Making better battles in Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master Tips | Tips | Prima Games
Combat’s supposed to feel cool – are you taking advantage of all the ways to play?

What are the basics of D&D combat?

Dungeons and Dragons combat comes in two main forms: grid-based and “theatre of the mind”.

Everyone has their preferences – some prefer the overview look that grids offer, with better tactical planning and more in the way of a battlefield feel. It also means you can really make the most of your favourite minis; just like dice, players often love to find figures that really represent their personality and their characters.

Others enjoy letting the drama be more of a focus, skipping out on necessarily tracking specific distances in favour of descriptive, more negotiable warfare.

Neither is “right” or “wrong”. Both use d20s to determine hits, saving throws, and ability checks. Both rely on a selection of spells and combat moves to develop the action. What’s important is knowing how to make the most of them.

Why is D&D combat important?

Combat in D&D isn’t just a way to break up the roleplay. It’s the most fundamental part of the game, and it’s where the game started. D&D is essentially a spin-off of tabletop war games like Warhammer – or more specifically Chainmail, a medieval fighting game designed by Gary Gygax.

Accordingly, many of the rules work best in a combat scenario, and knowing how checks and actions resolve best when treated in the traditional 6-second rounds.

It’s not always easy, however, and learning combat for levels 1-4 is far adrift from how it’s balanced later in the game.

About two years ago I was running a game for eight players, and had been doing so for maybe a year. Not the best start. Combat was grid-based, with me drawing out quick designs on a dry erase mat prior to each battle.

I kept running into problems with scaling. Two party members with counterspell meant even liches couldn’t get decent shots off. The paladin’s aura made saving throws easy for most of the party.

I got frustrated, and my response was to try and modify the rules to suit my own approach. In some ways, I still think counterspell could be improved – but the players didn’t all agree, and one moment that stuck with me was one rather aggressively telling me that if I were a better DM, I wouldn’t need to adjust the rules.

Theres a lot to unpack from that. Part of it is that he was a dick, and that was one of the least troublesome things he did in the group. Another part is that it’s extraordinarily hard to balance combat for eight players at any level, and especially as they get higher.

But part of it is that he was right. I hadn’t had a lot of experience balancing combat or designing battles, and there are a lot of measures I could have taken, not in terms of how I built my enemies, but in how I designed the combat structure itself.

How to make the most of a D&D battlefield

Assuming you’re using a grid structure (while “theatre of the mind” works well enough, it’s harder to focus on some of the specifics I’m going to talk about here), there’s a very set look to D&D maps.

Like me, you might not give them too much thought beyond “well, there’s an altar in this room, and that’s where they’ll fight the demon”. Then when it comes to the battle, you do a quick sketch of a rectangular room with one altar in the middle, and maybe a few columns. It’s functional enough.

The trouble is that there’s more to combat than just moving backwards and forwards, shooting off spells, and running around.

Doing sketches on the fly isn’t so bad if you’re just having a quick punch up with some kobolds – but if you’re looking at dungeons (it’s half of the name, after all) or more climactic battles, you should really think about putting time and energy into planning out your battle spaces.

Even if it’s not your area of interest, it can be really fun to develop an idea of how a battle might proceed well in advance. I love creating stories and worlds, but since coronavirus made me start using Roll20 and Foundry, I’ve started developing maps to use online, and my way of thinking about what might go into a battlefield has changed dramatically.

Here’s what to consider when planning out a battlefield:

  • Verticality
  • Cover
  • Terrain
  • Traps
  • Party grouping and space
  • Changes
  • Forced decisions

But what does all this mean? They don’t have to be scary or a burden. Let’s talk about them.

Verticality

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Combat risers can be a great way to track height on a battlemap.

Combat in D&D isn’t just all on a flat layer of the ground. Some creatures can climb – and others can fly, or teleport. There’s so much space up and down your battlefield that you can really take advantage of to make your players use different resources.

Your paladin is great at kiting spellcasters on the ground and dealing damage while your own spellcasters keep their abilities locked up – but what happens when that lich casts levitate and takes to the sky? Suddenly the paladin is left spare and the lich gets a ton more options in terms of movement.

Why fight on the ground? One of your creatures has slippers of spider climbing – which your party will love to get their hands on after they win – meaning they can walk up walls and take pot shots without worry about being chased.

It’s not just movement in empty space, either. Ramps can help grant cover to those on top (more on that in a second) while leaving those below open. Raised platforms can be a great retreat for wizards to dimension door to, or for archers to stay safe on.

Having ramps to raised areas can also force creatures into choke points for those AoE spells everyone wants to bust out.

Cover

Cover is great for surprise threats.

Cover can sometimes be overlooked, but it’s such a vital part of combat for multiple reasons. Spellcasters on both sides will love it, and rogues will look at it as an opportunity to get their Hide bonus actions in. As a passive concept, it helps break up the battlefield and encourage your players to make real decisions about where they stand.

That’s the big point across all these tips. You want to be forcing your players to be making decisions. We’ll “cover” a bit more on that shortly.

So, how do you use cover in D&D? It could be a low wall, or a few trees. Maybe it’s set up specifically for protection, like a barricade. That can help beef up some weaker enemies that would normally get hit easily.

Cover in D&D is broken up into half cover, which gives a +2 bonus to AC and Dexterity saving throws, and three-quarters cover, which offers a +5 bonus to AC and Dexterity saving throws. There’s also full cover, but that just means they can’t be seen at all.

As mentioned previously, cover could even just be a low ramp – anyone over the top of the hump and a little way along might have half cover as a result of the “lip” of the edge providing protection to their legs from those below. A little bit of an adjustment to a simple map can really change the landscape.

Terrain

D&D: Our Favorite Frozen Monsters For Your Winter Themed ...
It certainly looks difficult.

Terrain in D&D is commonly either normal or “difficult”, which means that creatures move at half speed when traversing it.

Certainly, a bit of difficult terrain can help break up the battlefield and assist with forcing creatures into making decisions. But there are also concepts you might want to think about beyond just slowing certain creatures down.

A patch of ice might cause sliding and disadvantage on Dexterity throws. An area of water will force creatures to swim across – or find some other way around. A rope swing across a chasm can provide a neat focal point and some interesting options in the middle of a fight.

You can invent your own rules around terrain just as you would around puzzles or traps; figuring out how to deal with it in the middle of a fight will be a facet your players will love.

Traps

Traps in Dungeons and Dragons - Old School Role Playing
Throw this in the middle of a fight to make your players hate love you!

Like terrain, traps in a battlefield can draw your players into rearranging their resources.

The rogue is needed over in spot A to disarm the trap, but that limits how much damage they can be dealing in spot B. The wizard wasn’t expecting to have to contend with a jet of flame when they ducked behind a column, but now they’re struggling for health.

There are so many dangers in dungeons, and there’s no reason players should be excused from them just because they’ve entered combat. What about areas with spells permanently cast on them, like a patch of silence or an antimagic field?

Party Grouping and Space

Large, open spaces mean that strategy in combat is often either “group up” or “don’t group up”. But what about when there are choke points?

How would your party fare if they have to navigate a long, winding corridor in pursuit of a kobold? What about a room that only two of them can fit into at once? And your bard doesn’t want to be too close to the front line – how will they cope if they can’t see around a corner without getting close in with the minotaur?

Changes

Something that’s particularly nice to think about in light of Mythic Actions added in the Mythic Odysseys of Theros is how the battlefield might change during the fight.

A battle on a ship might involve the ship being torn apart, introducing new terrain, or splitting the party in half. In a dungeon, perhaps traps have been set up to create difficult terrain partway through. A big bad might have planned a quick escape route while releasing a new threat on the party.

Illusions, too, can alter the field or give new utility to spells like true sight.

Think in advance about what you could do partway through to completely flip the party’s strategy on its head.

Forced Decisions

All of these points boil down to one key concept: battle is most interesting when your players have to make tough decisions about how to allocate their resources. If every fight were the same, they’d never need potions of water breathing or spells to eliminate the threat of difficult terrain.

To keep fights interesting and to give your own creatures more of a fighting chance, you need to be constantly forcing your party into making choices.

There’s a group of weak archers in a sealed-off room with archer slits – should the fighter go through the door to deal with them, or are they more needed for tanking the boss?

There’s a lever high on the wall that disables the traps, but who’s best equipped to get up there without losing out on utility mid fight?

The easiest path is also the one that looks most like a trap – but the ceiling is closing in. What’s the best option?

Use the resources you have available to build your battlefield with a view to drawing these choices out of players. They’ll remember them more – and it’ll give them reasons for picking different spells and abilities to compensate for your unpredictable fights.

How do I make D&D maps?

There are a number of great tools out there for making equally great battlemaps. Some of the best include:

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