Let’s talk D&D combat tactics.
Your players are slaughtering your monsters with ease.
Even the “super tough” ones are dropping like flies, and it’s not making you feel great. We can help!
Trigger Warning: There are two pictures featuring rats below. If you are not interested in seeing these images, why not check out this article on combat instead?
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D&D Combat Tactics
As Dungeon Masters, we all want our combat encounters to be memorable. The last thing we want as a DM is to have flaky, “too easy” or boring enemies. But we also don’t want to punish our players by playing unfairly or removing their skills for our personal benefit. By utilizing a few high-level combat tactics, you’ll ensure neither of these things are a problem for you from now on. Let’s get started.
This Article Focuses on Big-Picture Concepts
This is an article about several D&D combat tactics you can use as a Dungeon Master going forward. If you are looking for really specific advice for specific monsters or what to do in a particular setting, I’d suggest skimming through this article first. At the bottom, I provide a few links for other resources that can help you with particular enemies and encounters.
Body Language Can Be Deceiving
First and foremost, I think it’s important to address body language. As Dungeon Masters, we are continually looking for cues as to whether or not our players are engaged. Are they are on their phones? Are they showing up on time? Are they attending regularly? Asking questions? Engaging with the content frequently? You know the drill.
With combat, it can be a little trickier to figure out what’s going on in our players’ heads. Often, the players are sitting quietly, staring at a battle map or their character sheet for anywhere from 10-30+ minutes before they get a turn.
Players may look irritated or restless during combat rounds. Usually this means they are trying to figure out the best course of action for their character. It’s no secret that as players advance in level, their characters are given an incredible range of abilities to use. Add in synergies from other teammates and environmental concerns, and there can be a lot to consider each round.
Try Not to Worry About Their Grumpy Faces
Try not to worry too much if your players seem disengaged. As long as they’re ready to go on their turn and not being rude to the other players, you have nothing to worry about with engagement.
Don’t be surprised if players access their tech during this time, too. It’s very common for players to check their skills and abilities online, or even to see how other people have solved similar problems. Remember that if you don’t want your players accessing the internet during these types of encounters to be very clear about it up front.
Think About Your Combat Ratio
One of the easiest ways for players to annihilate a combat counter or be destroyed is if the combat ratio is off. Let’s use rats as an example.
If you have a party of three adventurers at level 1, and you give them just one rat to slay, they should easily defeat this. Much like if you stood in a room with two other people and a rat scurried across the floor–you might be grossed out–but you wouldn’t be worried that the three of you couldn’t defeat it.
I played in a game a long time ago where a new DM created a combat encounter on a ship with rats. This was D&D 3.5, but that’s irrelevant. The DM thought, hey, rats are easy. I’ll make it a challenge for them by giving them ten each to kill. In 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, rats have an average of 1 HP (1d4-1) and an AC of only 10. One easy hit and the rat is dead.
What if there were thirty rats?
What if you were actually standing in a room with thirty aggressive rats? In most cases, I think the three of you would probably turn and run. Which is what my party should have done, but instead we TPK’ed in our first combat scenario. A DM’s nightmare.
Thirty Rats Killed Us
The reason behind this example is simple. When three level-1 players go through their turns in a combat round, they each get one movement and one action, plus a bonus action. Six actions total at the maximum, in many cases. That’s it. When THIRTY rats go, they get THIRTY combat actions. Sure, they only hit for one damage. They could miss. But if you have a wizard with only seven hit points to start, they can easily be defeated in just one round.
There is too high of a ratio here for there to be any chance of survival. If the Dungeon Master had put maybe five or six rats in the hull, that would have been better. A challenge for three level-one characters with comically poor rolls, but certainly achievable. Thirty is just insane.
Consider the Killing Ratio
Think about how many enemies you have versus how many players you have. Keep the ratio higher (but not crazy like my example) for easier enemies, and much, much lower for more challenging enemies. A classic, very difficult monster like an ancient dragon often fights alone because they are so difficult. A high AC, legendary actions, the ability to hurt multiple party members at once… these things all add up to the Dungeon Master not needing additional enemies in many cases.
Think About Your Turn Real-Estate and Player Proficiency
On a related note, you’ll want to consider turn real-estate in addition to overall numbers. This is largely something to consider with boss fights. Many challenging enemies in Dungeons & Dragons receive legendary actions. These are extremely powerful, because they basically give the enemy an additional three actions (or action points, essentially) every round. Legendary actions can easily overwhelm a party that would otherwise successfully defeat a creature.
If only three additional actions can change the course of a battle, consider the meaning of this. If your players are playing at their very best, using everything at their disposal, that is going to be a very different fight from a table of new players who maybe don’t understand their characters as well.
Perhaps the newer players are foregoing opportunities during a fight, and losing some of their turn real-estate. It is a much different task to plan combat for these two tables, and you’ll want to keep that in mind when you’re considering enemies for your encounters.
Enemy Skills Will Impact This
Much in the same way that legendary actions give enemies more turn real-estate, certain actions can have a similar impact by reducing player turns. If an enemy can cast confusion, hold person, stun, or otherwise take a player out of combat for any amount of time, it can have a devastating impact on the players’ overall ability to succeed in the encounter.
If the party’s primary fighter is stunned and the healer is silenced, the enemies would likely have no problem picking off everyone else.
You’ll want to use this tactic with extreme caution, in my opinion. Consider the fact that the humans who are sitting at your table are there because they want to PLAY. They are not going to have as much fun if they’re routinely removed from the game with one mechanic or another.
Think About the Environment
I’m a huge advocate of creating interesting combat environments. It adds an additional layer to the encounter and can really bring the scene to life.
Usually, putting NPCs at risk, adding some kind of explodey timer, flood, poison gas, etc., will add challenging elements to the fight. It will make the experience more difficult for both the players and the enemies in the scene.
One unexpected benefit is the creative aspect it adds. Your players will each surely have several unusual utility skills or weird items they rarely get to use. When a combat environment challenges them to think outside the box, players may get to use some of their less-frequently highlighted character features.
That’s a win for everyone. You’ve just crafted a memorable encounter that was super engaging for your players, and your player feels like a genius and a hero because they were able to use something cool and weird they had saved for JUST this sort of thing.
Think About the Enemies
Dungeon Master, you are facilitating this combat and running the enemies, but they are not YOU. You may know that you should always attack the healer or casters first, that damage should be stacked, and that area-of-effect attacks are a great way to take out your party. The monsters do not necessarily know that.
For example, powerful wizard with high intelligence will know this. A goblin will not.
A scrappy city guard with a dark past will use items lying around to fight. A posh nobleman defending himself probably won’t.
How Would the Monsters Behave?
The best thing you can do is try to think about how these creatures would behave. Does everyone present really want to fight to the death? My enemies often try to flee. Maybe it’s not really their fight, and when they see it’s not going in their favor, they want to preserve their own life.
It adds excitement when this happens for two reasons: 1) my players know the enemy is close to death, and 2) it changes the parameters of the fight. Now the enemy wants to escape. The players have to try to stop it at all costs if there’s good reason to do so.
I will sometimes talk this out aloud, so my players can hear what I’m considering. This isn’t necessary, and I’m positive a lot of DMs would disagree with it, but I like my players to know that I’m trying to be as genuine with my monsters as possible. It’s important to me that they know it’s not me versus them. It’s them versus the monsters I’m trying to roleplay.
For example, I might say: This succubus hangs out here, but she doesn’t really want to die for this cause. I think she’s done with you guys. She moves toward the exit.” Or something like that. Then the players are reminded that the monster has its own motives.
Sometimes this leads to my players wanting to interrogate monsters instead of just killing them, too. What does this monster have to live for that’s so interesting? There’s loads of fun that can be had there. Ultimately, this discretion is up to you.
The Players Will Almost Always Win. That’s a Good Thing.
The players should usually win. Sometimes it should feel close, tense, and scary for them. Sometimes it should feel balanced. Sometimes it should feel really easy. They are the heroes of the story, and they SHOULD be winning. Don’t feel bad if your players are decimating your enemies–just apply some of the concepts above and give them a harder fight or two to keep them on their toes.
Avoid Removing or Nerfing Your Players’ Skills
You are of course welcome to do as you please, but my advice is to refrain from nerfing your players’ characters. Your players are excited to have powerful features and skills that make them terrifying to behold in a combat scenario.
Taking these away waters down their experience and makes it less fun for them. If you find your players’ characters are just too tough for the encounters you’re running… make your encounters harder. It really is that simple. Then everyone wins!
You get to play with insane, interesting monsters, the players get to SEE these creatures in action, and they get to use their amazing, awesomely overpowered-feeling skills. That’s FUN, and this is a GAME.
Additional D&D Combat Tactics Resources
I Want To Create More Interesting Encounters
If you’re looking for general advice on how to make your combat encounters more memorable, check out this article:
I Want More Specific Monster Help
If you want advice and examples on how to run specific monsters, I strongly suggest the series by Keith Ammann called “The Monsters Know What They’re Doing.” He has several books you can find here (Amazon). He also has a blog where he explains tactics for individual creatures and shares his ideas.
I Want Help With an Exact Encounter With Additional Context
You have a few options here. First, I’d encourage you to comment below! I’d love to hear about what’s going on in your game, and I’d be happy to throw in my opinion.
I’d also suggest you head over to Reddit, of course. DMAcademy is very helpful and usually nets a fast response. I have received help and responded with ideas over there quite a bit myself.
As Dungeon Masters, we aim to use D&D combat tactics to create memorable battles. We don’t want them to be too easy to win or uninteresting for our players. By employing some basic combat strategies, we can be sure that these problems never arise.
Did I miss something you love to use? Have additional thoughts or ideas on combat tactics? I’d love to read about it in the comments below.
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