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Combat: More Than Just Rolling Dice

Combat: More Than Just Rolling Dice 

Combat is rolling dice.  That’s the mechanic used by Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder.  But just like your character is more than a group of random number, combat is more than just rolling dice.

Combat should be exciting and fun.  Simply saying ‘I swing my sword’ isn’t very exciting, though.  I’m going to give you some tips on how to make combat more interesting.  I’m both a DM and a player, so my advice will be coming from both sides of the DM screen.  Jonathan touched on some of these points in this blog entry, but I’ll be talking about some other things as well.

1.  Pay attention

This seems simple enough, but honestly, this seems to be the biggest problem with any gaming group I’ve had.  Someone is in the kitchen getting a sandwich or doing something unrelated when their turn comes up.  Then, once they’re back at the table, someone has to explain to them what happened while they were gone.

This is a problem because not only does it slow down combat but it can also take people out of a tense combat if someone is missing during their turn.  This can lead to a bad group dynamic, especially if the person who leaves the table is a repeat offender.

The DM has a lot to keep track of, so slips of concentration are to be expected.  It happens to me every now and then and my players don’t seem to mind helping me out.  The problem is with repetition.  Asking someone how much damage they did while there’s a side conversation going on is one thing.  Asking repeatedly because you’re involved in that side conversation is another.

As a group, try to keep side conversations down.  Granted, every group has its own in-jokes and favorite movie references, but interrupting play to shoehorn in that Boondock Saints reference (my group’s movie of choice) is a bit much.


2.  Be descriptive

This is for everybody.  “I swing my sword,” while accurate, lacks the punch of “I grip my sword in both hands and roar while aiming for his head!” or “I sight down my arrow and aim for his greasy black heart!”

For the DM, description is everything.  Accurate description can make all the difference to the players, but more so in combat.  Players have a connection with their character, especially right after character creation.  They have a vision and they don’t want some nasty orcs stopping that vision.  By using in-depth description of what’s going on, say the way the light glints off of the jagged blade of the orc’s waraxe as it arcs toward the head of the character in question, you can implant that image in the mind of the player and make them a little more nervous about their 1st-level Ranger’s health.

DMs, when your final boss dies, make sure the player’s know it.  Assuming that he’s not going to be a recurring villain, give the players a scene that will assure them that he’s dead.  His head flies off and out the window.  He’s cut in half from top to bottom.  His spleen explodes and coats the ceiling with…whatever spleens are filled with.  (Red and white pulp, according to Wikipedia.)


3.  Understand what your character can do

This is another tip for both sides.  Understanding your characters power and abilities not only makes combat go faster, but it can also help you come up with descriptions of what you’re doing.

Spells are a good example of this.  As your spellcaster progresses in level, they gain access to more useful and flashier spells.  One thing you can do to be more descriptive is to use magic words.  If you can’t think of any yourself, this website is incredibly useful:

Find a few that you like and attach them to your spells.

Your Wizard has just reached 5th level and gotten his first 3rd level spell.  You decide you light the look of lightning bolt.  If you attach the words ‘Mijoter ferula!’ when you first start using the spell, when you start saying that during a particularly tense moment during combat, your party will smile and they envision smoked corpses everywhere.

For the DM, this is a must during combat.  It’s easier if you have a group of the exact same enemy, because they’ll all have the same abilities.  They all do the same thing, you just describe it differently.  It’s more difficult when you have a leader, usually with class levels, and several minions, because the leader has different abilities.  When you pack together a random assortment or enemies, it’s more difficult still.

The way I handle this complication is that I write up individual enemies on 3×5 note cards.  I put down their name, class and level, statistics, melee attacks, armor class, saves, and special abilities.  If I’m using note cards, I write on the back their tactics, especially if they work well with another member of the party.

Once I’ve gotten all that down, I take a second before combat starts and everyone’s rolled initiative to put the cards in order of initiative.  That way, as a player is finishing up their turn, I can be looking at the next card and determining the enemy’s course of action based on what has just happened.

In working with I’ve taken to doing this same thing using text documents on my laptop.  Because the adventure is online, it makes more sense than taking note cards along.  Tabbing through text documents is fairly easy.  I have a MacBook and I use Text Edit, because it’s easy and doesn’t take up a lot of room next to my browser window.


4. Roll multiple dice simultaneously

This goes back to keeping combat going.  At high levels, characters can get up to four attacks in one round.  A Monk using Flurry of Blows gets four attacks at 8th level.  Don’t roll these separately.  All you need is to specify which dice are for which attack.

Rolling all of your attacks together can create an air of tension as you try to follow multiple dice across the table.  Maybe two of your three hits will be critical hits!  Hopefully the blue one won’t critically fail!  Again!

Blue d20
Curse you, blue die! Curse you!

This is different than rolling multiple damage dice because the attack result has already been determined.  Before it’s been finalized, especially if the combat is really close, each attack roll counts.  When I run my 9th level Pathfinder Monk, he has four attacks, so I roll four d20s at a time.  We had a player who was a Gnome Druid riding a big cat of some kind.  We could not get him to understand that his attack and the cat’s three attacks could all be rolled at the same time.  His turns usually took a couple of minutes.


5.  Good for the goose…

This one is mostly for the DM, but can also be for the player.  When options are provided to the players, those options should also be available to their enemies.  For example, I had a player who wanted to use the spell gravity bow from the Advanced Player’s Guide.  He used that in conjunction with enlarge person to give himself a huge amount of damage at 3rd level.  Enlarge person makes you one category size larger and gives you a +2 to your Strength score.  It also enlarges your equipment so that it’s also one size category large, so a longbow that normally does 1d8 now does 1d10.  Gravity bow causes your weapon to do damage as one category size larger.  That longbow now does 2d6 plus your Strength bonus.

He asked and I said, ‘Sure.  Just remember that the option is open to everyone.’  He didn’t hear that part and was surprised when the party was attacked by giants wielding tridents that did 2d6 + 13 points of damage.

The point here is that once an option has opened up, it opens up for everyone.  The storyline reason for this is could be that there was a survivor that reported the tactic to their leader and the leader adapted it to their own troops.

Players tend to stick with what works, so if your party likes a particular tactic, figure out a clever way around that tactic.  If they like to use ranged weapons against enemy combatants, engage them with sniper fire of your own, especially from the sides or the rear.  If they’re fond of rushing straight into combat, use traps.  By throwing the party off of their game, you can create a sense of tension that the party might not normally have.

For the player, watch out for DM patterns.  Do they like to use multiple waves of enemies?  Do they prefer arcane spellcasters?  Are they particular about using a race, like trolls or ogres?  Then prepare for it.  Between combat encounters, if possible, research those enemies and find ways to counter their tactics.


6.  Misdirection

Giving the players the unknown is one of the best ways to make combat more interesting.  Everyone who has played the game has taken down a goblin or an Orc.  But what if that Orc is a different color than usual?  What if the goblin is wearing wizardly garments or priestly vestments?  Okay, not that unusual.  But what if a single solitary goblin wearing priestly vestments is barking and growling, challenging the party?  Obviously a single goblin can’t stand against the might of the party, right?  Right?   Of course not.  Unless that goblin has help.  Say, help in the form of a few dozen goblins and a few hobgoblins as well.  Still too normal you say?  Okay, what about this?  The goblins of the area have made a deal with the ghouls of a nearby graveyard.  The ghouls will get to eat anyone the goblins can lure in and the goblins get to keep the loot.  And that pack of ghouls is lead be a ghast or two.  So, the party chases after the lone wimpy goblin and then finds themselves surrounded by undead who are clamoring to eat flesh.

You can also misdirect players at the table.  One of my favorite tricks, which I use very sparingly, is what I call ‘too many dice.’  An example happened at my last game session.  One of the characters fell down a 40 ft. pit trap, so 4d6 falling damage.  I went to my dice, grabbed the four distinct d6s for falling damage and then picked up eight more d6s.  I dumped them all out on the table and the player’s eyes went as wide as possible.  He ended up taking 5 whole points of damage falling in a 40-foot deep hole (bad roll on my part), but the look on his face was awesome.


7. Intraparty Competition

This is another favorite of mine and it even works outside of combat.  If you have two players with similar skill sets, like melee combat, throw out the phrase, “Wow, Bob.  I don’t think you can beat Steve’s damage output after that last blow.” This can push Bob and Steve just that little bit so they’ll become more engaged in combat. They will pay more attention (Tip 1) to both player’s rolls so that they can figure out who’s winning, and probably be more animated.  “Critical hit, Steve!  Beat that!”


8. Teamwork

This works well with Intraparty Competition.  A fair amount of the time, players enter combat as individuals where each character takes on an enemy one-on-one where it might sometimes be more beneficial to have everyone gang up on a single enemy, such as the largest, strongest melee fighter or the enemy spellcaster.

The Advanced Player’s Guide and Ultimate Combat have Teamwork Feats (Ultimate Magic only has one for Bards), where party members that take the same feat get numerous advantages based on which feat they take.  For example, if two (or more) party members have the feat Feint Partner, when one ally makes a successful Feint combat maneuver, the opponent looses their Dex bonus against your next attack.  So, if you have someone who critically hits relatively often and you have three total party members with this feat, the critical hit is confirmed, plus two attacks of opportunity.  That can go a long way to put down enemies.

Players want to be successful in combat and if the entire party works together to be successful, then the whole party feels like they’ve accomplished something.


9.  Music

Jonathan spoke on this and honestly I dislike using music during combat.  I find it hard to synch between combat and a piece of awesome music.  If I have to stop the music early because the scene is over or the music ends early, it feels to me like the music is wasted.  What I prefer is to play music in the lead up to the fight with the bad guy.  That way the atmosphere is built when they party rushes into the throne room and I don’t have to worry about making sure that the music keeps going while trying to keep track of all of the combat variables.

Two groups whose music I like to use are Midnight Syndicate and Nox Arcana.  Both are considered neoclassical ambient music and the music contains no lyrics.  I find it to be good music to use during a dungeon crawl.  Midnight Syndicate wrote the Dungeons and Dragons studio album in 2003, an album that is considered the “first official Dungeons and Dragons soundtrack,” which seems like it’s perfect music for D&D and Pathfinder.



So, there you have 9 tips on how to make the most of your combat.  Remember: rolling dice is important to the game, but it doesn’t have to be the most important.

Have questions?  Comments?  Requests?  Concerns?  Snide remarks?  Leave them in the comment box below or email me at

Until next time, be awesome to each other and good gaming.