How to make DnD combat easier to run as a DM
Posted by Annabelle Collins on
For me as a DM, one of the most challenging aspects of running a game can be managing combat. Keeping track of initiative, hit points, who is concentrating on spells, and multiple creatures' actions can really quickly become overwhelming!
Happily though, with a few tips and some preparation, you can make combat easier to manage for yourself and even more enjoyable for everyone sat at the table!
Here are some strategies that have worked well for me:
Prepare in Advance
Ok, this one is kind of obvious but I’m the sort of person that leaves things to the last minute and panickily wings it so I used to ignore this bit of advice. Seriously - don’t!
It makes such a huge difference both to the flow of combat, immersion and my own stress levels if I prepare in advance.
Ok sure, but what to prepare?
Well definitely make sure you have the stat blocks of any monsters you will be using to hand!
I highly recommend using visual aids, so preparing maps and miniatures ahead of time is really useful.
I also like to spend a bit of time thinking about what spells, tactics or abilities my monsters may use and jot down a few notes or descriptions for later.
I also recommend having a sheet nearby with a reminder of some common combat actions and their associated mechanics to refer to during combat. This is for moments when players want to do creative things like grappling and enemy and trying to disarm them or shoving a monster out of melee range of a downed ally.
This will help you run combat more smoothly without awkward pauses as you scramble to find what you need during the game.
Use Pre-made Stat Blocks
If you’re new to DM’ing or even a veteran who just wants to cut down on prep time, using pre-made stat blocks can be a huge time saver.
I know, I know, creating your own creatures from scratch can be really fun and exciting, but it can also be time-consuming and adds an extra layer of complexity to combat. Plus, it can be quite hard to learn how to balance stat blocks and not accidentally create Party Killers! You can find a lot of really excellent stat blocks both in the official rulebooks and from third party publishers like Kobold Press. There are so resources out there that make really fantastic, ready-to-run monster stat blocks.
These pre-prepared stat blocks already include all the necessary information about the creature's abilities, attacks, and defences. Many sources also include some information on tactics, making it even easier for you to portray them accurately in combat.
If you want creativity without as much time spent learning to balance abilities, reflavor a pre-made stat blocks! For example, I recently needed to create the trapped sliver of a thunderstorms heart. Rather than making it from scratch I just adapted and simplified the Air Elemental stat block for my encounter.
When not well organized, initiative can quickly devolve into one long series of confusing, time-consuming “Oh! Are you waiting for me? Er.. right … uhmm”.
Keeping track of initiative can be a hassle during combat encounters. I highly recommend using an initiative tracker to cut down on the brain-space initiative can take up, whether you’re keeping track with a scribble in a notebook or a digital tool. Anything to get it out of your brain and into a place you can see clearly!
An initiative tracker keeps everything organized and helps ensure each player and creature takes their turn in the right order.
If you want a more simplified initiative I invite you to consider grouping similar creatures together and rolling for them as a single unit, instead of rolling initiative for each creature individually.
For example in a recent battle I ran, rather than keeping track of each individual creature I was running I had “wolf team 1” “wolf team 2” “Dire Wolves” “Werewolves”. Even though I had 10 enemies on the battlefield, I was only keeping track of 4 enemy initiatives. It worked really well and made my life a lot easier!
Use Visual Aids
This one helps me so much!
At the very least I recommend using miniatures or tokens to represent characters and creatures and using a battle map. It can hugely help you and your players track landscape features, creature positions and movement.
Visual aids like battle maps and miniatures make combat more fun and engaging for your players whilst also making it easier to manage as the DM.
This is not least because everyone can see then where they are in relation to their surroundings! The visual representation of combat helps players and the DM keep track of who is where and attacking whom, and allows players to think and plan their turn without having to interrupt the flow of the game to ask what's around them.
Beyond that, I find miniatures add an extra element of immersion and excitement to the encounter. Having a beautiful, well made battlemap can really give your games a cinematic feel!
If you want to go one step further, consider using coloured markers or stickers to indicate status effects or damage taken. This might be a red plastic ring from a soda can being used to indicate being bloodied, or having a D4 dice next to them to remind you they are blessed.
These extra visual reminders make it even easier to keep track of each creature's current state.
Streamline NPC Actions
If you have many NPCs in combat, consider streamlining their actions.
For each “type” of NPC in combat you might decide that they mostly use just one of two options for actions on their stat block (for example “Rapier attack” or “help action”). Have those underlined as your primary options and keep the stat block to hand just in case.
By using similar attack or spell options for multiple NPCs you dramatically reduce the number of different abilities you need to keep track of, reducing the overwhelm.
Don’t get het up on the rules
As with everything the truth is that practice makes perfect! All the tips above will ease the mental burden and will make your combat a lot more streamlined but the truth is that even with these tools you will still make mistakes. Over time you find you repeat the mistakes less and combat doesn’t seem as intimidating as it first did.
If you find combat a bit scary to run, know that the real secret is to just keep stepping up to the challenge and to be kind to yourself as you practice and learn.
I still make at least one mistake every combat I run, but even so we all have a fantastic time and have fought in some memorable battles!
I hope this has helped! Running dynamic combats is one of the hardest parts of DM’ing but once you get there, the pay-off is so worth it!