How to End Combat Encounters Before They Become a Grind

Every Dungeons & Dragons player experiences a battle that drags near the end, when the monsters have spent their best attacks and lack the numbers to threaten the PCs. As a dungeon master, I want to cut to the next scene, but thanks to focused fire, the remaining monsters stand near full health. 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.

After a battle’s outcome becomes obvious, the game can drag. I have had many chances to test ways to move on. Some of my schemes have worked better than others.

Endings to avoid

Avoid having monsters flee or surrender. Some argue that monsters would possess a sense of self preservation. That in the face of death, they would flee or surrender. I used to agree, but then I learned that bloodthirsty treasure hunters never show mercy.

Having monsters flee or surrender seems like a quick way to end a battle, but neither tactic saves time. PCs always pursue fleeing monsters, resulting in a chase. Only have monsters flee when you want a chase, or when the PCs simply cannot follow.

Surrender leads to an ugly interrogation scene followed by the dreary dispute over killing helpless captives. Finally, during the paladin’s bathroom break, the rogue murders the prisoners. (If you have never run these scenes, welcome first-time dungeon master!)

Sometimes, a surrender can lead to an interesting role-playing scene, or a real dilemma. Usually this requires foes who can (a) trade for their lives or (b) offer a good reason they should be freed. In these cases, a surrender can enrich a game by creating interesting choices. See Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing. Nonetheless, surrender never saves time.

With either a chase or a surrender, you spend 30 minutes to save 5.

I suspect that in the monster community, word has spread about murderous treasure hunters and their rogues and paladins. Better to fall in battle than to die on your knees or with a knife in your back.

Don’t call the fight. When a winner becomes obvious, some DMs recommend calling the fight. Just sweep the monsters off the map. This fix seems tempting, but players hate it.

As a DM, you know more about the monsters’ conditions than the players. You may see an obvious win, while the players still feel tension. To players, the fight remains undecided and they want to play to the end.

Even when everyone sees the inevitable, calling a fight jars the players out of their immersion in the game world. It leaves players feeling robbed of a victory they earned. “When a player rolls a successful attack, deals damage, and the bad guy dies, that’s something that THEY did. They own that moment,” writes Justin Alexander. “If you, as the GM, interrupt that process, and declare a fiat success, you take that moment away from them: They didn’t kill the monster; you did.”

“As DMs, we might get tired. We might get frustrated because the PCs dominated what otherwise would have been a tough fight,” Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea writes. “Don’t spread your disinterest to your players, revel in their excitement! Be fans of the PCs and come up with interesting ways to end the battle in a powerful in-story conclusion.”

In the worst time crunch, use narration to ease players out of the scene and give some sense of victory. Describe the characters’ final strikes—or invite the players to tell the tale.

Endings to use

Plan an out. The best combat encounters feature an objective different from kill all the monsters. Charactrers attempt to stop a ritual, defend a wall, close a dark portal, destroy an artifact, steal the brain in the jar, or accomplish some other task. Dave “The Game” Chalker calls this The Combat Out.

Often completing the objective returns undead foes to dust, turns summoned foes to mist, makes constructs inanimate, or causes the cultists to rout. Unlike most combat encounters, if the losing foes surrender or run, the players may skip the torture and chase scenes. After all, the victorious players have no information to gain. And if the heroes insist on bringing the fleeing cultists to justice, nobody minds if the DM summarizes that endgame.

Turn monsters into minions. You can bring a fight to a quick end by silently deciding that all the monsters stand at only 1 hit point. The next hit kills. I used to feel conflicted about this technique because it felt like a way for a DM to steer the game—I want the players’ actions and the dice to decide the characters‘ fate. But the characters have settled their fate and won. Rounding up their damage rolls to let them quickly finish monsters just gives the players a victory lap.

Let everyone roll at once. Near the end of a battle, typically only one type of monster remains—often just one creature at nearly full health. These survivors all act on the same initiative count, then all the players act. This situation permits my favorite way to close a battle: everyone roll at once. By now, the outcome has been decided, so no one would waste a spell slot. No player’s action requires my full attention. I announce the monsters’ armor class and invite everyone to roll their attacks and damage at once. If you need to move, just do it. I call out names in initiative order and tally damage. In the time usually spent on one turn, all the players act.

This post updates and improves on a version that appeared in 2016.

22 thoughts on “How to End Combat Encounters Before They Become a Grind

  1. Frederick Coen

    Good article. I hate the extra 20 minutes spent finishing off the monsters – or the hour spent arguing about prisoners.

    One thing I’ll point out is the underlying assumption – “the rest of the battle is meaningless”. This is still a combat, people should still be wary about suffering wounds – or even possible death – from a cornered opponent’s final wild swings. This is an issue with HP and combat, which 5e’s easy healing has only exacerbated. “Who cares if the ogre lands one more 10-pt hit? We’re going to be fully healed shortly afterward anyway!” In my game, I added (more generic) Lingering Injuries, so *any* blow from a foe has a chance of impairing you (even slightly) for days.

    This isn’t the place for that; indeed, it actually seems like it artificially prolongs fights that could otherwise be wrapped up. But I think the “everyone rolls at once” is still a good idea that can be used for speed, despite my home rules for long-term blows.

    In practice, I have used the “turn monsters to minions” technique a couple times, as well as the “victory-stealing” narrative end to the fight. I think you’re right, a few more rolls and an overwhelming victory is more satisfying than losing the final dominance over the foes!

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  2. Ilbranteloth

    Wow, apparently we do everything wrong!

    Monsters (and PCs) surrender or flee in our game all the time. But then our PCs aren’t bloodthirsty murderers. It helps that the focus of our game is not on combat. Combat occurs only when there isn’t another option.

    Two questions all of my players answer for their PCs are, “what would you kill for, and what would you die for?” There expect the same of the monsters.

    Since the game isn’t mostly one of war, it’s also rare that the idea of prisoners comes up. I’ve seen other groups get hung up on what to do when defeating a group of bandits or orcs. The majority of the time, they aren’t acting as guards or soldiers with a mission. So they may get word to locals about a problem, if they are near civilization they may tie them up and alerts the authorities, etc. It’s also very rare for such creatures to come back for revenge, another trope that seems to be common in D&D. Bandits are looking for easy pickings. If they just lost to this group of dangerous adventures, they are more likely to fortify their stronghold, or pack up and move if they are mobile.

    In my opinion, the always fight to the death, murder hobo, don’t let any escape approach is as much (if not more) the fault of the DM as it is the players. I flat out explain to players that are new at my table that this isn’t murder hobo game. Go back to those two questions, and if needed, expand it to cover crimes like stealing, maiming, etc. Treat the PCs like real people in a real world.

    Since combat isn’t the focus of our game, just another obstacle or point along the way, we never let the math/dice drag out a fight. Our combat system greatly reduces such grinds, but if we do get stuck in something like that, we make the decision as a table. The specific battle/moment in the narrative has an impact on this decision, too. In making such a decision we might decide (or let the dice decide) that there is some sort of consequence.

    Calling a fight didn’t have to break the immersion at all. That depends on how you handle and narrate it. Just like a movie that goes from mid-battle to the aftermath. I’ve also done the opposite, and started a scene mid-battle.

    All of this approach grew out of the idea that we hated how slow the D&D narrative typically is. Adventures in Middle Earth added a mechanic that permits one adventure per year, so time moves faster than a typical campaign. But that is also adding a fixed mechanic to something we’d rather decide organically. Calling a fight is the same thing.

    It’s not about “skip to the action” as promoted in 4e. Instead, our focus is all about keeping the focus on what’s important to the story of the PCs. That we would cover years of the lives of these characters. Many (most?) times these are the scenes *between* the action. Spending an inordinate amount of time in one combat doesn’t further that goal. The situation and dice have already told us where this scene is going.

    Since we give the players a lot of leeway on determining what happens to their characters, there are often surprises when we get there. Rather than mechanics imposing unusual situations, it’s when we often learn things like, “hmm, guess that merchant want on the level when he sold me that dagger, the blade broke off in that last orc,” or, “darn it, that blasted ogre burst my wineskin, I’m soaked.” Sometimes they decide they have minor injuries, most of the time it’s just a lot of flavor.

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  3. TheKarmikBob (@thekarmikbob)

    I think Ilbranteloth nails it pretty well, but here’s a shorter observation. This advice likely works well at your table, with your players. It would not at mine, with mine. Verisimilitude (believability) is more important to us than using hacks to solve “combat tends to slow towards the end of a fight”. Smart monsters who wish to survive certainly will flee, or if they understand humanoid culture well enough (or are humanoids themselves) attempt to strike a deal for their lives.

    there are believable methods for a fight to suddenly end – the magic object powering the undead in the labyrinth is successfully destroyed, and all remaining undead fall as dust to the winds, for example.

    You are also missing a huge opportunity for clues being given to the party via captured prisoners, and stealing from them the player joy of the characters ethically twisting in the wind over prisoner treatment (which to certain story/acting players is exactly their jam). I’m sorry if, at your table, you find that excruciating, but that is your table – not everybody’s.

    I do agree, never just end the fight (e.g. telling the party they slaughter the remaining minions).

    I would generally hesitate on the idea of turning the monsters into minions. If the monsters turn into creatures that fight with the party, you’ve just made your action economy calculations that much more complicated. A special exception or two can lead to a special story that does cause A single monster to ally with a party member for story reasons. But not just to bring a mostly-complete combat to a close to save 15 minutes.

    TLDR: There are some good points here, but I think this advice is skewed towards certain styles. It serves best, therefore, as a discussion on the subject and points out why it is important for the DM to understand the types of players at the table and crafting the game they hope to find.

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    1. Dan

      “Minions” in this context doesn’t mean that they join the PCs as allies, it means that they die to any successful hit no matter how little damage it might deal. Treat them as if they had exactly one hit point remaining.

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  4. Lex

    There is an RPG where each round of combat the damage dice for both the players and the enemies increase. In D&D when a combat looks like any ref would call it, I usually give the monsters vulnerability to all damage so they die a lot faster. It’s not as noticeable as lowering their HP to 1, but still saves time. I may start increasing their damage to compensate for the fact that they’re taking a lot more damage too.

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  5. simontmn

    This doesn’t fit my experience at all. IME PCs hardly ever pursue fleeing monsters, and PCs hardly ever kill surrendering monsters. On the rare occasions they do pursue fleers, the shift in the scenario definitely keeps it interesting.

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  6. Abelhawk

    I pretty much swear by The Monsters Know What They’re Doing. It just makes sense that most monsters would have a will to live and would run away if they get low enough. And if I make a humanoid creature straight up drop his weapons and drop to his knees in surrender, most players don’t just murder a helpless person. If there’s a creature the players really hate and letting it escape would be a jerk move, I just narrate “As it tries to flee, you cut it down” or something like that.

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  7. Beoric

    My players will chase humanoid monsters on the (often correct) assumption that they will summon reinforcements or alert their allies. Of course, they usually run for reinforcements before they are completely wiped out; taking out one or two runners when you are still engaged with the rest of the enemy is a whole different challenge which can completely transform the battle, so there is no reason to cut that short.

    They generally let unintelligent monsters run away. They also don’t automatically slaughter anyone who surrenders. Dealing with prisoners is a real dilemma for them with results that vary in the circumstances, including: killing them outright; tying them up; leaving them with hirelings; releasing them on various promises; escorting them to the authorities; and recruiting them.

    My players will negotiate as long as they are not too firmly entrenched in combat. Once combat gets heated don’t surrender or run away nearly as often as they should, but (the survivors) are often captured despite their best efforts, and usually survive capture. Although sometimes they need to escape, and they often lose their gear and treasure, which may or may not be recoverable depending on the circumstances.

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    1. Beoric

      I want to add something to this. If, at the end of the fight, the NPCs silently fight to the death with all the personality of video game mooks, then your players will have no compunction against killing them.

      But if you run them as individuals, who see all of their comrades fall and think their death is immanent, and they actively start to plead for their life, or bargain with treasure or information, or throw down their weapons or flee in panic, or collapse weeping in despair, and you get across just how desperate and afraid they are, then it is a lot harder for your players to just kill them like they are stepping on a bug.

      Although just for balance you should have a few scream defiance and attack, and a few more try to lie their way out of the situation, or plot to betray the party’s forbearance at the first opportunity.

      This is one of many reasons why I find always chaotic evil monsters, which are never trustworthy and always fight to the death, to be a bit dull.

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  8. TRay

    I’d love to know if this is an age thing. Up to 2e there were explicit reaction and morale rules which were designed to avoid some combats. My theory is that the combat-centric focus no flee/surrender is a younger player thing, but I truly do not know.

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    1. Frederick Coen

      Murderhobos exist at all ages! 🙂 My group is pushing 50 these days (some of us beyond that), and we still have these same issues. “Let them run” = get allies and come back (even if there is no XP penalty). “Surrender” = moral dilemmas about prisoners (especially far from town). “Kill them all” = surest way to resolve all issues… but comes with reputation for being murderhobos!
      I’m always “proud” of my players when they actually allow fleeing foes to flee, or surrendered foes to retreat (generally without gear). But no, I don’t think it’s an age thing, it’s a mindset thing – and it is reinforced by CRPGs that award XP for foes slain — each escaped or surrendered foe is XP lost from a finite total, even though tabletop doesn’t work that way!

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      1. TRay

        “Era” might have been better than “age”, but all your points are right on. My main point is that the rules used to explicitly talk about rewards beyond killing monsters, and now they don’t to a large extend unless the DM implements something.

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        1. Beoric

          Well, rules that give XP almost exclusively for combat do tend to encourage combat.

          For a while I was handing out XPs that way, but I switched back to giving the majority of XPs for treasure acquisition or other kinds of goal achievement, and the players definitely changed their behaviour. And appear to be happier for it.

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          1. Beoric

            Eh, I’ve been playing a long time, and I draw on a few different traditions, depending on player preferences and the direction the campaign is going in.

            So sure, I use a modified GP=XP which is extended to other sorts of goal realization, which has roots in the original game. But I also feel free to tweak it to encourage other sorts of behaviour, like granting XPs for finding hidden stuff (to encourage exploration) or uncovering plots (to encourage intrigue related play) or figuring out the history of a dungeon.

            So I don’t use an old-school-adjacent mechanic just to go old school, I analyze what a particular mechanic or procedure does and decide whether it would be beneficial to my game.

  9. destructible obstacle

    Agree with what several of the above commenters have noted. In defense of chases in particular, they are some of the most dynamic ways to develop tension in a dungeon or other hostile, complex environment — factors like reinforcements, traps, hazards, and weather all become maximally interesting during a chase. Switching to theater of the mind (if the battle wasn’t already being conducted that way) can make this a very quick skill-oriented challenge that allows monks and other mobile characters to shine.

    I would consider a chase appropriate for almost any fight where the enemy isn’t mindlessly fighting to the death (e.g. zombies, constructs). Limiting chases to when the DM “wants” a chase risk constraining the situation based on the DM’s expectations, rather than welcoming the unpredictable situations arising out of player choice and the roll of the dice.

    While I generally wouldn’t use the “switch to minion status” option, I could understand applying it if a PC successfully chased down an enemy fleeing all-out at the expense of protecting itself. A single good hit will bring it down.

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    1. Frederick Coen

      In the ancient side-scrolling fighter “Karetka”, you could advance in your combat stance, or you could stand and run (which was like 4 times faster). In combat mode, you could take multiple hits (based on your skill and advancement); running, a single hit would kill you! [Spoiler: if you *don’t* run into the final scene… you die!] So this would be the same kind of thing: run full out while fleeing – dropping your held items, most likely! – maybe you move faster than 30′ [3.5e and I think 4e had the “Run” action for +10′ movement at the cost of no defenses], but a single hit to the back takes you out!

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      1. destructible obstacle

        Dropping held objects is a good addition. It further telegraphs that the PCs have prevailed and don’t need to reduce every last enemy to 0 HP to “win.” Enemies can even intentionally drop treasure to attempt to dissuade the PCs from pursuing them.

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  10. simontmn

    Playing 4e last night, we captured a couple of rival adventurers. We didn’t have any trouble taking their money and sending them on their way with a friendly admonishment.

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  11. Numa Pompilius

    As with other commentators, my players don’t pursue fleeing enemies unless they have a good reason to. Why would they do it? To get every last drop of loot? They have enough anyway. And of course I give XP for any defeated enemies, not only killed ones.

    On the other hand, I think turning monsters into minions is horrible idea for playing with strangers. There are no minions in 5e, and most enemies are pretty beefy. So you can’t hide it for long (and any practice that requires you to hide it from players to work is suspicious anyway). And the moment players understand you can so drastically change monster’s stats in a middle of the fight is the moment many I know players would quit your game.

    Reply

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