Wisdom of the Masters: The Third Wheel

Wisdom of the Masters: The Third Wheel

This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and Forty Two on 28th June, 2023.

Note: This article was adapted from an episode script, and so there may be parts that don’t flow well when read, because they were initially designed for broadcast.

There are several challenges around tying combat into an overall story in D&D. Almost all DMs have a story about setting up an epic battle with a foe that the players steamroll over after one round of combat, fouling your epic final battle narrative. Or the combat the characters are supposed to run from but the try-hard members just keep fighting until half the party is bleeding out on the floor and the players are yelling at the rogue and the wizard to run back out into the room with the three demons to retrieve their bodies.

We’ve addressed several of these scenarios in the past. While the details vary, a lot of the advice can either be summed up as “dumb the enemies down,” “fudge the dice like a chocolatier,” or “don’t make the encounter a combat encounter.” But there is another scenario where the issues aren’t those kinds of problems.

Lots of good stories and exciting combats involve multiple sides fighting all at once, or several different vendettas being settled. In the latest D&D movie, there was a scene where most of the party was fighting a group of Red Wizard minions, while Xenk the paladin had a more-or-less one on one duel with the leader on the same battlefield. Or if you go to the Lord of the Rings, for the battle of Helm’s Deep, you have the heroes fighting at the actual fortification, then the reinforcements come in from the other side of the battlefield with Gandalf and/or possibly a bunch of foliage, depending on source and edition. And then there’s also the quite literal “Battle of Five Armies” from the Lord of the Rings prequel book that unfortunately was never made into a movie.

A lot of sources for D&D advice actually encourage something like this. The “rival adventuring party” is a common trope recommended to make a treasure hunt or a mystery more interesting and to discourage things like the party taking a short rest after every combat because their rivals will get ahead of them. If or when both parties make it to the treasure room and are faced with the final guardian of whatever MacGuffin they’re chasing, then there’s a tense tactical situation where the players have to decide how much effort to spend on fighting the guardian as opposed to their rivals.

Companions are another common mechanic encouraged in a lot of D&D sources, to the point where some adventures almost provide another whole party’s worth of followers and support staff for the players as they make their way around.

Or you can have the scenario where two groups start getting into it in the Underdark, and suddenly one of the natives bursts through the wall and doesn’t like anyone so they start trying to clear the field.

That’s where combat can get tricky for everyone.

Combat in D&D is very much designed around the idea of two sides with a clear division of labor; you have the players controlling their own characters, and that’s mostly where their responsibilities are supposed to end. All other creatures, effects, and otherwise independent entities on the field are supposed to be controlled by the DM. That can get murky when you’re dealing with a three- or more-way conflict on the table, however.

There are two major issues that usually arise in scenarios like this; time and player engagement.

Player engagement may or may not be an issue depending on the players. If all of the people around the table tend to be fully invested in whatever’s going on by default, the addition of a third party to the combat probably won’t lose them. They may actually be more invested. But if you have several people that tend to start woolgathering whenever they aren’t actually required to roll dice, the third party in the conflict is going to mean even more time when they aren’t doing anything. You can try to use more description and detail in covering what’s going on with the extra participants, but even so you’re going to be spending a certain amount of time looking up statistics and rolling dice or even just taking notes about what’s going on. All of that will slow things down and create more time where you’re puttering around as the DM while the players wait for their turns to act.

One of the best ways to deal with this issue is to simply get the players involved. There are a few different ways to do this with varying degrees of player engagement.

We’ll start with what might be the easiest one; the random interloper in the middle of a fight. Most of the time these sorts of scenarios are going to be ones like we described; a single creature, or perhaps a small group of creatures, stumble into the combat and don’t have any allegiance to anyone. They just want everyone to go away or die. If it’s a single monster the amount of extra work and time for everyone is minimal. The only thing you have to keep in mind is that the monster is supposed to be independent, so you need to figure out how you’re going to handle that. It might be worth re-checking the monster’s description in advance to figure out whether it will fixate on targets, just attack the closest thing to it, or if it might be attracted to an item or scent on a particular creature. Also figure out if it will run after too much damage or if it’s just going to stick around until everyone leaves or it dies.

If you do want to get the players involved somehow, you can introduce randomness into its behavior and have the players roll to figure out what it will do. Perhaps on a d20 roll of 10+ it attacks the players’ enemies, but on a 1-9 it goes after one of the player characters or something similar.

The next easiest scenario to handle, in most cases, is the followers. These would all be NPCs participating in combat, mostly on the side of the player characters.

Again, the easiest way to keep players engaged is to give control of those characters over to the players. That way instead of the DM taking twice as long to figure out all of their actions, the players are taking those turns and rolling the dice.

The motivations of the NPCs following the characters has to be considered closely for this, however. If you have a character that has just sworn fealty to one of the player characters and vows to follow and protect them etc. etc., then the player can just control them as as they want. However, if you recall the Xenc example from the D&D movie, he very much had his own agenda and was only willing to go along with the main characters’ plans to a point.

In those cases if you’re involving the player, it may be more of a collaborative effort. The player may suggest an action the companion will take and you approve it. Or, you tell the player what the companion does and then they handle all the moving and rolling and such. That way you are still keeping the companion behaving in character according to the story, but the player is very much involved with the action.

The more complicated scenario is something like the competition scene from the D&D movie. You have the player characters versus whatever the main enemies are, and then you have another group doing their own thing. That could be like the movie, where you just have third party groups that are involved in the same area, you could have a group that is a true third party, like a group of city guards coming to break up whatever fight is going on, or they could be direct rivals, who want to fight whatever the player characters are fighting, but they also want to stick it to the player characters directly.

You can try to do the collaborative control thing again, where you direct the action and the players roll, but it’s difficult to make that work in the case where the other group might want to hamper or even directly attack the player characters. Most players are not going to feel good about rolling attacks against their friends’ or their own characters.

The best way to limit the drain on time and your own attention is to abstract as much as possible, sometimes to extremes. For example, if the player characters have said for whatever reason that they aren’t going to attack the other group, don’t track their hit points. If they get attacked, just roll to hit, and then track how many times that character has been hit. Make it so they can take as many hits as their CR rating, for example, so if they are CR 2 and they take 2 hits, they go down. If the creatures attack the monsters that player characters will also fight, just make each hit remove a flat amount of HP and don’t bother with fancy attacks or spells.

One side benefit to that approach is that if you have a narrative beat you want to slip in, you can do it believably. You’re fully in control of what’s happening with those groups. So if you want to suddenly set up the moral dilemma of the attractive, tortured member of the rival crew who really isn’t sold on evil but they’re trapped by circumstances, suddenly facing imminent death unless the heroes intervene and rescue them, you don’t have to worry about actually dropping them to zero. Just let the combat go on for a round or two and then say “Damsella the Tragic was just felled by the ogre and her companions are leaving her to bleed out.”

If combat turns into a true three-way fight where all three groups are mixed up on the field and everyone’s hitting everyone else, there’s not much you can do to smooth that out. Use tricks like always taking the average damage values and keeping the attacks simple as much as possible, and try to abstract as much as you can if you have hits and attacks that only affect non-player characters. If you’re comfortable with the approach, don’t even roll for some of those attacks; just decide what will hit and how hard the hit will hurt and make it happen. Or, you can let the players roll the attack and damage when an attack isn’t against them, but roll them yourself when you’re attacking a player character.

As usual, however, the biggest thing you need to do is prepare for this. Setting up a three-way fight is always a conscious decision by the DM; even if a scenario is set up in the adventure module or whatever that calls for it, you as the DM have the authority and ability to just say “no, that’s not happening” and have the story play out differently.

If you do want to go through with it, be prepared for the fact that the fight will take longer. Regardless of who’s actually controlling them, there will be about half again as many combat turns going on just because of how many creatures are on the field and, as we already said, there’s only so much of that you can shorten or skip. That one fight could end up being the entire session, or enough of it that nothing else really significant will be happening that day. Also, make sure you know who’s involved and how they’ll act. In the middle of a huge battle like that is not the time to be flicking through rulebooks or frantically searching for stat blocks online.

If you do put in the time and effort, though, and if your player group goes along with it, a multi-sided combat can be an exciting and memorable addition to a regular play session.