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I've been a Game Master for about 5 years now and I've mantained the same group of players for that long, we're all young gamers (I being the oldest with 22 years old) and since we're not from USA we can tell for sure we're the only roleplayers in town, and there's no place to learn here but Stack Exchange and Forums.

Thru my Game Mastery experience I've played Anima: Beyond Fantasy, Dungeons and Dragons 4e, Pathfinder, Savage Worlds and Fate Accelerated; our favorite and most used system is Savage Worlds, it's our pick to go for 90% of the games we play, we all know the rules and like its simplicity and ease.

However I've always met the same issue regardless of the system: my players would rather play a full interpretative session than a battle. As long as we hit the battleground, they become iddle, focus on how the snacks taste, our school life, or simply stare at how pretty the Sculpey creatures we made are.

I can picture great combats on my head, against larger than life monsters, vehicles, large scale powers, etcetera. But my players just don't focus on enjoying the battle, they just want to end it real quick... and sometimes I get why they're bored with my battle designs and I tell them "Ok let's skip this, beast is dead...".

I don't have enough imagination for scenarios, and my players are too narrow minded; they ALWAYS forget skills are used in battle regardless of the system, so i pretty much lost interest on creating skill based encounters, also, it doesn't matters if I put pools of lava, creeping thorn vines, explosive mushrooms or snow, we all forget about those features and we just stop caring about difficult terrain, traps, etc. Actually they seem to not like those features.

Lately my battles have been taking place in more and more boring environments, and battles get reduced to both sides not moving, shooting or attacking each other without even walking and then we end with a sigh...

The best battle I've ever made (and the only good one) was against a colossal flying armored jellyfish called Gomozoa as they rode a battle airship and tried not to get devoured by the ting or fall to their doom. I don't know how on earth I made it but they pretty much prolonged the battle for the sake of fun since we were incredibly excited. I just can't make that battle happen again, I've tried similar themes but they were as boring as the latest battles and we're still here playing "Final Fantasy: Legends of Sigh".

I know I can attract them to a battle cuz I've done it before.

We're about to start a new game with Savage Worlds, using the "Agents of Oblivion" manual and a homebrew rule that will let them turn into colossal armors for a limited time like in "White Knight Chronicles". It's gonna be about agents of an old order that can enter an alternate world of horrors thru mirrors and water, saving our modern world from creepypasta-like creatures.

I will need all the helo and tips I can to create interesting battles, so, enlighten me :)

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9 Answers 9

Colossal armor is not going to fix it

Colossal armor is Spectacle, but once the idea has worn off the combat will be exactly the same. The PC's abilities to become giant and fight other giants will not really offer any difference in the way they fight. They could pick up and throw a building, but they could do the same thing on a smaller scale with a rock. Now if they were fighting giant, armor clad enemies as regular sized people things could certainly get interesting.

"Terrain is often of more value than bravery....Bravery is of more value than numbers." - Sun Tzu

Your original instinct to use terrain was right, terrain can and should shape every combat that occurs. If the party isn't using the terrain, the enemies certainly should. Anything with the intelligence level of a wild predator (like a wolf) or higher should be able to utilize the terrain in some way, sentient creatures and people should especially make use of it to gain advantage in combat. For example if your players are able to flank enemies that were behind cover those enemies should probably be Shaken as their safe position is now exposed.

Combat encounters are their own story vignettes

Too often people view action and story as being separate (this is an issue in books, films, and RPGs) and that the two don't mix well. The opposite is in fact true. The best action scenes are those where plot development and characterization is actively ongoing. Likewise each combat should have its own mini story arch with a rise and fall in tension as it goes on. For example, the party has just arrived at an abandoned warehouse they suspect the enemies of using as safehouse. The party attacks them and they begin to lose numbers and start retreating, the party rushes forward to capitalize on this and finds themselves ambushed by reinforcements the enemies called in. Now they need to escape, they pull back into the warehouse and are followed, as they reach the other side they explode some fuel tanks and light the building on fire cutting off enemy pursuit as they disappear into the night.

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+1, but could expand on the 'terrain' heading a bit more, or rather, actually talk about what kinds of terrain accentuate a combat and why. Could also make clearer in 'story vignette' section how you move as a GM from step to step in telling a story during an action scene, wordless narrative, etc. –  Jack Lesnie May 1 at 21:48
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Okay, so before I get into the meat of the question there are a few preliminary checks that need to be carried out....

Have you asked your players why they don't seem to enjoy combat? Their answer to this question is key, and is almost certainly one hundred times more valuable than anything you're going to get on this or another site. Maybe they simply don't do roleplaying for combat and instead prefer character development stuff. Maybe the reason for their lack of enjoyment is something really easy for you to fix. The thing is, until you ask you just don't know....

If you find out that they simply aren't interested in combat then you need to come to some kind of compromise, because as GM you clearly are.

Right, assuming we've established that there is something fixable in what you're doing and that players would be interested in the right kind of combat, here are some suggestions. Some of these are general, some are Savage Worlds specific.

Make combat matter to the story and give it context

Savage Worlds does not give experience points for killing monsters, which is really important as it severs the link between levelling up and fighting. This means that you only need to include the fights that move the story forward or are in some other way actually important.

Make sure there is a good reason for the fighting, and try to ensure that the characters care about the result. Fighting a random filler group of agents is very different from battling tooth and nail to prevent Dr. Evil and his minions from implementing a plan to wipe out the PC's families.

Make combat dangerous

If players perceive no threat to their characters during a fight then they are going to be less engaged in what is going on. On the flip side, if there is a real danger their characters could be injured or die, they will naturally care more about it. It's important to mix up the lethality of fights to keep players on their toes.

Lead by example

If you treat combat as boring and don't do interesting stuff, your players won't either. Specifically:

  • try not to fall back on non-descriptive, mechanical descriptions of character actions and results. If you find these difficult to come up with on the spot then prepare them in advance and jot them down ready to use
  • use all of the tactics available to you and make the NPCs seem as intelligent and cunning as they should be. In Savage Worlds this means Agility and Smarts tricks, Intimidations and Taunts, Pushes and Trips, Called Shots, Ganging Up, Wild Attacks etc etc. Show the players how effective and interesting these can be in the best way you can – by hurting their characters using the tactics. You'll be amazed at how quickly they catch on and start using them. When players start using these tactics it will quickly increase their characters' efficiency, which will in turn speed combat up anyway.
  • give the NPCs life and make sure their actions make sense. A pack of wolves uses different tactics to a criminal mastermind and his cronies.

Make sure that not all your fights are to the death

Most semi-intelligent foes will run away or surrender when they are doing badly.

Use henchmen

Savage Worlds fights come into their own when there's a lot of stuff going on, as the rules scale well as combatant numbers increase. The most tedious fights tend to be those where its the PCs against 1 or 2 foes. The better ones are when there is a mass of henchmen and chaos ensues.

You don't have to limit this to enemy NPCs either. Give the PCs some allies and spread them amongst the players to control.

Make the situation interesting

A flat piece of ground with no cover and nothing dynamic going on is generally going to be dull. Add stuff that players can use, and make sure your NPCs also use it.

Make sure you've got the rules right

Combat in Savage Worlds is brutal and quick. Most fights I have don't last beyond 3 or 4 rounds, and those that do tend to be the really climactic ones that end a story arc. It is very easy to misinterpret Savage Worlds attack and damage rules so that it makes it much harder to damage the opponent, which can turn it into a boring grind. It is worth you heading over to the official forum and reading through some of the posts there to make sure you've got it right.

Add a sprinkle of non-combat stuff during the fight

Use dramatic tasks, social combat etc during some fights to really mix things up. Get familiar with the chase rules as well. These can make a real difference and keep combat fresh and interesting.

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-1: Disagree intensely with this phrase. "If you find out that they simply aren't interested in combat then you need to come to some kind of compromise, because as GM you clearly are." 'Combat' scenes are not inherently different to any other part of the story. If pepole are enjoying other story elements but not that, either they are pathological pacifists, or you are performing those scenes to a lower standard. Good advice otherwise, but that bit krulls it. –  Jack Lesnie May 1 at 21:44
    
In that case we will just have to agree to disagree. From personal and other GM's experience, some players simply don't enjoy combat :o) –  Phil May 1 at 22:07
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The keyword on battle-making in RPG's in general is "Awesomeness": Battles must be really enjoyable to your group, hit their sweetspot for fun and be memorable for years to come. They must feel epic, important, and deep in character-development terms.

Of course, achieving this is hard as hell.

Groups tend in general to lean against certain playstyles. If your group seens more "Role" (narrativistic) than "Game" (gamist) on the RPG aspects, that can be a signal they value plot above all else and battles for battles sakes may not be a wise move.

In this case, be sure to avoid non-plot battles. Make sure they WANT to enter the battle and that the battle is unique. That can be done on several ways:

  • First, make them hate the villain. Make the "target" of the battle someone despicable, someone they eager to kill.
  • Second, make battles distinct. Look for different battlefields, like erupting volcanoes, sinking ships, moving sky platforms, a plane-shifting battlefield...
  • Third, make the battle fast. Tons of things must be happening at the same time. Rocks falling, enemies screaming, things blasting up. Try to keep the battle short, but with tons of things happening at the same time. That will spice them up for the next battle.
  • And Lastly, don't press on on things that they don't like. Don't put battles for the sake of battles. If you DO have an awesome battle in mind, use it. Otherwise, don't put something boring at the table. For your group, it seens that no battle is better that boring battles.
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Another thing I forgot to add: I dislike straightforward enemies. I've tried to add puzzle-like enemy battles but in the end I make objectives either very obscure or too obvious, rendering them frustrating or... yeah boring -.- –  user9629 Apr 30 at 16:54
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Good Fight Scenes Are Not Boring

This seems like an obvious thing, but it often is not. Any fight scene should be considered not in terms of 'rounds' or 'hp damage' or anything of that nature, but in time around the table. The typical DnD round takes at least ten minutes. Every ten minutes, at least one interesting thing must happen for something to be interesting. Really, the rate should be much higher.

That means that in DnD, something interesting must occur at least once a round. 'Someone hitting someone else with a sword' is not interesting. Someone spending 5 minutes describing their awesome fireball is not interesting. Jumping around a room is not interesting.

The Elements of Interesting

For something to be interesting, it must comprise three things.

  1. It must be visually exciting. The wuxia swordsman flying across the room, his robes fluttering in the breeze, sword extended before him rod-straight? That looks cool. The dragon sorcerer gathering the flame from the braziers and rearing back to hurl it at the party? That looks cool. The silk banners fluttering in the wind as the daimyo rises from his throne of iron to confront the party who have just kicked in his front door? That. looks. cool. 'A dragon appears' is not cool. 'He is a chinese kung fu swordsman' is not cool. 'The daimyo stands up' is not cool. Visual excitement is a meld of thinking of interesting details and describing them in an engaging way. Think of taking public speaking courses, and try to visualize the area, the enemies, they way they move and fight, and the type of things they might attempt before any combat scene.
  2. It must be dangerous. The players should feel that there are many dangers, and that any might kill their characters. And they should feel this in a way that makes it visceral, that causes them to briefly forget that they are not their characters and that they are suffering no risks. Many dangers; terrain dangers, time dangers, enemies with specific skills that feel dangerous (things that the players feel that if they miss a beat will kill them, even if they won't).
    ((Example: Dragon Breath in DnD is not dangerous because the damage is not enough to kill most players outright. Make it scary by setting a dragon on an already wounded party, or having an NPC they know is tough immolated outright by dragon fire they all barely dodge.))
    ((Note: Rules Lawyers: If they argue, grin and say 'this is not the dragon presented in the rulebook. It works differently'.))
    ((Note: Being inconsistent with the rules you set, however, will make people lose any sense of danger as they will feel it is all up to the GM's whim, and outside their control.))
  3. Lastly, they must have a sense of momentum. Time must not linger on any specific 'stage' or 'part' of the fight. Enemies must be defeated, location must change, final forms must be revealed, buff spells must be cast, monologues must be entered into, and exciting things must happen. If the momentum flags, so too will interest. Momentum alone cannot compel interest, but without it, you cannot have interest at all.

For nearly any non-diceless system, I will add a further Proviso - Any action or description taken that incorporates the elements of the above must have a mechanical effect. Not tying your description and design into mechanics, however you twist, modify, or homebrew them, will result in failure and a feeling that the events are again, a matter purely of GM fiat and remove all urgency, danger, and agency from the players.

Case Study: A Perfect Combat Scene

Go and watch the first fight scene from the movie True Legend. Like, now. I'll wait.

~7 minutes later~

Alright. Did you see that? That was an ideal encounter in a DnD world.

Did you note how different things occurred every time the camera changed? How there was one main enemy for one PC? How the tide of lesser enemies served to both accentuate the timing aspect of the rescue, provide secondary goals for the PC, and deal with the minions the PC brought along on the rescue attempt? How the failed Stealth roll wasn't an immediate loss of stealth and ambush, but required a couple of rolls to kill off the patrol before they raised the alarm?

After they bust into the main room (open question to everyone), how many Rounds of DnD Combat do you think occurred?

RPG Gamer Attitudes and Why They Are Bad

There are two pervasive attitudes when it comes to conflict in the roleplaying game community -

  1. That Combat is direct physical violence resolved with interminable dicerolling, separated from the story and plot. This is dumb because it is boring as hell, and decouples the game into two separate parts instead of a filling, cohesive whole.
  2. That some people 'just don't like' combat. Which is an excuse given by people who create and run poor conflict in their games for why people are bored by it.

The two obviously go hand in hand, the second being an 'explanation' for the bored players created by the first. These attitudes are traced back largely to the wargaming roots of roleplaying, and the strong cross-correlation between wargamers and roleplayers. Another reason is that some people feel that min-maxing their characters and 'winning' combat is the reason to play PnP RPGs, and thus prefer combat to be 'separate' to roleplaying.

I shouldn't need to spell out why this is a terribad thing for the game and the combat being interesting.

In Progress: Writing To Character: In-Combat Memorable Villains, Giant Flying Jellyfish - Your Specific Milieu, And How To Kill It, What To Do About Boring Players, Skills and Special Attacks In The Combat Scene.

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First of all, before I get to the answer itself, I would suggest that you should talk with your players. Ask them about the game, what they like, and what not, but more than that, ask them why they like or dislike certain aspects of the game. Usually, they will tell you why they think that your battles are boring. But other times, they will suggest other areas where you can improve or areas that they want to see more. In any case, this is a great tool to improve your GMing skills anyway, so you have nothing to nothing to lose.

Another little thing- if your players tell you that they don't like battles at all, or if they don't get the kick anymore from those battles, don't let it destroy you. Just change the focus of the sessions. Battles are not everything that this medium has to offer.

Let's now go to the realms of the battles, shall we?

An inspiration

A great way to improve your battles is to find depictions of ones in films, TV or books and to analyze them. See what works for you in those battles, what makes you love them so much. For this example I'll go for one of my favorites, which is the first swordfight scene from Princess Bride.

Characterization

First and foremost, in this fight scene we get a fuller characterization of 2 of our main characters, both Inigo Montoya and Westley. We get some of Montoya's backstory and some of his POV about the world. We also get a little bit of the same thing, backstory and POV, about Westley. Great battles do just that, they improve our understanding of the characters. They're not just there for being cool, but also to help the story in ways that only the battle can achieve.

"You are using Bonetti's defense against me, uh?"

A great way to make battles great is through the things fighters say while their fighting. It can be compliments to each other or maybe just throwing things to sting the other fighter, to make her lose her temper.

In the Princess Bride they compliment the techniques of each other. Through this the scene achieves 2 things: Firstly, they make the fighters seem far more professional, making them acknowledge the mastery of each other. Secondly, they make the fighters seem more badass when doing this, and this can only help in making the battle even cooler. But there's another benefit, again, which is characterization. When they say those things, we get a glimpse of their training, we get their fighting style which is a window to their inner selves, and we also get to see when they break the rules, which makes their cleverness show.

Try to make your NPCs and monsters say thing while attacking, try to make them nitpick or compliment or whatever the PCs. Maybe it will make the PCs see them differently, or maybe it will just make the PCs angry about the NPCs, thus making them more willing to fight.

"Cliffs of Insanity"

Places and terrain are other things that you should consider. But it is not enough to describe them, they should affect the gameplay. If you have a fight scene in an "Exploding-Dolls-Factory-tm" don't just describe it as being there and then leave it hanging, but instead use it. Maybe some dolls explode near the NPCs, or the PCs, or maybe the NPCs are using those dolls as weapons? If the fight is on a volcano, have the characters try to stand still even though the mountain is moving, make the breathing harder, or just have some bangs and booms at the end.

In the Princess Bride scene, they move from place to place through the terrain, trying not to fall, or jumping and using the things in there as defenses. It makes them look cooler, hell- it makes the entire battle cooler.

Try to reward your players for using the terrain, with little +1s here and there. More than that, set an example yourself- make your NPCs use the terrain also. It will make the PCs want to use it too.

"He flips over a beam and lands next to his sword"

Tumbling and moving is the key. Terrain is not enough if you don't move, and moving doesn't need a cool terrain to be cool. Have your fighters lip-flop from side to side, have them jump and surprise your PCs, and anything else you see right.

We see it in the scene too, in the action that I quoted from the script- He flips a beam and lands next to his sword. Do I really need to say more?

Have a note and stick it to your GM screen, a note saying: "make use of the skills". Set an example, and your players will soon follow. Rewarding cool moves could be extremely nice, have them develop a style of moving, of attacking and anything else. Even if the rules don't cover it. For these cases someone has invented the rule of cool- "if it is cool- it works".

"I am not left-handed"

Playing always right, fighting always as the rules suggest, is boring. Really boring. In the not-so-great movie Troy Achilles says something like this: "After you will master the rules, you will learn to leave them aside". That's a really great lesson; don't always make your villains play fair. Make them smarter than they seem, let them surprise you and your players. Not only the PCs, the players too.

In our scene, we see it twice- both of our swordsmen start the fight with their swords in their weaker hands. Why? Because they want to tease each other. They don't know that they both do it, that's the comic factor, but the important thing here is that they both try to cheat. Use it too.

"Please understand I hold you in the highest respect."

Last but not least, the end result shouldn't always be life or death. The battle can be for respect, or for benefits, or for money, or for acquiring allies. Don't always fight until one side is completely dead, decapitated and anything else you can think of. Maybe this time the enemies run away, or even better- they just surrender. Now you bring a moral dilemma to what seemed till now like a normal fight.

In our scene, Montoya asked Westley to kill him, surrendering and asking to be killed so his respect will be kept. Westley, on the other hand, lets him live. And suddenly we got a great recurring character, and again we got characterization. A win-win deal, if you ask me.

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I downvoted because instead of creating a framework to create interesting combats, this answer suggests instead incorporating gimmicks and catchphrases from popular entertainment. Actually good suggestions - 'incorporate movement' 'intelligent, characterful enemies' are used in the answer in a way that suggests blindly copying things that the DM finds interesting will result in interesting combats. Some people do this naturally - for anyone who doesn't, the result will be really, really bad. –  Jack Lesnie May 1 at 21:41
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I wasn't at your table playing with you but I'll try to de-construct the encounter you had and make assumptions and speculations. They might not be true, but I hope you'll get the idea.

The stakes of the encounter we're obviously clear

If you don't fight it with everything you got you'll get devoured or you'll fall and die. Period. The stakes of the encounter should always be clear. Why am I fighting anyway? They might not know all the consequences and everything, but rewarding them at the end should do the trick. For instance they could fall on random violence in the streets and don't know who is attacking and why but when they investigate, they should feel it wasn't just because you, the GM, were bored and wanted to add combat. They could find clues of a bounty against them, criminal evidence (leading to think they attacked out of fear of being caught). Random encounters shouldn't feel random. They should be meaningful.

Being static will lead to a certain death

When I think of an airship being attacked by a armoured jellyfish I think of Bioshock Infinite and how going around the airship trying to cover all angle was fun. Suddenly a tentacle damage the engine making the airship slow down and the heroes should try to reactivate it or expect a deadly fall. If you stay in one spot, something will get you and punish you hard. You, the GM, are not punishing the players. The situation makes standing in the open a really poor strategy and if you accept them, then you are rewarding survival of the unfit. No smart creature will stand in front of an incoming arrow the size of a kayak.

It's hard to forget a giant jellyfish with armor in the sky

Make the enemies and feature memorable. Use them. The players may not think about the pool of lava, but a smart NPC will. An NPC who suddenly wrestle with a player trying to push him in the pool makes it real. Like I said, being static will kill you. If the group forget about the exploding mushroom, make one explode near him. And another, closer. Until suddenly the one he's standing next to inflate just before his turn.

My conclusions

They don't need more options in combat (like the ability to turn into colossal armors) if they can't think of using their environment. Like Joshua said, if you add more options to your players and your enemies are equally capable, then it evens out and the situation stays the same. Not every combat needs to be boss fights and maybe they are not interested in common fights. If your group is not attracted to simple encounters, discard them and save them the fun for one big fight once in a while. Better one memorable encounter every now and then than lots of meaningless fights.

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A few ideas

Act it out

A few years ago, a fellow player and I (who both were trained in the martial arts) had characters that would butt heads until someone would throw a punch. The reason our group allowed this is that we (the players) would low-speed and low-contact the fight. Moves like knockdowns we would mime the hit and then the other would lay on the ground to continue the fight. Since we took up the living room, people would frequently make heckling comments semi-OOC like "why didn't you tell me to get some popcorn for this!", but since everyone saw basically 2 players (and PCs) who understood fighting on some level, it was interesting.

Don't tell, describe

This one is a little difficult for me to remember when I DM, but "He stabs you in the chest for 4HP of damage" is nowhere near as engaging as "He dodges a feint by [another player], but brings his sword into your mid-section, finding a narrow strip of armor where the plates intersect and is able to get through your defenses. 4HP of damage that you barely feel as you turn the tables for your attack" To help encourage people to describe their actions better than "I attach Ig for [rolling dice] AC 15 and do [rolling more dice] 5 points of damage", offer a minor bonus to the dice-roll (or perhaps a good description of an attempted attack will turn a botch into a miss). Make the reward immediate and relevant.

Location, Location, Location

Don't set the combat on on the middle of some boring grassy field. Maybe set an ambush on a mountainous road where the players can choose between the sheer face going up, the sheer face going down, retreating or figuring another way around the highwaymen ahead looking for a "toll". If you are fighting on a narrow path with a sheer cliff on either side of you and you roll a critical miss, does your sword go flying, or does the PC enjoy the last few seconds of their life? Lava is fun. Rope bridges are fun. Put the fight somewhere that limits your players' strengths. If the wizard love throwing huge fireballs, put them in a tight space so a fireball causes everyone (even the good guys) to get singed. One word of caution: Don't overdo throwing players to where they are weak. It's exciting as an occasional challenge, laborious when done too much, and infuriating when done all the time.

"[Combat] what is it good for? Absolutely NOTHING!"

How about a martial scene where the goal is not to make the other side dead? Maybe the bad guy has the abducted child with a knife to the kid's throat. They need to disarm the bad guy before he can kill the kid. Maybe they only need to stall the bad guy from getting in to kidnap the fair maiden until after she is wedded to her true love and therefore "immune" to the bad guy's [whatever]. Make the goal something other than death. Maybe two countries are on the brink of war, and one side decides to have a "show of force" to prove that they should be taken seriously. Maybe the PCs are part of that show of force, and the other side panics... does this lead to war, or a brushfire conflict that both generals agree was ill-advised?

Play to the group's strengths

Finally, from your description it sounds like your group does not enjoy combat, even if it is narrative. Plan adventures to that strength. Instead of helping the local king avoid a war by fighting the other side's champions, have them engage in courtly dialogues as ambassadors to calm the tensions in the other country's capital city.

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Always keep things moving.

Do prep: have your NPC stat blocks ready, and understand all the relevant rules for their abilities.

Speak very directly to your players about mechanics: "okay, the wizard calls out a curse and points at you, give me a DC 15 will save." They will provide the dramatics for themselves.

Use a battlemap and miniatures, or sketch positions on a piece of notebook paper.

Roll everything out in the open. This makes every roll potentially interesting.

Let the players do cool stuff. If a player wants to do something, come up with a reasonable rule for it and just go with it. If on reflection it turns out to be unbalanced, then you can fix it after the game.

Encourage players to have their actions prepared and know all the rules about their abilities.

Keep an initiative sheet. Maybe even have a player track it for you.

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This encourages a gamist approach which misses the point of the question - the asker doesn't have problems with mechanics during game sessions, he has problems with interest in his designed combats. Given player interest in non-combat areas, if anything, the biggest clue we have is that it is already too mechanical - a suggestion of focusing on mechanics is essentially the opposite to what I think a good answer would cover. –  Jack Lesnie May 2 at 3:47
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The first thing to jump to my mind is culture. You said you are not from the USA; many of the tips you may find online will tailor to an American audience. Americans will find certain things more exciting than, say, Brazilians, or Russians, or others.

Take all advice that doesn't address generalities with a grain of salt. Ultimately, you need to boil down what your group likes and tailor to that.

If your group likes acting as their characters, then you need to find a way to allow players to act in unique ways during battle. Players may enjoy acting out the battles ("Grognar swings his axe with mighty abandon!"), but if they see it as a number-fest, full of grids and stats, then there isn't much room for acting.

If your group likes group interaction, then increase that interaction. Perhaps battles need to be more puzzle based, allowing players to interact as they solve the problems presented instead of just hack and slash to victory.

If your group likes plot, then the battle must serve to advance the plot and be interesting from the story's overall perspective.

One possible thought is to separate combat from numbers, dice, etc as much as possible. This can have a jarring effect on players who want the reward of leveling up, upgrading equipment, or exploiting details of spells and abilities. But if your group doesn't care about all of that, then chuck it out. Allow players to say, "I cast a fireball" and instead of rolling a dice to hit or deal damage, you as the DM simply decide what you want to happen. Battle will move faster, more smoothly, and you can creatively improvise on the fly to humorous effect, all while ignoring most rules set by whatever game system you are playing. Note that this may create a player vs DM attitude if you are too harsh on them, but if the group has been together for 5 years, I wouldn't be worried about that.

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