Combat is one of the most fun parts of Dungeons and Dragons. Each class has a slew of awesome abilities to fight with, and movement on the battle-grid opens up lots of opportunities for unique play. Though D&D has a lot to offer to make combat interesting, I still see a lot of fights fall short. I could ramble on all day about ideas to spice up D&D Combat, but to keep things quick and simple I’ve distilled my approach to designing combats into three main points that can be applied to any edition of D&D; Objectives, Positioning, and Cover & Terrain.
A fight should never just be about chipping away all the monster’s HP until it hits 0. For every fight, try to come up with an objective characters can discover, then achieve, to win the fight. For example, I had my party fight a giant Roc on a mountain, and there was an ancient mechanical ballista near the start of the fight. Instead of just hacking away at the Roc, some characters searched battlefield for metal bolts, another used engineering to get the ballista working, while the rest of the party kept the Roc distracted. After a few turns the party managed to fix and arm the ballista and fire it at the Roc, damaging it for half its health! Having a side objective beyond just doing damage gives players options in a fight, and can reward creative problem solving.
A character’s position on the battle grid should matter immensely. There should constantly be reasons for players to move around and react to the tide of battle. D&D mechanics and abilities can encourage players to stay in one spot: melee characters want to get locked with monsters in the front line while ranged characters bombard them from a fixed, safe distance. Ideally, every player should have a reason to move every turn. Making movement pivotal creates a dynamic fight and adds a layer of strategy.
There are many ways you can increase the importance of positioning, but one of my favorites is to give my biggest monsters giant area attacks that can be dodged by moving out of the way. Instead of making a dragon’s breath attack immediately force players in a cone make a save, have the dragon charge up their breath attack in a certain direction one turn, then cast it at the start of the next turn. This way, players are encouraged to run outside of the cone attack. Of course, once a monster attack can be dodged by movement, it should be much more punishing for players who don’t get out of the way: significantly Increase the save DCs and Damage of these “delayed area” attacks to strongly encourage players to find ways to avoid them.
But devastating attacks aren’t the only way to get your players moving around the battlefield, we can make fights even better by making good use of….
Cover & Terrain
Though cover is a thoroughly defined mechanic in D&D, I often see it go unused. To make cover matter, you need to make foes that have incredibly powerful ranged attacks, but put them in a battlefield that has bits of good (+4 or 5 AC) cover. Instead of pitting your party against 4 skeletal archers in an empty room, pit them against 4 ballista-wielding giant skeletons that do twice as much damage, and add big pillars characters can use as cover while they advance towards the monsters.
Now that we’re using cover, let’s start talking about the most important rule when designing your battlefield terrain: create an uneven battlefield. Some parts of the map should be very beneficial to occupy, while others should be very dangerous to stand in. Don’t create a battlefield with an even spread of cover, difficult terrain, and damaging terrain. Put a bunch of great cover on the left side of the battlefield, and place a bunch of pools of acid on the right. Once there are obvious places that your characters want to be and places that your characters want to avoid, combat gains a new dimension. Combat now isn’t just about damaging the enemy: it’s about controlling the battlefield and leveraging it to your advantage.
In a one-shot I’ve run for various parties, the entire adventure revolved around ascending a great mountain path, where falling off the side was a constant risk in every fight. Giant birds would try to drag adventurers off the edge while soldiers shoved the heroes closer to their doom. Players quickly learned to stay away from the edge when they could, and started using their own abilities to shove and push enemies off the edge.
This example highlights one more valuable lesson: now that all your fights have areas of valuable and dangerous terrain, give all your monsters and players ways to easily push and pull each other. Grappling is the basic way to drag foes around, and can be incredibly powerful once your position matters. D&D 5e has the shove action, which lets players use an attack to push a monster 5 feet, but I typically increase that to 10 feet to allow for greater impact and compensate for the lost attack.
These are the three core mechanics I recommend incorporating into your fight designs! Throughout all of these points, there’s a central theme: design with extremes. Rather than making a monster with a normal attack that does some damage, give it an attack that does massive damage but provides the opportunity to be dodged or countered. Don’t make your monster a little more resistant to fire damage, make it totally immune to all magic damage, but lose that immunity if you pry the glowing gem out of his head. These extremes create memorable moments for you and your players to get the most out of every battle.