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If you find your combat encounters feeling a little lackluster, these archetypes use game design to drive story and build amazing combats! (it’s a long one)

Content of the article: "If you find your combat encounters feeling a little lackluster, these archetypes use game design to drive story and build amazing combats! (it’s a long one)"

What Are Combat Curves?

This is a framework I created to help DMs apply a more concrete and concerted design process to their encounters. They also help determine how to improvise during combats. Increasing your monster's HP will extend the fight, but won't create any new intensity peaks (that'll make sense in a minute), and since these curves are mapped out ahead of time, you know what you need to do and when! It makes improv much easier because the questions that are raised are far more specific and therefore much easier to answer!

How to Use Combat Curves

Combat can form the foundation of player experience by being mapped onto what I call Combat Curves (or Intensity Curves). These are basically graphs within the axes of time, as measured by rounds, and intensity, which refers to the players’ emotionality. The reason I chose “Intensity” is that it’s the label with the most specific concrete meaning without being so detailed that it can’t apply to many situations. Intensity basically means how worried players are about the outcome of their immediate situation, including how difficult they think it will be to get out of unscathed.

In order to create intensity, you need to understand what your players’ win and loss conditions are within the context of a given situation. For example, a single PC death will likely be seen as a loss by your players, even if they otherwise win the fight. The players’ goals will generally be to get out of the fight without any casualties, or they consider it a failed encounter. This is an incredibly useful perspective to work with as a DM and a designer because it means it’s quite easy to create intensity. You need only threaten harm. The more harm you threaten, the more intensity that players experience. This continues all the way up until the player actually dies, at which point you lose all intensity. So if the goal is to create intensity, that’s what defines the room you have to work with.

The curves themselves are all about taking a player experience that’s defined by the specific circumstance, and map it along an Intensity Curve. By placing the curve as the second step, you begin to build a bridge between the more abstract elements of the player emotions you’re trying to end up with and the actual mechanics and systems you employ to get there. Trying to jump from player emotions right into game mechanics creates a huge number of problems that will quickly overwhelm you. Going from a specific emotional experience to how intense that experience is at each point is relatively straight-forward. Going from that experience to, “how many hit points should my creature have?” is nearly impossible — at least, it’s impossible if you want a consistent, predictable result. And mapping game mechanics onto an Intensity Curve is actually very approachable!

That means that there are basically 3 elements that we have to worry about:

  • The intended player experience
  • The experience expressed as levels of intensity
  • The actual mechanics you’ll be using

Player Experience

What is a specific player experience, then? How specific is too specific? How do you know if your player experience has been stated effectively? These are all excellent questions! We’ll be getting into the actual curves soon, but these are important foundations to lay first. So let’s jump into the first of the main elements of our process.

Player experience is basically just how the player feels and what the player thinks at any given moment. This can be stated more broadly, to match the player experience of a campaign, or be as granular as the experience of a specific moment within a specific enemy attack, and everywhere in between. This may seem daunting, but we can just pick a few key points and define the experience for only those. For example, you’ve probably heard the advice (or learned yourself) that it’s really important to make sure your players know what kind of game you’re running. This is a good idea, and it’s basically the first step in defining a player experience for your campaign. There are also better and worse ways to define the experience. If you’ve tried to run a “light and fun game,” you may have found that it mostly works, but also definitely still can cause some problems. Usually, these problems arise from your inability to answer the question: “what constitutes ‘light and fun,’ and what doesn’t?” Making your definitions as broad as that can make your next step more difficult. Instead, consider defining them ahead of time by changing “light” to something like “players will be laughing a lot, and not spending much time thinking about NPCs or the world.” This is a very different game than one where you change “light” to “players take the world and NPCs seriously, but won’t things won’t ever be emotionally heavy.” These both can fall into the broader category of ‘light,’ but paint very different pictures. You may also be thinking, “yeah, well I know what I mean.” But the way you describe your game is a huge factor in how you run your game. I tend to find that I’m most successful when I follow the adage, “if I can’t explain it clearly and concretely, I don’t really know the concept well enough.” It isn’t always necessarily true, but it’s a great way to force yourself to be more specific. And if you’re more specific, trust me, things will be a lot easier later!

This basic concept applies anywhere you want. It doesn’t have to be at every possible level of resolution, but you can maybe define the player experience of your campaign, each adventure, each session, and each encounter. That’s not too much to ask of yourself, and it’s a pretty solid way to frame your game!

Levels of Intensity

Now let’s take a single combat encounter and define a player experience for it. “Tough but fair” isn’t a bad starting point, but we haven’t gone far enough in defining the player experience. Just like we did with “light” above, we’re going to break that down further. For the purpose of the example, let’s say we broke “tough but fair” down into the much more specific, “players are confident, but begin to realize they’re out of their depth before slowly getting a handle on the fight and eeking out a victory.” This is a lot more clear! You can probably already see how it’s providing a lot of guidance for how we’re going to achieve that, where “tough but fair” doesn’t.

Now we’re going to take that more specific target experience and roughly figure out what points are more or less intense. We’ll also need to figure out how those peaks and valleys in intensity connect to each other. You can probably figure this one out pretty easily. If players start confidently, then intensity starts low. They might be looking forward to the fight, but intensity specifically is not going to be very high. The point in the encounter where players “begin to realize they’re out of their depth” is pretty clearly the highest point of intensity. Now worried about their well-being, and possibly even questioning whether this is a fight they can win, intensity has reached its highest peak. Then, players start to get a “handle on the fight and eek out a victory.” So as I’m sure you’ve figured out already, that means the fight ends at a low point of intensity, probably somewhere around where it started.

Next, we have to figure out how these two valleys (the start and end points) and the main peak actually connect to one another. It’s going to take some time for players to realize the fight is harder than they thought. Just one or two hits probably isn’t enough. That suggests to me that it’ll probably take a round or two to gradually ramp into that highest point of intensity. Then, because the experience has to do with the players getting a handle on the fight slowly, the intensity must also decrease slowly. That makes a very simple graph with a single intensity peak.

Game Mechanics

I’m not going to spend a ton of time here. Once you have a curve to work with, layering in game mechanics is a lot simpler than it would have been otherwise, and it’s also the most fun part! I’m not going to go too much into it here because we’re about to cover a bunch of examples!

Curve Example #1: The Surprise

We’re going to be pretty in-depth on this one to give you a pretty good idea of how curves work in general. After this one, we’ll be going over the other examples fairly quickly just to get you more acclimated.

What It’s Good For

The main advantage of this curve is that it’s probably the best one at setting the stage for whatever the players will be doing next. This curve is most at home in trying to create horror, but it can really precede any circumstance where you think that players being especially concerned with their surroundings would be useful.

Important Considerations

Most curves in this set of examples are meant to be applied to whatever number of rounds is necessary to create the full curve. The Surprise works a little differently. Rather than the whole curve being fit into any number of rounds you need, you instead truncate the curve at whatever point will give you the strongest results. You may want to start the curve, then truncate it at round 2, which will have a moderately strong emotional impact. Or you can play it out to the full 5 rounds, which is the full curve that you need to get the best results for a horror setting. You can even truncate the curve at less than a round, which leaves you with what is basically a trap.

The most important thing with this curve is that if you’re trying to get your players to worry and you want that emotional context to carry over into the upcoming segments beyond the combat itself, you want to avoid resolving the fights. That doesn’t mean they don’t end, though. It means that they end before the players feel like they should end. If you look at other curves and see the slow tapering-off of the intensity near the end, that’s intentional! It mirrors a falling action in storytelling structure.

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When you’re trying to map game mechanics onto this kind of curve, you have a few major things to keep in mind. Because it’s a surprise, intensity starts fairly high. More importantly, you want the intensity peak to be slightly higher than the initial surprise. If you don’t design for this, you may find your players no longer anticipating what’s coming up. They’ll quickly learn that all that you had to throw at them was a surprise. If that’s fine, then use a trap and don’t try to design a longer Surprise encounter. If you want the players to be worried in general about what comes after the surprise (which is important if you don’t want your surprises to fall flat later), then you have to signal to them that if they stumble into something, the worst is yet to come. The Surprise relies heavily on anticipation, so making sure you teach your players to anticipate the upcoming parts of the encounter is crucial.

If you want to create the strongest possible horror experience, then you’ll want to truncate the fight much later. Extending the combat to encompass both curves means that your players’ intensity will gradually lower until they begin to feel complacent. They may even start to feel a little bit bored during that juncture, and this is completely fine! You need them to feel like there’s no longer any threat to the encounter. Then by spiking the encounter again, you effectively build an association between complacency and whatever you use to create the spike. The best horror video games do this by creating a spike in intensity, allowing it to gradually settle, then bringing out jump scares after you’ve begun to assume nothing’s going to come out. In a horror game this can take a while, but in your encounter it may only take a round or two.

Design Concepts

Once you’ve determined the target length of the encounter, it’s time to finally start figuring out how to achieve it. If you’re going for a shorter version, you’ll probably want low AC and low HP enemies so that your players are likely to hit the creature. You’ll also want your creature to be pretty intimidating early on, so high damage output early in the fight and high initiative are helpful. Since you want to taper the intensity after you reach the first peak, you probably want a creature that does a lot more damage early in the fight than it does moving forward. A great example of this is the Assassin creature, assuming your party is an appropriate level to fight it.

The Assassin works well here because its Assassinate and Sneak Attack traits make its early damage high but its later damage a lot lower. It has about the right AC and HP for a party of 7th or 8th level, and that will allow the intensity to drop over a round or two. The Assassin would be a fairly poor choice if you were going for a longer version of this curve, since it doesn’t have any tools for creating the second spike. Either more enemies could enter, or you could modify the Assassin. You’re probably starting to see how the actual nitty-gritty design decisions that you make if you modify the Assassin are now based on a really solid foundation that provides a lot of context! The fact that there are limitations and parameters restricting what constitutes an effective design is an exceptionally good sign! It means your process is working!

The second example will work for any length of fight. It utilizes multiple enemies, and takes place in stages. Imagine your players are walking through a graveyard. It’s dark, and a cold breeze stings their faces. They’re trying to keep an eye out, but a thick fog obscures their vision. A large shadow passes overhead, but dips out of sight too quickly for the players to see what it is. Suddenly, someone feels a wet hand grab their ankle. Everyone else feels it too. Your players make grapple checks.

Intensity here starts high as a result of having no warning before the hands grab them. If you want, you can have the players make checks to escape and have the zombies crawl out of their graves very slowly, which means that zombies emerging from the ground don’t pose an immediate threat. The encounter effectively ends, and functions like a trap.

Alternatively, if you have the zombies crawl out of the ground much faster, but have only a few crawl out at once, the players who fail their checks are stuck in a bad position. Then, as a few zombies start to surround them, players roll initiative. Some players go first, but are still grappled. They either have to escape or attack. They attack. A couple of zombies fall early, and players think things might not be so bad. Then a zombie goes, and deals a significant amount of damage — maybe way more than a zombie normally would. Intensity spikes. But the zombies have no special abilities, so players wouldn’t have much of an issue dealing with them. But you’re a good DM, and you know your curves. So before players can start to feel too comfortable, the zombies are sucked back into the ground, leaving no sign they were ever there. The fight is unresolved, and the zombies are underground. Even if the players find a way to deal with those zombies specifically, they see other zombies begin to emerge while they do. Or they leave them, but know they have to pass other graves in order to get to their location. You truncated the fight well, and now the players progress uneasily.

For the long version, have the zombies crawl out fast, do moderate damage (but not as high as in the medium-length version), and have enough HP to last a round or two. Then, as players work through the zombies, you get the same peak early, but allow the fight to begin to resolve. Players are left to finish off a straggler or two, and are feeling confident in their success. Then, not far from where they are, they see more hands burst from the ground. If they start to run, you can have even more burst out; the fact that they’re already running gives you license to show that there are far more zombies than the players could handle. If they don’t run, simply limit the number of zombies to something manageable by the party, and then have the zombies use the same return-to-the-earth maneuver as in the medium-length fight. Again, the fight is unresolved.

As you probably noticed, my description of the graveyard only very modestly set the scene. It did not employ any of the many narrative techniques that you should be using to stimulate your players’ imagination. And yet, even without that, we were able to create a strong sense of anticipation and worry, which all stemmed from pure encounter design. I did call them zombies, but that was really only so that them bursting from the ground made sense (D&D sense at least). The theme used here is only for the purposes of making what’s happening clearer. The experience itself is driven by design.

It’s obviously far better if you combine these concepts, but be sure that loquacious narration doesn’t impede your encounter’s pacing. When put together, these two concepts form the main pillars of the D&D player experience, and with Combat Curves you can create incredibly strong experiences before you even layer the narrative on top.

Curve Example #2: The Mini-Boss

This is the most commonly-found curve in D&D 5e. Yes! You can map these curves onto other encounters. In fact, you’ll find that most games that are particularly beloved utilize these curves to one extent or another, even of the DM is not consciously aware of it. That DM has simply stumbled upon an intuition of what makes “fun” encounters. However, you have something that he does not: the understanding that the most “fun” encounter is not always the best encounter for the circumstance.

You’ll probably recognize the Mini-Boss from the section on why Intensity Curves are so useful to map onto player experiences. Since we’ve already gone over this one some, we’ll make this section relatively brief.

What It’s Good For

More than with any other curve, you can keep this one super simple! It will help a fight feel somewhat noteworthy, as though something of moderate importance happened. It’s readily re-usable, as overuse of this curve specifically won’t exhaust players the way the Against the Wall or Big Boss curves would when used too often. This can easily become your bread-and-butter curve, as it’s usually reasonably effective in most situations.

Important Considerations

The slow build-up is important because you want players to anticipate what’s coming next, but always feel like they’re prepared for it when it comes. This curve is more about managing round-for-round. The intensity does ramp into a moderate peak, and players certainly don’t feel particularly safe during the peak, but it never feels insurmountable or especially deadly. The ramping-down element is easy. Once the players have seen most of what the fight has to offer, they just push forward to victory. It isn’t easy, and they do have to push. But victory feels achievable throughout the fight, even if some complications occur.

Design Concepts

Because you want a slow build-up, either have multiple weaker enemies that don’t do much individually but represent a threat when in large numbers, or have a creature that has legendary actions that aren’t all that powerful. A lot of smaller attacks over the course of a round means that even a single creature can help slowly build intensity. If the players are fighting a single creature that can only act on its turn, then intensity jumps a little on every turn, and intensity doesn’t build at all during the players’ turns since they know the creature isn’t going to act. It also means intensity drops a little right after the creature’s turn. If you’re using a single creature to create this curve, you’ll probably want it to have something like legendary actions or lair actions.

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Dragons can do an okay job of creating this curve, but a dragon’s breath weapon recharging represents another spike. If you’re not willing to accept that possibility, then dragons are probably the wrong creature to use here (or, alternatively, this is the wrong curve to use when designing a dragon fight). Even worse would be a beholder. Because of how many different abilities a beholder has, this particular curve is very difficult to nail down. You’ll instead want something like the Against the Wall or Big Boss curves.

A good example of this curve in action would be a small room where weaker enemies are flooding in. It starts out as a low number, and players (either because they’re prepared for the fight or because the fight starts with very few enemies) are at most a little nervous. Then enemies begin to enter each round, and the number of enemies that enters is slightly higher than the number of enemies the players are killing. After 2 or so rounds, enemies stop entering because the fight has reached its intensity peak as players struggle against a large number of enemies. Then, as players slowly dispatch the enemies, the intensity slowly falls.

There’s obviously a lot more you can do with that encounter, so feel free to add your own twists! Just remember that a good design is a very specific solution to a very specific problem. Simply adding more because something ‘feels like it needs more’ (or some equivalent) is not likely to result in a good end product. Your intuition may be pointing you in the right direction, though! Just be sure you identify if that is the case, and if it is, what exactly the problem is. By framing everything in the context of combat curves, this becomes a lot easier!

Curve Example #3: The Heroic

This third curve is one you may have used without realizing it. It’s also one that people will probably have mixed results with. Not you, though! You know your curves, so you’re gonna nail it. I believe in you.

What It’s Good For

The Heroic is exactly what it sounds like. It’s all about building your players up for a big win that makes them feel exceptional and wonderful and powerful, and all those other great adjectives. I’m sure I don’t need to stress that you should use this curve somewhat sparingly, but just to be absolutely safe, let me stress that you should use this curve somewhat sparingly! Dread, anticipation, worry, fear, anxiety, and a ton of other much less positive emotions are all really useful (and sometimes crucial) components to a well-rounded player experience. This curve understands that. Rather than simply giving the players some weak monsters to smash, we’re going to build up their intensity first. By doing this, we create a sense of a dangerous fight so that when the players win with ease, they feel powerful and proud, rather than merely disappointed with the fight.

Important Considerations

That first build-up is super important here. If you were to give a 10th level party a bunch of skeletons to smash up, yeah that would be kind of cool. But it’s not really a heroic feel. You could also make some NPC children fawn over the players. And yeah, that would work too. At first. For a bit. But if you employ this curve and use its build-up and sudden drop in intensity, you can build encounters that make your players feel heroic all the time! If you constantly use it, you’ll probably start to have trouble achieving the intensity peak, though, so you do still have to be a little careful. But the best part is that none of what’s in this curve is mutually exclusive with any of those other concepts! Use ‘em all! Go nuts, you’ll do great.

The big plummet near the end is the sudden victory. Not too sudden, though. Just enough that the players get a nice big rush when they defeat the thing that you’ve made them think is gonna be pretty tough. And between this and the build-up, that's really all it takes to create The Heroic curve!

Design Concepts

Though the curve is pretty simple by itself, nailing some of the elements can be a little bit tricky. If I were gauging these by design difficulty, The Mini-Boss would be “easy,” Against the Wall would be “hard,” The Heroic would be “medium,” and “The Big Boss” is probably “medium-high.”

For the initial build-up, you really want something that’s going to imply to the players that they’re in for a pretty tough fight. Little spikes in the intensity can help, and if you get to that 2nd or 3rd round point where you’re ready to hit the highest intensity peak, you can even have the enemy pull out some big “final move” that slams the players for pretty huge damage. Mechanically speaking, if you create a creature that has a special ability that hits everyone in the room for pretty massive damage (but not enough to bring anyone down) when its health gets very low, you can create this curve relatively easily. By working with variations on that theme, you can build a number of different fights that all work from that same basic template. But really, anything that achieves this curve is worth looking into. Just be aware that if you do too much damage to the players, it’s not going to feel quite as satisfying when the fight ends. Keep in mind when working toward this curve that the highest intensity peak isn’t that high compared to some of the other curves.

Curve Example #1: The Big Boss

This is it. This is the one. It’s The Big Boss. This is the curve for the ages — the big, epic final confrontation. Get your ridiculous music and bombard your players with percussive and dynamic tracks that are incredibly distracting until you turn them way down! Get your big monsters out! Your big minis! Get your rulers, protractors, and t-squares because this is the moment we’ve all been waiting for! This is another one you might have used or seen used without realizing it. But we’re gonna make it even better.

What It’s Good For

This is it. The big fight. The epic confrontation your players have been anticipating for months or even years. The BBEG. The Beholder at the end of the tunnel. The demigod threatening the world. You’ll want to use this fight very sparingly. Reserve it only for your biggest moments. Since this curve is all about creating a super dynamic, fast-paced fight, overusing the curve can cause fatigue in your players. No kidding — they’ll actually get emotionally exhausted from everything that’s going on.

Important Considerations

This one has two peaks in its default form. This is the curve that puts everything to the test, so you’re going to need to know your basics inside and out. That means understanding what dynamics and pacing mean in the context of Combat Curves.

Dynamics. This is the difference between how high one part of the curve is in comparison to another. Understanding dynamics helps you contextualize one event in the encounter with another. This isn’t always easy to do, but it does help a lot. For example, if every player is reduced from full HP to 1 HP each from a single attack, that’s going to create a massive intensity spike compared to one of the players getting hit one time by one creature. But if you try to compare 3 players getting paralyzed for a round with one player losing half their health in one attack, which has higher intensity? This is often highly contextual, and you’ll have to make your best guess. The good news is that if you’re wrong, you can fall back on your super-duper concrete principles so that next time, you’re far more likely to get it right.

Pacing. This is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and it’s not always in a way that entirely makes sense. For the purposes of any of these curves, pacing refers to the amount of intensity peaks per round of combat. You could quantify it by defining the number of peaks in a given curve, and then compare that to how long the encounter needs to be. For example, a 5-round Big Boss would have 2 peaks and 5 rounds, and so the pacing would be about 2 per 5, or 0.4 per round. This quantification isn’t really necessary, though. Basically, more peaks in a combat of the same length is a faster paced combat, and that will definitely translate directly into player experience!

The Big Boss is a pretty fast-paced combat, which means players are going to feel like a lot is going on in the fight. There are even slight variations on this curve that have even more peaks (although they’re smaller ones), which makes the fight even crazier. This is super important because if you’re going to make a longer fight (like 7 or 8 rounds), you’ll need more curves to sustain it. You can do longer combats, as long as you maintain the pacing.

Design Concepts

You’ll want to consider each round very carefully, especially if you’re going to be trying to keep this fight to 5 rounds or fewer. Achieving a curve this dynamic in such a short time requires careful manipulation of each round, and you may find you have to use every tool at your disposal. But we prepared for this. This is what you trained for. Legendary actions, legendary resistances, lair actions, custom creature actions, multi-attack, spell casting… it all comes together here. First, remember: the length your combat needs to be is the length you need to accomplish the curve. If you absolutely can’t do it in 3 or 4 rounds, use 5. Or 6. Or 10. Whatever you need. If you’re keeping things going, you can absolutely pull that off. If you do a super long combat and it isn’t working, you need to pump up that pacing, which means either shortening the combat or increasing the number of intensity peaks. You can even do it with the same curve, meaning the pacing is slower if you’re careful about it. But because each round of combat has so much going on, players probably won’t even notice how long the combat is in real time. This is, of course, partly dependent on your group. Bigger groups are probably gonna have a harder time doing a lot of rounds of combat.

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Just a big scary thing isn’t gonna do it for this curve. No, not even those ancient dragons that everyone is (justifiably) terrified of. But if we take one as a base, we can make it work with some modifications.

The fight starts out scary. The players know what they’re up against, and they have an idea of what it’s capable of. They don’t know everything it can do yet, though, and that’s important. But it’s a dragon. People know what a dragon is. They’ll have had to go after it probably. If they don’t, figure out another way, but make sure that intensity starts high.

As they enter combat, they’re worried. They know this is going to be a scary fight, and that some of them may not make it out alive. Maybe none of them will. But they’re prepared for it, and they know they have a chance.

The fight starts, and the players get in a couple of hits. But ancient dragons are no joke, and even with decent rolls, a few players miss. The dragon doesn’t take much damage, and it even strikes back, dealing moderate damage to a couple of the players. The players are thinking that they were right; this is going to be tough. Then the breath weapon comes out. It’s a worrying moment, but the players prepared well. Most of them take some damage, and it’s by no means insignificant. The intensity hits its first peak.

But they weather the storm. They heal a bit, and prepare to take the dragon head on. They start using their big spells, and slam the dragon for major damage. Someone even manages to apply a status effect to it. Things are going okay. The players know the fight is deadly, but they’re beginning to feel as though they’re starting to control the fight. Intensity slowly starts to drop.

The dragon takes some hits, but it’s still standing strong. Dragons can take a beating. Then it’s the dragon’s turn. It looks at the party… and begins to cast. The party was unaware that this dragon knew magic. They didn’t know this was a possibility, and are unprepared for it. Even if it’s counterspelled, the players are wondering what other, more powerful spells this dragon might have. This fight, they think, is going to be harder than we thought. Intensity begins to climb again.

They continue to fight, throwing everything they have at the dragon. Between legendary resistances and counterspells, the dragon is starting to lock down the spellcasters. Its AC means the martial classes are only occasionally landing hits, and the dragon’s HP is falling very slowly. Surely slower than the players’. Can they keep up? They wonder. Then comes the dragon’s turn again. Players are worried. They don’t know what it has in store, but it’s certainly more than a bite or two. They’re right. The dragon rears back, and begins casting again. Counterspell goes off, but it’s a roll, and the caster fails. The dragon’s horde is vast, and it uses 1,500gp of ruby dust like it’s nothing. It casts Forcecage, and one or even two of the party’s frontliners are now trapped. Someone has to get them out. And that’s it. It’s over, they think. They surely can’t come back from this.

But the wizard isn’t done yet. He’s got a trick or two of his own. He casts Dimension Door and enters the cage. He waits for the next round when he can hopefully get the frontliner out. It’s a longshot but it might work. In the meantime, the rest of the party is exhausting every resource they have left, including a few they were saving for a special occasion. The dragon gets another round of attacks. Two party members fall, but they’re still alive for now. The wizard and frontliner make their escape from the cage, and the party empty what’s left of their resources. The dragon finally falls.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk! This has been a narrative description based entirely on the combat curve. If you missed it, I don’t blame you. It’s hidden underneath all that fluff, but it’s definitely there! The mechanics! The systems! The curve! It’s all coming together!

A lot of the examples here were obviously pretty specific, and it depends partly on your party’s composition and what they’re capable of. The important thing is how the dragon used the reveal of its spell casting ability in order to help push the intensity into its second peak, which is higher than the first. It culminates in the casting of Forcecage, which causes a potentially party-ending problem. But if you know what the party is capable of, and you know how the spells work, you want that big spell that you cast to be something that’s a big problem but that the party can definitely get out of. If you have a really hearty group, or one with lots of healing, maybe just a quick Chain Lightning for damage is better. If you have a lot of PCs, maybe a Dominate Monster is in order! Just be very specific about the spell you give your dragon in that instance because the wrong choice there can be the difference between a big spike that the players overcome in glorious victory and an unceremonious party wipe.

Make your own!

You can really make a curve from anything! There’s absolutely no reason you should be beholden to the ones above. In fact, these aren’t even all the curves I use! If you apply this process, you can generate just about any curve you want, as long as you’re clear about what you’re accomplishing with it. Do you want much faster-paced fights? Go for more intensity peaks in less time! Want something more laid back? Stick with one, and maybe don’t push it too high. What if you start a curve at the highest point of intensity, then taper off, then peak at about half the intensity you started at, then tapered off into a resolution? What kind of emotional experience would that create? What if you made that curve, then truncated the fight? How would that affect it?

You can play with these concepts all you want! As long as your process is really clear, your player experience is super well defined, and you know how the curve maps to that experience, then all that’s left is to get creative and design away. These constraints are incredibly helpful to making sure your designs are the result of a concerted effort. Remember: game design is a problem solving process, and you’re in charge of how you frame the problems you’re solving.


I hope that you found this useful! Even if you don’t end up employing Combat Curves in your DMing, I’d like to think that this provides some interesting insight on how to improve your design process.

As always, it’s your game and your table. Since you’re the one who’s ultimately responsible for that, you should do what you feel is necessary and valuable to curate the experience! Still, I’d just absolutely thrilled to learn that you took these principles and made great use of them. I know you can do it! Either way, happy gaming!

Finally, I want to make one last point. I know there’s strictly no youtube videos allowed in posts, but I did a series that honestly makes a lot of this a lot clearer because it uses visual aids and stuff, too. The overall content is basically the same, though. If you prefer that method I guess just DM me or something? 'Cos of no links 🙂

Source: reddit.com

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