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General GM's are you bored of your combat and is it because you made it boring?

ClaytonCross

Kinder reader Inflection wanted
I have spoken to a couple of my GMs lately about why the ended campaigns abruptly or early before end of the story arch. The common thread I got in their answers was basically "it got to be a grind as the party got higher levels." Then I asked, "the players didn't mind, what why was it so boring for you?" their answer was basically "too much to tracking and waiting for NPCs to die before we could get back to the story".

This was months ago and I have been thinking about it a lot. Then I thought about other GM I didn't talk to but played under. I thought about when I GM'd, Eventually two things became clear to me.

#1 Many GMs only see combat a necessary wall between plot points. GMs often don't truly engage themselves in to combat and so are indifferent to it other than waiting to get past it so they can get back to telling the story they want to tell and roleplay they enjoy. This is especially true with story GMs but could in party be what drives many GMs to become story GMs after years of play no longer caring about fights and only the story which is often the GMs story and not group story including players and the GM. This leads to games on rails etc. Players on the other hand invest in their characters so PC death is huge for them and any fight pushing them even remotely close to death get them engages immediately.

#2 Lack of engagement breads lack of investment which leads to less engagement. I haven't GM'd a lot, but when I GM'd I always enjoyed the battle and I think most GMs do. The reason for this is simple. You don't have a formula. CRs and encounter calculators are not accurate at all and you don't have the experience to fix it all on the fly. As a result your engaged because your half afraid you made the encounter too easy and the players will get board and your half afraid your party wipe the group and be blamed for it. More experienced GM's start working out "their formula" then they adjust here or there to make it fit the story. They know how to read the party and they know how to fix things on the fly that are not working. The problem is they tend to stick with formula. They want to stay there and avoid any fear of the unknown or losing control. This leads to simple fixes like picking monster they party could easily beat and just adding enough hit points to make it a challenge, or discreetly take some extra hp away from an enemy who is has pushed players to the ropes and things are starting to look dice. The worse offender however is the ready to die through away encounters. Usually these are some mob out numbering the party of low maintenance 5ft melee enemies. 20 goblins with swords, 10 thugs with bats, or 8 dire wolves. Something simple so the GM can use as little effort as possible tracking little more than HP. Very little strategy will be employed large number of dumb enemies and the only important part the GM is that they out numbered the party enough to be considered a threat, as the GM fully expects the party to wipe them out or escape. The second big offender is the HP bag boss (or mini boss) who similarly doesn't have much to track but HP usually fights in melee range and has almost no way to actually use a tactic but has some massive damage attack he can use regularly or every time he roles a 6 on a 1d6. GMs will often turn interesting boss into these unintentionally to avoid the hassle of actually playing something interesting. An intelligent dragon is apparently so blind in their rage that they decide to fight on the ground in a cave instead of flying, while it waits for its fire breath.

I don't think these are slights to GMs. I think its just the nature of building something for others, finding your comfort zone, and responding to the stress and effort of being a GM. I think anyone who GMs enough is likely to end up doing some level of this. But then who suffers? Not the players, they are still invested in their characters and still afraid of losing them. The horde of goblins or the HP packed dragon works for them. It doesn't work for the GM who gets board with the encounters they create for their players. So I have been determined to make prevent this in future games I run. I made rules to that effect and if other people see similar problems at table and ether have see other GMs solutions to it or have some suggestions of there own please feel free to help me out.

Edit: Revised the rules. I get long winded and as I was adding things people were missing and/or losing the intended points. So rewrote them to be more clear and concise. I also merged some of the rules because there was a lot of intent overlap and I could create example lists for ideas without needing multiple rules.

Considerations to keep tactical combat encounters from Boring to the GM (and better for players)

#1. Rules are meant to be broken. They are more of guidelines really. Following all the rule as much as you can should be to your benefit but fallowing all of them all the time is not the intent. The intent is to make your games more enjoyable as a GM so that you don’t burn out and continue to provide the game your players love. If something is causing you problems with D&D or the suggested considerations... just remember you do have the power and right to through out anything that means the players at the table are not having fun... and that includes the GM.

#2. Consider team monster’s motivation. Roleplaying them will change how they act and its possible some members of your encounter have different motivation’s than others. Thinking about motivations and allowing outcomes based on motivations opens up options other than “fight the party to the death” every single encounter. Capture, drive away, detour, steel from, escape from, delay, eat, and run from your party at different times. Player vs GM information disparity can cause stress for one and not the other. You can keep these motives secret to stress them out when they are safe but you can also let them know so you're on the same page.

#3. Consider adding variety to your units. Zombicide is great game if you’re a player but I can’t imagine wanting to playing through campaign as the zombies mechanically moving pieces every round for the players and only attack with close melee and with no interesting decisions or tactics. D&D is not intended to be that painful for the GM.
  • Players are engaged by fear of losing their character or party members. GMs are not.
  • There are at least 13 different unit types in D&D. 5ft melee try to use more than 1 just to make your discussions more interesting if nothing else.
  • If managing them seems daunting use less units to offset the management needed for the greater variety.
Examples of different units to consider: 5ft Melee, 10ft/Pole arm melee, Stealthy attackers, Hit and run melee, melee defenders with abilities that redirect/reduce/prevent by buffing an allies defense, Melee crowd control (shove, nets, and similar abilities), healers, buffers, de-buffers, summoners, illusionists, Adjuration wizards or other protection casters, Area of effect caster, crowd control casters, and creatures with abilities that simply add chaos to the battle ... I personally find a max of 3 times the party size and a max of 1/3 any type of unit works best for me.

#4 Consider Alternative threats to large piles of HP. Fighting a single boss with 1000 HP or 20 enemies with 50 HP but are threat because they are war on attrition has its place but is often the go to. Instead, consider means of making enemies dangerous without just stalling the fight.

D&D has a number of features/methods for this:
  • Special actions legendary actions, opportunity attacks, shove, grapple, dodge, disengage, voluntarily prone, and simply waiting the right time to attack (or anything else you can think of for NPCs/monsters to do that is not in their block of actions but they could reasonably do.)
  • Magic (spells, items, special abilities) that can make enemies hard to kill by preventing players from using their “standard formula”.
  • Terrain lair actions, hiding spots/visibility/line of sight, cover/lines of fire, Restrictions of movement/separated forces/choke points/hindering terrain
  • Weather hiding spots/visibility/line of sight, cover/lines of fire, Restrictions of movement/separated forces/choke points/hindering terrain
#5 Consider the power of friendly Rivalry.
  • Weak encounters free you do playfully try and kill your party because your going for high score not a Total Party Kill.
  • Let players know this is not about PC death. Capture, steal, or stall is on the table. In a powerful story or depending what is stolen this could be worse than TPK or a good hook they can choose to fallow.
  • Don’t cheat. If you are not okay with players fudging the dice and you wouldn’t tell them you did for or against them, don’t do it. Rivalries are built on shared rules.
  • Feel free to root for the “Team Monster” … they were warned. Just remember standard good sportsmanship conduce applies.
  • Consider giving your party an emergency escape button with the warning "I gave you this, but that means the gloves are off and your escape is in your hands not mine." A X of teleportation even if one use but they have some means of replacing it ... at a cost... as part there preparations for future battles. This can aid with GM strain of not being sure if they got encounter balance just right.
  • Consider waves of enemies instead of single large encounters. This allows for the weaker encounters while not having a weaker force or giving short rests. The breaks between the waves should act as escape exits that players can choose to use if they don't think they can win it. this combines several of the rivalry options into one idea you might see in a dungeon or tournament.
#6 Consider Home-brew System additions: (Anything really but these are some suggestions others have used if your stuck)
  • Universal homebrew - Making creative on the spot calls for "special actions" does not have to fallow the book ether. As well as giving home-brew powers or making home-brew NPC enemies, you can also adjudicate reasonable actions not covered by the rules on the spot, just remember if you use them the players should be able to attempt to copy them for the most part for the sake of fairness and not being a jerk GM. This also means if you adjudicate something and write it down to allow it to be something the players can do at will, then so can NPCs because doors swing both ways.
  • Destructible terrain and hazards can make for make combat more interesting. A simple way is to assign damage to an item a player wants to attack then add all attack damage up until total is reached. Something like heavy armor master for metal items or similar where they ignore the for X damage means the weak attacks have no effects which is a good way to make it so you don't get mighty objects distroyed by an army of ant but though powerful blows.
  • An NPC moral system is mentioned in the DMG but is not functional from the book. The simplest version of this would be basic point system where you assign the NPC team a random roll of point something like a D20 + the number of enemies +2 more for each leader or boss. Then any actions the GM considers to reduce the NPC moral like killing their team mates, particular displays of Player heroics, intimidation, persuasion, and deception checks would all be assigned points and removed from total. If the total hits zero the NPCs retreat. If on of those actions falls on a specific enemy they might also make a wisdom save to see if they flee before the rest of the group and if so them leaving would also count against the NPC team. This could create a snow ball effect where one enemy gets a crit chickens out then lowering the total, his buddy right next to the Player character is left alone so also rolls a wisdom save and fails, which ends up dropping the total to zero and they all flee. .... But this is rough suggestion for home brew. Your going to have to figure out the points on your own table or even case by case.
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
One thing I’ve observed as a DM is that encounters feel less tense from our side of the screen because we have more information than the players do. I’ve had many encounters that I knew the players would win, but that the players thought they were losing and felt relieved that they managed to survive. The first few times I thought maybe they weren’t as good at assessing encounter difficulty (many of my regular players are fairly new to D&D), but after seeing it happen so consistently I realized it was because I knew how much HP all the monsters had, so I could tell fairly easily how close the players were to winning, while all they saw was “oh my god, I’m bloodied and this guy still isn’t dead yet!”
 
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Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
These are a reasonable approach to combat encounter monster selections, but I'm not sure this addresses your goal except tangentially. In other words, your suggestions are aimed at making combat more manageable, but that's not quite the same thing as more engaging.

In addition, I'd recommend looking at both the whys of the combat and a tad more of the whats outside of the monster selections. Starting with the whys, I think that it's very important to know why the non-PC side is fighting. What does Team Monster want to accomplish in this fight? If you do this, then you'll have a more engaging narrative threading through the fight, helping make choices and decisions for Team Monster that align with their goals. It also gives you the opportunity to role play that motive through the monsters. Be careful, here, though to not thoughtlessly humanize your monsters (especially if they are supposed to represent evil). Note I say thoughtlessly. Don't, for instance, introduce that these goblins are fighting to save their kids in a game that doesn't otherwise deal with humanizing monsters because in the moment you think that will cause the players to face a moral dilemma. That leads to mixed signals. If your game does feature those themes, then, by all means, thoughtfully humanize your monsters.

Secondly, look at your encounters from outside just monster selection. If you make sure your environments are a part of the fight, then the combats will become more engaging. Don't just have the party fight another group of trolls, have them fight trolls in a gas-filled cavern where any fire or spark will cause an explosion. This kind of encounter places additional stress and interest on the combat.

I'd also recommend building your narrative goals into the combats, or putting combats into your narrative goals. Your point about combats being spacers between plot points is a good one to avoid, and you can do that by making the combat part of the plot point. This also goes to having combats often be about more than reducing the other side's hp. If you make a combat part of an escape, or a rescue, or preventing a ritual then the goal of the combat isn't just to remove hp, it's to do the thing. In this way, combat becomes the immediate obstacle to the goal rather than something you have to get through to get to the goal. Smart design here will make combat interesting to all sides, as it will now have a major say in what happens at the big picture level as well.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
One thing I’ve observed as a DM is that encounters feel less tense from our side of the screen because we have more information than the players do. I’ve had many encounters that I knew the players would win, but that the players thought they were losing and felt relieved that they managed to survive. The first few times I though maybe they weren’t as good at assessing encounter difficulty (many of my regular players are fairly new to D&D), but after seeing it happen so consistently I realized it was because I knew how much HP all the monsters had, so I could tell fairly easily how close the players were to winning, while all they saw was “oh my god, I’m bloodied and this guy still isn’t dead yet!”
This really should be double stressed. Information disparity often results in GMs being dissatisfied with outcomes. I have a friend that, back when we allowed him to GM (semi-serious, long stories) he'd often complain that a fight that felt difficult on our side was never really in question because he felt he had no way to tip the scales. One thing GMs absolutely need to do is realign their expectations and view things from their players' perspectives. Occasionally checking in with players on how things are going is a good tool, but so it basing your opinion on what's happened by the player's reactions rather than your own. I don't mind running a fight I know Team Monster can't possibly win because I can see the tension in the PCs and know that, from their perspective, this fight is something that increases the stakes. Part of this is part of my above, where I build combats as obstacles to goals and integrate them often, so even a pushover fight runs the risk of putting the goal in danger. HP is not my metric for combats.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Keeping monster goals in mind is incredibly helpful. Not only for making the combat more engaging with a clearer narrative through-line and stakes, but also for making it clearer when the encounter should be over. If the monsters have clear goals, encounters are no longer all fights to the death. When it’s clear one side isn’t going to be able to accomplish their goal, retreat becomes a valid option. And fighting with a goal other than killing the other team leads to different tactics, which can also make combat more interesting.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I have noticed that DMs who focus too much on "story" don't like combats. You can see this a lot in so-called "heavy RP" games where combat is very rare. I think this is because of the stakes. If it's a life-or-death struggle, that could mean the "story" outcome the DM desires won't come to fruition if one or more PCs die. All those subplots they wrote based on the PCs' ponderous backstories would go away. What a waste, right?

The solution is fairly easy: Stop predetermining and then caring about particular story outcomes. Offer hooks and put challenges in the way of the PCs. "Story" emerges all on its own. Just play the game and story will follow. If the players are making fun and memorable choices during play, the resulting story will be exciting and memorable which is the goal of play.

Also, combats can drag because a lot of DMs don't engage the play loop in its entirety. We addressed recently this in another thread, but basically DMs often skip the part of the loop that calls for the DM to describe the environment. So the DM describes the environment once, then calls on a player to declare their actions, narrating the results. Then the next player is asked to do the same, almost like they're in line at the deli - "NEXT!" If the DM, however, pithily describes the scene again as it currently stands, laying out the basic scope of actions, then asking the next player what they do, the pace quickens, players can more easily make decisions, and combat flows more smoothly.

On a related note, many DMs burn out on combat a lot because they are doing the narration for the players. A player might offer very little in the way of description, so many DMs take it upon themselves to essentially describe what the character is doing in the narration part of the play loop. This is basically like having a one-sided conversation which is tedious. Nobody expects flowery language or overwrought descriptions from players (or so I hope), but if the action declaration lacks a goal or approach, it puts the DM in a position of having a harder time adjudicating without assuming or establishing what the character is doing in the narration phase, which isn't the DM's role. Do it enough and you can burn out and start wanting fewer combats. Ask your players to step up and do their part. In my experience, they will.
 

Combat can be a real pain when approached in a robot like way. Be it players or DM's side. Tactics make for interesting combat. Each combats, even fillers, should have a stressfull element (unless it is to make players feel powerul, a useful thing to do at times).

A lot of DMs that I coach often forget that there are manoeuvres that can be done even if it is not in the stat block of the creatures. Everybody can grapple, shove or knock down and even try to restain. Ranged attackers using partial or full cover can be a pain in the ass. My ranged players hate it when their ranged opponents fall prone voluntarily as to give ranged players disadvantage to attack them. It only cost half movement to get back up.

Melee characters hate when their opponents start to dodge in a restricted area where they are effective blockers and the monsters' allies pester them crom range or simply shoot the characters in the back.

Or simply having a monster get past the melee character by knocking prone a player and going straight for the wizard or archer or whatever.

The fun thing is that nothing is out of the ordinary, but players tend to forget these actions and their benefits because they have cooler tools to use. Being reminded that creatures can use these too is surprisingly effective. One devious tactic I recently used was a manticore following the characters for a whole day, never getting in bow range. But when the players got in combat with orcs, the manticore attacked them with tail spikes from a far. It went on an other two days when the ranger finally thought of hiding the group and lay a trap for the manticore with an illusion. Since the group was not distracted as the manticore thought they finally got it. But a simple combat became quite a story. They will remember that manticore a long time.

Combat can be its own story.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I have noticed that DMs who focus too much on "story" don't like combats. You can see this a lot in so-called "heavy RP" games where combat is very rare. I think this is because of the stakes. If it's a life-or-death struggle, that could mean the "story" outcome the DM desires won't come to fruition if one or more PCs die. All those subplots they wrote based on the PCs' ponderous backstories would go away. What a waste, right?

The solution is fairly easy: Stop predetermining and then caring about particular story outcomes. Offer hooks and put challenges in the way of the PCs. "Story" emerges all on its own. Just play the game and story will follow. If the players are making fun and memorable choices during play, the resulting story will be exciting and memorable which is the goal of play.
In fact, I’d say DMs who write stories out ahead of time are undermining the goal of play. If the story is already written, the players are merely acting it out rather than creating it.
 


Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Another useful tip is not to plan “combats.” The moment you decide a combat is going to happen, you shut yourself off from the possibility of alternate resolution methods. You might tell yourself you’re open to that possibility, but you’re still putting the players in the position of having to convince you to let them “bypass” a combat you have decided is going to happen.

Instead, give monsters and NPCs goals that conflict with the PCs goals and treat combat as one valid means among many of resolving that conflict. If the PCs want something and the monsters want something that is mutually exclusive with what the players want, combat becomes a way to decide which side is going to get what they want.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
I agree with all points. I would also like to add: boring combat isn't completely the fault of the GM. Some players build their characters to do only One Thing, and to do it only One Way, in combat scenes. Then you end up with a bunch of players repeating the same action, rolling the same dice, and getting the same result, over and over again. And that's fine for a few minutes, but it quickly gets dull (especially for the GM).

It's easy enough to fix, though. If combat is getting dull, modify the monster abilities to change up the players' expectations, or even use completely new monsters of your own design, to push them out of a rut. There's nothing wrong with letting your players "spam the A-button" every now and again, but no two battles should ever feel the same. Mix it up if things are getting repetitive (or worse, predictable.)
 

In fact, I’d say DMs who write stories out ahead of time are undermining the goal of play. If the story is already written, the players are merely acting it out rather than creating it.
I would say the complete opposite. When I write an adventure, the only thing I know for sure is how I intend to start it. How I hope it will unfold and how I think it will end. Players make sure that my hopes will be crushed, reduced to powder, mixed with water, baked and formed into something unexpected that I would not expect.

It is exactly for those moments, where the players breaks my expectations and surprise me that I love being the DM. If they don't, no problems, I'll have a story anyways.

What irks me, is when a DM pushes the players to do the story that HE wants, going as far as punishing players for doing the unexpected. These are the bad DMs.
 

Puddles

Villager
Interesting thread!

I’m an experienced wargamer and so very familiar designing scenarios and missions for war games, as such, putting together a well crafted combat encounter is something I absolutely love doing and one for my favourite parts of D&D.

For me, the most important thing is to design an interesting terrain layout. No battle needs to take place in an empty chamber. Fill it with anything from tables to pillars to a roaring bonfire or spinning mechanical platforms. Dynamic elements (like the room filling with water) are great. As is verticality (having higher up spots that are hard to access).

Interesting doesn’t have to just be about combat tactics too. Designing somewhere jaw-dropping, mysterious and memorable can all be fun things to create too. Perhaps the battle is on the precipice of a waterfall, or perhaps the back wall is a Rosetta Stone of a lost language to the ancient ruins they are exploring.

You can learn a lot from video games with both these aspects, and they are a great pool of inspiration.

Once I have the layout designed, I think of exciting and cunning ways for the enemies to use that layout to force the players into making decisions.

Another rule I have for myself is never for the party to fight the same selection of enemies more than once. This doesn’t mean you can’t have recurring bad guys, but that a new element should be added in for each fight. For example, in my current campaign the players fought some goblins riding on wolfback in their first session. Two got away, and now they have tracked them to their lair. The wolves will be penned in cages elsewhere, but they’ll have an enraged Yeti waiting for the players instead and the goblins will be hiding up top in the shadows with bows. There’s so much cool stuff in the Monster Manual I don’t see the need to make 2 encounters ever be the same.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I would say the complete opposite. When I write an adventure, the only thing I know for sure is how I intend to start it. How I hope it will unfold and how I think it will end. Players make sure that my hopes will be crushed, reduced to powder, mixed with water, baked and formed into something unexpected that I would not expect.

It is exactly for those moments, where the players breaks my expectations and surprise me that I love being the DM. If they don't, no problems, I'll have a story anyways.

What irks me, is when a DM pushes the players to do the story that HE wants, going as far as punishing players for doing the unexpected. These are the bad DMs.
I think you’ve misunderstood me. What you say irks you is what I was saying undermines the goal of play. Having a planned start to your adventure, a resolution in mind, and some idea of what shape you expect the adventure to take is just standard adventure prep. But the point is for the story to emerge through playing the adventure, rather than for the adventure having a pre-planned story for the players to “experience.”
 

Puddles

Villager
One devious tactic I recently used was a manticore following the characters for a whole day, never getting in bow range. But when the players got in combat with orcs, the manticore attacked them with tail spikes from a far. It went on an other two days when the ranger finally thought of hiding the group and lay a trap for the manticore with an illusion. Since the group was not distracted as the manticore thought they finally got it. But a simple combat became quite a story. They will remember that manticore a long time.

Combat can be its own story.
This is a great bit of inspiration. I think I will have to use the “following monster” in a future adventure for my players! It’s a great random encounter too!:D
 


iserith

Magic Wordsmith
One way to quickly get the players (and yourself) engaged is simply to cheer for the monsters with a smile on your face. "19! Yay! 7 damage! Take that, Desmond, and feel the pain!" This tends to get the players cheering for their side, and thus more into the whole thing.
I do think there is great value to the DM playing The Heel while running games. The players need to know it's a put-on though.
 

ClaytonCross

Kinder reader Inflection wanted
One thing I’ve observed as a DM is that encounters feel less tense from our side of the screen because we have more information than the players do. I’ve had many encounters that I knew the players would win, but that the players thought they were losing and felt relieved that they managed to survive. The first few times I thought maybe they weren’t as good at assessing encounter difficulty (many of my regular players are fairly new to D&D), but after seeing it happen so consistently I realized it was because I knew how much HP all the monsters had, so I could tell fairly easily how close the players were to winning, while all they saw was “oh my god, I’m bloodied and this guy still isn’t dead yet!”
Absolutely, and the possibility of GMs getting bored because if this is absolutely something that can drain GMs making them dread tactical combat slog. So what do you do to keep your interest when you know your going to lose, but your players are still engaged?
 

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