D&D Combat Tips for Beginning Players

I have a lot of new or inexperienced players in my home games right now, so I thought I’d post a few thoughts on strategy and tactics when it comes to combat in D&D 5th edition.

Focus fire

The biggest mistake newbies make during a fight is when everyone attacks a different enemy.  This is a learned response from first level, when one hit may be enough to kill each creature on the table.  In those cases, it doesn’t really matter who is attacking what. However, by third or fourth level, many opponents will have upward of 50 hit points.  With everyone hitting a different target, each monster may take 6 or 7 rounds to kill.

E.g: Your party is of 4 PCs is fighting 4 ogres.  Each ogre has 60 hp and averages 7 damage per round (with misses taken into account).  Each character is capable of dealing 10 damage per round on average to the low-AC, low-Saves ogres.

If each character attacked a single ogre, the damage taken vs. damage dealt would look something like this:

Free Fire Rd1 Rd2 Rd3 Rd4 Rd5 Rd6
Ogre 1 HP 50 40 30 20 10 0
Ogre 2 HP 50 40 30 20 10 0
Ogre 3 HP 50 40 30 20 10 0
Ogre 4 HP 50 40 30 20 10 0
Damage Dealt to Party 28 28 28 28 28 0 140 Total Damage Taken

All four ogres attack each turn, with all ogres dying on the 6th round.  The party takes 140 average damage over that period, enough to likely drop a few characters.

Now let’s look at what happens if all characters focused on one ogre at a time until that ogre was killed:

Focused Fire Rd1 Rd2 Rd3 Rd4 Rd5 Rd6
Ogre 1 HP 20 0 0 0 0 0
Ogre 2 HP 60 40 0 0 0 0
Ogre 3 HP 60 60 60 20 0 0
Ogre 4 HP 60 60 60 60 40 0
Damage Dealt to Party 28 21 14 14 7 0 84 Total Damage Taken

Wow, the ogres dealt just over half as much damage to the party as our previous example. The fight still lasted six rounds, but by the second round, one ogre was dead.  By the end of round 4, there was only one ogre left, hitting for 7 damage, while in the other fight, all 4 were still swinging their clubs for 28 damage that round!  Overall damage taken is 84, which, if distributed correctly should result in no one hitting 0 hp.

Kill the guy in the dress!

Now that we know that we should be focusing fire to eliminate enemies quickly, and thus reduce the damage we’re taking, let’s talk a little bit about how to choose who to kill first.  In the example above, it doesn’t matter.  Each ogre has the same stats, capable of taking and dealing the same amount of damage.  But what if we’re fighting a mixed group, say two fighters in platemail and a shield wielding longswords accompanied by two guys in robes carrying staves or daggers?

  • Knowing nothing else about our opponents other than what they’re wearing, we can surmise a few things about them:
  • The fighters are going to be harder to hit (AC 20) and will likely have more hp than the guys in robes.
  • The guys in robes are most likely spellcasters, and each of their spells is going to have a much higher potential damage than the fighters’ longsword attacks.
  • The guys in robes are going to be easier to hit, and have less hp than the fighters.

No brainer, right?  Kill the guys in dresses, then clean up the tin cans.  If the opponent has healers, or those capable of buffing the combat power of their allies, you should focus on them first as well, as they can prolong the life of their allies, or cause them to do more damage.  Usually, when these targets die, or lose concentration, their buffing effects end.

Knowing when to blow your load (going nova)

Blowing your load, or going nova, means dealing as much damage as possible as quickly as possible.  For fighters, this would include using battle master maneuvers and action surge. For berserker barbarians, it means using frenzied rage, and for all barbarians, it means attacking recklessly.  Paladins use divine smite on every attack that hits.  Casters going Nova will drop their best concentration buffs or damage-over-time spells and then their biggest slot-level AE nukes.  For moon druids, it means picking the most damaging wild shape forms.  Rogues really don’t have a nova ability other than the assassin archetype’s bonuses when surprising opponents, and combos with other classes abilities that allow them to get an attack when not their turn (and thus sneak attack more than once in a round).

If you are familiar with raiding in MMOs, going Nova in D&D equates to using trinkets and cooldowns to burn down those last few percentage points of a boss mob’s health before the enrage timer or in a damage race encounter.

So now that we know what it is, how do we know when to do it?  Sometimes it’s obvious.  We’ve come to the last room of a small, three-to-five room dungeon and inside is a dark mage carrying a staff wreathed in black energy, with his undead henchmen.  He cackles maniacally and swears you will now die for attempting to interrupt his master plan. It’s clear the DM is trying to tell you “This is a boss fight.”

Any time your party is facing a number of opponents which are tough for your level may mean that it is time to go nova.  If the party’s raging barbarian is under half health after exchanging one round of hits, it is time to go Nova.  If the opposing side has multiple spellcasters capable of big damage or powerful save-or-suck effects, it is probably a good idea to go nova until those threats are eliminated.  When you are facing a dragon whose rechargeable breath weapon can one shot one or more characters, it is most definitely time to go nova!

If your DM runs the type of game when there’s just one or two big set-piece battles a day, and you have plenty of time to rest in between, then you should always be thinking nova.

Tanking and limiting damage taken

Look at your other party members.  Compared to them, are your hit points higher? Do you have a better armor class?  If you answer no to both of these, you should try to avoid getting hit more than is absolutely necessary.  Sometimes it’s unavoidable.  An opponent with ranged attacks, or spells can freely target anyone within range.  Just like a player character, intelligent enemies will focus on soft targets when able.

But often, fights are with big dumb brutes, such as the aforementioned ogres.  These guys can hit hard, but are limited to melee attacks, or their ranged attacks are much less damaging when they have them.  In those cases, you can do yourself and your party a favor by knowing your role when it comes to taking damage.

Let the party barbarian, paladin, or fighter engage at melee range while you stand back and deal damage from range.  Or if you have to be in melee range to deal damage, make good use of escape and damage reduction powers.  For rogues, this means using cunning action to disengage back behind the tank after dealing your damage, or if you can’t, using your uncanny dodge to reduce the damage you do take.  Monks can spend chi points to take dodge as a bonus action, significantly reducing the rate at which they are hit.  In extreme circumstances, such as fighting giants that hit for huge amounts of damage, it may even be worthwhile for the tanks to use the dodge action rather than attacking.

For ranged casters and archery-types, simply keep a solid distance from your opponent. Place yourself so if they were to move to attack you, it would cost them one or more attacks of opportunity from your tanks to do so.  Take out the ranged enemies at first, if their are any (see focusing fire), while your tanks absorb the hits from the opposing heavies.

On the flip side, don’t be afraid to take a hit or two.  Having all of the enemies focused on your tanks stops being ideal when the tank gets swarmed, beaten down, and overrun.  Ideally, the hits should get spread around enough so that no one drops in a combat, with the majority going to the heavily-armored, high-hp party members.

Crowd Control

Based on the above tips, we know that winning combat means defeating your opponents while taking as little damage as possible.  We focus fire on one opponent at a time to reduce the amount of damage we take over the course of the fight by reducing the number of enemies as efficiently and fast as possible.  We nova when we need to to win a tough fight where the enemies would out damage us if we simply used basic attacks and cantrips.

There’s another way we can prevent damage to us.  That is using abilities that prevent the opponents from attacking us effectively.  Such abilities are collectively referred to as “crowd control”.  Most of these are spells, and thus, we often call spellcaster classes “controllers”.

There are two types of control: hard control and soft control.  Hard control involves preventing a creature from attacking, or forcing it to take actions, or removing it from the fight entirely.

Examples of hard control:

  • Polymorphing an enemy into a harmless frog
  • Casting hold person on an enemy to paralyze it.
  • Casting fear to cause an enemy to flee the battle.
  • Catching a horde of orcs in a hypnotic pattern to immobilize and charm them.
  • Charming one of a pair of wyverns with dominate monster, and using it to attack its mate.

Soft control is limiting your enemy to non-ideal actions or using debuffing effects to reduce their combat effectiveness, or forcing them take damage in order to attack you.

  • Casting a wall of fire between your ranged characters and the enemies to force them to approach the tank or else take damage.
  • Using a slow spell to reduce the enemies’ attacks against you.
  • Fog cloud can prevent ranged enemies from seeing you, and thus force them to attack at disadvantage.
  • A tank with the sentinel ability and a reach weapon projects soft control around him as he can use his reaction attack an enemy which attempts to move around him to engage his allies.
  • A lore bard’s cutting words ability and the vicious mockery cantrip are both debuffs which can provide soft control.

In general, hard control is better than soft control because it is unavoidable.  When combined with focused fire and going nova, crowd control can trivialize an otherwise difficult encounter by shutting down the most dangerous enemies while you concentrate on the mooks.

Maximizing Action Economy

This is a more advanced topic, but I’ll touch on it here, as understanding its importance illustrates the underlying principles of some of the above tactics.

In general, each player or enemy gets to move up to their speed, and take one action on each of their turns in combat, and each character gets one turn in a round.  They may also use a bonus action if they have an ability which grants one.  They may take a reaction any time one is allowed, but only once between each of their turns and the next.  Finally, a character can concentrate on one spell or ability which requires concentration at a time. All of these are hard limitations in what a character is capable of doing on their turn.

Knowing how to maximize the effectiveness of the above action economy is what separates a good player from the average player.  For rogues, this means using your cunning action every round where possible, either to hide after moving to a new hiding spot (and thereby gaining advantage (and sneak attack damage) on the next turn’s attack).

For clerics, this means utilizing your concentration for your most effective buff spell or damage-over-time effect.  Spiritual weapon is an excellent spell choice, as you spend one bonus action to break the action economy on future turns.  It requires no concentration, and attacks a target within range each turn.  You can reposition it with a bonus action, which, unless you’re casting healing word on someone, you usually aren’t going to be using, anyway.

Bards utilizing their action economy will make good use of their bonus actions to provide bardic inspiration to their allies, or use cutting words with their reaction to cause an opponent’s key attack rolls to miss.  Any uses of these abilities which remain when the character recharges them during a rest are wasted, and result in action inefficiency.  The same holds true for their spell slots (and those of any other caster class).




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