Writing Dynamic Combat Scenes with Dungeons & Dragons

by Kris Hill
published in Writing

Today’s post will teach you about writing combat scenes, but first, join me on a quick trip down memory lane…

Have you ever experienced something that you knew, in the moment, would change your life? Maybe when you first found your passion, or when you first tasted your favorite meal, maybe you heard a song that you’d dance to forever, or maybe you fell in love at first sight. 

For me, this moment was a few weeks after my birthday in the summer before grade eight. Our next-door neighbor, one of my mother’s closest friends, took me to a bookstore to pick out a present. While I was looking at the entire shelf of James Patterson novels trying to find one I hadn’t read, she walked up and handed me a hardcover tome and said, “I think we should get you this. People like you really like it.” 

I looked down at the golden emblem of a sword atop an open book surrounded by bright jewels and that was when my love affair with collaborative storytelling began. Newly 13, standing in a bookstore, staring in wonder at the cover of the Dungeon & Dragons Player’s Handbook third edition. 

The History of Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons is the most famous tabletop storytelling game in the world. It was created in 1974 by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. It is the game that people think of when you begin talking about tabletop games. It has dominated the tabletop gaming community for its entire existence, and it continues to do so today. 

Third edition Dungeons & Dragons pioneered the d20 system developed by Johnathan Tweet, Monte Cook, and Skip Williams. This system was adapted and used in many other games such as Spycraft, Pathfinder, and Mutants & Masterminds. 

Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, the current iteration, is a streamlined, simple-to-learn version of the more complicated rules seen in previous editions. The elimination of the more arcane ruleset seen in early editions has made it attractive to new players and has resulted in a renaissance for Dungeons & Dragons. 

The game is everywhere. You can listen to people play it on podcasts, watch people play it on YouTube and Twitch, and read comics about it. It’s easy to set up games online using virtual platforms like Roll20 and to create characters, encounters, and home brew rulesets using services like D&D Beyond

I currently play Fifth edition three nights a week and run it once a week. I’ve recruited new players who never thought to try tabletop and now play weekly, and I set up a tabletop group at my corporate job for team building.

The System

Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition has returned to the d20 system after the poor reception of the fourth edition’s board game-style play. A character has six numerical attributes: strength, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, constitution, and charisma. 

These attributes are assigned points based on the table’s creation style. The two most popular methods are point buy, in which players are given a set pool of points to assign to attributes in whatever way they wish, and rolled, in which players roll four six-sided dice and add the highest three rolls together once for each attribute. Modifiers are then assigned based on the value of each attribute.

Each character picks a class, which is a role they fill in the adventuring party. There are many different roles some of my favorites are: bard, a magical musician who heals and boosts their companions with their songs; rogue, a cunning combatant who takes down enemies with stealth and finesse; an artificer, an ingenious inventor, and tinkerer who creates fantastic machines to help their friends and fight their enemies. 

Based on the class, fantasy race, and backgrounds chosen for the character they will have proficiencies and expertise in different skills. 

The adventure is run by a Dungeon Master. The DM creates the world the party plays in, provides challenges for them to come up against, chooses what rules will be used, sets the difficulty class (DC) for any obstacle the party comes up against, and runs combat. 

If a character wants to do something, they roll a twenty-sided die or d20, add the skill level for the appropriate skill which incorporates the associated attribute’s modifier and any proficiency or expertise the character has in that skill. If the outcome is higher than the DC set by the DM then the roll succeeds. 

It sounds a lot more complicated than it is in practice and it’s easy to improvise in the moment. Dungeons & Dragons is more than the granddaddy of all tabletop roleplaying games, a cultural phenomenon, and my great love, it’s also an excellent tool to aid you in your writing.

Writing Dynamic Combat Scenes

Dungeons & Dragons have a lot of rules for combat, and some people really love them. While I understand the appeal, I don’t think that the use of all combat rules provided is what makes Dungeons & Dragons so helpful. What makes Dungeons & Dragons one of the best tools for writing dynamic combat scenes is the way it grounds the action in the physical space it occupies. 

Combat is generally run on a grid where each space represents five square feet. There are multiple types of combat grids. I have some grids with specific terrain printed on top. I also have a grid that I can draw on with washable markers and wipe clean. You don’t need to purchase your own as you can use free tools like Roll20 online to layout combat and move pieces.

Each combatant, character, and monster alike, has abilities with set ranges and a speed they can move every turn. All combatants get a single turn per round and a round represents six seconds. Each turn a combatant can take an action, a bonus action, a free action, and movement. 

This ability to use and movement on the grid will allow you to see the possibilities for how your characters can take action and use the terrain of your setting. It inspires interesting use of the environment, and cooperation between characters in the moment. 

It will give you an idea of how much can happen in a very short amount of time and allows you to plan what action is happening that your main characters aren’t directly experiencing. That level of planning makes it easy to write the consequences of battle. This makes the size of your combats easily scalable from one on one fights, to legions on the battlefield. 

You can use this model to run combats outside of a while D&D game but I highly recommend playing through a setting from your writing with other people. How they react to the terrain and make use of the space will surprise you and you’ll get some great ideas for your writing.

Tell us in the comments: What do you think? Will this help you create dynamic combat scenes?

Kris Hill is working on several genre fiction novels because she has difficulty sticking to writing one project at a time. In her daily life she attempts to navigate the corporate world as a data analyst. When Kris is not working, she can be found sprawled on a couch reading or running tabletop adventures for her friends. She lives in Canada’s capital city with her husband, her best friend, and four cats.

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