On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
D&D is a descendant from wargames, like Chainmail, where alignment first appeared. Most of its rules are for killing stuff and, even though 5E streamlined it a lot, it’s arguably the most tactical fantasy tabletop RPG out there. This can make fights drag on forever at higher levels, which many find boring. How can we make combat faster and less boring?
D&D combat gets boring due to its mechanical crunch. This breaks the flow of fights with math and constant rules-checking. What should feel dangerous, urgent, and epic instead feels like bookkeeping. We can, however, deal with this by making combat faster, more dynamic, and more immersive.
There’s plenty to discuss, so let’s dive into what makes for interesting, fun combat.
What is Dynamic Combat?
Speed and immersion are relatively self-explanatory terms, but “dynamics” probably benefits from a clearly stated definition, so here goes:
Dynamics are the changing states of a combat encounter, often by adding complications that make the process of beating it less straightforward. Anything that makes the decision-making of combat about more than just “how do I make big damage numbers happen”.
As we’ll explore further, you’ll see that speed, dynamics, and immersion all affect each other in our perception of how a D&D fight is going. More speed usually means less boring, and less boring can also replicate the feeling of more speed.
Tweaking these three dials to achieve a faster-paced, more gripping experience can seem like a tall order, but it doesn’t need to be. Take your time, ease into it one step at a time, and you’ll do just fine!
Here’s our itinerary:
Faster Ways to Roll Initiative!
…or don’t. Not in-game, at least. I’ve been using pre-rolled initiatives for my baddies for a while, and it does speed up the beginnings of fights quite a bit.
You can take it a step further and have your players pre-roll a set number of initiative scores to keep handy at the table. When fights break out, you just ask them something like, “everyone type your 3rd initiative in chat!”, supposing you’re playing online. In-person, you can do the same, but simply have them call it out in order.
Using a visual representation of the initiative order can increase everyone’s awareness of their place in it, too. Roll20 has an initiative tracking tool, for instance, and you can even craft DIY initiative trackers for when the plague is over, and we can gather again.
Another tweak that I have seen used to great effect by my DMs (and used myself) is to have similar enemy types go together in the initiative order when running combat with mixed units. Enemy types can mean “enemies that use the same stat block,” but you can extend it to more meta-gamey categories like tanks, glass cannons, support, or even minions.
Speaking of which, now that we’ve established ways to speed up fights on the initiative front, let’s move on to our next section:
How to Improve Combat Dynamics
Minions are cool. Not the yellow ones. Minions are versions of enemies that are only different from the originals because their life expectancy isn’t measured in HP, but by how many hits it takes to kill them: just one.
Minions can break up the monotony of a boss fight against a single “big sack of hit points” enemy. That is, if you minimize bookkeeping as in the previous section.
Clearing the battle map of minions engenders a sense of progression more concrete than simply adding up damage against the boss.
Matt Colville talks about minions in this video about action-based design, his way of making combat more dynamic. I strongly recommend it. In it, he goes over how you need to give your special enemies ways to act on the Player Character’s (PCs) turns to shake things up. These are your Legendary/Lair actions and reactions as well.
Action-based design makes fights less predictable, and the resulting tension keeps players on their toes.
Other things that can enhance the dynamics of a combat encounter are conditions—frightened, grappled, charmed, etc., but not so much for effects that they take the character out of the fight entirely—environmental hazards and different enemy goals.
Looking to challenge your players?
Puzzles and Riddles can be tricky! Too easy and they’re pointless; Too hard and it’s pure frustration. What is a DM to do?
For easy-to-use resources for any D&D game, check out the selections at Dungeon Vault!
How you can Roleplay in Combat
No one wants to die, and not everyone who has to fight necessarily wants to wipe out the other side. You can flee when the opponent is too powerful; why wouldn’t the bandits who attempted to waylay a party of 5th-level adventurers do the same after half their band got incinerated by a Fireball?
Even animals have a sense of self-preservation that might compel them to skedaddle if you’re unilaterally whooping their asses.
Just be careful not to overdo it. If enemies are too skittish, too frequently, players can get frustrated. For instance, I’ve had a situation in which I attempted to pull a Tucker’s kobolds (guerrilla tactics, tiny tunnels—the whole shebang) where at least one player hated running around and getting pelted with javelins.
Moreover, sometimes you get in a fight to take something or kill only one person, or you didn’t even start it and just need to get reinforcements, so why go through to the bitter end? The same thinking applies to enemies.
This has the added bonus of possibly turning a fight into a chase, a game of cat and mouse, or even a social encounter, all of which can be tense and dramatic.
People can try to make a deal (truthful or not) or surrender to get their way or just survive, which puts a different kind of challenge in front of the players. Sometimes the best way to abbreviate what might be a long, drawn-out fight is presenting an opportunity to cut it short by other means.
Keep in mind that people rarely go about their fighting in total silence. Intelligent enemies communicate to fine-tune their strategy, commanders shout orders, and so it goes. This might be a fun way to make languages more relevant and even use these “barks” to deliver bits of worldbuilding and clues about enemy motivations.
Making Turn-taking More Engaging
This is a mix of DM roleplay with narration skills (which you can dive into here). I’d wager even the wargamiest of D&D groups doesn’t like fights that are purely talking about mechanics and numbers. We want evocative descriptions of our mighty deeds; we want flying sparks and arterial spray.
We don’t want all the minutiae of the fight narrated in this fashion, of course. But what do we narrate, then? Other than killing blows on important enemies and crazy stunts, I stumbled upon the suggestion to focus on turn transitions. The argument is that it enhances the feeling of flow by using narration to generate forward momentum.
How do you do it? Start the description (three to four sentences should do it) with the outcome of the turn that just transpired, show how it affected the battlefield at large, then prompt the next player to action! Here’s an example:
“Another ghoul lies slain at Alaric’s feet. The necromancer eyes him fiercely, chanting in Abyssal and tracing something in the air. You see this, Annika, and your trained wizard eye recognizes it as the wind-up for Blight. What are you doing?”
Remember that all the action in a round of combat is basically simultaneous in the fiction, and the initiative order represents split-seconds of difference. A round is presumed to last 6 in-game seconds.
Discover Ancient Treasure
The party is tired, hurting, and in need of shelter when they discover a mysterious, ancient stone crypt.
The dusty tomb could hold immense treasure, danger, or both – depending on how they approach it.
Perhaps they’ll foolishly wander into this setting-agnostic, densely-written classic dungeon that provides plenty of unique choices and twists on old favorites.
Check out the promotional version (on the product page) before you buy the Mound of Harald the Conqueror!
Damage and Hit Points
These are things everyone at the table is constantly thinking about and tracking. How do we ease this mental burden?
If you, the DM, aren’t particularly attached to the click-clacking of your math rocks on the dice tray, you can use average damage from monsters instead of rolling for it. Not for me, but many people report increased speed in their D&D combat from just this one thing.
Another helpful tweak—and a minor one at that—is tracking damage dealt to monsters by adding it up to their total hit points, instead of subtracting from it. This makes everything surprisingly smoother, I promise. In Roll20, I use the fields that appear on top of enemy tokens when you click them to keep tabs on this.
Alternatively, you can have your players keep track of how much damage was dealt to each enemy for you. Sounds a bit outlandish, but internet treasure Matt Colvile does it and says it helps a lot. He says that there are sick speed gainz to be had from doing this with basically no drawback:
- There’s little to no loss of immersion, as everyone is already thinking about damage and statistics anyway.
- His players actually like it for the clearer picture of how much progress they have made.
- And I add, the players might already be doing it—you just haven’t noticed it.
Treat hit points more like guidelines than hard truths. If an attack reduces an enemy (never a PC) to one or two hit points and the only thing their continued survival adds to the experience is combat length, they just die or surrender. Don’t do it in climactic battles when the enemy can still take down a PC or wreak serious havoc.
Frighten Your Players
In a dark room, Jon is on the edge of his seat. He’s afraid his next act will be his doom.
Everyone holds their breath—except you, the DM. You enjoy watching them sweat as tension comes to a head.
“Do something!” Sara shouts, causing everyone to jump. Rattled, Jon does something stupid.
For less than a Starbucks coffee, gift a thrilling night for you and your crew;
Check out Weeping Walls, our haunted house intended to fit into any campaign.
Miscellaneous tweaks for a better combat experience
Most people running D&D use the gridded combat rules (Dungeon Master’s Guide, pg 250). They add clarity to a system that has a lot riding on “how many feet from the guy am I?” in a way that theater of the mind fails to keep up with, as is. However, not every fight needs a grid.
Few enemies in an enclosed space? You can ditch the grid and enjoy the freedom that gives you without worrying about counterspell distance. This cuts back on battle map setup time, moving minis around, and so on.
Another thing that makes fights flow more seamlessly is announcing the DC of any saving throw you ask players to make (and having them do the same for you) as soon as you ask for it. This way, whenever someone makes a save, they know if they succeeded pretty much when the dice hit the tray.
And finally, study what the enemies can do in advance and just before the session as well, especially if you’re running spellcasters. The same applies to players so they can be on top of their class features. This should help mitigate long turns with people hemming and hawing in their indecision, hitting the books, or whatever.
A Final Note: Playing Other Games
I have seen folk in the indie TTRPG scene talk about how weird it is that a lot of us in D&D sometimes twist and bend it into a totally different game—basically designing our own versions of it. Why, oh why, won’t we just play games better suited to our desires from the get-go?
This is a reasonable question to raise, and, in fact, I agree that some—possibly many—people playing D&D and chronically unsatisfied by aspects of it could be happier playing something else. I think we can all benefit from playing a variety of games depending on what we want out of the experience each time.
Maybe, even with all the tips and tricks above, D&D combat is still not your thing: too crunchy and slow. You don’t have to feel ashamed of it, and you owe the D&D brand no loyalty or blood debt (hopefully). Consider looking for combat that’s to your liking elsewhere!
Hell, you can probably play in established D&D settings using another ruleset if they’re what’s keeping you in it.
Now, here are some options that come to mind when thinking about combat systems that are significantly different from 5E’s and faster-paced:
I vouch for the combat in Rowan Rook & Decard’s Spire and Heart as a very different experience that I love. It’s narrative-minded, fast, and deadly. No grids allowed. These games are based around the Resistances System, so there’s no such thing as HP, but the stress you accumulate in-game can manifest as fallout that hinders you or takes you out for good. In combat, this can be a broken limb, the loss of your weapon, and so on.
There’s also basically everything OSR (Oldschool Revival), as it draws inspiration from the earlier days of the TTRPG hobby and tends to have less crunch—mechanical complexity that prompts rule-checking and math-breaks amid action.
In this context, I particularly like Mörk Borg‘s tagline: “A DOOM METAL ALBUM OF A GAME. A SPIKED FLAIL TO THE FACE. LIGHT ON RULES, HEAVY EVERYTHING ELSE.“
And we’re done. You now have many more possibilities to enhance your combat encounters by increasing speed and reducing boredom. Let’s go over the main points of the article again to consolidate them:
- Even with all the possible speed enhancements, D&D past the first two tiers of play is crunchier and slower than most other fantasy TTRPGs.
- To enhance the combat experience, you need to work on speed, dynamics, and immersion. These all affect each other in how we perceive an ongoing D&D fight.
- You can use pre-rolled initiatives for enemies as well as PCs.
- Visually representing initiative orders is helpful because it increases awareness and enables people to be ready when their turn comes around.
- When running combat with mixed enemy units, have enemies of the same type go together in the initiative order. “Type” can mean ghoul or bandit, or things like healer and tank.
- Make fights more dynamic by using action-based design, minions, environmental hazards, and conditions (sparingly for the ones that remove PCs from the fight).
- Fights don’t necessarily have to end with the total annihilation of one side. People flee, surrender and bargain. A good way to keep a fight fresh is cutting it short when a good opportunity presents itself. This can lead to a whole other challenge, like a chase, in between chunks of combat, or create new story paths.
- Fights are more engaging when there’s proper roleplay involved. Enemies communicate, shout profanities, threaten, protect important things and people, etc.
- Narrating during the transitions between turns in an evocative way can make the fight flow better.
- Tracking damage by addition instead of subtraction speeds things up, as does using the average damage from enemy stat blocks. You can even have your players track it for you.
- Treat hitpoints like guidelines, not hard truths. Why have an enemy with a single hit point gunking up the works when they can just be dead or exhausted?
- You don’t need a grid to run less consequential fights with few enemies and short distances. Theater of the mind can speed it up quite a bit.
- Everyone should announce the DC of the saving throws they ask for.
- If everyone knows their shit, a lot less time is lost to indecision and last-second research. Though, this last part is least within the DMs control.
- You can play other games for fast, furious combat: Spire, Heart, Mörk Borg, and anything OSR, for instance.