I play a lot of video games that involve action and combat. As a game design hobbyist, I consciously analyze the design decisions that developers make. As a DM, I’m always thinking of ways to incorporate the mechanics and resources from the video games I play into my RPGs.
In this article, I’ll go over a few observations and ideas I’ve acquired over the past few months. I’ll share how to make combat more interesting for the players, and more fun for the DM to design. Let’s get started!
One of the easiest and most effective ways of making combat more dynamic is with objectives. In most combat scenarios, the objective is simple: to eliminate the enemy. Combat usually ends when the enemy combatants have been neutralized; but when a different objective is given to players, the combat becomes much more interesting. The objective becomes a goal, and the enemies become obstacles.
Objectives can have a big or small impact, they can be dynamic or static, and they can be relevant to the story or a surprise. The key to using objectives is making sure the players know, or learn, that combat doesn’t end until the objective is complete. Here are a few examples:
- Players must destroy a specific object or creature
- Players must capture an area by remaining near it or defending it
- Players must move an item to specific location
- Players must use an item on a specific creature
- Players must remove an effect on themselves
Another option is to use secondary objectives. In this case, completing objectives in combat are optional, or not directly tied to the winning condition of the encounter. The only difference is creating repercussions that happen if the secondary objective is not completed. Using an example from above, if a player doesn’t remove a curse from themselves before combat is over, they must make checks to resist damage, even after they win.
Secondary objectives can often be used as a red herring. Perhaps the villain uses these secondary objectives to distract or frighten the characters from thwarting his imminent plan.
Objectives are great for challenging players to work as a team, to coordinate, and to plan before and during combat. By themselves, none of those objectives are particularly interesting, though. Luckily, there are many other elements we can incorporate to make an objective more interesting.
When it comes to an interesting battlefield, objectives are only half the- well, battle. The complement to objectives is terrain. The location of an objective in a battle is equally important to what the objective itself is. Keep in mind, no one says that your objective has to remain stationary.
Spice up your battle by moving things around! Cover might appear and disappear every round. Players and enemies alike could be swapped around whenever the objective is captured. Suddenly, half the board might become difficult terrain for 1d4 turns. The glyphs on the ground are now teleportation or launch pads that launch creatures up to a higher area giving them the advantage!
Introduce a little chaos into the battlefield with environmental hazards. Weather should be dynamic with snowfall, rain, or lightning storms. Gusty winds can make it difficult to aim ranged weapons, while heavy rain or snow can make it difficult to see, much less hit something. Everyone has fought Orcs in a valley, but what about a valley that has a flash flood forcing all the characters to make checks to keep their footing? Lightning storms are an obvious but dramatic way to deal some chaotic damage.
Dungeons and ruins will fall apart without maintenance and upkeep. Hopefully no one is on that bridge or in the old tower when it finally collapses..! Is the battlefield flammable? All it takes is a dropped torch to catch some dry grass, or a house, on fire in the middle of a fight. In a heavily inhabited part of the wilderness, most combatants might be too preoccupied to notice a stampede charging through the area.
Objectives and terrain can add flair and flavor to any combat situation. Combine these two aspects in interesting ways for some seriously climatic fights.
Have any tips for making combat more interesting? Tell us in the comments!