After watching Web DM’s video on making your D&D game more deadly, I quickly jotted down 37 ways you could make combat more challenging (and deadly) for your players without going down the road of changing the rules.
Don’t get me wrong.
I love changing the rules and mixing things up – making the game your own.
After all, that’s what a large part of this site is about.
But that takes a bit of work, and it isn’t for everyone.
So, here are 37 ways to make your combats more deadly (or, at least, more challenging) for your players without changing any rules.
I have placed these in four categories: the monsters themselves, using tactics, using your locations, and finally a catch-all miscellaneous list.
This section shows you how you can beef up your monsters to make your combats more deadly.
Max HPs for Monsters
The average Hit Points given to monsters in the Monster Manual are just that – average. Try rolling for HP instead, or just use the maximum. Or, even give them more!
Was your last fight a push over? Did the Big Bad crumble? Increase the number of monsters you are using. Those 5 Hobgoblins not cut it? Use 10, or 20!
Your Big Bad just got toasted after two rounds? Give her minions! Or more minions. Make sure you are keeping the PCs busy so the Big Bad can unleash their awesome powers.
Monster Variety Mix
Mix it up. Add in a variety of monsters into the same battle. Use a mix of Goblins and Hobgoblins, Skeletons and Zombies, a Hag and a Hydra. Get creative.
Use two monsters that have developed a symbiotic relationship or have each other’s back. I loved Jim’s example in the video of a Medusa who could animate her stone statues. Also, I have created an encounter where a Wererat Druid had Giant Rat companions. Look through the Monster Manuals and see what you could mash together.
Give Your Monster Class
In D&D 3rd edition it wasn’t unusual to give your monster class levels. I even created a Wererat Druid for an encounter recently. Boost your monster’s abilities by giving them some levels and surprise your PCs with a Kobold who can heal his companions.
One of the things I find weird in D&D 5th compared to earlier editions is that Dragons don’t get spells. Give your monsters some spells to throw your PCs off kilter.
Home Grown Secrets
If the monster is in its lair, it will know that place well – way better than your PCs. And it would have had time to put in a few surprises. Let it use it’s lair to its advantage.
So many times I have forgotten about or just not used a monster’s trait or ability. Know your monsters and know what they can do, and make sure to use as many of their special abilities as possible.
Think Like The Monster
You need to be one with the monster. If you haven’t already start reading the blog The Monsters Know What They Are Doing then start now.
Some monsters just grow bigger than the rest of their kin. Increasing a monster’s size gives it some benefits which make it more deadly. Let loose that Giant Zombie or a large Cockatrice.
Want a brand new monster? Take an existing one and re-skin it. Want a blob demon? Use the Lemure as a base and add an Ochre Jelly’s amorphous ability.
Find some earlier editions of D&D and use monsters from their monster manuals to give your PCs a new challenge. In one campaign I used some undead from the 3rd edition monster manuals 3 & 4 – it completely scared the PCs into retreating from the battle.
Simply give a monster 1 or 2 more attacks. This makes it deadlier and might just surprise a PC who isn’t expecting that Goblin to have a second attack.
Flying or Burrowing Monsters
This leads into using the terrain, but use monsters who can either fly – giving it some great advantage over land-bound PCs. Or one that can burrow. I remember almost killing a gnome wizard PC once when a Giant Ant used it’s already dug tunnels to pop up directly behind him – surprise!
This section focuses on using some basic tactics to make your battles more challenging and deadly.
Start thinking tactically. Monsters Know is a great first start, but get your mind around how monsters would act and use their surroundings. Run a few combats solo to give yourself some ideas before you unleash them on your PCs.
Put PCs on the Backfoot
Use stealth, surprise, ambushes, readied actions, and other rules and actions to gain an advantage and put the PCs on the back foot at the start of combat. It will take them time to recover.
Split the Party
This was a suggestion by Jim in the video. Use the Wall spells to separate the PCs – lure the healer away so the other PCs aren’t getting healed. Surround the rogue so they can’t use their hide ability and are more difficult to rescue. Also, use the terrain to separate PCs.
Know Your Enemy
Another suggestion from Jim in the video is having the Big Bad know your PC’s tactics and abilities after spying on them or gathering intel, and then using this knowledge against them.
As they say ‘location, location, location!’ Use the terrain to the monster’s advantage.
Don’t just have a 30ft by 30ft room. Have a large chamber with a domed ceiling with a fire pit in the middle and a 10ft-wide crack cutting it in half; with stalactites and stalagmites all over. Then use this dramatic terrain to your advantage.
Terrain is Your Friend
Use it. Taking the example above and have the monster on the other side of the crack, hidden by the fire pit, hurling fire balls at the PCs as they try and get across the crack while dodging said balls of flame. Meanwhile, the Spellplague Minotaur uses his Gargoyles to harass and weaken the PCs.
Make use of these, even for lower level monsters. It’s their home, they are going to have some surprises in store for those pesky PC intruders.
Control the Battlefield
This is how you win battles. Use spells, minions, the terrain, and anything else to control the battlefield – slowing or even stopping PCs, making them go where you want them to, use up their actions not attacking your monster, and just keeping the advantage.
Read Books on Battle Tactics
Go to your local library or bookstore and read up on some classic battle tactics.
Use Range Weapons
These are under used and not used effectively enough. Get someone at height on a ledge or rooftop and start sniping the PCs. Focus on the spellcasters which will force concentration checks.
Soften Up PCs
Use a series of encounters before the Big Bad fight to use up the PCs resources and lower their hit points. Then hit them when they are at half strength, or worse.
Hit & Run
Don’t just stand and fight to the last monster. Flee and fight again when your monsters have regrouped or have advantage. Hit fast and hit hard.
Don’t be afraid to bring in more monsters if the ones you have are getting cut down too easily. Just make this realistic.
Have your monsters use their terrain to their advantage. Having cover will protect them a great deal.
Not all PCs can see in the dark. Snuff out lights, cast darkness spells, and generally mess with their vision. You gain advantage and you can really disrupt and control the battlefield.
Here are some random ideas to make your battle more deadly that didn’t fit into the other categories.
Use traps and natural hazards to help you in the battle. Especially if the monster is smart enough to set traps and it is in its lair.
Advantage & Disadvantage
Gain advantage and give disadvantage as often as you can is a battle. This is a great way to hit more often and to not get hit as often.
Know and use various actions in the Player’s Handbook. Don’t just stand and try and hit every round. It may be more advantageous to fight defensively until reinforcements arrive.
Monster are going to fight dirty. Make this happen.
If you are in an environment with innocent bystanders, then look at using them as shields.
Pulling Punches & Fudging Rolls
Don’t do either of these. Go hard and let the dice fall where they may.
Just the act of describing something in a dangerous or mysterious way can give the PCs pause. Also, use image that are not in the official rule book. Mix it up and make the PCs scared.
Bonus: Understand the Combat Rules
You need to be able to use the rules of combat in D&D to your advantage, and the only way to do that is to know it well. This comes with practice, but don’t forget to read the combat section a couple of times.
Final word: Don’t Use Just One
Mix these together for a really difficult and deadly fight.
Imagine using a Half-Dragon Paladin of Vengeance who has max HP Hell Hounds as guards, and uses a cavern full of lava lakes as a lair which has lair actions (shooting hot steam), and difficult terrain, with plenty of places to hide.
Over to You
Can you think of any others? How many of these do you use in your battles now?