Use downtime to level up your hero’s D&D combat skills


In the introduction to classic first edition Dungeons & Dragons module Against the Giants, author Gary Gygax cautions would-be players that the module wasn’t just designed for high-level characters; it was also designed for highly experienced players. The author explained that novice players who simply rolled up powerful characters wouldn’t have the tactical expertise necessary for those characters to survive the module. Gygax pointed to a widely ignored gaming truth: there is no instant replacement for months or years of player tactical cooperation.

It does indeed take a great deal of time for an adventuring party to learn all the nuances of working together. When a party actually does so - when a group of players actually obtains equipment, develops tactics, and chooses skills, feats and spells based on how they will contribute to group success – enjoyment of the game is exponentially higher.

In games that focus on the tactical elements of combat, the group can, if the players and dungeon master agree, use down time for players to practice directing their characters cooperatively in mock combat. Such an activity may be an option when one or more players cannot attend, and other campaign-related gaming activities aren’t as appealing. Of course, these fights never take place from a campaign or narrative standpoint; rather, they’re more of a metagaming experience where players test their heroes against monsters of the DM’s choosing.

There are several advantages in spending this time at practice:

  • Someone at the table can run characters for absent players without fear of anything happening to those characters;
  • Players can attempt combinations of field position, equipment, weapons, feats, powers, opportunity attacks, magic items and timing (through delaying actions and such) without fear of their characters dying in-game; as a result, players can and often do try outrageous  and/or convoluted plans. After all, there are no campaign consequences for success or failure. Particularly effective combinations should be documented for future reference, as described in the list-making section of this post;
  • The DM may choose to use monsters that he or she may have always wanted to use, but never had the opportunity;
  • These practice combats are a great way for the DM to practice skills for the other side of the screen, including seldom-used rules for weaponless, aerial or underwater combat;
  • There is very little preparation time required on the part of the DM or players for this activity; and
  • The players can also have a bit of good-natured metagaming fun by trying to see who can do the most damage to a single target, who can slay the most enemies, or how many ongoing conditions or effects the party can place on a single target.
  • Players may even want to take this opportunity to fight each other, just to see the result.

While using downtime for practice effectively turns D&D into a rather complicated skirmish game, the practice can be a useful exercise, especially for novice players or DMs.