I believe all Dungeon Masters can improve in every aspect of their game, but I often hear stories of badly run combat encounters. Here are a few tips to improve the quality of your combat encounters, for both beginner and expert DMs.
1) Remember, You Are Playing The Bad Guys!
You’re not just rolling dice, attacking the PCs, activating special abilities, and dealing damage. The monsters want to win too.
I think everyone who has played RPGs would agree when I say that, on average, the difference between an easy encounter and a difficult encounter isn’t necessarily the strength of the opposition, but the willpower. If the monsters are playing to win, they are harder to beat.
Remember, a win from a monster’s perspective might not necessarily mean killing the PCs one at a time. It might not mean knocking them prone and stabbing them until they die.
It might mean that for some monsters, but you’ve got to look at why the monsters are there in the first place. There are a lot of good articles that dive into this (such as from AngryDM). Perhaps the monsters can win by calling for reinforcements and getting some help. The monsters are definitely going to need some help against these PCs and this would definitely help them, and give them a minor victory.
Give the monsters objectives, and strive to complete those objectives, but don’t necessarily keep those objectives a secret. It doesn’t matter if the PCs realise that the enemies are trying to trigger the alarm; you don’t have to be subtle about it. Straight away it gives the PCs an objective of their own! “Damn. Now we’ve got to focus on this guy, who’s not a big threat on his own, but if we don’t take him down fast he’s going to get reinforcements.”
This takes the heat off your spellcasters, your encounter boss, or your sergeant. It takes the focus away from the enemies who you want to stay alive for a turn or two to show off their special abilities and/or spells. Every attack that the PCs direct at a random grunt is a win for the other enemies on the board who aren’t grunts. A lot of dungeon masters have difficulty running boss encounters or encounters with a boss in them, because those villains are immediately the primary target of whatever the PCs can throw at them. Unless you give the players another objective, their “objective” is usually to kill the monsters in the order from most to least scary. There are some things you can do that can sort of work around this, but at the end of the day if you don’t give your PCs an objective they’ll make one up on their own and it’s usually not going to be super inventive.
Give your monsters an objective, even if that objective is flee. Even if that objective is survive and bring word back to their boss. Maybe the objective is to ensure the hostages don’t escape alive. Yeah you don’t want the hostages to be killed, but you don’t want them to be stolen either! So give the players some alternatives to worry about other than their own hit points. Play your monsters as the opposition.
Perhaps their goal is to capture the PCs, or to encourage the PCs that they shouldn’t be fighting; try to negotiate a ceasefire, even just for a little bit, so that they can get out of the danger of combat.
Every encounter you should have clear objectives. If there is no objective, why are the monsters even there? What’s their purpose? The players have objectives: they are here for loot, or to rescue the princess, stopping this or collecting that. What are the monster’s objectives?
The boss of a monster would go to a guard post and say “Oi you, make sure you don’t let anyone through that door” and bang, there’s an objective. Sure one of the ways to accomplish that objective might be to kill the party, but it’s not the only way to do it. Are they just going to fight with the PCs, where everyone’s just going to move up to each other and have a boring old fight like that? Well no… because they are going to be fighting over that door, which is going to be the objective. They’ll be guarding it, making sure nobody gets through, maybe have some archers behind it protected by the choke point. Maybe there’ll be some traps, maybe a hazard in the form of an iron portcullis they can lower or a gate they can close. Something that just makes that encounter just a little bit harder: that’s what it’s all about.
2) Don’t Let the Combat Slow to a Grind
It’s easier said than done, but try to avoid encounters that take forever, especially if it’s a mundane one. Sure, throw 50 zombies at the enemies, and have your players hold off against the horde, but if the encounter consists of 10 minute rounds where the DM individually moves up zombies before auto-attacking, it becomes a slog very quickly.
Try and keep the ball rolling. Don’t move all the zombies at once; split them up in the initiative order, into groups of about 10-20 models each. You can use different coloured cubes to represent the initiative order (blue cubes go at initiative 11, red at 4, for example). If you use miniatures, you could simply paint the bases different colours. Most miniatures go well with any colour on the base, especially minion minis like zombies or goblins. You would only need 2-3 different colour bases.
This does a few things, it spaces them out in the turn order. It means the round isn’t one PC attacks, one PC attacks, fifty zombies attack, one PC attacks, etc. It makes the rounds a bit less bursty, and less prone to random acts of momentum swings and/or death spirals if the zombies have a good round of attacks. We’re not playing Civilization, casually waiting around for the next turn: We are playing D&D, which means 6 second rounds, so let’s keep things moving!
3) Don’t Make The Combat Seem Boring
This is a different point for different reasons. As an example: The players are attacking some goblins. The goblin rolls to hit against the hero and misses. The character rolls to attack with his sword, hits, deals 8 damage, and the goblin dies. Absolutely boring. What weapon is the goblin using? Is he poking with a spear, is he slashing with a sword, is he aiming with a bow? Why did it miss? Why was the attack ineffective? Be descriptive! You don’t have to be J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, or J.R.R. Tolkien to describe action in a non-boring way.
“The arrow flies over his head” Done. Missed. Immediately better than “the arrow misses.” Which builds a better picture in your head, or the players heads?
An arrow doesn’t “miss”, it flies overhead. A sword plunges into the goblin’s chest. A mace shatters his shield and bruises his arm. If you’re doing kill-shots, you can be way more graphic. You decapitate him, you cut off his arm, cut off his leg, slice his stomach and his intestines fall to the floor. You can be as gruesome as you want here with very little effort.
If you really want to you can hand the mic to the players. “How did you kill him?” “Oh well, the barbarian slices him in twain from head to toe, the axe carving the goblin clean down the middle.” If you give your players the opportunity, they will rise to the challenge. Sure, not all players are going to describe the action like the characters on Critical Role, but in the same vein, not all DM’s are going to be able to do the accents or other shenanigans that Matt Mercer does. That’s fine, everyone starts somewhere. Matt Mercer wasn’t born on Geek and Sundry – he came out of the womb like everyone else.
So you just have to be wary of that – know and understand that players will improve with this, with experience. Sure, the first time you give the player an opportunity to describe their kill, it might be something leaning towards the bland side “I cut off his head, I stab him in the heart.” But it’s a hell of a lot better than “I deal 8 damage.”
4) Don’t Be Scared of Opportunity Attacks
I learnt this, believe it or not, by playing Blood Bowl, a game loosely based off American football and the Warhammer Fantasy universe. Whenever a player leaves another player’s reach, they make what is effectively an opportunity attack against them. Sure, you can avoid triggering any opportunity attacks but at the end of the day, you’ll end up with a low scoring affair with no action that feels boring and grinding.
As a DM, if you lose an encounter badly due to some well-rolled opportunity attacks against you, you can just throw another bunch of monsters at the players later. DM’s have a (theoretically) infinite amount of monsters that they can throw at the players over the course of the campaign.
Don’t be scared about opportunity attacks. Move your enemies around. Have them aim to complete their objectives. Perhaps they move to surround the squishy characters at the back. Perhaps they mob the frontline character and try and take him down first. Maybe they run past the PCs and attack the NPC the party is trying to keep alive for their quest.
Also, remember that players usually only have one reaction. If six goblins rush past the frontline hero, he can only stop one of them, and he has to hit first! It also means that player’s can't cast shield or counterspell if they are casters, nor can they use their reaction to halve incoming damage if they are rogues or barbarians.
5) Don’t Run Static Encounters
The player characters enter the room and see the goblins. The players move towards the goblins, and the goblins move towards the players. They meet in the middle. The melee characters form a battle line in combat. The ranged characters keep a distance and pluck away at the opposing forces. None of the melee characters risk opportunity attacks, and the battle stays static until one side is wiped out.
How utterly boring! Don’t run static encounters. Give your creatures space! It doesn’t matter if you have five goblins, or ten skeletons, or even a single boss vs the PCs: find a reason for your monsters to move. If you’re running a solo dragon encounter, and you’ve got no reason for the dragon to move, what the hell have you prepped?
If your encounters are static, start moving them! Whether you do it in your prep or on the fly, give them a reason to move, like terrain, flanking (and other similar abilities), spells, cover, traps, or hazards.
There’s no cap to DM skills. Matt Mercer hasn’t reached his peak yet. Neither has Matt Colville. Even venerable DM’s who have been around for 40+ years can still improve.
There's no such thing as 10/10. Even if your DM skills are at 100, there is no cap. You can still work to get them to 101, then to 102, then to 103. Read articles, watch videos, play more D&D on both sides of the screen, and you will improve at all aspects of your DMing!
Peter is an avid dungeon master, role-player, and story teller. When he's not running homebrew campaigns, he is creating new worlds, or he is reading and writing fantasy stories, forever immersing himself in the gaping black-hole known as the fantasy genre.
Artwork by Jeshields, whose work can be found and supported at https://www.patreon.com/jestockart .
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.