“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?”