wait a moment

DM Tips – Faking Combat

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One of my favourite 5th edition sessions was something of a ‘filler episode’. Game night rolled around, and two out of my five players said they couldn’t make it. Luckily for me, the group had just finished a major adventure, and we had ended the previous session with the party resting up in the town they had just come to.

Knowing that I was going to be running a game for just three people, I didn’t want to do anything that would advance the overall campaign. This is the kind of session side-quests were invented for. I wasn’t sure what I or the players would enjoy most, though – and I didn’t have much time to prepare because reasons – so I decided to have some fun.

I made a noticeboard and filled it with ridiculous plot hooks:


I can’t remember what they all said, but the fully visible one in that photo say this:

  • WANTED: 2 – 4 strapping young lads to explore caverns. May be inhabited by spiky things. Bring own weapons. Pay is 75 gold each per day. SPEAK TO ANY DWARF. No time wasters.

One was a direct copy of the letter from Safety Guaranteed, and I remember one having something to do with watching somebody sleep. There was a Nigerian Prince letter in there somewhere, too. And then there was this:


Yes, that’s written in pink crayon. If you can’t read it, it says this:

  • WanteD. bRave and Tastey Foolish Brave adventurers to go to tHe Cave of sertan death Cuddles and be eaten kilL monsters. speak to Joe.

Ridiculous. Deliberately so. Just a bit of fun.

Now, you may be wondering what this has to do with faking combat. Well, I’ll tell you.

I filled that noticeboard with plot hooks, and I put together very quick encounters for each notice (basically 5 room dungeons focused around one major combat encounter for each one). The Joe letter was an afterthought, something I scribbled down once I’d put the other notices on the board, simply because it looked a bit empty. I never intended for them to pick it – which is why it was written to look like such an obvious trap. I didn’t build an encounter for it.

Guess which notice the party decided to go and investigate?

I’m not going to go too deep into specifics on what the adventure ended up being. Let’s just say that Joe was overly excited to see the group, absolutely smashed every deception check they forced him to make, and was incredibly convincing that the ‘Cave of Cuddles’ was not only real but was, in fact, wonderful. My players were howling with laughter through the entire conversation with him, the party wandered off into what was obviously an ambush waiting to happen, and things got very dark very quickly.

If memory serves correctly, I threw a few basic puzzles into the mix, but what the adventure boiled down to was two main combat encounters – the first with a pair of rock-throwing behemoths that stepped out of the walls of the canyon the party had been led down, and the second with Joe himself. Joe greeted the party from atop a mound of dead adventurers, threw lightning and fire around, and kept tearing off his face to reveal the party’s own faces grinning back at them. They hacked him into little pieces, all while he cackled and joked at them.

It’s a fun story, and it’s one my players still tell. To this day, if one of my NPCs is ebullient and keen to help, they’re immediately distrusted by the group. Any time something seems too good to be true, it’s the Cave of Cuddles all over again. They even do impressions of the voice I did for Joe. It’s great.

Neither Joe nor the rocky giant things are in the Monster Manual, and I didn’t have any stats for them. I faked the entire combat. To be honest, we weren’t really playing D&D anymore at that point – but my players didn’t know it. And it was really, really easy to do.

A word of caution: if you’re interested in things like game balance and fairness and playing the ‘right’ way, you’re going to hate this advice. And that’s fine. It isn’t really ‘advice’ as much as it’s a look at how I cheat when my players go off-script. This is simply one of the ways I make life easier for myself when I don’t have the right thing prepared and don’t want to start opening the Monster Manual at the table. It is cheating, and if your players find out you’re doing this they may well never trust you again. I should also add that I don’t allocate or track experience in my game – I use milestones instead, and everybody levels up at the same time. If you keep track of experience, then this isn’t going to work for you at all.

With that said…

All I used were two tables on my DM’s Screen. The first is Setting A DC (which can also be found on page 174 of the Player’s Handbook) and the second is Damage By Level and Severity (page 249 in the Dungeon Master’s Guide). For a very basic combat – monsters who hit once or twice a round and don’t have any special abilities – this is pretty much all you need to fake a combat.

Firstly, how hard is the monster to hit? In the case of my rock behemoths, they’re big and slow. They’re pretty easy to hit. So I check the ‘Setting A DC’ table – because when players make an attack roll, they’re rolling against a DC, which is determined by the Armor Class of whatever they’re trying to hit. In this case I can simply determine that I want the monsters to be Easy to hit, so I give them an AC of 10. That probably seems really low – and it is, the players are going to hit these things the majority of the time – but that’s fine. They’re big, slow, and made of rock – which means they can soak up a ton of damage. The players hit and do damage with nearly every attack, but their attacks don’t seem to have much effect.

Joe is another matter. He’s quick and nimble, sly and shifty and hard to pin down. I want him to be fairly hard to hit – but not so hard as to be impossible. At this point the group were still a fairly low level, so hitting an AC of 20 was tough for them. With that in mind, I pick the Moderate option from the table, and we set Joe’s AC at 15.

Now that we know how hard these things are to hit, we need to know how much damage they deal. That’s where that second table I mentioned comes in to play. When you build encounters properly, using the guidelines in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, you’re already assessing whether you want it to be an Easy, Hard, or Deadly encounter. That’s what we’re doing here, but on a monster-by-monster basis.

So, the rock-chucking giant walking wall things were the first encounter, guardians of the Cave of Cuddles. They’re a classic setback. And my group were around level 3 when this took place – so the table tells me their attacks are going to deal 1d10 damage when they hit. (As far as their attack bonus goes? The key to faking it is to make things easy for yourself. What’s the average proficiency bonus of your group? At level 3, all the players have a proficiency bonus of +2. Guess what attack bonus my monsters suddenly had?)

Joe was a dangerous foe, but this was a side-quest featuring three-fifths of the party. I didn’t want anybody to die, so Joe dealt 2d10 damage. That’s a lot to absorb in one hit at that level, though, so I split it into two attacks a round versus the rock-thing’s one.

The final thing you’ll need is hit points. And this is where you really need to commit to cheating. Because you’re simply going to ignore hit points. Remember when I said we weren’t playing D&D anymore at this point? Yeah.

Just let the combat play out. Trade blows, let the players try – and, for the most part, succeed – to do awesome things. (Wutang, the half-orc monk, at one point ran up the leg of one of the rock-chuckers, scaled its back, and sank a pickaxe into its stone ete. Manbearpig tried to tie their legs up like they were AT-AT walkers.) You’ll be able to gauge whether your players are having fun – and as long as they’re having fun, let them keep fighting. Every combat reaches a point where it feels like it needs to end soon – and that’s when you start letting the monsters fall. Once you know you’re at the end, wait for a player to do something that screams “Killing blow!” and let it be the killing blow.

In the case of a final boss, someone like Joe, someone who’s dangerous, I try to make sure at least one of the players is in danger of going unconscious. Once they’re afraid for their lives, drag it out for a round or two more. Feed on that dramatic tension, on the fear that they’re in over their heads – and then let it end. The benefit of not playing by the rules is that you have full control over the pacing, over the story that is being told.

Yes, it’s cheating. Yes, it’s railroad-y. If you do this all the time, you’re a bad DM. But in a pinch, it will get you through a combat – and when you’re not trying to keep all your stats straight in your head, tracking hit points and double-checking abilities, you’re free to tap into the creative part of your brain. The session I’ve been talking about was invented whole-cloth on the fly, and it’s up there with my group’s favourite adventures.

But remember – if you’re going to cheat, cheat well. Don’t get caught. Because once your players now you’re cheating, they’re going to assume you cheat every time. And that will kill your game.

Use this with caution.

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