I play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons. For the past four years it's been at least once a week and sometimes twice if I'm lucky enough to have more than one group going at once. That's just been recently and consistently of course, I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons for at least eleven years and in all that time the thing I first realized was that I am not a very combat oriented person.
I like the RP factor. I like to play politics at the table. If I had a group that just wanted to sit down and run a straight political intrigue I would be tickled purple.
And then the other night the unthinkable happened, and last night I repeated the experiment just to see if it was a fluke; it wasn't. I ran a two and a half hour combat, and I loved it. So I'm going to talk about what was different about this combat that made it more interesting for me as a Dungeon Master.
I play with a group that often falls into this rut of "I swing my sword for 12, do I hit? Good. I do 16 damage." and that's it. Sometimes someone will introduce an interesting mechanic or an arena that isn't normal, sometimes we come close to dying, but on the whole as soon as combat starts I start dozing off and tuning out because the truth is I don't care. Not about the combat, anyway.
This time, I had an Underdark adventure prepared. One of the PCs was playing a drow male that was eighteen generations out of the Underdark and while it wasn't in my original plan to run it this way, I realized about halfway through the encounter (one priestess, one mage, four drow warriors and several summoned creatures) that Lolth probably wasn't too happy about that.
So instead of "I roll this number, I hit for this much damage", instead of just trying to fight and kill the party members, this time I took a different angle. Lolth wasn't too happy with Stalkurn's family, and these drow doing this surface raid and trying to curry favor with her, even if they hadn't originally surfaced for him, would certainly know she wanted him for a sacrifice.
So they started focusing all their fire on Stalkurn and trying to drag him back down to the Underdark with them.
And immediately some people are going to be thinking "Holy shit, you can't target one PC like that without massively pissing the player off!"
Except I did.
And he loved it.
Not only that but the rest of the table loved it too. Suddenly it wasn't just another combat encounter, suddenly they were all gathering around to help their comrade out of the sticky situation he'd gotten into just by chance. Suddenly it was personal. How dare these drow come up here and try to take our rogue?
The difference wasn't that I was targeting a PC, mind you, the difference was that suddenly the bad guys had their own reasons for doing what they were doing. There was motivation. There was RP inside the fight and it was glorious.
I suppose this probably seems super obvious to some people. In hindsight, it's pretty obvious for me too. But something being obvious in theory and something being obvious in practice are two very different things, I think, and if anything there might be someone else out there for whom this wasn't totally obvious.
So. What I learned:
-Target PCs; it won't work well in every single group and you shouldn't do the same one every single time, spread the love, but make it personal and a lot of players will really enjoy it.
-Having people stand on rooftops and things makes use of athletics/acrobatics checks mid-combat and then some of the NPCs have the high ground and that's much more interesting than just flat level fighting.
-Let the bad guys have an agenda if you're like me and really into the RP factor. Use the mechanics and the combat to enhance the RP. It's totally possible, especially in 5E.