Player Help: Combat Tactics Revisited

A while back I wrote a post “Game over man! Game over!” it went over some basic combat tactics that players should try to utilize whenever they can. Not to become the best character possible, but to help be a better player for your group; and to prevent untimely demise. In the nine months since that post I’ve finished one campaign and started a new one. I’ve learned a lot from my players and from testing out different table top games as well. Hopefully this new information will help you be a better player for your team, and help you help your team help you… Yep. Perfect.


In the “Game over…” post I went over something I thought was rather basic. I call it focus firing. Whoever acts in the first player initiative sets the target for the rest of the group. The group kills that target before moving on to the next. Why do we do this? If you have four players and four enemies, and each of the four players is engaged with their own enemy… Then each player is occupied and perhaps getting hit each round. Let’s say it takes four hits to kill one enemy. This means, over the course of four rounds, you have the chance of hitting the enemies four times, and they can hit you four times. This opens up for more attacks as you try to mitigate your damage and heal, or reposition. It drags the fight out and leads to more resources being used to stay alive.

Now, if each of you focus on the same target, in one round that enemy can get four times; likely incapacitating it in the first round. Now only three enemies remain, for three attacks. They may spread them out, or focus them on one player… This means you now only have to help one player if needed, or it’s minor damage. In round two, you can incapacitate the next enemy, leaving only two left.

That means you use less resources for every fight, every round. I call this the ultimate healing, you heal yourselves by not taking extra damage. You retain resources, and use up less time. This is just a basic combat tactic I feel like every player should know and use when possible. It is not always the best possible plan; and when that’s the case, it should be obvious. Examples; being vastly outnumbered, all enemies out of reach, enemies that require re-positioning, etc…

Use Your Skill Checks

This has caused my players countless deaths. The assumption of information without skill checks. Tabletop games are not games with perfect information (Chess, checkers, etc… are perfect information games.) But, it’s hard to remember that sometimes. When your game master says “Three goblins leap from behind the low stone walls and let loose crossbow bolts at you.” You know combat has begun and you begin planning your course of attack.

Too often do people make their initiative check, get their turn ready, and proceed to fight the three goblins. Then they die when the other ten raise their heads from behind the wall and unleash a hail of bolts to the party.

It is up to the game master to describe what you see in the heat of the moment. The sudden ambush of pesky goblins and their means of cover, should they want to use it. If maps are used, then you have a good idea of the terrain as well. Perception checks to notice something, spot checks, whatever you want to call them… Are free actions in most games. You’re not searching the battlefield carefully, you are scanning your surroundings and glancing for any cover or anything out of place.

A perception check of 15 may have been enough to spot a goblin head poking up just a tad too high, after all you’re rolling against their own checks in most cases. This lets you inform your party that there could be more trouble ahead. If you’re first in initiative, don’t dive right into attack. What if you’re terrible at noticing things? Instead, ready an action to defend yourself. This is an ambush, there could be more, use your free action to tell your party to be careful. Put the idea out there that something could be up. This isn’t metagaming, once again… This is using your characters senses wisely. You don’t know that there are more goblins, heck, there could be nothing there; you may roll too low… But at least you’re making the attempt to avoid a potentially deadly mistake of charging in.

Prepare Your Turn

In most cases, there are three to four players in an adventuring party, sometimes even more. Combat can be one of the most detailed and long portions of a game. I try to make it short and sweet, lasting no more than a few rounds when I can. But, sometimes it does drag on. You should pay attention to what your group’s goal is and plot your turn ahead of time. This will catch on and soon enough turns will spill out rather fast. If you’re third in initiative order, look at who the first person is targeting. Plan your attack ahead of time, or begin looking through your list of spells. When it gets to your turn, your move action should be ready and plotted, you should be able to tell the game master what spell or sort of attack your using.

When in doubt, and you simply cannot plan, fall back on this basic guideline for help. Focus on the same target if possible. If it is looking grim, skill check to see if there is a way out. Gain the advantage.

When I say gain the advantage, what I mean is, put your character into a favorable position. Use a sleight of hand or CMB check to disarm, trip, grapple, or push your target over. This may not do any damage, but it prevents damage, and buys time. If you manage to knock them prone, or disarm them, you and your party gain the advantage on them. Sometimes the best damage done comes in the form of simply disabling the enemy’s next action. This puts the GM in a spot where he must plan something else for that enemy, buying you some precious time to plot your following turn.

Seriously, making checks like this are some of the best kept secrets in tabletop games.

Leave an Opening

Always leave a way out. I ran a Paladin who had the skill to craft traps, and would bring simple items along like wire, pitons, and caltrops. As we would clear through dangerous locations, he would take a few minutes to lay traps here and there. Sure, they weren’t anything special or particularly debilitating. But, when the party had to get out, they could rely on these traps to slow their pursuers down.

When you enter into combat, and you are left with limited area to move or escape, make sure you defend that important area. Do not rush the enemy down unless you are forced to. Instead, defend yourselves and make them come to you. If this isn’t possible, force them into a bad position in the fight. Between gaining the advantage like the above states, and positioning your party members, they should never be able to block off your one way out.

Yes the GM can do what they want, but when they don’t realize that you’ve been protecting that spot, when the going gets tough, you can get out, and surprise your GM! I reward creative thinking, and tactical stuff like this, especially when the entire team works together and is able to do this without alerting me to what they’re doing. It just feels like role playing in combat. Which is just too awesome.


Look forward to my next player help article, I want to get into the dirt of advanced combat tactics for tabletop role playing games!



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