6 Ways To Spice Up Boring Combats

6 Ways To Spice Up Boring Combats

Combats offer a delicious nexus between dice-rolling gameplay, storytelling, roleplaying, and tactics. Alas, many battles become boring slugfests that offer no variety. Here are a half dozen ways to spice things up in your next fight.

1. Add Space

Fighting in a telephone booth restricts options and gets boring fast. If we increase the scale of our battle maps, we instantly open up opportunities for different tactics, foe options, and player options.

For example, if we change the CombatScape from 50 feet across to 500 feet, we can:

  • Employ long-range attackers
  • Try flanking maneuvers
  • Try mid-combat ambushes
  • Spread foes out versus area affect spells and attacks
  • Try to divide and conquer
  • Add larger-scale hazards
  • Use focus fire more often

2. Add Impediments

An Impediment is my lingo for a class of combat dangers and constraints:

  • Obstacles
  • Traps
  • Hazards
  • Puzzles

Technically, obstacles, traps, and hazards are puzzles. How can we use them to advantage for our side? How can we use them for disadvantage for the other side?

So the puzzles type of impediment refers to funhouse puzzles, like living chess boards, password controls, and so on.

By adding more Impediments you give players more options to think about. Watch how your group leverages such things, and then have smart foes use the same tactics in the future to expand your skills and experience wielding them.

In addition, any Impediments that do damage, improve attacks, or weaken defenses will speed up your combats.

3. Use Missions

If you are a long-time reader of Roleplaying Tips you knew this was coming. 🙂 Switch from last-side standing to one or both sides aiming to achieve a specific goal.

This might sound like extra work, but we can actually do this on-the-fly:

  1. Read the situation using OODA
  2. Give foes a short-term goal that puts them in conflict with the party
  3. Give players an opportunity
  4. Announce (roleplay) the Stakes

For example, the party encounters a group of orcs in a forest. Using OODA, I observe:

  • We are mid-session and energy is flagging
  • The party is at full strength
  • We just had a roleplay encounter
  • The orcs have no preset purpose – just a random encounter
  • The party is traveling to the dungeon – the forest is not the end point

Given these ingredients, I now “game chef” a tasty Mission. So, I decide to make this encounter relevant to the campaign and drop in a plot point: the orcs have a map and have started digging where X marks the spot on the map.

In Dungeon World terms, if you are familiar with that game, I’m making an improvised Hard GM Move to introduce a plot point: Reveal An Unwelcome Truth.

Now we have instant opportunity to give players a Mission. We just need to make them aware of it via announcing the Stakes.

So I have the orcs talking as the party approaches. If the party stops to listen, they’ll hear about the map and that the orcs are digging for something related to the party’s quest – a clue to the ultimate goal or an essential tool, perhaps.

If the party simply attacks, the orc leader will hold the map to a torch and threaten to burn it up – there’s more Xs on it to discover.

Instant Mission and a much more interesting combat now.

4. Add Story

I picked this tip up from Angry GM’s “Dolphin” method for combat.

A common GM trap is to narrate what just happened:

“Roghan, you cleave the orc in half with your great axe. Then you swirl around and sink your blade deep into the foe on your flank. Both foes go down. Well done Roghan!

While colorful, it fails to keep the combat moving forward and involving the next player. It’s also a pure tension reliever – something we don’t want mid-combat.

While exciting descriptions do make combats better, we shouldn’t only describe what just happened. Instead, we should describe what could happen to set up the next player’s turn, keep the fight flowing, keep drama high, and add some Stakes.

This flips our game vision from what’s occurred in the past to what’s happening in the present and what could happen in the future.

For example:

“Roghan, you cleave the orc in half with your great axe. Then you swirl around and sink your blade deep into the foe on your flank. Both foes go down. Well done Roghan!

“Krug, as Roghan’s foes drop, the pair of creatures facing you panic and attack wildly without thought for defense. A single blow like this could drop you. What do you do?”

We acknowledge the current player’s turn and describe their actions’ outcome. Then we transition to the next in initiative order and describe what threatens or blocks them right now. Then we toss the hot potato back ask for action.

Get more tips on this approach in this RPT article.

5. Turn Boring Foes Into Fun Foes

We have a couple of compelling options here.

First, we can observe how foes add fun to combats. We then take those traits, abilities, and action options and reskin them for future foes. We already know the mechanic or attribute creates fun gameplay, so we use it again under different guise.

For example, I might notice how a beetle’s poison attack got the fighter excited because he’s got bonus protection from that, and the wizard later collected some of the poison for her alchemy side hustle. So a few fights later I give orcs poison to put on their blades. Same fun, different costume.

A second option is to make foes challenging opponents. Punch up with foes if you can swing it, pun intended! My 3 Round Combat Plan technique comes to mind for this. (Read Part I here, and Part II here, and Part III here). In essence, think three rounds ahead and what clever and effective tactics and synergies foes could use to give the party some challenging surprises.

6. Add Roleplay

My definition of roleplay is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and noodling on what they’d do or say in a situation.

It does not have to involve acting, funny voices, or props. It’s simply walking in another’s hobnailed boots for a bit.

To active great combat roleplay, try:

  • Having foes communicate with the party in the form of negotiation, threats, insults, or tricks
  • Adding NPCs who need help or some form of character interaction
  • Adding objects characters can interact with in style, such as swinging chandeliers, equipment lying around, construction materials, furniture, and so on
  • Initiate roleplay yourself by giving foes interesting personalities and behaviors
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It’s Your Turn

Players get bored of same old, same old. Spice your combats up by:

  1. Adding more space
  2. Adding impediments
  3. Using (improvised) missions
  4. Adding more story
  5. Punching up with foes and reusing fun elements
  6. Adding roleplay