Combatting the Combat Slog: Keeping Battles Fresh and Engaging in D&D

Curing Combat Slog Key Takeaways
  • Varied Objectives: Combat in D&D can become monotonous and repetitive without varied objectives.
  • Story: Combat should contribute to the story, offering drama and character development.
  • NPC Psychology: Not every enemy will fight to the death; some may flee or surrender.
  • Combat Goals: Introduce alternative goals can make battles meaningful.
  • Dynamic Combat: Use dynamic environmental elements to enhance combat.
  • Phases: Implement different combat phases to keep players engaged. Ensure combat is impactful toward future story elements.
  • Narration: Narrate the conclusion when victory is certain to avoid unnecessary slog.

If you've ever played a tabletop role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, you might be familiar with the phrase "combat slog." It's that moment in a battle when players know they've pretty much won, but they're still whittling down that last enemy's health. Victory feels inevitable, but there's still this need to drop that hit point bar down to zero. This can, unfortunately, sap the excitement out of what might have otherwise been an epic confrontation. So, how do we sidestep this quagmire and make every round of combat feel meaningful? Grab your swords, adventurers, because we're about to dive into some serious hack'n'slash.

The Combat Slog Problem: Where’s the Thrill?

Combat in 5e D&D often suffers from a perception of monotony. It's not always that it's lengthy, but sometimes it lacks varied and meaningful objectives. Sure, every orc, goblin, and gelatinous cube wants to be acknowledged, but making every battle a "defeat all enemies" scenario can feel repetitive. Understanding why this happens is the first step to finding a solution.

Why Shouldn't We "Kill 'Em All"?

To understand why combat slog happens, lets explore why reducing every enemy to zero hit points isn't always the best approach. Here's a hint; its boring! But there is more to it. Let's explore why.

It's Draining: Lengthy combats where players repeatedly hammer away at an enemy's hit points can become exhausting. If your goal is to roll more dice, that's fine, but sometimes it's better to enjoy the fun part of combat and then skip the grind.

Missed Narrative Opportunities: Combat can be a rich source of storytelling. If every fight is just about reducing hit points to zero, we miss chances for drama, character development, and interesting plot twists. In real life, a creature only puts its life on the line if its worth it. Combat should always be worth the risk.

Lack of Realism: Not every antagonist fights to the death. Intelligent beings might flee, bargain, or surrender once they recognize the tide turning against them. Even an evil thieving marauding pirate might rather live another day than die by the sword. Maybe, just maybe, a creature values its life more than its video game counterpart.

    Slog Solutions: Spice Up Your Encounters

    I personally don't use too many random tables because, well, they're too random for me! I either choose to put in a thematic combat or not. And that is part of the point, make sure the combat has meaning, otherwise you have immediately set up a combat slog right from the beginning. To keep combat engaging, consider implementing these strategies to add variety and excitement to your encounters.

    Incorporate Objectives

    One effective way to keep combat engaging is to introduce varied objectives beyond just defeating enemies. If combat is the main problem to solve, you will get a whole lot of swords and shields banging together for sure. Sometimes, though, if you set up the problem to be something other than just combat, it can add in a whole new set of problems to solve. Consider the following ideas:

    Protection Missions: Maybe the goal isn't to defeat the enemies but to protect an innocent NPC or a crucial artifact. NPCs can easily retreat once they know they will fail.

    Time-Sensitive Goals: Rather than wiping out foes, perhaps players need to interrupt a ritual or prevent a gate from closing. Here, completing a thematic event from happening is the goal, not the combat. This again gives an easy out for combat once it has run its course.

    Chase Scenes: Imagine an Indiana Jones-style boulder chase, but with goblins your players need to outpace. Again, the objective here isn't to kill every other creature, it is just to escape which significantly raises the stakes. In this type of scenario, you can ramp up pressure hard and then quickly allow the players to outpace the enemies thematically when you're ready giving flexibility to your combat.

    By incorporating these strategies, you can add layers of excitement and challenge to your combat encounters, ensuring they remain engaging and dynamic.

      Leverage the Environment

      Another way to add excitement to combat is to make use of the environment. I, for one, love building maps. I recognize that this isn't everyone's thing, but if you have ever played hot lava with couch cushions or chased your sibling around the house, you already know how much the environment can change your actions.

      Static Elements: First off, I want you to recognize that a blank room with wood, tile, or stone is just a flat surface. Even if you put a table in the middle, it's just a flat room. The key is to make that table an obstacle that can be used creatively. Maybe it's full of food, has candles, or breaks if stepped on. Perhaps every object on your game table isn't important, but at least a few should be to liven up the space.

      Interactive Elements: Similar to the idea above, environmental factors that are dynamic, like a collapsing bridge, swinging chandeliers, or a room slowly filling with water, can add extra layers to the combat. I once had my players sandwiched by two gelatinous cubes in a small hallway after falling through a trap door. Talk about splitting the party!

      Creative Tactics: Again, like the first example, encourage creative tactics by introducing elements players can interact with. Perhaps that chandelier isn’t just for decoration. (Hint: it never is!) Consider that a brazier that gets knocked down can cause a quickly spreading fire, requiring areas of difficult and dangerous terrain.

      By leveraging the environment, you can make combat encounters more immersive and engaging, keeping players on their toes and encouraging creative problem-solving.

        Shifting the Battle Objective

        Sometimes, changing the focus of the battle can add a new layer of complexity and engagement. Consider altering the objective from murder hobo to something more discrete.

        Capture, Not Kill: Not all quests need to result in NPC deaths. If the goal becomes to capture an opponent for information, this can quickly turn a standard fight into a chase scene promoting non-violent techniques. There are a whole list of utility abilities and spells for exactly this reason. Allows chances for your players to use them. They will thank you for it.

        Diplomacy or Bargaining: If the tide of battle shifts, foes might try to negotiate, offering valuable information, treasure, or a future favor in exchange for their freedom. It is not uncommon for my sessions to have a quick free action comment where me or my other players offer the others a way out. Even if it's sinister, or a lie, it adds to the encounter. I've often said from both a player and a DM standpoint, "Throw down your arms and I'll spare your life." What happens next is anyone's guess, but the fact of having dialogue peppered into a combat on everyone's turns certainly combines both RP and combat at the same time.

        Stages or Phases in Combat

        Okay, so tabletop D&D obviously isn't a video game, but console gamers certainly have done some things right since their inception. Introducing different stages or phases in combat can keep players on their toes and add depth to encounters. No one really expects a set change in the middle of a scene. Can you imagine watching a theater show and the stage changes before your eyes?

        Combat phases in video games boss fights are basically the norm these days. Having different stages with varied attacks or abilities as the enemy's health diminishes can really turn your player's heads. Typically most encounters last somewhere between 3-8 rounds where a bunch of PCs pound on the BBEG diminishing resources. This is great, but if you've played for a while you know how to manage your resources well enough to adapt. Changing the stakes right in the middle of a combat will do wonders to keep your players on edge.

        Incorporate Consequences

        I mentioned earlier that I like to have thematic encounters. Sure, every once in a while I might throw in an encounter that slows story progress down with a relevant creature, but for the most part, the combat should make sense. Think about it, creatures are putting their lives on the line for something. It should be worth it!

        By making the outcome of combat meaningful you can enhance the storytelling aspect of your game. Remember, winning isn't just about survival, its about moving the story forward in meaningful ways. Each battle, whether it was a success or loss, should impact future story elements, NPC relationships, or even the world's political landscape.

        Wrapping Up Encounters Gracefully

        When combat nears its end, how you conclude the encounter can impact the overall sessions experience. There is no distinct way to know when you have hit ultimate combat slog, but I can tell you that is around 25% of the overall enemy health. If the players are in the same boat, maybe you've got a slightly tighter race to the end, but for the most part, many fights are larger sided toward the PCs, especially if you use lots of smaller encounters for your adventuring day.

        Quick Resolution

        One method is that once it’s clear the party has the upper hand, narrate the remainder, highlighting the party's prowess. I am always a fan of draining player resources slowly, but when a win is imminent, just let it go. There is no more value for anyone when your wizard resorts to cantrips to finish an enemy.


        It often surprises me how many times a humanoid will fight to the death. I completely understand why, but historically, that's not how battles are won. Sure, this isn't real life, but the main point of DMing is your story. Slitting the throats of every last goblin hardly seems heroic so maybe, just maybe, that goblin realizes he's in over his head and bolts for a glorious retreat or drops his weapons and begs for mercy. Now, what do you do with that prisoner? Oof, that's a moral question for your party, now, isn't it?

        Cinematic Finish

        One of the most often used techniques that makes players feel great is offering the players a chance to describe their finishing moves, adding to the encounter's flair. I'm not saying that the player drained every hit point, far from it, but if combat has gone on long enough, maybe dealing 12 damage is good enough to kill a critter with 13 or even 20 hit points. Unless that creature has an ace up its sleeve, allow that player the satisfaction of describing their final blow.

        Post-Battle Roleplay

        After the dust settles, give players an opportunity to do some roleplaying. It's likely that combat just chewed up 30+ minutes of time, so a little switch to conversation instead of combat might be a good change of pace. It could be a moment to tend to the wounded, celebrate an in-game success, discuss their next steps, or most importantly search for loot. If the battle was well placed, creative, and thematic, post-battle roleplay will take care of itself.

        I'll mention one pet peeve I encounter with DMs here, and you'll see why, but I often just tell the players what the creatures have on them if its important. If you just finished a battle, and the expectation is that everyone checks for loot, magic items, or objects large enough to easily be seen, just say it out loud assuming the characters would have done so. It's not like you narrate every time a character needs to eat or destroy the local tavern outhouse. Some things can just happen naturally without needing to be prompted.

        One time when I was a player and we were escorting a young NPC through a dungeon scenario (maybe to get to the other side?). The kid ran at the first sign of trouble which certainly makes sense, plus, the DM didn't want to deal with a child in combat which is a perfectly fine choice if they weren't going to add any wrinkles to the battle. After the combat, we decided to move forward down the corridor after we collected loot, tended to wounds, and other post-combat things. About 15-minutes later our DM informed us that we never "said out loud" that we collected the child that ran into the other room. Remember, this isn't grade school, its pretend adventuring for 3-6 players escorting an NPC. Let's be honest, we didn't count heads before going to the playground, but let's be real here, the kid came with us. And if he was no where to be found, the characters would have noticed, even if the players didn't say it out loud. If that sounds like you, you probably count how many arrows are in your quiver, too, don't you? But I digress!

        D&D Combat Sucks

        Whoa there, Buck-O! Don't throw out the baby with the bath water! While D&D's combat is often celebrated for its tactical depth and structured mechanics, incorporating storytelling techniques like we've already discussed as well as from other RPG systems can add layers of complexity to your encounters. Borrow from systems like FATE, where narrative-driven actions and creative problem-solving take center stage. Encourage players to describe their combat maneuvers in vivid detail and use narrative hooks, such as shifting battle objectives or environmental interactions, to make each encounter feel dynamic and story-driven. Allowing player choices to directly impact the unfolding narrative can also enhance the storytelling aspect. By blending D&D’s mechanical structure with these techniques, you can transform combat from a series of dice rolls into an engaging and immersive experience that prioritizes storytelling as much as strategy.

        The Final Blow

        Objective-driven outcomes offer more than just a respite from combat slog; they bring life, depth, and dynamism to encounters. They can turn a straightforward brawl into a memorable story moment, filled with choices, consequences, and rich character development. Remember, the journey, the decisions, and the moments of tension often matter more than the final outcome of any single battle.

        Combat can be so much more than trading blows. It can be a rich tapestry of storytelling, drama, and decision-making. By keeping objectives varied, environments interactive, and resolutions fresh, we can ensure that our D&D combat encounters remain thrilling from start to finish.

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