Being a Dungeon Master (DM) in Dungeons & Dragons allows you to guide an adventuring party into a world of your creation, while also taking on the role of voice actor, improvisation master, and the builder of encounters with a opponents that range from inept bandits to the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG). So how exactly do you create dynamic, meaningful combat encounters for groups who think they have seen it all? Below are several tips that can spice up those once-boring encounters into memorable fights.
Varying Enemy Types
A small band of goblins, even for new players, quickly becomes old hat in terms of what to expect from an opponent. But what if the party is suddenly faced with goblins who have allied with Kobolds? What if the goblin party is part of a much larger group in another location that is led by a Hobgoblin Warlord, and as a result, also has wolves? Finally, what if shortly after the encounter begins, when the party has formulated some basic plan, one of the goblins calls loudly into the nearby brush, summoning a nearby Bugbear to come charging out into the fray?
Any, or all of those, would suddenly force the party to stop and rethink their plan entirely. That is one of the main points of building a good encounter, to force the players out of their auto pilot. The Tank now needs to reconsider its positioning, and so too does everyone else with a lower Armor Class (AC).
Notice how within all version of D&D, most types of opponents, be they creature or humanoid, often have corresponding creatures that they could be allied with, so keep in mind that something like a goblin does not need to be alone, it can be with all manner of problematic friends.
Conditions Are Helpful, But Don't Overdo It
Conditions are temporary, or sometimes permanent, alterations to a creature’s capabilities that can shift how an encounter plays out in drastic ways. This works both ways of course, and a surprise condition for the party can force creativity. One that has always been a bit of a favorite involves a party walking through a cave or other enclosed spot with no natural light. At the start of an encounter, something will occur to extinguish the few sources of light, be they torches or lanterns.
Suddenly, everyone is fighting in the dark. Do the opponents come from a race that has darkvision? Better get to lighting something quick! Alternatively, perhaps some of your party also has darkvision or something similar. The point is, this suddenly turns a mundane encounter into something that requires more thought.
Actual conditions that can affect players and opponents alike are:
Consider how best to incorporate some of these, but of course, be careful not to overdo it, as a little too much in either direction can make an encounter too easy, or literally spell death for the party.
When one begins an encounter, consider well exactly what lies in the space where combat will take place. Odds are small that the ground will be a uniformly smooth surface with no obstacles or change in elevation.
With this in mind, caves can offer various sloping, slanting parts that make it difficult to move quickly. Mud can slow movement, caves can have short ceilings that inhibit the use of certain long weapons, water can be slippery, and anything else you can think of shifts how players think of movement.
As for how to relate the physical space to players, there are many options. As a DM, you could simply describe the space in detail, discussing the existence of such important objects like pillars or rocks that can be used for cover, as well as those changes in elevation. Grid paper is another common way to establish the layout of an encounter, and labels and pictures there can further add to the visualization of the party to know what they are getting into.
As your experience grows, so too will your comfort with using different ways of representing terrain. Check out this Adam Savage below as he visits sculptor Johnny Fraser-Allen's tabletop model, which has to be considered among the best and most well-made terrain for D&D style campaigns.
Time Limits, Chases, And Other Objective-Based Fights
If your encounters are always based upon meeting opponents and then defeating them, most will begin to feel exactly like one another. However, the moment you add in other objectives, or restrictions depending on your point of view, the party is once again forced to reconsider how it approaches an encounter.
Consider a case with goblins that need to be dealt with. With no restrictions, the tank might charge in and start fighting, because that is what has worked in the past. However, add in some kidnapped children from a nearby village, tied up in the back, and suddenly there is a new dynamic. Perhaps one of the children, but the party cannot tell which one, is the daughter of a noble who has offered a substantial reward for her return alive.
Making it clear that a rush into the area will result in the goblins killing the children now means that the encounter cannot proceed as it otherwise would without the presence of child hostages.
There are countless other objectives that one may impose upon an encounter, such as luring a specific enemy to a certain location, disrupting a ritual within a certain time limit, holding an action or taking a territory. Heists in general that require discretion and subtlety, or times pursuit, whereby distracting opponents need to be dealt with quickly to be able to reach the real target for the story to progress.
The list can go on, so use whatever fits into the overall story to force that shift in how an encounter will need to be treated.
By following the above tips, and not necessarily all at once, encounters will no longer feel static or predictable. Consider an encounter with Murphy’s Law, whereby anything that can happen, will happen. Imagine your party members as cartoon characters, all asking “What’s the worst that could happen?”
And then, make that happen before watching them squirm!
This guide was based on Quora. Read the original question here.