Recently, I was trying to follow my own advice and run a very difficult combat encounter that involved varied terrain, non-standard situations, and a decent number of enemies and enemy types.

I found myself repeatedly forgetting that certain enemies had certain abilities, and I kept making poor tactical decisions. This was particularly bad in the case of the wizard, which was high level and had an extensive spell list. These slip-ups ultimately made the encounter much easier than I intended.

How do I handle this issue when I DM? Other than the glib "don't forget anything," are there any table-tested techniques or tricks that keep you from forgetting or overlooking abilities?

I'm running my games partially online (some players physically present, others video in), using Roll20, if anyone has suggestions that are specific to that platform.

up vote 26 down vote accepted

Prepare your tools

I find it's helpful to prepare your tools. It is a time investment to do this, but the idea is that you move the hard work to the DM prep time so you don't have to do it during the actual game.

  • Flash cards: one card per monster

    • This could just be index cards. I hand-write each one myself. The practice also helps me remember everything so that each card becomes a guide rather than a crutch.

    • List HP, AC, traits, immunities, etc. Order them according to Initiative.

    • List turn actions. Ex: Turn 1, cast Hold Person; Turn 2, cast Booming Blade.

      • This trades flexibility for speed. When you, as the DM, find that you are overwhelmed by the number of actions and options your monsters can take, you have too much flexibility. Reduce your cognitive load by determining the monsters' actions before the battle.

      • This allows you to quantify exactly how powerful a monster will be during the encounter, both in terms of damage and support.

      • This may not always be possible, or you might sometimes need to deviate from the plan. But your goal for big fights should be to design encounters that enable you to stick to the plan.

    • List reactions and triggers, with emphasis

      • Things like Feather Fall, Luck, Shield, Absorb Elements, and Contingency require you to always remember to use them, because they can happen at any given time. This is a big cognitive load you should offload to an index card. Write this on top of your turn actions: "ON HIT: Use Shield, ELSE Block with Familiar" or "AT 50% HP: Contingency Haste, THEN Run away"
    • Pre-roll attacks, damage, and ability checks

      • Just as you could pre-roll Initiative, you can do it for your monsters. This trades tension for speed. When you roll the dice, there is a perceived moment of uncertainty, which in turn spikes the tension. When the dice are pre-rolled, you reduce your cognitive load and allow the encounter to focus on your players' actions, but it removes the spotlight from your monsters.
  • Cheat Sheets: a handwritten list of encounter-relevant info that replaces the DM screen

    • The primary benefit of a DM screen is it hides your rolls. Tacking general info onto it can be useful too, but the DM screen info cannot ever be tailor-fit to serve each encounter. If you're running a big encounter, the screen will not be optimized to help you run it. Instead, use only one sheet of paper that you will write various conditions, hazards, and other notes that you think will be useful for you in this specific battle. Use only this and ignore the DM screen's info.

    • Take a second letter-sized paper, fold it in half length-wise. Use the left side to outline the flow of battle you expect to happen, but do not make it too specific. Use the right side as "post it note" space -- details that you think will be relevant at each major point in the battle's flow. For example: the DC for the trap door, the weight capacity of the bridge, or the specific reminder that this area is dimly lit. Try to limit yourself to only one page per encounter. Don't use the back of the first cheat sheet because you want to have both sheets handy at the same time.

  • Handouts: information -- maps, trivia, etc -- you give to your players ahead of time. This will let them, if they take the handout seriously, to pre-ask all the questions you consider trivial during the encounter.

    • Your players may not always take the handout seriously. They might receive it and read it, but forget about it 10 minutes later. So only fill it with info that you think they should already know, such that if they ask "what do I know about X?" or "how do I get from A to B?" you can just say, "It's in your handouts." This reduces the work you have to do to run the encounter.

    • Full Disclosure: I always run Theater of the Mind, so using maps as handouts may be more useful for me than another DM who uses grids.

Practice the battle

Run the battle over the course of the week. After a certain point, you may start considering options you didn't initially think about. This includes better strategies for your monsters, abilities you didn't know you had, or fun new twists you didn't think about previously.

This is also why it's good to do practice runs over one week. If you do it in one day, you might miss out on some of these new techniques. But if you sleep on it and come back, you might have a new insight you didn't previously have in your last test run.

Enforce order at the table

This may not be a problem for you, but it's important to keep everybody focused at the table, because some players might derail or distract you or the others. This equals more work for you as the DM, and so it may lead to you forgetting more things.

Ask the players to put their phones away. It also helps if you've built up the tension leading to this encounter, so they are on the edge of their seats and don't want to look away (use music to set the mood).

  • 3
    Flash cards and cheat sheets is almost exactly what I was going to say on this :) – Tim B May 10 '17 at 9:02
  • 1
    +1 Playing with yourself once through the campaign also helps you identify possible glitches in your tactics. Of course, it may be impossible to predict if the players will react in a similar manner, but at least you'll have an idea of what things should look like. – phyrfox May 10 '17 at 14:39
  • +1 for the note cards and cheat sheets, as well as practice runs. If I have enough time, I'll even crunch the numbers and get the overall % rates for hit, damage, etc for each NPC involved, let alone writing down the statlines. – smiley trashbag Jun 6 '17 at 22:54

Practice and Planning

Practice makes perfect, and is generally well-regarded as a good idea to both balance and prepare for encounters. Running through the encounter on your own a few times will get you used to the NPC's abilities, and when might be the best times to use each.

Planning in advance is another tactic that works. Several adventure modules include this approach, describing behaviour for creatures given certain circumstances. You can do the same, planning for your NPC to use a certain spells after certain triggers, such as planning to misty step away from an enemy that approaches in melee, or hold person the most threatening looking fighter of the group when combat begins.

First of all, the high-level wizard encounter you're describing is probably among the hardest kinds of encounters to run, for exactly the reasons that you mentioned - the bad guy has lots of options, some of which require a fairly detailed understanding of the rules.

There are a few techniques that I'm aware of for dealing with such things.

Invest the Time

Even well-practiced GMs can spend hours preparing for a complex encounter. For a published adventure, this usually means reading the encounter description and written tactics several times, as well as visualizing unusual scenarios. For an adventure you've written yourself, read over the monster stat blocks, as well as any uncommon rules that are likely to crop up (environmental hazards, uncommon conditions that the monsters can inflict, etc.).

If you know which PCs will be playing the game, you can get a pretty good idea over time of how they think and respond to particular challenges, which can help quite a bit (as opposed to a convention situation, where you have to be prepared for whoever shows up).

Of course, you don't have to prep this hard for every encounter - focus on the ones that are most important to the plot. If the grand showdown against the powerful wizard goes well, the players won't mind if one of his lackeys didn't seem quite as difficult as he should have been.

Write Notes

Some GMs find it helpful to write their own tactical notes that they can refer to during the encounter. This can take many forms depending on what works for you, but some typical examples are:

  • Consolidating rules and calculating things ahead of time. If multiple possibilities exist, 5e is pretty good about providing all the numbers (i.e., X damage if using one hand, Y damage if using two), but there are still situations where this can be helpful. For example, if you know the PCs will be fighting duergar above ground, you can note that they have disadvantage on all of their attacks right next to the attack statistics (instead of it being a few paragraphs above where it normally is).
  • Listing contingency plans. Enemies like wizards will often have their go-to spells and then other spells devoted to specific circumstances - Dimension Door for ease of movement, Faerie Fire to deal with invisible enemies, etc.

Turn the Encounter Around

If possible, put yourself in the PCs' shoes. Ask yourself what they'll be able to determine about the encounter and what things will only be clear to you, then ask yourself how you'd deal with the challenges being presented. Which enemies will they focus on? Are there things that the monsters will do that will immediately draw their attention, like inflicting certain conditions?

  • In addition to writing notes I tend to use a highlighter to emphasis the spells or abilities I think will be best to use while preparing for the encounter. – Umbranus May 10 '17 at 6:46

While I've not used them, had Encounter Cards1 that at least some tables have used. While there are a few versions of them floating around for both 4th and 5th edition, the general idea is to have a card for each different monster. So that wizard would have a stat-block with some, or all, of his spells on it, plus a few tactics that you think he might use. The other creatures will have one per type of creature.

This necessitates either using a product that someone else has made or taking the effort and time to make them yourself.


1: I can find images of them via google, but not anything like an order page, though DriveTroughRPG has some 5e Encounter cards.

I've had luck with the following tips:

  1. Have Stat printouts ready, and record damage on those printouts
  2. For simple mooks: just note AC, HP, Hit+ & Dmg on the Boss's printout
  3. For spellcasters: plan ahead for their 3 biggest spells (they're unlikely to last more than three rounds). Note any reaction spells (shield, counterspell) or pre-cast buffs next to their AC.
  4. Use just two or three creatures types (more isn't going to increase your players' enjoyment). For published adventures: replace one type with more of another if need be.
  5. If an encounter really warrants lots of different creature types, try to stagger their entrance (so that one type will likely be eliminated by the time another type appears... more like multiple separate encounters without a break in between).

Effects cards, or graphing paper.

For the graph paper example:

Create a set of numbers across the top of the paper / X axis. Create various symbols for each effect. You may need to write small if you have multiple effects to track (this may be less difficult with effects cards).

List the characters in the fight across the left side of the paper / Y axis, preferably in initiative order.

When a certain effect happens for X number of turns, mark it down ahead of time in the graph paper.

As rounds progress, cross out the old turn so you know which round you are on, and also when effects wear off!

If you have enough space or small enough cards, you can accomplish a similar effect by sliding all of the effects cards over one when a round ends.

All the other points are good, so I will try and provide simple ways you can do this.

  • One word: simplify. A complex combat for your players and a complex combat for you need not be the same. Having similar creatures coming from a variety of locations will make for something quite complex and give your players a good run. (I did that using fire giants coming into a volcano)
  • Use creatures you know and use frequently: if your campaign has a lot of slaad, use many slaad in simpler combats and grow in complexity. That way, you will be familiar with the monsters so that when you come to the big show, these monsters will be simple to use.
  • Focus your attention and energy on creatures the players will remember. A fight with 10 earth elementals that each have unique abilities will be remembered as "the elemental fight".
  • Put color dots on the base or a unique paint jobs on model to remind you visually of their abilities. "Blue dot giant is the cleric"... I have a trio of reaper giant minis (troll, hill giant, ogre) I use and that way, I can differentiate them at a glance.

Good luck and glad you reported how it went.

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