I was telling McCragge the other day that I make up 5e character concepts faster than I play them, and so I have a bucket list of characters I intend to play someday. A couple of these character ideas are actually designed to combat what I see as shortcomings in the 5e rules... so let's look at one.
It's been my experience that combat in 5e is unfortunately quite static and lacking in maneuver. Melee characters run up in to melee and stand there trading to-hit and damage rolls with melee monsters. Squishy characters stand around in back and never move unless something forces them to. The vast majority of the time it simply doesn't matter where you are standing or if you ever move, as long as there's a target within your reach/range. It's like old-school MMORPG combat where all the characters just stand in a ring around the boss and swing their weapons repeatedly until it dies. People on the RPG forums often talk about combat like the only thing that matters is how much damage you can deal in a turn in a empty and featureless room against an opponent that's just an unresponsive bag of hit points. Frankly, if pure DPS optimization is what wins combats in your 5e game, your DM sucks. Fortunately, there are a few things that you can do as either the player or DM to put some mobility and tactics back in your game.
- As the DM, use Flanking (DMG, pg 251). Basically the same as flanking in previous editions, except that getting advantage on attack rolls is a BIG bonus. Suddenly it matters very much where you are standing in melee. If you can work with a teammate to flank an opponent, the rewards can be substantial. Likewise, if you foolishly expose yourself and get flanked, you may get savagely pummeled. This increases the risks and rewards of melee combat as compared to ranged combat, and will make your battles resolve faster because more attacks will hit and inflict damage. This might have too drastic an effect on your game, but it's just one option.
- As the DM, use creatures that have positional abilities like Pack Tactics or Martial Advantage. Weak opponents like Hobgoblins and Giant Rats can be very dangerous if you allow them to stack up in a mass in melee. The party needs to use careful positioning, terrain and magic to prevent them from gaining these advantages. Spells like Cloud of Daggers, Flaming Sphere and even the Create Bonfire cantrip (from the Elemental Evil Companion) can determine the course of the fight by creating "terrain" that enemies won't stand in. Again, the idea is to make the movement and position of the combatants important.
- Environmental Hazards. There's more to a battlefield than just flat ground and walls. Pits, narrow bridges, rivers of lava, etc. can make were you choose to stand very important. Indeed, this is exactly the sort of place where intelligent foes are likely to make a stand. Note the Shove attack (PHB, page 195) which anyone with a decent Strength can perform. You could simply stab the evil high priest OR shove him backwards into his own sacrificial bonfire (bonus points for karma)! Likewise, you may not fear getting attacked by that Bugbear, but if he pushes you over the cliff and into the raging river below, that could ruin your day. As the DM, including some hazards in your fights creates the opportunity for interesting tactics, and creative use of knockback effects like Thunderwave or Gust of Wind. As the player, you can create your own hazards. Maybe none of your foes would be dumb enough to jump into the Evard's Black Tentacles the wizard cast two rounds ago, but if a foe stands near it, you could toss them in.
- Another way (as the DM) to use environmental hazards is to create a setpiece fight in which the environment is a very active hazard. Maybe smashing the evil wizard's elemental portal had the unintended side effect of causing a river of molten magma to pour out, and it's rapidly filling the dungeon. You have to fight you way out but never stop moving, as the advancing wall of molten rock will engulf stragglers. You could have a fight on a sinking ship, on a landslide, in a forest fire or whatever, as long as you create a situation where even the most stationary hide-in-the-back spellcaster has to move and use tactics.
- Everyone knows that wizards are squishy. Or, as they say in Shadowrun, "Geek the mage!". Squishy spellcasters and archers naturally want to hide in the back and avoid melee. But just as the PCs will try to eliminate enemy spellcasters, intelligent foes will understand the threat of the party's heavy artillery. As the DM, you can create a threat to the back rank that the players can overcome with movement and tactics, and not simply resort to saying "Oops, another Orc patrol emerges from the passage behind you and goes into melee with the wizard!" A certain amount of the party's attention and firepower will need to be devoted to keeping the pocket safe for the quarterback. This is another area where knockback can be useful. If some Orcs managed to survive all your attacks of opportunity and make it into the back ranks, a teammate's Thunderwave, Eldritch Blast or a Battle Master's Pushing Attack can throw them completely out of melee, allowing their target to move and act normally on their turn. Zombies, ordered by their master to "geek the mage", make a good threat to the back rank since you can "kill" them over and over and they will keep coming, forcing anyone who wants to avoid melee to keep moving or waste their firepower on the zombies.
- Use cover. While there are a lot of spells that ignore cover, and the Sharpshooter feat, there are still many situations in which a combatant can gain protection by standing in the right spot. Since you are allowed to attack in the middle of your movement, any creature can step out from behind an obstacle (even total cover), make an attack, and then hide again. To deal with entrenched foes, you will either need to play whack-a-mole using readied actions, bombard the area with AoE spells, find a way to flank their cover, or send someone in there to get them. As the DM, try to provide some cover for both sides to use, and find ways to defeat. And, again, the PCs can create their own cover but there are still ways around that.
- Spread out, they've got AoE! When a fight breaks out in a narrow hallway and you suddenly realize the bad guys have a spellcaster, that should cause real fear. A tightly packed group will take very heavy damage from AoE spells, breath weapons and the like. Finding a way to spread out and still fight in a tight space can be a real challenge. Even in an open area where you can spread out as much as you want, how much do you spread out and weaken your formation to avoid AoE attacks? Again, where you stand and how you move makes a difference.
- This last one I turned into a character concept. That is: AoE spells whose area is based on YOU. When you cast a Fireball you just pick a spot within 150' and that's where your AoE is centered. Where you are standing is pretty meaningless... which is boring. But when you cast Lighting Bolt it's an entirely different story. It creates a beam 100 feet long and 5 feet wide which originates from you. Where you are standing actually determines how many targets you hit and therefore how much total damage you can inflict. Moving your character to line up a better shot might actually double your damage. This sort of spell is far more fun and tactically complex than the typical AoE and unfortunately there are not very many of them. Still, you can enjoy this added tactical aspect with spells like Burning Hands, Thunderwave, Cone of Cold and Aganazzar's Scorcher (from the Elemental Evil Companion).
I designed a fire-themed Sorcerer whose goal in combat is to be highly mobile and always on the lookout for the ideal spot to spam another Aganazzar's Scorcher (which is a 30' long, 5' wide beam of fire like a mini Lighting Bolt). Sorcerers can use sorcery points to insure they always have a suitable spell slot available for whatever they like to spam. Aganazzar's Scorcher is a good choice because it's low level but still has a useful range, and it's an element that Draconic Bloodline sorcerers can synergize with. Still, a higher level character could do the same with actual Lighting Bolts or Cones of Cold. Or, if you value the tactical effects more than the damage, being able to cast Thunderwave a whole lot could break up any enemy formation.
Well, if you made it all the way to the end, you must have some fascinating insights, or you were really bored. If the former, feel free to share. I'm sure I have missed some things that would make my games/characters more interesting.
"Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do." - Voltaire
"It is to be expected that we will run out of fossil fuels before we run out of optimists, who are, along with fools and madmen, a renewable resource." - Dmitry Orlov