The party rushes into a cavern. Red glowing eyes stare at them from the blackness and they stop quickly. The bard opens her mouth and begins to speak but is quickly cut off as the dragon reaches it’s long neck out and chomps down, swallowing […]
We’re are recording the first episode of Dungeons and Flagons Season 2 on Thursday. A new cast of characters with the same players and GM that you love. This time the characters will be working through the city of Bresson (spelling might be off). Part […]
I was going to continue this series with a post on NPC’s, but I’ve had a couple of really good combats during recent sessions I’ve run, so I wanted to write on that topic.
D&D, at its base, has a lot of rules for combat. And that is one part of the game that players often enjoy.You get to role-play a fighter who wields a giant hammer, or a ranger hiding in the shadows with a longbow, or a wizard who is slinging around fireballs. You can tailor your character to your preferred style of fighting, and you can really get into it, telling a story with your actions and trying to do as many crazy things as possible.
On the other hand, some players prefer social interactions with NPC’s, and enjoy that aspect of role-playing more than the combat side of things. But no matter what way your group enjoys playing, you are going to have some combat. For a group that loves combat, the DM might want to try to have a combat of some sort every session. Maybe the group gets attacked by some random bandits in the woods, or there is a group of goblins that raid the town, or they stumble into a cave that has some giant spiders — all of these are scenarios that could happen and that might be fun to play out with that group.
But for the other type of players — those who don’t care for combat as much — you as the DM will have to come up with another reason for them to get engaged in what is going on. The group will still end up killing all the bad guys, but not just because they are bad guys. I’ll share two examples from Dungeons & Flagons (one that you’ve heard and one that you haven’t yet) of this sort of combat to show that when an extra element is added to a battle to raise the stakes, players who aren’t normally invested in the combat are much more on edge.
The first example is from Episode 14, when Nim, Tate, and Finja fought the Yuan-ti who were carrying an angel skeleton that was needed for a ritual. Two of the Yuan-ti took off running with the crate that held the angel, while the rest stayed to slow down the adventuring party. So while the party had to fight through the four Yuan-ti who were facing them, the emphasis and tension was built upon whether or not they would be able to stop the Yuan-ti from getting the angel to the Yuan-ti town and prevent the mysterious ritual from happening. There was additional tension caused by the time constraint, as the limited number of turns until the angel would be gone from view meant that they had to get the fight over with before then. And it led to players worrying they might be killed as more reckless story-driven actions were taken.
The other example is from Episode 19, which will come out in just over four weeks. The players are attached by a gang of hobgoblins in a forest. They don’t have any real connection to hobgoblins or a reason to hate them, and other than some insults being traded back and forth and the hobgoblins wanting to steal their stuff, it would just be a boring fight. So I had to come up with something to ratchet up the tension a little bit, and lo and behold, the gang was riding on horses. I thought I’d take a couple of swipes at a horse, they’d hop off it, and the horses would be just fine; however, that became the battle’s plot hook. The players were not on board with the idea of the horses dying, so I went after them more, and the players rallied into the depths of the battle to try to save their mounts — both because the horses make the journey easier, and also because the horses have names, and they had already formed a bit of an attachment to them.
There are other possibilities as well, some of which I’ve heard done in other podcasts. Such as: Is there some sort of trick to defeating the bad guy or making it easier to defeat them? Will the bad guys flee at some point? Or even, is it actually possible for the group to win? I used the last example early on, when my group faced off against the pirates while they were on the ship. They didn’t have a chance at winning that battle, but it increased the tension of what was going on, and was a plot point to move the story forward.
Finally, there is the matter of building an encounter. How do you do that? First, let me say that there are some handy tools to help with this. I generally use: http://dhmholley.co.uk/encounter-calculator-5th/; on this page, you can enter in the number of character and their levels, and, using the results from the site and the D&D Monster Manual, craft an encounter. I would really recommend using these tools, or simlar ones, as doing so makes it a whole lot easier to figure out if the players can actually win, or if it is going to be too easy or too difficult for them to win.
While you are doing this and thinking about what creatures you want to include, pick out creatures that make sense for the current area. For example, if it is a tropical jungle, there probably won’t be any fire-based creatures around; it would be too humid for them. Owlbears and the like very well might attack a group that can defeat them easily, if they feel like they are cornered, but a single goblin is going to stay hidden and not attack a group, because goblins won’t attack until their numbers are high enough that they think that they can win. And when some goblins start to fall, it wouldn’t be all that odd if the rest start to flee to save their hides.
So to sum up, a quick checklist:
- Use a tool and/or the appropriate D&D books to calculate out a battle strength that works
- Know why your creatures or people are attacking, or know why the characters will attack the creatures/people you put in their way
- Consider adding an extra objective to increase the tension and suspense
- Play your creatures/people attacking the party in a way that makes sense for those creatures to attack (would they run away, do they have tactics, do they target the weak, etc.)
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