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In D&D 5e, the players have lots of actions they can take within combat encounters besides attacking. I'm trying to figure out how to encourage them to use a greater variety of actions, especially Disengage, Dodge, and Help.

They've seen NPCs use these actions, so they know they are available, and my rogue is good at taking Disengage as a bonus action. However, it seems like these options are too weak mechanically to compete with attacking for the PCs actions.

Are there specific tactical situations that will make these options more appealing?

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There are a number of tactics but it boils down to creating situations where the other actions are necessary to continue to fight effectively.

Here are some examples.

The Dodge action:

"On the far end of the room is a large repeating crossbow attached to the wall set to fire on you as you approach. The cultists are continuing the ritual, daring you to cross the runes before you. Everyone roll Initiative. [sets up Initiative order]"

"Can I identify the runes?"

"Roll Arcana. [Sees 24 result]. You know these runes are proximity runes likely to set off the crossbow when you pass them."

"Alright, I take the Dodge action so the bolts will have a harder time hitting me and cross with my weapon drawn."

The Disengage Action

"As the archdevil starts to bleed from the beating you've given it, it glows a bronze color and your weapons start to bounce off of it. At the same time fire bursts out of the fiend. Everyone in 10 feet, make a Dexterity saving throw."

[Rolls are made] "You all avoid damage for now but the bronze aura has only faded a bit, and small flames start to appear on his skin once more. Your turn."

"I use Disengage to get away from the fire and duck behind the altar until the bronze thing is gone."

The Help action

(This one is already very useful in situations where a person has run out of resources like spell slots and can grant advantage to a more useful ally, or to cancel out disadvantage for your big damage dealers)

"In this magical fog, you can't quite make out the enemy. You all have disadvantage on your attacks."

"I run up to where I hear the enemy move and use the Help action to advise my ally where to shoot his bow."

Show don't tell

If they still don't use these tactics in situations that warrant it, have an NPC demonstrate their effectiveness with them (either an allied NPC or an enemy if possible).

Sometimes players are just ignorant of how effective other types of action can be at no fault of their own.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 and I would like to recommend adding that as a DM you can encourage players to adopt tactics like this by using those tactics against them in similar situations to demonstrate their effectiveness. Sometimes players are just ignorant of the fact that there's a lot of actions they can take because they tend to look for the most powerful one at their disposal through their resources first. \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli May 14 '18 at 16:45
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If you want your players to stop using hammers, then don't make every obstacle look like a nail.

Most challenges in D&D are combats, which consist of killable things that want to kill the players. In these scenarios, killing the monsters quickly is generally the best strategy.

So if you want players to try using other action types, then you have to consider player motivations when designing challenges. If attacking always seems like the most effective option, then players won't feel encouraged to try anything else. You should present situations where dodging, disengaging, and helping will have a more rewarding outcome than attacking.

The non-attack actions will be encouraged in situations where the attack action won't resolve the problem.

In general, players take actions that seem to contribute to resolving the current challenge. So try adding obstacles that can't be attacked by the PCs who are being challenged by them. These can be put in combat, in conjunction with regular enemies (which can be killed). Here are some examples:

  • If your party is very melee-heavy, then they obviously can't attack when enemies are too far away. Start the combat with ranged enemies at a distance, or on an elevated position, and the PCs will have to make their way up to them; until they get into close range, the Dodge action will help them avoid enemy shots.

  • Create a hazard that can be resolved via skills rather than attacking. Maybe the battlefield is rigged with a trap, and the Rogue can attempt to disarm it with a Dexterity check; other characters can contribute with the Help action.

  • The Disengage action is hard to present as a rewarding option. It's only relevant when enemies are in close range, in which case attacking is generally a better strategy. Disengaging is generally used to delay a defeat, rather than contribute to a victory; it doesn't bring the PCs closer to their goal. You can force PCs to Disengage, such as by having the melee monsters target the low-defense PCs, but it won't feel as rewarding compared to an action that contributes to the fight.

If it ain't broke, then don't fix it.

D&D is a game built around a combat system. It is designed to reward players for defeating their enemies. And in most cases, when faced with an enemy, attacking it the most effective strategy. If your players enjoy the combat, then you shouldn't feel pressure to force a change.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that Dodge squares their chance of hitting; dash closing the distance twice as fast reduces total attacks taken while you close range more than dodge if their hit chance is > 50%. \$\endgroup\$ – Yakk May 14 '18 at 18:53
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First, let's clarify something: Attack is your main action. The other actions are more situational, so it's expected that Attack is going to be used way more often than not.

Disengage

Threaten your squishy PCs. Put a huge melee fighter close to your Wizard (or sorcerer, or w/e, you know who is the squishy one). Make him a threat that will be extremely dangerous if they choose to fight close-range and take opportunity attacks from him, while disengaging and outsmarting will make the fight easy.

In a homebrew campaign, I had a Fighter Kobold (it was a Kobold-themed campaign...) that fits this very well. His normal action would be an usual melee weapon attack, but his opportunity attack (more like a reaction attack that had the same mechanics as OAs) would be devastating (3x the usual damage).

Note that this is more about forcing them to use the Disengage than encouraging them. But it works.

Again, note that Disengage is a very specific action. It's not going to be used that often.

Dodge

I have seen my players use dodge mostly in two situations:

  1. Melee characters in a fight against ranged creatures/NPCs. Sometimes, instead of dashing to get closer faster, they would prefer to Dodge so they can get closer more safely.
  2. The "Tank" is being targeted by a mob (or anyone, but that usually happens to the tank - if a mob is targeting the Wizard he might as well be dead. Rather, I hope he is teleporting away). The more monsters are focusing in one person, the more attractive is for that person to use Dodge. Attack will maybe get rid of one creature, while Dodge will save him lots of damage while giving time for the rest of the party to do the damage.

From that, the most likely scenario for Dodge to be used is combining both - lots of archers firing at someone. Dashing might get him faster, but he might as well be dead then. Dodging will mitigate the damage and get him alive to the other side.

Help

Help is obviously going to be used alot by familiars. For PCs, it will be used if there is a great difference between the damage done by the characters. Honestly, I find the Help action bad in combat for some reasons:

  1. It only helps with Attack Rolls - and only for the first attack roll.
  2. You need to be on melee range.

The first condition means that helping your Fighter won't increase his DPS as much because it won't profit in each of his Extra Attacks. It also means that helping your Wizard that is going to cast a Fireball does nothing.

The second condition means the people that do low DPS without using resources (i.e. spellcasters without using spell slots) and would like to Help instead of using a low-damage cantrip have to be where they don't want to be - close to the enemies.

The way Help works, I feel it's more about non-combat scenarios.

However, you can create scenarios where there is a huge difference on damage. The main scenario is giving Immunity to Physical (slashing/piercing/bludgeoning) damage to the enemy (rather, putting them against an enemy with these immunities). The Fighter/Barbarian/Rogue of the team will spend more time Helping the spellcasters to do damage than trying to do damage themselves.

Note that this might make the Player feel bad about that combat, as shown here: As a Barbarian, how can I contribute to fights against slash-immune creatures? - but "Use the Help Action" is one of the answers of this question.

Bonus for Help:

After reading one of your comments

But the mechanical benefit is so weak that my players feel like they can't afford to make those choices, even when it makes sense from a story perspective.

Make the key ability check mechanically relevant. For example, I've had a Golem that had 4 Small-towers "buffing" his AC. The towers would have to be destroyed so the Golem could actually be damaged. It's an easy "translation" to, instead of destroying the towers, the PCs having to deactivate them through some kind of skill check. The faster the Wizard passes these Arcana Skill Checks (or whatever fits the best your narrative and party) to deactivate the towers, the faster they can actually start hitting the Golem. The Fighter has a bad bonus on Int and no proficiency on Arcana, so he's way more useful giving Advantage to the Wizard than trying to deactivate himself.

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    \$\begingroup\$ When my DM did your Disengage-forcing tactic, we had our Barbarian grapple it and pull it away from the Wizard (so my wizard could still get off a spell). Just saying that Disengage is often not as useful since missing out on an attack can be extremely costly. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron May 14 '18 at 19:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DavidCoffron In this case having the barbarian grapple is actually more risky. Disengage is a guaranteed escape, grapple may fail, in which case your barbarian has wasted their action and the wizard has to disengage anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Jan 21 at 1:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ Help can actually benefit any ability check, not just attack rolls. And it can do this at any range. This means you can help with grapple, search, hide, shove, stabilize, etc from across the room so long as the DM sees your method as helpful. \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Jan 21 at 1:31
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Generally, setting up the encounter to encourage non-attack possibilities as suggested in other answers here is on-target. You should definitely read or re-reread "Creating Encounters" in the DMG, even if you're an experienced DM.

In most encounters "take down the enemy who is hurting us!" is usually the most effective thing to do, and D&D is just geared so that attacking (or casting a spell) is usually the most effective way to do that. Because of this, even if you do create an encounter with opportunities for non-attack options in combat, players will tend to go for "attack" anyway.

I've noticed that some character sheets designed for beginners prominently list options for actions in combat, and I've noticed that new players who have this in front of them tend to pick from them. It's only after some familiarity with the game that people learn that straightforward "attack, attack, attack" is the norm.

Therefore, I suggest highlighting the other options as a way to encourage them. Even with more experienced players, having the DM spell this out sends a signal that you are thinking about non-attack actions as important and are designing encounters to reward them. One way to shake things up a little bit would be to include some of the optional Action Options from DMG chapter 9, and in addition to writing out Dash, Disengage, Dodge, Grapple, Help, Hide, Improvise, Ready, Search, Shove, Use an Object, put

  • Climb onto a Bigger Creature
  • Disarm
  • Mark
  • Overrun
  • Shove Aside
  • Tumble

on the table. And perhaps literally on the table — you know how DM's screens often have helpful information on the DM's side and pretty pictures on the other? Sacrifice a little bit of the pretty picture and make a big-letter chart listing these options right where the players can see 'em. That way, you have these choices visible without needing to clutter up or customize every character sheet.

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I think the main issues you are having is dumb enemies making fights a slog fest, fight that can only be ended by killing all foes, and fights that exist for the sake of fighting. I'll give you three examples from recent games that illustrate the core issue you are having:

Create difficult encounters

A party of a rogue, a warlock, and a paladin are investigating a clearing in the woods when suddenly 2 beasts attack, one from either side of the clearing. Unfortunately the party was split up, one beast appears near the rogue, one near the warlock.

The warlock dodges the beast's attacks and calls for the paladin to help, while the rogue disengages and runs and hides in the bushes. The paladin comes to save the warlock, but the rogue is still playing cat and mouse, disengaging, hiding, and dashing when needed, and using readied actions to throw knives and keep the beast's interest if it goes after the other two.

After the paladin and warlock take out one beast, the three of them regroup to get rid of the second.

Create an alternate path to victory

The party are now fighting an enemy wizard and their fighter ally. Besides the wizard's throne is an urn, and it quickly becomes clear that the urn is giving some kind of magical energy to the wizard.

The party quickly disengage and back off, the rogue circles around, dodging the wizard's fireballs. The rogue manages to grab the urn and readies an action to use it to block any attack from the wizard. The rogue yells out "I've got your urn, give up!" but the wizard snarls and fires a fireball straight at the rogue.

The rogue blocks the fireball with the urn, which shatters, causing the wizard to disappear with a poof.

Change the objective

The same party of a rogue, a warlock, and a paladin are approaching a temple, they want to steal the magical artifact from the altar inside. After sneaking through hidden passages they come across the sanctuary. Peeking out from their hidden door, they see a priest and several hulking beasts inside.

The warlock and paladin are ready for the rogue's signal. With a wink the rogue sprints into the room, instantly the warlock starts making noise to cause confusion, and the paladin runs over to bar the door. The rogue sprints right up to the altar and grabs the artifact, and even makes it most of the way back. The paladin is dodging attacks, keeping the door barred while back off, the warlock has already ducked back into the passage.

The rogue runs in, followed by the paladin, and they jam the door behind them. Safe!

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My answer won't be nearly as thorough as the others, as I don't actually play D&D. But I wanted to contribute some story concepts that may involve non hostile goals.

  • There's been a lot of thefts in a small village nearby and you're sent to investigate only to find out it's a teenage boy trying to support himself and his orphaned siblings. You came across them by following their tracks to an old abanadoned [mine/farmhouse/etc]. The boy leaps to his feet as they sight you and charges in your direction. Do you act defensively or strike down an mostly innocent child that's clearly only trying to protect his family? All over petty theft of bread or poultry from the other farmers?

  • You've been asked to go into a dangerous area to gather information from enemy stronghold because the king believes they're planning for a siege based on scouts reporting a recent surge in activity like [assembling troops/increased activity at their mills and mines/etc]. While you're approaching the area you come across slave with shackles on their arms with a broken chain that's trying to escape their territory and is poorly armed but attempts to clumsily strike you. Do you have someone that can speak their language try to talk to them? Do you act with hostility and kill them? Do you try to capture them and bring them back?

You've just gotta get creative and put people into scenarios they may benefit more from not killing someone.

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