How To DM: Fighting on the Fly

This week’s How-To post is by my good friend yourdorkmaterials

So. You’ve meticulously planned your big boss fight, carefully balanced your CR’s and come up with cool, integral roles tailored beautifully for each player. It’s going to be epic! Aaaaannnd…two players can’t show. Or the wizard goes down early. Or what was supposed to be a running battle turns into a stubborn slug-fest to the death. 

We’ve all had this happen, and – for me – it’s one of the most challenging aspects of DMing to deal with. 

So let’s talk about tips on how to adjust our combat encounters on the fly in this week’s How To DM!

Manage the Damage: I use the average damage provided in the stat blocks for big fights. It dramatically speeds up combat and lets me manage how much damage I’m putting out each round (especially critical hit damage.)

Build a Weak Wave: Build a wave of weaker enemies to shave off some of those Moon Druid/Bear Barbarian hit points. Those players tend to be overly confident (for good reason) and tend to be less worried about combat initially. I might plan on a weak wave reducing their HP by 30%. Once they reach that total, you can always have them “fail a morale check” and retreat. Need some more damage? Bring them in as reinforcements or have them rally.

PCs Don’t Have to Know the Roll: I roll everything openly at my table. I always hated it when I figured out the DM was letting up to save us. They don’t have to know what those extra rolls are for; and they make players more nervous as the combat wears on. For example, if they’re fighting something that has a chance to give them a disease, I make those saves for them without telling them specifically what they’re for. Players tend to get really nervous, really quick when they’re making “mystery saves”. I find it makes them invest more in the fight.

Take ‘Em Alive: Let enemies grapple. If you’re using optional combat rules from the DMD (which I do), let your enemies trip them, shove them prone, or disarm them. This gives you “attacks” to use that don’t necessarily cause damage. I always bring this up in Session 0 and ultimately allow the players to decide which optional rules they want to include, but – anything they can do, their enemies can do!

Give Them Their Clues: If your Big Bad Evils fly, maybe foreshadow that a bit. One time, I had a flying enemy swoop in, fail a grapple check, and fly off before the player really knew what was happening. He was more than a little freaked out. If they need to use fire to stop the enemy from regenerating, find a way to give subtle hints about that weakness (and then make sure they have a way of using that information in case the wizards/sorcerers are down or absent).

What tips, tricks and advice do you folks have? Put them in the comments below, so we can all share in the info. Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next week for another installment on How To DM!

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