How to Spice up combat in D&D

Spice up combat

I covered some basic concepts of combat before, but in this article, we are going to delve even deeper.

You can spice up combat in D&D through crazy things like new abilities, altered abilities, changing expectations, and making everything uncertain!

You should only be used if you have put into practice and mastered the content of the previous article. That being said, let’s get into it!

Boring combat

Most of the combats that you find are generally pretty boring. A monster attacks the party and has one special ability. The party goes ‘oh no!’ for a round and then thinks of a way to counteract this ability. Once that is done, combat just turns into a bunch of standing and hitting on your turn. Exactly like the old school RPGs that had you hit the enemy and then they hit you. This is extremely boring.

But how do you spice up combat in D&D? An extra ability is supposed to make the game become more interesting and exciting, not just add that excitement to the first round of combat. In order to fix this, you have to make your players constantly adapt. If your players are scrambling to adjust every turn, it makes the game far more interesting!

You need to make a monster unpredictable. Yes, a basilisk can turn people to stone with its gaze, but what if it had mad hops? The basilisk can jump everywhere and get visual angles on the party turning them to stone! Now the party will have to try and adapt every round instead of just covering their eyes and swinging in the direction of the basilisk.

Let’s go through how you get to this point by looking at how I a session I did yesterday.

Concept

I am running the Dragonheist module and my party had to fight three scarecrows. That is all this side mission gave me and I thought just fighting scarecrows was boring. Yes, the scarecrows had some abilities but how does a scarecrow come into being? Why is it there, and why is it a problem? There has to be a reason why this monster exists, so I had to think of a backstory.

Scarecrows don’t normally fight people. Scarecrows don’t normally come to life, so how did these scarecrows become animated? Leave a comment telling me what you would do down below before I tell you my answer.

I thought that magic made the scarecrows come to life since magic is always a great explanation. What magic made them come to life? Why a young sorcerer who wanted to prove himself of course! He was tired of being insulted by wizards who stated that he didn’t know anything did not have a proper place in the magical society. He wanted to show them they were wrong, and wanted to create an object which helped the city.

This object was as you guessed it, a farmer’s scarecrows. Only one problem, this is a brash young man with something to prove. He went ahead and applied spells before he properly tested them causing this scarecrow problem. Did he even get the spell correct? Dear lords above and below no! He in fact screwed up so bad that the scarecrows each received a different enchantment. The only similarities between them were that they rotted crops, and attack a living creature that attacked or came within 10 ft of the scarecrow.

This leaves us so much opportunity to spice up combat in D&D, that the possibilities are endless. Let’s look at how the scarecrows were changed.

New abilities


I reduced the hit points of the scarecrows in half in order to justify these new abilities, and scale the creatures for two level 2 players. Next, I looked at the scarecrow’s abilities and decided what to keep or change. Scarecrows had a fear gaze attack and every time they hit a character had to make a save or be frightened. I thought this was stupid, so I changed the fear gaze and fear save. Instead, the players upon seeing a scarecrow for the first time Just had to make one save or be paralyzed.

After re-purposing their abilities, I gave the scarecrows new abilities to spice up combat in D&D.

First scarecrow

The first scarecrow’s ability was to manipulate the rotted, infected vegetation. Remember how I stated that the sorcerer only had two commonalities between the scarecrows? One of them was that each scarecrow rotted crops. The area of effect was 20 ft around the scarecrow, and the crops folded outward as if a blast came from the scarecrow. The blast wasn’t a single action, but instead decay that happened over time. I decided to use this to spice up combat in D&D.

The scarecrow could only one time as a reaction summon two twig blights from the crops. The scarecrow could also manipulate the rotted crops to give it half cover, regen 1 hp per round, and shoot 2 rotted crops at a player per round instead of attacking as normal. It only had 16 health, but the scarecrow stat wise is actually weaker since I gave it another weakness. It could only move at half speed, so 15 ft per rd.

As you can see, this scarecrow is not very strong, but its utility is what made it an interesting encounter.

First combat

The players, never seeing a scarecrow before, walked up to the scarecrow to investigate. Both characters are ranged, and failed their saves. The scarecrow rolled well on initiative, and had two turns to attack the players. The first was with advantage and auto criticals since they were paralyzed making both players scramble in order to live. This is where combat would normally be standard, but we spiced up combat for our players!

Instead of just kitting the scarecrow by hitting it with ranged weapons and running away, a player summoned a fog cloud. One player tried to run away from the scarecrow but instead bumped into a twig blight. It was the scarecrow’s turn, and the twig blight used the ‘help’ action. If the help action is ever used, make sure you describe how.

In the twig blight’s case the player had their legs wrapped in some dead crops. The scarecrow rendered the player unconscious, and the fog dissipated. The other player at this point was panicking as the fog cloud dissipated, and saw rotted crops turn into rotted vines. These vines started to creep up the unconscious player, and soon completely encased her.

Player creativity

At this point, the player panicked. She tried to hit the scarecrow, but the dice were not in the player’s favor. The player tried to hit the scarecrow and run away, but upon returning she found that the unconscious player was now in a cocoon of rotted vegetation. I didn’t think my players would be uncious from this scarecrow but decided to improvise by converting the unconscious player into a plant person.

The conscious player knew what was happening and panicked. She started to dig a hole in order to reach the cocooned player with an improvised shovel. It didn’t work very well, so she made a small wall of dirt. She then attacked the cocoon and had a ranged exchange as the cocoon shot forth some needle-like vegetation. The player damaged the cocoon and caused the scarecrow to come after the player.

At this point, she was desperate and looked in a bag and found a flask of oil.

Very conscious of not setting the field on fire, she tried to make a large dirt circle around the cocoon. As described earlier, the scarecrow wouldn’t attack unless it was attacked or a living thing came within 10 ft of it, so she was able to do this.

The unconscious player rolled well and kept their individuality, but became part plant. She was in the end saved, but now has a very strong opinion of plants. Plants are people too, and she learned very quickly that she is now vulnerable to fire since she is half plant and had to run through the fire set by her companion.

Uncertainty

Did I spice up combat in D&D? I think so! The players had two more scarecrows left and made a plan in order to deal with them.

Their problem was that every scarecrow is different. The second scarecrow had a wild magic field of 30 ft, and upon being hit instantly made a wild magic effect happen from the wild magic table. This was because the sorcerer who created it was a wild magic sorcerer.

The players implement their plan and decided to shoot the scarecrow while one snuck up and there oil on the scarecrow to light it on fire. Funny thing, upon hitting the scarecrow a wild magic effect happened. What effect happened? Why the only fire-based spell on that table of course! A fireball emanated from the scarecrow, killing it, but lightly setting the crops on fire while one player was caught in the blast.

There was one more scarecrow that the players had to face, and this scarecrow reversed its vulnerability. Scarecrows are vulnerable to fire, so I thought that the scarecrow should instead immolate itself at half health, and be immune to fire. The player’s plan hinged on them setting the monster on fire, so you see where this is going.

The monster willingly jumped at the tindertwig thrown at it and lit itself on fire. It then pinned and grappled one player while another shot at the scarecrow who was prone on the ground. If a creature is prone, ranged attacks get disadvantage. This meant that the pinned player eventually became unconscious from being burned alive, and was barely saved by the other player.

Why did I go into so much detail? To show you exactly what adding continuous uncertainty does, and how it makes the game more interesting!

After effect

If you spice up combat, it will be more difficult for your players, but they will remember the interesting encounters.

Every combat was tense since the players were not sure what would happen. Remember the basilisk? If the players would kill a basilisk, they know what to do next time and combat is boring. Here I made the players completely unable to predict what would happen and this created uncertainty throughout the entire session. Players never knew what to do and were trying anything that they could think of.

This type of combat is a little bit more intense but if you spice up combat in D&D your players will not only remember encounters but make combat far more interesting. For any group of players that like combat having interesting combat instead of boring combat is always a plus.

Like any good thing, there is a downside.

Downside

When you spice up combat in D&D, you have to make your players constantly think. This is a pro and a con.

On one side, your players have think, adapt, and make the game more interesting in order to succeed. Combat is more fun, enjoyable, and generally better overall.

On the flip side when you spice up combat in D&D players have to think more and become more stressed. This is far more taxing on the players and is not sustainable for ten sessions of pure combat in a row. Some players may even have a hard time dealing with a full session that involves encounters of this nature, so be cautious.

Essentially, don’t over use this flavor and make sure that your players can handle it. Your players will become more creative and better players, but one can only be in the fire for so long until you want to get out.

Conclusion

In order to spice up combat in D&D you have to have a solid concept. After you take a deep look at that concept use or enhance what is good and chuck the rest. Make something more interesting if you have to, but make your monsters more than punching bags. I hit you and you hit me is not interesting so find ways to add mobility, uncertainty, and utility to your monsters.

Always keep your players on their toes. If you do this you will spice up combat.

This has been Wizo and keep rolling!

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