“No, Tim. You can’t cleave through six enemies.”
Ahhh, combat. The bread and butter of the experience.
Encounters make up a large part of D&D, and can be a hell of a lot of fun when done right. Cutting a path through a horde of orcs or downing a dragon can feel fucking epic, but it’s also really easy to fall into traps with encounters like I have in the past. Finding the right balance of difficulty takes practice, because almost nobody likes hitting a shit-ton of HP sponges and even fewer like getting curb-stomped.
I’ve had plenty of games where I thought a large group of enemies would be a challenge, only to watch a veritable army of corrupted beings fall prey to Fireball volleys. Yet other times, I’ve set up a fairly straightforward fight that ended up being a hot mess that nearly killed two players. Sure, the dice will always decide what’s going to happen, but you can pretty easily tell when a fight isn’t correctly balanced.
I’ve played in campaigns where the GM put us up against horrific beasts at level 1 that nearly took out the entire party, and half of us had to re-roll. I’ve had other games where it’s a glorified game of “move and attack”.
You can quickly generate an encounter with a nice EXP budget using the Dungeon Master’s Guide or any online tools, but that isn’t a 100% guarantee that it will be exciting. Combat can quickly become a tedious slog that everybody dreads if it isn’t done right. Here’s some tips that have served me in preventing this.
Here are some quick D&D DM Tips!
1. Learn Your Party’s Abilities. This sounds easy and obvious, but take a look… really take a look at your party’s skill sets, abilities. Consider the party composition and balance. By really considering their skills, you can figure out how to push them to their limits. Obviously, if your party doesn’t have access to a lot of healing magic you have to take that into consideration. No tank? Consider lighter-hitting enemies or using more small ones in tandem. Light on damage? Make sure to use enemies with lower HP values, or change them yourself (after all, it’s your rules).
2. Use the Environment! This applies in so many instances. Perhaps it’s basic as hell, and the party encounter some thugs in a smuggler’s hideout. Are there crates and barrels? Use them as cover for some of them! Perhaps knock some over to force the party to move around. Consider placing ranged enemies at various heights so that they’re difficult to reach, possibly with beefy melee guarding them. Another fun thing I liked to do is have the party deal with a party of enemies in a valley and just as they think they won, an ambush appears on each side! That’ll teach you to wreck my plot.
3. Capitalize on your Party. This works in tandem with 1 and 2. You have a badass Fighter with heavy armor and a shield? Consider building an encounter with a choke point so they can feel awesome. A divine-slinging Cleric with a penchant for turning undead? Throw in some skeletons to let them use their tool sets. A Rogue who wants to stab shit? Perhaps throw in a 3-sided battle, as their target only needs an “enemy” within 5 feet! Taking time to capitalize on these moments will make players feel really special, and give them that heroic moment.
“Whoa, Ted just punked all of those skeletons! Nice, bro!”
4. Keep Flexible. Say you run a game with 5 players normally. One player can’t show today and–oh fuck–it’s the healer. If you planned a bigass boss fight meant to push them to the limit, perhaps reconsider the stats of the boss. It isn’t fair to the party to pit them against something meant for 5 when there’s only 4, and nobody can sling any healing magic. I always keep a handful of “oh shit” encounters just in case, and these work wonderfully for situations like this. Another thing I’ll do is adjust stats on the fly. Again, as mentioned in 1, it’s your rules.
5. Break up the Pace. A typical approach to dungeons are rooms with encounters leading up to a boss fight. This is great and works well with players; hell, I use this setup all the time. It’s familiar and people like it. But every now and again you need to break up the pace and keep the players on their toes. Maybe 1-2 small encounters, some traps… then further into the depths, throw a continuous string of encounters, it just doesn’t stop. Bam, bam, bam–one onto the next. Don’t give them the chance to stop and breathe. The last one doesn’t even need to be the boss, it could be the first or even the second. Break up the pacing every now and again to keep ’em on their toes!
Hopefully some of this will work for you. Remember… at the end of the day, the most important thing is that everyone has fun! If your players love carving a bloody path with little or no resistance, then cash in on it! If they like being challenged by one massive wrecking crew then do what works. But if things start getting sluggish, consider some of these tips.
Travis and Nick