Fixing Low-Level Combat in D&D
Edit (May 2, 2019): Nearly a year later, this is somehow the most popular thing I’ve ever written. If you use this method in your game, can you do me a favor and drop a comment below to let me know how it went?
The 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons is very up-front about what it is.
The game rests, as it states in the first chapter of the Player’s Handbook, on three pillars of gameplay: Exploration, Social Interaction, and Combat. This simplicity helps keep the game and its players focused, aligned, and (for the most part) friendly. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that one of the pillars— Combat— is terrible.
I say this fully cognisant that it may be an unpopular opinion, so let me qualify it a bit: combat beyond 5th level, or Combat between player characters, can be incredibly rewarding. It’s at those points in the game where you can most accurately weigh the pros and cons of each action, and there is enough variety of available actions to provide actual depth and choice to each round. It’s the getting to that point that I can’t stand.
For example: most new parties of first or first-ish level will likely be introduced to fifth edition through a pre-written campaign like Hoard of the Dragon Queen. This is a perfectly fine set of adventures, and was my own introduction into the new rule set. The first set of combat encounters here primarily involve kobolds, which players will recognise as the bread and butter of the dungeon crawl.
For the uninitiated: kobolds are small, lizard-like creatures, famous for their cowardice and lack of combat prowess. Dungeon masters throw them at players like pretzels on the route from first to third level.
In the fiction, kobolds make a great choice for the start of Hoard of the Dragon Queen. They create an interesting plot that leads players on the path towards a cult of Tiamat-worshippers and a veritable sample platter of tasks that are typical for an adventuring party. I’m not here to complain specifically about kobolds.
But, since you insisted, I will.
Brief tangent warning!
Kobolds are the prime example of low-level combat that sets a false expectation for players and Dungeon Masters alike, specifically for maths reasons. This is supremely uninteresting to anyone but me. To begin, standard Monster Manual kobolds have an Armour Class of 12, and their winged cousins have 13. For the standard first-level adventurer with a Strength or Dexterity modifier between 1 and 3, you would need to roll an average of 10 or better to land a hit. On a 20-sided die, this gives players about a 50/50 chance to hit one kobold per round.
Then, consider the basic attacks given to kobolds in the Monster Manual: unless the DM decides to change something, they are given a dagger that does 1d4 + 2 damage, with a +4 bonus to hit.
Unless a DM hands out the more expensive armour at first level, the average player’s Armour Class sits at around 14. This puts the odds of a kobold hitting a player dead even with the odds of being hit themselves. While this may sound completely fair at first, let’s move finally to the kobold’s Challenge Rating. A challenge rating tells the Dungeon Master how difficult a particular monster is, and typically you’ll want to match the CR to the average level of the party (the book assumes four players in a party). The kobold has a CR of 1/8, meaning that an appropriate number of kobolds to throw at a party of first-level adventurers is EIGHT.
From that, let’s build a scenario: a first-level fighter, rogue, wizard, and cleric, walk into a tavern. For some inexplicable reason, the only other occupants of the tavern are eight hungry kobolds. Everyone rolls for initiative, and each adventurer squares off against two kobolds.
The Kobold Dilemma
The fighter goes first, and thanks to the 50/50 chance I mentioned earlier, they all but flip a coin to see if they can hit one of their two opponents.
For the sake of argument (and as a demonstration of how my luck goes), let’s assume they miss. The two kobolds then each take a swing at the fighter, again with the coin flip’s odds. The kobolds now have twice as many chances to hit the fighter as the fighter did to hit them. It doesn’t even matter at this point whether they hit or not, because until one of them is eliminated, the statistical imbalance remains.
This pattern continues with the rest of the party, though the others may not fair as well. The wizard, while she may be able to keep a distance at first and fire off a Magic Missile, will suffer from a lower AC than the fighter, further tipping the odds in the kobolds’ favour.
Of all of the players in this scenario, the cleric may actually fair the best; they have access to decent AC, average strength, and healing spells. However, having only one action per turn, they would have to completely sacrifice their chance at hitting a kobold in order to heal members of their party. Even incredibly kind DMs wouldn’t pass up that opportunity to have the kobolds gang up on a party member (remember kids, always kill the healer first).
Finally, after all of the players and their respective kobolds have taken a turn, we circle back around to the fighter, who has not yet done anything useful in this combat. For anyone who has twiddled their thumbs for fifteen minutes while seven characters take their sweet time failing to hit each other, you know this feeling.
This brings me out of my first point:
I really hate kobolds
and onto my second:
Missing in combat feels bad, and it shouldn’t.
As it stands, missing in combat is essentially your cue to get up, get a snack, maybe use the restroom, and browse twitter for a bit. When you roll to swing your sword, preparing for the ecstasy of seeing a monster cleft in twain, missing that roll completely ceases the flow of combat. It is literally saying, “nothing happens, and your turn is now over.”
If you got into D&D to experience the escapist fantasy of being a capable adventurer in a high-fantasy world, this mechanic quickly whittles away at that ideal. I already have a hard enough time liking myself despite my stupid mistakes, I certainly don’t want to find myself feeling that way about a half-orc barbarian pirate that I’m trying to personify. Remember, Dungeons & Dragons is supposed to be a fun activity. I don’t know about you, but I would rather try and avoid that kind of existential dilemma if at all possible.
My main issue with missing attacks in low-level combat is that it fully breaks the illusion, and feels neither fair to the player, nor true to the fiction. This is not to say that missing an attack does not happen in combat— it certainly does! However, the context of that miss is important.
Tricks vs. Skill
In high school, I was part of a fencing club. I wasn’t great, but I wasn’t terrible either.
Largely, I attribute not being terrible to being left-handed, which gives you a sort of built-in advantage unless your opponent has a lot of experience fencing lefties, or is also left-handed, creating a sort of reverse-Princess Bride scenario.
My level of actual skill with the sword was fairly median, and once you figured out the one or two tricks I had in my back pocket, I became a middling-to-low-level opponent. Experienced fencers could not only pick up on this tricks, but had significantly more of their own. While they still fence within the rules of of the sport, the patterns that experienced fencers follow vary such that it becomes increasingly difficult to predict their line of attack, making each one more difficult to avoid.
At higher levels of D&D, combat can be very well suited to match that feeling, and missing a roll can play an important part in the fiction: though your aim may be true, your opponent is able to parry it away at the last second. Though you have prepared for the worst, they outsmarted you for a moment, but you can get them next time. It can feel very much like a real sword fight, with a back-and-forth leading to a worthwhile conclusion.
By contrast, Kobolds don’t even know what a parry is, much less how to perform one consistently.
So how do we fix this?
Using my narrow scope of frustration, one might be tempted to say “let’s just nerf kobolds”. But the problem extends beyond a singular monster. The root of this issue, the reason why missing an attack roll feels bad, is this:
What are we meant to gain from combat?
At early levels, the goal of combat against low-level creatures (such as kobolds, but also goblins or simple beasts) is simply to gain experience. With experience, you’ll level up, and eventually this will get interesting.
The trouble with this is that it takes time for experience to accumulate, and early levels may not give you the benefits necessary to ease the pain of missing an attack roll in combat. At best, you have something like the Fighter, which gains Action Surge at second level. This gives you one extra attack, once per rest, which... kind of helps? It feels like a waste to spend that move on a kobold, and waiting for a rest can feel like forever.
Plus, second level requires 300 experience points. That’s twelve kobolds that a character would have to take down by themselves, unless the DM gives out lots of non-combat experience. That’s like flipping a coin once every fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, until twelve of them come up heads. All for a reward that lets you flip twice one of those times.
What we want here is a way to reward the intelligence, experience, and dynamics of the character, relative to that of the monster they are fighting. While it’s appropriate for a fighter to square off against a bandit or lizardfolk of similar intelligence, it just doesn’t make sense for them to have the same experience when facing off against a lowly kobold or a goblin, at least after the first encounter or two.
My proposal to fix this requires a bit of dedication, and is best started at first level. If you’ve made it this far, I think you’ll be okay.
On the back of your character sheet, write down your Intelligence score.
Below that, make a simple two-column table. Label the left column “Name” and the right column “Experience”.
When you encounter a creature in combat, add its name to the “Name” column, if it’s not there already. When you declare an attack against that creature— regardless of the attack’s success— mark a tally in the “Experience” column next the the creature’s name. The represents what you have learned about this creature’s fighting style, strengths and weaknesses, and general patterns.
If your Intelligence score plus your Experience with a creature exceeds that creature’s Intelligence score, you do not need to roll when declaring an attack. Thanks to your experience and careful study of the creature, you have learned how to consistently defeat it in fair combat.
Using this mechanic, every attack, even a miss, represents a tiny bit of progress. Even for that fighter who missed the first attack, and now has to wait twenty minutes for their turn again, that miss didn’t make them completely useless, and they’ll come back stronger for it.
While for some players and some creatures, this means that after one attack (even a miss!) you will be able to land hits each time, that makes sense in the fiction for some characters.
Are you a highly intelligent rogue or ranger who has spent time studying the combat styles of a particular creature? It makes sense that you would quickly find a way to counter that style.
Conversely, if you’re a big, low-INT barbarian stomping around, it may take you a bit longer to really get the feel for fighting some monsters, but your brute strength will get you there eventually.
Additionally, as you face higher-level monsters with higher intelligence scores, this will become a steadily more difficult feat to accomplish. While you may learn a little about how a vampire fights in a couple rounds of combat, it’s a safe bet that they won’t stick around long enough for you to learn all of their tricks in one fight.
As your characters advance in levels, the combat experience stays with them. When they return to fighting kobolds and goblins on the way to the next adventure not only because they are stronger and have magical weapons, but because in true Sun Tzu fashion, they have come to know their enemy.