Adjust Combat on the fly
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
So you misjudged the difficulty of a combat encounter: What now?
Whether it’s from low rolls leading to an encounter not being as dangerous as expected, or the party struggling to tackle the challenge successfully, when combat is going in a direction you don’t expect it to, it can be really tough to rein things in and keep combat balanced and engaging. This can be different depending on whether the combat encounter wound up being too hard or too easy, but I’m here to share some quick tips for ways to help bring things back into balance easily.
So Combat is too Hard
Depending on how far into the encounter you are and the nature of the encounter, this can require a little finesse, but it’s totally doable:
The big bad is already hurt, or has used some resources. Perhaps a very perceptive character finally gets a good look at the BBEG and can make a perception check to see that they’ve got injuries that the party didn’t give them. This also presents an opportunity to introduce potential allies, prisoners, or rivals for the party.
Make the most powerful enemy do something suboptimal in combat. Is your BBEG
crushing the party? Have them stop to revel in it. Make a grapple check against a weak opponent to hold them up by their throat and mock them. Have them walk over to a downed PC, lifting them up and flinging them across the room (taking only one failed death save instead of possibly multiple). Allow their ego and vileness to take the forefront in a turn as the party has a brief chance to gain the upper-hand or attempt to escape.
Is this a random encounter or something taking place on the road? What if a bigger threat showed up out of nowhere. If a group of werewolves have gotten the upper hand, maybe they’re chased off by an approaching undead creature. Are elementals running rampant? Enter a powerful wizard to scare off the elementals and offer to strike a bargain with the party. Lesser fiends causing problems? Time for a powerful fiend to save them but demand that the party enter into a contract with them as
Perhaps the party isn’t worth the BBEG’s time. Have them defeat the party but not go in for the killing blow, and just walk away, warning the party that they won’t be so lucky next time. Not only does this give additional motivation to the party, but it instills a sense of fear/dread that they may not have otherwise had.
So Combat is too Easy
If you realize very early on, this is super easy to fix. The later into combat you get, the harder
this is to remedy, but I also personally don’t mind the idea that some combat encounters don’t have to be near death experiences.
Add HP on the fly. Nothing egregious, but an extra 20 HP here or there goes a long way to keep combat from ending too quickly.
Introduce a complication. Maybe the large spider the party is fighting is clearly carrying eggs. Should it die, the eggs will hatch, spawning a swarm of smaller spiders (use the same stat block, but give more attacks for less damage on hit to coincide
with swarm mechanics).
More enemies appear out of nowhere! Perhaps you’re fighting a wild tiger and the party has gotten it low very quickly. Introduce a new tiger (its mate) pouncing out of the shadows to protect the injured one. Suddenly the dynamic shifts. Maybe instead it’s three baby tigers and suddenly there’s a moral dilemma. I prefer moral dilemmas in scenarios like this.
No matter the situation you find yourself in, running combat can be challenging! Know that the very best DMs need to adjust on the fly from time to time, and what makes them a good DM is their ability to adjust the fight so naturally that the players can't tell it's happening.
Feel free to add these tricks to your toolbox and figure out what works best for you!
This post is originally from my Patreon.