5E The Tactical Comfort Zone

Fauchard1520

Explorer
When players find successful combat tactics, they tend to stick with them. How do you shake players out of "tactical complacency" without making them feel unfairly targeted?

I offer up the classic ambush scenario as an option over here, but I'm curious how else you can knock player off balance in terms encounter design. And perhaps more important: how often should you do that? What's the best mix between "players get to decide the terms of the engagement" vs. "the DM decides the terms of engagement?"
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Challenges with multiple goals, often involving multiple pillars of the game, other than, or possibly in addition to, reducing the monsters' hit points to zero in order to achieve success.

I do this as often as it makes sense to, which is often. In the context of those scenarios, players still get to do their favorite tricks, but just in a different context or with a different impact or outcome.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I’ll second Iserith’s comment, and add that it helps to think about what the monsters goals are as well. Typically, violence is a means to an end. Chances are, the PCs want something, the monsters present an obstacle to them getting it, and killing the monsters is often the most direct way to resolve that conflict. Likewise, it is likely that the monsters also want something that the PCs are an obstacle to. Keeping the goals in mind, and playing the monsters to try to achieve that goal, rather than just to win the combat, can help insure that the players path of least resistance isn’t always just to bust out their most efficient damage-dealing tactics.
 

Bawylie

A very OK person
Challenges with multiple goals, often involving multiple pillars of the game, other than, or possibly in addition to, reducing the monsters' hit points to zero in order to achieve success.

I do this as often as it makes sense to, which is often. In the context of those scenarios, players still get to do their favorite tricks, but just in a different context or with a different impact or outcome.
Every Jackie Chan fight seems like it has a B-plot running through it.

“These thugs are attacking you but Don’t drop this precious, ancient vase!”
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Every Jackie Chan fight seems like it has a B-plot running through it.

“These thugs are attacking you but Don’t drop this precious, ancient vase!”
Exactly. That is a hallmark of a lot of my challenge design.
 

Kinematics

Explorer
Instead of the players charging into the monsters, the monsters charge into the players. EG: a giant charging into the camp in the middle of the night. Only a portion of the party on watch, and even if they do wake people up, those who were sleeping may lack armor (depending on sleeping rules).

Why is the giant charging into camp? Well, there's some juicy horseflesh over there, and this giant would like his share before the other giants arrive. First rock throw isn't against the players, but to take out a horse. In other words, the players are only incidentals, not the primary targets. This is similar to many other types of attack motivations (capture or kill an escort target, grab the McGuffin, etc).

Aside from the attack from the rear, attacking from above (whether fliers or ambushing from surrounding cliffs) or below (ankheg/purple worm/etc type threats) also works for breaking up the party formation.

Lots of tactics from The Monsters Know based on monster type. The default example of goblins in a forest is more advanced than most module fights I've encountered, simply because it's in an area large enough to move around in, and there are places to hide (ie: lots of trees). Only works if the goblins actually make use of hiding, rather than run up and try to melee the fighters.

And aside from the Jackie Chan "Don't drop the vase!" approach, there's the race to get the vase in the first place. The enemy isn't there to fight you, per sé, they're just doing whatever they can to slow you down while racing for the magic artifact. Do you stop long enough to fight enemy X, or do you push past and leave him at your rear? Does the enemy face you directly, or do they knock the bookshelf over in your path while they run?
 

Shiroiken

Adventurer
When I design adventures, or run published ones, I always take the NPCs/monster's motivations into consideration. If the party has a standard tactic that works, that's fine, but it won't always work unless they know how the creatures will react. Terrain layout and room size can have an impact on desired tactics. In my first campaign, I had a fire dragon sorcerers who LOVED fireball. She was very sad when the 2 dozen harpies that were about to swoop down on the party came from all directions, allowing at most 3-4 to be hit at a time.
 

jayoungr

Adventurer
I asked a similar question a few months ago. You may find some useful suggestions in this thread:

 

Celebrim

Legend
First, the ambush is probably the most over used and boring encounter design you can have. It prioritizes having the biggest hammer and treating everything as a nail, so if you want to see repetition, by all means do a lot of ambushes.

Tactics are the result of two things - weapons and terrain.

To 'throw the party off balance' vary the weapons and terrain.

In fact, the terrain is the extra monster in the encounter. It's easy to just about double the difficulty of the encounter using just terrain. Terrain is so important it ought to get a CR.

Key elements of terrain include elevation, distance, cover, concealment, hinderances to mobility, and hazards. Terrain advantages are maximized by mobility, ranged weapons, and stealth.

Elevation skews a battle to occur in one direction. The upper side not only gains a small advantage attacking the lower side, but so long as it retains the upper side it requires the lower side to make more effort to close than is required by the upper side. Elevation can also create barriers to movement and complex environments where the distance between attacks is not the same as the distance required to close between attackers. Elevation is countered by flight, which itself can create elevation.

Distance is one of the great equalizers. At sufficient distance, all ranged attacks are basically equal, striking targets only at random. Distance can be used to make numbers tell over skill. Distance nullifies advantages in close striking power, and if you have the advantage of range allows creatures to make attacks without fear of response in kind. Distance is countered and exploited by speed, which allows the faster side to choose and maintain the range. If you really want to give players headaches, don't ambush them. Attack them with mounted archers. Speed can be partially countered by dispersion. If you spread a unit thinly over a large area, the cost of tracking down the entire unit is high, allowing more time for the unit to pepper you with ranged attacks. Dispersion plus mobility tempts opponents to become scattered, allowing them to be defeated in detail.

Cover allows attackers to have prepared positions. It equalizes attackers with different skills levels. Placed behind an arrow loop, an archer can engage in an equal duel with a far superior archer that lacks cover. A unit beginning a fight with cover can not only win the early stages of the combat, but they can use that cover to cover an escape before the enemy can develop an adequate response. Cover is essential to hit and run tactics.

Concealment is similar in many ways to cover, but it also negates distance, speed, and ranged attacks. Persistent concealment in the environment forces all combat to take place at essentially melee distances. It also makes coordination difficult, as it is easy to lose line of sight on your comrades and blunder around lost in a literal or figurative fog of war. At higher levels many brute monsters - that is monsters without ranged combat options - go down hard to PC parties because of the powerful ranged options that a high level party tends to collectively have. One solution to this problem is concealment. Concealment is exploited by stealth and mobility, and countered by perception - particularly the ability to track, smell, or otherwise get information without the need for line of sight. Concealment like cover allows for hit and run tactics.

Hinderances to movement refers to difficult to traverse terrain, which in D&D terms almost always refers to battlefields where all or part of the terrain requires a movement type for which the PC party lacks a natural movement speed. If the terrain requires swimming, flight, climbing, balancing, or can be burrowed through by a burrowing creature, and the PC's cannot respond in kind, then they are at a great disadvantage. If the players are in narrow places, or walking on ice, or underwater, or fighting in tree tops, this will greatly change the difficulties that they have to overcome. Lesser difficulty can be had with highly uneven terrain such as rubble, tree roots or barriers that are hard to push through such as bushes, deep mud, waist deep water, ect.

Hazards refers to portions of the terrain which have obvious or concealed dangers. These are portions of the battlefield that you need to avoid. These can include pits, precipices, deep water, fast moving water, fires, traps, quicksand, tar, deep mud, poisonous or dangerous vegetation, noxious fumes, thermal features such as boiling pools, or in magical terrain pretty much anything you can imagine. If the opponent is immune in part or in whole to a hazard, then they gain an enormous advantage. For example, skeletons for the most part do not care if they are fighting in a room filled with deadly mold - they can't breath, the have no flesh to infest, and they give off no heat. The combination of skeletons and terrain infested with deadly mold is much more deadly than either of the two alone. Amphibious creatures generally don't have to care about drowning. Fire loving creatures would prefer if the terrain was on fire.

Players will not feel unfairly targeted if the terrain threats that they face feel completely believable for the location that the combat is occurring in, and if the monster is intelligently exploiting the terrain. It doesn't require an unbelievable tiger for that tiger to want to exploit tall grass in order to hide, successfully pounce, and then retreat. That's just what tigers do. That's how they live. If the monsters aren't exploiting terrain, and all your fights are occurring in flat open terrain at encounter distances of under 60' then perhaps that should feel unbelievable.

One particularly satisfying sort of terrain in my experience is one that is moving. Fights that are also and at the same time chases can be highly dynamic with the terrain continually 'coming to the player' instead the player choosing the terrain.

Weapons refer to choosing monsters or monsters choosing weapons that represent different sorts of threats - reach weapons, nets or entangling weapons, grenade like weapons, and most especially ranged weapons. Intelligent monsters can do all the things that PC's do - deploy tanks as cover for artillery, use battlefield control, and attempt to outflank the PC's.

Finally, tactics are not the whole of a battle. Not every battle has the simple objective of closing with the enemy and destroying them. Battles can be complicated by having different primary objectives or secondary objectives. For example, a battle can take place near innocents, which potentially produces a secondary objective of avoiding or preventing harm done to innocents. A group of bugbear slavers transporting a group of slaves in cages on wagons might counter the typical PC tactic of opening with fireball (at least, for most groups of players, and if it doesn't then that is interesting as well). Or a battle can take place near fragile treasure that the PC's don't wish harmed. Or the PC's may know that the enemy forces are able to bring to bear overwhelming resources a little while after battle is joined, and so must choose stealth or hit and run tactics.
 
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iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Any examples of "priceless vases" that you've used?
The easiest one to include and one I've used several times in my recent Eberron game is an NPC that needs to be defended. Perhaps the NPC is an important dignitary, a much-needed expert, or a valuable hostage. During the fight, the NPC finds its way into trouble due to bravado, drunkenness, or by mistake and the PCs have to fight off the enemy while keeping the NPC alive.

In a recent Eberron scenario, the PCs were making a foray into the Mournland and they hired a driver of an elemental powered land vehicle so they could get to and from their destination quickly and with some cargo space for storing salvage. The driver was Trukker d'Orien, a booze hound recently kicked out of his dragonmarked house. Only Trukker's dragonmark would operate the truck and the PCs needed it. And while they explored some ruins, he constantly go himself into trouble, creating situations in which the PCs needed to deal with the threat while making sure he didn't get himself killed.

Here's an example of this that's pretty good: How to Defeat a Forum Troll.
 

Krachek

Explorer
When players find successful combat tactics, they tend to stick with them. How do you shake players out of "tactical complacency" without making them feel unfairly targeted?

I offer up the classic ambush scenario as an option over here, but I'm curious how else you can knock player off balance in terms encounter design. And perhaps more important: how often should you do that? What's the best mix between "players get to decide the terms of the engagement" vs. "the DM decides the terms of engagement?"
Play monster stat especially intelligence and wisdom.
Play monster motivation.
You may explain a vicious and cunning group that focus fire on same pc,
Or dumb monster that want to challenge the big member of pc party.
Zombie and automaton attack the first target available.
Monster with pack tactic feature, use it.
Monster may disengage and flee.
Player has to feel the monster not the Dm tactics and choice.
The more monster look real, the more player won’t contest your tactical choice.
 
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Elfcrusher

Adventurer
Exactly. That is a hallmark of a lot of my challenge design.
That makes so much sense. If it's always just "kill them before they kill you" it gets awfully repetitive.

Add in all sorts of "...while not dropping the vase" and every combat is different.

I had a scene (in a different system) where the PCs were trying to escape a complex, and the exit was closed by a portcullis and had guards. Complications:
- Opening the portcullis required ability checks for several rounds, with two characters more effective than one.
- If the guards reach a gong and ring it, more guards start appearing.
- If characters are attacked while trying to turn the winch it hampers them.

I'll re-tune the difficulty if I ever run it again, but was still fun. Easy if you manage to take the guards out before they ring the gong, but otherwise rather tricky.
 

FrogReaver

Adventurer
One of my favorite encounters I ran:

The rogue opened a door and there was a chest. It was a small room with various other supplies.

The rogue went to lock the door behind them so nothing could get in the room. Then he went to open the chest. It was a mimic. He had trapped himself in a tiny room with a mimic!

he blamed himself more than the mimic. It was his fault he locked himself in that room.


Another memorable encounter was the phase spider in a cave with a small dingy bridge that was best to navigate carefully as there was a deep chasm below.

The spider attacked only after there was only 1 pc on his side of the bridge. Then he phased out and waited. Watching them try to figure out how to handle that creature while it waited patiently was priceless.

A lot is ambushing and terrain. A lot is varying monster tactics. Grapple, prone, dodge, trying to throw of a cliff.

Throw in some mundane traps that enemies know where are and lure players into.

Place monsters in settings they can use their abilities.

Place monsters in situations where they can lure beasts or other creatures to fight you ( at some risk to themselves)
 

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