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First Time DM tips: D&D Combat

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

First Time DM Tips: D&D Combat 1. Introduction

8. FAQs

First Time DM Tips: D&D Combat


Stepping into the world of Dungeons & Dragons as a Dungeon Master (DM) is a journey filled with epic narratives, intense character arcs, and memorable challenges. Among these challenges, combat encounters stand out as some of the most thrilling moments in a campaign. These clashes of steel, spells, and wits not only serve as a pivotal mechanic for conflict resolution but also act as a powerful narrative device, infusing sessions with tension, drama, and unforgettable heroics.

However, understanding the mechanics is just the tip of the iceberg. Crafting a combat encounter that is engaging, fluid, and balanced requires a mix of preparation, improvisation, and understanding your players. It's not merely about hit points and dice rolls; it's about weaving those mechanics into the living story of your campaign.

For first-time DMs, the prospect can be daunting. But fear not! This article aims to guide you through the basics of D&D combat, offering tips, examples, and insights to help you create encounters that will leave your players on the edge of their seats, eagerly awaiting the next session. Whether you're looking to craft a simple skirmish or a grand battle, these foundational principles will ensure your combat scenes are as memorable as any twist in your tale. Let's dive in to our article First Time DM Tips: D&D Combat.

2. Basics of Combat Encounters

Diving into the heart of a D&D session, combat encounters are where the proverbial rubber meets the road. Here, strategies unfold, characters shine, and narratives take unexpected turns. But for these moments to flow seamlessly, understanding the foundational aspects of combat is paramount.

a. Initiative and Turn Order: The Pulse of Battle: At the beginning of a combat scenario, initiative determines the sequence in which participants, both players and enemies, take their turns. It's essentially the heartbeat of the encounter, ensuring fairness and structure amidst the chaos.

The importance of tracking initiative cannot be overstated. It influences tactical decisions, allowing players to strategize based on who acts when. Without a clear initiative order, combat can become a confusing free-for-all, robbing it of tension and strategic depth.

Keeping Order: Different DMs have different systems, but the key is consistency and clarity. Traditional initiative trackers, often pen and paper-based, list out characters in order of their initiative rolls. Apps like "Improved Initiative" or "Game Master 5" can digitally streamline this process. Alternatively, a simple notepad, with names jotted down in sequence, works just as effectively for many DMs. Some even use clothespins on a screen or stand to visually represent the turn order for all to see.

b. Actions in Combat: Choices, Choices: Each turn in combat offers a character a suite of possible actions. The most fundamental of these is the 'Attack', but options like 'Cast a Spell', 'Dash', or 'Dodge' expand a player's tactical repertoire, enabling a variety of approaches to any situation.

The Dynamic Quartet: Understand the distinctions between Action, Bonus Action, Reaction, and Movement. Each turn, a character gets one of each, save for the Bonus Action and Reaction, which are conditional. For instance, some spells or abilities might use a Bonus Action, while Reactions typically respond to specific triggers, like an 'Opportunity Attack'. Knowing how and when to use these can turn the tide of an encounter.

c. Combat Space and Positioning: The Battlefield's Fabric: Whether it's a dark alley in Waterdeep or the peak of Mount Celestia, where combat happens matters. Some DMs utilize grids and maps, providing a visual representation of the battlefield. This approach aids in gauging distances, understanding cover, and strategizing positions. Miniatures or tokens often accompany these grids, representing players, allies, and enemies.

However, not all combat needs to be grid-based. "Theater of the Mind" combat leans heavily on description and imagination, eschewing visual aids. This style can be more fluid and narrative-focused, though it demands clear communication between the DM and players. Terrain and Environment: These are more than just backdrops; they're tools to be used strategically. A boulder becomes cover from archers, a river can hamper movement, and a chandelier... well, that's a swashbuckler's dream. Encourage players to interact with their environment—it adds depth and creativity to encounters.

d. Status Effects and Conditions: The Subtle Art of Hindrance: D&D boasts a myriad of conditions that can affect combatants, from being blinded by a crafty spellcaster to getting restrained by a giant's grip. Conditions like 'Stunned', 'Paralyzed', or 'Poisoned' introduce tactical layers, forcing players to adapt their strategies.

Keeping Tabs: It's crucial to track these conditions—they can dramatically shift the balance of an encounter. Use condition markers, dedicated apps, or simple written notes. Ensuring everyone's on the same page regarding who's affected, and how, keeps combat fair and transparent. In mastering these basics, DMs lay the groundwork for dynamic, thrilling encounters. But remember, while mechanics are essential, it's the narrative blend of character, strategy, and chance that makes D&D combat truly unforgettable.

3. Crafting Exciting and Fluid Combat

As any seasoned Dungeon Master will tell you, the mechanics and rules are just one piece of the puzzle. The true artistry lies in weaving those mechanics into immersive, dynamic, and engaging encounters. It's one thing to roll dice; it's another to have your players gripping the edge of the table, eyes wide, as the story unfolds in unpredictable ways.

a. Variety is Key: Creatures of All Shapes and Sizes: Predictability can be the death of tension. By introducing a diverse array of foes—from hulking brutes that challenge the front line to nimble skirmishers that harass from the shadows, to enigmatic spellcasters weaving arcane threats—you create a multifaceted challenge. Each enemy type poses its unique problem, forcing players to adapt and collaborate.

Tactical Depth: Beyond just varying the enemy types, consider their tactics and abilities. A group of orcs might charge headfirst into battle, while a band of drow may utilize stealth and cunning, ambushing the party. Mixing tactics keeps players on their toes and prevents encounters from feeling formulaic.

b. Terrain and Environment: More Than Just Scenery: The landscape of a battle can be as formidable as any foe. Elevation, like cliffs or balconies, introduces vertical challenges and vantage points. Cover, from thickets to pillars, can provide protection or obstruct vision. Hazards such as quicksand or thorny underbrush can impede movement and offer tactical advantages.

Dynamic Battlegrounds: Imagine a fight on a rickety bridge where every heavy step risks a deadly plunge. Or a chamber slowly filling with water, turning a battle into a race against time. Incorporating interactive elements like a magical trap that swaps a player's position with an enemy can turn a standard skirmish into a memorable puzzle.

c. Dynamic Objectives: Beyond Bloodshed: Sometimes, the goal isn't merely to vanquish foes but to achieve another objective under pressure. Protecting a fragile NPC as waves of enemies close in can be nerve-wracking. Maybe the heroes need to disable a dark ritual or retrieve a stolen artefact amidst the chaos.

A Burning Beacon: Picture a moonlit skirmish against goblins in the woods. As steel clashes, a few goblins sneak towards a pile of wood and oil, trying to light a beacon to summon reinforcements. Now, the players must decide: focus on their immediate adversaries or prevent the beacon's ignition and face a potentially larger threat?

d. Adapting on the Fly: The Balance Beam: No matter how meticulously you plan, players can be unpredictable, and combat might skew too easy or too challenging. Being flexible and willing to adjust is key.

Seamless Adjustments: If a fight's too easy, maybe reinforcements arrive, or an enemy reveals a hidden ability. If it's too challenging, perhaps the enemies make a tactical blunder, or an environmental element aids the players. These changes shouldn't feel arbitrary but should be woven into the narrative to maintain immersion.

In essence, crafting combat in D&D is akin to conducting an orchestra. Each element, from enemies to environment, plays its part in creating a harmonious, exhilarating symphony of challenges. And like any good conductor, being attuned to the ensemble's rhythm—the players—and adjusting when needed ensures a performance that resonates long after the final note.

4. Common Pitfalls and Solutions

Combat in Dungeons & Dragons is meant to be thrilling and engaging. However, like any complex endeavor, there are pitfalls that can snare even seasoned Dungeon Masters. Recognizing these issues and knowing how to address them can be the difference between an epic encounter and a tedious slog.

a. Overly Long Turns: The Analysis Paralysis: Sometimes, players can be overwhelmed with options, leading to lengthy turns as they weigh every possibility. This "decision paralysis" can drag out combat, making it less dynamic and engaging. Solutions:

  • Pre-planning: Encourage players to think about their next move while others are taking their turns. This reduces downtime and keeps the pace brisk.

  • Timers: Implementing a timer can add a sense of urgency. A simple sand timer or digital countdown can push players to make quicker decisions, adding to the tension.

  • Simplifying Options: Especially for newer players, having a reference card with their abilities can help them quickly scan and decide on an action.

b. Static Combat: The Standstill Syndrome: Battles where everyone remains stationary, exchanging blows without movement or tactical shifts, can quickly become monotonous. A combat where no one moves or adjusts tactics feels more like a mathematical equation than an epic battle. Solutions:

  • Dynamic Elements: Incorporate elements that change over time. Maybe the floor tiles shift or walls move, altering the battlefield layout.

  • Forced Movement: Introduce creatures or traps that push, pull, or otherwise move players and enemies. A gust of wind, a charging beast, or a collapsing ceiling can compel movement and repositioning.

c. Predictable Patterns: The Routine Rut: If every combat follows the same script—enemies appear, combatants exchange blows, rinse and repeat—players will catch on. Predictable patterns can make encounters feel routine and uninspired. Solutions:

  • Varying Tactics: Mix up enemy strategies. Maybe goblins that once charged now set ambushes. Or a dragon that favoured aerial assaults now burrows underground.

  • Reinforcements: Mid-battle, new adversaries can arrive. This not only ups the challenge but also disrupts any established patterns.

  • Changing Environment: Perhaps the battlefield itself transforms. A sudden downpour, a room darkening, or the ground becoming icy can force players to adapt.

d. Lack of Player Engagement: The Disengaged Dilemma: One of the clearest signs of a problem is players losing interest—checking phones, zoning out, or engaging in off-topic chat. Solutions:

  • Personalized Encounters: Craft battles that speak to a character's backstory or personal goals. If a rogue's nemesis makes a surprise appearance, you can bet they'll be invested.

  • Emotional Stakes: Not every fight needs to be about life and death. Perhaps the party is defending a town they've grown fond of, or they're trying to save a captured ally. Emotional stakes can drive engagement as much as any mechanical challenge.

  • Seek Feedback: After sessions, talk to your players. Understand what they enjoyed and where they felt things lagged. Their insights can be invaluable in refining future encounters.

Avoiding these pitfalls isn't about crafting the "perfect" encounter but about creating dynamic, engaging scenarios that keep players invested and excited. As with all aspects of DMing, experience, reflection, and adaptation are the keys to mastering the art of combat.

5. Why Some Combat Encounters Become Boring

Dungeons & Dragons, at its core, is a collaborative storytelling experience, and combat is a crucial element of that narrative. Yet, not all encounters capture the imagination and excitement they're intended to. Understanding the reasons behind lackluster combat can guide Dungeon Masters towards creating richer, more engaging experiences.

a. Lack of Stakes: The Why Matters: A combat scenario without a clear purpose can feel like a detour rather than an essential part of the narrative. When players ask, "Why are we fighting this?" and there's no compelling answer, the engagement drops. Without stakes—whether they be moral, emotional, or narrative-driven—the battle can feel hollow.

Imagine facing a horde of zombies. It’s a challenge, but if those zombies are between the players and a cure for a party member's dire ailment, the stakes skyrocket. Suddenly, every fallen foe, every hit point lost carries weight and meaning.

b. Repetitiveness: Deja Vu All Over Again: Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. This holds in D&D combat too. Facing the same enemies, with the same abilities, in the same settings can quickly become monotonous. If every forest the party enters has the same bandits lying in wait, players can become disillusioned, feeling like they're trapped in a repetitive loop.

Combat should offer fresh challenges and narratives. Maybe those bandits in one forest are mere thieves, but in another, they're desperate refugees turned to crime out of necessity. The difference in context and motivation can breathe new life into what might otherwise be a repetitive encounter.

c. No Challenge: Walking the Park: While it's essential not to overwhelm players continually, combat without risk can quickly become a bore. If every enemy falls in a single hit, or their attacks barely scratch the party, the sense of danger—integral to thrilling combat—evaporates.

A well-crafted combat scenario should push players, making them think, strategize, and occasionally fear for their characters' well-being. This doesn't mean every fight should be a near-death experience, but players should feel they've earned their victories. Even a simple goblin can become a significant threat if it's positioned advantageously or employs a cunning strategy.

d. Overcomplexity: Lost in the Weeds: Complexity, when used correctly, can add depth to combat. However, there's a fine line between intricate and convoluted. If players spend more time trying to understand the rules of an environmental hazard or deciphering an enemy's myriad of abilities, the pace slows, and frustration can mount.

It's essential to balance complexity with clarity. An enchanted forest where magic is unpredictable can be a fantastic setting, but if every step requires a ten-minute rule clarification, the excitement wanes. Always ensure that the core objectives and mechanics are clear, even if there are layers of complexity built atop them.

In essence, the key to captivating combat lies in balance: balance of stakes, variety, challenge, and complexity. By understanding the pitfalls that can render encounters dull, DMs are better equipped to craft battles that resonate, thrill, and become the tales players recount for years to come.

6. Conclusion

At the crossroads of strategy and storytelling, combat in Dungeons & Dragons stands as a testament to the game's multifaceted nature. It's not merely about dice rolls, statistics, or character abilities, though these are undeniably crucial components. Instead, combat weaves together both the structured rigidity of game mechanics with the fluid, unpredictable dance of collaborative storytelling. In essence, it's as much an art as it is a science.

For new Dungeon Masters, this duality can be daunting. But remember, every combat encounter—whether it’s a sweeping success or offers room for improvement—is a lesson. Embrace these experiences, for they are the crucible in which great DMs are forged. Continuously seek feedback from your players. Understand their highs and lows, their moments of exhilaration and frustration. It’s through this feedback loop that you can refine your craft, making each encounter more engaging than the last.

Yet, amidst the intricacies of tactics, terrain, and tension, one guiding star should always light your path: fun. The ultimate goal of any D&D session is to ensure everyone at the table is having a good time. Whether it's a nail-biting standoff against a dragon or a comical skirmish with mischievous imps, the smiles, laughter, and shared memories are the true treasures to be won. To all aspiring Dungeon Masters, take heart. With each session, you're not just guiding adventurers through epic tales; you're weaving memories, building friendships, and celebrating the boundless limits of imagination. In the grand tapestry of D&D, combat is but one thread—make it shine, and watch as your stories come to life.

7. Additional Resources

Navigating the vast world of D&D combat can be an exhilarating journey, and like any epic adventure, it's always wise to have a few trusted guides by your side. Here are some indispensable resources to help new Dungeon Masters in designing and managing combat encounters:


  • The Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG): An essential tome for any DM, it delves deep into the nuances of creating and running games, including detailed sections on combat scenarios.

  • Xanathar's Guide to Everything: This expansion offers additional rules, encounter design tips, and class-specific options that can spice up combat.


  • DnDBeyond: A comprehensive online tool that not only helps in character creation but also offers encounter builders, monster statistics, and a treasure trove of articles on various D&D topics.

  • The Angry GM: Known for his candid and often humorous insights, this blog offers deep dives into various aspects of game mastering, including combat dynamics.

  • Reddit’s r/DMAcademy: A community of DMs, both seasoned and new, where one can ask questions, share experiences, and find a wealth of advice on encounter design.


  • Roll20: An online platform that offers a virtual tabletop experience, complete with grids, tokens, and dynamic lighting, making it easier to manage and visualize combat.

  • Improved Initiative: A handy initiative tracker that streamlines the turn-order process, ensuring combat flows smoothly.

Incorporating these resources into your DMing toolkit can provide a wealth of inspiration, guidance, and practical assistance. As you journey through the narrative landscape, infusing your combat encounters with drama, tension, and excitement, remember the value of community and shared wisdom. Learn from others, share your tales, and always seek to expand your horizons. Drawing from these resources, personal experiences, and tales from iconic campaigns, you can craft an article that doesn’t just instruct but also inspires. The realm of D&D combat is vast and varied, but with the right tools and insights, any DM can lead their players through memorable and exhilarating encounters.

8. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) for First-Time DMs

1. I'm a first-time DM about to run my first session. Where's the best starting point?

Answer: A great way to start is by using a pre-written adventure from Wizards of the Coast. This provides a structure and allows you to focus on understanding the flow of combat, social encounters, and the overall story without creating everything from scratch.

2. How do I manage hit points for both player characters and bad guys during combat encounters?Answer: Using a DM screen can help keep monsters' hit points hidden. Behind this, you can maintain a quick reference chart, jotting down the damage each character and monster takes. For player characters, ask them to keep track on their character sheets and communicate any drastic changes.

3. I'm feeling overwhelmed by all the rules in the Player’s Handbook and the Monster Manual. What's the most important thing to remember for a new DM?

Answer: It's essential to remember that D&D is as much about storytelling as it is about rules. While rule books are great tools, it's perfectly okay to rely on common sense, especially in your first game of Dungeons & Dragons. As Matt Mercer, a renowned game designer, often says: the true game masters adapt and ensure everyone's having a good time!

4. What's the best way to introduce new players to combat encounters in 5th edition D&D?Answer: Start with low-level monsters from the Monster Manual, such as a giant spider or goblins, ensuring the challenge matches first level party members. Utilize a battle map for visual aids, and go slow, explaining each step. It can be a good idea to watch actual plays, like Critical Role, to get a feel for the game system and pace.

5. How do I manage character creation for new players?Answer: A great idea is to host a "zero session." This is a gathering before the actual game, dedicated to character creation, understanding basic rules, and setting player expectations. Character sheets and the basic rules are your most important tools here.

6. How can I make combat encounters more engaging and not just about killing the bad guys?Answer: Introducing alternative goals in such encounters can make a huge difference. For example, instead of just defeating enemies, players might have to protect an NPC or disarm a device. You can also use different stats for monsters, providing variety in combat.

7. With many actions available, how do I help players, especially new ones, choose in combat?Answer: For first-time DMs, providing a quick reference card with actions like "Attack Roll," "Help Action," and "Opportunity Attacks" can make a world of difference. Discussing action economy and recommending they watch video games or actual plays for D&D experience can also assist.

8. My combat feels slow. Any tips?

Answer: Implementing time limits on decision-making can lead to faster combat. Encourage experienced players to help newer ones and remind everyone that taking a deep breath and making a choice is part of the fun!

9. How important are visual aids like a dungeon map or initiative rolls?

Answer: They're not mandatory, but they can make a lot of difference, especially for visual learners. Maps help in positioning, and tracking initiative rolls ensures a smooth flow of combat.

10. Any last tips for a new dungeon master?

Answer: Always seek feedback after each session. Remember, being a good DM is a continuous learning process. Take each game as an opportunity to grow, and most importantly, remember to have a good time with your group of players!

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