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Running Combat-Focused Adventures

by Mike on 15 April 2024

This article is one in a series where we look at types of adventures and examine

These articles include:

Your own adventure types and how you run them may differ from mine. That's totally fine. There are many right ways to enjoy this game.

Robin Laws's book Adventure Crucible – Building Stronger Scenarios for any RPG inspired my thoughts on this topic.

For a far more in-depth look at running monsters in combat encounters, please check out Forge of Foes, our book on building and running fantastic monsters for your 5e games.

Understanding Combat Adventures

Good fantasy RPG sessions most often include mixtures of exploration, roleplay, and combat. Adventures or sessions focusing on only one pillar of play may bypass players' preferences for the other elements.

But, on occasion, we find ourselves with a session focused almost exclusively on combat.

Completely combat-focused sessions may occur when characters face a big battle at the beginning of the session and we know this battle is going to take up most of the session. Other combat-focused sessions might happen when the characters face a gauntlet of battles, one right after the other, whether they're exploring a dangerous dungeon, defending a location, or otherwise find themselves with a series of battles staged in sequence.

Combat-focused sessions should be rare. The best sessions include scenes and situations with opportunities for roleplaying, exploration, and combat. We want situations where the characters make meaningful decisions to move the story forward.

But combat-focused sessions do happen and thus are worth examining.

Preparing Combat Sessions

During prep, GMs can prepare combat sessions by

Running Combat Sessions

For 5e games and other fantasy d20 games, combat tends to be the most well-articulated and refined style of gameplay. For combat-focused sessions, GMs need only start the session and get into the first battle. Between combat encounters ensure the sinew is there to connect one battle to the next. The rest falls on the rules of combat for our chosen system.

Depending on the complexity of the encounters, the number of characters, and their level, combat encounters may be easy or difficult to run. The higher level the characters – the more power and capability they bring to the battlefield – the trickier it can be to maintain a consistent challenge. The dials of monster difficulty can help balance such a challenge.

When running combat, continue to draw the players into the fiction of the world. Describe the situation from the point of view of the characters. Describe what attacks and hits look like. Ask players to do the same. Reveal secrets and clues when appropriate. Include opportunities for roleplaying with NPCs and enemies before, during, and after the battle. Avoid getting lost in the mechanics of combat and remember the story going on in the world.

Pitfalls of Combat Sessions

Here are several potential pitfalls when running combat-focused adventures and sessions:

Mitigating Pitfalls

GMs can help mitigate these pitfalls by

An Uncommon Adventure Type

Combat-focused sessions are best held for big battles against boss monsters. Other session types in this series of articles offer a better balance of exploration, roleplaying, and combat. Combat-focused sessions are prevalent enough, however, for us to internalize what makes them fun and what we can do to avoid common pitfalls.

Build fantastic and intricate combat encounters and let the characters shine.

More Sly Flourish Stuff

Last week I posted a couple of YouTube videos including Build Your Own 5e and Add Black Flag's Luck to your 5e Games.

RPG Tips

Each week I think about what I learned in my last RPG session and write them up as RPG tips. Here are this week's tips:

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This work includes material taken from by Michael E. Shea available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

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