How to make D&D combat more engaging

Everyone who plays D&D enjoys different aspects of the game. Some people love the opportunity to improv and become a different person. Others enjoy the story and puzzle elements to D&D. And then there are those who really enjoy combat encounters and dominating the battlefield.

Dungeons and dragons combat 5e notebook

Combat for D&D 5e is setup in a way where a 3 minute in-game battle might take an entire session to complete in real-time. In some cases, this is perfectly acceptable. For experienced Dungeon Masters (DMs) and players, it might not even be an issue. But for new players and those players who have a hard time enjoying combat, it may prove to be less than ideal.

For example, if the party has a lot of players, it can sometimes take 30–40 minutes until a single round of combat is complete. If your party has this problem, the good news is that there are lots of ways to speed up combat and make it more engaging. Some of these tips may only work for certain situations, so I encourage you to try them out and see which ones work for you.

  • Use a Timer. This tip can be customized in a lot of ways. The idea is to set a timer for each player’s turn. So each player may get 1-5 minutes to make their action/bonus action. This encourages players to be alert and ready when their turn starts. Just like emulating a real fight, there isn’t much time to react and you have to be quick on your feet. Of course, there doesn’t have to be a penalty when the timer runs out — just having the timer visible makes everyone aware of the time they spend on their turn so that they can be more respectful to others. It’s easy to forget how much time it takes to look through all your spells, calculate modifiers and damage, and special class features. The timer may help bring awareness to players and speed up turns.
  • Give players a role. It can be any role — but the idea is to give each player a job that they are in charge of. This helps players from getting bored when they are waiting for the start of their next turn. For example, maybe that player’s job is to keep track of the timer (see above^). Or maybe they’re in charge of moving the mini’s on the game board. If one player really likes improv, maybe their role is to reenact the fight scenes! You can be as creative as you want with this. By assigning each player a job, it can help keep players engaged and even lighten the DM’s workload.
  • Assign NPC Trackers. This may or may not work for your campaign but it can be a real game-changer. Some DM’s like to keep their dice roles and Non-Player Character (NPC) stats behind a curtain. For those who are comfortable with a level of transparency, then this tip is for you. Similar to the above tip, one of the roles you might assign players during combat is to keep track of NPC health points and stats. This can be a huge help to the DM when there are multiple NPCs to keep track of. If every player is in charge of tracking a different NPC during combat, then that means the DM can focus on strategy and storytelling rather than counting numbers. It also gives the players a sense of responsibility when its not their character’s turn.

If you find that combat encounters are a point of struggle in your games, hopefully you’ve found these tips helpful. What ideas have your party come up with that help keep players engaged? I’d love to hear them!