When it comes to D&D there are three main types of encounters you will experience: Talking, Fighting and Puzzles. As much as I love the other two, Fights are what D&D is all about for me, they are the most exciting part of the game.
But, they can also be the most lacklustre, nothing is worse than a repetitive, stationary, hack and slash slog fest! You both want and need to keep in interesting, engaging and fast paced for everyone at the table.
Tip 1 – Descriptions
An Encounter for me no matter what it is, is always better if I can visualise it. You describe the NPC’s your players meet and the rooms they explore, so why not how their sword swings and how their spells manifest? Whether DM or Player I always like to picture the fight in my head; so describe the crushing blows of your baddies or the impacting force of their spells. Have your players describe their own actions in a little detail to keep them engaged.
Tip 2 – Surprises
You don’t want your combat to get stale or repetitive. You need to keep your players on their toes, nothing is worse than a few rounds of combat where everyone just keeps missing or slogging it out. Occasionally introduce new elements even; More monsters to fight entering from different (surprise) locations and Locational effects like the weather, collapsing ruins or wildlife stampeding through can also make a fight memorable. You’ll tend to find that your players talk all of the time to each other whilst fighting so why not have a bad guy talk some smack? If in doubt go full Michael Bay and just add an explosion in, whether it’s a wizard’s spell, an alchemical mishap or divine intervention!
Tip 3 – Variety
It’s cool to have signature bad guys, but you don’t want your fights to be just another 6 orcs. Mix it up, Orcs and Goblins, maybe Hobgoblins and Bugbears as well, wild beasts they’ve tamed. Or different varieties of Orc: Berserkers, Shamans, Cultists, Hunters – using different weapons, tactics and abilities. You can change what their doing, Orc War Party, Sleeping Orc Guards, Orcish Ritual, Orc Slave Guards? Something to make each encounter different, even the terrain. Try multiple levels, adding in difficult or dangerous terrain, maps including water, lava etc?
Tip 4 – Puzzles
Don’t have all your fights as just fights! Have different objectives rather than kill all the bad guys, working out and completing puzzles mid combat can make for in my experience the most memorable fights. Whether you have to stop the occult ritual, figure out how to damage the evil Lich, close the elemental portal, escape the room etc… Encounters that include teamwork and cooperation to complete can be the most rewarding for your players. Even simple stuff like they all have to stand in specific locations, they need to complete the sequence in the correct order.
Tip 5 – Music
Finally, the simplest and possibly most effective tip. Music! It really helps to create an atmosphere and raise tension. I have eerie music for general exploration and then intense music for fights! Its that simple, I use Spotify – just watch out for stray ads if you’re not a premium member, otherwise your rampaging Minotaur might stat going off on a tangent why your shouldn’t let your friends drink and drive!
I always try to incorporate all of the above into my games, but am always looking to improve so let me know if you have any others!