Combat can be D&D’s greatest asset and its biggest downfall. While combat with a dragon can show off D&D’s epic, complex, and rewarding tactical system, the same complexity can cause combat grind to a tedious halt. Taking 40 minutes to fell three lowly orcs is not everyone’s idea of fun.
Here, I’ll show you how to avoid the overly long and boring combats by giving you tools to identify when you should end it. These tools come in the form of questions you should be constantly asking yourself during every combat.
Are the NPCs willing to continue this fight? OR Are the NPCs willing to die for this?
Too often fights continue to the last man. This waists time, doesn’t make sense, and misses out on a lot of interesting opportunities. Lets say a group of bandits is trying to rob the party. Their motivation is gold. But when they accidentally choose a well armed party to hold up, and two of their six members are slaughtered in six seconds, do the bandits fight to the death for the gold? What good is gold to them when they are dead?
Asking yourself this question will often bring up the answer “no”, and allow you to start ending combat with the help of the next two questions.
Do the NPCs have another way to accomplish their goals?
This question will have many other articles written about it because it focuses on a key DMing principle of understanding your NPCs. For now, we will look at how to use this question to end combat.
The goal of the villain is to take the PCs prisoner… He offers a ceasefire if the party will surrender. The goal of the monster is to get food… It smells meat in one of the players packs and tries to steal their adventuring pack (along with their gear) and escape. An aspiring spellcaster wants to become more powerful.. He will end a fight and leave for a look at the mage’s spellbook. An ogre hiding out in his cave just wants to be left alone… He grabs the limp body of the unconscious ranger and threatens to slit his throat if the party doesn’t leave his cave.
Constantly looking for interesting or clever ways for the NPCs to accomplish their goals will often lead to an even more interesting and intense combat or standoff. Imagine the party chasing a spider with their backpack straight into its nest, or a negotiation with an angry ogre holding a blade to their ally’s neck.
Can the NPCs flee or surrender?
In the toughest situations the NPCs can give up or run. This is just a variation on the last question but probably the most common way for NPCs to behave when losing a fight. Even unintelligent creatures like a giant spider will curl up and play dead before fighting to the death. Not only does this make combat move swifter, but it adds versatility and make them move swifter and feel more realistic.
The only creatures that should usually fight to the death should have a pretty good reason too, Like blood frenzied berserkers, undead with little intelligence, and animated constructs to name a few. Sometimes, players wont accept the surrender, in which case they can chase them down, execute them, or keep fighting.
Do the players know they will win?
The previous question gives you strong reasons to end combat. But most combats need to end for mechanical and entertainment reason. “Do the players know they will win” is a great way to decide if you should end combat. The Angry GM wrote an article that discussed “the dramatic question”. The dramatic question is the question that the PCs and players are trying to answer, such as, “Will the party make it past the hungry monsters”, or “will the party survive the ambush”. Once the PCs and players know the answers to these questions, the dramatic question is answered and the tension is resolved. When you are taking 15-30 minutes to play out a combat that has no remaining tension, that’s boring.
In a recent 5E game I played, a level 12 party had killed all but one orc. But the DMs rigid combat thinking trapped us into initiative order because there was still one enemy left to slay. Two players were in another area and couldn’t get to the orc on their turns. The next two players used cantrips because they didn’t want to waist a bigger spell… both missed. Finally the last player hit the orc and killed it. To kill this one orc, we wasted 5 turns of combat and ten minutes of real time. Even if the orc had the opportunity to go again, we still knew we had won the fight and it would at most do negligible damage to us.
So once your players or PCs know they will win the fight, end it unless something else is about to happen like reinforcements showing up.
Will the players spend more high level resources?
Many RPGs, especially D&D and Pathfinder, are about resource attrition. This fact is one of the major reasons GMs are hesitant to end combat early. In the GMs mind, if they end a combat early, then the part wont experience the full resource attrition of that combat. The bad guy might get one last hit causing 10 points of damage. Two encounters later those 10 hitpoints could be the difference between life and death. The issue here is that GMs have to decide to trade mechanics for fun. As a GM you have to decide if 10 HP of resource attrition is worth 30 minute of game time in a fight the PCs and players know they have already won.
To help you decide when to end combat you can ask yourself if the players are likely to expend any more high level resources. Back to our orc example: If a high level party is fighting a group of orcs and hits them with a fireball, killing all but one orc, the combat should be over. The party isn’t going to waist another fireball or high level spell to kill it, and it isn’t likely to do much damage to the party. If you continue combat the party will use only basic attacks to finish it off. This is a huge problem because it rids the combat of what makes combat fun, making decisions. “I basic attack”, isn’t the most exciting round of combat.
There are two clues your players will give you when your combats have run out of steam. First, if an entire round goes by and none of the players have used any high level resources, it means the players feel they have won.
(High level resource scales with the party. Magic missile is a high level resource for a level 2 party, but not a high level resource for a level 15 party.)
The second clue is when players say something to the effect of, “I guess I’ll just_____ again”. Unless the ____ is filled with the words “fireball” or “cast disintegration”, this response is telling you that the player feels like they don’t have any decisions left to make in this combat. The usual missing word is something to the effect of basic attack, or cast a cantrip.
There are of course exceptions to these questions that give you a good reason to stay in combat.
Is there a likelihood of character death?
We play role playing games to make decisions and see their consequences. Death is the ultimate consequence. In order to slow down time to such detail as there is in combat and initiative order, you need a good reason. When a PC is near death, there is no better time to slow down the game and allow the extra time to make turn by turn tactical decisions. Even in situations where you should otherwise end combat, like when there are only one or two weak enemies left, the threat of death can give you the tension and excitement you require to keep the game moving slow mechanically.
Once the dramatic question has been answered though, “will the PC die”, and the players know their friend will live, look back at the above questions and decide if it is time to end combat.
Is this a solo monster, boss, or important NPC?
There are four reasons not to end combat early when fighting a solo monster, boss, or NPC. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t, just that these fights are more likely to play out to the end.
The first two reasons are mechanical. Solo monsters usually don’t get weaker toward the end of battle. When you are fighting five orcs, and you kill four of them, the are 1/5 as strong as they were to fight. They get 1/5 the attacks, doing 1/5 the damage, and lose access to many of the tactics that make them dangerous. A dragon on the other hand has the same number of attacks and same amount of damage at 200 HP as it does at 1 HP. This means that the party is likely to keep using high level resources and that they don’t know when they have won the fight till near the very end.
The second mechanical reason solos and bosses can play out combat longer is that they tend to be more of a threat. The dragon tends to do a lot more damage in be a lot more deadly than the groups of creatures you are fighting at a similar level. This means the risk of death is higher and often only one bad roll away, which leads to the next point.
Bosses are exciting to fight. The threat of death, the size of the monster, or just the fact that you have been chasing this person for years makes the battle more exciting and emotionally engaging.
Lastly, boss fights often have consequences. They can open up new areas of the world, rid the world of evil, gain the party massive treasure, or the boss can escape and lead the party on a mission of vengeance when it returns at a later time. Whichever way, these fights give you mechanical reasons and emotional tension to allow your fights to continue longer.
The last and most important question…
Is everyone having fun?
If the answer is a resounding “yes”, then the fight can probably continue for a few more turns. If the answer is “No”, “IDK” or you notice your players looking at their cell phones and spacing off, then it’s probably time to end it.