Combat House Rules for 5E

Combat can be slow and painful and boring.

Don’t lie, you know it to be true. Search your feelings.

I run an after-school D&D club for a group of 12 to 15-year-olds and have learned that long combats can quickly derail your game. The attention span of a teenager after a full day of school requires a lot to keep it engaged. 

I have put together some of my house rules and tips for creating fast-paced, interesting combat.

Art by Boris Vallejo & Julie Bell

Brutal Criticals. Make criticals matter. When a player rolls a natural 20 they do the full damage of their first dice and then roll for the damage of the second. For example, Grimbarr the Barbarian gets a natural 20 with their greataxe. They do 12 damage straight up, then roll a d12 and get a 6, and then add their strength modifier of 3. So, a total of 21 damage from a critical hit.

Failing Forward. Missing is boring and the sad rejected faces I get whenever a player has waited for their turn the burly fighter just misses. To combat this, I have introduced a little system that allows to hit on a miss. If a player rolls but it falls short of the Amor Class they can choose to still hit, but they have to roll on a critical fumble table. So, they still do some damage but there is a consequence for it. Makes for silliness and laughter and gets players used to mishaps.

Rolling 1s. If you’re using Failing Forward, then a natural 1 isn’t that interesting if you rolling on fumble tables all the time. When a player rolls a natural 1 the DM gets a free action to use where they see fit. It might be to attack the character who got the 1, or perhaps another monster disengages, or another character entirely is attacked. The idea is to make natural 1’s matter and for their consequences to feel important.

The Environments Initiative. I put the environment at the top of the initiative order. This is my place for Thing to Happen. These might be predetermined, such as a cave-in that drops rocks on the heads of players and enemies alike. Or they might be as a result of the combat itself. The dragonborn uses their breath weapon to torch some thugs in the tavern? Cool, there’s a small fire now. On The Environments Initiative turn, the fire grows and burns those nearby, then the smoke starts to billow causing visibility problems. It’s not necessary for all encounters to have the environment but the advantage of it when it comes. The environment doesn’t care for anyone’s intentions or alignment, it will do as it will to whom ever is in the way.

Depending on the style of game you run, you might not want to apply these changes to monsters as well. If the monsters get all these features too they can become quite formidable and start killing characters with ease. The intent of them to make the fights faster by reducing the HP of monsters at a faster pace and removing lots of misses and low damage critical hits. However, if your players are all good with some character death go for it!

I hope you’ve found this useful and if you use any of these I’d love to hear from you.

If you would like to support my work and follow me on my journey into game design and writing you can support me on Patreon.

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September 2021
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