself between him and your friends. Planting yourself firmly, you swing your warhammer at the goblin’s head.” (Fighter misses) “The goblin narrowly manages to duck beneath your strike” (Goblin turn, he attacks the fighter) “Still crouched below your hammer-swing, the goblin strikes upward into your chest with his dagger.” (Goblin hits) “You feel the metal pierce a weak point in your armor, cutting into your side painfully. A grin spreads across the goblin’s face. You take 4 damage. Wizard, you’re up.” (Wizard casts firebolt) “You hold your hand out looking for a good angle over your friend’s shoulder for a firebolt strike.” (Wizard hits, deals fatal damage) “The blast arcs through the air and catches the goblin square in his smug face just as he draws his arm back from his strike. He collapses backwards onto the ground in a smoldering heap, still grinning.”
Building on past actions is a quick trick to making the flow of combat feel more like a narrative and less like a series of dice rolls. It isn’t easy to get into the swing of doing this while also running all the numbers and math of combat, but the more you practice the more confident you’ll become!
Why Combat? What’s the Story?
If you’re hoping to create an immersive roleplaying experience for your players, combat threatens to break them out of the world you’ve been crafting and into a world of numbers and dice. Probably the biggest culprit here is the random encounter.
Random encounters are a long and storied part of the Dungeons and Dragons tradition, but they don’t fit all that well into the kinds of games I tend to run. You don’t have to just throw them out the window, though, which was my first instinct when I started running games.
Random encounters can still serve your story and setting when you run them correctly. It just takes justification in the moment!
Think about why the monsters are here fighting the players. Bluntly: If you can’t come up with a good reason why the monsters are here and interacting with your player party, I’m not sure how you ever expected the players to remain immersed.
Don’t forget to keep weaving the story into and through your combats. Create or run monsters that have motivations and goals. Give them reasons to be fighting the party and the rest will fall into place much more easily.
My personal preference remains to not use truly “random” encounters at all. I craft a list of possible encounters appropriate both to my setting and what’s going on in the story any time the party might run into trouble. Curating a small list of encounters gives me a chance to make sure individual combats are interesting and challenging; it’s a luxury I appreciate when running a game but it is also more work in the preparation stage.
If you appreciate the random element or don’t want to dedicate too much preparation time to small encounters, random encounters can still have a place in an immersive roleplaying experience. They just add an extra justification challenge for you as the Dungeon Master. Some enjoy that, some don’t.
Play the Monsters’ Intelligence
This goes hand in hand with some things I said in the last section.
The monsters are there for a reason. They have goals and they know what they’re willing to do (and not do!) to achieve them. If you’re dealing with animal-like intelligence, have them behave as predators would. That is: they should fight when they have the upper hand, and look for easier prey when they don’t. If they don’t flee when the prey fights back hard enough, they are either very hungry or something more sinister is driving them. The point is that it needs to be an intentional choice when that’s the case.
Similarly, intelligent enemies are likely to be at least somewhat concerned for their own well-being. Go figure. They might run or surrender when it’s clear they will die if they keep fighting.
Not every combat needs to be a fight to the death.
In fact, that strains credulity. Why wouldn’t the goblins break and run after half their number are butchered in the first round? Maybe they fear punishment by their superiors more than they fear the party (pretty common for goblins, actually – goblin society is a bitch), but that needs to be a choice you are making intentionally rather than a default. That sends a message all it’s own and gives you something to work with. Let the players see that the goblins want to run but are afraid to.
On a practical note, this gives you a reasonable excuse to cut combat short when it’s clearly “over” and the players have won. Slogging through another 2 rounds of a fight that’s already won isn’t all that fun most of the time.
You should also be considering the kinds of tactics your monsters are likely to employ. The book entries for each monster spend a lot of time talking about how that monster thinks and behaves – why do you think that is? The designers aren’t wasting your time or fluffing page counts; that part of the entry is every bit as important as the stat block, maybe more!
Kobolds are tricky, cunning little bastards that are not very intimidating in open combat. So, why would they willingly engage in open combat? They attack players with traps, from a safe distance, and only confront players if they believe they have the upper hand or if they have no choice. Throwing a group of kobolds at your player party doesn’t make for a very interesting fight, but playing them this way makes them a much more deadly foe!
When you have a good grasp of how your monsters think and operate in combat, a lot of other aspects follow naturally. It makes each combat a unique experience because you are fighting enemies that don’t behave like every other group of enemies you fight. That goes a long, long way to fostering immersion through your combats.