How to DM a Fight Encounter

Dungeons & Dragons is one of the most iconic and popular tabletop RPGs of all time, blending puzzle-solving, role-playing, and combat into a single free-form game that can be structured by a DM to suit likes of a party.

RELATED: Dungeons & Dragons: What is the Action Economy?

While combat in fifth edition D&D has significant depth, for new dungeon masters and those who tend to focus on puzzles or social storylines, it can be quite challenging to keep combat fresh, engaging, and fun. , in some cases, difficult. So to help Dungeon Masters who are having trouble planning their fights, here are some tips to improve your campaign fights.


Monsters can strategize

monster manual
Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual by Wizards of the Coast

monster manual cover

One of the surefire ways to make combat in D&D dull is to make it predictable. Similar to how a party of adventurers often strategize in a combat encounter, monsters don’t have to attack a party head-on like mobs in a video gameand a DM can cause different types of monsters to employ strategies based on their nature.

For example, while beasts and animals might just run wild and attack whatever is closest to them or the last creature to attack them, a group of Kobolds might aim to keep their distance from the group.

Additionally, the strategies and methods used by enemies can help convey their experience or intellect. While less experienced monsters may try to fight the party barbarian in a wasted effort, a seasoned enemy may possess the foresight to know how to target a group’s healer as soon as possible or retreat when the tide turns against them.

Monsters are capable of performing various actions

dungeons and dragons multiverse monsters strongest monsters feature image
Monsters of the Multiverse by Wizards of the Coast

One element of combat that many newcomers to D&D tend to overlook, whether players or DMs, is the full range of actions that can be performed in combat. In addition to being able to attack, cast spells, and use special features and abilities, players and monsters are able to perform other basic actions.

actions such as Assist, hide, disengage, and even the ability to replace an attack with a grappling hook are often overlooked for monsters, despite the fact that these options are available for nearly every monster players may encounter.

This means that if mobs are having trouble hitting certain party members, they can try to use the assist action, or if they are looking to use the stealth element, they can try to take advantage of the camouflage action in combat much like a the party thief. Even if a party had previously faced a given type of monster such as a goblin gang, a secondary goblin encounter could be shaken up by heavy use of a certain type of action like Help or Hide, making it totally different from what a party may have already experienced.

Incorporate different environments

monster volo guide cover
Volo’s Guide to Monsters by Tyler Jacobson

flight guide cover

The setting of an encounter can significantly alter how a party can approach their enemies, especially if difficult terrain or other hazards are present.. While difficult terrain such as brambles or treacherous rocks may require players to more actively consider their movements, hazards may offer unique advantages and disadvantages to deal with.

For example, if a party is dealing with a hill giant on the side of a mountain, the presence of a steep cliff can cause players to focus on other ways to deal with their enemy, potentially aiming to lure the monster close to the front cliff by pushing it and making the most of the potential fall damage. Alternatively, the uses of streams, rivers, ponds, or other bodies of water can not only help break up parts of a battlefield, but also serve as an obstacle or asset to consider when strategy development.

Monsters can have specific goals

players handbook
Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook by Tyler Jacobson

players handbook cover

While many new DMs will often see all monsters doing what they can to kill others in battle, not all monsters need to aim to take down a group. By having alternate goals for monsters to attempt to achieve in battle, players will have to think of different strategies aside from protecting themselves and taking out nearby monsters..

For example, some monsters may simply be trying to break into a stronghold the party has been assigned to protect, or perhaps monsters are trying to flee with some treasure or valuable item in the party’s possession. These types of encounters can cause players to think differently about how they use the tools at their disposal when trying to stop a monster from fleeing or entering a key location.

Monsters can have magic items

guild thief art mtg d&d mike jordana
Guild Thief by Mike Jordana

It’s no secret that Dungeons & Dragons is full of unique and powerful magical items that adventurers can find on their journeys. One way that can really spice up a combat encounter is to provide a key enemy in an encounter – like a bandit leader or the captain of a group of hobgoblins – a magic item.

Since adventurers often have access to multiple magic items, it makes sense that other creatures that might be encountered in the wild might also have a magic item or two, especially items of more common rarities. Not only can these magic items give a monster a unique advantage that players probably won’t expect, but they can also further incentivize players to defeat enemies in order to get additional assets in the form of newly acquired magic items.

Next: Dungeons & Dragons: Schools of Magic Explained

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