Content of the article: "My humanoid combat was really boring. So I made a small change to fix it."
I’ve found that combat in DND is often in danger of hitting the same problem. As the dungeon master, you often plan an epic swashbuckling encounter that has players on the edge of their seats while they fight for their lives… what often happens instead is this: you’re a full hour into your combat and your swashbuckling encounter has become a grinding, slugfest marathon. Round after round, people are patiently waiting for their turn to just to repeat their same move over and over and over as they hit big bags of HP for the umpteenth time, looking at their watches and wondering why they ever left the fun social encounter they were having back at the local tavern. Sure, they are taking some hits as well… but in the economy of scale (especially CR scale) it’s nothing the players really need to worry about it. When combat becomes like this, it can be boring as all hell for everyone involved.
This can be especially true with humanoid combat. With magical monsters, ancient demons and giant robots, you often have cool moves and features which you can deploy to shake things up a bit and keep things from slipping into that combat grind. But if you want to have your players ambushed by a regular band of humanoid baddies (evil bandits, paid mercenaries, troublesome pirates or city watch serving an evil king etc) things can descend into a slugfest quickly. Sure, you could give them fun features but these bands of humanoids aren’t really supposed to have huge spells, monk combat abilities or magical weapons etc… they’re meant to just be regular bad guys. I think players often want this kind of encounter they recognise from movies and TV shows. But you’re often in real danger of a boring slugfest ensuing in most cases.
So I tried out a fix which I’ve found works very well… I wanted to share it with you guys and see what you think. This is what you do.
Take your standard humanoid baddie template for your party’s level and do the following…
- Cut everyone’s health by two thirds and triple the number of bad guys on the battlefield (Keep everyone’s original AC the same). This works for two reasons. The first is that it feels a bit more true to life; a humanoid warrior will rely on a decent ability to dodge, parry and block with shield and armour etc… but once you get past that decent AC, they’re just bags of blood and bone. If a broadsword gets past their defences and is driven across/through their chest or into their stomach… that’s serious business. The second reason this works is this; your players feel like they achieve more by doing the exact same actions. Your ranger beats an AC with his bow twice in a row? Let him take out two enemies in a row instead of his arrows just dully smacking into a big HP bag. Has your fighter consistently hit four times over two rounds? Instead of her battering the same guy into submission… have her chop one guy’s head off, drive her sword through the other before booting the last two guys off a balcony. It makes players feel powerful and way. More. Stuff. Happens. You might be thinking ‘but those guys will get way more turns, that could be really dangerous. Yes, you’re right. Here’s the next thing you do…
- Take everyone’s original damage output and double it. I mean it, each of these bad guys should be dealing deadly-level-encounter damage with each crossbow bolt and every swing of their sword. I know what you might be thinking… in an economy of scale, this just became a complete TPK scenario. Five of those guys could surround you and chop you into sushi before you’ve even had a chance to blink. Which is exactly why you can’t let that happen and why you can’t let this be a grinding slugfest… you’ve got to move. Don’t just stand there. Work together. Lead them on to a narrow stairway, knock a fire brassiere in the way to make difficult terrain, nullify attacks of opportunity, herd them into one space so the sorcerer can nuke them, trap some of them with a ranger’s spike growth, take cover between firing your bow. Blind them, scare them, trick them, do whatever you can think of to avoid a straight up combat grind. Because if you don’t then you’ll all die. Fast.
As long as you give players locations that are big enough and complex enough to play with, it makes everything way more memorable. It’s the right balance of people feeling very tense (just a few mistakes or wrong decisions could wipe everyone out) to people feeling powerful as they take out multiple bad guys through the rounds. People have more choices to make, they’re forced to constantly think outside the box, they’re cutting down guys every turn and way more happens in general. If you accidentally TPK everyone, you always have the safety net of the humanoid bad guys taking everyone prisoner (they aren’t mindless monsters, after all) which could set the scene for a fun jail break next time. I should also mention that this doesn’t apply to DMs who stick to the “eight encounters per day” model, this is very much a big moment of the day.
What do you guys think? Do you have any of your own methods for altering combat?
- Don’t be afraid to change things that you like
- Small tip for getting combat-focused players to RP more.
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