Should You Run Easy Combats?

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1026

I posted something on Reddit and got a great tangential comment from user/ChristopherDornan.

He advocates for occasional easy combats, which I agree with.

Here’s his excellent comment:

Don’t underestimate the value of an easy combat. It does two things, both are incredibly important.

  1. It drives home that PCs are heroes, and much stronger than your average person.
  2. PCs also have a tendency to open up with both barrels on any opponent, so even an easy fight can burn through resources.

If the PCs are attacking a bandit camp, don’t run the camp as a single encounter.

Have the party encounter a bear eating the dead villagers the bandits robbed on the roadside.

Have a sentry stationed at the canyon entrance leading to the camp with his two favorite guard dogs or wolves.

Have a series of hidden deadfalls or bear traps on the game trails near their camp.

I have seen 8th level parties drop 4th level spell slots to nuke an 11 hit point bandit and his pet wolf just to guarantee the sentries go down before warning the camp.

3-4 small encounters and 1 boss fight > 2 large encounters.

From a story perspective, you often have to stretch to get it right. But because of the whole short rest vs long rest dynamic [in D&D 5E], you really have to try and make an adventuring day multiple encounters with at least one good short rest opportunity, or your warlocks, monks, and fighters will feel really subpar.

Thanks Christopher.

Regardless of game system you run, a mix of action scene difficulties creates more depth and interest for your players.

At minimum, it gets players thinking a bit before wading into every combat. When they get caught nuking easy encounters they’ll be more strategic. Perhaps they’ll even parley more!

You want to avoid a campaign where every encounter seems to match party strength. That’s a zero sum game and creates all kinds of disbelief triggers.

And a cunning GM plays the long game. Sure, the PCs beat down those bandits without a sweat. But at what consequence? Who were the bandits? What were they connected to?

Think bigger picture and how ripples from easy fights fester into future friction.