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It's a well known fact in D&D that small rooms favour outnumbered parties, as the opposition cannot bring their full force to bear upon them. Larger rooms favour the outnumbering party, as they can surround their opponents.

When the monsters are outnumbered by the player characters, it might make sense for them to seek out a small rooms to fight in. However, this creates a situation where not all of the characters can fight effectively. The wizard's area spells, for example, have a very high chance of also damaging their friends.

Small rooms also limit the extent to which characters can manoeuvre, often creating static battle lines in which both sides simply basic attack each other until one side goes down.

How can I improve combats in small rooms such that players feel that their characters are not too hampered by them, while still retaining the tactical advantage they give to the outnumbered party?

I would like answers from people who have successfully run combats in smaller rooms.


Extra Information

  • My party has six members.
  • By small, I mean below around 25ft by 25ft (where one 'square' is 5ft).
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  • \$\begingroup\$ I think that this style of advice based question, while subjective, can certainly be answered following the 'Good Subjective, Bad Subjective' ethos. Someone who has come up against this problem, and worked out a solution would be well suited to give a comprehensive answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Jun 2 '16 at 10:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree. Answerers, talk about techniques you have used or seen used - do NOT just toss out ideas that sound good but are untested. Others; vote down answers that do not "back it up!" as Good Subjective answers. We're not going to stop doing techniques questions here, we just need to self-police them better. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jun 2 '16 at 11:36
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I've been successful in developing good combat grids by chaining more than one room together. This way, the outnumbered team can keep retreating further inside (maybe acquiring reinforcements on the path), and the outnumbering party can try to set flanks and move in parallel rooms, trying to surround them. This keeps the fight from staying stagnant (everyone adjacent, trading blows), and give the outnumbering party a glimpse of strategy beyond "send our best melee fighter to fight at the chokepoint".

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "use multiple small rooms". I had always had the conceit, for some reason, that encounters generally stayed in one room and that was that. \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Jun 2 '16 at 12:11
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"Always" is a pretty strong word, but yes, you have a point.

Picture a situation where the party wants to retreat to a small room - for example, they're horribly outnumbered and prefer to engage the enemies in a confined space. This'll likely create an encounter where the party is in no immediate danger of being defeated during a single "roomful" of enemies, but rather is stuck in a battle of attrition.

While battles of attrition aren't inherently bad, in such a small tactical space it'll likely result in the players doing the exact same thing for several rounds to crush their opposition. The eventual victor is decided by whether the player's resources or the enemies run out first. Chances are the players will find it tedious and boring instead of tense and dramatic.

To address this particular problem, I suggest the GM cut the battle short. If the monsters would be facing suicidal odds rushing in the room, they should realize this after the first roomful or two get slaughtered, retreat into a defensive position and hand the initiative back to the players. This effectively makes the small room option a test of the players' tactical aptitude - if they use the small room, they pass the test and get a reward of some easier kills while still having to face most enemies elsewhere.

You also mention the problem of not all characters being able to fight effectively, for example, the wizard's area spells being unusable because of collateral damage concerns. I don't see this as a necessarily bad thing, to be honest. If used in moderation, a challenging small room can be a way to break the affected characters' players out of their ruts and try out things they wouldn't do otherwise, or explore their characters' tactical weak points. The game'll be more interesting if the characters will have to prepare for something more than just optimal circumstances!

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Something that has worked very well for me is to simply double the scale for that encounter. It doesn't really breaks the game if a square equals 3 feet for one encounter, so long as it is applied across the board. Thus a 25 foot square room instead of containing 25 (5x5) discrete squares for maneuvering has 64 (8x8), more than double. This gives a lot more options for movement and placement without straining the suspension of disbelief too much.

It does require you to mentally make conversion on the fly, since most spells and movement are based in feet, but you probably do it already, converting a 30 foot movement to 6 squares. You still have a movement of 6 squares in the new scale. That it now indicates 18 feet is immaterial. Just convert to squares like you almost certainly do in your head already, and ignore the real-world measurement.

Keep the scale of furniture to the figure scale, so that it makes sense in relation to the miniatures. There are simply more squares to move around in. If you are using physical miniatures, the furniture may look a bit large assuming your squares are still 1 inch across, but the benefits of interesting tactics outweighs the slight cognitive dissonance.

Beyond that, put things in the room that can be used tactically: tables for cover or hiding (emerging from under a table makes for a good Sneak Attack), pillars, stairs for verticality, fireplaces and candlesticks for access to well fire, alcoves to break up the wall line, things to throw like vases or small statues, back-to-back bookcases to fire through — the possibilities are many.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ That's a very intereasting idea. I very much liked your small mention of verticality. That got me thinking; a small gound area does not necessarily mean a small combat area. The vertical (z) axis has to be taken into account too, with the possibilities that balconies, raised platforms, etc. bring. \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Jun 2 '16 at 16:15
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The main problem with such enclosed encounters is that combat tends to be slow and static. Static, because combatants quickly take most optimal positions they can get and after that there is not much incentive to change position and as a result no options for manuever. Slow, because even this best-there-is positions don't allow combatants to fully utilize their combant potential. Combat turns repetitive and dull.

But there is an easy fix for this - throw in an event tips established balance off, so players would have to re-adjust. A door suddenly breaks open and a second group of monsters coming from sideway corridor is threatening to flank your party. Someone accidentally spills oil and now half of the room is on fire. Walls start to close in slowly. Or just enemies figured out a clever way to break your line, etc.

As for wizzard not being able to fully utilize power and alike - it's not your job as DM to overcome obstacles, that's for players to figure out. For example, if I would be a player in such situation, I would suggest applying fire(or any other chosen element) protectionto a party and then go all-out with spells with that affinity.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm afraid this answer falls into 'Bad Subjective'. You need to provide evidence that you have tried some of these techniques yourself. Also, surely having more monsters come into the room would cause it to become even more crowded, exacerbating the movement problem? \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Jun 2 '16 at 14:20

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