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Spicing Up One-On-One Combat

Fauchard1520

Explorer
I find it difficult to make one-on-one combat exciting. If the duel is between evenly matched opponents (mechanically speaking), there's a 50/50 chance that a PC is gonna die. But if it's tilted in the PC's favor, it's hard to make 'em feel like they triumphed in an actually-dangerous situation.

So my question: What's the best way to run one-on-one combat? How do you help your big-damn-hero PC to feel like a badass without oops-he's-dead?

Comic for illustrative purposes.
 

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opacitizen

Explorer
Two tips that may work sometimes (but don't overuse them):

1. Introduce and use a countdown clock. It's a 50/50 fight (or worse), but both sides know a 3rd party capable of subduing both sides is on its way, so the combat won't (likely) result in the death of either party. The city watch is heard coming running, they'll arrive in 5 rounds. A vengeful, undiscerning ghost is rising from the dungeon, and will arrive in 1d10 rounds. A xenomorph or a terminator is breaking down the blastdoor two rooms away, and will be here in d6 rounds.

2. Make it known that the enemy, be they as brutal as they are, is not aiming to kill its opponents in general (or just in this specific case). It aims to disable, maim, and/or rob. "Old Nosechomper the troll won't leave you dead. It will beat the shit out of you and bite off your nose." "Rozzo will defeat you, but instead of killing you, he'll carve his mark, an 'R' in your forehead, and take all your magical weapons." And so on.
 

TheSword

Legend
Supporter
Here’s a controversial idea. Allow any character with proficiency with the weapon they’re using to use a maneuver from the battle master subcclass by spending a HD. Their HD is the roll they use for the purpose of the feat.

Parrying, tripling, pushing, extra damage, precise strikes, intimidation all become feasible in combat then.

It wrecks the battle master subclass but who cares.

For bonus points, allow inspiration to be spent for the same effect using a 1d8

I actually think this might deserve its own thread to discuss.
 
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Change the turn structure to give each character half a turn each initiative. Each turn a creature has two options each half-round:

1. Take a normal action.
2. Move or use a bonus action. You can use a bonus action that your last turn may have triggered (e.g., off hand attack with two weapon fighting).

Finally, some additional rules:

1. Half-rounds are 3 seconds.
2. You can't do the same thing two turns in a row, with some exceptions (e.g., a Rogue can move and the next turn move as a bonus action, taking the Dash action is different than moving, attacking with an off-hand weapon as a bonus action, etc.). That is to say, you can't have two half-rounds do more than what you could normally do with a full round. The opposite might be true, so you might be able to do more in a round than you can in two half-rounds.
3. You only get one reaction and one free object interaction every two half-rounds.
4. Spells that last a number of rounds last twice as many half-rounds.

This is way, way, way to fiddly for more than two participants in a battle, but if you've got exactly two characters it might be more interesting to see how that plays out.

There's a decent chance this really doesn't work well at all, but it sounds interesting.
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
House-rule 5e into something that approaches a decent combat system. Start with making death permanent, so the player is risking everything when he commits his PC to any fight.

As to feeling badass, that's the player's job.
 

aco175

Hero
I was thinking two smaller opponents. Not the same as 1:1, but the threat of two attacks against the PC is weighed against the lower HP and To Hit bonus. A 5th level PC going against two 4th level fighter-types may work. The player has options to focus on one and hope to kill him and then the other is a lot easier.
 

Fauchard1520

Explorer
So... don't tilt it in their favor?

Typical encounter design favors the party over the monsters. You provide a bit of challenge without seriously threatening death. And when we're talking about a group overcoming challenges together, the issue of "we're stronger than the monsters mechanically" usually disappears into the details of complex combat. It's a lot harder to cover that mess up when it's just one dude fighting a single opponent.
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
Typical encounter design favors the party over the monsters. You provide a bit of challenge without seriously threatening death.

Speak for yourself. My encounters are designed to kill PCs, because the NPCs in question are trying to kill the PCs. It's up to the players to get their people out alive, and if they don't, that's on them.
 

For me, it all depends on where you set the battle. Plain flat space like a generic room or field, that's going to get boring. But set the battle in say, a library, now things get interesting. The opponents can jump to other floors via balconies, knock shelves over on each other, set books on fire (though I'd be aghast at such), and more. A good one-on-one fight (or really, any setpiece battle) should have a dynamic element that changes over its course. In the aforementioned library, maybe the fire spreads and the whole thing is on fire. Maybe the library's anti-fire magic is triggered and there's no more breathable air in the library. Maybe the security golems get activated and now both parties have to worry about those, too.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
It's a lot harder to cover that mess up when it's just one dude fighting a single opponent.

And... maybe that's okay? I am not sure that a one-on-one combat with someone that's not supposed to be a major challenge is really supposed to feel like one. Adventurers live in their worlds 24/7. They must get some ability to size up opponents, right? One-on-one, they can tell how it's going to go.

Perhaps a major point here would be to add another element to the fight that isn't fighting - time pressure is a simple one - the tension isn't about beating the opponent, but in overall avoiding some other issue, and the opponent is an added problem. So, beat this guy before help arrives, or before he can reach the bell-pull that will call the guard, or what have you.

Or the opponent otherwise plays it super-smart, avoids just standing toe-to-toe slugging it out, and instead uses terrain and movement a lot. Say you build such opponents with the ability to disengage as a bonus action, so you have to chase the jerk all over the battlefield. How does that change the nature of the fight?
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Speak for yourself. My encounters are designed to kill PCs, because the NPCs in question are trying to kill the PCs. It's up to the players to get their people out alive, and if they don't, that's on them.

With respect, he's describing encounter design as it is presented in the rules. He's not just speaking for himself, but for the game as it is presented to us.
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
With respect, he's describing encounter design as it is presented in the rules. He's not just speaking for himself, but for the game as it is presented to us.

Wouldn't he have noted that he was quoting RAW if that was what he meant?

And speaking of RAW, where does it say that? It has been a while, but IIRC that was presented as one of various models for encounter design; optional rules, IOW.
 

Fauchard1520

Explorer
Wouldn't he have noted that he was quoting RAW if that was what he meant?

And speaking of RAW, where does it say that? It has been a while, but IIRC that was presented as one of various models for encounter design; optional rules, IOW.

If the party were fighting a mirror match of themselves, it would be classed as a "deadly" encounter according to the CR system. That is indeed what I'm talking about. The odds are stacked in the party's favor. It's the basic assumptions The Alexandrian describes over here:


That's all well and good for standard play, but it's a lot harder to sweep the disparity under the rug when it's a one-on-one fight.
 

DMMike

Guide of Modos
Just use a better system than dnd, practically any other system is going to be more interesting and nuanced.
Good solution, but with two problems. 1) OP doesn't denote D&D. 2) Like sugar and religion, D&D isn't easily discarded.

Typical encounter design favors the party over the monsters. You provide a bit of challenge without seriously threatening death. And when we're talking about a group overcoming challenges together, the issue of "we're stronger than the monsters mechanically" usually disappears into the details of complex combat. It's a lot harder to cover that mess up when it's just one dude fighting a single opponent.
Okay, yeah. This sounds like a D&D discussion. And a glaring problem, to me anyway, is that there's a lot of ground between "we're stronger . . . mechanically" and "oops he's dead." Although, realistically, "oops he's dead" is a valid and persistent concern in combat.

And... maybe that's okay? I am not sure that a one-on-one combat with someone that's not supposed to be a major challenge is really supposed to feel like one. Adventurers live in their worlds 24/7. They must get some ability to size up opponents, right? One-on-one, they can tell how it's going to go.
That's definitely okay. Feeling like a hero, for some, means knowing that you can pretty easily dispatch an ogre magi, for example. And living in that world 24/7 means knowing that the Ogre Invictus has a 50/50 chance of making you, oops, dead.

D&D addresses the issue with a bevy of anti-death rules. The DM addresses the issue by making careful NPC choices and - god forbid - fudging. You could make a PC feel the pain, without the hit point loss, by inflicting one of the status conditions on him. I count 14, and that's just in the rules-light edition.
 

Speak for yourself. My encounters are designed to kill PCs, because the NPCs in question are trying to kill the PCs. It's up to the players to get their people out alive, and if they don't, that's on them.
That's just as unrealistic as all easy encounters....
Not all combats should be kill focused. In fact, most of the real world fights I've been in have been failed muggings. Usually ending badly for the muggers. None of them fatal.
Vigorous self defense resulting in injury to the attacker is pretty common.

D&D tends to have a severe kill-focus - because there's no intermediate step in the damage system.
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
That's just as unrealistic as all easy encounters....
Not all combats should be kill focused. In fact, most of the real world fights I've been in have been failed muggings. Usually ending badly for the muggers. None of them fatal.
Vigorous self defense resulting in injury to the attacker is pretty common.

D&D tends to have a severe kill-focus - because there's no intermediate step in the damage system.

My encounters aren't intended to be muggings. The only time a group of heavily armed and armored individuals gets into combat in my settings (PC groups IOW) is through contact with equally heavily armed groups motivated by political, religious, or racial beliefs; essentially on a war footing. Or war zone environment. A situation, I might add, that is familiar to both me and my players.

Bandits aren't going to attack ten PCs with a single cart; even a cursory glance will tell them it isn't worth the fight.
 
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My encounters aren't intended to be muggings. The only time a group of heavily armed and armored individuals gets into combat in my settings (PC groups IOW) is through contact with equally heavily armed groups motivated by political, religious, or racial beliefs; essentially on a war footing. Or war zone environment. A situation, I might add, that is familiar to both me and my players.

Bandits aren't going to attack ten PCs with a single cart; even a cursory glance will tell them it isn't worth the fight.
You apparently forget the idiocy of people in groups... If they're hungry, and have a 2:1 or 3:1 numerical advantage, the superior weaponry doesn't mean much to them anymore.

3:1 odds during food riots by unarmed starving people facing military hardware often lead to massacres...

And that's before adding realistic medieval hatreds and fears.
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
You apparently forget the idiocy of people in groups... If they're hungry, and have a 2:1 or 3:1 numerical advantage, the superior weaponry doesn't mean much to them anymore.

3:1 odds during food riots by unarmed starving people facing military hardware often lead to massacres...

And that's before adding realistic medieval hatreds and fears.

Starving peasants don't generally attack small groups of heavily-armed unaffiliated men who are not carrying food (never say never). But my players tend to avoid the lower quarters of any given city; they are social elitists in every setting.

Now, they have taken part (for pay) in putting down the odd peasant uprising, but that is more slaughter than combat, and I have rules for that sort of thing. Which are also useful when mopping up the non-combatants of non-humans or certain factions after the main fight.
 

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