D&D 5e Combat is Boring
Yeah, I said it. The world’s most popular role playing game is, throughout its prodigious page count, about 75% combat rules (citation needed). There are rules for swinging your sword, rules for firing a bow at range, pages and pages of rules for magic, and every character is largely differentiated by the cool things they can do in combat. Now, this is not a rebuke or an overly vitriolic critique of someone who has jumped the gate to other systems. It’s not just a rebuke anyway. I think most of those things are cool. But, these rules are restrictive.
Make no mistake, Dungeons and Dragons bills itself as a roleplaying game, and it has taken great strides back toward the adjudication of a good GM rather than a tome of rules for grappling that should come with a flowchart. However, Dungeons and Dragons is still a small unit tactics game at its heart. When most of the book is about hitting folks, positioning, spell radii, etc, you get a sense of what is important to the system.
So why does D&D combat feel so samey after a while? Why, despite the set dressing that a talented DM can bring to the table, does it largely come back to “I hit him,” or “I miss…who’s next?” Because despite the amount of cool things with rules, you can only do so much before you’ve done it all. A Fighter is going to hit things with swords, the Wizard is going to cast Fireball (because it’s objectively the best spell in their toolkit pretty often), and the Warlock is probably going Eldritch Blast. What they might be hitting, or blasting, will change. The scenery will skew. Maybe there will be a chasm, or a hill, or a cauldron of boiling oil. But an orc is an orc is an orc. They can be played intelligently, and maybe you’ve got a tactics monster behind your DM screen. It can be tense, and it can be fun. But you’re going to roll the d20 and you will hit or miss.
“But Drake?” I hear you saying, “that’s how tabletop roleplaying games are played.” I get it. It feels like a needless gripe. Of course you hit or miss, of course the drama is contingent on the roll of the die. But after the thousandth orc, you start getting this weird ennui where the combats blend together. Your party has tried and true tactics for every beastie in your monster manual. This is the rut. We do not like ruts. Those stories have already been told.
This is where someone has to go gonzo. This is heroic fantasy, and that means it has to be exciting. If it’s going to be exciting, it has to be a little unexpected. The owlbear is going to claw and bite, sure. But they all do that. Your characters are going to kite it around, or let the big guy grapple it, or whatever your crew’s modus operandi dictates. They’ve got the tools that the book explicitly tells them they have. They’re trusting that the owlbear has the tools that the book explicitly tells them it has. Let’s workshop it, instead.
In your prep, when you’re choosing your monsters, drooling over special abilities, think of three tags for each. Things that are essential to what makes them monsters. For an Owlbear, I’m going to scribble down savage, crafty, and unnatural. Savage, obviously, is an apt descriptor for something that the sourcebook describes as a consummate predator. Crafty, because it has enough intelligence to have an established hunting ground, and places to hide its kills. Aberrant was one that took a moment to refine…its unclear if an owlbear is indeed a magical experiment gone awry or a creature the took a peculiar evolutionary path, but I like to think that there’s a magical forebear somewhere. I can take those and run some special attacks to emphasize the narrative of what makes the owlbear something other than stats.
Assume a standard encounter in the woods. Our heroes are resting for the night, and they’ve left one of their own on watch around the fire. There are rules for surprise in the book (as with just about everything) that get forgotten in the rush for the magic words “roll initiative.” Don’t do that. It changes the scene that you’re setting. If the Owlbear succeeds on surprising the character on watch, it’s got a moment to exploit the opening.
So, what do you do when you’ve got a moment for your baddie to take the upper hand? Sure, you can charge and get that awesome claw/bite combo in on the lone watcher. Then the scuffle will rouse the others, and combat will become a train of “I swing. I hit–I swing, I miss–He swings, and hits.” It’s the same old mambo.
But look, even something decidedly unmagical (pay no attention to the mad wizard who got the owl and bear to listen to Barry White together) like an owlbear can change the battlespace. Battles don’t occur in a white room. They can, but they’re boring. What if that owlbear tackles the watcher into the fire, gets little damage in, and manages to snuff out the light. It’s a consummate predator and this isn’t the first hunting party it has eaten. It’s savage, so it doesn’t care if it gets singed so long as the light gets snuffed and we can drag away an easy meal. If the PC isn’t aware, go ahead and give them disadvantage on a Dexterity save against the damage and the grapple. We’re off and rolling! Have that owlbear try and drag that PC off into the forest. Your PCs will hate it. They’ll remember it.
Or maybe you realize that everyone and their half-dragon mother has low-light vision. Change the battlespace some other way. Have your murderous beastie hurl a beehive into the middle of the clearing. It’s crafty, it knows the forest, and how it can take advantage of the tools it has to hand. Enraged bees make the area into difficult terrain, or fouls the aim of your ranged damage dealers. Sting folks for nickels and dimes whenever they take the move action within the radius of the swarm. Don’t be over nasty with it, have the swarm dissipate as the combat grinds out. And keep it fair, maybe the owlbear takes a little damage as it moves too.
It’s a magical beast, too. A monstrosity, sure, but that feels like a fine distinction. Lets give it some kind of magical firepower, a memory of the Feywild where the fey say that owlbears have always existed. Maybe it can conjure a mist to obscure itself when things get dicey. Perhaps its blood deals retributive damage when the heroes engage it in melee. Maybe it hawks up exploding owl-pellets…I’m just riffing here.
These are grounded examples of a creature taking advantage of the environment. They avoid the pitfall of the D&D standard, “I hit them.” You don’t have to make it a turn by turn strategy, but every fight that is a train of d20 hit and miss is a step toward embracing the boredom of stock Dungeons and Dragons combat. And if you’re anything like me, it gets old real fast.