In a recent game the paladin of my group crept into the foisty cavern where a disease-ridden Ash Giant was sat munching on the bruised flesh of a tribal barbarian. The giant paid him no heed, just happy to devour his supper. The paladin, taken aback by the creature's nonchalance, curiously cast detect evil in the area. The giant wasn't evil. "Erm, guys, I don't know what to do now".
Now, this isn't because the player is stupid. Quite the opposite. Instead, this scenario was revealing of what a lazy GM I had previously been - one whose players had just grown to expect me to throw a series of evil creatures at them to battle to the death. The paladin could justify slaughtering his enemies and that was that.
I discovered that this was a shitty way to run an adventure.
Combat should be a choice (most of the time)
One thing that forced combat does is take agency away from the players. Sure, some times it totally makes sense for enemies to attack the players in cold blood, but this rarely ends up as a memorable encounter.
Think about it. How many times have your players reminisced about a good combat? Probably not a tonne. But how many times have they talked about a fun role-playing encounter? Likely a tonne.
The thing is, emotion is memorable. When you throw a forced combat at them, your players rarely have the chance to roleplay the scenario. They already know the enemy's intent: to kill them, which leaves them with limited options.
Consider instead if you offered players the ability to meet the encounter their own way. They could try and aid the enemy, parlay, trick, or a host of other tactics that don't include twatting them with a sword. I guarantee that giving them agency will make for much more interesting encounters. At the end of it, if they choose to attack them that's their perogative.
Fighting to the death is a drag
Your players have exhausted their role-playing options and have decided to get their murder on. Great.
Hands up if you usually have your bad guys fight until they're all dead? I see a few. It's easy to forget that your monsters or brigands or whatever they are actually have lives. Personal preservation is hardwired into most living creatures, so when the chips are down they're probably unlikely to keep fighting if they've had the shit kicked out of them.
Have your enemies surrender, flee, or try to bargain if they're being decimated. Show the players that these are emotional beings - doing do will open up another avenue for role-playing and that all important player agency. This is particularly useful in crunchier games where combat tends to last a lot longer.
Make your baddies chatty
It's a lot more interesting to roleplay a conversation with an enemy than to roll a bunch of dice until its HP drops. This usually means making sure that your enemies speak common or its equivalent in your game of choice. Remember how interesting Smaug was in The Hobbit? This was because he talked. He was able to cover his thoughts, share his motives and have a two way dialogue with Bilbo. This makes for an infinitely more fun encounter than a red dragon that just attacks the players.
If making you monsters talk throws out the rulebook, so be it. Fuck rules (more on this in a later post). You're all going to have a better time if your players can converse with a creature.
Don't get me wrong - combat can be really fun. You can get some really dramatic moments in combat - real nail biting stuff. But player agency is key to great role-playing and forced combat is a real hindrance to this. Making your enemies more interesting and more inclined to have a dialogue will create memorable moments that combat can rarely capture.