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Building Better Battles 2


A wood elf assassin releases a bolt from his hand crossbow that flies across the misty void of the Astral Plane and plunges into the shoulder of an earth elemental. The shot creates a crack that dislodges a piece of rock from the elemental’s arm, giving it ammunition to toss at the barbarian fighting on the floating island below. A firbolg warlock and tabaxi arcane archer maneuver around the icy chamber, dodging an ice beholder’s rays and its warforged titan’s heavy blows. The beholder cries, “This has played out in my head millions of times. In no scenario are you victorious,” as the battle rages on. In the catwalks of an underground thieves’ guild, a party of four dashes from boardwalk to boardwalk, battling human archers and halfling swashbucklers at varying heights. From above, a warforged blasts the group with a wave of acid that sculpts around his allies. He’ll need to be dealt with.

At the very least, combat encounters swallow one-third of your group’s time will playing Dungeons & Dragons, split between social interaction and exploration (as well as out of character chatter). Thus, building and running battles should be a skill Dungeon Masters constantly strive to improve on. If you’re interested, I wrote another article about this exact topic over a year ago; check it out here.

This article, though, will explore three different ways to build/run better battles: giving combatants interesting reactions, sprinkling in combat dialogue, and utilizing three dimensional environments. Let’s roll.

Interesting Reactions

A great way to spice up combat is to give unique reactions to the combatants in the fight that can change the fight both mechanically and flavorfully. Here are examples of both:

Last week my Enoach Desert group fought a patch of earth elementals in the Astral Plane. The elementals’ primary weapons were boulders which they couldn’t obtain when they were using their minds to fly through the misty void. Instead, when the PCs attacked the elementals, I had pieces of them break off, giving them more ammunition to assault the party; that’d be a mechanical reaction that isn’t inherently outlined in the game or earth elemental stat block.

If you’re not seeking to alter the mechanics of the combat, add reactions to the combatants that just don’t do so! This is rather simple. The barbarian’s blade slices through the owlbear’s hide, leaving a large gash. The warlock’s eldritch blast dents the fire giant’s brass shield. The dire wolf leaves tooth marks in the ranger’s leather gauntlet. These reactions to attacks (both misses and hits) add flavor to the battle and make them more memorable.

However, note that not every attack or action in combat needs to have an interesting reaction. Some misses are mere misses, some hits just hit.

Combat Dialogue

Speaking of hits and misses, this next tip is definitely a hit with some groups and an utter miss with others. Where do many of the epic one-liners occur in TV shows or movies? Combat. Try to do the same in your D&D battles! This goes for both PCs and NPCs/monsters.

Recently in my Iskryn campaign, the party confronted one of the villains of the campaign: Relueick, an ice beholder eldritch knight. Before the encounter, I jotted down a few lines he could spout during the battle — more so to give me inspiration for other things he might say. Whenever he spoke, it ramped up the tension and made the PCs retort. Eventually, I completely strayed from my pre-written dialogue and changed his reactions to fit what was occurring; it was great!

Obviously, this might not work when your party does battle with zombies or tries to survive against a pack of dire wolves, but a version of it might. There’s nothing quite like a Dungeon Master trying to mimic a wolf’s growl or a zombie’s moan. At worst (or best), your attempt to roleplay a zombie will cause your players to laugh; at best, it will invoke fear into them (and cause them to laugh).

Again, this tip doesn’t need to be used every encounter, but it can be! It’s especially useful for boss fights when the PCs are battling a character they’ve grown to hate over the course of the campaign or adventure.

Three Dimensional Environments

Flat battle environments become boring after awhile, so why not excite your players with a battle in three dimensions? A gentle hill covered in rocks above a field, catwalks in an underground thieves’ den, or vertical, trapped corridors in a beholder’s hive are all great examples of 3D battlefields. Remember, though, you’ll generally want the party to have some way to navigate a vertical battlefield (flying, ropes, etc).

In the latest session of my Enoach Desert campaign, my party briefly entered the Astral Plane and fought earth elementals scattered across broken pieces of a wizards’ tower that floated at various heights. They had to navigate not only along the x-axis but the y-axis, dodging boulder barrages, grasping earth elemental hands, and using shattered islands as cover. They had a blast and the fight, I’m sure, will be super memorable for months and years to come. And as an aside, this isn’t the last they’ve seen of a 3D battlefield in this dungeon…

Anyways, try this out! Even small alterations like adding a hill or tower to a battle can create tons of new decisions and branches for the combat; you don’t need to thrust your group into the Astral Plane.

In Summary

As Dungeon Masters, we can always improve our games. Why not start with combat encounters? Remember:
  1. Add flavorful reactions to combatants. These small moments can make combats infinitely more memorable.
  2. Sprinkle dialogue throughout the combat. The roleplaying need not end when weapons and spellbooks are drawn!
  3. Build fights in three dimensional environments. This adds extra flare and strategy to the battle.
Thanks for reading. If you liked this article, share it on social media like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit. Make sure to check back next week for another article, too.

Until then, fare thee well!

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