Mixing Up Your D&D Character's Combat Tactics
Updated: Oct 19, 2018
The way that Dungeons & Dragons translates fantastical combats into relatively simple mathematical expressions is one of the greatest things about it. Yet while it’s good to have simple combats, you never want them to become too simplistic.
If you’re the Game Master (here at Quest Chests, we refer to them as Quest Masters), there’s plenty you can do to prevent your combats from running stale.
You can make sure they’re fully integrated into your adventure’s larger narrative.
You can combine your monsters and settings in ways that force players to change their standard tactics.
You can adjust your pacing.
You can even encourage your players to find ways out of your combats—talk around them, escape from them, or even hire other adventurers to do their dirty work for them.
As a player, however, you’re only in charge of your character. You don’t get to decide how integral the combat is to the larger adventure. You can’t change the monsters or setting. If you want to talk your way out of a fight, flee from it, or send other adventurers into a fight for you, you’ll need the Quest Master’s (QM’s) cooperation (and likely that of your fellow players, as well). But there is one thing you can control: the way your character interacts with the fight.
Most of the time, this means drawing a weapon and swinging it at the enemy. Or firing an arrow. Or casting a spell. Resorting, in some way, to the numbers and options already recorded on your character sheet.
But there’s more that you can do.
More Tactics. More Story.
There’s a whole chapter in the Player’s Handbook dedicated just to combat. It’s chapter 9, and if you’re looking for ways to get more out of your combats, this chapter is your ally. Don’t think of it as a list of rules; think of it as a menu of options!
Beyond attacking and casting spells, you’ll find a number of clever ways to tilt combats in your favor. As a bonus, many of these tactics readily lend themselves toward flavorful storytelling:
Dodge: Typically, the goal is to deal more damage to your enemy than your enemy does to you. Most often, we think in terms of the damage we deal, but avoiding damage can also contribute toward your victory. Perhaps if you dodge, the cleric attacks instead of healing you. The rogue finds the cleric next to her target and dashes forward to attack while she can gain sneak attack. It’s always situational, but the right choice can easily cascade into a series of right choices.
Help: Likewise, if you’re a wizard who’s run out of spells that could impact your combat in any meaningful way, you might try to distract an enemy so that your rogue gains advantage on her next shot. Not only does this increase her chances of hitting, but it allows her to add her Sneak Attack damage.
Ready: This action provides a great response to any uncertain threat—such as when you want to cast a spell against the leader of a group of creatures but aren’t certain which is the leader. And it’s also good for when there’s an obvious threat, but you need the circumstances to change in order to do anything about it. For example, you might ready a fireball to hit the doorway when the invisible spell-caster opens the door in order to run through it.
Grappling: Grappling takes the standard expectations for combat and gives them a good tweak. No longer is the fight simply about who hits who and for how much damage. It’s also about where the combatants are positioned and what that means for their ability to interact with the rest of the combat. Is there a sorcerer being held prone in silence? Is there a monster about to be hurled down from the top of a mountain peak? Did the grapple stop the monster from continuing its pursuit of the tasty halfling? Grappling offers a range of flexible positional and tactical advantages.
Use an Object: The Use an Object action is vastly open-ended. It starts with the idea that you can draw your sword as part of an attack, but it quickly moves from that point to the wider implication that your setting is always full of objects with which you can interact. How you make use of these objects is up to you and your Quest Master. Throw sand in the fighter’s eyes? Maybe you can give him disadvantage for a round. Maybe you can tilt the table on its side to gain cover against rival archers. Maybe you can close the door after a single enemy enters the room, then hold it shut against the remaining troops.
Shoving a Creature: Like grappling, shoving a creature allows you to trade in some of your potential damage for a shot at positional advantages. Knocking a foe prone might allow the rest of your party to attack him with advantage. And shoving the foe back 5 feet might line him up with the rest of the enemies your sorcerer’s been waiting to hit with lightning bolt!
Even More Tactics
Your options don’t end with chapter 9. It’s just a good place to start thinking about your combats differently.
From there, you might wonder, “What would my wizard know about this undead creature we’re fighting?” Ask your QM to allow you a Religion check to recall what you had learned about the undead. You might start looking at new ways to make use of your illusion spells. Or use Sleight of Hand to steal the evil wizard’s spell components or to pilfer the barbarian’s weapons before you start a fight.
The goal is to use your imagination, and once you free yourself to think of your combats differently, you’ll never see the rules as simplistic again. You’ll soon see them as wonderfully simple, elegant,and loaded with adventure.