GM Advice: How to Enhance Your Combat Encounters

Writing a combat encounter is easy: stick a couple of orcs in a room and you are done. Creating an exciting, engaging encounter, though, requires a little something extra, beyond interesting foes.

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


Encounter enhancements can add an extra level of excitement to a battle. Don’t add these to every combat encounter – they’ll just become the norm – but use them to spice up important battles – perhaps an adventure’s climax. When designing encounter enhancements don’t do so with the goal of screwing over the PCs. Design enhancements that clever combatants can use to their advantage.

Combat enhancements fall into several basic categories:

  • Time Sensitive: Applying a time constraint to an encounter adds a level of urgency otherwise not present. For example, if the PCs must slay their enemies before the ceiling caves in, they don’t have time to hang about! Similarly, if their foes are giving time for the main villain to escape, the party must cut them down as quickly as possible.
  • Interesting Terrain: A battle fought on a bridge spanning a chasm is intrinsically different to one fought on a road. Interesting terrain should both set the theme for an encounter as well as providing interesting tactical options to employ or overcome. Even furniture can be interesting. For example, PCs fighting in a library could push over bookshelves onto their enemies or leap atop them to gain other advantages.
  • Hostages: If the PCs’ enemies have hostages, it is likely the party won’t be able to use the full range of their abilities. Spellcasters in particular will probably not be able to use their area of affect spells for fear of injuring or slaying the hostages. Neutral observers, such as townsfolk, can also add the same restraint to the party.
  • Changeable Battlefield: This is related to interesting terrain above, but in some cases the battlefield may change from round to round providing a unique set of challenges. Are PCs fighting on a beach as storm‐lashed waves burst about them or are they battling on a high moor as strong winds batter the battlefield? Both situation force the combatants to adapt and provide an ongoing level of uncertainty.
  • Weather: Weather can be a boon or a curse to combatants. Winds make ranged attacks harder, while fog and mist can make sneaking about easier. Canny combatants work with the weather, not against it.

Help Your Fellow GMs

Do you use other methods to enhance your encounters? Share what they are in the comments below and help your fellow GMs design more exciting combats today

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

18 thoughts on “GM Advice: How to Enhance Your Combat Encounters”

  1. A good summary list. I might also add something about making combat only an obvious approach, with other approaches to resolution possible. “See it, smash it” is fun, but I like to introduce a bit of dilemma to a situation — “do we really have to, or is there another way?”

    Sneak Attack Press has a couple of Advanced Encounters books bundled at DriveThruRPG that talk about these ideas, too.

    Alternate Encounters: Alternate Objectives guides the designer to encounters that benefit from resolution other than combat. Infiltration, escape (white dragon lair in an iceberg… and it’s flooding), and even things like fighting fires.

    Alternate Encounters: Terrain Toolbox expands to some extent on the ideas above, including how various terrain elements might be applied. It includes a bunch of examples, too. Some are passive hazards, some are active hazards, some have tactical effect beyond that (such as a blood magic circle that causes damage to casters in it but enhances their spells, or a frost ballista that might be captured by one side or the other and used to attack the enemy, or veins of storm metal in the floor that allow someone to cast lightning magic into it and shock enemies in contact with it.

    It took me a long time to decide to buy them, and I kind of regret that I took so long.

  2. One of the best twists, is to see how a group can get by without even fighting. I always encourage my players to find alternate options not commonly seen, like instead of fighting the savage bear, have the druid befriend it and send it on its way, or instead of slaying that Fang dragon and possibly losing half your party, just talk to it, let it eat a horse and run off with a full belly. When you encourage creativity in fighting as you suggest above, it can be really quite entertaining to see what a party can come up with to beat, or even change the odds.

  3. I’ve done many of these. Here are some of my favs:
    A characters “life-blood” was to be sacrificed at midnight, when the moon-beam hit the alter. The PC’s had to fight their way to stop it before the sacrifice was made. A character’s life on the line, can make things really tense.
    I ran a very large monster with really good AC on the lower half of his body, but there was a stone bridge the PC’s could run up on to get reach the upper half that had a very low AC.
    A special ability of low level monsters. You could use any, say Orcs, that learned to fight together, they are much stronger this way. So give them bonus on, levels, saves, AC, etc… based on their numbers. The key is to seperate them and pick them off individually instead of fighting the whole group.
    Modified spells, such as a Wall of Force that a Lich can shape how he likes, say a globe around him except for 1 small hole he casts out of. A group (12 or so) of level 1 priests who all throw bless that combine. All are +12 to hit.
    In one module I have a creature in a pool of murky liquid. It gives great regeneration and the players figure that out if any fall in. I’ve also ran a cave that had pockets of explosive gas, so if a player can cause a spark if using metal weapons. Or certain spells could set them off as well. You can do it with the pockets visible or invisible. Or let certain visions see the pockets. All great fun.

    1. I love the moon-beam hitting the altar idea. I can imagine the moon beam creeping across the floor getting closer and closer to the altar. I’m sure it sped up the PCs’ desire to finish that combat! Very cool.

  4. Nice article. I will be trying out the time constraint strategy to make easy enemies more challenging. I believe this may also apply to puzzles nicely as well.

    Thanks again!

  5. Fight smart – fight sneaky. Your PCs are out to win, so your NPCs should be, as well. Cover, concealment, flanking, superior numbers, healing potions, range… Anything you’d expect to see happen in a modern-day action movie is fair game at the table. How many times have *I* forgotten what the NPCs were carrying and could have used?

    If your players used it on NPCs, let NPCs use it on them. You better believe that the next time my NPCs have to face off against PCs hitting them with ranged fire, they are gonna pop a smokestick or two!

  6. In some systems, it’s worth noting any potential property damage, and to look for opportunities to break things. A lot of rules have guidelines for how much punishment inanimate objects can take, and how hard they are to hit.

    For example, I once staged a combat encounter in a Champions superhero campaign. It was a run-of-the-mill bank robbery, but I did more than just draw a street and a couple buildings. I printed out scale tokens for every vehicle in the parking lot (including a handful to represent traffic passing by). I listed their weights (specifically, the Strength scores needed to lift and throw them), and how much damage they could take. I did the same for the walls of the buildings nearby, and the utility poles lining the street — the latter included stats on yanking one out and using it as a weapon.

    To ensure these items saw use, I included a villain who could knock people around (to show how the rules allow for sending someone through a wall) and a big bruiser type (to fling cars and hit people with telephone poles). Once the players saw that I’d thought of these things, they started using them as well.

    1. I hosted a blog carnival a couple years ago about fantastic locations, and one or two of the articles talked about set management like that. The possibility of manipulating the surroundings like this can go a long way toward making a fight interesting.

  7. I was playing a game of Scion once where an end-of-story fight happened on a large container ship. We, the players, had to keep the fight against a trio of angels from lighting up – and thus potentially Fatebinding – all of NY. An interesting challenge, to say the least.

  8. I like to find inspiration from well designed boss encounters from MMO’s. One particular that I haven’t used, but would like to is from Age of Conan. The boss and a few mooks aren’t all the difficult, but poison gas (of which they are immune) pours through the vents. The PC’s must use large fans to blow away the gas for a short period in order to get a few moments to attack. Alternatively, some investigation could lead the PC’s to find their own immunity to make the fight even shorter. Adding strategies like that seem to really click with players who are also huge video game fans.

  9. Permanent walls of force scattered about a large cavern which one side knows about and the other side doesn’t (mobs lived there and knows them all, PCs scouted the room before luring their foes in) can really change the way a fight plays out. “I charge and attack!” “You make 3 squares before running face first into an invisible wall. Reflex DC 20 or fall prone and your move ends either way.” …and the description of lightning bolts bouncing back at their casters is rather amusing.

    1. Could these walls of force be teaming with a flooding/rising water trap? Perhaps normally they are used to channel floods away from a nearby settlement. If a flood should happen during the battle that could be pretty exciting!

  10. Tight tunnels. Hereby it is not intended to fight squeezing or crawling, that scenario might be fatal for a party. 1 square wide tunnels, interconnected to each other. Front line PC has to fight solo, and the pc on the back would be surprised by another group. Those in the middle have to come up with some clever actions to be useful.

  11. I like to occasionally throw in things like have the enemy casts a friendship spell, now the players have to fight each other as well as the monster.

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