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For me, I find it very difficult to enjoy DMing combat encounters. Combat is generally very dry and monotonous. What can I do to make combat more enjoyable for me as a DM?

Some of the issues I have observed with 5th edition D&D combat are summarized here:

At first level, there is really very little difference in overall durability between, for example, a Fighter and the Wizard, so that classical combat techniques are not very effective - the Fighter isn't any more capable of soaking up front-line hits than the Wizard (and so isn't effective in preventing the party from taking too much damage), and the Wizard has barely any higher damage output than the fighter (such that it makes no mechanical sense for the fighter to try and defend the wizard anyway). This frequently leads my players to use fairly homogenous combat methods, with little-to-no role differentiation or tactics beyond 'everyone rush the bad guys'. At later levels this disappears, but it is a problem at least at the start.

As a result, I as a DM am very limited in the variation of combat strategy I can employ: I can have them focus on one PC at a time, resulting in PC fatalities in every encounter; or I can fight multiple PCs at once, dealing crippling damage to most of the characters such that they can either take an extended rest or get TPK'd next encounter.

From a mechanical aspect, this about what I would expect due to the high linearity of the combat system used. For most of what I have seen, any tactical maneuver costs as much or more in opportunity attacks and opportunity costs as slugging it out once dice rolling starts, and from there on you just roll until one side drops.

This pattern is consistent across a number of premade modules and encounter design methods I have tried, and occurs regardless of the party size.

My players regularly report enjoying the combat encounters, but I don't enjoy running them very much.

There have been a few combat encounters that I have enjoyed, but they all involve unusual or very complicated mechanics, and are difficult to manage:

  • One encounter took place in 4-dimensional space (with lots of portals too)
  • One involving an invisible probabilistic wavefunction monster (representing the PDF of its position with a whole bunch of coins on the grid)

But while fun, such encounters are extremely difficult to design and quite taxing to run.

What can I as a DM do to make (normal) combat encounters more tactically interesting for me, without detracting from my player's enjoyment?

Things I might consider as solutions:

  • Methods or guidelines for constructing tactically interesting combat encounters
  • Alternate sets of combat rules that add more strategic elements to combat
  • I might even consider migrating to using a different roleplaying system
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    \$\begingroup\$ Reopened. Focus on how he can add tactical complexity to his combats. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Oct 7 '15 at 12:15
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If ramping up tactics/strategy is what you're after I've got to suggest you take a look at "The Angry Guide to ... Combats", parts 1, 2, and 3. Some takeaways:

  • Two of one monster and two of another is much more interesting--for all involved--than four of the first. Even if the CRs are the same any variation in abilities, ranges, &c. lead to strategic and tactical thinking, rather than toe-to-toe slugfest. On both sides of the fight.
  • Make sure you have the objectives of the monsters/NPCs well-established in your own head before starting combat. When total annihilation isn't the sole objective on each side, things get more interesting. Remember, combat != encounter: combat is only part of an encounter.
  • Terrain, terrain, terrain.

Secondly, there's an initiative variant in the DMG called Speed Factor (DMG5e p.270). This variant separates declaration and resolution of actions--don't worry, with practice it goes just as fast as individual initiative. One upshot of speed factor initiative is that the situation in-game feels like it's evolving much faster. Faster evolution=more chances to change tactics in interesting ways.

But combat doesn't just have to be about tactics vs. going toe-to-toe. I challenge myself to include more role-play in combat every session. (It's actually a written note-to-self on the backside of my table-tent.) Some of the actions this brings out:

  • Intelligent monsters and NPCs call out directions and warnings to each other and address each other by name. They had objectives/motivations going into the fight, and every round the cost-benefit analysis changes.
  • Throwing out a plot call-back or a plot hook can often get the PCs to put on the brakes and re-think their approach. Suddenly it's half the party saying "hold on!--these mooks might come in handy" while the other half's all barbarian-rage and seeking the Dark One's Blessing. What's more interesting than PCs in conflict during combat?
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    \$\begingroup\$ "strategic thinking" would mean you are thinking about the battle before it has started and more in terms of "how does winning this battle help me achieve my overall goal". Did you mean that? In our games, your advice is solid, more different enemies lead to more tactical thinking in terms of what to do in this or the next rounds and that results in more fun for us. But there is no change in strategy. \$\endgroup\$ – nvoigt Oct 6 '15 at 5:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nvoigt I'm pulling that in as strategy in the following sense: I'm a goblin chief, concerned with defending my complex's entrance, so I choose two different defender types to best use the terrain, rather than just throwing hordes of mooks at whatever comes. Perhaps it lies somewhere at the intersection of strategy and tactic, but I think you can certainly make "resources, personnel, locations, information" part of your strategic DM thinking, not just your tactical DM thinking. Good distinction, though. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Oct 6 '15 at 12:13
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Roleplay

The roleplaying aspect in tabletop RPG's often gets somewhat lost during battle. This causes combat to become mundane. It is no longer a party of fresh adventurers clearing a mine filled with kobolds while carefully avoiding their traps, it's become numbers. A whole lot of numbers. You can probably agree that numbers are simply boring, so we will have to bring roleplay back to the encounters. This is done surprisingly easily:

  • Read the Monster Manual. Every monster has a short description that explains the way they go about combat. Make sure you stick to that, and have it shine through during combat. For example, kobolds usually don't engage in one on one combat. They use tons of traps to weaken the enemy, fire down a rain of arrows before the enemy can reach them, and even if then they would rather have a great advantage in numbers. You can have this shine through by having the party encounter a lot of traps of course, and you can make the kobold monsters flee from combat if it seems unfavourable to them.
  • Apply tactics. You mentioned having all the monsters focus down a single PC at first. You will have to keep doing that, and make sure the PCs learn from it. Once the monsters realise who's doing the most harm in the battle, depending on ther intelligence ofcourse, have them change tactics. For example, they all simply charge at the ranger to stop her volleys, or they order their own mage to focus on counter-spelling the party's wizard. They will have to learn from them and gradually apply these kind of tactics themselves as they level. As the ranger gets punished by the charging monsters, he learns he shouldn't stand in the front lines anymore. Or the party notices their wizard can't cast spells anymore, and focus down the enemy mage. Since this is something they don't do normally, you might have to help them somewhat with some subtle suggestions.
  • Give the PC's options. There are several ways to go about problems, and that needs to be acknowledged by every GM. If they have a wacky idea that just might work, at least have them try it. You are to judge if it works or not. For example, a troll in a cave could proof to be a very difficult encounter for the party, but the troll-problem can easily be solved by having the entrance of the cave collapse. This shifts the party's focus from combat to problem-solving, which will lessen the amount boring combat encounters somewhat.
  • Describe! Have fun giving the players elaborate descriptions of their actions, if the actions are worth describing. A critical hit that kills the orc? Describe how his head flies off! Creative way of beating an encounter? Award your players with an elaborate description how the heroes all cleverly outsmarted the villain! Hopefully, you will find you enjoy giving these kind of descriptions, giving you something else to do during combat.

Making combat special

While roleplay will make combat a bit less about dice and numbers and a bit more about the actual combat, the combat itself remains unchanged. If the combat itself is the main issue here, there are other things you could try to make combat a whole lot more interesting - and difficult*:

  • Terrain. Bashing and tactics are not the only thing to combat. Having special terrain could turn things very interesting aswell. Have them face hordes of zombies, forcing them to use a bottleneck if they don't want to get overrun. Have the monsters lure them into their lair, which is trapped to the teeth, forcing the PC's to make some crucial decisions.
  • Make some special monsters. Make monsters that somewhat bend the rules. For example, an engineer behind thick glass that sends out homing missiles who can only be beaten by having the missiles destroy the glass. Balancing these monsters is somewhat difficult however, so you will have to playtest a lot.
  • Have combat-stages. At some point during combat, force the players to change tactics by changing the situation. For example, you blow the glass the engineer hides behind, and the engineer quickly smashes a button that launches him in his mech-suit. Or the orc-raid seems to suffer heavy losses, so the chieftain orders the shamans to change the terrain to their favour.

*You know your PC's better than I do, so you will have to judge for yourself if you'll want to apply these changes. The 'Terrain'-tip is best to use when the PC's have started thinking more strategically, to prevent them from dying an unnecessary death. Having monsters that don't die by simply bashing them will force the PC's to adapt their view of how combat has always been. This might prove to be difficult for them, again causing them to die an unnecessary death. In both cases, you will want to help your PC's by elaborately describing the situation and, if necessary, give them some hints on how to handle it.

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What can I do to make combat more enjoyable for me as a DM?

This is heavily opinion-based since, for starters, I don't know what you find enjoyable in the first place.

  • Do you enjoy thinking in strategies and seeing how they work in the table?
  • Do you enjoy telling social stories more than resolving conflict with a sharp stick?
  • Do you enjoy monster creation?
  • Do you enjoy mastering the system itself, or make a lot of ruling calls?
  • Do you enjoy challenging your players just enough to feel the thrill, but not enough to make their characters be on lethal danger on every fight?
  • Do you prefer gritty and realistic combat scenes (besides the fantastic elements), or over-the-top wuxia/anime combat scenes?
  • Etc, etc, etc...

But there are some hints I can give you, based on what you reported.

Solve the problem of similarity on 5e by not starting at level 1

Simply put, D&D 5e was designed with the first two levels being a kind of tutorial level, where your players will learn how to fit in each class shoes, and how to handle the unique mechanics behind each one.

The game's level progression assumes that 1st and 2nd level each take about one game session. That gives anyone enough time to master the basics of a class before diving into making significant character choices.

That is why there is not much difference between classes at low level. But if your group already master the basics of the game, there is nothing wrong with starting the game at level 3, where class choice start to matter.

Consider switching your game system

D&D 5e, like most D&D editions, is more focused on the long draft through a series of encounters so that the main challenge to a party is more on resource management than individual combat challenge. ie, the first encounters of a fresh day are designed so the party take some damage (requiring healing) and spend some consumables (potions, scrolls and/or spell slots).

A system with a heavier design on stand-alone combat encounters might give you what you are looking for, since you can skip the necessary encounter to tear your party down so that the orc boss is a reasonable challenge. Runequest or Savage Worlds are some options that spring to my mind (there might be others).

If you want to stay on D&D, in my opinion, the 4th edition have the best combat rules of any edition, but they are rules-heavy, and take a while to learn and run it from your mind. Once you pass that barrier, you can have 10-rounds combats where every round is interesting, depending on how you design your encounters. The downside is that this edition is out of print for a few years, so finding the physical books is a bit challenging, and WotC didn't released the original three books on pdf format yet. If you don't mind skipping race and class rules, you can start with the Rules Compendium to learn the system, and then pick up the rest later. Or sign up for D&D Insider, that is still working, and give you access to a character builder (with all options available) and a very useful Compendium where you can look for everything ever released for 4e under the WotC wing.

Other option is that you might just not enjoying running combats at all as a "combat scene", but want to treat it like any other conflict scenes. You might not like to roll initiative, track HP, etc. For those cases, a rules-light system like FATE or Dungeon World might make the game more enjoyable for you than D&D.

Ask someone else to DM

You are a player like everyone else that sit around your table and look with hopeful eyes waiting for you to provide fun. This do not mean that you might actually enjoy being on this position, and might enjoy more being another hopeful pair of eyes.

Tell your group that you, personally, is not enjoying handling combat. Tell them you are looking for solutions, but the situation is simply not fun for you. Maybe one of them (that enjoy this aspect a lot more) jump in and take the DM mantle.

Even if you do enjoy DMing for the most part, taking your place as a player in someone else's table might give you insight on how to be a better DM. If you feel confident to DM again, either take the mantle back (if you party agree), or run a parallel game in another night, so that you can keep playing and DMing at the same time.

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I have found for me personally that trying to put myself in the Mobs shoes helps out a lot in making the encounter fun for the DM.

For example, in my current campaign there are dozens of different mobs the party encounters. We had one encounter with about 15 zombies but it was in the middle of a bunch of huts with a river at the PCs backs. Zombies aren't exactly the smartest so I assumed they would go after the most recent source of pain. At once point the party was almost completely surrounded with no where to go except in the river. They managed to off enough to move north a little bit and get some open ground behind them instead of going for a swim.

In another encounter they met some Troglodytes and Quagoths, both of which are equally as primal; however, they are a little more intelligent than the zombies and are able to coordinate a bit better. Also, Troglodytes have an ability that anything that starts its turn (and is not a Troglodyte) must make a constitution save or take (I think) 2d6 poison damage every round until they pass their Con save. This forces the players to think twice before rushing in... plus it also provides the initial surprise of, "Ok, roll a Con save..." at the beginning of that first player's turn since they'd never seen a Troglodyte at that point.

Differing encounters, and differing terrain work out great. Another example is the terrain in my encounter. There is a powerful warlock currently merging the 4 elemental planes and the material plane all together into a single plane of elemental chaos... This makes it fun when the PCs are running about and the dice say, "Gravity from the air plane..." and they start floating while the MOBs are stuck under immense gravity from the earth plane... Just a little bit of fun stuff to add to the campaign.

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Terrain is a simple way to make encounters more interesting. Thinking about how the monsters will act and react is also important. Finally, the Angry DM has a lot of great advice. He is verbose, but he's got some great stuff, so it's worth wading through his narratives. He has a system for building encounters which has helped me not only build encounters, but to build the world that my players get to enjoy. Angry DM would remind us that encounters do not need to end in annihilation of one party.

Terrain: Adding a few objects to the scene can be all that it takes. In one encounter, my players battled in and around a barn-type structure. This offered a lot of options for the characters to think through. And it was one of the more memorable and interesting encounters we've enjoyed over the five years we've played together.

Barn Terrain Example

  • Two levels (stories) of windows.
  • Climbable siding
  • Loft inside
  • A thick rope tied to a platform that could be raised/lowered with a winch and pulley
  • Stables and stacks of straw/hay for cover
  • Hay bales on the loft for dropping on enemies

I find it advantageous to knock the players over the head with the different options available to them regarding terrain. It's important to remember that they can't see what's in your head, so making it clear to the players what they might use enables them to leverage the terrain features.

To summarize:

  • Think about how the monsters will act and react.
  • Build encounter areas with interesting objects or terrain features; which allow for creative play and decisions.
  • Include the terrain features and objects in your flavor text when you first describe the scene. Smack them in the face with the options.
  • Encounters need not end in annihilation.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 7 at 19:44
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What I always do is create some sort of easy way out of a normally almost impossible encounter. For example, I started my party out in a cave tied to a wall, and with a successful intelligence check remember that thy were knocked out by breathing in a white powered substance. Without that the party would have to kill 19 ish goblins, and while they were spread out quite well throughout the adventure, they had virtually no tools to help them except a few knives. With a little searching, they found a crate of the powder that put them to sleep. They coated their knifes with it, and systematically took out the goblins in between breaks and such. This makes encounters interesting because with a little searching and creativity, the combat goes from near impossible to interesting and unique.

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Just give yourself lots of not-a-trap traps, i.e. giving the monsters a humongous tactical advantage such as putting the players in difficult terrain or a pit and/or giving the monsters higher ground/trap traps between the players and them.

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