Five Tricks to Fix That Fight Flow 7

There’s a lot of commentary online about speeding up D&D fights by tweaking the math – decreasing enemy hit points and increasing damage output. To be blunt, I think this is all wrong-headed, as long as the monster you’re using isn’t poorly designed from the start. (I did just have a nasty run-in, from the DM side, with a poorly-designed monster, but that’s another story.) What you need to do is change things up mid-fight. In this post, I’m looking at five strong moves to get rid of the feeling that you’re chopping down a tree full of hit points.

The Problem

The core to the feeling of grindy fights, I believe, comes from standing in the same place, making the same attack(s) or casting the same cantrip, targeting the same enemy, more than two rounds in a row. Once is fine, our brains still basically accept twice, but if you haven’t changed position, tactics, or target in three consecutive rounds, I think we become (consciously or not) irritated with the sameness. (It’s also one of the essential challenges of entertaining archers and eldritch blast spammers.) If the players have no option but to deal damage that they know is going to be resisted, that’s obviously exacerbating the problem both mathematically and emotionally.

My recent experience here was in my Birthright 5e game, in which the players fought a bunch of skeletons and shadow skeletons (Creature Codex, Kobold Press) in a dungeon with a lot of rooms connected by 5-ft-wide doorways. In a party with a Glory paladin, a Battlesmith artificer, a Eloquence bard, and a War cleric, this meant that the party could turn the encounters into a series of door fights. That is, it becomes harder for the skeletons to use their advantage of numbers. Then the dice went colder than cold on both sides, and… well, there ain’t a lot you can do about that.

Or is there? Let’s spin this out.

1. For the Love of God, No Door Fights

This isn’t a solution if you’re already in the situation, but if you want to avoid grind, do whatever you can to avoid a fight taking place right around a door. It’s one of those things that is practical for the outnumbered side, or the side with stronger ranged options, to choose. But it works because it chokes off the tempo of the fight.

In my particular use case, I had skeletons move to flank the PCs, because the rooms were interconnected in such a way that it was even an option. Did this solve my problem?

Well… no. Now I just had two simultaneous door fights and deeply improbable dice rolls. There may just be no solution to everyone rolling south of a 7 on a d20, round over round. I even tried changing up tactics – going for grapples to drag the PCs out of their defensible position. I just couldn’t win a contested Strength (Athletics) check any more than I could make a good attack roll. (The fact that the Glory paladin was running Peerless Athlete didn’t help, but technically it didn’t hurt either.)

2. Throw Someone Off a Building

In other sessions, I’ve had boss fights with phenomenal numbers of hit points avoid any feeling of grind. My favorite trick is to have my Large, high-Strength boss pick up one of the melee PCs who is beating on them (grapple or Shove check, if they don’t have a grab attack), then throw them off a tall building. Most of my game takes place in a city, so a lot of fights happen on rooftops. For non-urban games, build your encounter areas with height differences, such as chasms or rocky promontories, off of which someone could be thrown. Give the PCs a chance to do some of that throwing or pushing!

Think of it this way. The grapple or shove represents a sudden pivot in the villain’s tactics (interesting in its own right), the contested roll offers a tension cycle, and if PC isn’t thrown immediately, that’s a moment to worry about what’s coming next. When they’re thrown, that’s a change of position and circumstances that requires a new plan and strongly rewards mobility powers – whether that’s misty step, a climbing speed, or just an active haste spell. Don’t keep doing this to the same character over and over again, of course. Ideally, the boss can either start focusing attacks on a different melee character, or can start wrecking the ranged attackers.

3. Send in the Clowns Minions

A boss with a special way to withdraw and send in minions extends the fight in real rounds, compared to standing there and letting themselves get stabbed to death – but a dynamic fight that takes 6-8 rounds is a better experience than a static fight than takes 3-4. Minions are a change in targeting, tactics, and possibly positioning, if the defenders need to move to engage an onrushing horde and block them from swarming the casters and archers. It should also eat up a few more spells for when the boss comes in for their next (presumably final) phase.

If you’re into phased fights, of course, you need to be checking out Mythic Odysseys of Theros, which introduce Mythic actions on top of Legendary.

In theory, Lair Actions should be doing a lot of this work, but they wind up mostly being an environmental situation you can’t do a lot about (in the general implementation), so they’re a timer on the fight (because they cost healing) and a drain on resources (including the DM’s mental resources), but not a solution to grind as such. They do help a lot in discouraging the players from turtling in a more-defensible position.

4. Destroy Some Terrain

Hey, you know how it’s a Cool Tech Thing when video games have destructible terrain? Did you know that shit is free in tabletop games, because our image-rendering technology is either “another line of narration” or “another line with a dry/wet-erase marker”? It’s true! (Harder if you’ve poured your life savings into Dwarven Forge or other terrain, as I… too-quickly deny having done.)

The reasons you want to do this are basically two-fold. One, it represents change – a new opportunity or threat, maybe opening a new room or destroying the cover the warlock or ranger is hiding behind. Maybe it creates difficult terrain, exposes the place a character is standing to the risk of a falling ceiling, or makes a pipe start venting steam. Two, it sells the enemy’s destructive potential, especially if the enemy hasn’t yet landed a hit. It’s so important to signal danger to the PCs, all the more if they are in over their heads. Read or watch a superhero comic, TV show, or movie, and look for how they use collateral damage.

…damaging a steam pipe absolutely would have worked with what had been established in that Birthright session, and I am so mad that it’s only now occurring to me.

5. Give the Villain a Fallback Position

There’s a longstanding trend in dungeon design to put your main showdown in the last room, and have all paths through the dungeon funnel toward that room. There are good reasons to do this, such as making sure that player choice doesn’t get trampled or allowed to ruin the players’ fun. What I’m saying is, give the villain another room to withdraw to, with a contrasting set of tactical considerations from the first room. Vampires do this by default – fight, gaseous form, coffin, new fight.

To make this even happen, you may need to give the boss a special feature to support it, such as a way to break out of stuns and escape. (See the addendum on stuns, below.) Extra hit points help, but what’s even better is going back to 4e solo mechanics and using bloodied as a reaction trigger to end conditions, give the boss a free Disengage, and let them move immediately. I’m once again asking you to accept the idea that something stretching the fight out can still make it feel faster. Everyone’s excitement in the moment creates that feeling of flow and leaves the impression of something more epic. Critical Role is a perfect example of how a longer fight with twists and turns, rising and falling tension (mostly rising), feels better to everyone.

Addendum on Stunning Strike

If you’ve had a 6th+ monk in your party for any length of time, you’ve probably seen just how harshly Stunning Strike can drain away Legendary Resistances and lock down a target. I strongly recommend assigning bosses a variant of Legendary Resistance, such that if they spend a Legendary Resistance to resist a condition, they succeed all saving throws against that condition for 1 minute. If that’s too bold for you, you can solve the very worst abuses of Stunning Strike by reducing the duration of that immunity to “until the end of their next turn.”

There are a lot of nuances there that you can tweak, but right now I like that one. Steering the monk away from almost-exclusive reliance on Stunning Strike in climactic fights is, in this writer’s opinion, restoring design intent.

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7 thoughts on “Five Tricks to Fix That Fight Flow

  • Stephen

    IDK for number 2. As the melee guy that got punted off the building in said boss fight, my feelings were less, “this is more fun than just chopping the boss like a dense tree,” and more, “why do I only get to act once every three rounds while the ranged characters get to act every round?” I think you may be overestimating the abilities of melee characters to acquire mobility options in 5e. I’m probably the *best* suited melee character in the group for getting back into melee quickly, even up a building, but I can’t Misty Step or anything.

    So I think if you’re going to use that tactic, you need to have an equal number of fights where *range* is super inconvenient (e.g., a slowly retreating fight through winding passages where it’s easier for the melee guys to just keep moving back into range, but harder for the ranged characters to reposition to get a clean line of fire).

    • Brandes Stoddard Post author

      That’s a very good point. For creature and encounter area design in general, it’s a lot easier to inconvenience melee than ranged, as years of WoW raiders will tell you.

      • Tomas GR

        With good enough level design you can machinate something to damage ranged PCs or to keep them on their toes. WoW does this a lot, especially with flying stress of effect for the ranged PCs to avoid.
        I’ve once created a boss monster that could create a poisonous cloud that moved on initiative 0 (similar to a Lair Action). If players remained on it at the end of their turn they lose HP. Are the PCs going back and forth to the same places? Do something for the ground to break! >:)

  • Duncan

    Hey Brandes, great topic for discussion, I hope you don’t mind me sharing my thoughts too.

    One thing I would question right away, is if the players also feel the combat is a grind in these situations? As a DM I’m guilty of losing interest in a fight once the PCs have clearly won, which is often only half way through the fight (after that I often drop all descriptions and just count the hp… which I’m training myself not to do). But as a player, even an easy fight can keep me entertained. Killing a few bad guys without being drained of too many resources is quite a fun exercise of muscle flexing. Not all the time of course, you need the epic ‘this could go either way’ fights, but in your example I wouldn’t be surprised if those players got a bit of kick from holding the doors, and that it was more of a grind for you than them. I could be wrong of course, but something to consider!

    Regardless of that consideration, some fights DO undeniably get boring. Some thoughts on points 2-5

    2. The shove attack is perfect for this and underused. I totally agree fights near any kind of drop take on a new drama, which the villains have to exploit (as well as the heroes). The problem is the shove is just 5 feet, which sometimes isn’t enough… although you could do it twice potentially! I like to give larger creatures on advantage on these types of check, as their epic strength isn’t really reflected in their Strength scores. Or maybe a shove attack by a large creature automatically throws you back 10 feet? On the other hand falls that lead to certain death don’t tend to be enjoyed by players so much! (Regarding grapple… in RAW it’s really about just grabbing a piece of your opponent and stopping them moving, rather than grabbing them / lifting them / restraining them).

    3. Agreed minions are a must… the classic party vs. BBG is the fight scene most in danger of turning into the slog you are talking about. If the minions have some cool special abilities all the better. I feel like enemy casters really help bring versatility and unpredictability to combat.

    4. Yes yes yes… even better if the destruction endangers the party more than the monsters. Poisonous gas seeping into room when the creature they are fighting is immune to poison.

    5. Agreed, although you should avoid planning for the villain to escape, because, as you say, the PCs may have skills to prevent such an escape and they will feel cheated if you ‘make it happen’.

    I would add another point, and that is try to give each combat an objective beyond killing their opponents. Examples: disarming the bad guy of a magic item, saving an ancient codex from burning in a fire, ensuring innocent bystanders are not harmed, disrupting a ritual that will summon a demon etc. etc.


    ps. I’m DMing a monk PC with stunning strike… we’re playing with RAW as its a playtest for an adventure I will publish, but usually I would house rule that it can only be used once a round or turn, which is similar to what you suggest, but also stops the monk running around the battlefield stunning everyone on the first round of combat (more on this post

  • Tomas GR

    Great article! Have you found any solution to the Door Fights problem besides restructuring the dungeon from the ground up? I did a dungeondelving one shot some weeks ago and the players used that tactic in ALL fights. They felt the module went too easy, and I didn’t know how to change the situation once they kept right next to the door

    • Brandes Stoddard Post author

      The thing to remember about door fights is that one or both sides are probably clustered for the AoE as a result. So even some of the lesser AoEs, like thunderwave or shatter, may prove extra-efficient in such scenes.

      If you can come up with terrain-linked forms of AoE, such as puncturing a steam pipe to fill the room with scalding steam, that may be even better, though you can’t necessarily keep doing that round after round without straining credulity.

      • Ray

        The door problem seems heavily dependant on the intelligence and tactics of the opposing baddies. In an attritional grind like this, I often have intelligent foes make an organized retreat to a more favorable room or environment if possible – similar to your suggestion about multiple boss environments. Better yet is when part of the opposing force can sneak around to flank – think goblins in a maze of tunnels that only they know best. With skeletons operating without an intelligent controller though… Not so many tactical options…