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.