Your beloved combat, carefully planned to be engaging and tactical, has become a battle of attrition. Dead bandits lie everywhere and their Leader stands alone, surrounded by all of the party’s melee combatants. Standing in a tight, immobile, 15-foot cluster, everyone takes turns wailing on each other – until someone becomes a corpse.
Battles in Dungeons and Dragons can easily become slugfests.
In this article, I am going to be discussing different objectives to use within combat encounters. There are a wealth of concepts that have already been put forward on this topic, so consider my recommendations to be additional reading alongside sources such as this. Each of my objectives come in the following format:
What to call it.
A quick description of the concept and how it will change gameplay.
How to utilize the combat objective within the 5e ruleset.
As a quick aside, most encounters in Dungeons and Dragons are expected to be formal battles. Many creatures are built with interesting powers to make the normal ‘Battle of Attrition’ style combat interesting (turning the party against each other, restricting movement, inflicting poision). The following ideas are meant to make certain battles exceptionally memorable for your players – not really as a replacement for your average DnD combat encounter.
Disable a Generator
Something on the battlefield is generating more enemies. Be it a summoning circle or a tunnel leading to the goblin lair, the players need to find and destroy the generator before the enemies will cease spawning. This forces the players to keep moving, but also encourages them to cull the enemy ranks as they go, so that they are not overwhelmed after the generator is destroyed. Clearly identify the generator upon the battlefield at a distance no closer than four Dash actions from the fastest party member. Begin with three or more enemies in the encounter, matching the party’s Easy XP Threshold. Roll 1d4 at the beginning of the initiative order each round. Generate one enemy beside the generator on a 3 result, generate two enemies on a 4 result.
Chinese Fire Drill
A force (magic, disease, or environmental factors) is wreaking havoc on the battlefield, forcing both parties to shuffle and account for new vulnerabilities.
Set the party against a group of enemies suitable for their Medium XP Threshold. Every three rounds apply the blind status to a random party member and a random enemy. Eliminate blind status effects from the rest of the party and enemies. I choose the blind status for this, so that the affected player can still move and attempt attacks – albeit at disadvantage.
The battlefield is littered with pockets of astral energy, tokens of the divine, or glowing runes that are waiting to be claimed. These collectibles offer health/buffs which could turn the tide of the current battle. This keeps the players extremely mobile and allows you to pit them against extraordinarily difficult foes.
Set the party against a group of enemies suitable for their Deadly XP Threshold. Place a number of pickup tokens on the battlefield equal to four times the number of party members. Create a table of random effects (all positive) to give the PCs when they move into the same square as a pickup token. The pickup token is destroyed after the effect is applied.
A powerful wizard, a prankster Divine, or a strange Eldritch Field have made killers into healers – and healers into killers. Whenever a PC should inflict damage on a target, the target is instead healed by that much damage. Whenever a PC’s spell or item should heal a target, it instead inflicts an equivalent number of damage. This forces a temporary role reversal within the party, lasting for an entire encounter.
Set the party against a group of enemies suitable for their Medium XP Threshold. Be aware that the party will likely deal much less damage per turn and have a much higher potential for healing per turn, so pit them against low-health high-damage enemies.
I used the Disable and Generator and Evil Doctor objectives from this list to great effect in my last campaign. If you decide to give any of them a try, let me know how it goes in the comments! I’ll probably be back with more of these combat encounters sometime in the future.