A lot of people will put up with level grinding in computer RPGs – that is, repetitive combat against identical enemies. Imagine how easy it would be to run a D&D game for a bunch of those people! “You meet another group of 8 goblins. Roll initiative!” Everybody cheers!
It doesn’t work that way. Repetitive D&D combat gets boring way faster than repetitive computer game combat.
There are a number of plausible explanations for this: D&D players have higher expectations; they want to pack lots of fun into a limited weekly time slot; the social contract of the game means that you can’t quit the game when you are bored.
My theory, though, is that repetitive D&D combat doesn’t work because of other people’s turns.
In a CRPG, there is basically no dead time waiting for the computer players to go. The opponents either act concurrently with the player or, in a turn-based game, act very quickly. That means the player is always playing. Mindless activity beats inactivity every time.
In D&D combat, you’re actually playing (taking your turn) for maybe 15% of the time (assuming 5 other players and a couple of monster turns). The other 85% of the time, you are watching theater. So the theater has to be good.
In D&D, taking a swipe at yet another goblin isn’t a peak experience, but it’s pleasant enough: maybe about as fun as level grinding in a CRPG. The problem is, watching other people mindlessly level-grind is no fun at all.
Given the theater-heavy nature of D&D combat, it needs to be either interesting or short.
OD&D combat, for instance, is short. A random encounter with goblins is often a routine hack and slash, but with low goblin hit points and morale, at least it’s over soon.
The D&D edition with the longest combats is probably Fourth Edition. It puts all its chips on interesting combat. Every single monster has a unique attack or trait. There’s lots of tactical movement. There are no rules for random encounters, so each individual goblin fight is artisanally placed by the DM. Monster groups are mixed. And monsters are only threatening within a very narrow level band, so after you’ve used up the novelty of the Goblin Tactics trait, you’ll never fight goblins again (with these characters).
Still, in any edition, fighting the same old goblins gets boring after a while, which is why every edition has a market for more monster manuals, and why every DM invents new traps, battle locations, and monster powers.
All of this novelty isn’t primarily for the active player. I bet that in a one-on-one D&D game (one player and one DM), repetitive goblin battles would go a lot farther. DM inventiveness keeps the inactive players engaged. They don’t have fun dice to roll or damage numbers to add up. They need something to think about (“Oh my god, why did the goblin explode? What will happen to Frank if he fails his saving throw? How far am I from the nearest goblin? should I run away on my turn?”) or some new theater to watch (The look on Frank’s face when he takes 16 damage from an exploding goblin).
In WOTC-era D&D, with its long-form battles, there should be no repeat fights: that is, battles which are essentially identical to recent ones. It’s just too boring for the players. TSR-era D&D is more forgiving of repeat fights, though you probably still don’t want too many.
But what about when it makes story sense for the players to face identical enemies?
There’s a tension between a dull D&D “realism” – in a steading of hill giants, shouldn’t every encounter be against hill giants? – and an unpredictable menagerie with no internal logic. I’m not advocating for the latter. if you’re in the Spiderwood, you’re not immune to spider attacks just because you already faced one. But each spider attack can be a novel variation on the general theme of “spiders eat you.”
If your dungeon key or random-encounter table is heavy on identical monsters or patrols, you can jot down two or three twists to liven up repeat battles. Each such twist gives the players a new avenue for creativity, a new puzzle to solve. The players waiting for their turns will welcome the diversion.
As an example, here is a list of 20 goblin “random encounters” which I’d consider running, even after the players have used up the standard “vanilla goblins” encounter. None of these encounters are super bizarre or outre – they’re just tweaked enough to differentiate one encounters from another.
1 A bigger group of goblins than the PCs have yet faced
2 Goblins with unusual weapons: 2 goblins per pike! 6 goblins operate a ballista! Thrown bottles of poison gas! Bolas and nets! Lassos from above!
3 Elite goblin rangers that have been assigned the task of tracking and ambushing the pesky PCs
4 Goblins who are stationed near a trap, ready to spring it on intruders. (This encounter can be re-used once per unique trap)
5 Two different groups of goblins: opposing or neutral factions, or a group of reinforcements who will arrive after a couple of turns
6 goblins who have survived previous encounters with the PCs, and have prepared for the PCs’ tactics (Unarmed goblins with tower shields surround the fighter while others grapple and gag the wizard)
7 Goblins who don’t want to fight (they might be scared, or willing to change sides, or protecting wounded, or emissaries under a flag of truce, or children)
8 Goblins from a different tribe, reveling in the mayhem caused by the PCs and willing to help them. They might be a war party or captives
9 things which only appear to be goblins. They could be halflings in disguise, or decoy dummies, or nilbogs, or barghest
10 Goblins with obvious treasure (the players won’t mind that the battle is otherwise familiar!)
11 Goblins who run immediately
12 Goblins who are arguing with each other and can easily be ambushed
13 Goblins who can retreat to a place where they are difficult to reach (maybe a ledge, small hole, or armored vehicle)
14 mounted goblins (on worgs, carrion crawlers, giant bats)
15 A goblin with an interesting personality (a groveler who wants to work for the pcs, or an 18-intelligence Sherlock type who shouts astute deductions, or a Drizzt do’Goblin type, or an entertaining trash talker with lots of hit points)
16 one of the goblins is an illusionist
17 Goblins with hostages, destructible treasure, or something else that gives them bargaining leverage
18 grotesque goblinoid experiments created by the local goblin (or evil human) wizard: they have a super-strong third arm, or they’re a chained pack of leprous berserkers, or they are scorpion-goblin centaurs, or they explode for 4d6 damage when hit
19 sneaky goblins who follow stealthily from a distance, looking for a chance to loot treasure whenever the PCs are in battle with treasure guardians
20 Finally, the goblin boss and entourage! The boss actually uses his or her low-level magical treasure to the fullest: potion of fire breath, giant strength, growth, or invulnerability for flashy combat fX; poison or philtre of love to be slipped into a PC’s drink; cap of water breathing plus a nearby lake for a safe place to retreat; immovable rod to block doors, climb to inaccessible locations, and perform all sorts of skullduggery; decanter of water to drown the PCs; beads of force to trap PCs; a folding boat to terrorize the countryside with a summonable Viking longship!