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.


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.


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


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.

I thought old school D&D was about wargaming (tactics) with trolls and terrasques thrown in. So, -1 for no mention of trolls?
I'm not saying everyone be a master stealther in the group, but if only ONE person in the group could pass a decent Stealth check, you're hosed if something happens to that person and you need to sneak into a place. Same thing if one person in the party has an 18 ability score/skill in something and everyone else has a 10 (or lower...). Having someone who can backup the primary - not necessarily a specialist - but neither a noob, is a good idea. It's why I find having a 5th player do a bard to be so handy - the old "Jack-of-all-Trades" (but master of none). I've seen the lack of overlap in skill areas grind an adventure to a halt or even get parties killed because they relied on the "one trick pony" to fulfill their needs and nobody else can step in when that person isn't around or is otherwise incapacitated.
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(looks up "discommode" ... looks up "recce") Nice! I'm learning here!
I clicked on this thread specifically because I consider myself a good and experienced DM with 30 years experience in running, but combat tactics is the last place that I have barely explored. I'm so focused on story that the fights take a distant second place, and I honestly rob my party of opportunities to make story moments within combat. Reading this inspires me to think about how these strategies might provide those opportunities. (Currently, the battle map is serving that purpose - trying to make it interesting with areas of cover, raised ground, difficult terrain, traps, improvised weapons, etc.).


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.
For some yes, for others, no. Bit those far into fiction often don't have to worry about tactics, because they have "plot armor".


For some yes, for others, no. Bit those far into fiction often don't have to worry about tactics, because they have "plot armor".

I guess I've just always been under the mistaken impression that "roleplaying" a fighter who spent years in the army would involve "roleplaying" their knowledge of good combat tactics... :rolleyes:

I'd posit that, if your party has been together for ten levels and still hasn't learned to coordinate with each other in combat, you're not roleplaying them correctly.

You're missing what is IMO the most important one for roleplaying.

Look at the current situation and use local factors such as the environment and working out how to use the weaknesses of the enemies.

If you're not doing that you're not "navigating and immersing in the fiction".

The times we can reinforce each other, we slice through a dragon. When we go all solo, we get mauled by kobolds. Sometimes the best thing to do isn't the most flashy thing to do.

We have adopted the "abilities in depth" approach. The tome Warlock (12th) picked up a level of bard, with intent to go Valor as a boost to both spells & melee. Our Champion (12th) got a level of wizard for movement, defense & utility spells. We have a Monk12 /rogue1 who also took Magic Initiate. The cleric 13 and paladin 13 haven't multiclassed, but they are both a mix of combat, healing, perception and social so pretty well rounded. I play the "spackle" lore bard (see, I fill in the gaps...) with high social/perception/survival and a lot of spell feats.

Net result is that we can almost always do "assist another". And its not just direct assistance. We have two pools of bardic inspirations, two people with Guidance, two people with Enhance Ability, etc.

Aside from spreading items around, consider shifting them around for any given fight. A pearl of power might be better for the warlock in one scenario, the bard another, the cleric the next. I now routinely give my bardic instrument to the bard-lock as it gives him a lot of utility spells. The broom of flying gets passed around a lot, as does the Eversmoking Bottle.

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