Five Rules for Running More Exciting RPG Combats

The dust from the battle is still clearing, when Ghost, the shifter ranger, interrogates Brekhu, the bugbear barghest. He sneers at her, despite the blood he can taste…he’s dying, he knows. He’s on his last legs.

Ghost eyes him coldly. “Why? Why did my family have to die? Why did you attack my village, all those years ago?”

His sneer grows crueler. “If it hadn’t been your village, it would’ve been another. Your people were just in the way at the wrong time.”

Ghost feels pain in her stomach. She’d waited so long for answers, only to find there were none to be had. “How do you want to die?” she asks, her voice choked with rage.

Brekhu laughs. “You think you have the power to destroy me? The rage of the Hells runs in my veins. I spit my curse at you with my dying breath. Nothing you love will ever last.”

Ghost’s eyes narrow as she punches her twin longswords into his gut, leans in close and murmurs, “Nothing I hate will, either.”

Brekhu laughs, blood drooling from his lips, as smoke begins to pour from his mouth, eyes, nose, and ears. Soon he is burnt to cinders, the Hellfire burning Ghost, too. She pulls her swords out and hacks his charring corpse apart. She stares at it…then her player looks up at me, grins, and says, “That was a great fight!”

Yes, this isn’t my attempt to write fiction. This is a scene from the end of my most recent D&D session. The fight was a grueling one, and the players used almost every resource they had, but they were still talking about that fight the next day. That made me happy, because a memorable fight is one that’ll come up in war-stories for years to come. The players asked me for a tally of the enemies they’d slain, and I counted them up.

It made me sit down and think about how I like to build fights. As I thought about it, a number of rules came to mind that I try to follow when building encounters. None of them are particularly new or shocking, but maybe seeing them together will inspire you in the creation of your own combat encounters.

Make the Enemies Interesting

This is pretty straight-forward. I don’t like to throw the same adversaries at players, over and over. I wanted the fight to feel like they’d taken on a big goblin encampment, led by a barghest, and with casters, artillery, skirmishers, lurkers, and so on. My group of five 5th level players and a level 1 companion character had taken on two encounters, with one dovetailing quickly into the other without the chance to take a full rest (though I did give them a “catch your breath” benefit which I’ll explain below. They’d slain 22 level 1 goblin minions, split between archers and melee, 3 level 2 goblin minions, 2 level 2 wolves, 5 level 5 hobgoblin minions, 1 level 4 goblin hexer, 1 level 3 goblin skullsplitter, 1 level 6 bugbear strangler, 1 level 6 hobgoblin warcaster, and 1 level 6 Barghest Strangler. There was more than enough variety in that fight to make the players really think about things. They were still mopping up encounter 1 when I staggered in the encounter 2 monsters, giving the players enough time to recover either 1 encounter power or spend 1 healing surge. They ended up using pretty much all dailies, encounter powers, and some of their potions, encounter cards, and fun points boons. It was a blast.

They all ended up bloodied at some point, several of them fell and were revived by the healing the party can dish out, and there was a lot of “changing of dance partners”, as PCs would teleport each other or themselves around, enemies would push one target, then engage another. It all ended up chaotic and wonderful, and it didn’t feel too long to anyone present.

And yes, I know, barghests don’t normally curse or blow up in Hellfire when they die, but it felt right, and the players loved it. I rarely sweat the rules when the story would be improved by little tweaks.

Make the Battlefield Interesting

There’s nothing duller than a big blank battlefield. Battlefields should be dynamic and interesting, with lots of terrain and terrain effects to play with, but not so many that it can bog your game down. That turns it from “that goblin fight” to “that goblin fight by the waterfall caves”.

For this fight, I pulled out the map from Keep on the Shadowfell used for the infamous “Irontooth” encounter. It shows a river through some woods (which became undergrowth on my map) and a waterfall with caves behind it. There’s a magic circle on the map, which the goblin hexer was using to gain benefits and which anyone could take control of with minor action Arcana checks. There was plenty of cover, there was difficult terrain, there were some trap spots in the river that no one ended up triggering, there were the hidden caves. There were lots of features to interact with on the map, and both the PCs and the NPCs used the terrain to their advantage at one point or another.

Make It Important

I used this encounter to introduce the Goliath boy, Ilikan Tosses-the-Spear. I wanted to give the players a reason to visit a nearby Goliath village (and the mysterious mountain monastery above it), so I thought it might be interesting to have a companion character join them briefly. A small handful of goblins were tormenting the boy when the PCs came on the scene seeking them. As the PCs reached the edge of the map, Ilikan had managed to kill one goblin minion with a spear and grab its Greataxe. The other goblins got serious and moved in for the kill, and the PCs ran in to help the boy and to get some justice/revenge for Ghost, the PC whose family was destroyed by this same goblin band when she was little.

I could’ve just made this fight about avenging Ghost’s family, but adding someone the goblins were tormenting, much as they had tormented a younger Ghost, made it much more personal. Ghost ran in without hesitation, and when Brekhu came on the scene, I told Ghost’s player that this bugbear had a ragged ear. This signified to the player that this was the “goblin” Ghost had injured in her escape as a child.

Suddenly it was *really* personal.

Give It Consequences

There should always be consequences to the really good fights beyond “you win or you die”. If the PCs had lost, not only would Ghost’s village have gone unavenged, but the goblins would’ve gone on ravaging and pillaging. This was unacceptable.

What’s more, the introduction of Ilikan added another consequence. The PCs could’ve won, but they might’ve been unable to save the young Goliath’s life. That consequence was clearly unacceptable to them all.

Make It Relevant

As I said, this fight was very important to a PC’s personal plot. These fights can be more important in many ways than even the climactic fights of your campaign. They’re more personal, and they mean more to the players whose characters are involved.

It’s also important for your fights to be relevant to the internal consistency of your campaign, or, if they’re not, for there to be a dang good reason for them. It had already been established through Ghost’s character background that bands of goblins rove the northern wilderness, preying on those little villages trying to eke out a living. It’s also been established that there are orcs in the south, trying to push back the frontier and claim more territory. If I had made an encounter with orcs in then orth, it would’ve seemed out of place, and I would’ve needed a good reason for it…perhaps a note indicating that these orcs were mapping the area in an effort to turn the battle with the orcs into a two-front war. Likewise, if I just threw in a battle with elementals with no reason for them to be there, then it would strain the “realism” (as much as I hate to use that word for a fantasy game) of my setting.

Your Turn

Do you have a story about a good fight from one of your games that either supports or defied these basic rules? Do you have a rule that you think I blatantly missed? Let us all know!

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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