D&D (2024) The Focus Fire Problem


Morale rules might also be a solution here as well. In the old AD&D morale rules, any critter that hit half hp started making morale checks on each subsequent hit. There were also other triggers like losing half your forces (and losing 3/4 IIRC) plus some other odds and sods. I found in 5e, that a simple DC 10 Wis save (or pick a different stat if you like) worked really well here. Suddenly spreading fire around made a bit difference because you could literally win the encounter without actually fighting the majority of the baddies. Add in a save every time a baddie fails a morale check and you can have a sort of route situation where it chain reacts. One baddy loses morale and runs, triggering morale checks from others, and then you hit a situation where you're triggering all sorts of morale checks, even though you aren't dealing significant damage.

Totally bypasses the "must do as much damage as possible to a single target" because killing one baddy without making it run away doesn't really help you anywhere near as much as damaging a bunch of baddies and then making them run en masse.

4e had an additional little goodie where you could trigger a morale check with a Charisma check (IIRC).

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I don't like that intention. This is why I houseruled no dex bonus beyond 30ft.
better way would be to teach players/npc's to search for cover/breaking line of sight.

In one dungeon, we advanced toward a kobold bunker with a dinning table in front of us for total cover so we could avoid ranged attacks while we closed distance.


One thing that helps is encounter design. If you split up the enemy into two groups, the melee characters will generally split as well. The ranged characters then have to either leave one PC to handle a group by themselves or split their fire as well. If the melee characters don't split, the second group will force the ranged characters into melee. If the ranged characters continue to focus fire, the lone PC needs to be a badass to keep standing. In case the party decides to stay put, you need to have ranged attackers and have the melee enemy move to attack the squishiest PC.

Tales and Chronicles

Jewel of the North, formerly know as vincegetorix
MY main trick is:
1) Give monsters more forced movement, dragging the PCs left and right to split the group and butcher them each in their corner.
2) Give your BBEG a mass attack so that if the PCs group around it, they all get smashed. You can also give them a Charge Through feature that let them disengage with a big damage bonus if they are overwhelmed. Or a Frenzy feature that let them gain more Reactions + a Retaliation the more PCs there is around them. Or a Burning/Acidic wounds, making that each it is hit, all PC within X takes Y damage.
3) Make sure your other minions have minimal HP yet deal a good amount of damage, so that they are hard to just ignore.

Anything you do to "fix" this behavior will feel artificial. I'd rather not encourage spreading out fire through the rules because I am finding it difficult to imagine rules to encourage that behavior which won't also make it feel more like a board game than an RPG.
I mean, the focus-fire behaviour is board game behaviour. It's entirely artificial. Focus fire isn't a real thing in real person-level combat , because in actual combat, if you all try to kick one guy in, you get stabbed in the back and die. D&D 5E has no simulation of the latter, having abandoned flanking, firing into melee, and similar rules.

It's not even viable in most videogames except those distantly derived from D&D (like most MMORPGs).

Basically the issue is two-fold, and mostly about monster design:

1) Enemies gain no meaningful benefits in 5E when "left alone". In 3E, because you got AoO'd if you tried to cast or shoot ranged attacks whilst engaged, there was at least a reason to engage people and spread out melees (though ranged/casters still typically focus fire'd). Most enemies in 5E will do exactly the same thing whether someone is in their face or not - Ranged enemies often get Disadvantage but they tend to be pretty nasty in melee (sometimes truly unnecessarily so), or have ways to get away (if they're serious), so it's not a big deal.

2) D&D 5E is about giant "bag of HP" enemies, moreso than any other edition (yes including 4E). Even relatively low-end enemies can have high double-digit HP, and triple-digit HP come in surprisingly early.

It's worth noting 5E has the "focus fire" issue worse than any previous edition (including 4E), and I think most of that is down to "bag of HP" factors, but also players are just smarter tactically (not strategically, tactically) now than they were twenty years ago - I think this is largely down to videogames derived from D&D (all of which rely on "bag of HP", none of which really penalize enemies for being in melee) teaching them to play that way.

A lot of the "solutions" people are proposing are hilariously unrealistic, I note. This isn't a melee thing, and punishing melee characters further in 5E is incredibly silly. Focus-fire is from melee and ranged working together. If it's just melee there are tons of simple issues it creates, like enemies just dropping AOEs (esp. CC) on them. But in the actual game it's usually the ranged working with the melee - or only the ranged focus-firing because the melee are trying to tank (something no-one is all that great at in 5E, given the lack of Feats at low levels). Indeed, in the games I play in this is what we usually see - the melee split up a bit to try and tank and/or harass enemy ranged whilst the ranged just systematically kill everything.

Re: using it on the PCs, you absolutely can and it's extremely effective, but it feels like absolute crap for the player being subjected to it, esp. if you do it repeatedly, esp. if they're not a "tanky" PC. So that's a great way to make your game un-fun, but not a real solution. It was a legit tactic in 4E where there were counters and other issues, but there aren't many counters in 5E (and the few that there are for casters only), so if you have a fair few ranged and just have them "focus down" the PCs it's probably going to work great. Hope you enjoy murder-eyes from your players and them probably stopping coming to your sessions if you keep doing it repeatedly (DMs have a massive advantage here in that they can freely plan encounters and if their monsters get killed, well, that's what's supposed to happen).
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D&D favors that kind of tactic- monsters operate at 100% until they drop dead, and they can usually withstand the damage output from several PCs before dropping. In a system where one hit can disable an opponent, you would see PCs picking individual targets, only focusing fire on heavily armored or difficult to hit targets.
This was going to be my answer before I saw @RuinousPowers answered it for me.

Only way to get rid of focus fire is to reduce target effectiveness as they get more hurt. But that creates more bookkeeping for everyone and also creates the dreadly "death spiral" everyone's always going on about.

This situation is one of those times where D&D has been designed to highlight the game rather than the story. The story of a more "real-to-life" group battles would have everyone splitting off. But that is not how D&D combat has ever been built to truly replicate. It has been built for a more easily-run system. I mean heck... there used to be people complaining all the time in previous editions about the game grinding to a halt when PCs ost levels or STR points or CON points or whatever during a battle (due to monster abilities) and they were forced to try and recalculate their character sheets in the middle of combat. So adding those same sorts of recalculations into 5E to make players want to target more enemies at the same time to reduce their effectiveness just seems a lot of work for what would probably end up being little gain.

Focus fire is a game convention we've always accepted. And while spreading out might be nice from a narrative perspective... I don't think the rules needed to do so would be worth it, personally.


Focused fire is something that used to annoy me, but I mostly made peace with it. Focused fire is made possible mostly because of two things:

1) enemies are easy to ignore
2) ranged attacks can be made in melee with impunity. In that I include the fact that AoO spells like fireball can be positioned with precision, affecting enemies but not allies.

If one sees this as a problem, it is further exacerbated by that fact that characters tend to be hyper-specialized: the archer will still want to shoot in melee because that’s the thing their character is made to do and are suboptimal in other domains (such as melee combat). Few characters are made to be flexible and adapt to different strategies (and those that are tend to be spellcasters, but that is another issue).

Therefore, the answer to focused fire would be rules that give some kind of advantage to enemies that are « ignored » and some kind of disadvantage or risks for firing in melee. This would tie-in well with some sort of easily avoidable flanking rules which mostly would come into effect if you ignore enemies and allow them to flank you.

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