I think I’ve finally realized the thing that bugs me about D&D combat and has led to various ideas to skip combats: most adventuring days are a black box. Particularly with 5e restoring nearly all PC resources on a long rest, there’s no way to tell by just looking at the players’ sheets whether yesterday they fought a series of hard battles that they scraped through nearly wiped or had an easy day of it. I know many players enjoy the simple act of playing out tactical combat, but it’s very easy to make fights where player cleverness, strategy, and luck don’t really have an ongoing effect on the narrative. Especially if your DM runs a character-story-heavy game and is very reticent to kill off PCs (or the game is 5th level+ and your healer is willing to pay the tax of preparing revivify every day), it’s not like anyone’s really even worried about dying. For players like myself (i.e., total buzzkills too aware of the rules framework that goes into encounter design), combats can feel like a waste of time when the DM could have ultimately narrated a hard-fought victory and nothing would actually change other than that the players didn’t get to roll dice and quote special abilities they have.

But this isn’t another post about skipping combat.

Instead, this is a simple suggestion for all DMs designing combat encounters: make sure your fights have multiple possible story branches based on how “well” the players/PCs do in the fight. If there are variable outcomes to a fight other than simply how many resources the players expended (that will be completely refreshed in the morning), then they make it a lot easier for fights to feel meaningful within the overall narrative.

Some basic suggestions:

  • Bad guys may get away (to pass information the PCs don’t want shared, to escape with information/resources the PCs want, or simply to fortify subsequent encounters and make them a little harder)
  • Good guys may not get away (this is your classic “keep the monsters from killing the bystanders” fight), hopefully with long-term ramifications for how many were saved
  • Optional resources may be lost (this could be either of the previous options if the resource is a person/information in a person’s brain, but could also include loot that could be destroyed if the fight goes badly/the bad guys might not use up limited-use items if stopped quickly enough; this also includes if the PCs may need to expend a limited-use item/boon, but only if doing so isn’t planned as basically essential for the encounter)
  • A world-counter may progress (this is the standard “stop the evil ritual” fight, but only if, as the DM, you’ve set it up so the ritual being stopped or succeeding isn’t a foregone conclusion; you need to plan for both results being interesting)
  • The fight may alter the scenery (for a location that the PCs will visit again; e.g., stop the goblins from burning down the village barn, maneuver the umber hulk into smashing open a corridor to make a new path for later exploration, etc.)
  • Something about the fight can generate additional lore (this is all your skill challenges to read books/hack computers/investigate containers that for whatever reason can only happen as part of a fight)

Some fights (“trash encounters”) can clearly be designed only to expend resources so they’re not available later in the day for fights that are more important. But be extra careful that you’ve designed a scenario that doesn’t let the players just constantly rest after those fights (the 15-minute adventuring day).

For the important fights, having two possible outcomes should be a primary goal, and if you can think of three or more different ways that might spin off, that’s really great. Keep in mind that these should be legitimate things that you think might happen. The overall goal is for the players, in hindsight, to realize that if they’d played the encounter differently, the story would also have changed.