Avoiding the wind-down
Combats are one of the most involved and complicated parts of many role-playing games. But as we’ve written about before, they tend to have a declining curve of danger and drama as the fight goes on. The battle often begins with every enemy already on the map, so the player characters charge into the most perilous part of the fight right off the bat — the point at which there are the most opponents out there to deal damage. With each baddie killed, the danger to PCs generally declines.
One of the easiest ways to keep things interesting is by using waves of enemies or more powerful singular monsters. But let’s talk about how to use those to make sure that the final rounds of a combat scene aren’t anticlimactic.
Even using waves, a lot of RPG combats sort of trail off; mop-up in which the player characters have to chase down and finish off the last few enemies, most of whom pose no real danger anymore. For many tables, this part is boring — and that’s nothing that any Storyteller wants.
But in combat against multiple enemies, how do you avoid this? There are a few tricks that I use often and they work well for me.
Clump and rush
Once my players have whittled down the battlefield to a handful of opponents, I have the remaining enemies gather together into a single, close-packed group, then charge one of the player characters. This serves two purposes — this small but concentrated charge can actually put a single character in danger, making them fight hard and the rest of the party leap to their defense in a final dramatic play. Plus, I’ve clumped the final enemies together in an easy-to-target area. No chasing down single combatants at the corners of the map in an undramatic mop-up.
Bring out (or hold back) the boss
After the player characters have killed off about as many enemies as I want them to and there’s only a few left to clean up, then it can work well to bring a single larger opponent out onto the board. Either the bigger foe has been summoned to battle by the loss of their minions — a pack leader of monsters bounding out of the woods, or an enemy commander who has until now been otherwise occupied. Now your player characters have a larger, more menacing baddie to fight, and one whose defeat will end the fight in a single final — and dramatic — blow.
I’ve also had some luck putting the big end-fight boss on the map, but keeping them distant (often physically) and not having them act directly. Usually, they spend the first half of the combat directing my smaller enemies — giving them extra attacks, bonus damage, things like that. Most of my players take that cue to go after the less powerful minions, since the big bad isn’t harming them directly. You can also use these smaller enemies to screen and protect the bigger monster so they have to be dealt with first.
But this tactic won’t work for every table; if your players are likely to target the boss monster anyway — either because they want to eliminate those bonuses or just because they’re after the greater glory of killing the biggest monster — this can become tricky. You can make the end-of-fight boss strong enough that it’s too risky to beat on them with their minions also chewing away at the PCs, giving them incentive to reduce the smaller monster count before engaging their more powerful enemy.
It also might be possible to show that the big bad won’t act until attacked directly; perhaps an NPC on the battlefield makes the foolhardy decision to charge in on their own, and is promptly fried to a crisp by the dragon’s lightning breath, leaving the non-player character dead or dying (depending upon whether you need them again later on) as an object lesson in attacking the dragon until the whole party is ready to charge in unison — not while half of them are cleaning up minions, and not while the dragon is ignoring the pesky PC fleas so as long as they remain at a comfortable distance.
Having a boss sit on their throne while their minions engage in combat also serves to make the boss seem arrogant and powerful. They don’t need to dirty their own hands; the PCs aren’t worth even putting down their drink — until they are.
But these tactics only work if your players are cooperative and not hell-bent on leaping at the boss enemy as soon as they appear on the battlefield. It’s often easier to avoid just by keeping the boss off the board until you’re ready for the group to pile on.
A fragile but hard-hitting wave
If a combat is winding down, a second wave can bring the energy level right back up, but you don’t want the second wave to just peter out into a boring tail the same way. The second wave shouldn’t be exactly the same as the first wave.
When I’m ready to close out a combat in a big, dramatic fight, I will often set down one last wave or squad of enemies with a particular makeup — they hit hard, but are easy to kill. Maybe they’re wizards who are pretty much made of wet tissue paper but who throw a fireball attack that has me borrowing damage dice from every player at the table; or a big melee fighter with a mace the size of a pony, but an armor class so low that they’re impossible to miss.
Either way, these last enemies will charge into the combat as an actual danger. They can hit hard enough to really threaten the player characters (who have already been softened up by the first wave), but those same PCs can easily take them down in a couple of hits. Now the combat will end quickly, but with a dramatic flourish as I take this last chance to land a few hard, high-damage hits in the last round.
Any way about it, none of us want bored players. We’re all at the table to play an exciting game, and combat is often the part with the highest, most dramatic stakes. So let’s end the fight as dramatically as it began, and have the players panting and checking their character sheets for clutch moves right up until the final blow. Cue cheering!