At a convention, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia and I played an adventure that featured fights seemingly contrived to fill the hours between the opening scene and climactic battle. Monsters just sprang and attacked, depriving us of any choices to avoid the battles. Later, Teos described the match ups as the DM saying, “Shut up and fight this thing,” and I broke out laughing.
“Shut up and fight this thing” dates to original D&D and the wandering monsters that threatened dungeon explorers. By those rules, parties needed bad rolls to land an unavoidable fight: rolls needed to bring an encounter at a nearby distance against unsurprised creatures that happen to be hostile. And if unlucky rolls served a dangerous foe, skilled players knew to flee.
Nowadays, “shut up and fight this thing” just means grinding out a fight. Good thing today’s adventurers typically enjoy impossible luck that lets them keep facing threats they can beat.
As a DM, I’ve served countless shut-up-and-fight-this-thing battles for one good reason and a couple of sketchy ones.
When a session goes too long without a chance to cross swords and spells, some players grow restless. Those players include me. Saying, “Fight this thing,” injects a dose of adrenaline. For years, if my 2-hour Wednesday night games lacked a battle, I knew players would go home disappointed.
As a DM preparing to fill the hours of a game session, nothing works as effortlessly. Just say, “Fight this thing,” and an hour passes.
Back when organized play adventures required an XP budget worth of monster battles, “fight this thing” delivered. Organized play insiders even coined the phrase obligatory thug encounter for any attacks needed to fill an XP budget and a 4-hour convention slot. Thugs, bless their black hearts, did the job without requiring any connection to the rest of the adventure.
I still sometimes say, “Fight this thing,” but before I do, I consider whether I’m losing any opportunities to prepare a better adventure. When planning potential combat encounters, I ask two questions:
- Why would the players want this fight? When the players see that a fight will bring them closer to their goal and willingly throw their characters into battle, the combat feels like a meaningful part of the story of the adventure. Obligatory bandit encounters stand out from an adventure because they seem only tangentially related to the rest of the tale and because they fail to bring the characters any closer to their goals. At best, the players only want to fight for the XP. Among their characters, only the paladin seeks a chance to murder some thugs.
- How could the players avoid this fight? During one of the first games I ran for organized play, the adventure ended with a literal OTE: a group of bandits attack the party for loot. Except in play, nothing went as the author planned; the party tried to talk their way out of the fight. Who could have expected such a twist? As DM, I hesitated. If the party skipped the fight, then the adventure would run short and I would fail my duty to deliver the full experience (and XP) printed in black and white. Now, I know to let the adventure spin in an unexpected direction, but then I stalled until a player noticed my faltering, took pity, and attacked. (This might rate just below my top 5 game mastering blunders.) Combat stands as just one of three pillars of D&D, and when players can choose to overcome obstacles such as monsters through roleplaying or ingenuity, the game becomes richer. It offers more variety, and the players can steer play toward the sort of game they favor. Plus, the additional choice of how to engage encounters can spin the game in surprising directions.
As a DM planning an adventure, asking why players might want a fight and how they could avoid a fight leads to better games. Plus, if players can choose a fight, then the option frees DMs from the burden of trying to balance foes so players can always beat them.