Dungeons and Dragons has changed a lot in the last few years, largely due to the popularity of playthrough podcasts and Twitch. Watching celebrities play D&D has brought in a dragon’s horde of new players. These shifts have meant that–even though D&D is a tabletop roleplaying game–the pendulum has swung hard toward the “roleplaying” aspect of the game, meaning the “tabletop” and “game” portions get less attention.
But combat is an integral part of D&D. There are hundreds of pages of rules for rolling dice and positioning miniatures on a map. In fact, there is an entire manual of monsters to kill, as no amount of practicing character voices will get you past every bugbear or owlbear fight.
Alas, I hear time and time again that new D&D players are intimidated by the combat rules of D&D. A common solution to this problem is to wrongly blame the game. If I’m overwhelmed by character combat rules, it’s simpler to just call combat a “slog” rather than to take responsibility for my play.
But combat isn’t going anywhere. And good combat is quick and energetic, ending with hoots, hollers, and fists pumping in the air. It’s only a “slog” because so many turns are spent flipping through character sheets over and again in order to figure out an action to take or an ability to use. The rules aren’t the slog, player indecisiveness is.
In short, players are bad at combat, which is completely understandable. Most players aren’t former members of Seal Team 6, so there is no reason that the average nerd should be expected to understand the ins-and-outs of small-squad combat tactics.
This series of articles is here to help. If you ask me what my character says, I have no idea. If you ask me what my character does, I’m your Huckleberry. Combat tactics are my jam.
Here’s the secret: although the wonderful thing about D&D is that your character can do almost anything, the reality is a couple combat actions are what you’ll use over and over, particularly when you are just starting out at level 1.
These are “most times” decisions, as opposed to “some times” decisions. Although, as I think about it, those would be abbreviated MTDs and STDs and, uh…let’s avoid that if possible. Let’s go instead with “typical” and “situational” decisions.
A D&D player, even if they are brand new to the game, can have an index card with 2-3 typical actions that will work well 75% of the time. Combined with the basics of movement, these 2-3 actions will allow new players to have a good action ready to go immediately when their turn comes up in initiative order. Those 25% oddball times are the only times you’ll need slow down combat by dithering over an action.
So, let’s learn about these good “typical” decisions for each D&D class, shall we? First up is the Paladin and Cleric.
Paladin: Who can I protect?
A paladin is guided by an oath toward justice and righteousness, so a player new to the Paladin class should enter into combat with the mindset of “Who can I protect?”
Movement: Paladins are strong and heavily armored, often with a shield. A typical turn includes movement + an action. So use your movement to get right into the business of a beefy foe.
Since your character is armored up, you can (and should) take the hits for your party. Protect your Wizard, in other words.
Here are two actions you should then typically choose from:
- “I attack them with my sword.”? Paladins are strong and are proficient with weapons like longswords. Making this same attack action over and over is helpful for brand new D&D players. Rolling your d20, then adding your strength bonus and your proficiency bonus sounds like gobblety-gook the first few times you do it, but once it has been practiced a few times, it will click. Besides, it needs to be committed to “muscle memory,” so this should be (and will be) your typical Paladin action by far.
- “I lay hands on my teammate.” A 1st level Paladin can also heal 5 hit points worth of damage. If you or your teammate is looking worse for wear, a Paladin can take a break from hitting things with their sword to provide some limited magical healing.
A beginning D&D player can have a lot of fun with the above two simple actions, saying nothing of how much faster it will make the combat flow.
Remember, Paladins: “Who can I protect?” Protect your teammates by getting in the face of enemies or protect them by giving them magical healing. Simple. Write the details of those two actions on a cheat-sheet index card or highlight them on the your character sheet.
Cleric: How may I help?
Clerics are intermediaries of the gods, so they are even more protective than a Paladin, plus they offer significantly more magical healing. Enter combat with the mindset: “How may I help?”
Movement: Use your movement to position yourself 15 feet from your party’s frontline Fighter. Getting in the face of a smaller minion is OK, but Clerics should be careful to stay out of the reach of larger, more dangerous foes. Here are a few actions you should then typically choose from:
- “I cast Sacred Flame.” A first level Cleric is proficient with spells and should choose the Sacred Flame cantrip, which is a spell they can cast every single turn. Think of Sacred Flame as calling down a little holy heat unto a foe. A “saving throw” of 8 +2 proficiency + a wisdom bonus will scramble your brain the first few turns, but once you become familiar with this number, it will become second nature.
- “I hit it with my mace.” Clerics typically use blunt weapons and, if they can’t keep distance between themselves and foes, they aren’t afraid to use them.
- “I heal my teammate.” The final action typically used by a Cleric at 1st level is to cast a healing spell, either Cure Wounds or Healing Word. Cure Wounds is more helpful but it requires you to touch your teammate, which is the second reason you use your movement to position yourself 15 feet from the teammate that will be soaking up the most damage from enemies.
Again, D&D has 300 pages of rules, which makes it intimidating for new players. But, while the above are just the absolute basics, it’s helpful to take a deep breath and realize that 75% of early combats are handled with just 2-3 actions that are used over and over.
This repetition serves to help you learn the basics of the game and your character’s combat style. That’s a whole lot more than nothing. But the best thing? Hitting things with swords and calling down fire from the heavens is a lot of fun.
D&D is wonderful, but it can be intimidating. So let’s knock down any barriers that might prevent someone from loving their first few times playing. Share this with any brand new D&D players you know, regardless of what class they are considering:
- Barbarian: “What makes me angry?
- Fighter: “Who can I hit?”
- Druid: “How can nature empower me?”
- Paladin: “Who can I protect?”
- Cleric: “How may I help?”
- Ranger: “Who here is my sworn enemy?”
- Wizard: “What spells have I learned?”
- Sorcerer: “What gets my blood flowing?”
- Rogue: “Where’s the vulnerability?”
- Monk: “How is my speed best utilized?”
- Warlock: “Who can I blast?”
- Bard: “Who can I inspire?”
You can buy the D&D Players Handbook here.