D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes

Last summer, I played in the Dungeons & Dragons adventure Hecatomb. The multi-table event put numerous parties on a massive battlefield. Our characters scrambled to destroy arcane obelisks while fighting monsters. To start the event, the dungeon master pointed to the empty grid, “There’s your part of the battlefield,” then he set markers for the obelisk and monsters. Now fight.

I’ve played countless battles on that same featureless grid. Sure, sometimes the blank space represents an open cavern, a desert, or a hilltop, but in every case, the empty field adds no interest to the scene. At least we had squares to count.

The dull setup turned duller when we realized that our party’s sharpshooter could safely destroy the obelisks and the monsters lurking two maps over, without ever letting threats come close enough to strike back. Our melee characters could only “ooh” and “ahh” like an audience for Annie Oakley.

In D&D, the empty grid has an equally humdrum opposite: the square dungeon room with doors on either end. I’ve played that map countless times, and I know how that goes as well. If the monsters win initiative, they crowd the door and nobody moves again. If the players win initiative, fireballs and hypnotic patterns cull the weak, while the sharpshooter drops the boss. Only the monsters who make saves get to crowd the door.

Perhaps some of these combat scenes prove fun. Sometimes players enjoy a chance to revel in quick victory. Mostly, they make DMs consider dismissing the fight with a quick visit to the theater of the mind or they consider altogether fewer fights. This makes me sad because while I enjoy exploration and role-playing, I also enjoy dynamic, tactical battles.

To map locations that lead to exciting battles, take my suggestions:

Monsters deserve cover

In a fantasy world with D&D sharpshooters and fireballs, combatants would hunker down in trenches like soldiers at the Somme. Melee fighters would advance under cover of Fog Cloud. Such tactics probably lack the heroic flavor you want, but you can give monsters a fighting chance without getting too tricky. Just add some total cover, and play creatures with the good sense to duck between their turns. This hardly counts as high strategy. If you throw a rock at a rat, it runs for cover. Faced with melee and ranged attacks, many foes will stay out of sight and let intruders come into reach. That usually works. By reputation, treasure hunters are bloodthirsty and undisciplined.

Such tactics encourage characters to move to engage. Melee fighters get more to do. They deserve to shine.

Total cover takes just few columns or stalagmites.

One caution: Newer players can find foes that duck behind total cover frustrating. You may need to dial down the tactic or explain the rules for readying actions.

Start some monsters out of sight—especially the boss

In the typical D&D battle, all the party’s foes start in plain sight. This makes the strongest monster an easy target for focused fire. Too often the mastermind dies before acting, or even before finishing a monologue. The players never learn of the fiendish plan that will end their pitiful lives. Consider starting that climactic battle with the main foe out of view. Let the characters spread out to attack the guards and lieutenants, and then have the biggest threat appear on its turn. In D&D, villains must fight and monologue at the same time.

When some lesser foes begin out of view, fights benefit. First, this gives some total cover. Plus the battle feels more fluid; the situation more uncertain. As characters move into the room, they spot unseen foes. As monsters emerge, the players wonder what other surprises wait.

Give flyers some air

Cover plus room to fly makes a good lair for a beholder

I find beholders irresistible. Who doesn’t? But just about every showdown against a beholder that I’ve played or run ended in disappointment. Too often, scenarios put them in a room with low ceiling, letting melee attackers rush in and smack them like t-balls. Any beholder worth its 17 intelligence finds a lair with a high ceiling and elevated places that provide total cover. A hole in the roof or some high columns will do. Between flying and antimagic, Beholders should frustrate every do-gooder.

What works for beholders works for every other flyer. Don’t ground flyers under a low ceiling. Let them fly over the melee ranks and bite the lightly-armored spellcaster attempting to concentrate.

Let the monsters intrude for a change

In an earlier post, I suggested an easy way to make dungeons feel vital. The method reverses the tired pattern of monsters that seem to wait in rooms for their chance to be slain. Pick a room where you would normally put monsters. In a published adventure, the room might already include some. Then assume the monsters have temporarily left the room. As the characters interact with other features of the room—the fountain or the bookcase—the monsters return. This trick begins fights with characters spread out instead of in a defensive formation. Characters who avoid melee may land in harm’s way. Some character may be surprised. The dungeon feels active.

Watch Counterspell range

Counterspell ranks as one of the 4 most annoying spells in fifth edition. Any encounter centered on an enemy spellcaster threatens to turn into a Counterspell duel where the foe does nothing. All that nothing amounts a boring encounter. Spellcasters can avoid Counterspell two ways: Either cast outside the spell’s 60-foot range or cast from out of sight. So place enemy casters in locations big enough for more the 60 feet of distance, and then favor spells that work from that distance. Fireball delivers again. After casting, duck behind total cover and let the melee characters come for a taste of shorter-ranged spells.

As for casting from out of sight, non-player spellcasters typically lack Greater Invisibility, but a few of their buff spells can be cast from total cover.

Love the small loop

The opposite of the static, bottlenecked encounter comes from encounter areas built around at least one tight, looping circuit through the dungeon. Such a layout enables foes to circle around and bring the battle to characters in the back—the characters who so rarely enjoy the chance to face foes up close. Meanwhile, melee characters rarely resist the temptation to chase skirmishers. The layout invites active battles.

Make encounter areas from clusters of rooms

D&D brings a long tradition of dungeons filled with square rooms with a door. Once upon a time, that game felt new enough to make even the 20-by-20 room a fitting battlefield. In today’s game, that worn setup rarely works. Don’t just draw a big square on a grid and call it a battlefield. Dynamic encounters demand more thought.

Rather than confining encounter areas to a single room, consider building sites from clusters of small rooms with one or more paths that circuit the location. Groups of rooms add places for total cover and for hidden foes. They encourage characters to pursue enemies, adding movement and excitement. On these maps, make the distances small enough so characters can move from room to room, and from attack to attack, with a single move.

Out of marching order

I pity players who favor melee characters. Fifth-edition D&D delivers too many advantages for ranged attackers. Spellcasters get fireball and hypnotic pattern. Ranged rogues can more easily attack from hiding. Archers get sharpshooter and crossbow expert. In addition to getting the best feats, ranged attackers get to fight out of harm’s way.

But battles with movement end cover tend to play to the strengths of melee characters. The monk finally gets to flaunt her speed! The backstabber gains places to dash, disengage, and reasons to engage. The paladin can drive foes from hiding. Sure, these sort of encounters may frustrate and threaten sharpshooters, but that just adds an extra benefit.

Don’t follow this advice for me. Do it for the beholders. Those characters won’t disintegrate themselves.

Related: In my side trek “To Steal a Primordial,” the party attempts to intercept a group of drow before they can escape to the Underdark. To foster a moving battle, I designed the scenario’s last map using much of my advice here.

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11 Responses to D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes

  1. hipstersanddragons says:

    Nothing more tedious than people shooting safely from the back…. additionally it’s tedious for the PCs who do it. The thrill of combat lies not just in doing damage, but the adrenaline of possibly getting squashed by a brute’s spiked club at any moment (or disintegrated).

    Enjoyed these suggestions!

  2. Scott says:

    Excellent suggestions! Also, it is helpful to include enemies that have some of the feats that PCs are using — subtle spell casting or sharpshooter come to mind.

  3. alphastream says:

    Awesome article! One thing I would add is to give the characters obvious goals inside the room, to draw them in and give them things to do. Some examples: A monster is heading towards a lever, so it probably should be stopped. The treasure is in a clearly visible alcove, but a huge stone wall is dropping down to seal it off. A clockwork device begins to slowly count down.

    When it comes to foes, making them interesting really helps. 4 goblins and a wizard… everyone will target the wizard. But when you have goblins throwing strange alchemical or mechanical devices at the party, or if the goblins control levers that activate traps, suddenly players won’t know where to focus fire, and the battle gets interesting and dynamic. Even vivid descriptions can be effective. A common outcome in my home campaign is that they don’t focus fire (despite being very tactical) because the monsters all demand attention.

    Terrain is also worth underscoring. Cover is important, but the design of the room itself will drive how players react. A ramp up the middle, elevated places, stacks of crates that can topple over, a chasm, a pit, a rope bridge with ropes you can clearly use to swing across, and other such terrain will all change the behavior of players and encourage at least a few of them to engage the battle in fun ways.

  4. Stevey says:

    Love this David.

    I helped with Hecatomb last spring also here in MTL. I was to be DM-ing Tier 3. Upon reading it — I immediately noticed the open battle field effect you mentioned. I proceeded to create a dozen “Claws” and a huge box of scatter terrain to hand out to the 10+ DM’s to help with this. I really think it helped. We even used it to help raise money (the Epic was for a charity) and gave away the terrain to those that donated.

    https://imgur.com/a/nhu8YmL

  5. Pingback: 101+ Terrain Features for Better Combats in 5e D&D

  6. Tracy says:

    can’t giants throw rocks from beyond a arrow snipers range? I seem to recall adventures where this happens.

  7. Don says:

    Losing all the fun David, putting in that C&S reality. Never was about the realistic setting, it was always about rational rules for common circumstances.

  8. Nice! I’ve been designing maps like this for our games, littering rooms and open areas with all sorts of interactive items like trees, ridges, bonfires, tables, stacks of barrels, large piles of rubble, stalactites and ledges. The players have used it all to their advantage (as have their opponents, to the players’ chagrin), not just for cover, but to take on groups of enemies they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to handle in a simple slugfest.

  9. timothypark says:

    Some, hopefully helpful, suggestions:

    Waves. Can be done a couple ways. The basic principle is similar to some of the more active melees you’ve described. Build a reasonable “pool” of creatures for multiple encounters, then divide them into reasonable groups and assume that they can communicate at some level. (“Communication” may be as basic as reacting to the noise of a fight.) Place them appropriately in the larger encounter area and make notes on your map of how long it will take each group to move to adjacent areas. (Don’t just calculate the distance and divide by movement. Allow time for reaction, arming, orders, consideration, etc.) The first encounter triggers the others as circumstances dictate.

    This grows out of some wargaming and attempts to reproduce “fog of war”. One of the few times I put up a DM screen because I will make use of a map out of sight with counters for the additional “waves” to plot when they “activate” and how they move. You don’t have to be Napoleon to do this.

    I also recommend rolling separate initiatives for each wave group, if nothing else so I remember to check if anything has triggered their becoming involved. This increases the challenge by attrition admittedly. Depending on the CR of each wave, the adventurers will start to run low on resources. in more complicated terrain disengaging may not be simple. If they are used to reliably taking short rests, tend to attack first and consider the larger situation later, waves will not only make them sweat but can produce deaths and even TPKs. Even with low CR opponents. (Quantity has a quality all its own.)

    Waves do allow the DM some control of the threat as you can slow or elect to not produce the reinforcements.

    Morale Checks. Most of the games I’ve been a player in the creatures encountered fanatically fight to the last creature. Either by fiat or with a simple chart impose reasonable morale checks. I use a simple Wisdom save once comrades start to fall. I usually start with DC5 or 10, raising that for obvious modifications: a leader falls, more than half of the allies drop from a magical or miraculous cause, etc. Even without losses it’s very reasonable for a creature part of a larger group with a boss elsewhere to run off to let the boss know what’s going on. More intelligent creatures may plan for this: hobgoblins would likely have a designated runner, for instance.

    Reinforcements and Fallbacks. Reinforcements is, essentially a variation on waves. The main difference is that I usually pair it with morale and tend to use it with more intelligent opponents. Sometimes creating an exponential “ripple effect”. Goblins tend to lend themselves well to this and become a challenge even for higher level and experienced adventurers. Fallbacks are prepared responses or positions to retreat to.

    Creatures that know they have reinforcements and prepared positions or resources to retreat to will reasonably do so after a short period of resistance. Even without failing a morale check.

    When ten goblins or similar are randomly encountered in a forest and six easily dispatched but the other four fade away to return with 20 friends, for instance. Or 5 minutes further into the caverns the jermlaine have alerted the drow.

    All of this assumes the map is “tactically interesting” and that the creatures there are at least in part intelligent enough to make reasonable use of what is there in their own self interest.

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