Do you feel like your battles are getting slow and stagnant? Are your players zoning out immidiatley after their turn? Here are some tricks and tactics to help engage your players and enhance your battle prowess.
use different weapons and terrian
Do you have a battle prepared with bandits on the road? Sounds simple. But we can do more!
Instead of all the bandits lining up and using swords, have a few bandits in up the trees. Using archers shooting down onto the party adds a new level to the combat. Players will have to defend from above and below.
Give your enemies different types of weapons and magic items.
If you are looking for specific monster tactics, The Monsters Know is essential reading.
use more magic
Place a bandit who is hiding in the trees with a wand of magic missile to shake things up. Make sure players are using at least one different type of saving throw during a combat.
Spell casting can add a lot more obstacles to a simple battle.
A bad guy can mess up the battleground by using entangle or a fog cloud.
Don't forget that enemies can heal themselves with potions and magic.
Enemies using magic will always be more memorable than a couple grunts with swords.
Use traps and magical effects
Maybe the bandits placed traps in the road for the players to avoid or disable.
The terrain itself can end up being an encounter on its own. Use traps, pressure plates, caltrops or simple trip wires to slow the players down.
Getting attacked by swords is fun, but a sword fight where you have to avoid traps is a lot more engaging.
Maybe the players will have to get around a cloud of poison gas. Or Get through a couple locked doors.
Have spike traps that pop up every other round or a magic trap that damages players every turn until they solve a puzzle.
use the environment
Make the land itself more exciting. Fighting bandits on the road in the forest? Good start. Perhaps the road is now on the edge of a cliff and the enemies try to push the players off. Have bandits attack the players while they are on an old crumbling bridge.
Maybe the fight takes place in the fire swamp where everyone will have to avoid quicksand and fire traps.
How about a duel inside a building on fire with the roof crashing down on the combatants. Maybe a cave is collapsing around as the battle rages on.
diversify monster types
Have monsters with different abilities fight alongside the bandits.
A sword fight against bandits suddenly gets weird when one of them changes into a werewolf.
Maybe the fight disturbs a nest of giant spiders or an owl-bear nearby. It's not such simple a sword fight anymore when some wood nymphs are trying to protect their trees.
Maybe the enemies and players team up to defeat a random monster that has just appeared.
The fight with the wizard just got more complicated when you find out he has an ogre body guard or he commands a tribe of knolls to fight for him.
add personality to the bad guys
Make the enemies more human and relate-able. Give all the random bandits some names if they survive.
The bandits, John and Erin, get sad or angry when they see their comrades die in battle.
The enemies can talk to the players on their turns and try to make deals. Role-play always makes a battle more intersting.
Maybe your enemies decide to run away and get revenge on the players later. Or maybe they fortify in a castle or fort to defend against the players
Maybe the bandits were just following orders and don't want to get killed in a random battle.
When a goblin gets killed by a player, another one suddenly cries out, "Gratz! Don't die today! you are my only brother!"
This is great for adding detail and world building. The enemies aren't just random bowling pins to be knocked down anymore when they have thoughts and feelings.
The NPC's aren't just simple meat for the grinder. The best battles will mean something to somebody. make it personal for oe of the players or the enemies.
During the obligatory tavern brawl, the players might have accidentally killed the daughter of a nobleman. Now it's not just a random bar fight, its part of the continuing story.
-The players will have to figure out what to do when the guards come asking around.
-The nobles could do a lot to try to get revenge.
-They could send assassins to kill the players.
-The nobles could outlaw weapons and magic items throughout the land.
-The players could get arrested for murder.
put obstacles in the players way
The players might need to solve a puzzle or get into a magic portal before they can kill the bad guy.
Make the players fight through a few waves of enemies before they reach the boss.
Give the big boss a shield or force field the players need to take down before they can hurt him. All while the boss can still hit them.
If your bosses are dying quickly, or your players ar getting overpowered, read how to handle your villains getting killed to early.
Make the players cast a ritual spell that takes more than one turn to cast while the battle rages around them.
establish goals to Accomplish aside from just killing monsters
The party needs to get the contents of a treasure chest before the bandits do.
The bandits could have hostages that the players need to save before the battle ends.
Maybe a bandit is using a weapon or magic item that the players need to obtain for their quest.
The players could be tasked with stopping an evil cult from performing a ritual before time runs out and the bandits are in the way.
Creating some kind of time limit will make a battle more intense. They only have 4 rounds before the magic orb explodes and destroys everyone.
Stop a magic artifact before it burns down the whole forest.
add narrative flavor to attacks and abilities
Focusing on the numbers can get boring really quickly.
Explain why the goblin rolled a 1. He tripped and missed his attack.He just saw his fellow tribesmen get slaughtered by one of the players, of course he would get a little rattled.
If a roll is close but doesn't hit, talk about how the arrow hit the armor and bounced off. The attack connected but it didn't do any damage.
Describe how a player with high dexterity was able to dogde the attack. The player was just an inch away from dodging a sword to the face.
Let players describe how their attacks and spells look. Let the players describe what they do for the killing blow of an enemy.
Everyone likes to explain in detail how they hit a guy. Describe the misses too.
make it personal
If you have ample time to prepare an ongoing campaign, make each encounter personal to the characters back story or connect it to a goal of a mission or side quest.
A player is on the way to find their missing brother?
Erin the bandit used to work with the missing brother and has info on him. Hopefully the players don't kill her first...
If you are a good DM you can make this stuff up on the spot.
Have the characters talk during battle. John the bandit might know the location of the lost dungeon the players are looking for.
The missing brother could have owed money to the bandits, or there was a secret love triangle with some of them.
If you plan this well, you won't ever need random encounters. The villains goals can be just as much a part of the story as the players.
You don't have to add all of these things to every battle of course, that would make things complicated very quickly. I suggest one plot or backstory battle per session.
Communicate with your players
Give players hints about monster resistances and other special abilities.
The game will go slowly if you have skeletons who resist piercing damage and all the players are using swords. Let the players notice that the swords aren't as effective as they should be. Let players use investiate or perception checks to understand their enemeis.
Let your players use knowledge checks to realize that a hammer or club would do a better job.
Don't let the battle go on forever when each player is only doing 3 damage. This just makes the battle last longer and wastes everyones time.
Players will appreciate the help and feel more accomplished when they figure stuff out. But you have to give them clues.
Characters have a lot of abilities and sometimes players won't know about them, or won't know what they do.
It is your job as the DM to give hints and suggestions. Make sure players are aware of all their class abilities, spells and items that could be useful.
Have more experienced players help out the group to free up your precious time as the dungeon master.
speed up the battle
Delegate what you can to your players in order make the battles go faster. Then you can more easily focus on what you need to.
Have a player keep track of initiative for you.
Have a player check the stats or hit points of each other character so the players know what they have.
If you have a small battle with goblins that are not imperative to the plot line, have a player keep track of the goblins hit points.
Having players help out gives you extra time to plan on whats next, or role play a conversation during battle.
Have players draw maps for you.
Ask for a players help to move around minis and other game pieces.
Most players are always willing to help, and you should let them. It frees up your time and the players feel more involved.
Tell players that you expect them to know what dice they are rolling and what modifiers and bonuses to add.
The DM should take time at the beginning of the game to help players out so battle will run smoothly later on.
If players are ready for their turn and know what they are doing, you can shave off a ton of extra time in battle. Have players roll all their attacks and damage dice at the same time.
I have a way to use initiative that speeds up the battles and helps communicate whats going on in my games. Maybe you should ask about it.
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