Make D&D 5e Combat Less Boring: The DM Turn

There seems to be a lot of echoing of a single sentiment online. Dungeons and Dragons 5e combat is boring. Now whether this stems from the same-y cycle of initiative, roll attack, miss or damage, or from a lack of imagination and narrative weight in the running of combat encounters around the table is a largely moot point. That’s a conversation that you have to have with your players, and I recommend you have it sooner rather than later. Because if Google can be believed, your players are not finding the fun in Dungeons and Dragons vaunted combat system.

But have no fear! I’m going to walk you through a quick way that I’ve discovered to make combat in Dungeons and Dragons less boring, more exciting, and overall more fun. And I’m going to do it by drawing on an entirely different game!

Stay with me now, my story gets better.

I’ve talked a little bit about Dungeon World before. It’s a Powered by the Apocalypse roleplaying game with simple, punchy narrativist game mechanics that embrace collaboration and interesting ideas of what success and failure look like. On the whole, the basic move-based structure of the game is pretty cool and worth checking out. But I think what the game does really well, is codify a list of cool narrative things that good DMs do already into “GM Moves.” This is what we’re going to gleefully hijack to make combat a little more interesting for our PCs. Specifically I want to nab the following moves:

  • Reveal an Unwelcome Truth
  • Show Signs of an Approaching Threat
  • Use a Location or Danger move (Change the Environment)
  • Separate the Characters From Each Other

Dungeons and Dragons has mechanics for altering the battlespace and monkeying with the action economy, but they’re largely hidden away until the big guns come out. Legendary actions and lair actions are typically the province of big threats, and so the humble orc has to simply attack and die in their droves. It’s a pity, really. So in the spirit of making any combat dynamic, I am proposing a DM Turn.

A DM Turn occurs on initiative zero. This is the turn on which a DM may elect to use any of the following actions.

Reveal an Unwelcome Truth

These things are never a welcome truth.

Killian turns aside the orc’s cleaver with a narrow parry, and steps back far enough to see the green drip of something caustic falling from the weapon onto the floor. Your opponent is not taking any chances on you. What do you do?

This might well be any good DM’s stock and trade. The Dungeon Master who taught me this game once told me that the trick to DMing is to “put your characters up a tree, put starving wolves under the tree, and then trust them to find a way out of the tree.” I think as far as adages go, that’s pretty good.

When your DM turn comes up and you feel the momentum of the fight is lagging, it’s time to Reveal and Unwelcome Truth. The situation is already bad, because people are whaling on each other with bits of sharp metal. But it can always get worse. Poison a weapon, show a witness to the scuffle, give a sniper a clear shot. There’s some way that this melee is about to get a lot more dicey, and it will require your characters to change up their tactics.

This is what I hit on briefly in my “D&D 5e Combat is Boring” article. When you let your characters dictate the pace of the game, it’s bound to come out their way. Don’t let them have all the information, make them draw conclusions…and then use this rule to make them realize that they don’t have all the information. Being wrong leads to fun oh crap moments. Especially when they snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

The best way to Reveal and Unwelcome Truth, in my estimation, is to have the bad guys have a hidden agenda for the battle. They weren’t trying to batter the Tank into submission, they were just trying to bait him far enough away from the wizard to get him into prime polymorphing territory for the Shaman lingering at the back. Or they were trying to get them closer to the hidden pit that’s activated by that lever over there…

If it makes the characters go uh-oh, you’ve made the move correctly.

Show signs of an approaching threat

As Torbik and Nim hold their ground against the flood of bloodthirsty goblins, it becomes clear that while they scurry forth like a tide and try to hammer through your defenses, they are sneaking glances over their shoulder. Fear rather than malice flickers in their eyes. Something is right behind them. What do you do?

A wise man once said, “There’s always a bigger fish.” Nothing makes the world feel more alive than something yet worse coming along and ruining your fight. Feel free to turn this battle into a running battle. Or maybe turn it into just running. I’ve definitely started a game fighting goblins that were running from a rapidly awakening Tarrasque. Setpieces are cool, and they ratchet up the drama. Say what you will about running away as a player character in Dungeons and Dragons, but it’s rarely boring.

That’s not the only way to telegraph coming danger. Danger comes in all kinds of flavors, not just the stompy-stompy in the distance kind. It might be the first indication of reinforcements pelting down the hall. It might be the scent of poison gas being flooded through the ancient pipes. It might be the ominous cracking of the ice under your feet. Use your DM move to feed the players information that puts them off their guard.

This is what Dungeon World calls a “Soft Move.” These are GM Moves that make characters more aware of their situation, but don’t necessarily involve immediate consequences. This keeps the fiction less one-sided, and allows them a moment to act on the information before you ass-pull Godzilla and drop him into the orc-punching contest currently in progress…

Use a location or danger move/change the environment

I liked them better when they were mindless undead.

The battle rages on in the catacombs as skeletons shamble forward into your waiting blades. With a click, one of the restless dead steps on a pressure plate, and the sound of grinding stone resounds in your ears. The ceiling sprouts bristling rows of spikes and begins to descend. What do you do?

This is not a Soft Move. This is the Hard Move that follows the signs of an approaching threat as above. They smelled the poison gas, but kept punching orcs? Now the room is full of poison gas. Saving throws. Reinforcements were coming? They’re here now. Add them to the initiative tracker. Ice cracking? We’re going for a swim. Who’s in armor?

This is where you get to put in the dynamic terrain and shifting platforms and hidden snipers and gouts of fire and all the other devious dangers that make adventuring so perilous and awesome. You gave them a round or two to reevaluate the battlespace, but when initiative comes back around to zero, you get to make your move. Because the world is dangerous, otherwise everyone would be pulling treasure out of lightless crypts right?

I want to be clear, this is not meant to be punitive. This is there to support the fiction. You let your PCs see that there was something dangerous that was going to happen. You telegraphed the danger, let them see how it was going to ruin their day or change the overall structure of the encounter. If the floor is shifting into the configuration required for the Necromancer to perform his summoning, they might be seperated if they didn’t group up.

Actually, that rather leads us to…

Separate the characters from each other

Your healer’s on the other side. Best of luck.

One of the gnolls hacks at a rope and a scream of rusted metal echoes in your ears, followed by a crash as a portcullis slams down between Lugh and Siggi. You’ll have to fight alone now, or find a way to link up again. What do you do?

Don’t split the party. Unless you’re the DM. Then split the party, because they will hate it. Everyone has bought into this weird aphorism that it’s somehow virtuous to clump up as closely as possible until your adventuring party becomes an unassailable meatgrinder-turtle that hoovers up gold and leaves behind mangled orcs. But we’re talking about a game with fireballs…so, maybe it’s okay to give each other some breathing room. And enforce it by putting some kind of danger or obstacle between them.

Sometimes the danger that you telegraph is something that will split the party. Unhealthy crackling sounds from above, as stone is splintered by the blast of one of those fireballs that the party Wizard is throwing with such wild abandon. Maybe it’s the chanting of the enemy spellcaster as he summons a wall of force. Better move if you want to stick together, right?

This one, though? I think you can get away with it as a nasty surprise that isn’t telegraphed. Slam that portcullis down. Drop a slime down a chute behind the fighter as he charges into the room. Open a pit beneath the rogue as he tries to get in position behind the BBEG, and let him play with the Grey Render in there. This is a nasty hard-move, but it won’t be boring.

In Summary

Dungeons and Dragons combat can be boring when we think of an encounter as one row of hitpoints slamming against the other in a featureless room until one of the rows of hitpoints falls down. If we allow ourselves some narrative control over the situation, reflecting the changing nature of the environment and the opposition, things get much more dynamic and tactical.

Give yourself a move or two every encounter. Throw them in when it’s feeling like a standard punch-up and see if it doesn’t shake things up.

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