[RPG] How to make combat more tactically interesting for me as a DM


For me, I find it very difficult to enjoy DMing combat encounters. Combat is generally very dry and monotonous. What can I do to make combat more enjoyable for me as a DM?

Some of the issues I have observed with 5th edition D&D combat are summarized here:

At first level, there is really very little difference in overall durability between, for example, a Fighter and the Wizard, so that classical combat techniques are not very effective – the Fighter isn't any more capable of soaking up front-line hits than the Wizard (and so isn't effective in preventing the party from taking too much damage), and the Wizard has barely any higher damage output than the fighter (such that it makes no mechanical sense for the fighter to try and defend the wizard anyway).
This frequently leads my players to use fairly homogenous combat methods, with little-to-no role differentiation or tactics beyond 'everyone rush the bad guys'.
At later levels this disappears, but it is a problem at least at the start.

As a result, I as a DM am very limited in the variation of combat strategy I can employ: I can have them focus on one PC at a time, resulting in PC fatalities in every encounter; or I can fight multiple PCs at once, dealing crippling damage to most of the characters such that they can either take an extended rest or get TPK'd next encounter.

From a mechanical aspect, this about what I would expect due to the high linearity of the combat system used. For most of what I have seen, any tactical maneuver costs as much or more in opportunity attacks and opportunity costs as slugging it out once dice rolling starts, and from there on you just roll until one side drops.

This pattern is consistent across a number of premade modules and encounter design methods I have tried, and occurs regardless of the party size.

My players regularly report enjoying the combat encounters, but I don't enjoy running them very much.

There have been a few combat encounters that I have enjoyed, but they all involve unusual or very complicated mechanics, and are difficult to manage:

  • One encounter took place in 4-dimensional space (with lots of portals too)
  • One involving an invisible probabilistic wavefunction monster (representing the PDF of its position with a whole bunch of coins on the grid)

But while fun, such encounters are extremely difficult to design and quite taxing to run.

What can I as a DM do to make (normal) combat encounters more tactically interesting for me, without detracting from my player's enjoyment?

Things I might consider as solutions:

  • Methods or guidelines for constructing tactically interesting combat encounters
  • Alternate sets of combat rules that add more strategic elements to combat
  • I might even consider migrating to using a different roleplaying system

Best Answer

If ramping up tactics/strategy is what you're after I've got to suggest you take a look at "The Angry Guide to ... Combats", parts 1, 2, and 3. Some takeaways:

  • Two of one monster and two of another is much more interesting--for all involved--than four of the first. Even if the CRs are the same any variation in abilities, ranges, &c. lead to strategic and tactical thinking, rather than toe-to-toe slugfest. On both sides of the fight.
  • Make sure you have the objectives of the monsters/NPCs well-established in your own head before starting combat. When total annihilation isn't the sole objective on each side, things get more interesting. Remember, combat != encounter: combat is only part of an encounter.
  • Terrain, terrain, terrain.

Secondly, there's an initiative variant in the DMG called Speed Factor (DMG5e p.270). This variant separates declaration and resolution of actions--don't worry, with practice it goes just as fast as individual initiative. One upshot of speed factor initiative is that the situation in-game feels like it's evolving much faster. Faster evolution=more chances to change tactics in interesting ways.

But combat doesn't just have to be about tactics vs. going toe-to-toe. I challenge myself to include more role-play in combat every session. (It's actually a written note-to-self on the backside of my table-tent.) Some of the actions this brings out:

  • Intelligent monsters and NPCs call out directions and warnings to each other and address each other by name. They had objectives/motivations going into the fight, and every round the cost-benefit analysis changes.
  • Throwing out a plot call-back or a plot hook can often get the PCs to put on the brakes and re-think their approach. Suddenly it's half the party saying "hold on!--these mooks might come in handy" while the other half's all barbarian-rage and seeking the Dark One's Blessing. What's more interesting than PCs in conflict during combat?