- Preroll for NPCs or set a set order, so combat starts quickly and smoothly.
- Remember unique abilities and resistances to maintain a challenging combat experience.
- Design the battlefield with cover, elevation, and set pieces to enhance combat strategies.
Running combat as a Dungeon Master can be quite the challenge, especially for newer DMs. With so much going on, it can be easy to lose track of what is even happening at the moment. But with a little preparation and a few keynotes, things can run more than smoothly.
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It is important to keep in mind that combat isn’t necessarily the DM trying to “defeat” the players. As always, it is the DM’s job to represent the game world and its inhabitants. And if someone from the world chooses to fight the party or the other way around, the DM is simply there to oversee that battle and do their best to act as these characters or monsters would.
1 Prepare Initiative
To Make The Actual Fight Much Quicker
This is a very simple step that DMs can take but makes the actual combat start more quickly. There are a few ways to tackle NPC initiatives, and one should choose whatever fits their table best.
One can preroll for every non-player creature on the table, or always use a set order for enemies. For example, certain DMs prefer to always set their monster on the initiative count of 20, which makes things more predictable for everyone. In any case, having at least the enemy’s rolls be predetermined, means that no one has to sit there and wait for 15 bandits to get their initiative just to start a fight.
2 Highlight The Important Aspects
Remembering Key Details Isn’t Easy With Everything Else Going On
It’s bad reviewing a monster card after a fight and realizing that they were supposed to take only half damage from regular attacks. Each enemy is unique, and remembering everything on the fly is possible, but quite challenging.
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Highlighting the key parts can help immensely during combat, especially when it comes to certain resistances, unique abilities, or special attacks. Getting all that information at a glance can be quite lifesaving for that creature, or deathly-dangerous for the party.
3 Use The Terrain
After All, The DM Is The One Who Prepares It
A flat, open field is not necessarily bad, but definitely should not be overused. DMs should consider cover, elevation, places to hide, and even set pieces to use in combat. A chandelier can be dropped on someone’s head, or one might push someone into a well.
Oftentimes, the DM is the one to prepare a battlefield, and there is no reason not to fully utilize it. Enemies can use aspects of it to prepare an ambush or a trap, and dance circles around the players if it is their turf.
4 Utilize Other Senses
It’s Not Just About The Numbers
This is more about describing the actual combat, but it plays a big part in everyone’s immersion. Flatly exchanging numbers isn’t for everyone, and it’s not at all hard to spice up that process. Going a little deeper into the senses during a fight can do wonders.
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A character can smell a foul creature’s breath, even before they get bit. The sound of a lightning spell is deafening in their ears, stunning them for a brief moment. One might even feel a missed arrow, passing them way too closely to their head.
5 Prepare Certain Tactics In Advance
Who Said Only Players Can Plan An Attack?
Whether it’s a pack of wolves, a hunting wyvern, or even a small group of bandits, everyone has at least some resemblance of a plan. Rushing head-first into the enemy isn’t all that appealing for most creatures, and many of them try to play to their strengths in combat.
A skillful archer isn’t too keen on leaving their shooting spot, and an assassin might wait for that perfect opportunity to lunge. A monster knows its strengths and does its best to bring down those pesky adventurers.
6 Consider Retreating
To Fight Another Day
Fighting to the final blow isn’t always necessary, and there might be countless other solutions for combat. Man or monster, one might simply turn tail and run as fast and far as they can see, once they realize that they might have bitten off way more than they can chew.
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A near-deathly wounded BBEG is still a BBEG, and they might come back with twice the resolution they had before. Long-lasting feuds are often much more impactful to the players, as they get to fight and truly know their enemy.
7 Consider The Players’ Strengths
Especially The Annoying Ones
It is easy to simply look at a monster sheet, and think of all the cool ways it can attack the players. But considering the players’ abilities is no less important. If the party has a lot of powerful AOE, perhaps sending a tightly packed group of goblins isn’t the challenge that one might imagine.
On the flip side, using players’ weaknesses against them can work wonders. Not much power at range combat? A diving manticore might find that quite convenient. This also pushes players to get creative and use something beyond a simple sword attack, or a basic spell.
8 Know The Enemies
To Maximize Their Potential
There are many great books that DMs should consider reading, but when it comes to combat, one of the best ones to look at is The Monsters Know What They’re Doing by Keith Ammann. It highlights the aspect of truly understanding a monster that the DM throws at players, and exactly how to utilize it best.
Understanding the encounter’s enemy is paramount to good combat. At the very least, the DM needs to know exactly how the abilities work. But going beyond that, each creature has its strengths and weaknesses and is keenly aware of them. At the end of the day, combat is combat, and one should use every single trick they have up their sleeve.
Dungeons and Dragons
- Original Release Date
- E. Gary Gygax , Dave Arneson