“You can’t win. But there are alternatives to fighting.”
—Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars (1977)
If every fight in your D&D campaign is a fight to the death, you’re making your game worse. There are dozens of reasons why. If the goal of every encounter is to rout the enemy, your game will become predictable and rote. If you force your players to chase down every fleeing goblin and squish every giant centipede before your encounter ends, your fight loses all tension and becomes a mindless grind. But just as there are multitudinous pitfalls in encounter design, the best Dungeon Masters know that there are many solutions.
Last week, we talked about hobgoblins and how their military tactics can create unusual combat encounters and even entire adventure scenarios. When a hobgoblin warlord musters an army, it creates a scenario in which routing the enemy is impossible. The heroes must secure another route to victory—a creative win condition. I call these creative win conditions and not unconventional or alternative win conditions because most violent encounters in real life don’t end with one side slaughtering their enemies to the man, even in open war.
In a pitched battle, a group of humanoid enemies can flee, surrender, or be forced to tactically retreat to handle a separate crisis. Battles can also be decided through other means, such as by breaking supply lines, winning a race to advantageous terrain or unoccupied fortifications. If the battle turns against your force, sometimes the only way to survive is to find an escape route, which becomes a victory condition of its own. Outside of military skirmishes, even more solutions arise. Many monsters are simply hungry predators, and will flee if its food puts up too great a fight, and others are protective of their young, and will only attack so long as the characters are near its nest.
Encounter Design as Story Design
Before we look at specific examples of telling different stories than just "kill 'em all!" in D&D encounters, let's take a close look at designing stories using action. An encounter is a very specific type of scene in D&D. The act of rolling initiative should communicate to your players that the story is advancing in some way.
But this is not always true.
Typically in D&D, rolling initiative means the opposite: that the story has stopped dead in its tracks so that the characters can find a creative way to kill some monsters for a few hours. If you want to run a story-focused D&D game, you need to break yourself of this habit and think of ways to have your combat encounters also either a. progress your story at large, or b. tell a small, self-contained story. A lot of D&D players think that only in-character dialogue can move the story forward. That’s false in all forms of storytelling, from films to books to games. Action is one of the most engaging forms of storytelling, and battles are stories where the tension and development should be at their highest, not their lowest.
Even in games with only the barest of interest in telling a story, boss battles often advance what little story there is, since the boss monster usually has a plot that needs to be foiled. The cultists of the Eternal Flame in Princes of the Apocalypse don’t have a lot of personality, but killing their leader, Vanifer, douses their ambitions of summoning Imix, Prince of Evil Fire into the Material Plane. Destroying bad things—such as killing a villain, unmaking an evil artifact, or counteracting the magic of a cult leader’s ritual—is an easy way to create story progression through action.
Games with a greater story focus typically present villains with personal connections to the heroes, and these fights become catalysts for character growth or plot revelations. The fight between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back is filled with moments that develop the characters and the story at large. Everyone knows that the end of the fight contains a revelation that completely recontextualizes Luke and Vader’s relationship, but the entire encounter is filled with tiny, wordless moments that advance the personal stories of the individual combatants.
Vader underestimates his foe at first, casually waving his lightsaber with only a single hand, but his arrogance leads to an early defeat and forces him to flee. Luke is emboldened by this victory and pursues, but finds that Vader is lying in wait and overpowers Luke by fighting dirty. Instead of simply clashing sabers, he uses the Force to pelt Luke with heavy debris, and even smash a window, creating a vacuum that hurls his enemy onto another platform. As a disoriented Luke tries to regain his bearings and find his foe, Vader—who has been holding his breath to silence his iconic rasping breathing—leaps from surprise and attacks Luke ruthlessly.
Vader’s emotional growth—from arrogance and showboating (“Perhaps you are not as strong as the Emperor thought”) to desperate and cunning (holding his breath, fighting dirty)—is communicated to the audience almost entirely through action. Your D&D fights don’t have to be filled with quipping and in-character dialogue to be filled with tension or character growth. Your villain’s actions can tell a story just as clearly as dialogue, and all without you having to interrupt your description of the action in combat with an improvised monologue.
Creative Victory Conditions in War
D&D has trouble with war. In my experience, the game is at its best when it can focus on two sides in a small conflict: a group of 3 to 7 heroes facing a similar number of distinct monsters. War is nothing like that. War in epic fantasy sees massive armies clashing all at once in grand cavalry charges, focusing instead on epic scale and spectacle to create a believable facsimile of the chaos of war. D&D was born from Chainmail, a wargame which simulated mass combat, and there have been several attempts at mass combat rules for D&D, but these rules have always had difficulty gaining traction.
Short of developing an entirely new rules system for representing war in D&D, one way of creating war scenarios your players can engage with is making them a small strike force. They are an elite group of heroes that can accomplish objectives that armies are too unwieldy to attempt. The goal of this is to pit your small party of heroes against more manageable numbers of enemies. Here are a few new goals you can use in skirmish-sized war encounters. Make sure you clearly communicate these goals to your players, otherwise they will probably continue to treat encounters as they always have: as a mission to rout the enemy.
- First and foremost, here is the assumed objective in nearly every combat encounter. If there’s an enemy nearby, kill it. Repeat until there are no more enemies nearby. This encounter objective isn’t a dirty word. It’s just another tool, but when all you have is a hammer, every encounter starts to look like a nail.
- In war, armies are led by commanders. If you assassinate an enemy commander, their entire unit can fall apart. This objective works well in combats against hobgoblins and other lawful evil creatures. Once their power structure falls apart, the enemy will either flee or surrender—ending the encounter, in either situation.
- An enemy scout has been spotted spying on the characters’ camp, and they must give chase and hunt the scout down before it reports back to its commander. The characters must travel through enemy territory, fleeing snipers and avoiding traps, and they must use cover wisely to get to the scout and find a place to lay low before they’re taken down by hidden snipers. The characters don’t have to defeat their ambushers, just stop the scout and escape back to safety.
- Pillage (or Burn). The enemy camp is filled with supplies that, if stolen, would weaken them and strengthen your army. The characters must sneak into the enemy camp and either steal or destroy precious supplies like armor, food, munitions, mounts (setting mounts free is more tasteful than destroying them), tactical plans, and weapons.
- The characters’ enemies possess an item, such as a magic artifact or an item of cultural significance to the enemy. If they are able to steal it from the enemy camp or ambush its wielder while they are out on patrol, the enemy’s force will be weakened or lose morale entirely.
- When the enemy army sorties, they may only leave a skeletal force behind to protect their fortifications. It’s up to the characters to infiltrate their fortress and wipe out their defenders, then lock out the enemy army. Accomplishing this objective involves capturing, ejecting, or killing all enemy units within the fortification.
Creative Victory Conditions in Other Adventures
Not all D&D campaigns are set against a backdrop of war. Most simply follow adventurers exploring crypts and fighting dragons in dungeons. Makes sense. Still, a DM running a campaign of dungeon crawling should create combat encounters with a wide range of objectives to keep their campaign from getting stale or predictable. Here are some encounter objectives that can work in typical adventuring situations.
- Monsters only fight because they want something. Instead of requiring your players to fight an intelligent monster, consider what it wants—besides the characters’ blood. A behir may want to eat the characters, but it would be willing to set aside its hunger if the characters agree to kill the nearby white dragon and deliver its eggs as a snack. This route essentially turns a combat encounter into a roleplaying encounter, which is one of the strengths of fifth edition D&D’s light and snappy play!
- In fights against wild beasts or territorial monstrosities like an owlbear, sometimes all you have to do to overcome an encounter is to realize that the monster is just defending its turf or protecting its young. Keep moving and it won’t even try to pursue.
- Some creatures react viscerally to fear. If you have a combat encounter featuring a few major enemies and a lot of minions, you don’t have to make them flee immediately, but you can describe to your players that the minions are looking at one another uncertainly, and that one sharp shock could cause them to scatter in fear. This helps keep combats from overstaying their welcome.
Your Favorite Encounter Objectives
These are the nine encounter objectives I like to use in my home games. Do you use any that aren’t on this list? Sound off in the comments with some of your favorite creative encounter objectives. I might even steal some of them for my game.
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and is also a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and two territorial beasts, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.