“Help! My players are bored in combat! How do I make my encounters more interesting?”
DMs ask this question all the time, and the usual answer is always a variation on the same theme: add new things to combat. New monsters (there’s a whole book of ’em!), new skill challenges (the tossing deck of a ship!), new tactical challenges (archers hidden in the trees!) The implication is the same: if your encounter is “You bust down the door and there is a monster in the room. It attacks you!” then it’s boring. If your encounter is “You bust down the door and the room is on fire and a monster attacks you and you step on a pressure plate and the party is sprayed with acid” then it isn’t.
More often than not, these DMs come back later with the same problem:
“Help! I’m doing X, Y, and Z, but my players are still bored in combat!”
It’s not that those wrinkles don’t make for more interesting combat, but that the DM has asked the wrong question. Unless you play D&D as a tactical miniatures game, encounters aren’t “more interesting” because you introduce skill checks or environmental challenges. That’s just a new set of variables and a few more dice rolls that get sorted out quickly and then metagamed in ensuing rounds. You run the risk, if you make the combat unpredictable, that the players feel cheated when they die, because they had no chance to figure out the new variables and metagame them appropriately. The players are left unsatisfied, and the DM doesn’t understand what he needs to do to fix it.
He needs to ask the right question:
“How do I make this combat more important?”
Think about the best action scenes from movies: do you remember the specific stunts, or do you remember the intensity of the scene? If you were to describe the mechanical action of a scene to someone, would they be as enthusiastic? With perhaps a few exceptions–The Matrix; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Fellowship of the Ring–the answer is no.
There’s a reason that, when you read stories of other people’s games, they always come with context to set the scene. As the DM, you need to set the scene for the players. You are responsible for posing the dramatic question:
- Will the man who murdered the Paladin’s family escape while his henchmen create a diversion?
- Can the rogue assassinate the guards before one of them sounds the alarm?
- There are two hostages: can the party save both? Which will they save first?
- The party pulled off the heist, but will they survive the betrayal by their ally?
- Can the party make it to the portal before it collapses and seals the villain’s escape?
When I posed those questions, did your mind start constructing the scene? Notice that there’s nothing tactical, environmental, or monster-driven about the scene. Mechanically, there’s nothing special about any of those encounters. You could run them as plain-vanilla combat in a room with some monsters, but they’re already more exciting to the players because you’ve defined the stakes.
In contrast to the usual recommendations, rather than making metagame tactical decisions, each of these questions forces players to make decisions in-character. The Paladin of Vengeance’s player must decide if his character would chase the villain and fulfill his sworn oath, or protect his friends and allies so he does not repeat the mistakes of his past. The Wizard faces a personal dilemma: should he save the brilliant alchemist who could teach him so much about his craft, or the rich patron who funds his research? Those decisions, and the consequences of them, are what make combat exciting.
Combat is inherently dangerous, so the risk of death is part of every encounter; simply changing the tactical parameters of the encounter doesn’t make it fundamentally unique. If the only dramatic question you ever pose is, “Will the party survive combat?” then it doesn’t matter how many stunts or skill checks or desperate critical hits you let your party perform. Each encounter might be different, but they just won’t be that interesting.