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Run Easy Battles

by Mike on 15 March 2021

Run easy battles.

Easy battles are a wonderful tool for D&D DMs. They add upward beats to your game when you need them. They open up interesting options for players who can now choose multiple ways to deal with easily defeated foes. They let players show off how their skills and powers have grown without much worry of the threat. They open up the story in ways no one can predict.

Easy battles are also a great way to inject some theater of the mind combat into a game that otherwise focuses on a gridded battle map and tokens or miniatures. Many DMs who rely exclusively on gridded map and tokens often complain that easy battles take up too much time. If you're going to bother setting up a battle map and tokens, why not make it a hard battle? If the battle is hard, it surely needs the minute tactics of a five foot grid, right? This feeds into a downward spiral. Every battle is hard because it's a waste of time to run easy battles on a battle map and people require a battle map because every battle is hard and tactical agency is important. Break the cycle with some easy theater of the mind fights.

Too many hard battles leads towards hopelessness and frustration. It's a continual string of downward beats, even when they win, because they only win by the skin of their teeth. Players don't get to show off their abilities to destroy easy foes because monsters keep going up in power at the same rate.

Here are a few tips to introduce some easy battles into your game:

Building Situations, Not Encounters

I've written before about building situations, not encounters and the importance of letting encounters occur organicaly when you're running the game. We can build encounters from two variables: what's happening in the world and what's fun at the game. We start by asking ourselves "what makes sense given the current situation" and then modify this by asking "what will be fun right now?". It might make sense for an entire army of hobgoblins to show up but if the characters have already faced large amounts of foes, maybe it's more fun for only two hobgoblins to show up; the two sent off on latrine duty.

Our goal isn't to burn down resources or run some ideal number of easy and hard encounters in an adventuring day. Our job is to set the stage for the world and let it react to the characters. We do this by starting with the story and then modifying it for the fun of the game.

Upward and Downward Beats

Excitement and energy in a game come from oscillating upward and downward beats; an idea described in Hamlet's Hit Points by Robin Laws. Easy battles are an easy way to inject an upward beat. Players don't get stressed out when their 11th level characters teleport into the garderobe of a fortress only to find a single troll sitting on the commode. That's an upward beat. Facing ten armored war trolls swinging weapons dripping in acid, that's stressful. That's a downward beat. It may turn into an upward beat if the characters succeed but with the resources drained it's still going to feel like a struggle. Too many battles like that in a row feels hopeless. It feels like a slog. Throw in a good share of easy fights and let the players have fun choosing how to kick them into orbit.

Play to See What Happens

Easy fights are great fun for DMs because we don't know how the players will choose to deal with them. Sometimes a fight against a troll sitting on a commode may be the most exciting one if that troll could yell and summon a whole ziggurat of war trolls on the party. Battles against weaker foes have many more options for the characters than battles against hard foes. Generally speaking, when facing a powerful force, your only option is to unload everything you have and kill them. When facing two sleepy orcs, however? Now the options open up.

Easy Battles: A Useful DM Tool

Add easy battles to your DM toolbox. Easy battles add upward beats to your game when you need them, give the players the chance to show off their power, and let the story of your game go in new and interesting directions.

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Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Lairs, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

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