Combat in D&D is supposed to be exciting. It’s your character and party in a life-or-death situation. There are spells flying overhead, swords clashing, and battle cries echoing across the battlefield.
…But, more often than not, combat stifles. It turns into a bunch of people standing within arm’s reach, killing their each other with basic math.
D&D 5e combat should be dynamic. It should excite you. It should feel like a constant back-and-forth between your character and their enemies.
So today, we’re going to look at how to make D&D combat more interesting.
That’s what I’m here for.
We’re going to cover five ways to make your battles more epic. They are:
Let’s start with the most common problem; stagnating movement.
Use Movement to Make Combat More Dynamic
Alright. So, one of the biggest issues and complaints I see is that combat in D&D 5e stagnates once everyone gets into battle positions.
Your frontline fighters engage in melee. Your ranged combatants find a shooting position. Your spellcasters stay far back from the fight.
Basically, once everyone find their spot, they stay there for the duration of the fight.
So, you can see how combat gets a little boring and stale when this happens. Especially if it happens every. Single. Fight.
Encouraging movement throughout a battle engages your players and keeps the fight moving (literally). You and your players need to think where everyone’s going to be next turn or the turn after that. Even better, it means the board state (how the battlefield looks) in constant motion.
This is one of the most basic things you can do to spice up your D&D 5e combats.
You may be wondering then; "how do I encourage movement in combat?"
Well, there are a few ways.
- Keep the enemies moving
- Force the player characters to move
- Alter the terrain
- Introduce environmental hazards
Let’s go over each of these briefly starting with enemy movement
Keep the Enemies Moving
First off, as the Dungeon Master, you can just have the NPCs move around more. Yes, this will draw a lot of opportunity attacks from the players. But, you can draw them into more advantageous positions for the other creatures or force players into more difficult situations.
Moving the enemies means your players need to pay attention to the battlefield.
If you’re playing with intelligent creatures, move them into ambush positions. Or, make sure they keep something between themselves and the ranged player characters. Things like force your players to stay aware of the changing battle positions.
Force Player Characters to Move
Another way to keep combat moving (again, another movement pun) is to control the player characters’ movements.
Spells, creature features, and the Shove action are ways to force player movement. They want to find a cozy little spot somewhere in the battlefield. Don’t let them have it. Anytime they settle in a spot, find a way to move them.
Now, this might not be strategically advantageous. But, it livens up the combat. Even better, it’ll instill a sense of panic in your players.
If your players are forced to move, they’ll feel endangered. And, they’ll need to pay attention and adapt to what’s happening.
Now, I’m not saying you should deliberately put your players at a disadvantage. That makes it less fun and can spiral into an overall bad experience.
What I’m saying is your players should feel threatened but still be able to succeed. Forcing them to move should make them alter their perspective on a fight. Not put them in a situation that really threatens them.
Finding that balance is difficult. But, your combat encounters will benefit from it.
Alter the Battlefield
We’ll go into further detail on why changing the environment is another good idea for creating dynamic fights. But, for now, let’s focus on using it to encourage movement.
Now, this method should make sense given the settings surroundings.
The idea is to shift the environment to force NPCs and player characters to keep moving. This way, everyone’s on the same playing field and at the mercy of nature.
Rising water, shifting hallways, moving carriages, ethereal walls that phase in-and-out of the material plane, those moving sidewalks in airports; anything that changes the environment of the battlefield will work. Your goal with whatever you use is to make sure players need to move to stay relevant in the fight. If they don’t, they either end up in a disadvantageous spot or some other negative outcome like becoming Restrained or in the middle of difficult terrain.
These are all ways to force your players to move without using actions. And, that’s the key point here.
Introduce Environmental Hazards
This one’s similar to changing the environment. But, it comes with the added benefit of causing damage.
Use dangerous, natural hazards to keep everyone moving. Because if they don’t move, they’re gonna start taking damage. And, ain’t nobody got time for that.
Here’s some ideas to endanger-ify your battlefields:
- A rising pool of lava
- The ceiling of a mine shaft is unstable and is prone to falling rocks
- Combat starts in an area full of hidden sinkholes
- The flora is unnaturally active and doesn’t like people being near it
- A geyser field. Just…a field of scalding hot water that bursts out of the ground at any moment
Or, anything else you can think of.
The catch is you need to show your players where the hazards are ahead of time. Otherwise, it comes across as a "gotcha" kind of trap. Which, in turn, makes you look like a jerk. So, you need to find some way of showing what kind of hazards are present and when they’ll happen.
With this, your players will need to pay attention to their surroundings. And, you’ll encourage them to stay out of the danger zones.
Alright. That about covers using movement to make your 5e combats more interesting. Let’s move on to enemies.
Use Different Types of Enemies
As a DM, you have the ability to field whatever you want for a combat.
Here’s what I suggest; use different enemy types for your battles. It could be as simple as using a mixture of melee and ranged enemies. Or, you could get exciting and combine unlikely pairings like goblins and ghosts or giants and druids.
Using more tactical combinations means your players need to think more about their combat strategy.
The most basic form is building a cohesive unit of creatures that covers the other’s weaknesses. Having a frontline fighter, mobile damage dealer, and ranged unit means the party needs to prioritize their targets. And, it encourages strategic thinking.
Unique creature combinations subvert your players’ expectations.
Everyone expects kobolds to work with dragons or to have goblins be the underlings to orcs or hobgoblins. There’s nothing wrong with these. They’re still valid, and a lot of times it’s good to fulfill your players’ expectations.
But, getting weird with it and throwing unexpected combinations at your players makes for memorable encounters.
Partner goblins up with a giant clan. Create a werewolf pack that uses elementals to help in attack a nearby town. Have necromancers and construct engineers work together to create arcane-mechanical-undead monsters. Let your imagination go wild.
Now, I will say, try to work anything into your campaign’s story.
Nonsensical encounters can be fun. But, they can also ruin the immersion of your game if they feel too out of place.
That being said; your players will need to be equally creative in handling these strange combats. If they’re dealing with a bunch of seemingly unrelated enemies, one strategy might not work. The players can’t rely on tried-and-true tactics to breeze through combat.
For example, in an undead-based campaign, Clerics have a clear advantage with their Turn Undead feature. But, introduce Flesh Golems or other constructs, and suddenly the party can’t rely on the Cleric to cut combats short.
With the Monster Manual and other sourcebooks at your disposal, you can really let your imagination run free with different enemy combinations.
Want a little inspiration? Here’s a short list of unusual creature combinations:
- A small goblin raiding party riding a bulette
- A lizardfolk shaman ambushes the party with a water elemental
- A roost of harpies have tamed a manticore to attack travelers passing through their mountains
- A yuan-ti brood are bribing a hill giant with food to terrorize a nearby town
- A bandit gang uses oozes to trap merchants and other travelers on the road
These raise questions of why, how, and what is happening? All of which gives you opportunities for more adventures.
Now, the enemies are important. But, just as important to creating dynamic D&D 5e combats is by using the environment.
Create Dynamic Environments
We already touched on this a little bit. But, let’s dive a little deeper.
Use dynamic environments to encourage movement and creative thinking in your players. Your battlefields can be as simple or complex as you like. The goal is to craft a memorable experience and force combat to flow rather than stagnate.
What makes a dynamic environment?
Honestly, a dynamic environment is any setting that changes over the course of a combat. So, the limits are 1) your campaign setting and 2) your imagination.
Now, I’m not saying things need to move on their own. While this is a fun and memorable way to make a unique battlefield, it’s not the only way. In fact, I suggest making sure your battlefields have objects the player characters and NPCs can interact with to change the board in their favor.
What does this look like?
Well, a naturally dynamic battlefield would be something like fighting atop several moving carriages or inside an unstable cavern with frequently falling rocks. While an interactive environment might include a trap that your enemies have set up or the classic chandelier drop.
Anything that alters the board over the course of combat is a dynamic environment.
The best part? Almost any environment can be dynamic if you’re willing to work with your players.
Unless you’re in a plain, empty room, the party and NPCs usually have something they can interact with. It’s up to you an whether their actions affect the board, how much they change it, or if they can at all.
Let’s look at an example.
The party falls into a bandit ambush along a forest trail. Pretty typical set up. Characters can climb the trees for a better vantage point (and could take fall damage should something unsavory happen); they can take cover behind foliage or rocks; they can light a fire to cut off escape or create choke points; they can attempt to knock over trees or dislodge rocks; or anything else you can think of.
The point is almost any battlefield can change based on the actions of players and NPCs.
Another great way to make your environments interesting is to introduce verticality.
A lot of combats happen on a flat or semi-flat plain (think a short platform along the far wall). Now, these work because 1) they’re easy to run and 2) you can populate them with a variety of features. But, giving players and NPCs options for moving up or down to other levels gives them more tactical options.
Having enemies a story up keeps them out of range of your frontline, melee player characters. This means, even if they stop to fight on the lower level, they still need to close in on the upper level eventually. Even better, you might end up splitting the party for a tense, multi-level showdown.
I actually had this happen in my campaign. The party was sent to stop a drow clan from attacking a nearby march. They all split up across four levels in an abandoned mansion. The Barbarian cleared most of the top level, the Rogue engaged an archer in the attached watch tower, the Paladin fought a few guards in their quarters, and the Cleric and Sorcerer were busy with the majordomo/martial artist/bodyguard.
It was awesome.
Here are some dynamic combat settings you can work into your game:
- Introduce a moving hazard (rising water or lava, enclosing walls, mobile flora, etc)
- Place the characters on a moving platform
- Provide plenty of objects to hide behind or move (crates, rocks, barrels)
- Include verticality like splitting enemies across multiple floors in a stairwell
- Give characters options to interact with traps and other board features with their action
Since we’ve addressed the physical elements of your combats, let’s take a look at the more metaphorical aspects. Starting with combat goals.
Give Your Players a Goal
Loads of D&D 5e combats have one simple goal; kill or be killed.
Sometimes you’ll run into situations where you don’t want to kill (capture, interrogate, a friendly bout). But, most fights degrade into "kill the enemy before they kill me."
Give your players a goal. It can be anything different than killing the enemy NPCs. But, they can’t "win" the combat until they meet the goal.
I suggest giving goals because of a couple reasons
- It means the party can still fail even if they defeat all the enemies
- It encourages players to think outside of their combat abilities during a fight
- It adds a heightened level of pressure to the battle
Now, no one wants to fail. So, I’m not saying you should go out of your way to make the party fail. That makes you a crappy DM and makes the game less fun for the players.
But, I am saying that giving your players a failable goal drives them to think differently. Even better, if pushes them to stay engaged with the combat. Fighting will happen, but they need to think ahead about how to accomplish the provided goal.
The possibility of failure pushes the party to work harder and pay more attention to the direction of combat. And, it gives them opportunities to use their non-combat abilities.
Scaling a wall, rushing to a cart, deactivating a trap, all of these (or whatever else you come up with) can’t be solved with an attack.
…Well, okay, you might be able to deactivate a trap that way. But, that’s beside the point.
Anyway. You should encourage your players to use their non-combat racial, class, or background features and skills to accomplish their goal.
This creates a more interesting flow for the battle. And the best part? Your players need to get creative about their strategy. Which, in turn, adds more pressure.
All of this builds more pressure on the party.
And, pressure makes for more memorable experiences. Your players should feel pushed and challenged with their set goal. It adds a layer of complexity to your combats that force them to actually think about their actions.
Here are some basic goals to include in your D&D 5e battles:
- Deactivate a magical trap
- Stop a summoning ritual in the next room
- Reach a kidnapped NPC
- Free a captured creature
- Find the hidden pieces of a key
Now, the second part of adding goals to your combats is adding time limits.
Set a Time Limit
Everybody loves time limits.
(That was sarcasm.)
But, setting a time limit for your goals and combats adds more pressure on your players. They suddenly don’t have all the time in the world to finish a fight. So, you end up pushing the flow of combat.
Like goals, time limits give your combats a different win condition rather than killing everything. The best part is your goals and time limits often work together. Because what’s a goal without a ticking clock to mark the end?
This is a great way to encourage your players to keep moving and think they’re actions through.
Setting a time limit means:
- Your players need to pay attention to the combat
- The party needs to work together to make sure they don’t run out of time
- They can’t waste time fighting if they have a goal
Now, an important part of using time limits is you need show or tell your players how long they have. Otherwise, it’s not fair.
If you set a time limit for the combat or goal and you don’t tell your players, it’ll feel like a "gotcha" encounter. And, you’ll come off as a jerk.
However you do it, you need to telegraph how much time the party has. Whether an NPCs tells them ahead of time, the villain tells their cronies to give them the time they need, or a magical number appears and counts down over the course of the fight. Anyway to make sure your players stay informed.
Also, make it clear how many rounds this takes (usually 6 seconds/round).
Time limits should be achievable. If the party needs to cross 500 feet in six seconds, that’s going to feel unfair. Not impossible (Dimension Door has that range), but still very difficult.
But, the party should feel some pressure. Honestly, any amount of time is going to add some pressure to any situation.
Find the balance between fairness and intensity that works for your group.
Here are a few examples of timed encounters you can use:
- The cultists have started their ritual and will finish in 10 minutes
- The noble’s carriage and caravan are five minutes away from town when bandits attack
- The walls start closing in and the only way to stop it is to reach the deactivation switch
- A fire elemental starts triggering a volcanic eruption and needs to be stopped before it destroys a nearby town
- The room starts to fill with water and the party needs to catch a specific, rune-marked quipper to stop it
There are loads of ways to use time limits in your D&D 5e combats. So, get creative.
That’s it on how to make D&D combat more interesting. Now you have more tools in your DM belt to craft memorable combat encounters:
- Use movement to keep characters from staying in one spot the entire battle
- Deploy a variety of enemy types to force strategic and tactical thinking
- Create dynamic environments and battlefields to encourage movement and situational awareness
- Give your players a goal aside from beating all the bad guys
- Set time limits on your combat encounters to put pressure on the party
Now, I’m going to leave you with one final piece of advice: you don’t need to do this for every combat. Sometimes a more mundane, straightforward fight is needed. Which means the more interesting combats stand out more and make for more memorable experiences.
Which of these tactics are you most excited about? Leave a comment with which one is your favorite.
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