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12 tips to master D&D combat

Using solid tactics can make D&D games a lot more fun, and reduce the chances you'll reach the most unfortunate situation in D&D - needing to say goodbye to your character and roll a new one.


I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons for 25 years now, and I’ve synthesized all of that experience into 12 top tips that will make your combat encounters a breeze.


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#1 Plan your engagement

With some combat encounters, you’ll be aware that a combat will happen in advance. In these cases, it’s best to plan how to engage before you strike the first blow. 


If there are different positions you could take to start the battle, maneuver to take the most advantageous one. This could include plugging up choke points or taking cover or high ground that’s safely away from enemy melee attacks. 


Make sure to cast any buff spells before the combat begins. Casting Mage Armor on your first turn in combat is a very inefficient use of your action, which is your main source of damage.


You can get a huge advantage by getting a surprise attack on your foes. This may require some successful sneaking, and is much easier with ranged attacks, so if you’re wearing heavy armor, you may want to leave this to the pros, and start the combat with a thrown or ranged weapon equipped.


 

#2 Find your place in your party

Different characters have different strengths and weaknesses. While a Fighter with heavy armor and a shield will be comfortable on the front lines, the typical Wizard with nothing but their Mage Armor to protect them will be less comfortable there.


While these general principles hold, every adventuring party is different, and solid tactics involves not only considering the abilities of your character, but that of every member of your party. Depending on the party, a Bard with light armor and a shield and a decent Constitution score may be one of the best front-line characters.


Find your place in your party groove and use tactics accordingly.


If you do plan on sticking to the front line, you may want to make sure you have a melee weapon equipped. If you’re within 5 ft of an enemy and you use a ranged weapon, you get disadvantage on the attack, making it less likely to hit. As an added benefit, if you have a melee weapon equipped and an enemy tries to run away from you, you can make an opportunity attack against them. Certain spells, such as Burning Hands and Thunderwave, are built for up close and personal combat, so consider taking these if you plan to be on the front lines often.


If you expect to be farther back, make sure to pack good ranged options.

 

 

#3 Use all of your action types

You get an Action, Bonus action, Reaction, and Interaction to play with, and each refreshes every turn. Action economy is really important in D&D, so you’ll want to use as many of these types of action as you can every turn to maximize your chances of success.

You’re unlikely to forget using your Action, but what about the others?


Bonus Action

Bonus actions are typically used to cast some spells or use class features like Rage or Bardic Inspiration, but one thing that’s often forgotten is that any character can use two weapon fighting and make an attack with a bonus action – you just need to have a weapon in both hands when you make an attack using your main action on your turn.


Making two attacks will almost always give you better odds than just making one, but you should consider what options you have and what the best play is. If you’re wearing a shield, you may want to hold onto it for the extra armor class, but you can drop your shield as a free action and draw a second weapon using your interaction to let you make that extra attack. This might be more advantageous towards the end of the battle when there are less enemies to attack you. If you’re a spellcaster and you have a decent Dexterity, throwing two daggers at an enemy may be better than trying to cast a Cantrip.


Interaction

You get a single free interaction on your turn, which you can use to equip or stow one weapon or consumable. We’ve just seen how you can use this to enable two weapon fighting, but what are some other uses?


A rule that’s often overlooked is the need for specific components to cast spells. For spells with a somatic component, you need a free hand to cast them, and for spells with a material component, you need either that component or a spellcasting focus in hand to cast the spell. If your DM follows these rules as written, then you’ll need to be aware of what’s in your characters hands, and manage it accordingly. Remember that dropping something is a free action, so even if you start your turn with a weapon and shield equipped, you can drop one to let you cast your spell, you just won’t be able to pick it up again that turn if you already used your interaction.


Reaction

Unlike the other types of action, a reaction typically happens on your opponents turn, so how can you try to maximize uses of it? The most common use of your reaction is to make an opportunity attack. If you down an enemy with your melee character on your turn, you may want to use any remaining movement you have to reposition next to other foes. As an added bonus, repositioning in this way will disincentivize your foe from moving to attack squishy backline adventuring companions.


If you have access to certain Reaction spells, you’ll want to make sure you’re in a position to make the best use of them with your movement. A couple of spells to point out here are Shield and Counterspell. If you have the Shield spell and expect to use it before your next turn, you can try to goad more enemies to attack you by repositioning your character. While Counterspell has a range of 60 ft, an enemy caster could move away from you on their turn before attempting to cast a spell, so try to make sure you end your turn close to them if you want to be ready to counter their spell.

 

#4 Load up for success

To give you the best chances in combat, you’ll want to make sure you have everything you might need.


We already saw how most characters can get a tactical advantage by using two weapon fighting, so make sure to have some extra weapons available if you plan to use this.

Even if your character mainly uses melee attacks, it’s good to have some throwable or ranged weapons available to use if the situation calls for it.


Lighting is a thing in D&D, and if your character doesn’t have Darkvision, you’ll need a light source to remain effective in combat. If your character doesn’t have access to spells that create light, make sure to pack some torches or other light sources in your kit.


 

#5 Make the most of your abilities

Every character class has different tools available to help them in combat, and making the most of these is key to your success.


These tools include specific class features such as Channel Divinity or Bardic Inspiration, and for spellcasting classes, the spells you have available. You can also get access to helpful abilities from your race, background, or feats. 


Your character’s abilities should be listed on your Character Sheet or Journal, and you can find information on your spells in source books, online, or in your Spell Tome. Make sure you know how each of your abilities or spells work, and always aim to use the best tool for the task at hand.


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If you’re a Barbarian, Fighter, Paladin or Ranger at higher levels, make sure to remember to make your Extra attack. If you’re a Rogue, make sure you understand your Sneak Attack triggers and try to get a sneak attack every turn if you can – you may need to talk with your fellow adventurers to set this up.


If you took the excellent War Caster feat, remember that you can cast a spell instead of making an opportunity attack. Booming Blade is a great choice here if you have it.

If you’re up against a group of melee enemies and your party has a lot of ranged options, a well-placed cast of the Entangle or Spike Growth spells can make an encounter a breeze, but if the roles are reversed, they’re both terrible spells to use. Likewise, the Magic Missile spell is famously a great option against enemies with high armor class, as you don’t need to make an attack roll.


If you have spells that require a saving throw, try to aim your spells against enemies with weaker saves. Goblins, for example, have decent Dexterity saves, so it’s better to aim your Sacred Flame cantrip elsewhere.

 

#6 Change your spell selection FOR THE task at hand

For classes that prepare spells such as the Cleric, Druid, Paladin and Wizard, it’s easy to stick with the same set of spells every adventuring day, but you may lose a tactical advantage if you do so.


If you’re about to head into an arctic environment, then it might be time to add the Absorb Elements and Protection from Energy spells to your spell list, even if they’re not normally on it, and spells that deal fire damage may be particularly effective.


If you’re off to sea, preparing the Water Walk and Water Breathing spells could be a life saver.

 

#7 Don’t forget basic actions

On most turns, you’ll probably use your main action to make an attack or cast a spell, but don’t forget the other options available to you. When used in the right situation, they can turn the tide of the battle.


If you’re surrounded by enemies, using the Dodge action to impose disadvantage on attacks against you can be clutch. Yes, you’ll sacrifice some damage potential, but you’ll be much more likely to remain standing, and you’ll still be able to make an opportunity attack if one of your attackers tries to run away or engage an ally.


If you’re in the same situation and you’d rather avoid the attacks entirely, you can use the Disengage action to safely run away without provoking opportunity attacks. Again, this might save you a world of hurt.  


Some enemies may have really high armor class and it may be hard for you to hit them. If an ally has better chances but still finds it tough, you can use the Help action to give an adjacent ally advantage on their attack against a foe within 5ft of you. In some situations, this may be much better than each of you trying to make one attack. For example, if your ally is a Paladin and can use Divine Smite to add extra damage to their attack on a hit, it may be best to maximize the chances of that hit.  


If you find yourself far from the action, don’t forget that you can use the Dash action to double your movement for the turn.


Depending on how your DM interprets hiding mechanics, using the Hide action may be a good way to drop off your enemies’ radar and enable sneak attacks.


 

#8 Use the environment

Well-crafted combat encounters often include environmental features that you can use to your advantage. For example, you can hide behind barrels, pillars or crates to gain cover, giving you a bonus to Armor Class, and use these features and low light areas to hide from your opponents, letting you drop off the radar or enable sneak attacks.


If you have access to any spells or features that impose forced movement, using these to throw an enemy off a ledge or into a pit of lava can be tactically sound and very satisfying.


If the environment is narrow, for example a narrow corridor, then as a group you’ll want to make sure that your melee characters are up front to plug the gap, leaving ranged characters safely behind the shield wall.


Make sure to scan the environment around you and make the best use of it with the tools you have available.

 

#9 Spend actions on healing ONLY as a last resort

In D&D, the main action is the primary source of damage, and action economy is important. An ally on 1 HP can deal just as much damage as an ally on full HP, so it’s typically best to avoid healing using your main action, unless an ally has been downed.


Bonus actions don’t tend to deal damage, which makes effects that heal using a bonus action better tactical options. While Cure Wounds seems great because it has better healing potential, Healing Word is generally a much better pick as it costs a bonus action and you can cast it at range.


Don’t forget that in most cases you’ll be able to take a short rest after the encounter and restore lost hit points using hit dice.


#10 Concentrate fire

The counterpoint to the previous tip is to concentrate fire on your opponents. An enemy on 1 HP can deal just as much damage as an enemy on full HP, so make sure to work with your fellow adventurers to concentrate fire and remove foes from the equation one by one.

If you’re up against different enemy types, you may want to single out specific ones to take down first. Spellcasters can be devastating if left unchecked, so make sure to have them high on your hit list. Healers and support characters can be a continuing annoyance if left conscious, so they should be high too. You’re generally best focusing fire on weaker enemies before stronger ones.

 

#11 Watch out for resistances and immunities

Some enemies have resistance or immunity to certain damage types or conditions, making some attacks or effects against them less effective or completely ineffective.


While in many cases your character won’t know what resistances or immunities an enemy has, it may pay to ask your DM what you know about a specific creature type so you can plan your turns accordingly.


For some creature types, resistances and immunities are pretty obvious even to a player, and should be to any character too – elementals are immune to damage of their element type, while constructs are immune to compulsion effects.


Make sure to consider what your character knows about resistances and immunities when choosing your actions, but don’t look up creature stats during your games, as most DMs don’t like this.

 

#12 Exploit vulnerabilities

The flip side of resistances and immunities is vulnerabilities – some creatures have vulnerability to certain damage types, meaning they take double damage from attacks of those types. This is huge, so take advantage of it when you can.


Again, some vulnerabilities are obvious – ice elementals are vulnerable to fire damage, and fire elementals are vulnerable to cold damage, for example. As with resistances and immunities, though, avoid looking up monster stats, and just use information that seems obvious, or that your DM gives you when planning your attacks.

 

Conclusion

Playing tactically can make D&D games much more fun (for me at least!), and can help us avoid having the most unfortunate time in D&D - having to reroll a new character. If you follow the 12 tips in this blog, you'll be much more likely to excel in combat.


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Until next time, happy adventuring!


~Dan

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