I love combat, besides the remarkable roleplaying moments that I have experienced in my years playing the game; I really love combat. I guess that tactician within me gets to finally stretch its muscles. I love political intrigue games, and those are social tactics. But combat always makes me feel excited, whether I am a warrior dual-wielding swords or a sorcerer wielding eldritch fury. My players look forward to combat situations, even though they know that I (as their humble DM) will test their wits and mettle with creatures and scenarios that prove to be quite challenging at times.

I don’t always plan all of my sessions too far in advance, I like to let my player’s choices define what sort of encounters or trouble they find themselves in. Sometimes it’s from the environment, other times present dangers that reside in their current adventure, more often than not it’s a mix of monsters and environment. After a certain amount of games, the DM starts to run out of monsters and has been creative with their mob designs, meaning how do certain monsters group together and whether it makes sense narratively. An example would be a group of Drow with a Drider escort. Granted combat does not necessarily need to happen often, it should organically arise, especially story based battles. But a few random encounters help keep give the players a break and switch gears so that the game remains fresh and yet still engaging.

There’s no mathematical formula or even a strict progression, but for me the general rule of thumb is that whether it combat or out-of-combat encounters, I gauge about two or three either within a 3 to 4 hour session, but for those who have less time per session, I would say whether you’re doing combat or out-of-combat (hint: social encounters & skill challenges qualify here) to at least include one or two.

So some things to keep in mind with your encounters:

  1. Use the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) when gauging the difficulty of monsters to face your party.
  2. Keep the mobs small in combat encounters to avoid creating too much down time
  3. If mobs are required, group their initiatives to ease combat flow
  4. If you use experience points in your game, consider social encounters using as Easy or Medium difficulty, for more difficult encounters treat as High. Caution: you should only consider this for games that typically do less with combat, or if the narrative is in a direction where combat is seldom.
  5. Offer non-combat actions in a combat encounter. Remember, interacting with objects takes an Action within the action economy in 5th edition (older editions have similar rulings).
  6. Always try to describe the environment, the environment is both the players’ greatest asset and detriment.
  7. Don’t be a total dick combat and the environment. As DMs, we can enjoy the failings of the players and by extension their characters. But honest mistakes that require ret-cons are OK, as the severity of the encounter varies heavily on the mood of your game and significance of the particular scenario.

Hazards: great for DMs, evil to players

Hazards add layers of dimension to an encounter, but all hazards severe a primary function, they are there to pose a challenge to the players. But there has been a measure on how to balance a hazard so it doesn’t completely wipe your party, right? I mean we don’t a TPK (total party kill) within the first round of combat unless you’re into that sort of thing. I won’t stop you, but it’s more fun to torment you players personally. When developing hazards always consider these questions:

  1. Is this hazard a persistent effect, one-time, modal, failure dependent, or does it recharge?
  2. Does the hazard give a saving throw or check to negate or minimize the effect? If it negates, make sure the effects are mild; if it minimizes than make sure the highest damage on a failed check does not one-shot (reduce a hit points to 0) a character. So keep the damage thresholds in mind.
  3. When placing your hazard, be mindful of placement, you should never make it more than 60-70% of the available space (there are exceptions). The larger the space of the hazards, saving throws are preferred with minor effects are suggested. If the space of the hazard is small (10-20%), you may want to up the severity as a means to change the battle dynamics.

I generally use the Create a Spell section in the Dungeon Master’s Guide when defining a hazard that deals damage. For hazards that deal with status effects and conditions, most of those often are constructed as a “succeed in a check or fail” platform. These sort of hazards I prefer to use the Save DCs to define the potency of the effect and adjust accordingly.

Now we need to talk about severity, in a combat encounter I like my hazards to pose an encumbrance upon the player characters, sometimes I want it to be a fair contest and have it affect both sides, other times it’s totally not in the party’s favor. But regardless there is still a ceiling on the amount of severity in these hazards so that it doesn’t completely defeat the party. It’s their dice rolls and bad decisions that will get them killed, not your hazards. They are there to soften them.

Traps in the Encounters or as Encounters

I’m only to lightly touch this topic, traps are a very personal and intricate topic in the fact that traps (at least their implementation) requires a good measure of wit and cunning. Crafting a ‘good’ trap is a personal DM’s prerogative. There are dozens of sources on Google alone on how to make a better dungeon trap. And the best? It’s OK to use someone else’s ideas. If you like the trap and feel you can pull off the tricks to lure your party to a few moments of hilarity (mostly on your part) than I say go for it.

Wild Magic

For those who played and grew up to Dungeons and Dragons from AD&D to 3.5E, Wild Magic was truly wondrous and horrifying aspect to contend. When magic was out of sync and random effects take place, there are bound to be severe consequences. Even in the current incarnation, Wild Magic still has some effects that a caster should avoid. I treat Wild Magic typically as a hazard that is persistent and requires a chance of activation. I would say use to this sort of effect/hazard on players that are more forgiving to a DM for implementing something that might be considered mildly cruel. It’s a nice effect to toss out every once in a while. Magic is going haywire? Perhaps a nice foreshadow of darker and more sinister plans in development that might undermine magic for all of the realm. See? It even provides some nice adventure and plot hooks. Just try to use it seldom, because even the spellcasters tend to get irate after excessive uses.

I hope this article helped or inspired people when coming up with unique combat situations. Monsters are great and all, but after a while, the combat gets stale, so what is a DM to do? Well hazards and traps can raise the stakes or soften the party thereby increasing the severity of the adventure. You can always appreciate the devotion when it comes to challenging the players. If you liked this article or have some ideas of your own, share them in the comments section below. Check out our archive of ideas and homebrews, follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get updates.