How to make combat in D&D more interesting

Make combat more interesting for your players with our tips

D&D is one of those games that’s as interesting as the players make it. It has the potential to hit dizzying heights of fun, intrigue and entertainment, but equally, the wrong ideas can turn it into an absolute borefest.

Combat is a major aspect of D&D and a single combat can last over an hour with the potential for many players and many enemies, all taking turns, it can be easy for combat to become a turgid slog-fest. Equally, unbalanced combat will either be too easy for players, or too challenging, giving them no hope of success. Whatever combat challenge you face, we’ve got some tips for you below.

Keep Combat Moving Quickly

A lot of the games I DM include many players (usually 5-8). That’s a lot of turns! And that’s before you even consider the many enemies involved. Between each player’s turn, they may have to wait for a lot of dice rolls, decisions and outcomes to be determined so keeping up the pace is extremely important so players don’t get bored between turns. Below are a few tips to keep things moving nice and quickly:

  • Know what your character can do – This one applies for both players and DMs; knowing your character’s abilities will prevent lengthy amounts of time checking abilities and rules. And on that note:
  • Know the rules – If you know the rules, you know what you can do and how, it makes everything quicker and more fun for everyone. You don’t have to know everything, but at least know the things that are often relevant for you.
  • Dice rolling economy – If you have lots of the same or similar combatants, you can use a single roll to check for all these characters at the same time. Also, don’t be afraid to use average damage from monster stats so you don’t have to roll extra dice.
  • Have multiple sets of dice – Sometimes, you’ll need to roll to hit for multiple combatants at a time, you can save a lot of time by just having multiple sets of dice and rolling them together
  • You don’t have to describe everything – Sure, it’s great to hear how the PC gutted the Orc, but in a long combat, some of this can just become fluff. Save the gory details for significant moments like the death of the boss or when one of the PCs faints

Turn combat into a puzzle

Nothing is more dull in combat than just rolling to hit, make combat tactical, respect your player’s intelligence, force them to have to solve a problem. This makes for infinitely more interesting combat, especially when failure to do so will result in them being beaten. Below are a few ideas of how to make combat more puzzling, but there are likely loads of your own ideas you can come up with too:

  • Resistances – Use enemies that are resistant to certain types of attacks
  • Flying – Use enemies that can fly (and therefore able to evade certain attacks). Even better, have combat occur in the air to add another element of danger.
  • Have secret conditions for death – Have enemies that can only be permanently killed under certain conditions (like destroying a cursed heirloom). Be careful though, too obtuse a condition can easily lead to frustration, make sure you give your players clues.
  • Different enemies – Use a mixture of enemies creating different threats e.g. melee attackers, spell casters and ranged attackers. You can take this further by having enemies that burrow, fly, swim and all sorts of other abilities.
  • Use non-combat problems – Have other problems for the party to solve during the combat such as rescuing captives before they’re killed, a magical artefact that must be kept safe or innocent bystanders that may be killed by careless combat.
  • Great escapes – Have combat in which players are trying to escape a huge creature while fighting off smaller ones. Chariots and other mounted combat could be great for this

Always remember as well that combat isn’t the only way to resolve an issue, negotiating, stealth, bribery, deception etc are all legitimate tactics. Give players these options and where possible, try to hint at the motivations of enemies players may come across.

Use the environment to your advantage

The environment can completely change how a combat pans out, imagine the difference between fighting some kobolds in a cave compared to fighting some kobolds across multiple rope bridges spanning a chasm 100ft above ground. The enemy is the same, but the risks are much higher, as are the tactics. Does the player dare jump from one bridge to another? Do they attempt a grapple from that height? What impact could a fire-spell or arrow have on combat? And will melee characters be able to swarm a single enemy?

Here’re some environmental ideas to spice up your combat encounters:

  • Verticality – Height creates an additional peril and challenge to be overcome. Imagine combat occurring on the backs of flying dragons, on the roof of a palace or while climbing through giant trees.
  • Water – Water can be equally as treacherous. A kraken could drag a character into the murky depths, aquatic creatures might fight you in the water where mobility and fighting ability are impaired. Whirlpools and naval combat can offer even more variety to a battle and provide the possibility of naval, land and sea combat depending on what happens to the characters.
  • Explosives – Why not add into the mix barrels of gunpowder or other hazardous material that can be spread across the battlefield. The wizard may not want to launch that fireball he’s been saving with gunpowder around… Or maybe he would?
  • Hazards – How about traps or other hazards like spiked walls. Combatants could just smash their opponent into a hazard for extra damage. Spider webs could impair movement or traps could be set off purposefully to scupper an enemy.
  • Weather – What about adding in a weather descriptor into the mix. Wind might affect the flight of arrows and aerial creatures, lightning might strike those wearing metal armour, rain might douse fire and intense heat might melt ice magic.
  • Obstacles – Obstacles can be used to create problems for combatants, for example, a narrow tunnel might only allow for one player at a time to crawl through creating an ideal ambush scenario, a well leading into a larger cavern creates a similar problem with the added challenge of verticality into the mix.

Keep the stakes high

As a DM, you have to ensure combat is balanced. Overwhelming odds can lead to apathy as players may feel they never had a chance so it’s important not to make combat impossible. On the other hand, players may become too relaxed or bored if combat becomes too easy. Overcoming that is difficult as you don’t want players to feel like death couldn’t be avoided and total party kills can be quite demoralising (though not always inappropriate).

A trick to manage this is to have graded levels of success. Success isn’t just measured by whether you killed everyone or survived, what about whether you were able to rescue captives (perhaps some die if you’re to slow or take a rest when you should have been moving quickly), perhaps players miss out on the loot if they don’t fight quickly enough, perhaps an enemy escapes. In all these scenarios, the enemy could be killed, but the party may feel aware that thy did not accomplish all that they wanted to accomplish.

It’s also important that you get the balance of combat right. Challenge ratings can help you do this but it’s hard to always get it right. In such cases, it’s important to be adaptive. Be prepared to give an enemy less hit points if the challenge becomes too high. Hold enemies in reserve if things are getting too easy, you can always decide later if they turn up to join the combat. One thing I’d avoid though is fudging rolls. A lot of DMs have different opinions here but I find that the more you fudge rolls, the less players trust that their actions and decisions had any consequence on what happens which can be frustrating.

Never use mega hit points as the challenge

There’s nothing worse than just slogging away hit after hit on creature with loads of hit points. Especially if there’re lots of turns to get through. There’s nothing wrong with a creature with high hit points, but what’s the hook that’s going to invest your players in the combat? Often, a more engaging approach is using enemies with lower hp (for their challenge rating) but that also deal higher damage. Think assassins, archmages or mind flayers.

Hopefully this has gotten your creative juices flowing for future combat encounters and how you can make them more interesting.

Published by DM Ben

Ben is an experienced dungeon master and player who's been immersed in the D&D universe since he was a teenager over 20 years ago. When he's not writing for Dungeon Mister, Ben loves creating fiendish puzzles and devious dungeons for his players. He's an especially big fan of the Ravenloft and Dragonlance settings.