Exciting D&D encounters are easy to put together, and fun to run. Promise.
Let me show you how.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are my own. This post may contain affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission.
Make Combat More Engaging
One of the most important aspects of any D&D campaign is the encounters that players face. Whether it’s a battle with a fierce monster, a tense negotiation with a powerful villain, or a puzzle to solve, encounters are what make the game exciting and engaging for players.
Crafting interesting encounters that keep players engaged and on the edge of their seats can be challenging without the right tools.
This Article Focuses on Fighting
Anyone can click a random encounter generator to make a few creatures pop up, but to make a truly unforgettable experience, a few more magical touches are required. In this article, we’ll explore some tips and strategies for creating more interesting D&D combat encounters that will keep your players coming back for more.
First, Pick the Enemies for your Encounter
This is usually the easiest part. You can use a set of enemies that’s pre-prescribed in your adventure module, pick a few of your favorites you feel fit the story and are a good challenge for your players, or you can use a random generator. I love starting with a generator, because it gives me some creative inspiration for planning the rest of the fight.
Answer Some Questions for your Monsters
Once you have your enemies selected for your D&D encounter, you need to ask yourself a few questions. You may need to adjust your enemies depending on how you answer these.
Why are these creatures here?
It needs to make sense. Your players will likely think about why there are goblins in a nobility household, harpies in the city, or why IN THE WORLD IS THERE AN ILLITHID IN THIS NORMAL, ABOVE-GROUND TAVERN?!
Make sure your selections either make natural sense for the surroundings, or have a viable explanation. It would behoove you to know at least the basic lore for the monsters you select. If you don’t know about mind flayers and you plant one, you are making a very bold choice, and likely, future choices, whether you realize it or not.
What will my players Achieve By Defeating These Creatures?
Assuming you are building a violent combat scenario here, the players are likely to kill or incapacitate the enemies. What will they get? XP? Gold? Answers? A key to the locked desk drawer? Lots of weird trash? It’s good to at least have an idea of what they players will get after winning. They will probably win.
Are There Any Long-Term Consequences to Choosing These Monsters?
Does it tie into the larger story in any way? It’s totally fine if the answer here is no, but you should be aware of if there’s a bigger connection.
This is an area a lot of Dungeon Masters struggle with. It is always a LITTLE bit of a guess as to how players are going to handle a conflict. I have found that many times, my table humans will approach an encounter or conflict in a way I hadn’t even considered.
As a Dungeon Master, it’s our job to simply understand the mechanics of the environment and try to facilitate the choices our players make. That’s what makes tabletop games so fun, after all. Limitless imagination!
As a Dungeon Master, it’s our job to understand the mechanics of the environment and try to facilitate the choices our players make.
The “Easy, Easier, Hard” Approach in D&D Encounters
I like to take the approach of easy-easier-hard. I give them an encounter I know they’ll win, then another one I know they’ll annihilate, then one that’s more challenging and I’m not as sure about. Not necessarily in that order, but the idea is that they get a couple of easier fights before a tougher one. Here’s why.
The easy fights do a few things. For me, it helps me learn about my players’ tactics, their strengths and weaknesses, and what they can handle at their current level.
My players can practice their teamwork, learn about using any new skills, spells, or items they have, and build confidence for a couple of battles. Then a harder fight comes their way. They know how to fight well as a team at this point and will use their characters’ abilities more effectively. They also go into the fight with excitement and confidence after coming off a few wins.
If you’re constantly beating them down with one near-death fight after another, it’s a completely different sort of game. That might be more in line with what you and your players want to experience, though. I have done that before, and I’ve found with my current group that it demoralizes them. So I avoid it. YMMV.
GM Aside: Combat Difficulty in D&D Encounters
Aside: If you think your players will struggle with a battle, and it turns out too easy for them, that’s okay. You haven’t “lost.” This is a learning experience for you! You can tweak your encounters going forward.
Please don’t feel like you need to “prove” yourself to your players by devastating them in battle. It is fun for them to win. They want to win.
If you are giving them fights that they are doing well with, that is not a bad thing. They are the heroes of the story, and there is nothing wrong with them winning a lot of the time. Think about any video game you’ve ever played. In most combat encounters, you’re not constantly fighting to the edge of death. Most fights are actually pretty easy or only slightly challenging.
It’s okay for the players to win. It is not a reflection of your inability to run combat well, choose good encounter details, or use tactics effectively.
Play the Monsters as They Would Behave
Not all monsters are idiots. Not all of them are super tacticians, either. During your combat encounter, you can use their intelligence and wisdom ability scores for guidance if you’re not sure of their general lore and behavioral quirks.
Low-intelligence, super angry creatures probably will not attack spellcasters or healers first (unless they happen to be closest). They don’t know this is a good tactic, and they likely don’t notice the visual cues of these types of damage dealers. They will likely attack whoever is closest.
Higher-intelligence monsters will absolutely have better tactics, including using the terrain to their advantage, stacking damage, targeting healers and casters first, and ditching their peers if the fight turns against their favor. Is it a fight they’re willing to die for?
The tactics of the creatures will increase or decrease the combat’s difficulty. This is part of the reason why many DMs largely ignore CR ratings.
Change Tactics Mid-Fight, if Needed
If you’ve given your players a combat scenario that you feel should be a win and they are struggling, throw them a Deus Ex Machina. It’s no big deal to do this occasionally. Sometimes it can even lead to new plot points that are funny or interesting. Let me give you an example.
My players are fighting a group of thugs at night in a city alleyway. It’s foggy, damp, and their sight is limited. This makes things extra challenging.
These thieves seem to apparate in and out of sight, dodging behind discarded crates and stepping quickly away into the fog. It’s hard to tell how many there actually are.
The fight goes sideways and one of my players goes down. Then another. This is unexpected, so a small guard patrol comes by and disrupts the scene. Maybe they scare away the thugs, or maybe they step in and fight, too.
Now, I’ve saved my players, but I’ve also given them a new ally to meet, and potentially a way for me to lead them into another quest, if that is what needs to happen. I don’t want to rescue them every time a fight is a little too hard, but sometimes it’s good to throw them a life raft.
Optional, but Awesome: Light Up Your D&D Encounter with a Great Map
This part is not necessary. Our imaginations are excellent tools, and I love running theater of the mind from time-to-time in combat. It’s lovely in it’s effectiveness and simplicity; however, having a tricked out game table that your players oooh and ahhh over is super fun, too!
D&D Encounter Maps That Are Excellent and Versatile
There are so many awesome resources for tabletop games these days. A quick search on Reddit will have you set for free maps.
If you want to see how to make your own maps using Midjourney, check out our article here.
A lot of the free maps won’t work for very specific encounters, though, so you may consider supporting an artist on Patreon or purchasing more specific map offerings to enhance your table.
Shoutout to My Favorite Map Makers on Patreon
My favorite digital map providers on Patreon as of this writing are (in no particular order):
Check them out!
Physical vs. Digital Maps for D&D Encounters
Depending on your setup, you may prefer digital or physical maps. In my D&D room, I am fortunate enough to have a TV in my game table, and another one on the wall. I have it setup so that I can cast to both of them from my laptop. This means I can create or buy digital maps and show them off.
I also love a physical map. There’s something really fun about placing physical terrain on a paper map or cardboard tile.
If you have a bit more monetary resources and want a modular 3D setup on your table (but don’t QUITE want to shell out for Dwarven Forge or deal with 3D printing) at nearly 700 (!) pieces, this set is a good compromise.
Examine Your Map
This is very important.
Study your map for any interesting details that you can use to help immerse your players. You will find more details on a custom-made map or purchased digital maps, in my experience, but there’s plenty to use on a random tile setup or one of the flip books above.
Find something on the map that stands out to you and make it extra special! This is a very easy way to make combat more interesting and varied each time your players roll for initiative.
Create Your Own Maps
Another option is to simply create maps for your D&D encounters. This can be quite time-consuming, but also a lot of fun. I talk a bit more about this below.
Choose a Few Unique “Features” for this Combat Encounter
You’ve got your monsters. You know why they’re there, and why your PCs are fighting.
Now, you need something to spice up the experience. Here are a few ideas for you to get you started:
- Something happens on a timer
- Think poison releasing, flooding, an NPC pulls a lever, etc.
- Backup arrives, for enemies or players
- The environment changes drastically
- A fire breaks out, the raging storm picks up and creates visibility issues, the dam breaks, a stampede of catoblepas storms by, siege weapons crumble the city walls, ect.
- Innocent lives are at stake
- Players have to choose to save people OR buildings
- Players have to choose which NPCs to save (bonus if you can incorporate both saved and dead NPCs into the story somehow, going forward)
- Monsters change their playing latitude (e.g. they get into an airship, tunnel underground, dive into the ocean)
- One of the enemies seems “not that bad”
Use Your Map as a Guide
When you find something interesting or fun-looking, incorporate it into the fight. Is there a barrel with an explody symbol? It explodes 2 rounds into the fight, knocking back and injuring everyone in a 15 foot radius. Or maybe an enemy sets it on fire his first turn and puts the entire tavern behind it, full of NPCs, in danger.
A weirdly-shaped rock? It’s actually a disguised creature, or a cache of treasure. Someone trips over it during the fight and reveals this secret, changing the course of the battle.
You get the idea. Find something that stands out to you and make it extra special! This is a very easy way to make combat more interesting and varied each time your players roll for initiative.
Harness Your Ideas to Create a Custom Map
Obviously if you make the map yourself, the sky is the limit. Have fun with it and be creative! Remember, this is just a game and it’s supposed to be fun.
Tools for This Task
You can keep it retro by hand drawing your map on graph paper or a great dry erase mat.
If you want to go digital, I really like the Dungeondraft software by Megaspoot. I’m not affiliated with them or anything; I just think it’s a lot of fun. I use the Forgotten Adventures assets via their Patreon.
Closing Thoughts: D&D Encounters
Combat encounters are a central element of the Dungeons & Dragons experience, and creating engaging experiences can be a challenge.
With just a little bit of forethought, we can enhance the excitement, tension, and complexity of our battles, making them more memorable and rewarding for our players.
Remember to vary the environment, enemies, objectives, and conditions of your fights, and to balance the difficulty level based on your party’s abilities and preferences. You can do it! I have faith in you.
If you’re looking for advice on improving a major villain encounter, make sure to check out our article on creating a memorable boss fight.
Have you ran a combat experience that was super memorable or exciting? I’d love to read about it in the comments below.
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