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Keeping RPG Combat Challenging And Engaging

Keeping RPG Combat Challenging And Engaging

I saw a post on Reddit this morning where a DM said that their “players keep saying my combats are too easy, but I don’t want to punish them.” (Full article)

I wrote up a reply, and I also wanted to post it here.

Keeping Combat Challenging And Engaging

Well, if you’re using CR, I suggest that you stop. It’s a broken system that doesn’t really take the reality of the gameplay into consideration. Instead, look at your party composition, their stats, and the tactics they employ.

Do you have a party of mostly melee characters? Spellcasters? Do they hide and use cover often? Do they have high AC but low saving throws?

You can then tailor challenges for them to overcome, such as including some flying monsters for melee-heavy parties. If they use cover a lot, have a ton of low-HP minions that come at them from all directions. High AC in general? Then have save-or-suck spellcasters in the enemy group.

Don’t be afraid of using the max HP for monsters instead of the number given, and if the players aren’t taking damage, it’s okay to add an extra damage dice, step up damage dice (from a d6 to d8 or d10, for example) or even add an extra damage type to attacks over what is listed.

Rolling the death saves yourself and not letting them know if they’ve passed or failed can alter tactics and how they play so they take a little meta-gaming out and give more of a dangerous feel to combat since they never know who’s a Nat 1 away from going kaput.

Finally, make sure that your players know that character death is always an option. Keeping them at death’s door but always plot-armoring them out of harm’s way, pulling your punches, or fudging rolls makes even the most challenging combat encounters meaningless in the end. You don’t have to go out of your way to kill them to let them know that if they go down, there’s a chance they might not get back up. 5e is built with death saves and unconscious being skewed in the players’ favor mathematically, so take advantage of that.

How do you keep combat encounters challenging for players without being antagonistic toward them?

Upcoming Projects

Currently, I am working on producing supplemental content for the Dragonbane RPG from Free League Publishing. You can see my player kin (races), schools of magic, and professions (classes) on DriveThruRPG.

Also, Project 2023b is the working title of a cyberpunk-fantasy TTRPG. It uses the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) system with some features from Forged in the Dark and a splash of Dungeon World.

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