Figuring Out Combat in 5e: Hitting the Players
This post is geared towards high level play and the frustrations that can bring for GMs, though if you gave your party all +3 armor at level 1, this will be helpful for you too!
The moment has arrived for your players, as they have arrived at the pinnacle of their classes. The arcane casters are slinging spells like Wish, Meteor Swarm and Power Word Kill, and the martial classes are delivering crippling blows up to 8 times a single round! And your poor monsters, they are trying so hard to not die in one round, or at least long enough until it’s their Initiative turn.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at my Initiative tracker and thought… there is no way that guy is making it to his turn, and he has such a cool ability too!
But… this problem isn’t only restricted to high play games, oh no! Sometimes, either through lucky rolls, a large table size or an excess of magic items, you can find yourself not enjoying the game anymore. Your monsters never get a hit in, they die way too soon, and you feel weak compared to your players. In this post, we are just going to touch on the mechanics on hitting players and monsters in combat. We will get to those other concerns soon!
Missing All The Shots You Take
It can be frustrating trying to hit your players and sometimes the dice just aren’t with you that session, but what if it is a consistent problem? Every time you bring in monsters, you get in a few shots but nothing dangerous. Your players walk away largely unscathed and you are left with the remains of some interesting monsters that never stood a chance.
For us to understand why this can happen, let’s look at the mechanic in 5e known as Bounded Accuracy, a boring sounding term that just means that AC and To-Hit bonuses are tied together in the system. It is a system designed to allow a meek Kobold to stab a level 20 fighter, even if the damage that Kobold does isn’t very life threatening anymore. In past editions, that Kobold would never be able to hurt that fighter, and that was a problem when it came time to prepare monsters for combat.
GMs would have a limited amount of monsters they could send against their players as the players AC was designed to grow higher and higher, pushing into the 40s and 50s. Now think about what that means for monsters to actually hit them. A Kobold has a +4 to hit with their dagger, which means he only ever has a 5% chance to ever hit these titans, and that means he needs a Natural 20. In those other editions, monsters would have a specific To-Hit and GMs could only use those monsters when the AC of the players fell into that To-Hit range, and vice versa. It made monster selection limiting and made it an arms race to have the highest AC possible for your level.
Now some of you may think that that is a perfectly reasonable thing to happen, and I’m not here to argue with you on that, but… we are talking about 5e, were the designers threw out that old system in favor of one where a Kobold has a decent chance to hit a level 20 fighter, even with plate & a shield for an AC 20. Sure, this means that a Kobold needs a 16 or higher on the die to hit that fighter, but a 20% chance is far better than a measly 5%, a critical hit, especially when a horde of Kobolds is clamoring for blood.
Magic Items F*ck The System
The problem with the Bounded Accuracy in 5e is that the moment you introduce magic items and enhancements into the game, you are pushing the link between AC and To-Hit further apart. Just giving the fighter a +1 Shield & +1 Plate puts his AC as 22, and our poor Kobold has to hit a 19 or 20 to hit, a 10% chance. Our chances of the Kobold doing anything in this fight is getting smaller and smaller, and I’ll be honest, that sucks as the GM. I want to hit the players just as much as they want to hit me, sometimes more if they disagree with my rulings too much.
I hate, when it comes to the monster’s turn in Initiative, to roll my d20 in the desperate hope that I’ll get a Natural 20 just so I can briefly roll a different dice. It’s extremely disheartening watching your monsters get slaughtered while your players sit there on their thrones of high AC. Now… how do we kick that throne from under them?
A simple solution is: have no magical items in your game.
5e was designed without magical items and your players get several cool things they can do without magical items anyways. But frankly… that’s boring. I hate it, my players hate it and so I am going to reject that solution immediately for me and my table. I need something different, something to help the ante in my favor.
Of course, I could just use spellcasters only, but then that limits me on monsters. That puts the brakes on what monsters I can use and it means I can’t use Kobolds throughout my entire campaign and still have them feel like a suitable threat for my table. No, instead we are going to go a bit more basic than that.
To-Hit or To-Not-Hit
We are going to adjust something that won’t be a huge deal when it comes to the amount of damage being dealt. For my weaker monsters, we are going to adjust just one thing. Their Proficiency Bonus. While it isn’t a perfect solution, it does allow us to increase our To-Hit while not making our damage grow larger and larger and forcing us to adjust our CR ratings.
By taking our normal Kobolds and increasing their Proficiency from +2 to +4, we effectively give our Kobolds, and by extension us, a 10% boost to our chances of hitting our players.
Taking our earlier example, if our fighter has plate and a shield, their AC is 20. Using a typical Kobold, they need a 16 or higher to hit, or another way of putting it; they have a 20% chance to hit. Now increase their Proficiency by 2 to give them a +6 To-Hit and they now just need a 14 or higher to hit, giving them a 30% chance per attack to hit our would-be hero.
And now take our previous example where our fighter gets magical items, they have an AC 22, and our Kobolds are almost back where they were to begin with, a 15% chance of hitting. It lets us and our players still hit each other occasionally and lets the players feel good for having high AC without the GM miserably tossing their d20 around, and we can adjust that Proficiency bonus to help even the odds a bit more by increasing the To-Hit to a +7 for a 20% chance to hit.
This isn’t a perfect solution. It means you need to do a bit of math, especially if a creature has Saving Throws or Skills that you need to readjust their bonuses to. But, on the bright side, it does help your creatures make their Saving Throws more often against your spell slinger’s stupid high Spell Save DCs.
It’s a Hit
Now, this system does mean we are making monsters more proficient the higher level the characters get, but I wouldn’t recommend going crazy with this system. First, take the average AC of your players. For new groups, it will probably be around 13 to 16 AC, for high level groups, you are looking more at 16 to 20+AC. This boost to the attacks is for those higher level groups that focus more and more on their ACs, and is an attempt to keep our low CR monsters still viable against them.
I recommend that your super weak monsters, compared to your party, should have an average of hitting 20% of the time, your mid range monsters hitting around 30 - 40% of the time, and your high tier monsters hitting around 50 - 60% of the time. This helps keep the danger going for your players, while still allowing you to have fun hitting them over and over and over.
I have found that GMs are a lot like players in this manner, we just like to hit things every once in a while.