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I'm DMing a campaign on 5e with a group of four players. We're all experienced in RPG in general but not specifically on 5e.

Players are Level 4. Wizard, Fighter, Rogue and Druid, Circle of the Moon.

My players have come to the conclusion that, given the mechanics of the game, is much more effective to focus all the fire power on a creature at a time and avoid spreading damage. Their logic is it really doesn't matter if a creature has 1 or 80 HP left, as longs a it has over 0, he has all capacity to do damage. In effect, creatures are binary, they are either alive and therefore have full capacity to act, or death, in which case they don't.

Unfortunately I agree with this assessment but I feel it makes the game less fun, for both me and them. (The comment has actually come up from a player so definitively they enjoy it less.) Not because I'm looking for super realistic combat but because it limits the combat strategy to "drop them one at a time".

As such, they tend to not distribute their efforts or engage separately but, instead, swarm into a single enemy, concentrate all the attacks and then move to the next. This feels to me like the more effective tactic but also the least "fun" and role playing way of doing combat.

Is my players interpretation wrong or am I handling the combat in the wrong way? What am I missing?

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"Focused Fire" is a legitimate technique.

But there are many ways to deal with it.

If your Combats are small skirmishes, with all participants within reach of each other then the PCs all piling on to one foe at a time will work. And this sounds like the "less fun" problem you are having

Some of the techniques I have used are:

  • Use the same tactic against the PCs! All the foes focus on one PC! (This can make the PCs think about other Actions, such as Trip, or ways to slow down the assault)
  • Put a Sniper behind cover.
  • Outflank the Tanks and go for the 'squishy' (usually the Wizard)
  • Use Terrain: Forests with large trees will make it difficult for everyone to focus on one foe. Dungeons with narrow corridors limit how many PCs can attack.
  • Have Foes use other Actions apart from Attack. An enemy Spell Caster may be Concentrating on a Spell. A PC may not be able to kill them in one blow, but forcing them to make a Concentration Save is worthwhile. As above, have the Foes Trip PCs, cause non-lethal, but Inconvenient, Conditions.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can enemy spell-casters use one of those smoke-and-fog spells that reduces visibility to just a few feet? That would encourage the PCs with ranged attacks to target whoever's closest to them personally. \$\endgroup\$ – Shawn V. Wilson Nov 16 at 18:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ Use many weaker monsters, at least double the number of PC (so eight CR1 monsters against a party of 4 level PC for example) while they do kill one monster every round, the other monsters keep flanking and hitting them with strategic advantage. focus fire is legitimate and usually works when you fight 2 or 3 powerfull monsters. \$\endgroup\$ – KilrathiSly Nov 19 at 17:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ One method I used that was successful was using spells like "Cause Fear" (5e). Forcing them to scatter across the map. \$\endgroup\$ – Xalbek Nov 20 at 15:40
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As long as the fight is solely about killing the enemy before they kill the PCs, focussing is a strong tactic. So look for ways to make it about something other than just attrition.

For example, one that I ran a while back involved PCs (plus a few helpful NPCs under their command) helping to retake a dwarvish fortress that had been overrun by traitors. The PCs' job was to infiltrate the gatehouse (hiding in carts full of mushrooms) and raise the gate so that the loyalists' main force could enter.

This meant that as soon as they jumped out of the mushroom carts, they had four objectives to juggle:

  • Mop up the guards inside the gatehouse
  • Secure entry point A, barricade it, and fight off enemy attempts to break through
  • Ditto for entry point B
  • Crew the winches to raise the gates as quickly as possible, because it's not possible to hold those entry points forever.

Plus an optional objective, rescuing loyalist prisoners. (I hadn't actually expected them to do that, but in hindsight it made perfect sense, especially since it solved the problem of finding extra bodies to work the winches.)

To succeed, they had to give attention to at least three of those simultaneously - they didn't have time to mop up all the guards in the gatehouse before securing the entrances, and if they'd focussed on just one entry point the enemies would have come through the other.

As Black Spike mentioned, terrain can prevent PCs from focussing on a single opponent. Another big one is differing PC capabilities: if only some of the party have silver weapons, maybe they should take on the lycanthropes while the rest of the party fight off their pets. Ranged/melee and magic/non-magic are other obvious points of difference.

footnote: I'm Australian, "focussed"/"focussing" is the usual spelling in Australian English. I already have to fight my browser on this, be assured that if I use the Australian spelling it's what I intended :-)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This sounds like a really fun encounter! \$\endgroup\$ – Nacht - Reinstate Monica Nov 17 at 21:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Nacht-ReinstateMonica It was! Took a heap of planning, and then we had to run the battle across three sessions, but it was well worth it. \$\endgroup\$ – Geoffrey Brent Nov 18 at 0:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've encountered the same resistance when I use Canadian spelling. It just bothers some people. \$\endgroup\$ – Jason_c_o Nov 21 at 3:36
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D&D is not a videogame

Monsters don't exist only to die, monsters aren't punching bags, monsters aren't a handful of lines of AI. You, the DM, are responsible for making these monsters behave in the way you see fit. Strategy is only meaningful when there are multiple valid choices.

A monster at low hp is less effective than one at full hp.

To a monster hp is more than just a number. It is their morale, their courage, their lifeblood. If you take away half of a monster's hp, you have shaken their resolve and scarred their body. The way they act, the way the DM controls them, should fundamentally change.

I'm sure you've seen in movies a scene where a tough guy gets wounded, and he gets angry. You've also seen someone wounded and even a drop of blood turns them into a blubbering mess. How will your monsters react to hp loss? Does it drive them to anger, do they flee after 1 damage? How do their friends, family, comrades, clan take it? What stories do they tell at the monster tavern after the fight?

What do your monsters feel when attacked? What do they want? What don't they want?

Let's slow down and think about an example for a minute. Your party of 4, Wizard, Rogue, Fighter, Druid, happen upon a band of goblins. Immediately the party sets to work all attacking 1 particular goblin.

  • What do the monsters feel? Fear, anger
  • What do they want? To survive
  • What don't they want? For themselves or their comrades to die

So how should the goblins react? Firstly, the one being targeted will probably flee. They will try and get out of line of sight, act defensively, stop the pain and prevent imminent death.

What will the others do? Act to defend their goblin friend? Block line of sight, cast defensive magic, distract the party, physically prevent the adventurers from pursing. Will they go on the offense? Will they target the weak wizard, will they flee or regroup?

This fight may play out as follows:

  1. The two forces meet, and the party immediately focus fire 1 goblin.
  2. That goblin flees, hides behind a box
  3. The rest of the goblins jump in front of them, some of the goblin rogues flank the wizard, the ranged goblins target the rogue. One goblin begins to flee to alert others.
  4. The party is now forced to react piecemeal. They can't communicate smoothly in combat. The wizard wants to defend themselves, the rogue disengages top avoid damage. Will the fighter pursue the fleeing goblin? Who will the Druid support?

The party now has options. Their enemy has reacted and taken away easy choices. Force them to act fast, always change up their priorities and thwart their plans.

Whatever the party chooses, the goblins won't make it easy for them. Once they have taken some wounds, the goblins retreat, they won't risk their lives for nothing. However, they will hold a grudge for free. In the future these goblins could harass the party at night, or from afar, preventing them from resting and healing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree that this kind of problem only arises if the monsters are played without any life. If the monsters just attack the first thing they see, and keep swinging until they die, then of course focus fire works. If the monsters instead employ their own tactics, run in panic, try to maneuver around the PCs, etc. Then focus fire doesn't work anymore, and this problem goes away. \$\endgroup\$ – Tyler S. Loeper Nov 18 at 21:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this answer the best, as it addresses the cause of the problem, not just the effects of the problem. Playing the monsters like the GMs PCs is important to keep in mind for a bunch of reasons. +1 \$\endgroup\$ – WhiteMaple Nov 19 at 7:46
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I don't play D&D so I'm not sure if these suggestions can be applied, but even if they can't perhaps they can shed light on alternate tactics:

  • Attach negative effects or enemy buffs that are applied upon enemy death, encouraging the players to spread the damage and eliminate them as close to each other as possible along the timeline.

  • Treat the enemies as a constant obstacle TO an objective that must be destroyed - e.g. a wall of zombies guarding a crystal that revives them shortly after death, creating situations where the players are unexpectedly surrounded by zombies they already thought dealt with and advanced over. The objective being to destroy the crystal, either with damage or special item interaction.

  • Give certain enemies a 'heal on death' effect dependant on a shared life pool, e.g. you have 5 skeletal mages, your players focus fire on one and it revives with 80% of it's health every time it dies until they 'vanquish' another skeletal mage, and so on until zero when each mage has been 'killed' once already.

Sometimes it's not that the players are focusing their fire, but that the fight isn't interesting itself. You can make a focus fire strategy interesting by making it important to focus fire on the correct target, or suffer the consequences.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ That mechanic is frequently used in MMO gaming, e.g. Enemies that become more powerful when an ally falls, one enemy healing another unless interrupted, linked health, first enemy's death starts a bomb the players can't disarm while any enemies remain alive, you name it. Downside is this sends you scurrying off to the Web to learn the mechanics of each encounter, which is not really a D&D thing since the entire financial model involves selling books. \$\endgroup\$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Nov 16 at 22:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't know why this is getting downvotes, it's a legitimately good answer to the question. These are mechanics not normally present in D&D but they could be easily adapted, and represent a different way of looking at the encounter. \$\endgroup\$ – thanby Nov 17 at 15:21
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The players can coordinate this easily, because they're sitting across the table from each other in relative comfort, and they can take their time deciding what to do.

But the actual characters don't have that luxury.

Rule that to coordinate fire once the fight has begun, one of the player characters must declare the next target, so that everyone knows who to target.

No other player can act on this until the next round of combat.

If the opposing monsters are animal intelligence or lower, the players will achieve their desired outcome and the monsters will not adjust their strategy.

If the opposing forces are intelligent enough to have speech, then on the next round (after the first round of concentrated fire) every surviving enemy will see the PC who gave the command as the party leader and they will concentrate their fire onto him.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Ah, but talking is a free action (see PHB p 190, 'Other Activity on your Turn'). To point at an enemy and say 'get him' while charging/shooting at said enemy shouldn't take an action. Additionally, this house-rule involves a fairly heavy amount of meta-gaming, since if a player mentions an idea the other players have to pretend they didn't notice it. \$\endgroup\$ – BBeast Nov 17 at 2:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ That said, if you've actually tried this at your table, then this experience should be included in your answer. \$\endgroup\$ – BBeast Nov 17 at 2:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ I haven't tested this, no. A way to implement it without the meta-gaming is for the DM to require the announcing player to write down their statement, and then reveal what was written down at the beginning of the next turn. In a real-life melee, especially the knock-down drag-outs that typify RPG play, communicating during the combat is going to be neither infallible nor instantaneous. \$\endgroup\$ – EvilSnack Nov 17 at 21:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BBeast 5e doesn't have "free actions". As the heading of that section of the rules suggests, talking is an allowed activity on your turn. You can shout "get him" while attacking, but you can't discuss and agree on a plan and then all take your turns. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Nov 18 at 5:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MarkWells Okay, 5e doesn't have "free actions", but it does have things which don't take an action which is essentially the same thing. But I'll concede that there is not much time for long discussions if you play to realism. \$\endgroup\$ – BBeast Nov 18 at 7:22
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In addition to the great answers already here, I'd like to add my two cents.

If the enemy uses AOE spells/attacks then everyone ganging up on him may not be a good strategy since all 4 of them (depending on the PC's attack range and the NPC's AOE range) would get hit at the same time.

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In ranged attacks, this is totally valid and good tactics.

In melee though, you and they are missing a key factor, which is that if they focus on one opponent then they aren't defending against any others. All starting at one flank is good tactics for them because they can nail one or two whilst the others can't reach them. But as the other opponents pile in, they need to start defending themselves.

It's been a while since I played, but my memory is that there are rules for attacks on an enemy which cannot defend itself, for instance if it's unconscious or asleep. The PCs are putting themselves in that position. Their opponents get whatever relevant bonuses to hit and bonuses to damage. Edit: Refreshing my memory via Google, the correct word is "incapacitated", which applies to sleeping or unconscious opponents, and following the rules for "surprise". Check your rulebook for that, and for any extra features depending on who's doing the attacking.

Note that historically this was exactly how soldiers in full plate worked, trusting their armour to take the hits. Your fighter might be armoured up and able to do this. The rest of the party, probably not so much without magical artifacts.

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How would the party feel if their weakest member was constantly targeted and eventually picked off?
They'd be protective, annoyed and pissed off!

So work that into the dynamics of your enemy groups as well.

You could have all remaining enemies in the group Rage (similar to the Barbarian player class) when one of their own is killed or ganged up on.

Alternatively you could come up with some houserules that grant attacks of opportunity or advantage against players that are all bunched around a single enemy (from the other enemies).

Having wounded enemies fall back to cover (as other answers have also already mentioned) is also an excellent idea to make the fight feel more interesting and force spreading out the field.

I wouldn't introduce anything that penalises the players for fighting efficiently, just keep tweaking the systems until the most efficient way to fight is a fun way.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is getting more downvotes than I expected (obviously), could somebody explain what is egregious about my answer? (People that didn't downvote also welcome to answer.) \$\endgroup\$ – Mara Nov 20 at 6:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ My best guess is that houserules and similar suggestions are expected to be backed up with experience instead of "just try this change". \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Nov 20 at 12:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ifusaso That's fair, I'll try to keep that in mind for future answers. Thanks for taking the time to explain! \$\endgroup\$ – Mara Nov 21 at 7:38

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