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As a newer DM, I have trouble making some of the more routine combats feel unique or urgent. I believe this is because the enemies my PCs are fighting tend to act like an AI, or just attack until they have been defeated.

Lets take the first encounter from the Lost Mine of Phandelver (LMoP) adventure as an example. In this encounter (for those unfamiliar), the PCs are escorting a caravan from Neverwinter to Phandalin when they are ambushed by 4 goblins.

How can I make an encounter like this interesting? I don't want to just make the goblins attack the party until they are dead, but at the same time I have a hard time understanding exactly what else they would do. Sure they could flee at some point in the battle, but I still haven't made this combat seem urgent or any different than an other of my combat encounters.

What are some ways to make combat encounters more engaging than just "kill the enemy"?

Note: I have no problem making encounters with recurring villains interesting. I only seem to have an issue with "less important" combat encounters.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ In the past have you played RPG or MMO video games? \$\endgroup\$ – Harper Feb 21 at 14:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Harper yes I have \$\endgroup\$ – SaggingRufus Feb 21 at 15:08
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at the same time I have a hard time understanding exactly what else they would do.

That is the core of your problem. To make them interesting, or boring but "alive" you must understand why they are doing whatever it is they are doing.

4 goblins ambushing caravan may have many different motivations. From the top of my head:

  1. Hungry families they need to feed, but they only can rob.
  2. Pure greed.
  3. Drug-driven rage.
  4. Caravan may have something their cult needs as offering to their deities

There is a myriad more motivations, and each one makes them fight differently. In first example, they will fight to death, but with great despair and in third, with great joy. In second, they will flee when danger outweighs greed. In 4th example they would flee as soon as they find that thing.

For simple goblins, simple motivations will do. They do not have to make much sense, because goblins are below human in wisdom, and your players will not take that much time analyzing them. Sketch motivations in broad strokes, and only fill details if you have to. But always, always make every foe and NPC have some kind of motivation. The rest will follow.

Goblins may try to negotiate for what they need. May try to duel. Heck, they may even be for hire! If you know what they need, what they want, that opens up a lot of different "winning" conditions for your players.

Hint motivation to your players. In example above, drug-driven rage can be recognized with wisdom (medicine) check - but hint players that their characters might want that check with goblin behavior. If goblins are looking for specific thing, they will ask each other "do you see it there?!". If they want to buy food, they'll shout "It can feed our tribe for weeks!" And so on.

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    \$\begingroup\$ So basically, I need to put more RP in my G :P for real though, as simple as this answer is, it really does help. \$\endgroup\$ – SaggingRufus Feb 20 at 12:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is very similar to the answer I would have given. Each encounter needs a "Dramatic Question" (so says the Angry GM), and the resolution of that question is the point of the encounter. "Can the Goblins steal the artifact from the caravan?", "Can the PCs get through the Spider Caves alive?"... \$\endgroup\$ – Kyyshak Feb 20 at 12:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that, in case 1, they may not fight to the death. They might just fight until a PC goes down, then try to drag the body off to butcher it for their next meal... \$\endgroup\$ – Dave Sherohman Feb 20 at 15:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Dave you sick man... I love the way you think! \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Feb 20 at 20:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SaggingRufus I don't think you need to demonstrate motivation in every single encounter, but keep it in your own mind and just express it where it seems obvious, or where player skills would naturally reveal information about it. I think the real key is to use their motivation to vary the "mindless AI" combat and open up roleplaying opportunities. For example: the goblins ambush the party and demand food rather than immediately attack... in combat they flee early on and the party pursues them to a small group of tents with starving goblin babies and mothers... \$\endgroup\$ – Darren Rogers Feb 21 at 2:09
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A fantastic source of inspiration for adding flavour and depth to enemies would be the Monster Manual's description of the monsters you are using. There is a lot of content in there besides the stat blocks! Consider what it has to say about Goblins:

  • They can't help but celebrate when they have the upper hand
  • They are undisciplined
  • They are greedy and selfish

So for the LMoP example, have the goblins interact with each other using those traits. When the ambush begins, a lone goblin charges out screaming with his scimitar raised, whereupon the other Goblins start shouting and signalling for him to get back in cover. If one knocks a player out/prone, they do a touchdown dance and miss their action on the next turn. They are looking for money and goods more than combat, so they try to steal from the cart before the players are dispatched, and squabble over any loot they grab.

The MM's monster lore could play a role in any encounter. Having traits like these frequently be evident in your encounters will make your players feel like they aren't just fighting, they are learning about their enemies through experience, and they will be eager to try out clever schemes that exploit the weaknesses they discover. With a pattern set, you will also be able to break that pattern (eg the Goblins fear their bugbear boss and won't loot until he does), and player ears will perk right up when that happens.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That is a great idea! I knew the monster manual has a lot of information, but typically I am running a pre-canned adventure and only use it for stats blocks hoping that the adventure I had purchased would contain information about the situation and how to RP it. I guess this me being unprepared, but its a learning process. \$\endgroup\$ – SaggingRufus Feb 20 at 13:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 from me. Totally different angle than in my answer, and something I tend to forget, too. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Feb 20 at 14:03
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It can be useful sometimes to reverse the roles, and imagine the monsters as an adventuring party facing a similar challenge. In this instance, imagine the party is following a caravan guarded by a bunch of obviously powerful monsters, and they need to steal something from it.

Assuming they understand they're toast in a stand-up fight, you can take that off the table and all the things that would make the encounter memorable can follow. Will they lay traps to try to disable the wagons? Will they launch hit-and-run attacks over the course of a few nights to whittle down the opposition? Try to trick the guards into thinking they're facing a larger force? Or maybe try to lure a couple of the monsters away from the caravan to make it easier pickings?

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One simple trick you can do to make each individual enemy more memorable is to give them a visual distinction between each of them. Not only does this help make the battle more memorable, but it makes it easier for you (and the players) to keep track of who's fighting who, and which of them have taken damage.

When I ran this encounter, I gave each goblin a colored bandana over their mouths to make it very straightforward - but you can be a bit more creative than that. Give them an extra long hooked nose, a missing ear, a shoddy set of armor, different weapons with equivalent damage dice, really imagine that they're more than just cookie-cutter monsters, and give them the personality to match their distinct looks (as others have suggested in their own answers).

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Short answer:

Note: I have no problem making encounters with recurring villains interesting. I only seem to have an issue with "less important" combat encounters.

If the encounters are of no importance, don't try to make them important - skip them.

Long answer:

Your question seems to imply that you want to make encounters more engaging in this specific system and in this specific campaign. Nevertheless:

In my experience, the encounters become more engaging as they become more seamlessly integrated, both storywise and emotional. To achieve this, you can try to gain better understanding of the plot as mentioned in other answers, but you can also skip ready-made adventures and design your completely own plot and encounters or get just inspired by a campaign. This will additionally give you some flex to react to the players needs/actions.

The system might contribute to this too. Some RPGs focus on pure roleplaying while others favor the battlegrid and loads of rules. Nonetheless, tweaking the player experience is possible in any one.

At last but not least: It is not your sole responsibility to make all players happy. I've seen so many times that a power gamer has made the fight less tangible to a novice or a more plot-oriented player by just riding by the rules. Talk to your group about it, search for common goals and agree on common group rules.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "It is not your sole responsibility to make all players happy." - I'd change this to "It is not your sole responsibility to make all players happy all the time." Not everyone will enjoy the same aspects of the game, but it is possible to give everyone a chance to shine in doing what they enjoy - even if it's not at the same time. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 21 at 17:47
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Short answer

I wanted to make this a comment as it's not a full answer, but rather a plug for the website The Monsters Know What They're Doing (to which I am unaffiliated). The website suggests tactics and motivations for most of the monsters in the D&D 5e Monster Manual.

Longer answer

In order to make your routine combats less routine, they should feel slightly different each time. I don't think they need to be urgent or entirely unique, they just need to be varied a bit. This can be accomplished by throwing different monsters at the party, with their associated differences in tactics and motivations.

Goblins might ambush from afar, kobolds might mob; an unintelligent bear might target the biggest enemy whereas a clever lizardfolk knows to go for the magic-user first. All of these creatures fight (and flee) differently depending on their motivations: are they starving, zealots, mercenaries, looking for an easy score, what? Then as they fight, describe the crazed or hungry look in their eye, the way they gleefully spill blood or inspect your fine clothes.

Even reusing the same monsters is fine, just keep in mind that the actions of the party should have an effect on the world.

  1. Maybe food is more plentiful now that most of the bear's competitors are dead.
  2. Maybe the lizardfolk found their dead companions and infer that the party is one to be avoided - or one to be exterminated with greater preparation and numbers.

Having the surviving goblins flee presents a great roleplaying moment:

  1. should we shoot them down while their backs are turned?
  2. Will they tell their friends, and if so, will this mean less trouble for us, or more?

Eventually you can cut down the encounters so that only those that might challenge the party will be played out. This is not just an abstraction, but a consequence of the party's reputation (though it can also be done as an abstraction: if the level 10 party teleports to a new realm where the CR1 death dog has no reason to be wary and hence attacks the party this is a waste of time for both you and your players).

Just as you should only ask for a roll if there is a consequence of failure, you should only run an encounter if an outcome of relevance might feasibly occur.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I love that website! \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Feb 22 at 13:12

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