5 Best Ways to Improve Combat in D&D 5e
Combat Should Be Fun!
Tired of boring combat? Want to learn how to create epic, engaging combat encounters for your game? Today I'm showing you the best ways to improve combat and take your game to the next level. Your party will be glued to their chairs, biting their nails and talking for weeks about that amazing, unexpected, and riveting adventure. In last week's article, we talked about homebrew in general, but this week we're going to dive into some homebrew techniques to help improve combat in D&D! It's time to make your combat go pop-pop!
Why is Combat So Bad in 5e?
When Wizards of the Coast set out to create the 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons, they wanted to make the game more accessible, and simpler to play. Judging by the meteoric rise in popularity of the game in the last several years, I would say that they have absolutely succeeded in making D&D easier to get into than ever, but it did come with a cost. With fewer available options, simpler mechanics, and generally less math, the game is easier to understand. However, removing those things had the unintended consequence of creating lackluster, predictable combat. Each encounter should feel like there is a real danger to the characters, while still being 'winnable', but this is much harder to achieve now. There is a delicate balance to be found here.
There are certain things that players can do to make sure that combat stays engaging, like knowing your spells, preparing your actions before it's your turn, and adding in colorful narration. However in this article, we're going to view this problem from the DM's lens.
Tension is the most important aspect of a combat encounter. In a regular combat encounter, the tension is supposed to come from the threat of death but in 5e, death simply isn't that scary. Getting to 0 HP doesn't kill you immediately, there are multiple, inexpensive ways to get revived. Even if you don't have any method of being healed, failing all of your death saving throws is statistically weighted in favor of your survival. Death just isn't a real threat, most of the time, and is therefore not a reliable source of tension.
All 5 of these methods can be seen simply as ways to create different sources of tension in the encounter. These are certainly not the only ways to do that, but they are good ones! Be sure to not add too much though, tension is like salt; you probably need a little to make your meal interesting, but too much makes it inedible. Too much stress and encounters that are too dangerous can make the game not fun to play anymore, and we're all just here to have a good time, right?
So I now gift unto you, the 5 best ways to improve combat in D&D; use them with care because, as you know, with great power, comes great responsibility. To the list!
1. Monster Design
When creating encounters, adding in some spicy abilities for your monsters can make them more dynamic. Too often combat is just a race to 0 hit points, with the dice being the only source of tension. "Will my longsword attack hit?" gets pretty old after the 3 round. Instead, try making your monsters "Action Oriented" as Matt Coleville calls it, rather than just making them larger bags of hit points or dealing extra damage. Adding "Villain Actions" to your monster gives it some extra options that add dynamic elements.
A villain action has a trigger and an effect. These are similar to but different from a Lair or Legendary Action, and you can add these to all of your monsters, not just the boss level ones. I'll give you some ideas for adding these to your monsters, but if you're looking for more, check out these videos: Matt Colville: Action Oriented Monsters, The Dungeon Coach: Upgraded Villain actions for 5e Monsters
Choose a Trigger
You have some options to choose from when picking the trigger. For example, you can add in these villain actions into the initiative order, or if it's a stronger action, on a certain round number. You can also have the trigger be something like when the monster reaches a certain HP value or when the PCs get within a certain distance.
Choose an Action
The actions should be simple and should focus on giving the monster options. There is nothing more boring than a 'surround and pound' when all the PCs surround a monster and take 5 actions to the monsters 1 each round. This is predictable and not that fun. On the other hand, you want to make sure that the villain's action isn't their biggest damage dealer. Mobility, and breaking up the 'combat clumps' are going to be your best candidates. Specifically, things like extra attacks as a reaction, or an escape maneuver like a bonus action disengage when below 50% HP are great choices.
- When the zombie reaches 20 remaining HP, it has taken enough damage to start releasing a hideous, toxic gas cloud. Everyone within a 5 foot radius must succeed on a DC12 Constitution Saving Throw or be stunned until the end of their next turn. This takes at least a few PCs out of combat for a round, giving the zombies a fighting chance to survive and also being stunned is terrifying.
- When an ally is hit with a weapon attack, the kobold archer can use its reaction to make a ranged attack against the attacker. This simple action gives a little boost to the action economy of the kobolds and you could hide this archer in the back lines, creating a real threat for the PCs. Arrows raining down from an unseen assailant.
The sky is literally the limit here, but when you start adding these in to your monsters, focus on actions that will increase the monster's options. When the enemies do something unexpected, this increases tension, and makes combat exciting!
2. Multiple Waves
This is a simple one, but consider this situation: You finish off the final enemy, you have burned most of your spell slots and your party members are seriously low on HP, when in the distance you hear, echoing up the corridors, more goblins clambering towards you from deeper within the mine. Low on resources, enemies close, time to panic!
This situation can get a little bit challenging to manage, so you will have to keep a bit of a closer eye on the party's resources than normal. If they are doing great, throw the whole hoard at them, but if they are pretty beat up, maybe reduce that number by a few to make it manageable (but still tense!!). This requires a little bit of on the fly thinking and adjustment, but you'll quickly get the hang of it after a few encounters.
You can also think of enemies that regenerate or have some type of escape mechanism as a second wave as well, it doesn't always need to be 'more' enemies. Relentless Endurance is a terrifying thing when you finally drop the enemy and you are down to your last few HP, only to have it pop back up for a tense final round. Add this on to a monster that doesn't normally have it and watch the tension skyrocket!
Enemies that have an escape mechanism like invisibility, or Incorporeal Movement can add an exciting new element as well. You can combine this suggestion with the one above and give it a single-use invisibility potion that lets it move around and attack again from the shadows. Not knowing where the enemy is will dramatically increase the tension of the encounter.
When designing a combat encounter, we often start by thinking about where it takes place, find or make an appropriate tactical map, and then situate it in the world somewhere. Don't stop there! You can take it a step further by making that location dynamic. This will not only make your combat encounter more interesting but has the added bonus of making your world feeling more alive and increasing the immersion of your players.
Here are some examples of adding dynamic environmental elements into your encounter:
Falling Rocks or Ice
"As you battle, the cave begins to rumble with a low, bone rattling shake. You start to hear small bits of rock tumble from the sides of the cave, and then bigger ones. You realize that the cave is collapsing around you, it's time to go! A huge stalactite breaks off and threatens to impale you, make a Dexterity Saving Throw!"
As the players battle, have this affect trigger at a certain point in the initiative order. Alternatively, you can allow your villains to trigger these effects, either by having pre-constructed mechanisms or by pushing, pulling or some other appropriate method for the effect. You can have the DC increase each round, as more and more things are falling and the situation is getting more dire.
The actual floor you are standing on could be challenging to actually stand and fight on. Make it slippery, like slime covered stone in a sewer, or like ice. Moving on this surface for more than half your movement would trigger a Dexterity Saving Throw or cause you to fall prone.
Add in areas that are covered in varying depths of water. Falling unconscious in the water means you will start to drown, or moving quickly might cause you to fall in. How deep does it go? Jump in and find out!
Varying the height of the terrain will allow enemies and allies to use it to their advantage. You could also have the terrain itself sloped towards a terrifying pit (spikes, slimes, large drop off etc.), requiring a Strength(Athletics) or Dexterity(Acrobatics) checks to avoid falling into it.
Areas of Effect
Add arcane areas of effect, like unusual rods embedded into the rock that shoot out lightning in a 30 foot cone on odd numbered rounds. Try pools of lava with bubbles that pop for 4d6 damage on a d6 roll of 5 or 6.
The key here is to have the actual battleground be something other than just flat and to add in some dynamic elements to keep that tension high and to give options to both the enemies and your party. Places to hide, secrets to find, all of these things will make your combat interesting and engaging.
4. Beat the Clock
Any time that your Players need to complete something with a time limit, tension rises. This could be stopping a ritual that is ongoing or collecting a certain number of items before something happens. It could be holding your breath to make it through a submerged tunnel, or escaping a jail cell before the guards come back. Whatever the source of the time-crunch, make sure the players have a very good sense of the clock running down. A simple way to do this is with a real-life hourglass style timer at the table. This gives a very visual reference to the time that is literally slipping away. You can also use the initiative order, having to complete the task before 5 or 10 rounds go by for example. Additionally, you could create a skill challenge to help create tension narratively. Skill challenges are a mechanic from 4th edition D&D but are very effective at creating a fluid and dynamic encounter. I won't get into the details of how to run a skill challenge in this article, but you can find more out about them here: How to: Skill Challenges in 5e
"You arrive at the battlefield as the evil necromancer is about to finish the ritual to raise his undead army, a punishing, inky, green and black wind whips around him, blasting the earth and vegetation for 20 feet in all directions around him. This ritual must be stopped, or you will have to face his undead legion that currently lays dormant before you.".
You have 6 rounds before he completes the ritual. After each round, the necrotic gale surrounding him, powering this ritual, gets stronger and stronger. Creatures starting their turn inside the gale take [RoundNumber]d6 necrotic damage. You must succeed on a Strength(Athletics) check (DC 12+[RoundNumber]) in order to be able to move through the gale at 10 feet per round. On a failed check your speed is 0. Non-magical ranged attacks are made at disadvantage through the necro-storm.
You can adjust the numbers up or down based on the level of your party, but the idea remains the same. At some point they will need to make a choice, do we risk getting stuck in the gale in order to stop him? Can we do enough damage from outside of it? Giving the PCs difficult choices to make, and consequences for those actions is what D&D is all about.
5. Just Don't Balance It
Sometimes, the tension really can come from the threat of dying. The easiest (read: laziest :D) way to set this up is to just not balance the encounter. Choose a monster that is way overpowered. That Purple Worm has no idea that your party is only level 3, it's just hungry. Did they do something to offend the local Vampire merchant guild leader? Guess who is in the mood for teaching some lessons in respect? As the late, great Kenny Rogers famously sang "You gotta know when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em". Learning this can be an important (and fun!) lesson for the party to learn. Escaping from something way more powerful can be just as exciting as killing it. If your party only ever faces challenges they can win, that can get boring and predictable as well.
This one is a little more tricky to pull off, however. You will want to make sure that you broadcast very clearly the deadliness of this creature. Use lots of strong descriptions and even allow them a few Intelligence checks to see if they recognize what it is and how strong it is. Although it's something I usually don't recommend, feel free to narrate the feeling of dread the PCs are struck with. That way, it's entirely clear what kind of foe they're up against. Also, don't use this one too often. The PCs are the protagonists of the story, and if they lose too often, it's not a very interesting story to be a part of.
How do you want to do this?
Combat is one of the most important pillars of D&D so making sure your encounters as engaging as possible is pretty important. Don't be afraid to try different things out and for sure don't get discouraged if you really mess it up. Start small and listen to your players, they'll tell you if they're having fun or not.
That's all for this week, and don't forget; there are 20 sides to every story!
-The Intrepid Adventurer