For Better D&D Fights, Use This 1 Simple Trick That the Designers Won’t Tell You

Late in the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the design team started presenting each encounter in a 1- or 2-page diagram. By putting everything needed to run an encounter on a page, this “delve format” benefited dungeon masters. The format especially suited fourth edition’s focus on tactical combat encounters played on battle maps. It encouraged designers to craft locations that fueled interesting battles.

Delve format encounter

While many DMs favored the easy-to-run encounters, the delve format took some heat too. Critics argued that lavishing so much space and attention on encounters encouraged adventure designs that forced players to battle through all those set pieces. The approach led to linear adventures, and it discouraged letting players use diplomacy, stealth, or ingenuity to skip combat. All that sunk cost in maps, stats, and setup tempted DMs to make fights inevitable.

So in fifth edition, the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme. Today’s adventures avoid framing situations as encounters. Instead DMs get a monster name in bold without any extra detail that might invite combat. Sample fifth-edition design: “This 20-by-20 room has 3 manticores. Fight them or whatever. Doesn’t matter.” I’m paraphrasing.

But combat remains part of D&D, and such lightweight non-encounters can lead to too many dull battles. Too often, characters and their foes crowd a doorway trading damage until monsters drop. If the designers aimed to make roleplaying interaction and exploration seem more appealing, then mission accomplished!

Even though the delve format seemed to foster more interesting combat encounters by lavishing more space on them, the key ingredient was rarely the extra text; the key was the map.

The delve format shined a spotlight on encounter maps and inspired designers to dream bigger than a 20-by-20 room. Better maps led to better battles.

Fifth edition abandoned the delve format, but it still features maps. Often, the secret to better D&D fights lies in imagining a better location. Not every potential battlefield merits the attention, but many do. I compare drawing the map for a likely battle to piling kindling. If a spark appears, I want fire.

Designing better maps doesn’t necessarily mean every fight needs to play on a grid of 5-foot squares. But even if your players favor narrative combat, more knotty locations probably mean sketching a rough map of the battlefield and of relative positions. (DMs, your players may not love theater of the mind as much as you do, so check.)

The 1 simple trick is more of a mindset: When you you map a battleground, start by seeking ways to favor the home team, usually the monster. 

Smart monsters will seek lairs that benefit them, but even beasts will instinctively seek the best place to ambush prey. From a game perspective, the most engaging fights will come from battlegrounds that let monsters exploit their abilities. Flyers want airspace to rise from reach and perhaps walls, columns, or stalactites to swoop behind. Giants need space to move. Intangible creatures want tight, knotted corridors with walls to phase through.

Mapping locations that favor the home team makes sense, but DMs seldom do it. Too often we fall into patterns set by the oldest dungeons. Originally, DMs like Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax drew maps, and then populated them by rolling from tables. We came to mock those monster hotels, but just about every DM has started with a map and sprinkled it with picks from the monster manual. Modern dungeons still tend to settle for that pattern. I’ve seen official adventures with beholders in small rooms under low ceilings and even an archmage guarding a hallway. Here’s a super genius who spent a lifetime making space and time his playthings, and somehow he winds up alone in a hall where he can only hope for a high enough initiative to loose a cone of cold before getting beaten to death. (His stats say Int 20, but if he fails to use his turn to teleport far away, I suspect daddy got him into wizard school.)

This old pattern of drawing a rectangle and posting a few monsters heavily favors the players. The party brings durable heroes who can block attacks, plus spellcasters and sharpshooters who can heap damage on monsters while safely behind the defenders.

Maps that draw characters into interesting locations make sense for the monsters, and bring more fun. For help designing maps that fuel dramatic battles, see D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes.

Sometimes a battlefield that favors the characters can prove even more fun than one that favors the monsters. To work, such locations must invite some bigger advantage than a defensive line at the door. While most fights at a door prove tiresome, if the players cross to such a choke point and then draw their foes there, the battle rewards clever play and brings fun. Often the most exciting battles pit characters against more powerful foes, and then add features that players can use to even the score. Classic adventures like Night’s Dark Terror and Isle of the Abbey turn this premise into sieges, where players have time to prepare a defense against hordes of foes. Whatever the specifics, players feel clever while they savor the thrill of defying the odds.

Good maps don’t help if everyone winds up crowding the door. To avoid bottlenecks, flip the usual script: Give the party time to enter a room and scatter before having the monsters intrude. Beyond that, break from the old pattern of thinking of each room as a separate encounter area. Instead, think of encounter areas as clusters of rooms, hallways, and whatever else lies in earshot. As scattered monsters sense intruders, they come from different directions. If the set of rooms includes a route that leads behind the characters, monsters can circle back and give those wizards and archers a taste. For good battles against the leader types who make the players’ first targets, let the leaders move into view on their turns.

When you map a location for a likely battle, think of the monsters, and then favor the home team.

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13 Responses to For Better D&D Fights, Use This 1 Simple Trick That the Designers Won’t Tell You

  1. Ilbranteloth says:

    Toward the end of the article you touched on what I think the real answer is – actual tactics.

    I don’t like D&D style “tactical” combat, because it’s not. It’s more like a board game style of tactical combat.

    Real tactics start with the fact that most creatures avoid combat if they can. The risk is too high. So if a fight is inevitable, they will do everything they can to ensure that they have an overwhelming tactical advantage. Cover, ranged weapons, attack from multiple positions (particularly flanks), force the enemy into a narrow formation, or spread apart, superior numbers, surprise, etc, etc.

    In typical D&D fashion, the adventurers are home invaders, and in the first room they encounter monsters, the monsters fight to the death. In a real life situation, if an intruder enters your home, what’s the first thing you do?

    Get out. You try not to be seen, escape, and call the authorities (or reinforcements).

    The next most common “tactic” in D&D? Call reinforcements who will arrive too late, and just be another wave to fight to the death. They should run, fortify (to block the intruders) and then get reinforcements. If they are guards outside something to protect (something that often doesn’t make sense in the context of the setting, but that’s a different issue), and they are required to fight to the death? They still often won’t. Better to risk death the punishment instead. If they know that’s too harsh, then potential death in the wilderness is better than dying now.

    But they will sound an alarm first, and that will alert others to seal the place shut, fortify, and scout out the threat.

    “Three guys fighting and two “sorcerers” sir” (where sorcerer is the term they use for all spellcasters). Then they know what they are up against and prepare accordingly.

    So I love the advice to think beyond the room. But it goes farther than that. Think beyond the encounter. Or to put it a different way, the monsters/NPCs design their home and live their lives for every day of every year. Guess what? Most of those days don’t include being attacked by adventurers. There may be common threats, and that’s what they design their defenses around. Anything beyond a normal threat is cause for great concern and appropriate reaction. They might have a high alert type of plan, or might not.

    But from your basic predator, to intelligent creatures, one thing that 99% hold in common is that they will fight to the death for very, very few things. In real life you usually don’t have to kill a predator, just drive it off. And unlike the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, once you drive it off, it learns that you aren’t an easy meal, hunt elsewhere.

    Intelligent creatures, in the other hand, have a concept called revenge.

    Think beyond D&D being a game, and consider the way the world works. If you treat the creatures (including the PCs) as real creatures in a real world, then you find that many of the “problems” of D&D go away. You don’t have murder hobos, a 15-minute workday, or dungeons full of monsters in temporary stasis until the PCs arrive to kill them. You have a living-breathing world where even “balance” is much less of an issue. I find that many of my players don’t even care about how good their character is in combat. They let the combat-focused PCs take care of it, or hire people who can fight. Nobody cares that the player with the Paladin is a power gamer. Well, actually they care in the sense that they know he can handle most fights on his own. And they are happy with that.

    Because the big fights, the ones like I describe here, are more dependent on planning and finding ways to eliminate the threats beyond just a simple frontal assault by the PCs. There are still simple fights, and the combat oriented PCs get to be the heroes in that restarts in our game. Otherwise, it’s the team that is always the hero, because without a good plan and teamwork, they tend to fail.

  2. Garrett A Crowe says:

    I love making maps but have fallen into using the DM Guide Random Map Maker. I need to think bigger and more cunning in use of space to make the most out of my creepy-crawlies.

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  4. Bisqwik says:

    Many other board games or fantasy novels are chock full of ideas that can be very exciting and new for combat.
    Make your own random table if you still want to go that route. Add things that affect sight, smell, sound. Use the 3 dimensional space. You can use all kinds of items to make a 3d map that PC’s will want to interact with. And don’t forget to throw random objects in your combat space. PC’s love to improvise with props.
    Try to avoid railroading the majority of the story. Monster the characters can’t sway to a peaceful conclusion? Maybe they can throw it off it’s game another way

  5. OZ_DM says:

    Throw Trickster Clerics at the party using invoke duplicity (while they behind hidden eye slots behind a brick wall) – sams to sort parties out.

  6. Dan says:

    Taking on a cult? Fill the antechamber/meeting hall with seating and pillars, and a podium/Dias. Rows of seating add difficult terrain which can either be crossed or circumvented. But then the casters at the front chuck a firebolt that misses the player and lights the pews ablaze, which slowly spreads. If players are getting too close, the casters and boss might retreat to another zone with reinforcement and more obstacles, or a mode of escape. They can also lead the players into traps, as once in combat, players don’t generally consider traps.

  7. George W Fortney says:

    Reverse the tactics of the masters, and use the table’s to come up with the monsters first. Then you can build the environment around them to match their preferred tactics in hunting and defending themselves and their home.

    Remember that the longer they’ve lived in an area, the more they make changes to suit themselves and their clan or family. Now remember what a family will do to defend their young. Brown bears will often leave people alone in the wild, but find yourself standing between a mother and her cub and see what happens.

    In a recent game I ran I had a reviled dragonborn war cleric who had built himself a small empire in an ice fort on the frozen tundra of the world. There he had surrounded himself with warriors and mercenaries, thieves and assassins, and kept them safe from the laws of the cities and kingdoms they’re on the run from. Also hiding out with him are a group of cult like mages and sorcerers that believe magic in the world has waned, in an attempt to recover that power, they are breeding creatures of a magical nature. The war cleric also created a “Stade” of gladiator pit where he entertains the community, and can dump people who irritate or otherwise vex him to die. He also was raising remorhaz in the Stade to be used in combats.

    So the fort of ice is manned by gladiators and mercenaries, filled with killers and criminals who’s safety and livelihood depend on the war cleric, and warded and enchanted by mages who are also using the area to stay hidden. In walk the players seeking a bounty, information on the very cult hiding there, and bringing a freed wood elf slave back to the area because his tribe live in a thriving jungle hidden below the tundra, and the only entrance known is one the war cleric uses to get in with his merc’s and catch slaves to sell and trade on the black market around the world using his contacts with the various guilds who’s thieves he’s helping to protect.

    The players see the war cleric throw a couple more wood elf slaves into the pitt to be fed to the remorhaz for sport and entertainment… They can’t help themselves, the party attacks, vastly outnumbered and in a situation that reads as TPK all over. But a few lucky dice rolls and some brilliant tactics by their shatter casting sorcerer who sees the folly of building a tower of ice to sit on… DM has to rethink how he builds the encounters for this chaos crew.

  8. Mel A says:

    This was a great read, both original article and some of the comments. Thanks, dmdave.

  9. Rick says:

    Or you know, play a game and surrender to fantasy. Either or I suppose.

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