D&D 5E How to make 2 to 3 rounds of combat DRAMATIC?

BookTenTiger

He / Him
After many years of playing D&D, I've finally accepted that even the most interesting combats are only going to last two to three rounds. Of course, there are the rare combats that go longer (such as when an enemy tries to run away, or reinforcements arrive), but most combats last two, three, or four rounds.

So I've started to think of some ways to increase the DRAMA when I want a combat to be especially memorable. If my Big Bad Dragon is only going to last three rounds, what are some things I can do to make that dragon fight live forever in the memories of my players?

Here are some ideas I have...

1) Environmental Actions

I can have the environment take actions at the start of each round. Bubbling lava, cracking earth, falling trees, rolling fog... I can probably just copy spell effects and have the environment use them against players and enemies alike!

2) Bloodied Condition = MORE POWER

I can have enemies become more powerful when bloodied. I could see a dragon's breath weapon becoming even more deadly as it gets desperate, or an elemental having a zone of damage around it as its wounds spew forth fire or ice...

3) Summon Reinforcements!

I know I mentioned this one earlier, but having reinforcements arrive through conjuring or even just that one door the characters never opened is a way to increase the drama!

What are some other ways we can increase the DRAMA of a two-to-three-round fight?
 

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MatthewJHanson

Registered Ninja
Publisher
I find there's a couple of good questions you can ask. The one I like that you seem to already be asking is "how is this round different from the last one." I try to avoid rounds where it's just I have one fewer spell slot and my enemy has fewer hit points. The ideas you listed are good for that.

Another question I ask is what's at stake?

In any D&D battle there's always the PC's lives, so dropping a PC to 0 is always good for that. Dragon breath weapons or similar nova powers are good for that.

It's pretty hard to kill a PC in D&D 5e though, so you can look for other stakes, other things the PCs might gain or lose from the battle. NPCs, they need to save or fleeing foes they need to prevent from escaping, enemies who possess vital information that the PCs need are all good ways to deal with that.

For what it's worth I've written a couple of books called Terrain Toolbox and Alternate Objective that give some advice on elements to add to spice up encounters.
 

Scribe

Hero
Tension. One can find drama in basic acts, as long as there is tension, meaning, the potential for real and meaningful failure.
 

Don't be afraid to end a combat before everyone on one side has had all their hit points go to zero.

Don't be afraid to end a combat before anyone even goes down in combat.

Remember what the objectives of everyone in combat are. Not all hired mercs will fight to the death for their employer. Not all bad guys working with other bad guys will stick to the plan or miss the opportunity to wipe out their allies. Not all combats have to be about winning the hit point game. Not all combats have to include only two sides.

It's fine to dress things up with cool voices and whatnot, but remember that they're just dressings. Substance should always come first.

Cutscenes that introduce new variables such as new participants or changes to environment, and possibly even reset initiative order, can make an encounter feel very memorable.

When in doubt, raise the stakes.
 

cbwjm

Legend
Matt Colville did a video on action oriented monsters which might be worth checking out; his idea is also used in his company's latest book.

Basically, the monster has 3 extra actions. It performs the first in round 1, the second in round 2, and the third in round 3. Once used, they can't be used again.

I think he had as an example in the video a Goblin leader who did something like the following:
Round 1: summon reinforcements
Round 2: positioning (troope can move up their speed)
Round 3: troops can make an extra attack.

I also think your idea of bloodied makes the dragon more dangerous is a great idea, I've lifted that one from 4e a couple of times. Make it so that the dragon’s breath weapon recharges and it uses it as a reaction to becoming bloodied. I did this with a wyvern that allowed it to use it reaction to strike with its tail. It was the only time the wyvern hit and it was also a critical... Maybe instead (or additionally depending on how dangerous you want the fight to be) it gains a damaging aura as the elemental energies of its breath weapon begin to leak out.

Something else I'd suggest is the mythic rules, when they hit 0, they pop back up with additional features. Don't worry if it isn't some world rending dragon of doom, you can do this with a dragon warming if you want the fight to be fun and memorable, just remember to award double the xp for defeating it.

Not sure if a dragon can already do this, but giving it reactions like a tail slap when a PC moves within reach. I think dragons used to be able to do this in previous editions.

Give the dragon spells, in particular, spells like misty step or dimension door. It can use the spells to escape (great if you want it to be a recurring enemy) or to reposition. The spells can also surprise the party. If you're going up against a red dragon and have prepped defences against fire, the dragon casting cone of cold is going to be a surprise for the party. Dragons are intelligent, I'm sure there are dragons who would have thought about a move like this.

I think about stuff like this quite a bit, especially after I've run an encounter that feels a little flat in the excitement side of things.
 

DND_Reborn

Legend
What are some other ways we can increase the DRAMA of a two-to-three-round fight?
1. Make the fights more even. IME the only quick battles are the ones were the PCs easily overpower the opponents. If you remove (or just narrate) easy and medium encounters, only using hard and deadly, there is greater risk to the PCs. Whether that is greater "drama" is up to you? I occasionally toss a medium encounter at our group still, but the distribution is maybe 5% easy, 15 % moderate, 60 % hard, 20 % deadly.

2. Get rid of the standard initiative system. My group has been using the Cinematic Initiative Variant (CIV) I created for over a year now and none of us would ever want to go back to playing with normal initiative. CIV makes players pay attention more to what is going on, breaks up the action, and with the extra moves we've added/improved, make the game more tactical. It is a bit more bookkeeping at first, but once you get the hang of it it goes very quickly IMO.

3. Don't be a nice DM. Have monsters gang-up on individuals, hit them when they are down, and force characters to be more cautious and watch out for each other more.

4. Make BBEG custom instead of off-the-rack. Honestly, I would say only about 25% of our battles are resolved in less than 4 rounds. Most take 6-10 rounds. This is also because my BBEG and sub-bosses are custom. PCs can deal out insane damage sometimes, so with solo BBEG I take the HP and/or AC up a notch or two.
 

cowpie

Adventurer
1) Have memorable and dangerous enemies: A specific example I've used: Have an enemy be a demon or spirit the parasitically latches onto a PC's spirit. Every time the enemy takes damage, they siphon part of the damage off onto the PC. The more the PCs hurt the enemy, the more they hurt their friend. If the PC is injured, the enemy takes matching damage. If the PC is willing to fall on their sword, they can severely damage the enemy. This can be especially challenging if the enemy latches onto a valued NPC with lower hit points (essentially taking a hostage), and the PCs have to figure out ways to defeat the enemy without resorting to direct damage.

2) Timers: Have a series of unfortunate events happening on a timer. A bridge is collapsing, a shoggoth is emerging from a pit, hot lava is edging closer to the PCs, or walls are closing in or sealing off an exit. The players have things they can do to affect the environmental to stop the events, or add time on the timer. However, they have to decide whether to affect the timer, or fight the enemies, making every tactical decision more agonizing for the players.

3) Destructible/Hazardous environments -- players can use the environment to get a tactical advantage. Make the terrain unique and dangerous.

4) Dynamic environments -- players can use special terrain, elevation, or knowledge they gained as a result of the exploration pillar of play, to gain a tactical advantage (for example, they found a secret door earlier that leads to a hidden balcony, where they are rewarded with a position where they can snipe an enemy that would otherwise be hard to reach.

Extended Example from Raiders of the Lost Ark:
1) (Timer) Indy and Marion escape being buried alive and try to hijack a plane before the Nazis can fly the ark out of Egypt. Spinning propellers are prominently shown as a potential hazard.

2) (Enemy+Time Delay) Before he can knock out the pilot, Indy is forced to fight a henchman with a wrench.

3) (Enemy Reinforcement+Time Delay) Indy has to fight another ever Bigger Henchman, itching for a fight. He also has to avoid the pilot with a Luger. The timer keeps on ticking...

4) (Hazardous+Dynamic Environment) Marion knocks out the pilot, but causes the plane to start rotating in place, making Indy's combat way more dangerous because now they're dodging spinning propeller blades. Can Indy use this to his advantage?

5) (Enemy Reinforcement+Dynamic Environment) Soldiers drive up in trucks, but Marion has found a machine gun in the environment, and she uses it to shoot them.

6) (Hazardous+Timer) A gas truck leads petrol all over the tarmac, and a fire breaks out, starting another countdown until the plane (with Marion trapped in it) blows up.

7) (Enemy+Hazardous+Dynamic+Timer) Indy defeats the Henchman by using the propeller to kill him. The gas fire is spreading, and more Nazis put on alert after an explosion.

8) Conclusion: Indy and Marion narrowly escape the plane before time runs out and it explodes. A new timer starts as the Nazis react to the situation by loading the Ark onto a truck.

While this was scripted by the moviemakers, by having all the elements in place, and starting with one timer (get the plane before the Nazi's fly the Ark away), once the PCs enter the environment, you can raise the stakes by introducing new hazards and timers organically in response to what they do. Just make a combat environment with lots of stuff in place for the players to mess with from the get go, and let 'er rip!
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
• Legendary actions
• Environmental/“Lair” actions.
• Mythic actions
• Pseudo-mythic actions that trigger on bloodied status
• Minions, minions, and more minions
• Seriously though, minions!
 

Zaukrie

New Publisher
This is a question I ask myself a lot (my DM is also in this thread......he does a good job).

I think giving monsters more abilities is key. It is boring to stand around and swing your sword or arm or whatever for three rounds. The Colville solution above is one way to do that. Another is more reactions.

I'm not a fan of giving more HP to boss types, but I've done it. The key, to me, is to give them more actions and reactions...you really need to level the action economy playing field. Minions were (are still in my games) one of the best ideas in 4e. Use them as extensions of the boss.

For non boss types, more environmental actions and even just other things (like in a village or town, are there suddenly onlookers? If so, are they safe from your enemies or your area spells?

Waves of enemies always ups the drama.

I think DnD is fun, but it doesn't handle movement in combat well, imo. I hope to someday publish a massive PDF about initiative and movement, but I'm not ready yet.

If you want more ideas for Dragons, I do have a product that ads actions and traits.....(which, given my DM is running a dragon campaign, may have been an error to release....).....https://www.dmsguild.com/product/379111/Dangerous-Dragons
 

Quickleaf

Legend
We had an interesting combat last session that involved barely 3 rounds. All the party fought were a pair of thugs (who I'd each given a feat). What made it interesting was the story surrounding the confrontation:

The PCs were on the trail of a tiefling criminal at the docks, and knew that he had 2 cronies – a half-goblin, and a "man with a griffon scar." The cronies (thugs) confronted them when the PCs crossed the river, each throwing off the cloak & hat of a boatman, and closing in on the PCs. During the fighting some of the PCs had a sense of deja vu around the faces of one or the other thug – and made Intelligence saves to try to remember where they knew this person from (e.g. the ex-slave minotaur PC recognized one as having fought a griffon in the fighting pits of Pax Imperica). What made it so interesting was that during the fight the personality and motives of the thugs was revealed to be one of misguided loyalty to the tiefling who'd liberated them from slave fighting pits. The interplay of the environment helped too, with some of the battle happening on boats. By choosing to spare the thugs (and ultimately release them), the PCs gained valuable information that they eventually used to talk down the tiefling when they faced him.

All those ideas you have are golden – definitely use them! – but never underestimate the power of strong narrative, scene framing, and stakes building to make a short combat really come alive.
 

One issue I've found in 5E is that encounter design assumes players win, every single time. This tends to create situations where players might feel a bit of tension, but there's very little at risk. Theoretically a PC could die, but unless this creates a cascade effect towards a TPK, this just annoys the player in question. The most memorable combats aren't fair to the PCs; they should be outnumbered and outgunned. Some suggestions:
  • If you use the DMG guideline for encounter design, make the battle Deadly x3 at least. This should give you plenty of enemies to work with, and the battle is more balanced between both sides.
  • Use more than a single monster, even if it's legendary. Minions (4E style or not) are good to swarm PCs, particularly squishy back line characters.
  • Have a mix of enemy types. Everyone being melee is easy for the party to counter with control spells and abilities.
    • Having a spellcaster is a really, really good idea. They generally throw off PC tactics with control spells, and healing is particularly annoying. Unfortunately with the new direction of spellcasting, this may no longer be a useful tactic.
  • Don't just use the actions in the stat block. You can give humanoids different weapons, such as nets, polearms, crossbows, etc. Have flying monsters grapple PCs and attempt to fly off with them (leading to falling damage if the monster is killed). If you have a lot of weaker monsters, have them grapple and shove prone a character. With the Help action granting advantage, eventually this will work. Then the PC has to decide to give up their entire action to break free or suffer the prone penalty.
    • The environment fits in here, since using it to the enemies advantage is optimal. having ranged attackers with both cover and nearly inaccessible forces the party's ranged attackers to deal with them, instead of helping focus fire. Best example was having them up a 100 ft high cliff shooting down, after which they moved 15 ft away from the ledge. The PCs had to ready actions to attack (negating multi-attack) or waste long range AoE spells without knowing if they'll hit anything or not.
  • Focus Fire isn't just for PCs. Even if the party has tubthumbing, once a PC gets to that point, only 1-2 enemies is all it takes to keep them going down.
    • If you want to strike fear into the hearts of the players, use Focus Fire and attack downed PCs. This will likely lead to at least one PC death, and will often lead towards the death spiral to a TPK.
  • If you really want to add tension, throw AoE spells that damage downed PCs. This puts them in the scary position of rolling a "1" to die before they're healed. Usually when this happens, unless a healer is before the downed PC, another PC will stop to feed them a potion of healing. This loss of an action slows the party down, and is really inefficient, since the PC might go back down again soon.
 

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