How to make D&D melee combat better

D&D melee combat

D&D melee combat can be boring. At higher levels magic and spells will be zinging and flying while you are on the ground unable to hit the flying monster.

D&D melee combat should be as fun and interesting as magic users. D&D melee combat requires detail, items, and for the DM to give more options.

How is swinging an axe equal to or even better than magic? Let me give you a few reasons why my melee characters are as fun as any wizard.

Detail

Gorgoth rolls an 18 to hit the goblin and deals 8 points of damage.

This is boring and why D&D melee combat is generally so dull. Magic has built in detail while melee does not. This is why people tend to like magic a bit more at higher levels. Try to add some detail to make the combat feel more alive!

Gorgoth rolls to hit the goblin and rolls an 18 while dealing 8 points of damage. Instead of just saying ok and writing it down, do this as a dungeon master.

Gorgoth swings at the goblin and pushes down the goblin’s shield as you cleave into its shoulder. The goblin bellows in pain as it struggles to move its shield arm.

This! This adds a ton of detail to make melee feel alive! If you are able to use terrain and movement the do as well in your descriptions.

Gorgoth steps to the right and brings his ax to strike. The panicking goblin tries to turn but has its foot caught on a pot. You cleave into its side as it spurts up blood. The goblin is still alive, but it is not looking great.

That may be a little bit much, but you can really make a combat scene come alive with description. If you are worried about it adding extra time to your game just think about all the extra time casters get when they are looking up spells.

Your extra detail will not take too much time to explain and when you describe something you start to get more into it. Hand gestures might start happening, emotions pour through, and melee players get very interested.

You can decide the exact amount of detail since each group varies, but more is generally better than less. People are not as squeamish as you would think.

Let them do more

Gorgoth when swinging always just attacks. What if they try to disarm, pull, push, or grapple the opponent instead?

You can help a player who is not this creative by asking why they only attack with their ax. If the player is confused act confused as well and explain the different options. Most people don’t even consider these options, but they can be far more beneficial than just an attack.

How much damage can 1 attack do? An alright amount, but what if you disabled an opponent by grappling them? That magic user is not able to cast and won’t win in a strength contest. Expose him to be stabbed by the party and bam! You have done more than a bunch of spells would.

Some other options are to allow extra melee effects to happen.

In 3.5 there was an option for ‘called shots.’ These attacks gave the players some extra damage at the cost of accuracy. These called shots, more importantly, gave the player a sense meaning. Attacks did more than just damage and had greater inherent value.

There are two ways to implement this into the current game.

  1. Make your melee attacks have thematic effects.
  2. Give your players an in-game advantage for creativity.

Option 1 is the safest option by far. If you let a melee attack shatter a sword or rend a shield then you can pull out a backup. Even if you pull out a backup item the melee character still feels that raw power of just overpowering their opponent. The opponent can also appear panicked and make the melee player think of other options than just attacking.

Option 2 is very dependent on your group and game. Option 2 gives your melee characters a great boost in power since destroying enemy items, disabling limbs, and even more make melee attacks more powerful than they were intended to be.

I personally like going with option 1 and only introduce option 2 if a player is struggling. Option 2 is meant to condition a player to think of these creative solutions on their own. Eventually, you want them to use option 1, but this is up to you when and if you ever want to use option 2.

Items

Gorgoth shoots a fireball from his axe and pulls out a wand of magic missiles in one hand and a javelin of lightning in the other that creates a lightning bolt!

This is not what you want to do.

D&D melee combat is hard to do at high levels for most melee characters, but you should never make that melee user a caster.

Melee users want to hit things up close! That is why they picked a barbarian, fighter, or whatever instead of a prissy little wizard. So how would melee characters not become useless at higher levels?

Items my friend. More importantly, utility items.

A martial character becomes a walking armory at higher levels. They have cold iron, adamant, 3 types of magical weapons, ranged weapons with special ammo and more.

Since martial characters have a habit of collecting a kingdom’s worth of items, why not give them some utility items?

I am not talking about a weapon of returning. That has been done in many forms and only allows the melee user 1 attack per round, maybe with dex to hit instead of strength, and it just sucks.

Instead, give your melee players some utility items. Give them a gem of misty step that lets them misty step 1x per short rest. Give them boots of flying that are only useable for 1 minute per day. If you need to give them consumables that grant movement bonuses like dimension door!

You do not need to grant stat boosting items to melee. They get enough of those as is but make sure that melee characters get movement items.

Have a problem with greedy magic users wanting to get magic items? Make them unable to use these items!

How would you go about doing that? Very simple.

There have been people who are high level melee characters before in your world right? Were those melee characters tired of not being able to do anything? Did they do something about it? Lets say they did and everyone wanted these utility items. Make the items only work for a melee class.

You can do this by only allowing certain gems to be used when a character has x strength or when someone is wearing plate armor.

This also allows you to creatively give everyone magic items if you wish, but the problem is solved! Give your melee characters a way to do things and not just be useless.

Diminishing other classes.

D&D melee combat is less fun than magic for most home games.

That is why I have seen people suggest that you should just make encounters cater more towards melee.

I agree and disagree to a point.

We have some encounters that clearly favor ranged combat. Other encounters favor magic over anything else. Some can favor melee as well.

What I am not okay with is making someone useless in order to make another class feel powerful.

If your answer to make melee characters feel better is to just throw magic resistant creatures stop.

If you want to make magic less viable by not giving the wizard any chance to gain new spells except for when they level up stop.

I have seen some dungeon masters diminish other classes just for the sake of melee and it makes those players lives extremely boring.

Do not punish others in order to make other people feel better. I cannot state this enough. If you have a creature is immune to magic (Rakshasa) this is annoying but okay if not overdone. Just please do not take it too far and make your magic users want to quit. I did after a long time playing in a game that greatly favored melee and I stuck around much longer than I should have.

Don’t do what I did, and don’t be like the dungeon master who did that to me.

If you want some situations that make melee a bit better and do not completely punish others for not taking melee, here are some suggestions.

Ambush the party

If the party is ambushed enemies are much closer and the party doesn’t have time to prepare.

Magic users can still do something but this situation is not ideal for them. It is ideal for melee characters though.

D&D melee combat will happen in an ambush. You will make casters have to deal with melee, and your melee characters will feel special since this is their specialty after all.

Non-stop combats

“Oh no we have been fighting on and off for an hour now. Spells can’t be replenished but you still have some right? Wait you blew them all in the first encounter? Welp, guess I am going to have to pick up the slack!”

That was a melee character’s opinion on non-stop combats. If you really need to let your characters rest only let them do so for a short rest. Do this a few times with maybe 3 or 4 short rests and your melee characters will be doing the best out of the entire group!

Since combat in D&D takes a while we generally do not string it along. This allows casters to not ration their spells and instead blow it all in the first encounter!

If you do not want to do this because combat takes a while, then read this article on big parties and how to manage them. I know that you might not have a big party, but the tips there can be applied to your game and considerably speed up combat.

If you are wondering how you can make combat non-stop, here are a few options.

  • Have them not rest in a dungeon! Why would the enemies let intruders rest anyway?
  • Stage rooms! People have to get through a certain amount of stages before they can rest.
  • Time-sensitive. If a task needs to be completed in a certain time frame then the party might not be able to rest whenever they want. This will push them to complete the mission with only a few rests.
  • Stagger enemies. Make them come in 5 at a time for three sets. Then they will be able to make the party expend spells and abilities that will only affect small groups.

These are just a few ideas on how to make combat non-stop, but there are plenty more out there. This should help you D&D melee combat, but if you want to make your enemies more threatening I have ideas for you as well.

Grappling

You remember how I talked about a melee character grappling an enemy caster? Why not do that with your minions?

Make them grapple your player’s who are physically weak. This way your casters have to use precious spell slots to get out of a bind or be unable to do anything.

This makes melee characters even more useful and forces the group to see the importance of frontline fighters.

Your D&D melee combat will carry weight with your players or NPCs this way and make everyone have to consider the benefits of melee.

Enemies can also use every tactic above to make your melee NPCs give players a run for their money.

One more way to make melee characters feel useful is to give them out of combat obstacles.

Strength checks

Most of the time casters shine outside of combat and melee characters do not. I know this isn’t directly related to D&D melee combat but you wanted to make your melee characters feel more useful right? If so this is a way to do it!

Since more in-game time is spent outside of combat instead of in combat players can get bored if they have nothing to do. That is why you should involve some strength checks.

Broken rubble or gates like a portcullis are a great way to give your players something to do. Clearing rubble, showing others that their giant strength isn’t completely worthless after all.

I mean, how else were they supposed to get through that wall? Find the door? Naw. Why not smash a weak spot?

These are all fine ways to help your players, but you should consider what they want.

Talk to your players

If your players are feeling like melee isn’t fun for them they have a personal reason. Instead of guessing what they want talk to them and work on making it reality.

Perhaps your players only want to be more useful outside of combat. If so add more strength checks and challenges. 1 is much better than none.

If your players feel that D&D melee combat is boring you have a whole article dedicated to help spice things up for you!

By talking to your players you will have a jumping off point and not have to take a stab in the dark. Talk to them if you are unsure and you might even be able to find a solution together.

Do your players want more?

You have talked to your player and found out that they do not want more intricate D&D melee combat. In fact, they do not want anything more. They are happy.

All of these problems were just you overthinking things and wanting your player to participate more.

This can happen and many dungeon masters want all of their players to be engaged. The truth of the matter is that some players choose melee classes because of their simplicity. They may like the detail that you add, but they don’t want to do more than just hit things.

This is completely fine. It is also a big reason why players play melee classes. Just give them utility items to stay useful and detail their awesome attacks so that they can live in the moment.

Conclusion

D&D combat is awesome if done well and boring if done terribly.

I have given you a bunch of tips to help improve combat for the player. I have also given some tips to help make melee combat more relevant based on the situation.

If you are ever confused what needs to be done talk to your players. This will give you a clear idea of what you need to do and what you do not need to do.

If you want to learn about how to make combat in general interesting I suggest reading this article about improving combat.

This has been Wizo and keep rolling!

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