The party has battered and blasted their way through two-thirds of a dungeon.
The battles are growing less pitched and excitement is waning. The players (and their characters) have become weary and you’ve noticed that combat is beginning to drag. Then, as they tear off the wood planks barring the entrance to the dungeon’s library, you look down at your notes and sigh. A lengthy combat with five zombies waits inside.
I think the first time this happened to me was during my first two-year long campaign and, ever since, I’ve tried to have something prepared for when I misjudge the combat-to-roleplay balance. Whenever I design a dungeon crawl, I also conceptualize a Backup Room and a Sudden Turn. Both tactics are designed to give the players a short respite and get them excited about the dungeon again. I’ll break them both down below, but we’ll start with a method to avoid unwanted combats entirely.
A Backup Room
The Backup Room is a drag-and-drop non-combat encounter that fits with the theme of your current dungeon. Whenever my players are about to come upon a lengthy combat and they (or I) seem tired of fighting, I sub in my Backup Room. Here’s an example:
The Seer’s Chamber
The room surrounding you is filled with glass. A half dozen mirrors hang on every wall. Several appear to have fallen, the remains of their shattered surface scattered upon the floor alongside empty frames. A crystal ball, set upon the top of wrought iron arm, stands alone in the center of the room.
DC 15 Investigate reveals a shard of glass which, when held at the right angle, shows the words “My Life for Shar” written in blood across the eastern wall.
DC 20 Arcana allows a character to use the crystal ball to spy upon the boss encounter before entering the final chamber.
I like to write my backup room separately from the dungeon as a whole, so that I don’t need to scramble to improvise or cut out a room of the dungeon entirely (especially if the PC’s are already aware of the door to said room).
This is my preferred method, because it negates any possibility of the players knowing you messed with the flow of the dungeon. They just get a moment to rest, explore something interesting, and re-center in their characters for a minute. Sometimes you don’t know that combat has worn out its welcome until your half-way through a half hour combat. That’s when I (albeit rarely) use the following tactic:
A Sudden Turn
The Sudden Turn is meant to quickly resolve combat that is in progress, but beginning to drag. I try to work out a dungeon-specific event that could occur that could prematurely end combat, without letting the PC’s realize that I am intentionally ending a slow fight. Here’s an example:
The Cutting Wind
Just as you prepare to act, you hear a howl in the air – a sound familiar to anyone born this far north. A sudden gust grows from beyond the mountain and slaps the southerly door to the chamber off its hinges as it cuts through. The remaining enemy is hurled through the collapsed castle wall and down the cliff face. Athletics checks!
DC 10 Athletics to avoid being hauled into a wall for 1d8 force damage.
DC 14 Athletics to avoid becoming prone.
Obviously you only want to use this tactic sparingly – you never want to rob the players of a victory. Any environmental or magical danger within your dungeon is a perfect source for the sudden turn. Perhaps you have a dragon in the final chamber and a sudden blast of fire could erupt into one of the early chambers? Perhaps the subterranean cavern is unstable and the floor could collapse at any time?
Good DM’s know how to balance a game, but they also know when to admit that their carefully planned scenario is going a bit wrong. In that time, it’s good to have a pre-made alternate plan. After all, all the characters want is treasure and a good story to talk about later.