How to help players in D&D combat is a problem for many DMs out there. Sometimes players are new, don’t know what to do, or just aren’t doing well in an encounter.
DMs panic trying to figure out how to help players in D&D combat. You need to gently help the players so that they don’t lose agency.
This is a very wide open claim. It covers too much to describe in a simple sentence, so let’s dive into what you can actually do to help players after we discuss many of the typical DM pitfalls.
But if you are looking for advice on how to help new players in D&D combat, then jump a bit further down the article to the ‘helping new players.’ section.
Your players are in combat and they are losing. The minotaur is pretty strong vs your battered party, and they don’t know what to do. They blew all their spells in the first 2 encounters and decided to press on, so what do you do? Do you have a plan on how to help players in D&D combat? Most do not, and they fall into these 3 pitfalls.
- A deus ex machina saves the players.
- The players are told how to kill the monster.
- The DM will just make the monster die.
All 3 pitfalls are terrible. They will make your players feel like their efforts are not worthwhile, and that they are just being railroaded. This is one of the worst-case scenarios. Loosing agency causes the players to feel that their efforts are invalidated and the game is pointless.
The most common pitfall for new DMs is to introduce a deus ex machina to save the players, and that is the worst option available to you.
Deus ex machina
“Your party is about to loose, but the ground suddenly collapses!”
“The party is at it’s wits end. The minotaur is cleaving through the cleric and all that is left is a cowardly wizard. There is no hope, but suddenly, a stranger appears and helps fight off the minotaur!”
Both seem thematic. They seem like a option on how to help players in D&D combat, but they are not.
These are the worst possible solutions you can have. They are contrived, and there is no reason to them. That is what makes them Deus ex machina.
If you are concerned about your players dying, you should do something about it before the fight. Mention how the cave is rumbling and seems to be unstable. Give an example, or let them know before they even go into the dungeon that other adventurers are there.
If you do either of these, the last-minute save isn’t completely contrived and can make sense. Even so, it doesn’t feel great. That is why we don’t usually want to use deus ex machinas to save the party. it is their story and they, the players, are the ones who should ultimately live or die by it.
This is for most of the time, and if done well deus ex machinas can be a good story element. Doing so correctly is extremely difficult though, and that is why we do not want to use them if possible.
There are a few ways to give your players hints before and during the fight. This is one of the best ways on how to help players in D&D combat since it gives them a sense of agency. They are the ones who ultimately solve the problem and won’t notice most of the time that you helped them. That is, if you do it right.
“An old man approaches you and asks if you are going into the dungeon. The party tells this man that they are, and the man strongly hints that they research how to stop a minotaur’s movements.”
This is the most heavy handed way of preparing your players beforehand. You are not giving hints so much as telling the players what to do. THEY need to search for information. THE PLAYERS need to take agency and ask around. But how do you get them to do so?
If the players are planning to go to a dungeon with a dangerous creature, they might talk to others. If not, the conversation might be brought up in a bar if the local dungeon is extremely dangerous. Make it into a big deal and say that they are stupid for facing a dungeon without even knowing of the main creature’s weaknesses and strengths. Use social pressure to get them to start asking.
Another way to do this is to make sure others who would know of the party’s intent council them. They ask the party what they know and then once the party inevitably states they know nothing the ally is furious and demands they research the topic more.
These are all good ways to help the party get information on a creature before they go into the dungeon, but what if they are already in a dungeon? What if they didn’t research, and what if the encounter just suddenly turned into an unexpected hard fight?
Hints during the encounter
“You hit the minotaur in the leg last time. It is really hurt there. Billy, you hit the minotaur in the leg on your current turn right?”
Again, this is very heavy-handed. Many DMs out there will panic when trying to figure out how to help players in D&D combat. They will tell the players what to do. This is happening in the example, but the DM might not see it right away. The players will catch on, and they won’t like this.
You need to chose how you will want to affect combat before you give any hints.
There are many different ways to enhance combat. You can use the environment or add limb damage for special occasions. We talk about it here in our article on making combat more fun and engaging. We also talk about using detail and other aspects of combat in making D&D melee combat more fun, but that isn’t what we are talking about.
We are covering how to help players in D&D combat, so read those articles to figure out how you will do so. Now that you have a plan on how to affect combat, we can work on giving hints.
All hints involve a little bit of detail. If you are using the environment to affect combat, make it clear that the player with high perception spots a patch of sticky mud when their arrow misses. Tell the fighter that the stalactites are making it hard to move, and that they are causing the minotaur to miss sometimes. These little details will spark ideas in the player’s minds. They are strange creatures that may not work on logic, but they are extremely creative.
These are all hints on using the environment, but what about the monster?
Hints on how to defeat a monster
The benefit of the previous sections are that they are not heavy-handed. Your players will never figure out that you are giving them hints on how to win. You are just describing the scene after all.
When giving hints on how to help players in D&D combat by straight up telling them what to do, it can cause problems.
We gave an example earlier about attacking the minotaur’s leg. If they can’t use their leg, they can’t catch up, and you can just make it into a pin cushion. Extremely easy, but heavy handed. Here is a better way of going about it.
“You strike the minotaur in the thigh and cut deep enough to see it’s bones. The minotaur is struggling to move after you, grunting in pain with every movement. But slowly, it still presses on.”
There is a lot of fancy description there, but the end is what is most important. Players pay attention to the beginning and the end of the description the most and adding the ‘slowly’ adjective it can give the players’ ideas. “If the minotaur is slower, how much slower is it? Can I make it even slower?”
These are common thoughts, but you can take this even further. Describe in the introduction of the creature where something is off. If not in the introduction, state that ‘now that you are up close, you see….’ and give a possible weakness.
These are all active description based ways of giving hints, but there are some common knowledge ways on how to help your players.
Common knowledge help
One of the most interesting ways on how to help players in D&D combat is through common knowledge. How many times have you seen in movies, shows, etc where the heroes have someone figure out a monster’s weakness through remembering a folk tale? Perhaps figuring out the monster’s patterns after a few bouts?
These things happen quite often in movies and shows, so why not for your players? Not everything in tv is inaccurate, so we can steal a little bit.
For common knowledge, the simplest course of action is to use passive knowledge. If the minotaur is a monster, it falls under some knowledge skill.
There are 4 knowledge skills that are applicable:
- History for any creature that has a historical relevance in the area or has tales about it.
- Arcana for aberitions or weird unatural creatures.
- Nature for natural creatures (obviously)
- Religion for undead an celestial figures.
You might even mix and match some knowledges. A Fiend for example might be identifiable through arcana or religion. Use these passive knowledges to let the players know of a potential weakness. If players want, they can even take an action to ‘think’ for a round.
The other form of common knowledge is through combat. A melee fighter will figure this out quicker since they are observing the movements of a foe up close and have to adjust more than let’s say an archer. Let that fighter know that the monster is swinging, attacking, or favoring an action in some way. Leave it to the fighter to come up with a way to exploit that weakness, and let your players have an extra advantage.
This is about helping your players in combat after all. And if they are in this situation they might need a bit of help. It also will make future combats more interesting instead of just ‘hit, miss, etc.’
But how do you train this into your players? How do you even teach new players about combat?
Helping new players
We were all new at sometime and didn’t have any clue on what we are doing. If you are teaching a group of new players, or just have a new player at the table, you will need to help them.
Fortunately, this is the easiest way on how to help players in D&D combat. You can be a bit more straightforward with new players since they don’t know the system or combat. That is okay, and they might need a bit of help.
Make sure that these new players try to do as much as they can on their own, but when confused help them. In addition, make sure that they understand their options. For knowledge rolls, you can ask if they want to use an action to think of a creature’s weakness, ask around before just going to blindly face a monster, etc.
You still need to make sure that the new players feel like they have agency. Just give the option of what to do, and leave it at that for more advanced aspects of combat. For simple combat like actions, use a gentle guiding hand.
If the player attacks and thinks their turn is over, just ask if that player wants to move or use a bonus action. They may forget about these options, and it is always important to make sure that the players feel like they are given ample opportunity to act and not hurried through their turn.
This advice may even be useful for some veteran players, but I hope that it helps you with new players in D&D combat.
I hope that this has helped you understand how to help players in D&D combat. The primary focus to take away is of course:
Do not take away player agency!
If you take away player agency and tell them what to do, you will only hurt your game. This can happen through deus ex machina, or through heavy handed attempts to help.
Helping players in combat can be done before you get into a terrible situation, or when you are in one. Just make sure that you have a goal on how to help your players before you start giving hints. Think of the environment, a monster’s weakness, etc. Pick that and go with it. If your players think of something cool, you can roll with that as well.
There are other ways to help depending on the situation. You can even use common knowledge to help your players, but it is up to you to figure out how you will help your players.
Once again, I hope that this has helped you figure out how to help players in D&D combat.
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