Are you a dungeon master? Tired losing every fight? Tired of player characters beating your monsters like pinatas? Get used to it. For DMs and for the Washington Generals basketball team, losing fits the job description.
Still, if the monsters show cunning, then the players who outwit them feel a sweeter triumph. And even the most tactically shrewd DMs will be outwitted. The players outnumber the DM by at least 4 brains to 1.
This post presents simple tactics that challenge players to work harder to win their battles. Victory will only taste sweeter.
1. Move after an action
In fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, creatures can move, then attack or cast a spell, and then move again.
Creatures with ranged attacks, and especially spellcasters, should seek total cover between actions. They can can pop out, cast spells, and then duck back behind the wall. If your enemy spellcasters start out of sight, they stand a much better chance of loosing a few spells. If they cast from out of the 60-foot range of Counterspell, their chances get even better.
Flying creatures with ranged attacks benefit from weaving in and out of range. Flyers with melee attacks do best by swooping to hit a single target and then flying away. Such attacks provoke a single opportunity attack, but that beats taking blows from a PC with multiple attacks, and then giving other melee attackers a chance to pile on.
When you weigh whether to provoke an opportunity attack, remember that against foes with multiple attacks, taking a single opportunity attack hurts less.
Flying creatures who make good use of flight tend to sideline melee-based characters, so too many flyers may frustrate players. Try not to discourage the folks who just want to hit things with a sword. The game already saddles these melee players with weaker characters than the ranged players. Thanks Sharpshooter.
2. Use the Dodge action
Players virtually never use the Dodge action. Who wants to take a turn doing nothing? But having some monsters in a group Dodge can prove effective.
- When a couple of monsters block characters from reaching monsters that have ranged attacks, the blockers should dodge while the ranged attackers deal damage.
- When a monster lacks enough movement to reach an enemy without dashing, then move and Dodge.
- When characters gang up on one monster to focus their fire, use Dodge. The characters can either move to another target—and face an opportunity attack—or they can try to hit while suffering disadvantage.
- When a spellcaster concentrates on a spell hurting the characters, use Dodge.
Dodge does not rate as a tricky tactic. Faced with grouped attacks and with allies in view, even the dullest monsters may go on defense. I would.
In retreat, sometimes Dodge works better than the Disengage action. Disengage lets you avoid attacks during your turn, but grants no defense after your turn ends. Dodge helps against opportunity attacks, and protects you until your next turn.
Fit tactics to temperament and intelligence
When you decide how monsters should act, fit tactics to their temperament and intelligence. Disciplined hobgoblins might take a Dodge action, but aggressive orcs never will. Dim-witted ogres just club things—unless a smarter master calls orders.
Even creatures with animal intelligence may use their abilities with cunning. A real-world wolf will draw the attention of prey and take the equivalent of a Dodge action while the rest of the pack attacks from the flanks.
3. Use the Help action to grant advantage to powerful attacks
The Help action lets a creature assist an ally making an attack. If a fight includes smaller creatures cooperating with something with big attacks, just one of the mooks can spend an action to grant the boss advantage on an attack. A crafty goblin can trade his meager attack for a chance to help a friendly ogre bash skulls.
4. Focus fire
Against characters at low level, I avoid having monsters focus their attacks on individuals. Characters will die. At level 7 or so, characters become nearly impossible to kill through ordinary attacks. Monsters can start focusing attacks and the healer can shine. To avoid hard feelings, I suggest revealing why the monsters target characters. See What game masters (and their monsters) should say during a combat encounter.
The focus fire tactic opens a trick for brutish monsters surrounded by allies, especially when they face spellcasters. Use the Shove action to knock Poindexter prone, and then let the allies make melee attacks with advantage.
Play to match the players’ skill and interests
For some players, tricky combat strategies will make your game seem less fun.
If you pit your mastery of the Dungeons & Dragons rules against newer players, then the game will seem complicated and intimidating. If your players prefer combat scenes that just give their characters a chance to show off before the story resumes, then skip the tricky maneuvers. Such players may prefer demolishing extra monsters over matching wits with fewer, more cunning foes.
On the other hand, if your players enjoy outwitting their enemies, play the villains up to their intelligence score.
Hello, DM David. I just have to say that I love the blog; This topic is a great one, it takes a while to learn these skills. I’d like to add using the environment to your list; In my games, the bad guys do their best to be the ones to pick the battle field, they’ll use it to their advantage, to maximize their abilities, and attempt to minimize the players. Stealth is the PC’s best friend, but once the gig is up, enemies will do their best to funnel them into ambush points where they can get the best cover and leave the players out in the open.
Excellent article! My only request is, would you please follow up with an article covering ways to make foes *less* dangerous?
For those times you realize, midway through, that you made an encounter way too hard, and need a way to let your players off the hook without being too obvious.
Your players shouldn’t know exact hit points of their foes, you can always decide to kill a monster on the next attack that hits it. Alternatively, fleeing is a valid option for creatures (even animals), even if it looks like they will win the fight. Wolves will wound an elk and then leave, so as to return when it is weaker without the risk of continuing the fight for example.
This isn’t my blog, but it is a fun question; I would say that the best route is to figure out if this is your fault or not. Death is just one victory condition, would the monster/enemy gain more by forcing a surrender? Villains who win battles against the PCs become epic villains, and motivate the players to interact with our worlds on a level that “you win” games can’t. If the party refuses to surrender and dies because they are inflexible, go with it. You’re the DM, if you really did mess up, then save them, but not for free; make it seem like it was part of your plan all along. What happens now?
Just as players can make the final blow knock a creature out instead of killing it, so can creators do the same to PC’s. The creatures could then take their live prey back to a nest for their young, or to a slave market, or to a bigger monster as a sacrifice. All of these would give the PC’s a way to escape later.