For those of us Dungeon Masters who care more about the narrative than the combat parts of the game, trading blows can be a total drag. But I’m about to tell you, the narrative doesn’t have to stop just because combat started.
There is no doubt that a huge part of Dungeons & Dragons is combat. You open the Player’s Handbook and a huge chunk of it is dedicated to the combat rules. Most of the feats are combat related. A great number of spells were written with dealing damage and whomping bad guys in mind (or good guys, if that’s your preferred flavor).
Now, I make no secret that I am not much of a crunch person. Dialogue, persuasiveness, intrigue and mystery are my favorite parts of the game, and so often combat is just a line of people swinging, hitting and doing damage until one side is dead.
Of course, having the bad guys run away is common advice. It’s not bad advice, either, as not just anyone is going to keep fighting until they’re dead. Some bad guys are going to strategize. Some of them are going to do their best to keep range from you and ping you to death. Some of them will lay an ambush.
But not all of them are trying to kill you.
Remember what your bad guys want. Mugging you is usually pretty straightforward. “Stand and deliver, I want your money, not your life,” is often a bandit’s creed, but the second the PCs get into a battle with those bandits, it usually ends the same way. With those bandits, all of them, fighting until one side is dead.
Why not have some of them stealth and sneak around to take some of the PCs’ stuff while they’re all busy fighting? Why not have them give up more easily than someone with a real blood vendetta? Why not have them lay traps in the woods if the PCs try to follow them? That small bandit encounter just became a much bigger deal.
Combat can have meaning
I have a player who, every single game, plays a drow from the same family. They are 16 generations out of the Underdark at this point, and very rarely do drow figure into our games. And then, suddenly, they were in one. The PCs were in a town nearby an entrance to the Underdark and part of the night’s game plan was to have them accosted by a drow raiding party.
It wasn’t until three rounds into the battle that I realized why they were there. Capturing a renegade male drow from a line that had eluded Lolth for so long? That’s probably going to get you some major brownie points and score some serious favor. Suddenly, they weren’t trying to kill the PCs, they were trying to capture and walk off with one of them.
Trying to abduct one of the PCs definitely got the attention of the others. Up until this point the party had been loosely knit and didn’t care, but the second one of them was the target of real danger, they really came together. That was not going to happen, not on their watch.
That combat went on for two hours. Between the blows there were taunts and dialogue and a fair bit of role play mixed in. Everyone at the table loved every second of it.
When you take their stuff, you get the PCs’ attention. When you target a member of the party, you get the PCs’ attention. When you target an NPC they like, you get the PCs’ attention. And you would be surprised how interesting the battle gets when suddenly the characters aren’t just trying to kill each other.
Do things like that. Put them on a time limit as they try to stop a ritual that will be completed in five rounds and have to cut through a living wall of cultists to get there. Think about how that changes how your bad guys fight when they are trying to stop the PCs and impede their progress rather than kill them. What was once a Fireball may now be a Wall of Stone spell. Someone might initiate a grapple — does anyone remember how to do that off the top of their heads? No? Sigh. Okay, fine, let’s get out the PHB.
Don’t forget who your characters are, either. A really slimy bad guy might hamstring an ally so they can get away. A good party will probably hate them even more for it and might even feel bad for the hamstrung ally. An honorable foe might insist on single combat and go as far as to give their allies strict instructions not to get involved so that the fight is fair, even if they’re losing.
Even strange boss fights can have their own personalities and flavor. Once, in a 3.5 game, my PCs were squaring off against an otherworldly being of extreme power. The thing was, he used to be a bard. Every couple of rounds a spotlight would appear on one of the PCs and a shield bubble would appear around him. Until that person dealt damage, nobody else was able to.
Play with weird mechanics. Steal them from video games, if you can get away with it. We have probably all played a game with some kind of armored monster that you can’t do any damage to, or at least do very little damage to, until it raises its head and exposes a weak spot, or something like that. Let its AC change. Describe what is happening to your PCs and let them figure out your weird mechanics as they go.
Give your golem foe a health bar for each individual limb and make the characters take those out before they can really strike at the head and bring the golem down. Think about who made the thing and left it here and what it’s trying to guard. If you were an artificer and wanted to protect this horde of stuff, what would be your strategy to guard it in your absence?
A chatty bad guy is going to give off a very different force of personality than a serious, silent one. Play up their flaws. If they talk a lot but are easily flustered, let the PCs draw out what they want to know without having to actually win the battle first. Taunts can be just as devastating as lacerations and bruises sometimes.
For that matter, let bad guys taunt the PCs. If it’s personal, then make it personal. Let them gather information meticulously about the PCs’ backgrounds, let the NPCs the party knows well talk about how a mysterious man in a feathered hat came through here and started asking questions. Let them be cruel to the NPCs — or even better, let them be kind and almost likable when the PCs know better.
The fight, at this point, won’t just be about that moment where they finally cross blades with this guy, it’ll be about everything that came before it. There might be a dialogue leading up to the fight or the PCs might just be totally sick of it at this point and try to end it quickly. Even if they don’t talk, that doesn’t stop him from doing it.
In combat, a round is 6 seconds. For a minute to pass, that’s 10 rounds. A lot can happen in 10 rounds, especially when you have a lot of people on the field to do these things. So yes, combat is going to slow things down, but don’t forget that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The story doesn’t stop just because combat started. Your villains’ motives can shine through. Even a construct villain reflects the person who made it. Even a maddened entity should have some rhyme or reason to it.
If your PCs want a fight, you don’t have to cut combat for the sake of story. You can make your combat part of the story. Dress it up so it keeps entertaining you, Dungeon Master, because if you are bored at the table, how can you expect your PCs to be entertained?