Competitive D&D Play: Combat Tactics in Dungeons & Dragons

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The role of combat in Dungeons & Dragons varies from campaign to campaign. In certain campaigns, it may hardly be used at all. In others, it takes center stage. My own games run the gamut, with one campaign consisting of sessions that comprise arena-style scenarios, where assortments of characters are pitted against monsters and traps calibrated to be on the deadlier end of the spectrum. With ideas of competitive D&D play being floated around the D&D community of late, with many of us wondering in particular what D&D might look like as an esport in light of a recent interview with the CEO of Hasbro (Wizards of the Coast’s parent company) where he discussed such a possibility, it occurred to me just how much I learned about the rules from diving into a combat-heavy game, where character death was frequent, and where a competitive atmosphere existed, not between players or even between players and DMs, but between the characters and the harsh world of combat in which they had found themselves.

Cooperative and competitive play in D&D both rely on making sure your character has options for various situations. Knowing how and when to use the right tool is one of the most useful combat tactics in D&D.

Combat tactics in D&D

The genesis of this particular game can be traced back to the conception of the arena in the Dark Sun campaign setting from AD&D 2nd Edition. There, characters could find themselves thrust into combat for the amusement of the inhabitants of a city-state. In such a format, it pays to know the mechanics and understand how to create characters who have a good chance of survival. It also pays to understand team dynamics, and how use your own character’s abilities to maximize the chances for everyone to be victorious. A lot has changed since the days of AD&D 2nd Edition and the harsh world of Athas that was first introduced under that ruleset, or from the subsequent tactics-heavy third and 3.5 Editions of D&D. But even in the more intuitive and streamlined fifth edition game, understanding the ins and outs of surviving deadly encounters through combat tactics in D&D can help players create and manage characters who are able to make an impact in the story, and who become valuable and trusted allies for fellow party members. It all starts with a few basic concepts.

Action economy

D&D is structured with an action economy, which is the notion there is a certain set of actions a character can take in a given turn, round, or other specified time period. Broadly, every character is able to take an action, interact with an object, and move on his or her turn. Some characters also have options for taking a bonus action. Over the course of a round, a character is also able to take one reaction. This structure is what should guide character creation for anyone who wants their characters to be effective and have a good chance of survival in challenging combat encounters.

combat tactics in D&D
Balancing your mix of actions, bonus actions and reactions is a important part of character design. This image doesn’t really have anything to do with that, it’s just a really cool image. [Art by deviantart user anotherwanderer]
In order to take advantage of the D&D turn structure, a character should have one or two good options in any situation to use for an action, bonus action, and reaction. Frequently, novice players design characters that “trip over themselves,” in the sense they will expend building resources to develop a character with a huge array of bonus actions, but can then only use one bonus action per turn. Having 10 different bonus action options or building in a way that produces bonus action redundancies (such as multiple ways of getting a bonus Dash action) offers little gain, whereas a single, repeatable bonus action is often just as useful, and as such, more efficient.

At the other end of the spectrum are characters with no options for bonus actions. If a combat runs for a while, all characters can end up in this boat as they expend resources, but characters should be built with at least a few turns worth of bonus actions in mind. For instance, when building a spellcaster, you should consider at least one or two prepared or known spells that can be cast as a bonus action. A bard armed with the healing word spell will, between that spell and Bardic Inspiration, have several turns worth of bonus actions. Generally, using Bardic Inspiration early, before any party members have sustained injuries, and then the healing word spells later, when party members are damaged, is a good use of this mix of options for bonus actions.

Certain classes, such as monks and rogues, have built-in action economy because of class features. When a rogue gets the Cunning Action feature, it has a few options for a bonus action every turn. Likewise, a monk can make use of either a Martial Arts bonus action during an attack, or opt for a Flurry of Blows, Patient Defense, or Step of the Wind. Because of features like this, it is unwise to build a rogue or monk in such a way as to pick up a bunch of other options for bonus actions, because they can only ever use one per turn.

Ultimately, you want your character to have the ability to make steady use of bonus actions with minimal investment of building resources in order to attain that. If you have a sorcerer with a lot of known bonus action spells, it is less valuable to take the Quicken Spell option for the Sorcery Points features. But, if your spell list has few to no bonus action spells, it could be a very good idea to make use of the Quicken Spell option. If you play a warlock that makes heavy use of the eldritch blast cantrip, as many warlock builds do, it means it is a good idea to have bonus action spells such as hex or misty step, since a cantrip can be cast in the same turn as a spell with a bonus action casting time. If all of your other spells have casting times of an action, then you will be prohibited from using them in the same turn as your most powerful offensive option.

The other dimension of maximizing bonus action usage is to consider the three axes of offense, defense, and mobility when selecting bonus action options for your character. We can look again to the monk to see this built in. Martial Arts gives an offensive option, Patient Defense gives a defensive option, and Step of the Wind gives a mobility option. The offensive option can be further empowered with Flurry of Blows. This provides a good balance of options for a character, so that they can be ready for whatever the next deadly encounter presents. Rogue options are slightly less balanced, with two mobility options in Disengage and Dash when using Cunning Action, and one option, Hide, that is a hybrid of offense and defense. The tradeoff is that monks have to expend resources in the form of Ki Points to fuel some of the options at their disposal.

Spells and other abilities can be selected with the same three axes in mind. If all your character’s spells are geared toward offense, it leaves the character in a tight spot when defense or mobility would serve them better. If all you have is a defensive spell that enhances Armor Class, it is useless when facing foes that only use area of effect abilities. Low-level characters will obviously not be able to maximize options along each axis. But you should have some array of abilities and spells in mind that you can work toward so your character can continue to be survivable as encounters become more difficult, and the opponents your character faces become more multi-faceted and deadly.

Variety and focus

Both variety and focus are key concepts to keep in mind when designing a character and selecting various features, spells, and abilities. We know from the discussion of action economy that variety is an element to consider when it comes to figuring out ways to spend actions and bonus actions, because redundancies are not generally valuable. But variety also needs to be considered for both offense and defense when it comes to what your character can do and withstand.

On the offensive front, the most easily-grasped type of variety to consider is spell choice in the context of saving throws. If you are playing a caster and you have built it to have a high spell save DC, then it is a good idea to prepare or select spells that have a variety of different saving throws. If you have a bunch of spells that all rely on Strength saving throws your character is going to be quite marginalized in a fight against giants. If everything you use relies on Intelligence saving throws, good luck when the mindflayers come calling. You may not be in a position to select a spell for each and every different saving throw, but you can generally break it down into physical or mental and try to select at least one or two spells of each variety. Barring exceptional opponents like dragons, few monsters have great mental and physical saves across the board.

combat tactics in D&D
This fella probably wishes he had something other than a slashing weapon. Black puddings are not only immune to slashing damage, it triggers their Split ability! Ochre Jellies are also immune, and various swarms of critters are resistant to slashing damage. A well-rounded arsenal serves warriors well in D&D. [Image courtesy Wizards of the Coast]
In addition to saving throw variety, you should also consider damage type variety. If all of your spells rely on lightning damage you will be in trouble against a kraken (then again, you’re always in trouble against a kraken). If you are playing a frontline fighting type, and all of your weapons do slashing damage, you may not be able to maximize your damage output against all types of foes. For that reason, it is good to select a variety of different spell damage types if you’re playing a caster and have a few different damage types in your arsenal of weapons if you’re playing a warrior. Your character may prefer to use a battle axe, but it’s not a bad idea to have a warhammer as a backup, just in case something is impervious to the slashing damage a battle axe does.

While the concepts of variety and focus may seem at odds, the aforementioned example illustrates that variety allows for focus. Every character will have a few options in combat to represent their bread-and-butter. If your character is a fighter with the Great Weapon Fighting style, then there is no mystery what your character is about or what it should be trying to do in combat. It should be trying to get up to the enemy and hit it with its two-handed weapon.

It does no good for the character to be denied its bread-and-butter option by showing up to a fight with a greatsword and a greataxe against a foe immune to slashing damage. It would have been better to have a maul as a backup. If your wizard has potent spells that can dish out big damage, then it does no good to show up with five different fire spells against a creature that is immune to fire.

In both cases, focus — the character’s bread-and-butter ability — hinges on variety. A variety of methods of implementing a character’s most potent combat options means it will be able to exercise those options more reliably.

This ties back in with the previous mention of the three axes of offense, defense, and mobility. If you are playing a rogue, its signature offensive move is usually to land a Sneak Attack. By making use of the mobility provided by their Cunning Action, they can get in a position to make a Sneak Attack. By using the option to hide provided by the Cunning Option, they can potentially gain advantage, thereby getting a Sneak Attack and making it more likely to hit.

Similarly, if you are playing a warlock who has invested a lot into eldritch blast capabilities, it can be quite problematic to get surrounded by enemies up close when you would rather be on the other side of the battlefield. In times like those, a misty step can make all the difference.

Variety is a consideration that enters into every building decision you make for your characters. A character can only concentrate on one spell at a time, so if all of its spells rely on concentration they will be hamstrung by not being able to cast a new spell without discarding a previous one at the same time, potentially not getting the most out of it. If all your defense is allotted toward Armor Class or one particular saving throw, as soon as an enemy comes along that uses an attack targeting your weakness (and it eventually will happen), it could spell disaster. If you have 10 different options for a reaction that all trigger off of the same event, but no options that trigger off the many other types of events that can occur, you’re out of luck in any situation where your specific trigger cannot happen. If all your reactions are offensive but a defensive reaction is all you would need to last another round to make another attack, and you only need to do one more point of damage to prevent a total party kill, you will wish you had selected at least one defensive option.

Strategy and tactics in D&D

Tactics are what characters, through the decisions of their players, do in the midst of a combat encounter. How to make the most of a character over the course of a given round is something that can only be learned through play, and which varies immensely depending on the scenario at hand and the composition of the rest of the party. Strategy can be thought of as all the things that happen before combat. This can include things that happen in character, such as reconnaissance, information-gathering spells, “buff” spells, whether or not to include consumable resources in preparation for battle, or which magic items to select for attunement.

It also encompasses the out of character decisions a player makes, such as how to construct a character in the first place, from what class and race to play, whether to multiclass, which feats to select, and any considerations for customization given by spell selection, skill choice, ability score selection, or picking a subclass given by Primal Paths, Bard Colleges, Otherworldly Patrons, etc.

It is in this stage of creating a character and planning its advancement that strategic decisions start to enter the equation. In many, perhaps even most, games, character advancement is a function of how a character’s personality develops and the types of experiences it has as it goes through its adventuring life. In competitive, combat-oriented play, it should always be something the player is thinking about in the context of maximizing survivability and the character’s ability to pitch in to help the party as a whole survive.

Every total party kill starts with a single character’s death, so it’s always best to make sure not only is your character able to survive, but it meshes well with the party to make sure everyone survives. Even in a competitive D&D play scenario, this is a cooperative game, and helping the party overcome any challenge that comes its way should be the alpha and omega of character creation.

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Benjamin T. Awesome resides in Los Angeles and enjoys participating in an unmanageably large number of TTRPGs, so much so that it routinely interferes with his Nintendo and board gaming.

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