Most of the time, at lower levels, your characters can pretty easily take out an enemy fairly quickly but at the same time are in danger of dying as well, equally easy. But too many battles and not enough diversity, especially at later levels, can make battle in TTRPGs seem like a slog. We're going to explore ways in which you can make your combat just a little spicier so your players will want to wade into melee just a little bit more often. This was made for D&D but with tweaking a bit in some areas could work for any TTRPG.
UNDERSTAND THE CONCEPTS
Before we get into the techniques of making battle more stimulating, we've got to explore the basics of combat and what factors into it. Knowing each facet of combat intimately will ensure a smooth transition through turns and combat sequences. You don't have to memorize every rule, that's not what this is - it's more about understanding the concepts surrounding the combat mechanics and what they actually mean in-game.
HIT POINTS: Let's start with the obvious, most basic item that many people misuse in combat. Hit Points are meant to represent the physical durability of a character including their stamina, resilience, endurance, luck, and overall life force. Most people assume that Hit Points means that you're taking life-threatening damage all the way to when you drop to 0, but that's not the case. Characters only take life-threatening damage when their Hit Points drop down to just one hit die worth of points or under. Hit Points are not a measure of the body's ability to take damage. Instead, think of Hit Points as points you spend to avoid damage. So, if you look at it that way - when Ragnar the Barbarian finally reaches 0 Hit Points, his luck has finally run out due to fatigue or confusion or what have you and is felled. However, if Ragnar was fighting the Orc Chieftain and had 35 HP left and the Chieftain "hit" him with his magic longsword doing 7 damage - that doesn't mean the Chieftain necessarily drew blood. It just means Ragnar expended some fatigue, and maybe got a nice bruise. Or, if close enough to the bottom rung of his hit dice left maybe Ragnar got a glancing blow that caused a nasty gash in his arm. Keeping this in mind will help you better narrate the fight.
ARMOR CLASS: Another item that many people don't understand in D&D is Armor Class. The character's Armor Class number is meant to represent how hard they are to hit. This doesn't necessarily mean that each miss or hit means the same thing, it just depends on why they have the Armor Class that they do. For example, a Rogue and a Fighter both have an Armor Class of 16. This is because the Rogue is wearing Leather Armor (AC 11) and has a Dexterity bonus of +5. However, the Fighter's Armor Class is 16 because they are wearing Chain Mail armor (AC 16). The Rogue's armor is made of leather, and the Fighter is protected with Chan Mail so you would think that the Fighter is automatically harder to damage or kill, but because the Rogue is faster and doesn't make such a stationary target, they are equally almost as hard to hurt as a Fighter with Chain Mail but it's mostly because the Rogue is dodging while the Fighter is absorbing the blows with his armor. This should be represented in your narration when you narrate battles. If a Goblin misses the Rogue, you could say something like "Arrows buzz around you from the goblin archers, but you nimbly sidestep and use cover as you rush forward to avoid them." Meanwhile, for the Fighter, you'd say something like "The goblin arrows clatter all around you as you move forward. Some glance off your shield, some hit your Chain Mail and are deflected away from you." Tailor the hits and misses to each individual character if you can, as it will help inform your further choices.
TIME: Time is one thing that people forget about during combat. Combat in D&D is comprised of Rounds, with each character getting one Turn during a round. Each Turn in a Round lasts 6 seconds in game-time. So, a combat lasting 10 Rounds would only last approximately 1 actual minute in the course of your characters' lives. This is something to keep in mind, because players tend to think that the combat takes place in the amount of time it takes for the actual Turns and Rounds to happen. If you and the players can make the switch to thinking this way, the combat might seem a little more realistic. Bigger fights might take a bit longer in time for the players, but if they can remember it's only a few minutes in game time it might be more palatable for them and easier to understand.
INTELLIGENT NPCs VS Meat Bags
Now that you've been reminded of the basics, make sure to create intelligent NPCs and not Meat Bags. What this means is that you want your NPCs and Villains to have a little agency during the combat. Maybe if the Villain sees that they're losing, they'll try to reason and negotiate with the players. Maybe the Villain or even lackeys will insult the characters as they cross swords. Don't just let them sit there to be whacked on by your players and their very sharp weapons, like bags of meat. Players get bored of fighting things that only seem like abstract numbers on a sheet of paper. Also, make your villains direct the battle - have them shout to their lackeys things like "GET THE WIZARD!" or "EVERYONE, ATTACK THE CLERIC!" Make sure to have them use battle tactics (The Monsters Know What They're Doing is a great resource for that). Give the Villains, and even their foot soldiers, knowledge of their own weapons and their limitations - maybe your Goblin Archers stop firing at the Fighter wearing Chain Mail because the arrows are just bouncing off, and instead target another character or using a different tactic - or even just running. Also, if you can, make sure to include monsters or magic items when you can with abilities that can ignore a Fighter's armor, or counter a spell, or make it harder for a Rogue to get in and sneak attack. It's not YOU VS your players, but sometimes with combat you should treat it that way. Also, don't be afraid to mix it up and have each group of enemies have a reason for being in the area. Whether they are a hunting party, a warband, or a patrol - give them the appropriate responses to coming across a hostile PC party in the wilderness or dungeon or wherever. Maybe the NPCs are even a rival adventuring party. Mix it up!
ENVIRONMENT AS A CHARACTER
A VASTLY overlooked aspect of combat is the terrain and the surrounding environment. When in combat, many times it's easy to imagine with the way that combat works that the characters and enemies are all standing in a white box with no features, and players are able to move above, under, around and flank the enemies with little regard as to what the environment looks like. One way to supremely improve combat is to make sure to take advantage of the surrounding environment and also make sure to create battlefields that vary in size and dimensions. Each combat encounter doesn't have to be taking place in the same size area. If you open it up a bit, you can have room for long-range attackers who use spells, bows, or even siege weapons. To go along with having Intelligent NPCs in the above section, you could also have surprise ambushes during the fight that throw off battle plans. Perhaps the cliffs that the characters are battling Orcs on has a troop of Goblins scaling them, and they flank the PCs when they clamber over the top. Maybe an unseen villain from below has instructed the Goblins on that particular tactic? Also make sure to take into account terrain and how it affects characters and their movement and especially their ability to use certain skills like Sneak Attack, or even assist members of their party. If the Barbarian rushes ahead and leaps across the gorge to attack the Shaman and his retinue, it doesn't necessarily mean the Halfling Cleric will be able to make it over that same chasm (perfect time for an ambush!). Also, don't be afraid to throw in a few traps - maybe the reason the characters find their way to a certain room in the dungeon is because the evil warlord lured them there. Lastly, natural features of the terrain might be taken advantage of by the players or the NPC's, such as having NPC's cut the ropes to a vital bridge across magma, or maybe a natural geyser erupts every few minutes full of superheated water and steam.
NARRATION IS A TOOL
The Fighter rolls a 5 with his longsword attack and needed a 14 total to hit the Human Bandit. What do you say? In most cases, it would be "Whoops, looks like it's a miss. Okay, Shane, next up is your Bard. What do you do?" That's perfectly fine and is essentially a biproduct of the math that the game is based around, but that's where the RP in RPG comes into play. Roleplaying. Instead of that boring back and forth of "you missed, he missed, you hit, he hit" try to be a little creative, and using the Concepts we talked about at the top, try to figure out WHY the Fighter missed with his longsword. Well, that's pretty easy. The Fighter has been engaging opponents for the duration of the battle and has finally become a little winded, while the Bandit is lithe, agile, and fresh. "Hilmark, beginning to grow weary from the constant onslaught of his longsword, telegraphs his next strike. The Bandit easily sidesteps your swing. Shane, this miss COULD open Hilmark up for a devastating attack. You see the Bandit pulling back his sword arm for a strike against Hilmark. What do you do?" Likewise, using the Concepts at the top of this post, if Hilmark lands a "hit" and the Bandit is nowhere near "dead" - don't make the mistake of saying "Hilmark, you bring your sword down and slash the Bandit for 9 points of damage!" Remember, that's not necessarily how Hit Points work. Instead, say something like "Hilmark, you bring your sword to bear on the hapless Bandit. As you swing your blade, he catches it in his cross guard and the blade just barely edges through his leather armor on his torso. He's visibly shaken." Finally, if the player lands a hit and the enemy is at least 1 hit die away from "death" that's when you should describe the actual hits. "Hilmark, you swing your sword and, off balance and tired and covered in small cuts and large bruises - the Bandit can only stare helplessly as his deflection is easily parried and you sink your blade deep into his chest. With a gurgle, he slumps against you and goes still." The more varied and creative you can be, the better.
Anyway, there are some tools to help you become better at spicing up your vanilla D&D combat. Let us know if you have any additional techniques we may not have thought of. Let us know in the comments below, and once again, thanks for reading! - Joe