Making D&D 5e Combat Less Boring: Define the Stakes

Last week we talked about The DM Turn, an easy-to-implement way to ensure that your D&D Combat is more exciting than the out of the box shin-kicking contest that most games make it out to be. But it might be even simpler than I made it out to be. Most of the time, dogpiling more tactics onto this tactical wargame with RPG fittings is going to reach a point of critical mass. Goblins in a room is a bland encounter. Goblins in a room that’s on fire is fairly exciting, but you can’t burn down every dungeon. Goblins in a room that’s on fire, fleeing from an angry Bulette while trying not to lose each other as falling chunks of flaming timber rain from the ceiling in a race against time and goblins…you see where I’m going here. It takes a light touch, or every time initiative is rolled, your players are going to cringe at the thought of what new war crime you’re going to perpetrate against them. But if we can’t escalate mechanics and interlocking systems and quantify what makes an interesting encounter, what are we to do? If it’s not a “crunch” problem, let’s take a closer look at the “fluff”.

Dungeons and Dragons is full of cool fiddly mechanical bits, the crunchy stuff, right out of the box. Chainmail, it’s predecessor, was a war-game, and in many ways Dungeons and Dragons still has that pedigree baked in. There’s ranges and distances and special abilities of “units” right there in black and white. In fact, most of the Player’s Handbook is specifically stuff that you can do when the magic words, “Roll for initiative,” are uttered. The rest…is sort of folded in as a way to string these fiddly mechanical bits into a semblance of order. Basically, the roleplaying in this table-top roleplaying game is kind of a last-minute addition, a layer of extra whipped cream on this orc-punching pavlova.

One of the big failings of Dungeons and Dragons, and in many ways the reason for the wild success of Actual Plays like Critical Role, is the fact that nothing in the books tells you how to think like a storyteller. The books don’t give you a good roadmap to establishing best practices for good fiction; that is, there’s nothing in there that tells you how to make a narrative satisfying. Sure, there are tables that you can roll on that lead to adventure hooks and you can generate a pretty good dungeon crawl with the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but there’s no part of that to make your players engage with the dungeon. They can leave the beanstalk, stay in the light, decide not to piss off the ogre, walk away. That’s fine.

Nope. Nope, nope, nope.

If only the implicit expectation that “if we don’t go down this path, we’re not playing D&D tonight,” is holding your game together, you aren’t creating a story. You’re stringing together encounters. These are not the same things.

Encounters have terrain and stats and mechanics and challenge ratings. Stories have drama, periods of tension and periods of release. They make us wonder if the players will…whatever. Will our heroes overcome the savage troglodytes in the lightless world below before their shaman calls forth the killing fog? Will they sniff out the traitor before the Duke is assassinated? Will they win the trust of the Duskscale Lizard folk, or will they be turned away from the village without gaining access to the Claw Vault? I don’t know. Let’s play to find out! Because that all sounds way more fun than 5 troglodytes stand in the cavern, waiting to engage in combat with the PCs. Even if there’s an avalanche or reinforcements or whatever.

There’s a cynical part of me that says that the keys to a good narrative are hidden and jealously guarded by Wizards of the Coast to sell prepackaged campaign supplements, but that’s probably unfair. They’re offering prefabricated stories that I can only assume are tense and perilous and narratively satisfying, because people are buying them like hotcakes. If they’re not, do me a favor and let me know, because I am genuinely interested.

Look, this is a huge rant coming from a frustrated novelist about narrative weight and tension in a tabletop roleplaying game that is rapidly getting bigger than the topic at hand. Let’s pare this down to the part that you can use. Any time your characters are reaching for the d20, ask yourself what is at stake. If you can’t think of anything, you have a bad encounter. It’s that simple.

Raising Stakes

Delicious, but wrong.

When I broach this subject with new DMs, I often get the question of how any struggle to the death can be boring. They’ve created an encounter with shifting terrain and a puzzle mechanic and it’s going to bloody everyone, use up a bunch of resources, and their players are going to be terrified throughout. I wish them the best of luck in remembering all of the cool actions that their creatures are going to pull out, and I ask them why their characters are going to engage.

Typically, I get the furrowed brow and then a synopsis of the entire plot of their campaign. I smile and I nod, because there are a lot of words and I haven’t been privy to the entire game, so most of it is indistinguishable from gibberish. But, what I don’t get is what is at stake. The encounter typically involves some bads who are in an area together with some terrain features and they’re standing in the way of the party getting to the big bad guy. Or they are the big bad guy, who is waiting at the bottom of an elaborate death maze, just in case the elaborate death maze does not result in elaborate death.

Big bad has gotten the PCs adequately interested in coming and murder him, which is nice, but he’s not actually doing anything. He’s just down there waiting with his terrain and his minions and his magic items, being vaguely threatening.

Look, I’m doing a disservice focusing on the BBEG, because by the end of a campaign, if there hasn’t been anything at stake, the players continuing to show up falls under the heading of polite or miraculous. Let’s talk about the fights that lead up to that encounter with the BBEG.

Every fight where the only thing at stake is the player characters’ lives is a failure. Unless you are playing a throwback OSR dungeon crawler with high mortality and plenty of beer and pretzels, character death just isn’t that interesting. D&D 5e isn’t a particularly lethal system and heroes are going to win a lot of these fights. Probably all of them. They might have to retreat every so often, but they’re going to be few and far between. So let me say it again: every fight where the only thing at state is the player characters’ lives is a failure.

I would posit that there are more interesting narrative decisions than death. If you’re fighting to defend a tavern full of innocents from hungry zombies, there’s some narrative weight. Will our heroes get everyone through their worst night? If you’re fighting the temple guardian that knows the answer to the riddle which wards the amulet that reveals the stairs into the treasury below, you can’t just go nova and blow him up. Something is happening in both of these examples beyond two sides swinging at each other until one of them falls down.

The stakes in these scenarios –innocents in danger, access to a hidden area, etc– are stemming from something beyond the life or death of the PCs. The enemies have something that the players want or the players have something that the enemies want. This is the meat of conflict. They’ve got something, and I want it. What am I willing to do to get it? What kind of escalation might be necessary to get it? How can I leverage what I have at my disposal to get what I want? I’m sure there’s all manner of ways you can twist that into a satisfying encounter. But it’s not the only thing that works. Think about motives that put your players in the way of your villains, or vice versa. It’s motive that makes a battle interesting, because it makes the conflict feel believable in a way that troglodytes waiting for inevitable combat does not.

These wrinkles in the narrative are what make the actual encounter memorable. They’re the most difficult barrier to entry because they require more than dropping kobolds on your party until your party begs for mercy.

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