Worlds of Design: Combat Tactics

In fantasy RPGs where cooperation is critical and death is a real threat, these tactics might save your character’s life.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

"Battles are won by slaughter and manoeuvre. The greater the general, the more he contributes in manoeuvre, the less he demands in slaughter." --Sir Winston Churchill (and many others have said much the same)

This advice is for games where there is a real chance that a character might die or be seriously injured. That’s true in some versions of RPGs, not in others. And I’m assuming that co-operation is a vital ingredient of survival; if the game is a matter of one man armies showing off, then co-operation won’t matter much if it all.

These guidelines are derived initially from 1st Edition D&D, but will apply to many other games in many situations. Not all of these tactics will apply to certain rulesets or perhaps even to certain settings; a lot depends on what kind of spells are available.

Inventory​

Don’t think about only what you can do, consider what everyone can do, both at the start of an adventure and whenever the $#!+ hits the fan. So I ask everyone at start what “artillery” they have, what magic items, even what their AC and hit points are (in D&D). I want everyone to be aware of what solutions are available for combat. This requires a group who trust one another.

Combined Arms​

Combined arms (integrate different combat arms of a military to achieve mutually complementary effects) is vital in FRPG combat, or almost any other combat. In FRPGs there are so many different possible capabilities that combined arms is even more important than usual. This is just part of co-operating with your comrades.

What’s Your Role?​

Ask yourself, what’s your role (in this party at this time)? Your role may change depending on circumstances. If your party members are all trying to fill the same one or two roles, you have failed at combined arms. Here are some common roles:
  • Artillery: In the World Wars, artillery did the majority of the killing, evidently in Ukraine as well. In D&D certainly, magic often does most of the killing, usually from spellcasters, occasionally from magical devices. Artillery is often the heart of the party’s offense.
  • Blocker: Defenders. Protect the “artillery” (spellcasters), make sure no enemy breaks into “the rear.”
  • Bulldozer: Something like Blockers, but dedicated to grinding down and breaking through the enemy’s main force. The offensive side of Blockers.
  • Commando: A character who slips in behind the enemy, both for morale purposes and to discommode enemy backliners (who may be vulnerable, may even be “artillery”).
  • Sniper: Sometimes a character with a ranged weapon can keep the enemy “artillery” or leader/boss in check.
  • Scout: “Time spent in recce is never wasted.” Sometimes you need to know what’s ahead, especially outdoors.
  • Healer isn’t on this list because I believe it should be everyone’s job to some extent. The object is to not need a specialized Healer.
Not every role will be included in every party, but some are more likely to be included such as Blocker and Artillery.

Play Focused, Stay Focused​

You can’t be playing well tactically if you’re not paying attention. Put your phone away. Get your mind straight.

Run Away!​

Running away IS an option – “he who fights then runs away, lives to fight another day” We could make a case that THE skill most required in combat oriented RPGs is knowing when to run away (in good order, we hope).

Protect Your Artillery/Snipers​

Depending on the ruleset, there may be characters who provide most of the offensive capability, such as magic users in early D&D. If so, a major tactical objective is to protect those characters. If there are enough of you, assign a bodyguard to your Artillery, if you’ve got an Artillery whose defense is not so good.

Take Your Time​

Assuming the GM allows it, take your time deciding what to do. Anytime you hurry, you’re more likely to make mistakes (a key to many video games, of course: time stress). To quote myself from 1983: “A simple solution to this is simply to slow down and make sure you look at the tactical situation to choose the best maneuvers before you start the next round of attacks.

Consider Your Tactical Style​

I discussed this at length in another Worlds of Design article. To quote:
The first method is to charge in and cut the enemy down thanks to suitable character classes and lots of perks and magic items that make your folks "meat cleavers." (As in the 9th level character I watched recently do more than 90 points of melee damage in one round.) The second is to set up a defense while the specialist spell casters use area effect and selected individual spells to blow the enemy away.
This is the Direct Approach and the Indirect Approach. I strongly prefer the Indirect, but Indirect requires more thought and attention than just wading in and whacking the enemy.

Use Stratagems​

Stratagems are schemes, trickery, designed to defeat an opponent with little or no risk to yourselves. They usually involve deception or misdirection (see my previous article). The Trojan Horse is an extreme example.

Party Size​

Lew’s Law of Party Survival: The survivability of the party varies with the square of the number of characters involved. So a party of four is only one quarter as survivable as a party of eight (16 to 64). I could add “character equivalents” as you might have a powerful familiar or similar. When a party is quite small, there’s not much opportunity for actual tactics.

Your Turn: What combat tactics do you use in your games?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Inventory​
Don’t think about only what you can do, consider what everyone can do, both at the start of an adventure and whenever the $#!+ hits the fan. So I ask everyone at start what “artillery” they have, what magic items, even what their AC and hit points are
Fair, but I don't want to know others' AC and HP. I am keenly interested in who's got the heaviest or noisiest armor.

What’s Your Role?​

. . . Here are some common roles:
  • Artillery: In the World Wars, artillery did the majority of the killing, evidently in Ukraine as well. In D&D certainly, magic often does most of the killing, usually from spellcasters, occasionally from magical devices. Artillery is often the heart of the party’s offense.
  • Blocker: Defenders. Protect the “artillery” (spellcasters), make sure no enemy breaks into “the rear.”
  • Bulldozer: Something like Blockers, but dedicated to grinding down and breaking through the enemy’s main force. The offensive side of Blockers.
  • Commando: A character who slips in behind the enemy, both for morale purposes and to discommode enemy backliners (who may be vulnerable, may even be “artillery”).
  • Sniper: Sometimes a character with a ranged weapon can keep the enemy “artillery” or leader/boss in check.
  • Scout: “Time spent in recce is never wasted.” Sometimes you need to know what’s ahead, especially outdoors.
  • Healer isn’t on this list because I believe it should be everyone’s job to some extent. The object is to not need a specialized Healer.
Bulldozer=tank? Don't forget the engineers - the battlefield modifiers. Stone-to-mud spells...firewalls (literal)...maybe miners? Trap-layers?

Healer really should be on the list, given the RPG/D&D perspective here. Heck, even real militaries have medics. I agree that everyone should be able to "heal," but that's just the ability to toss back a healing potion. Or take a long rest and heal everything. ..cough...cough...

Play Focused, Stay Focused​

You can’t be playing well tactically if you’re not paying attention. Put your phone away. Get your mind straight.
Amen. Kind of meta though.

Use Stratagems​

Stratagems are schemes, trickery, designed to defeat an opponent with little or no risk to yourselves. They usually involve deception or misdirection (see my previous article). The Trojan Horse is an extreme example.
This is a good idea - if you're playing an intelligent character.

Your Turn: What combat tactics do you use in your games?
Safety in numbers is a big one. Positioning is another (attack from range, use cover). Lots of stealth. But a fantasy game means fantastic combat . . . so mental attacks (psionics) and magical/mana attacks must be considered too.
 

Vincent55

Adventurer
I have seen many players do nothing due to no spells or being out of use for some ability and die when some common tactics and things could have worked to keep them alive. As a player, i always had an inventory of pitons, rope, lamp oil, rations, a small mirror, torches, bag of marbles sometimes or caltrops, even going as far as having a scroll case with paper and writing ink. I also carried more than this and sometimes my pack also had a bed roll, winter blanket and small shovel if able. I would carry spices for food, which in a pinch could be used to blind things if tossed at them. Also water or wine skin to boot.
 

A good article.

One piece of advice I've found that I don't think got mentioned. You discussed different catergories of troops or unit members. I think one goal should also be, whether on the battlefield or dungeon, to create beneficial mismatches.

An example from a Rolemaster game I'd played in. Our party was going against Chaos' champion and his minions. His minions were almost an identical mirror to our party. What ended up happening, usually by dumb luck (Chaos?) was instead of pairing off with our cinematic nemesis, we would some how end up pairing off against a different PC's equivalent. Our spellcaster handled their tank, our tank handled their assassin, as a crossbow using paladin I went against their sorceror, etc. Comical now still to this day.

But by the end of the game, we were allies with these former enemies as we fought to stop someone from usurping their lord's power
 

Stormonu

Legend
OVERLAPPING SKILL SETS
One thing that always hurts a group is if everyone specializes in ONE area and there is no overlap in skills, abilities and equipment. For example, DON'T have the Cleric carry all the potions of healing, spread them and other equipment out across the group. If someone has an innate skill/ability to do something, spread magic items that grant similar abilities to others who can act as back-ups. For example, everyone's first instinct is to give the cloak of invisibility and/or boots of elvinkind to the rogue, but perhaps consider giving it to the group fighter, who can then assist the rogue in scouting - or just allowing the group to move around in a much more silent fashion.

Everyone should have a melee and ranged weapon of some sort, even if they do piddly damage with it. It's better than standing there gawking while a flying enemy rains death down on the party. Don't have one character be the sole beast at melee or tanking - if they get tied up or dropped, someone else needs to be able to step up (for at least a couple rounds) to keep the bad guys off the squishies.

Same with skills - DON'T have one person be the only one with a valuable skill (Persuasion, Stealth, Perception, etc.) - if something happens to that person (and at some point it will), there should be someone else in the group with a passable ability to cover that role until the primary is back on their feet.

And, last of all, always carry a dagger on your character. They're as useful a tool as duct tape outside of combat - and the ultimate in concealable, last-ditch protection.
 

Gotta give the OP a -2 here.
If I wanted to engage in tactics, I'd go play 4th Edition!
I thought Dungeons and Dragons was about navigating, immersing in; and discovering the fiction.
 

Some times I think about a real strategy used in real warfare. In English languange the word is "turn-and-flee". Used mainly by Muslims for the crusades age it was a false withdrawal. Then the pursuers got tired going towards an "ambuscade", a terrain where the enemy could be surrounded more easily.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Same with skills - DON'T have one person be the only one with a valuable skill (Persuasion, Stealth, Perception, etc.) - if something happens to that person (and at some point it will), there should be someone else in the group with a passable ability to cover that role until the primary is back on their feet.
Good points, but I take issue with this one. When I put my crew together, yes, I want everyone to know how to use a weapon (a little self-defense goes a long way), but I don't expect them each to know how to cast an invisibility spell, or to be as good a schmoozer as Face, or to know how to riposte against a halberd. I generally don't have the budget nor the time to assemble four legendary heroes.

Gotta give the OP a -2 here.
If I wanted to engage in tactics, I'd go play 4th Edition!
I thought Dungeons and Dragons was about navigating, immersing in; and discovering the fiction.
I thought old school D&D was about wargaming (tactics) with trolls and terrasques thrown in. So, -1 for no mention of trolls?
 

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