In combat, tactically-minded Dungeons & Dragons players focus their characters’ attacks on one monster. By concentrating damage and eliminating enemies, they zero each monster’s hit points as quickly as possible, reducing the number of monsters able to counterattack. The fourth-edition Player’s Strategy Guide included a figure that showed the benefits of this tactic. Focusing fire offers the simplest and most effective tactic in the game. However, the tactic can make combat a little less fun.
When adventurers focus fire, battle scenes sputter out as monsters fall until the battle ends with outnumbered foes near full hit points mobbed by the entire party. Players won’t spend any resources on a fight that seems won, so they chip away with cantrips and basic attacks. The battle wears on even while the outcome seems obvious. (For help with this predicament, see How to End Combat Encounters Before They Become a Grind.)
More exciting fights leave many monsters standing until the last round, when most of the monsters fall in a turning tide of battle. So hindering the players’ ability to focus fire not only helps keep more monsters fighting, it also helps keep combat interesting to the end.
To avoid becoming the next to die, monsters chosen as targets for focused fire typically have two options:
- Dodge. If a monster dodges, its attackers can either try to hit while suffering disadvantage or move to another target, sometimes facing an opportunity attack.
- Move. Monsters getting targeted can move to a safer position, even at the price of disengaging or taking an opportunity attack. Often a creature can avoid focused melee attacks by moving past the front line to attack the spellcasters and ranged attackers further back. Give the wizard a taste.
Such tactics count as common sense rather than genius. Even the most bloodthirsty monster who takes a beating at the front will play defense or maneuver to let fresher fighters come forward.
As a dungeon master, while I know the advantage of preventing focused fire, I always feel hesitant to let my creatures dodge or move. I blame loss aversion and I should know better. Creatures that dodge or disengage may lose a turn when they could attack, but dead creatures lose all their attacks. Creatures who suffer an opportunity attack sometimes die to a free attack, but just as often they live longer. Also, against characters with multiple attacks, taking a single opportunity attack hurts less. If the free attack does finish the monster, so what? You have unlimited monsters. Besides, players love when that killing blow comes free.
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A long long EnWorld-style “discussion” on this very problem, currently in progress. I won’t repeat any of it here.
Keying off something you said, though, DMDave… what if you were allowed – like in HEROsystems Champions – to “abort to Dodge”?: “What, eight goblin archers are all shooting at me? Hell yes I give up my Action next turn to Dodge now!”
(Maybe this takes your Reaction now *and* your Action next turn.) You put all the attackers at disadvantage, but lose out on next turn’s attacks or spell or whatever. You duck and cover! This gives an outnumbered hero a chance to survive unexpectedly being mugged… but, all’s fair, it also allows mobs to survive when PCs focus fire. If you spread out your attacks, are all the foes going to abort/dodge and thus give up their attacks? That’s a win [design goal] right there!
Don’t the rules give enemies some kind of Advantage if they flank or attack from behind. I’d apply those Advantages to the monsters being ignored. You can’t just turn your back on an enemy without some kind of penalty.
Nice breakdown! When I run enemies in combat I’m always afraid the players will think Dodging enemies are boring and needlessly prolong the combat. But you know what? Sometimes brain-fears just get in the way. I’m going to actually try it! Thanks for the article!
The problem is that people assume the monsters would stand and fight to the end while they are slaughtered one by one.
Discourage your players from focusing fire by making their adversaries just run for their lives once the first among them is instantly and brutally slain this way.
And they take their loot with them, too — so everyone better engage them separately and keep them busy. Unless of course they prefer them to just run away and regroup for an ambush.
Minion rules help with this, encouraging AOE use, spreading attacks and defensive postures by players. they would need to be clear on the rules for minions, which many people have ported from 4th into 5th. Traps and leading players into ambushes are great uses of Disengage then moving for monsters and not just limited to Kobolds. Minions make Poison Spray, Burning Hands and other such non-optimal spell choices valid for spellcasters and can make for epic scenes. Likewise minions that sacrifice themselves for their boss encourage targeting them.