The Very Basics of Running Dungeons & Dragons Combat

You’re DMing your very first game of Dungeons & Dragons. Your players enter a cave and see four kobolds. The kobolds rush forward and attack…

…and the players look at you expectantly. What do you do?

Here’s a few notes to help you run that first combat.

Combat Sequence

  1. Roll Initiative (d20 + Dexterity modifier). Rolling once for each group of monsters makes the combat much easier. All four kobolds act on the same initiative number, one after another. Write down the order of initiative rolls from highest to lowest.
  2. Each combatant acts in initiative order. On its turn, it can move and take one action (typically an attack). Movement may happen before or after (or both before and after) the attack.
  3. Repeat step 2 until only one side is left.

Who Attacks Whom?

This is easy if you’re using miniatures. Move the miniatures to indicate which foe is attacking which character. If you’re using a grid, remember that one square on the grid is 5 feet. Most foes move 30 feet – 6 squares on the grid.

If you’re not using miniatures (Theatre of the Mind), you can use this simple technique:

  • Each player tells you whether their character is in the front line or the back line.
  • Only characters in the front line can attack or be attacked by melee attacks.
  • Everyone else needs to use ranged attacks (spells, bows, etc.)
  • Do the same for the monsters.
  • Pair off the frontline monsters against the frontline characters, with any unpaired combatants attacking in a 2-to-1 (or better) situation.
  • Re-pair them as they die or retreat.
  • Once all of the front line is gone, the back line becomes the new front line and can be attacked in melee.

How many monsters do my spells affect?

Miniatures – as the battlefield dictates.

Theatre of the Mind – 15 ft. cone (burning hands): 2 foes. 15 ft. cube (thunderwave): 3 foes. 20 ft. sphere (sleep): 4 foes. (See DMG page 249 for a better understanding of this).

Do I hit?

The attack roll is 1d20 + attack bonus. If it equals or exceeds the target’s Armour Class, you hit. The damage is determined by weapon or attack type.

Some creature attacks and spells require a saving throw to avoid instead. Again, roll 1d20 + saving throw bonus. If it equals or exceeds the Difficulty Class (DC) of the save, you succeed. The ability description will tell you what happens on a success or failure; some spells have an effect even if the saving throw is made.

When do the monsters die?

Monsters die immediately that their hit points reach 0 hit points. Characters continue to live (unless they take a LOT of damage).

When will a character die?

Each round a character is at 0 hit points, that character makes a Death Save: a d20 roll. On a 20, they heal to 1 hit point and may take the rest of their turn as normal. On a 9 or less, they fail the save. On a natural 1, it counts as 2 failed saves. Once a character fails 3 times, that character is dead. Once a character succeeds 3 times, the character is stable and doesn’t need to make saves again – unless they take damage.

If a character is on 0 hit points, it’s a good idea for the rest of the characters to heal them, or flee with the body.

What happens if the monsters start losing?

Monsters may run or surrender if they think they’re going to lose. If you want to roll to determine if they do, roll a d20 when monsters lose their first ally, or half of them are killed. On a 10 or less, they disengage and run for their lives. If they have nowhere to run, they surrender.

What happens if the player characters start losing?

Suggest to your players that running may be a good idea. For your first combat, monsters won’t follow (they’re afraid of dying as well!)

Note that the Disengage action allows a character to get out of melee without being attacked. If Disengage is not used, a character in melee will be attacked by the monster they were fighting. (Only one attack, and it uses the monster’s reaction – see Opportunity Attacks in the PHB).

Need more help? Ask a question!

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10 Responses to The Very Basics of Running Dungeons & Dragons Combat

  1. Alastair says:

    “What happens if the monsters start losing?”
    This was nicely covered in the old editions (I played Mentzer) by the morale rules. Any thoughts on why this seems to have disappeared in 5E, or did it go in a previous edition.
    I always quite liked morale as it can make encounters a bit more realistic – cowardly monsters are likely to surrender fairly easily, while fanatical cultists will never surrender, and these traits are reflected in their morale score.

    • says:

      Morale rules disappeared in 3rd Edition, although there’s an optional system in the 5E DMG. I very much like the original system (which you saw in Mentzer), and use a variant of it in my games.

      • Alastair says:

        Yeah, we looked it up last night and saw that it is based on WIS. So there is some variety. And I guess the DM can decide what is likely.

  2. Alastair says:

    Another question, this time around Disengage.
    This is a new concept to me, along with Opportunity Attacks. Why would a PC run away and NOT use the disengage action?
    Could you run us through some examples that might or might not use Disengage and might or might not trigger an OA?

    • says:

      A couple of things here:
      * If you use Dash rather than Disengage, you can move twice as far, which means monsters can’t follow you as easily (especially if you’re faster).
      * Each monster may use one reaction each round; Opportunity Attacks take the reaction.
      * A spell like shocking grasp stops the creature taking reactions (as does the surprise state), which can be useful.

  3. Alastair says:

    Me again!
    Another comment, and something that came up in our game last night was about keeping one of the enemy alive in order to interrogate them.
    We ambushed a hobs and gobs patrol out of Cragmaw Castle and wanted to get info on how many were left inside following our previous raids. We went with the option of casting Sleep with the aim of dropping a couple of gobs, then kill the rest, tie up the gobs and then wake them for questioning. It all worked as described.
    Later on, inside the castle we battled with four hobs and dropped them all. Following a group discussion, the DM agreed that we could use ‘Spare the Dying’ to stabilise one hob who had been felled by Vicious Mockery. We then discussed further about the fact that it was stable but still unconscious. We didn’t want to use any healing on it, so bumped it off.

    Based on what you’ve written above, the second method won’t work as the monsters die at 0hp. I quite like the idea of being able to plan to subdue an enemy in order to interrogate them later. What do you think?

    • says:

      When you reduce a monster to 0 hit points with a melee attack, you have the option of knocking it unconscious instead. Spells and ranged weapons typically don’t allow this.

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