View Full Version : DM Help When to end combats early

2015-10-27, 03:25 PM

Ending Combat

Combat can be D&D’s greatest asset and its biggest downfall. While combat with a dragon can show off D&D’s epic, complex, and rewarding tactical system, it is this complexity that can cause combat grind to a slow, tedious halt. Taking 20 minutes to fell five lowly orcs is not everyone’s idea of fun.

Here, I’ll show you how to avoid the overly long and boring combats by giving you tools to identify when you should end it. These tools come in the form of questions you should be constantly asking yourself during every combat.

Are the NPCs willing to continue this fight?

Here is a common encounter: 10 orcs ambush and raid local wagons and travelers who ride through their lands. The orcs want food, valuables, and possibly a slave. The orcs jump out of the trees and attack the party. A man in robes on top of the wagon leans over the side and shoots a cone of fire across eight of the orcs. Three die instantly, and four others are severely wounded.

What commonly occurs here is four more rounds of combat taking twenty minutes because the players are unwilling to spend another spell slot in a fight they have clearly won. But why why this fight would continue in the first place. The orcs, who got decimated in the first round of combat, are here for a bite to eat and some gold. Are they willing to stay and die to accomplish this goal? Rarely will any NPC die for their goals; as soon as the orcs realize they are evenly, or out-, matched they will grab what they can and flee, make a fighting retreat, or even surrender if there is no other option.

Can the NPCs flee or surrender?

This is a follow-up to the previous question. A group of monsters who are not willing to die for their goals will start looking for the best way out. If there is no way out, then surrendering would likely be a better option than death. There are a few exceptions: a cultist fanatic brainwashed to serve his god unwaveringly to his death, an undead who has no sense of self-preservation, or a few unintelligent monsters who don’t know when they are outmatched. However, even the spider, void of tactical or intelligent thought, will still curl up into a ball and play dead before fighting to the death. Imagine the surprise on your players faces the first time a spider skitters away after your party leaves the room.

Do the NPCs have another way to accomplish their goals?

This question will have many other articles written about it because it focuses on a key DMing principle of understanding your NPCs. For now, we will look at how to use this question to end combat.

The goal of the villain is to take the PCs prisoner… He offers a ceasefire if the party will surrender. The goal of the monster is to get food… It smells meat in one of the players packs and tries to steal their adventuring pack (along with their gear) and escape. An aspiring spellcaster wants to become more powerful.. He will end a fight and leave for a look at the mage’s spellbook. An ogre hiding out in his cave just wants to be left alone… He grabs the limp body of the unconscious ranger and threatens to slit his throat if the party doesn’t leave his cave.

Constantly looking for interesting or clever ways for the NPCs to accomplish their goals will often lead to an even more interesting and intense combat or standoff. Imagine the party chasing a spider with their backpack straight into its nest or a negotiation for the party to leave the ogre’s cave so that they can keep their captured Ranger alive.

Is there a likely chance of character death?

The entire point and challenge of most combat is the potential of character death. If you answer this question with a, “yes”, then it behooves you to continue combat until the mortality of your character is resolved. You don’t want to end combat when the Ranger is laying on the ground at the ogre’s feet. Even if the ogre only has a few hitpoints left, the suspense is enough to keep the combat going.

Do the players know they will win this combat?

“Roll Initiative! Two large rats round the corner into four battle hardened adventurers.” Who will win this combat? You can probably predict the winner before the fight even starts. The fun of combat comes in the suspense and the possibility of failure. When the players know they have won a fight, there is very little suspense or challenge and combat therefore becomes tedious. There is no suspense in a combat that has already been won.This is why so many random encounters fall flat.

If you start with ten skeletons, and a fireball takes out seven of them, end the battle immediately even though three remain. Turn one…

DM: “you open the door and a group of ten skeletons shoot arrows at you. Three arrows hit and deal 12 damage.” turn two…

PC: “My mage shoots off fireball into the center of the room.”

DM: (helping his players RP) “In response you angrily hurl a fireball into the room sending singed and shattered bones bouncing off the walls. You have no trouble picking off the remaining three skeletons.”

Battle complete, end combat after just one character’s turn. Not only does this prevent the tedious mopping up of stray enemies who don’t pose a threat, it allows your PC to feel like a complete bad ass. It is okay for combats to go short; if you want them to be longer, it will require you to build more interesting and difficult combats to challenge them.

Will the players likely spend any more high level resources?

D&D is a game that allows us to explore choices. We project ourselves into a fantasy scenario and try to decide what choices other people would make in that situation. If we are not given choices, then the game becomes as boring. (Here is an incredible article by The angry GM that talks about the dramatic question and decision making Four Things You’ve Never Heard That Make Your Encounters Not Suck)

This question helps you to answer the previous. D&D is a game of making choices and tactical decisions. Whether or not to use resources is a choice and one of the keys to keeping the game exciting. When players know they have won a battle, they will not spend any more resources in that fight. Ten skeletons in a room is prime target for a fireball. Two skeletons in a room is worth nothing more than a basic attack over and over until they are dead. This means that all party members will have no decisions to make. Their turn comes and they use a basic attack or cantrip, extending this already won fight for another 5-20 minutes. It is not that they can’t win this fight in 5 more minutes, just that they know it’s already won so they are willing to basic attack it to death to preserve resources. If you don’t think the party is going to blow a big spell or use some resource, it is probably a good time to end the fight.

Here are two things to look for that will help you identify this:

If during an entire round of combat every player uses nothing more than their basic abilities.
If players say things like, “I guess I’ll just use my cantrip”, “I guess I’ll attack”, “I can’t really do anything except attack”. These phrases mean that the player feels like the battle is won and they are unwilling to spend resources.

Is the NPC a boss or important character?

When the players catch up to the evil villain who stole their magic items, murdered their Ranger and spread a necrotic plague through a village, they probably want to play this fight out to the end so they can see him suffer. A battle with a main character in your game can often keep its intrigue longer than a combat with random orcs. This doesn’t mean that the villain can’t still try to surrender or escape, but that players are more excited to spend time and resources to kill him. They might even have a taunting line ready for when they deliver the final blow. If the players are engaged in role playing and taunting the NPC, they might want to continue the battle all the way till the end. Once you get the feeling the excitement of fighting a boss has worn off, you might end it early if the other questions lead you in that direction.

Are all players having fun on each of their turns?

This may be the most important question. If just one of your players isn’t having fun, take action immediately to find out what they need. If several of your players are not having fun, end combat ASAP or change something to make it more exciting. Make sure that you are gauging your player’s level of fun during combat. If you get the feeling they aren’t enjoying one, speed it up, spice it up, or end it.