I love a good ruck, and while I enjoy all the pillars of Dungeons & Dragons, combat is my favourite part of the game.
The more you enjoy something however, the more you crave just the best of that thing. In the same way that a wine connoisseur turns their nose up at cheap plonk, I can’t get too excited about a goblin ambush or a random encounter with an owlbear.
Luckily, there are infinite ways to spice up any 5th edition fight (or any other RPG for that matter), so that your combats never turn into a tedious trading of die rolls. Let’s get to the nuts and bolts…
The three key elements of any combat are ‘monsters’, ‘environment’ and ‘context’ (by ‘monster’s read ‘foes’ here, as we’re talking about any beastie or baddie with hostile intent). Step 1 of designing a great combat encounter, therefore, will involve leveraging the most out of these three key components.
Let’s break them down, one by one, and see where we can extract added value!
– i. Monster Variety
A mistake DMs often make when designing fights is to include only one type of monster. This often makes narrative sense. Goblins live and co-operate with other goblins, so the most logical way to plan the fight is just tee up as many goblins / orcs / bandits etc. as you think your party can handle, perhaps with one slightly tougher leader or boss. It is, however, pretty boring. The Monster Manual also lets us down a fraction here, as even for diverse humanoid races we typically only get two or three different stat blocks (some such races have thankfully been expanded in compendiums such as Volo’s Guide to Monsters…).
My advice is that you should look to include at least two completely different monster types in each combat encounter you design, as it brings variety and excitement to the fight. Coming up with a reason why these two (or more) types of monsters came to work with each other can even help you brainstorm a whole adventure (that’s advice from Chris Perkins himself by the way!). And the additional monster types needn’t be allies by the way… they might be steeds, pets, hirelings, masters or slaves. Goblins riding worgs, led by a goblin boss with a pet cyclops is starting to get interesting. Especially when that goblin boss is actually a barghest in disguise.
– ii. Threat Variety
Monster variety is good in itself, but it brings with it a key additional benefit: threat variety. A wider range of stat blocks in play presents a wider variety of special abilities and attack types that your players have to contend with, giving more for the players to think about than simply a bunch of gobbos rushing in with their scimitars. If you’re not able to easily achieve this using the stat blocks in the Monster Manual, then creating your own bespoke stat block also works: a homebrewed goblin shaman or winged goblins would offer a party significant new problems (at least when encountered for the first time).
In general, the very best encounters should feature monsters that offer: a melee threat, a ranged threat, as well as an area of effect threat and/or some kind of nasty magic or spell attack that forces players into making a saving throw (is there any phrase scarier in D&D than “make a wisdom saving throw”?). At least one of these threats should be unexpected and creating new monster abilities for a familiar stat block can be an effective way to achieve this… some great inspiration on this topic from Matt Colville below:
– iii. Monster Tactics
The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, by Keith Arman, is a best-selling book on Amazon for a reason (check it out!). It dispels the notion that monsters are mindless sacks of hit points that charge unthinkingly towards any adventurers that cross their paths. Just check out Keith’s very first post on his blog, which coincidentally talks about goblins! As you can see, they wouldn’t charge in with their scimitars at all if it’s up to them. Another good blog that discusses monster tactics to good effect is Dungeon Solvers, and their ‘Monster Mondays‘ series of posts.
A good tip for the DM is to put yourself in the place of the monster you’re controlling. Imagine that beastie is your PC… what would you do to swing the combat in your favour? Or would you just get the hell out of there? Obviously, you’re smarter than the average owlbear, so you shouldn’t be looking to turn a posse of zombies into a unit of elite special forces, well versed in military tactics, but even an ogre might realise that the skinny one in the cloak is actually more dangerous to it than the large one dressed in metal, and act accordingly.
Once the monsters start acting smart… guess what? The PCs will have to think smarter too and the combat will become, not only more dangerous, but more engaging.
– iv. Monster Behaviour
A great story telling device that delivers instant intrigue, is to subvert the players’ expectations when they encounter a monster. An ogre that throws a boulder at the party and then charges towards them is all very well and good, but what about an ogre that’s slavering at the chops with a crazed look in its eyes and attacks the party with a fury (giving it the Reckless Attack ability)? Did it catch rabies from eating a diseased animal, or is that curious amulet it was clenching in its fist cursed? Or what about an ogre sitting on a stack wall with its head in its hands, bawling its eyes out? By subverting the ogre’s typical behaviour you add a new layer to any potential combat encounter, and start creating intrigue and even entire story lines. Not so long ago I brainstormed 37 adjectives that you can put in front of nearly any monster to significantly change that encounter.
Meanwhile, less commonly encountered foes should prove intriguing enough of their own accord. There’s almost always some gold in the Monster Manual lore you can mine for narrative ideas, so don’t skip straight to the stat blocks. A straight up fight against an oni is not as interesting as encountering a seemingly ordinary woodsman travelling through the wilderness with a crying babe in its arms (with possibly the sounds of hounds and a hue and cry in the distance).
A combat encounter’s second key component is its, oft-underused, environment. I think we can relatively neatly split this into ‘terrain’ and ‘weather/conditions’.
– i. Terrain
Terrain is possibly the DM’s most powerful tool to spice up a combat. Five goblins on the open road vs. five goblins firing down arrows from a honeycombed caves on a cliff face or five goblins stealing a magic item from the party’s lakeside camp and then retreating via giant lily pads (which are large enough to support a small creature – but not a medium one) are all wildly different encounters.
The best terrain offers four features: cover, obstacles (terrain that enforces movement restrictions on some, or all, creatures involved), hazards and flavour. If you can fit all of those into your combat encounter then I can ensure you it won’t be a dull dust up. I’ve got more to say about this, in another post (hint: subscribe, follow, like etc to stay in touch!), but for now check out my post on 101 terrain features for your RPG combat encounters for plenty of inspiration.
You might want to consider checking out some D&D cartographers and borrowing ideas from their maps. I intend to come back with a list of such fine folk soon.
– ii. Weather/Conditions
Ever more underused than interesting terrain is the impact that certain weather conditions can have on a fight. Fighting in a foot of snow, or the driving rain, or a near impenetrable mist can make a significant mechanical difference when resolving combats – and don’t forget to leverage the narrative aspect of such dramatic weather either.
I think you can also file ‘time of day’ in this subcategory, and think about how it affects the environment in terms of light (and possibly temperature and other considerations). In extreme circumstances, you could also make atmospheric pressure and/or oxygen levels a factor – why not force the players into making a save against altitude sickness when they fight that yeti on the Spine of the World? They’ll praise your attention to realism afterwards… probably.
I will now propose a third and final component you should consider when designing combat encounters for Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs: context. Context is the meaning and significance that surrounds the encounter, and we can break this down into ‘objectives’, ‘considerations’ and ‘story’.
– i. Objectives
Not all combat encounters feature two sides fighting to the death, where the only goal is to win/survive. At least they shouldn’t! Giving your monsters (or the adventurers!) a reason to fight and a goal achieve beyond mindless violence will bring your encounters to life and create suspense that doesn’t depend solely on which side can deal damage the fastest. A fight in which the goblin archers only intend to distract the PCs until their buddies can steal the MacGuffin is intrinsically more interesting than an attritional trading of blows, whereas rescuing captives, securing a stronghold, assassinating a leader/wizard, scattering the enemies horses while they sleep, escaping with your lives, are other common but fun objectives to set for the party, or give to your NPCs.
– ii. Considerations / Problems
‘Considerations’ are essentially problems for the party and/or the monsters. They might be a ticking clock hanging over the encounter – an erupting volcano, rising water levels, collapsing lair – for example, or they might be restrictions dictated by the heroes’ moral code. The party would usually simply fireball the barn, but the bandits have captured the farmer’s elderly mother and are holding her hostage there. Sometimes you could reframe a restriction as a ‘secondary objective’: kill the cult leader, but not her drugged and charmed cult members, or destroy the wizard’s citadel, but also steal his spellbook on the way out. Having other things to consider than just beating on the bad guy can add layers to your encounters, and even create tricky dilemmas…
– iii. Story
When I say ‘story’ I want you to think of the narrative importance of the combat encounter you’re creating. While the occasional random encounter is useful for breaking away from the main storyline (and demonstrating there’s a world outside the heroes’ objectives), the very best encounters tend to be an integral part of your plot. Even a basic encounter in the woods with some bandits can obtain greater significance if the players find a bag of gold coins bearing the head of the evil queen they are fighting against. Meanwhile, a series of escalating run ins with the queen’s forces all add tension to your main story thread and make each combat in the chain more tense and more meaningful. If one or two of her lieutenants get away during any of these fights, and are able to cross swords with the PCs once again, even better. Now you’re developing tense, high stakes combats with emotional investment! (Note: don’t plan for your villains to get away… just have enough of them that the ones that do get away become the party’s nemeses in doing so! Check the Alexandrian’s video below for more).
More Design Tools & Tips
Okay, I think that wraps up what I consider the three key components of a combat encounter, but I do have a couple more tips and discussion topics that don’t seem to quite fit in the categories of ‘monsters’, ‘environment’ and ‘context’.
– i. Suspense
My favourite combat encounters as a player always start with the thought: “how the f@ck are we going to get out of this one alive!?” My least favourite are the ones that start with the certainty that we are going to win, probably without even taking a lick. Suspense is crucial to any good story, and to any good combat encounter too… if there’s no chance of failure, there’s no suspense and by extension no drama and excitement.
I rarely throw encounters at my party that aren’t rated as ‘deadly’ by the guidelines in the Dungeon Masters Guide, and certainly if you expect your heroes to be going in fresh to the encounter you need to dial up the challenge rating as high as possible. Instead of worrying that your encounters are going to be too difficult, you should worry that they might be too easy. After that, you can arm yourself with a few tools to balance the encounter on the fly, if things start going heavily against the PCs. Reinforcements that turn up just in time are not my favourite device and can damage your credibility (you might get away with it once or twice!), but make sure the party have access to a few single use magical items that can help them out of a bind, or you might want to have some quicksand handy that swallows three of the charging gnolls mid-combat, or have the PCs roll Insight to determine that the pet cyclops is far from a loyal mascot to his goblin oppressor, and the enemy’s star player might be convinced to change sides. Giving out regular Inspiration is another safeguard to ensure that a couple of duff rolls don’t derail the encounter you designed.
Finally, have a plan for if the party do get TPK’ed. Any vaguely intelligent creatures might find a better use for the heroes than killing them, while even a stupid beast might decide they didn’t like the taste of human/dwarf/tabaxi flesh after all, especially with all those annoying metal bits in the way. In the case of being captured by the enemies, you could even fast forward a month… “After being held captive for almost a month by the gnoll pack, you were finally ransomed back to [the party’s patron, rich relative or – maybe even their enemy!] for a princely sum. Minus your armour, weapons, gold and magic items. You are now destitute and heavily indebted to Jarlaxle Baenre. Meanwhile, the drow has summoned you to a meeting. His henchman said he had a little job for you.”
– ii. Developments
Another underused tool you can leverage for designing unforgettable combat encounters is to throw in unexpected developments into the fray. This could be the classic second wave of monsters (just as the heroes were feeling smug about themselves!), or the introduction of new environmental hazards (buildings catching fire is an oldie but a goodie!), or it might be a story revelation that changes the game. Here’s a mildly well-known example of the latter…
– iii. Consequences
Living or dying is a fairly fundamental consequence of most combat encounters, but you might want to consider what other rewards, or negative outcomes, result from the party’s involvement in the fight.
Combat Encounter Design Checklist
Ok that’s a lot to remember, so I’ve put together a little checklist. It’s a pretty ugly little thing, so might come back and pretty this up at some point, but should do the job for now.
Note: You don’t need a tick next to EVERY category on this checklist to have designed an engaging encounter – it’s also possible to throw too much into a single encounter – but you probably want more ticks than crosses.
Further Reading on Hipsters & Dragons
Further Reading Around the www.
While researching this article I came across a couple of good pieces that make for interesting reading. How to Make Great Encounters, by Eventyr Games, which proposes a handy mnemonic – ICE, Information, Consequences and Entertainment – for encounter design (note: the article is about encounters in general, not just combats). While Raging Owlbear’s article on How to Build Meaningful Encounters has plenty of ideas for objective-based combats.