Building Better Battles

When playing or dungeon mastering battles in Dungeons and Dragons, it’s easy to fall into a rhythm or formula. However, it’s integral that you don't do this. Ideally, combat encounters in D&D should never be formulaic, which can often cause them to turn into a slog. To avoid this, all you need to do is add a few different aspects to a battle, to think about the components that compose the fight, and make sure they coalesce to form a fantastic combat encounter.

In general, no two battles in your campaign should ever be the same. What do I mean? Let’s take a look!

1: Enemies

My premiere tip is to use different types of enemies in every combat. Ensure that the group isn’t simply bashing their heads against a simple hill giant wielding a greatclub with wolf pets, or fighting four spear-wielding goblins in an open field. Instead, spice it up!

The hill giant with a club and wolf allies? He now wields a huge net and greatclub, and he has two wolf pets and one dire hawk pet. The giant attempts to march into the middle of the fray and scoop up unlucky characters with his net, rendering them restrained, while the wolves double team and flank restrained or weak characters. Meanwhile, the dire hawk acts as a sniper, diving at vulnerable ranged characters with its vicious talons. That’s a quality encounter!

How about the spear-wielding goblins? They’re now varying in type and fighting style. Two goblins still wield spears but ride giant spiders that are able to restrain characters and climb around on objects. In addition, there’s a goblin shaman that wields a few cantrips to harass the characters and has a rabbit he can sacrifice to cast the cure wounds spell on an ally. The fourth goblin is larger than the rest, both in height and girth, and wears cracked bone armor. He fights with his fists and attempts to garner the attention of as many characters as possible either with insults or crazy gestures.

Both are these encounters are now far better than their counterparts, and I only shifted the enemies around, added some flavor, and thought about their tactics. Doing this doesn’t take a lot of time, and it vastly improves the feel and effect of an encounter.

2: Environments

My second tip is to utilize the environment the battle takes place in! Setting battles in flat and grassy open fields or 20x20 square, empty rooms are boring, but it happens more often than many people think.

Instead, set your encounters in interesting locations that both act as an evocative battlefield and part of the encounter itself.

Let’s expand on one of the two encounters from earlier: The hill giant and his pets.

Say the hill giant fight occurs in a forest clearing around a small field of jagged rocks. Now the party can run into the dense forest for cover or maneuver around the rocks to trip up the giant. The enemy group, composed of the giant, two wolves, and dire hawk, can also use the environment to their advantage (for flavor or mechanical purposes, your choice). The wolves can leap onto the jagged rocks for a high ground advantage, the giant can forgo his club by uprooting a tree trunk, and the dire hawk can easily fly out of sight of the party.

Now the fight is even more interesting. Both sides can use the environment to their benefit in an abundance of untold ways, whether it's trying to lobby for a mechanical advantage, or simply adding to the story. And that was a rather bland set piece; I love using far more fantastical environments, such as cliffside battles, encounters on frozen lakes, or the always dramatic rope bridge fights.

3: Surprises!

To end my trio of tips to build a better battle, let’s discuss adding twists and turns into a combat encounter. This is a big topic and will be the main point of next week’s blog post. However, the advice is simple: Surprise your players and their characters during a battle. Change the battlefield in some way. What that means is variable. Here are some suggestions:
  1. Reinforcements arrive! Perhaps the foe summons a slew of minions, or zombies crawl up from beneath the ground, or a dragon swoops in from the sky above. Maybe allied forces show up to assist the party in their time of need!
  2. The environment suddenly shifts! The ground beneath the party’s feet begins to crack and break apart into disparate pieces, or the bubbling dirt holes near the battlefield turn out to be geysers that start to burst.
  3. A secondary mechanic appears! Maybe the big bad evil guy begins to channel a ritual in the room’s center which causes a portal to the Ten Hells to manifest, or the caged prisoners start to be focused and killed by the party’s enemies.
  4. The foe reveals a vital piece of information! While fighting the campaign’s antagonist, they shout out a missing piece of the story puzzle the party has been searching for, or they find out a patron they’ve been working for is actually an enemy.
This list continues on, folks. The key is to surprise your group mid-combat, and that can be accomplished in a myriad of ways (both mentioned and not mentioned).

Encounter Philosophy

As a quick aside: Every encounter, especially every combat encounter, should progress the story of your campaign or adventure. This is a philosophy I adopted a year into my DMing career. Every encounter, especially those involving combat, should be meaningful. Fights must not hinder the pace of your campaign, they must enhance it!

This doesn’t mean you should not use random encounters. Use them, but do so sparingly, and ensure that they’re connected to the overall story in some way OR they grow the world. For example, don’t just throw a wagon of bandits at your party. Instead, give these bandits a reason to be in the area. Maybe they’re on the road because the price of food has risen in the nearby village because of a foul plague destroying all the crops. Perhaps they’re working for a powerful NPC that the characters know, or are working for as well!

As a consequence, I rarely use random encounters. The combat encounters in my games are carefully prepared (or improvised!) because our time to tell our story is limited, and I want every moment to matter or impact the campaign as a whole.

In Summary

Battles that have one aspect to them can become repetitive and even boring. Thus, it’s the job of the players and the dungeon master to spice them up. On the players' end, they should be trying new and creative things with their characters. The dungeon master should be designing battles that make sense and progress the story or broaden the world. To summarize:
  1. Don’t fall into the trap of designing formulaic battles.
  2. Create exciting combat encounters by changing up enemies, setting the battle in fantastical locations, or throwing in twists for the PCs.
  3. Make every combat encounter matter or progress the campaign. Every moment in your D&D campaign should be impactful; our time is limited.
Until next time, farewell!

Comments

  1. I'm a very new DM and this was a great read, I started getting ideas as I read or thinking back to how I could have spiced up encounters. Thanks!

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    Replies
    1. Absolutely wonderful! I'm glad this article assisted you. Be sure to check out my older articles, and the ones to come! Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  2. Good stuff! I particularly enjoyed the enemies writeup, I will use that. Just the smallest adjustments can change the encounter drastically.

    I am going to use an encounter to introduce a friendly NPC as well like a party reinforcement. I figure it might be a cool way to introduce a cool character with some flare.

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