Posts Tagged ‘Combat’

If you’ve been playing RPGs as long as I have (22 years!), then you know keeping combat fresh ain’t easy especially when you’re playing with the same players for a good portion of that time. How can we continue to surprise, delight, scare, and challenge our players who have seen all our tricks a thousand times over?

This week I’ve had the privilege of recording a few Table Top Babble podcasts with successful designers like Mike Shea, M.T. Black, Tony Petrecca, and Jeff Stevens and I asked them this question. These people have written some of my favorite combat encounters ever so I couldn’t let the opportunity slip by.

They all had a common idea about spicing up combat. Encounters share common elements that can be changed to create a challenging and unique battle with minimal effort. Think of each of these variable elements as having a dial that you can turn to make every brawl distinct.

I’m going to breakdown each of these elements below to show how you can use them to make an encounter legendary. You only need to crank two or three of these to make a memorable battle. If you try to play with too many elements at once, combat can get bogged down in the details as players wait for their turns.


Visibility has an enormous impact on combat. Take a look at all the beautiful creatures with darkvision, blindsight, termorsense, and more. Those abilities really mean something and can give players or monsters a leg up in a battle that’s shrouded in darkness (magical or mundane), fog, or illusion magic. Foes who are fully aware of their surroundings might toy with enemies who struggle to get bearings.

Tips For Playing With Visibility:
  • Don’t make it frustrating. Let the players get creative and counteract the fact that they can’t see in creative ways, like creating clouds of flour to reveal invisible enemies or using the momentary light of a fireball spell to get a quick look at the area.
  • If you’re playing on a virtual table use available dynamic lighting features.
  • If you’re playing in person, consider running this particular encounter in the theater of the mind style. Using minis allows players with blind characters to see the position of other creatures and terrain so it ruins shrouded visuals.


The landscape of an encounter can really change the way it is played. A few bits of interesting terrain will create better combat and storytelling in your games even if you aren’t sure how it will all come into play. Let the players surprise you! It’s not up to the DM to figure out how every brazier and tree can be a part of combat.

Tips For Playing With Terrain:
  • Let players get creative. In fifth edition D&D advantage and disadvantage make improv easy by taking a lot of math out of the equation. If a character wants to try to fell a tree onto an ogre, let them try! Even if a task is nigh impossible, failure is a more interesting than saying no. Once your players realize the world is theirs to get creative in, you can lay out the terrain that makes sense in a location and let them decide how to use it.
  • Terrain goes beyond the natural. Stairs, horse-drawn carts, and a ruined half-wall all count as terrain. Don’t just think about the natural world!
  • Smart creatures lair in terrain that favors them. A room where a beholder sleeps might be spherical so the aberration can take advantage of its ability to fly and use eye beams on enemies as they slide to the floor. A white dragon’s lair could be covered in slippery ice that also allows the beast to walk upside down on the ceiling!
  • While grids can make interacting with terrain easy, you can still rock terrain in a theater of the mind encounter. Simply write out some major terrain features on a piece of paper or index card and display it so the players know what they’re working with and against.


Space defines the area where your encounter takes place. Is it a cramped dungeon hall with enemies attacking from either side? Is it an open forest sniper battle with hundreds of yards between enemies? Is it a battle that occurs as the combatants fall through the sky? All three are very different experiences. Cramped spaces make a battle feel desperate and wide open spaces make an encounter epic.

Tips For Playing With Space:
  • Don’t forget the third dimension. Remember that creatures with flying speeds take advantage of height all the time (as do creatures that can’t fly). Adding height to your encounter makes it far more interesting, realistic, and memorable.
  • You can add motion to your battle. Some of the most memorable action sequences in movies take place on the road, in the sky, or on a body of water. Your space can move if it’s a fight on rafts down river rapids or a chase across busy city rooftops.
  • If you go wide, remember to fill in the terrain. You don’t want your combatants to spend the first three rounds of combat simply moving into range of one another.

Hazards and Traps

A great trap or hazard can make a battle memorable all on its own. The floor slowly falling out of a room, a pendulum scythe, or an enchanted tapestry can add delicious layers of complexity to an encounter. If play with this element, be sure you don’t turn up too many other dials, since tracking these things can be a lot of work.

Tips For Playing With Hazards and Traps:
  • Roll initiative for most hazards and traps. That way you remember to use them. (To make it extra unpredictable, roll initiative for the trap at the start of each round.)
  • Let players defeat hazards and traps creatively… or at least let them try!
  • Most monsters are aware of the hazards and traps in their lairs and know how to avoid them.
  • Have a list of simple hazards handy for those random encounters.

Customize Monsters

There’s so many ways to customize monsters that this could be its own series of blog posts. A recent tweet from M.T. Black shows us just 20 of those options:

Reskin monsters, add abilities (using pg. 280 and 281 of the DMG), give them spells, resistances, immunities, and vulnerabilities, and change damage types to create exciting beasties that don’t do what the players thought.

Tips For Customizing Monsters:
  • Don’t worry too much about exact math. If you add a spell or ability that requires a DC, remember that fifth edition D&D’s bounded accuracy system means DC 10 is always easy, 15 is always moderate, and 20 is always hard. Let those numbers be your guide when give a monster a feature that requires a saving throw. If you need an attack bonus for an ability, just pull it from one of the creature’s other attacks.
  • If you want a tough monster, boost those hit points. This is a great way to make a tougher version of a monster without having to adjust anything else.
  • To make things really easy on yourself, just reskin monsters. Want a fire-breathing orc that can fly? Use a fire dragon wyrmling stat block.


Perhaps the largest thing you can do to make combat interesting is change the goal of the encounter. Too often are our battles each side rolling d20s until the other is wiped off the face of the earth. Change the game. If the odds are overwhelming against the PCs but all they need to do is grab a magic sword, stop a dark ritual, or save a prince, the encounter becomes more thrilling. You can read more about this idea in this blog post.

Tips For Playing With Goals:
  • Think about the goal of the monsters. What do they do to ensure they can complete the dark ritual or grab the magic sword before the PCs?
  • How do the monsters react if the characters achieve their goal? Do they flee? Pursue? Explode?
  • Ask yourself, “Which monsters in this encounter will sacrifice everything to stop the characters from achieving this goal?”
  • Don’t be afraid to throw more than one goal into a truly climactic encounter.

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NOTE: The werespider previously featured here is now part of my Pay What You Want DMs Guild product Arachnids, Wraiths, & Zombies.

Sometimes you just want to shake things up. You need to spice up combat and add a few hazards to keep players on their toes. Sometimes you want to go further and do something really crazy. In keeping with Sam Van Der Wall of RPG Alchemy‘s Blog Carnival theme, “The Combat Experience,” I’m going to show off one of my favorite encounters. One where I turned the battle mat on its side. Keep reading. You’ll see what I mean.

Mario and Luigi

When we play Dungeons and Dragons with a battle mat and miniatures we are usually dealing with two dimensions, just like most old Nintendo games. Often in D&D those two dimensions are an overhead or bird’s eye view like in The Legend of Zelda.

We see Link and octoroks as if we were above looking down on them.

Yet many other Nintendo games had a side view like Double Dragon.

We see Billy Lee kicking some butt as if we were standing to the side.

I began to imagine what a battle in a side view might look like on a battle mat. In order to get the most out of the map, I’d need the battle to have a lot of vertical levels, otherwise the encounter wouldn’t be very dynamic and all of the non-flying creatures would just hangout at the bottom of the grid. I also wanted the encounter to be contained on the battle mat. When flipping things from bird’s eye to side view, it becomes very easy to run out of map space as creatures move around. The map doesn’t follow you like a camera in a video game.

There might be a few of you who remember the old Mario Bros. game. I’m talking arcade style before the Marios were going into castles to rescue Princess Peach from Bowser. I’m talking two dudes facing off in the sewers trying to kick over as many koopa shells as possible to get some points to win a game. If Mario ran off one side of the screen, he appeared on the other (which solves my running off the map problem). It looked like this…

I’m sure the older gamers among us remember.

Well that game inspired an encounter with my players that I designed and we throughly enjoyed.

The Ladder of Insanity

The PCs had to make their way to the Underdark via a massive column known as The Ladder of Insanity. The huge column plunged miles underground and its face was marked with crumbling 5-foot wide ledges and stairs, which are just wide enough for a creatures to travel single file.

The characters found the further down The Ladder of Insanity they got, the more ruin and disrepair became obstacles. Whole sections of ledges and staircases were missing or ready to plunge into the darkness. As the PCs negotiated these hazards, a crew of drow bandits lead by a werespider appeared and attacked. The battle mat looked something like this…

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 5.44.45 PM

Behold! The Ladder of Insanity!

Now I made that map in Roll20 and used digital tokens for the PCs instead of their beautiful array of bird’s eye view digital miniatures.

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 5.25.35 PM

Miniature on the left, token on the right.

I recommend using tokens instead of minis in a side view encounter. You could use miniatures, but they are made specifically for bird’s eye view encounters. It is going to be more difficult for your players to wrap their minds around a side view encounter with miniatures unless you place them on their sides, but that could damage some more delicate minis.

After the map was created I wrote down a few quick mechanics for the battle.

  • The map wraps around the column. So if PCs ran off one side of the map they would appear on the other. It works just like Mario Brothers of Pac Man.
  • The column is curved. A creature is granted half cover from attacks made by any creature more than 20 feet away, three-quarters cover from any creature more than 30 feet away, and total cover from any creature more than 40 feet away.
  • Climbing the walls at half speed requires a DC 15 Strength (Athletics) check. Creatures who fail this check by 5 or more fall onto the platform directly below their space and land prone, taking fall damage as normal.
  • Jumping up and grabbing a higher platform works as normal. In order to pull itself up to the new level a creature must succeed on a DC 10 Strength (Athletics) check or end its movement in the first space it entered on the new, higher level.
  • At the end of a creature’s turn if it is on one of the platforms it must roll a d20. On a roll of 1, the ground beneath its feet crumbles. The creature must make a DC 10 Reflex saving throw to jump to an adjacent unoccupied space of its choice. If it fails it falls, landing prone and taking fall damage as normal. Wherever the creature ends up after rolling a 1 it must roll another d20 to see if the new ground beneath its feet crumbles and repeat the saving throw if it gets another 1. This continues until the creature rolls a number other than 1.

Bam! There you have it. The mat is flipped and a fun encounter is had by all.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

This month’s RPG Blog Carnival theme is “The Combat Experience” selected by Samuel Van Der Wall over at RPG Alchemy. We all know combat can (and should) be really fun, but who among us hasn’t gotten bogged down in a slog of simply rolling dice until all monsters are eliminated? So for this month’s carnival I’m going to share some of my tips and tricks for keeping combat fresh and interesting. If you weave the ideas below into your combat encounters with frequency and variety, I promise you no more dull combats!

Time Factors

Adventurers fight their way up an airship docking tower to leap onboard a vessel as it pulls away. PCs battle an umber hulk in an underground cavern while a nearby drow mage completes a ritual to collapse an elf city above. The floor slowly opens beneath our heroes revealing a spiked pit as they battle angry aarakocra guards, one of whom holds the key to the door locking them in the deathtrap of a room. Giving the players a timed objective can really spice up combat. In the examples above they may only have so many rounds (determined by the DM) before the airship departs, the mage completes the ritual, or the floor completely opens beneath their feet. Suddenly the point is no longer kill everything, but rather accomplishing a goal before the timer dings. Watch as movement becomes more important than ever and PCs try all kinds of crazy improvised actions and risk opportunity attacks to get their goal accomplished in time.

The Third Dimension

It’s often easier to deal with only two dimensions in combat. Most games take place on flat battle maps or in the theater of the mind. We’re used to just length and width, but when you add height into your combat encounters, things instantly become more interesting. I don’t mean just adding a few flying creatures so now PCs have to use ranged attacks. I mean adding some high ground like hills or guard towers that both sides can try to take advantage of. It can be fun to see a great weapon fighter forced into using a longbow against flying foes and cursing with every miss, but isn’t it more exciting to see that PC charge up a hill or scale a wall to take down an enemy sniper? Being on higher ground provides a natural defense PCs can overcome or exploit, but if you want to spice things up a little more in the third dimension, give non-flying creatures with higher ground advantage on attacks against creatures on lower ground. If a creature is in flight it loses this advantage because they have to concentrate on, ya know, flying. Keep it simple, have only one or two areas of high ground and you can still use those flat maps (by simply marking off an area of high ground). A limited number of high ground areas also makes it easier to track this in theater of the mind.

Cater to the Monster

When the craftiest DM I know, Mike Shea, ran the Tarrasque Takedown, all of his encounters were specially designed monster lairs which catered to the beasties we were fighting. The Tarrasque’s encounter was in a tight space with low ceilings (so we were always within its deadly reach) and featured a river of fire (which the Tarrasque wouldn’t care about, being immune). The beholder death tyrant’s lair was bowl-shaped, so that he could get us with his eye beams and central eye as we struggled to climb the smooth walls to get up and attack him. The red dracolich’s lair was full of small platforms suspended above a sea of lava all of which were within perfect reach of the dragon’s massive breath weapon. When you create an encounter, especially for a monster in its own lair or on a battleground of its choosing, take a look at the creature’s abilities. What sort of natural defenses might that creature prefer? What defenses might it construct? How can it get the most out of its attacks? Don’t do this for every encounter, but it makes good sense for boss fights and prepared, intelligent enemies.

Moral Quandary

Give players difficult moral choices during an encounter. Perhaps a devious villain makes them choose one friendly NPC to die and another to live. Perhaps they were asked to bring back a bandit leader alive, but she insists on fighting until the death. Perhaps the PCs could end a dangerous threat once and for all, but doing so requires they use a weapon of mass destruction that would harm many innocents. Perhaps they face child soldiers in combat. It can be difficult to put characters in a moral quandary, especially in the middle of combat, but play to their personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. These quandaries can cause debate amongst the players at the table, so if you’re in the heat of combat and don’t want to stop to argue a moral issue, give each player one minute to make their case, and then let initiative determine who acts and speaks when. Suddenly combat is more than just hacking up some baddies. It’s making choices and living with the consequences. If the PCs figure out a way to get what they want without any bad consequences, so much the better. Their cunning has made this a memorable and exciting encounter indeed.

Traps and Hazards

Rockslides, pits, crushing walls, swinging blades, earthquakes, lava-spewing vents, spider webs, and so much more can really make combat interesting. You don’t need to make things complicated with an enormous maze of traps (though if you do, kudos to you). Keep things simple. The trap or hazard activates and attacks random targets on initiative count 0. If it’s a one time thing like a rockslide, let it attack many targets, and if it happens every round, it should only attack one to three targets.

Siege Weapons

How fun is it in a video game when you get to use a cannon, enormous mounted machine gun, tank, or AT-AT? Super fun! Give your players the same option once in a while. Don’t make it easy. To use the catapult, ballista, or arcane cannon against the baddies, they first have to takeout the enemies who are operating the siege weapons against them.

Oh yeah.

Add a Puzzle

Giving players a puzzle to solve can really be frustrating for them and boring for you… but it’s fun if you add in some monsters for them to fight while solving it. Maybe the PCs can only close a portal to The Nine Hells by arranging colored gems in a specific order while the portal spews out devils for them to fight. Maybe the adventurers have to answer a sphinx’s riddle to a raise a bridge across a chasm while a throng of zombies presses down on them. Maybe summoned elementals endlessly attacks PCs until they complete a complex ritual honoring the god of nature. Give the players something to do aside from fight to end an encounter, and suddenly they have to decide who will fight and who will work on the puzzle.


I’ve written a lot about chases already. Turning a combat into a dramatic chase sequence means a constant change of terrain, a whole bunch of complications, and a lot of new environments to run through while battling. It can a little complicated to run a chase, but use the tips and tricks in my older post and you’ll be ready to rock.

Dungeon Brawls

Another thing I’ve written about are dungeon brawls. These battles are really a few encounters rolled into one, separated into waves. Take a look at my comprehensive post on these bad boys and you’ll be able to spice up a whole session’s worth of combat encounters.


Why not have a timed puzzled? Or a chase through an environment that’s been created for a villain? Or a dungeon brawl with siege weapons? Go ahead! Mix and match the ideas above. You’ll be glad you did.

Above All, Say Yes

When a player asks if a character can do something crazy I almost always say one of two things, “Yes,” or, “You can try.” Sometimes combat can be made more interesting just by allowing your players the freedom to try whatever they want rather than restricting them to the options present in printed texts. Before you know it they’ll be taking all kinds of risks and trying to top one another with the most creative combat maneuver. Give saying yes all the time a shot. Let the PCs roll and set a high DC if the task seems nigh impossible, but let them try! It’s not about being a slave to the rules, that’s what makes combat stagnate. It’s about having a grand time telling a story together.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

I sit down with Mike Shea, Topher Kohan, Joe Lastowski, Christopher Dudley, and Liz Theis to talk about our recent Tiamat Takedown live event which Mike DMed and the rest of the us built level 20 fifth edition character to take on the Queen of Chromatics. We faired… poorly. Hear us discuss high level combat in the new edition of D&D. This podcast was recorded on December 14, 2014.


If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my other podcasts, Bonus Action and Gamer to Gamer, tell your friends, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

I sit down with Mike Shea, Joe Lastowski, Christopher Dudley, and Topher Kohan to talk about their recent experience with high-level combat in the new edition of D&D. We got together, created level 20 characters, and fought the Tarrasque, a death tyrant beholder, and a dracolich! They talk about the experience and breakdown the pros and cons of high-level combat in the latest edition of D&D. This podcast was recorded on November 2, 2014.

The Tarrasque Takedown:


If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my other podcast Gamer to Gamer, tell your friends, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

I’m expecting this guy to crash the party.

On THIS Sunday, October 19th at 7:30PM Eastern, it’s time to save the multiverse! Joe LastowskiChris DudleyTopher Kohan, and I are back to take some more abuse from the world’s greatest DM, Mike Shea, to see how high-level play shakes out in the new edition of D&D. It’s level 20 characters going toe-to-toe with some of D&D’s most legendary baddies! Currently mid-fight with a death tyrant and it’s zombie beholder minions, there’s no telling who else might show up. A demilich? An ancient red dragon? A tarrasque redux?! Anything can happen. Join us as we sacrifice four PCs to the elder gods to find out just what high-level combat is like in 5e. This will be released as a youtube video and podcast on The Tome Show’s website at a later date if you can’t be there live.

Google + Invite:

YouTube Link:

Check out Part I below!

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends, share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!