Watching professional D&D live plays has taught us an invaluable lesson: standard combat can sometimes feel mundane. Drawing inspiration from the most exhilarating adventures, we’ve discovered that combat thrives when it serves a dual purpose and engaging combat is not just about defeating the bad guys.
Beyond Basic Combat
While traditional, turn-based combat holds its place in tabletop RPGs, it often follows a predictable pattern: players and monsters exchange blows until one side falls. We’ve previously suggested smarter enemies and alternative combat outcomes, like retreat over defeat. However, these changes primarily affect combat’s conclusion, not its core excitement. The real game-changer? Introducing an additional layer to your combat scenarios.
Enhancing Combat with Additional Goals
Combat is vastly more engaging when it includes an extra objective. This could be anything: escaping guards, preventing a crystal explosion, or capturing a chicken with a magical ring. These seemingly small additions profoundly impact the excitement of combat.
Initially, we were surprised at how much these additional goals transformed the combat experience. Players often fall into repetitive strategies, using the same attack and defense tactics. But when you integrate an extra goal, the players’ approach to each turn shifts dramatically.
Consequences of Additional Goals in Combat
Introducing new goals to combat brings significant changes. Most obviously, it alters the action economy; players now have to divide their actions and bonus actions between attacking and accomplishing the secondary goal, which adds a layer of challenge.
Conversely, enemies with objectives beyond mere combat also alter their strategies. This dynamic creates a different style of combat from the outset. Both players and enemies must balance their objectives with their fighting tactics, ensuring a unique feel in each encounter, even with the same enemies but different secondary goals.
Examples of Secondary Combat Goals
There are countless possibilities for secondary goals in combat, but here are some common examples:
Chase a Fleeing Target
By transforming combat into a dynamic chase, this scenario adds a thrilling layer of urgency. Imagine your players pursuing a villain through a labyrinthine cityscape or a dense forest. Each turn becomes a test of strategy and ingenuity as players navigate obstacles, decide between shortcuts or safe routes, and use their abilities to outmaneuver the target. The environment plays a crucial role here, offering opportunities for creative problem-solving and unexpected encounters. This setup not only emphasizes speed and agility, but also encourages players to think outside the box, making combat a multifaceted and exhilarating experience.
Flee from Enemies
Inverting the usual combat objectives, this scenario tasks players with escape and evasion. Picture your players in a perilous situation where standing their ground is no longer an option, and they must navigate through treacherous terrain while being pursued. This situation tests their resourcefulness in using the environment to their advantage, setting traps, creating diversions, and finding innovative ways to slow down their pursuers. The constant pressure of a relentless enemy adds a palpable tension, as every decision could mean the difference between freedom and capture. It’s a high-stakes game of cat and mouse that keeps players on the edge of their seats.
Activate/Deactivate a Device
Here, combat revolves around interacting with a critical in-game element, such as disarming a bomb or closing a portal. This scenario requires players to balance their combat actions with the need to complete a task that demands focus and skill. Each round heightens the suspense as players allocate resources between defending themselves and achieving the objective. The device itself can have layers of complexity, requiring multiple steps or specific skills to operate, adding depth to the challenge. As the countdown continues, the tension mounts, making each action and decision crucial to the success of the mission.
Survive Waves of Enemies
This scenario turns combat into a test of endurance and strategy. Envision your players defending a fortress against a siege or holding their ground in a haunted ruin swarming with foes. It’s not just about defeating enemies; it’s about managing resources, fortifying positions, and adapting to escalating threats. Players might need to repair defenses, set up barricades, or find creative ways to use the environment to their advantage. This setup offers an opportunity to explore different combat styles, from long-range tactics to close-quarters defense, and requires players to think tactically about their position and resources over an extended encounter.
Protect an NPC
In this scenario, players are tasked with safeguarding a non-combatant, adding a layer of complexity to the usual combat dynamics. This could involve escorting a diplomat through a battlefield, defending a wounded ally, or keeping a key witness safe during an ambush. The NPC’s vulnerability and importance add emotional stakes to the encounter, compelling players to prioritize defense and strategic positioning. Players may need to create diversions, form protective formations, or find safe paths through the chaos. This scenario not only challenges players’ combat skills but also their ability to plan and execute a protection strategy under pressure.
Combining Goals and Combat: A Proven Strategy
We’ve learned the effectiveness of this approach from watching famous D&D live plays like Critical Role and Dimension 20. The most thrilling combats weren’t just fights, they always included an additional element.
Even when secondary objectives weren’t met, their failure added complexity to the scenario rather than concluding it, which added a lot of fodder for roleplay immediately following combat. This approach simultaneously heightens and diffuses the stakes, making the game far more unpredictable, enjoyable, and engaging.