Two drow archers pop off a round of crossbow bolts at the adventurers. A deep voice mutters “Ori’gato ilta oloth z’hren areion ussa. Whol Usstan uil uss xuil lil valsharess.” Dark energy hurdles toward the adventurers. Metal slings against metal as two more drow pull blades from their scabbards and rush into the fray.
The party was hardly surprised at the drow ambush, so no surprise round, but they do act on highest initiative this turn only due to some earlier setup. (The party failed to stop the cleric from escaping a while back.)
- The drow warriors strike the fighter. Only one of them hits.
- The drow archers let their arrows loose. One hits the cleric and the other misses.
- The drow caster lets forth a blast of dark energy.
- The fighter steps forward to defend and strike down the drow warriors. He hits one but doesn’t kill him. He took damage from the blast of darkness.
- The rogue slinks into the darkness, avoiding the blast of negative energy.
- The party’s guide, a ranger, fires a shot at one of the archers. He hits his mark for a good bit of damage, but doesn’t kill. He is able to get out of the blast.
- The cleric begins to channel positive energy for himself and the fighter. He was hit by the blast.
Now that round one is over, the drow act in actual initiative order. They’re all last, so the players could seize the advantage this round.
- The fighter dishes up some damage to the other drow warrior.
- The rogue manages a sneak attack on the other archer but doesn’t kill.
- The ranger dispatches his first target on this round’s shot and moves in to take the position the archer had.
- The cleric readies a spell should the fighter get hit again, he casts it and holds it.
- The fighter takes a hit from both drow warriors, the first hit is healed immediately thanks to the cleric. But, the second hit nearly drops the fighter.
- The remaining drow archer pulls out a shortsword and stabs at the rogue. He hits but doesn’t knock out.
- The drow caster unleashes a spell at the cleric, who fails the save and is silenced for one round.
- The fighter drops one of the drow warriors.
- The rogue tries to get out of combat but is only able to go so far without taking a hit from the drow archer. He makes a wild stab as he gets away, but misses.
- The ranger fires at the drow caster this time, but the shot goes wide.
- The cleric is unable to cast while silenced. He moves forward swings with his mace. He nearly drops the remaining drow warrior, but doesn’t kill.
- The remaining drow warrior drops the fighter with a slash of his sword.
- The drow archer manages to grapple the rogue.
- The drow caster chuckles and slams a burst of darkness at the cleric.
Combat is lost. Other than the occasional bad roll, why did things go south so fast?
The party lost focus. This encounter was set up as a level or two above the party, it was a challenge; but not an automatic loss. Even though your character isn’t surprised, it’s very easy to get caught off guard as a player. I set up all of my encounters with my players’ success in mind. As long as they stay focused and work together; they’ll survive. It’s the heat of combat that changes everything. You end up wanting to do certain things. You get thrown off when a shot nearly brings you down in one hit. It gets tough, fast, especially at higher levels.
Let’s focus on focus.
Focus Fire: In our example we have; 2 drow warriors, 2 drow archers, and 1 drow caster. They outnumber the party, and have better position. The DM as also made sure they act first due to a previous encounter. In round 1, we see the players get hit and scattered about. The party then goes about flailing wildly at the enemy. Two archers flank and draw the high damage dealers away. Two warriors keep the fighters attention, and the enemy caster effectively shuts down the party’s cleric. This is a brutal encounter. The party isn’t surprised, but they fell victim to a harsh trap.
When fighting one enemy, you only have one pool of hit points to worry, about other than your own (or allies if you’re a combat healer). When that hit point pool turns into two or more pools, you as a party, need to make it clear how you’re going to handle combat. You get free action speech in most combat, but announcing your plan is normally a bad thing. So find a way to signal in character.
You have to look at the amount of damage that can go out in one turn. If four players focus on four different targets, those four targets deal damage each round they are up. For example; It takes two hits to kill any one enemy. Our party of four fights four enemies. They each focus on a different enemy. Each person is now going to get hit at least once, because they must hit the enemy two times to kill them. Instead, let’s see what happens when they focus on one at a time. One player moves in and hits one enemy. Another player does the same, killing that enemy. The next player moves along and hits the next enemy, and the following player kills that enemy. That leaves only two hits the party can possibly take. It’s almost like healing. Except better, it’s healing without getting hit!
There are more detailed reasons for targeting different types of enemies. My rule of thumb, deal with what is hurting you most; right here and right now. In the drow fight, we know that the archers are kind of just suppressing the party with a little damage. The warriors are effectively stopping the fighter in his tracks. The caster is doing terrible things to the party and focusing on the cleric.
We need to get to that drow caster, but there is something hurting us right here and now. Those warriors. Let’s apply a couple of fixes.
- The fighter should focus on one target at a time, unless he can cleave. Even then, the rules make sure it’s one at a time! He should be able to one-shot someone lower than him, but that is not always the case.
- Rogues do it from behind. He should flank one of those warriors, not hunt down the archer. The archers have shown that they aren’t high enough damage right now. With a flank, he helps the fighter, and can pretty much get a one hit kill. (Free healing!)
- The ranger has two good options. There is no right or wrong answer here. Drow caster, or attempt to finish off any remaining drow warriors. I prefer the caster in this option, just in hopes that it forces a concentration check. (Ready the shot, when the enemy caster attempts to cast; trigger my shot.) If you’re a caster that isn’t a healer, you can follow the same advice here.
- The cleric has two good options as well. No, he shouldn’t choose heal. He should supply buffs to the party, or finish off any enemy left standing in combat. If neither of those look like good options, he then should look at suppressing the enemy caster. Healing in combat should be a last-ditch effort to save the party. Remember, downing an enemy is far better than spending spells on healing in combat.
With this setup, the players almost immediately down the warriors and can simply ignore the archers, and rush at the enemy caster. This seems so simple to do, and it is on paper. The problem is, how to do it in combat. My best friend is sticky notes. I keep track of things that are going on. Back in my newbie days, I often had a reminder page with my character sheet. It said simple things like, “Remember to hit the same dude as everyone else. Remember this effect. Don’t forget to cast this spell whenever.”
This doesn’t make you a power gamer, this makes you a reliable party member, and it makes sure you cannot blame yourself in a failed fight. Often times it comes down to “if I just did this better”. Not anymore!
I hope this helps! As always, dangerous toys are fun, but you could get hurt. ~Vexar