So, I’ve written “Game over man! Game over!” and “Player Help: Combat Tactics Revisited“. The first article went on to show how players should focus in combat, mostly for beginner players to table top games. The second focused more on overall things you can do to help yourself and fellow players in just about any combat. In this article I want to teach you the more specific and advanced options during combat in most table top role playing systems. This is recommended for players who have learned what they needed from the previous articles, as well as any other advanced players in general. While the same theories apply to all role playing systems, we will focus on using the Pathfinder system for numbers and specific rules.
Table of Contents
(Click to go to the section you need immediately.)
- Opening Turn
- Useful Skills
- Combat Maneuvers
- Building the Advantage
- When You’re Losing
Three drow have been spotted perched above you, crossbows at the ready. Four more hold the gate, your only way out. You hear your game master roll some dice, and says that one of the three drow perched above the gates has spotted the group. He shouts a warning and fires a bolt at the party. Initiative rolls are made. The other Drow are alerted so there is no surprise round.
For the most of this article, we will be using this example to develop our strategy in each category.
Combat has begun. The turn order is announced. You currently have a lot of information in front of you. Just remember, in a game like this, that information isn’t perfect. The opening turn should be focused on a few things. Learning your location, not blowing your resources, crowd control, and readying your actions.
The first thing you should do is figure out where you are in relation to your enemy, what sort of cover do you have? Where can you go? Where can you push them? Players like to unleash in the first few rounds of combat, but when you have limited information, it’s often a terrible idea.
In the above example, we are located somewhere in the depths beneath the world. Drow have taken hold of an old dwarven citadel. Your job is to get by that gate. You are all huddled against a cave wall, at the mouth of a tunnel. The three drow are perched where they have some very good cover, the four guards seem to be equipped with bucklers, blades, and a hand crossbow each. We should know this thanks to our perception checks made when the turn is ours and thanks to past information.
The players huddled against the wall may have half cover, giving themselves some extra protection. The perched drow have more than that, and the guards have none, save for their bucklers. Between the players and the guards is one hundred feet of open cave floor. This means any move you make will be watched, and you’ll be left unprotected. If you turn back, you give up on the mission for now. But, while their numbers are lower, you may be able to push for the gate. We have learned our location.
The worst thing you can do now is unleash everything you have against the smaller number of drow. You don’t know how strong they are just yet, or how many more could be coming. It’s best to try and manage your spells, ammunition, and limited abilities (Daily or Encounter sort of powers). Instead try to think this through, bide your time. It may be best to spend the first round holding your turn until someone can use some crowd control. Do not blow your resources.
What is crowd control? Crowd control comes in the form of traps, spells, and abilities that affect your enemies in debilitating ways, yet do minimal amounts of damage. A mage freezing the ground, a ranger firing flare shots, a bard creating fog over the battlefield, the intimidating fear a warrior’s shout could cause, etc…
Not everyone needs to use an ability here. You just need to gain some advantage. Get ahead and stay ahead. In this case, concealment would be amazing. Hiding yourself among a heavy magical fog, or distracting with flares, etc… Something to blind or disorient the drow would be amazing. It would also let the party push forward without suffering penalties or attacks for it. This closes the gap and lets you set your targets up.
This is where readying your actions comes into play. If you have no good way to set up your opening turn here. You should wait, hold action, or ready action, to either charge forward, or provide covering shots for those running forward. Remember that talking is a free action in most games, and communicating limited plans are perfectly fine.
Mage – “Alright guys, time to fog them. I’ll cast, you guys go ahead.”
Fighter, Thief – “Right, we’ll wait for that and run once the fog comes up.”
Ranger – “I’ll fire covering shots if I see the drow guards run up too!”
Bam, boom, plan set. In theory, you all get to get up in their face and start focusing down the guards, while getting some concealment against those drow perched above.
This pertains to the more heavy rules systems, like Pathfinder, but should still apply to most others. For these examples we will be assuming a Pathfinder role playing system. We’re following the above example of the three ranged drow perched above, and four guards below. We’ll assume the following:
A thick fog rolls over just before the fighter and thief rush forward. Several arrows fire from the mouth of the cave, one hits its mark, but the drow is protected by a thick hide of armor. The drow guards clash blades with the two that rushed in…
Acrobatics – Moving Through Threatened Zones
Currently, the thief and the fighter are taking on a single guard while the other three get a better position. That guard dies in the first round, and the fighter is happy being out-numbered. The thief however is visibly not as sturdy and remains the target of the three surviving guards. He needs to get around their back and flank with his fighter friend.
This is where acrobatics comes in handy in combat! Normally, to move through threatened squares of your enemy, you face their attacks (attack of opportunity). The upside is that you get to move where you need, with a limited amount of movement. The downside, if you fail, you face the attack and stop moving. As a thief you have the skills and talents to really abuse this ability, and should!
Bluff – Feinting the Attack
If repositioning isn’t your thing, you’re stuck, or you just want a better attack in the next round. You can deny dexterity bonuses to your opponent. All you have to do is roll bluff as a standard action. It has the ability to be improved by feats as well. It’s best against intelligent opponents, and humanoids, as those are the ones smart enough to watch your attacks and where they are coming from. This opens up for the perfect chance to strike on the next round. The fighter could use this, but it’s a charisma based ability, and he’d rather do something a bit different…
Special note: You can use bluff to help out and create a diversion for stealth!
Intimidate – Demoralizing
Use a standard action to give your opponent a penalty to attack, damage, saving throws, skill checks, and ability checks. Holy crap. Demoralizing is good. The only resource it uses is a standard action, and the better you do, the longer it lasts. You can keep making it last longer too. It effects someone who can hear and see you clearly. In this thick fog, and hand to hand combat. It’s perfect. You’re right there in their face, and ready to strike them dead next. This also draws the attention of the other guards to you; possibly giving the thief a better chance at survival on that bluff or acrobatics! (Since it affects so many things.) It is just so good to use in the opening turns, where there isn’t a lot to risk, you’re just trying to build the advantage.
Escape Artist – Getting Out of Spells and Snares
Did you know?
Escape artist actually lets you get out of most snaring spells? We all knew it was good for being locked up, tied down, stuck in ropes and nets, or getting through tight spaces. (Sounds like a good night out.) On top of all that good stuff. It lets you break a grapple in place of the CMB check that Pathfinder normally requires.
Escaping from spells is normally a full round action, grapples and pins are a standard action, tight spaces is roughly a minute… It’s a varying rule. It’s an amazing and often underused ability. I only put it here because it’s worth reminding and mentioning. Use it when you think you can!
Stealth – Breaking Stealth and Sniping
You can start combat stealthed, but once you initiate an attack, your stealth is gone. This means whether you succeed or fail, you’re no longer considered stealthed. What most people don’t realize is, if you’ve already successfully used stealth at least ten feet from your target, you can make one ranged attack and immediately use stealth again. The penalty is -20 to stealth, but if you’re firing from a concealed location, like heavy fog… and have cover, like the mouth of a tunnel… Then our friendly ranger has a good chance at firing and remaining stealthy!
Just remember, that even if people are aware of you, you can bluff to try and make another stealth check. If you succeed, you get to make your stealth check with the normal current conditions bonuses or penalties.
In the first round, using the above example, the drow have lost at least one of their own, and the party seems to be doing well…
The thief successfully got behind and flanked one of the guards. His flank attack finished the guard off. The fighter let out a loud shout and struck the ground with his blade, sparks flashed and one of the guards became shaken from the intimidation. The other guard decided to withdraw for a better shot, perhaps to get away. The mage flashed several dancing lights around the drow perched up high, momentarily blinding them and causing their shots to go stray. In the mix of things, the ranger snuck into the shadows.
It looks like the players are ahead.
Normally, positioning yourself is, “get me into the best spot to make this attack”. Though, most times it should be, “I need to be here as fast as possible, let’s see if we can position the fight there”. In the current example, we can see that the players have done a very good job at bringing the fight to their goal location.
The gate opens up and five more drow spill out with hand crossbows and short swords. They pepper the foggy battlefield, shooting into where the fighter and thief are.
Most people know about the five foot move action, a way to get out of melee range without facing attacks of opportunity. There is another ability that everyone has, Withdraw. You can move up to double your speed as a full round action, and the first square you are in is not considered threatened by your enemies. You can move up to your speed if you are restricted to a standard action, but only if restricted to that. Any other new threatening squares provoke as normal… But in this case, withdrawing is the perfect action for the fighter and thief. Back into the fog they can go.
The mage decides to use Cover. Firing his spells but being protected by the mouth of the tunnel. In most systems, you can use different amounts of cover to gain more of a bonus to your armor. Obviously, use cover, become harder to hit. The mage is able to sling spells and not worry that his puny glass body will shatter if an arrow comes to close.
We know what cover basically does… But what does it technically do?
- Reflex saves while using cover get +2 when burst are made on the opposite side of the cover. No bonus to spread effects.
- Cover grants you the ability to make stealth checks in combat, when you normally need concealment.
- Soft cover gives you a +4 to your AC to ranged, but does nothing for reflexes or stealth.
- Creatures larger than 1 square can often give cover against melee attacks. Such a creature can chose any square it is in to determine if an opponent has cover against its melee attack; and when making a melee attack against such a creature, you can pick any square it is in to determine if it has cover against you. A bit confusing, but yes, big creatures can offer cover.
- If a creature has cover but is at least half visible, the bonus is +2 to AC and +1 to reflex, instead of the normal +4/+2
- If you don’t have line of effect or sight to the creature, it has total cover and can’t be attacked.
- Using things like, attacking behind an arrow slit effectively double the normal cover bonuses. So, +8 to AC and +4 to reflex.Phew… That’s a lot of stuff it does.
What about that ranger? If he’s smart, he’s timed his moves. He’s got concealment, and he’s stealthed successfully. The ranger can wait and hold his turn now, essentially waiting for the perfect shot either against the archers, or against an enemy he’ll be able to see. Heck, he may even have switched to his melee weapon and is waiting in the fog to get free attacks of opportunity against the guards giving chase. Hint hint…
This section is more focused on D&D Third Edition, Pathfinder, and any other system that has specific rules for grappling, tripping, disarming and the likes. We aren’t going to use any example listed above. Instead I want to re-iterate and explain when, how, or why you should be using Combat Maneuvers (CMB) in place of certain attacks.
What can you do with CMB?
- Bull Rush – Standard action or part of a charge in the place of melee attack.
- Disarm – In place of a melee attack attempt to remove target’s weapon.
- Grapple – Standard action, attempt to grapple and hinder target’s combat options.
- Overrun – Standard action as part of your move or charge, attempt to move through target’s square and potentially knock them prone.
- Sunder – Attempt to sunder item held or worn by target in place of melee attack.
- Trip – Attempt to trip your opponent in place of a melee attack.
All of these actions provoke an attack of opportunity when you perform them without the feats to improve them. Rather than get into the specific rules of each, I want to explain how I often use them when I have the rare chance to play; and when I see them used to the best of their ability.
Bull rush can hit any enemy in your way as long as you can move that for, each enemy will need a separate CMB check. I’ve used this best when there have been traps, ledges, or difficult terrain behind my target. I rush them, push them into the trap, or over a ledge, against the wall, etc… It forces enemy movement to where you want it, basically. This works on targets up to one size larger than you, for the first levels of the game, pulling this move off just right can be amazing when trying to gain the upper hand in combat.
Disarming your opponent can be more devastating than outright stopping them through damage. You suffer a penalty for disarming an opponent while not being armed, yourself. But, if you are unarmed when you do it, you can automatically pick the item dropped. Countless times I’ve been in combat with some wizard who’s orb I need to retrieve. He’s slinging spells from a rod and holding an orb in the other hand. I get in melee, disarm him with no weapons myself, yoink, mission done. This works even if they are wielding the item with two hands. It stops fights, turns the tide, even allows you to stop the opponent while being able to save him for… interrogation.
Grappling can immediately hinder your target. It’s best to have two free hands. It’s also best if you can use some teamwork and use multiple allies to grapple, yeah, you can do that. When you get to grapple someone you get to do something each round. Move you and your opponent up to half your speed. Damage, inflict up to a light or one-handed weapon. Pin them causing an even more severe version of being grappled, further ruining their options. Tie up if they are pinned, restrained, or knocked out, this is when you can bind them with rope or manacles. I’ve had a friend go monk before that focused on grappling. I called his character Jailboy… Every fight we had ended up with him grappling, pinning, and tying up his opponents with relative ease, it was rather silly. I like to grapple and inflict damage with my weapon constantly. Keeps them stuck and practically automatically deals damage.
Overrunning your opponent can get very fun. Not only do you attempt to move through their square, if they are up to one size bigger than you, you can knock them prone. Basically, if they don’t willingly move out of the way, they have a chance of being knocked down. By now, you should know all the good things that happen when you fight a prone target… If there are no traps, ledges, or places to pin your opponent, this should almost always be used versus bull rush.
Sundering held or worn items. Is your opponents armor to thick? Break it. Is their weapon too good? Smash it. Basically, you attack their item, and deal damage to the item. The damage needs to exceed the hardness to actually have an effect. If it goes down to 1/2 hp, it’s broken, if down to 0 then you can choose to destroy it. This is really best left to the heavy hitters of the group. Got a buddy with a warhammer? Get him in on this. I had a friend play a dwarven fighter, dual warhammers. I was playing an archer at the time… He’d drop their AC and I’d hit in for some crazy damage.
Tripping your opponent, as it sounds, has a chance to knock them prone. It only works up to one size bigger than you. You do risk getting tripped up yourself, but if you need a fast way to get them prone, don’t need or have a way to overrun them, trip them up. Getting your opponent on the ground can help in more ways than one. Which is what you need for the next part of the guide.
The ranger gets the drop on several of the guards in the fog. He uses his attacks of opportunity to end them before they become a threat. The fog rolls out since the mage was distracted providing covering fire. Two ranged drow remain perched and there are now four guards on the bottom, for a total of six enemies. It looks like the party has yet to break a sweat.
It’s time to get further ahead now.
We need to pick our new targets, focus on our goal, and move only towards that goal. To build the advantage we need to remember several things. We don’t want to use our resources unless needed, we want to force the enemy position, and finally ensure that we are getting to our desired goal. In this case, it is still getting through the gate.
The two ranged drow up top pose as more of an annoyance, and no real threat once close enough to the gate. The four on the ground are messing things up right now. The ranger is positioned behind them, the thief and fighter are rather close, and the mage is still in the tunnel. There are many ways to attack and kill the four gaurds below, then run to the gate. But, all of those take our focus and turn it only to the guard; that leaves us vulnerable to other problems. Instead, prioritize your goal, getting to the gate.
With the mage’s crowd control, the fighter and thief can act to corral and push the guards back to the gate while dealing damage. The ranger can distract and pepper fire at the perched drow. The fighter can use his, likely high, CMB to overrun or bull rush the guards; especially if they are lined up some. The thief can move to disarm and trip them, scattering them and leaving them vulnerable, or without the ability to fight back. This is how you get ahead without spending resources.
When you are ahead in a fight, you need to focus on how to get more ahead. Don’t look for the quick win, look for the move or action that will guarantee the eventual win. (I use this similar theory in Magic: The Gathering… It’s an impressive theory to use.) This way, even when the enemy seems to get the upper hand, you have the victory still in sight.
This is more of a review and reminder for everyone. Out of the four or five years I’ve been GMing for my group, I’ve never seen them once use “Casting on the Defensive”. So, new or old players, I implore you to touch up on spellcasting in combat. This should prove extremely useful to anyone with access to spells.
Casting on the Defensive
You can cast a spell without provoking an attack of opportunity. Plain and simple. All you have to do is make a concentration check. In Pathfinder, DC 15 + twice the spell’s level. Failure, is normal, you lose the spell, but you don’t suffer the attack of opportunity, and it doesn’t really matter how many people surround you.
The DC for casting while provoking attacks? If you take damage, your concentration must be DC + damage taken + spell’s level. Failure means lose your spell too. Any enemy surrounding you gets to raise that DC even higher.
A DC 15 (level 0 spell), 17 (level 1 spell), 19 (level 2 spell), 21 (level 3 spell), etc… Versus DC 10+8 (from two hits), 18 total, for a level 0 spell, 19 for level 1, so on and so forth. If you want to cast a spell, and you risk provoking, cast on the defensive unless it’s a free action.
Touch Spells in Combat
There are a lot of spells with the range “touch”. They work by casting the spell then making a touch attack, or touch a willing target. If you touch a target in the same round as casting the spell, you can touch them as a free action. You may move before casting the spell, after touching the target, or between casting and touching. You can automatically touch a friend, or yourself, but you must make an attack roll on an enemy. This is, of course, against their touch AC.
You do not have to discharge the spell during the round you cast it. You can hold it indefinitely. You can continue to make touch attacks round after round, if you miss, the spell doesn’t discharge. However, if you touch anything or anyone while holding a charge, even on accident, the spell discharges to them. If you cast another spell, that spell dissipates. You can touch one friend as a standard action, six as a full round. You can blend this with unarmed attacks (and provoke accordingly) to do melee damage while discharging the spell.
Ranged Touch Spells in Combat
If it’s a ranged touch spell, then you’re making a ranged touch attack as part of casting the spell. It isn’t a separate action, and this provokes attacks even while casting on the defensive. Unless otherwise noted, this cannot be held to a later turn.
Dismiss a Spell
You can dismiss an active spell as a standard action without provoking an attack of opportunity.
I reiterate this because my first D&D character was a sorcerer. I learned spellcasting first, one of the harder things to do in my opinion. Holding touch spells is a huge part of how the game can play out, and I recommend it to be able to free up yourself in future turns. It’s always great to cast the spell first, move into touch range, then release the spell as a free touch attack.
Back to the fight…
The four drow on the ground are now down to two. One, disarmed, managed to run away through the gate, another was killed. The archers above have been taken out by the ranger, and now close combat resumes at the gate. A whirl of fire bursts out from the mage and turns the remaining two guards to husks of armor. A emerald light shimmers beyond the gate, a drow rushes through, holding chains taut, followed by several more drow.
-Thud-Thud-Thud- A hooved black leg slips through the portal, opening it brighter. What can best be described as a dark coal minotaur, only much larger, is dragged through the portal, prodded and poked by drow. Behind you footsteps echo. A dozen drow had spilled out of the tunnel in the meantime.
The drow before you let go of the chains and rush to the portal. A wild swing from the demonic looking beast catches three of them, killing them in one blow. The portal closes a bit early, sending the remaining drow scurrying for cover.
Just when you thought you had the win, the game master throws something huge at you. You’re surrounded and caught in a small space, the gate tunnel. A massive demon thing has it’s eyes set on you all, and behind you is no way out. At least a dozen drow have armed their crossbows and it’s only a moment before they send the bolts flying your way.
Things to note:
- Large black demon in front, looks like some sort of courtyard to the underground keep..
- You are stuck in archway.
- Dozen drow coming through your only way out.
- Goal of getting through gate, kind of done.
- New goal, survive.
Immediately you’re outnumbered and flanked. You need to get out of this spot now. Good thing your resources are saved. But this is basically the opening of new combat, even though it technically isn’t. Treat it the same way. Get into position. One hit killed three drow, probably can take two hits to kill the party. But, you need cover against the crossbows.
Follow along with me, using what I’ve gone over above, to get out of this scenario…
- Opening turn – We’ve learned our location.
- Useful skills – Perception. We’re in an archway, and clues where there for the first part of this fight. We need to get up on the wall. Climb, and acrobatics can go a long way for that. Hopefully you have a climbers kit, you know, since you were already in cave systems and underground.
- Positioning – Well, we just found that out, get up, get cover, at least you won’t face the full brunt of the attack. Your move action should be get to the opposite side of the wall as the drow, then try to scale the wall. Worry about one big enemy versus a bunch of little ones.
All of this should be your opening turn of the ‘new’ combat scenario. Your focus should be getting you and your team in cover. Even the odds. Now what? Once you’re up, it’s good to learn what new things you can see up here. The GM wasn’t nice enough to give you ballistae, you’re stuck on your own. A hail of crossbow bolts hits at the wall once your head pops up to look around. The demon has already gotten close enough to start slamming wildly at the wall. Big, and fast. One slam breaks the gate archway down into rubble. We have learned that he is big, but wild… Good.
We have learned something very crucial. A lot of good game masters like to throw overwhelming things at you, but have some sort of fun twist on a way out. It looks like we have found out this one. Have you?
The hint was there, it hit three drow, killing them, and the others feared him. He has no care for anything here. I say we use our skills now more than ever. Draw his attention with your charisma abilities if you must. Cast dazzling spells to confuse and anger it if you have the time. Then jump from the wall, doing the same thing. A wind wall would be useful against the drow crossbow bolts, if you don’t have a way of deflecting them, use everything you can to get to them fast. Run at them, charge them, overrun them! With a blend of skills, spells, and CMB, you need not even attack to get out of this fight. You can bring their terror to them. These drow will be a lot easier to face inside a tiny tunnel, rather than out in the open with a massive demon.
Ultimately, when you’re behind, you need to put everything you’ve learned to the test. Get creative, rely on the simple things you have first, then work your way to using resources last. When you even the odds, get further ahead. Don’t try to win fast, just try to make sure you’re always winning. Stay focused. When memory fails you consult this guide! Bookmark it if you need!
There is still so much more to go over, and I have more categories I’d like to add… But, for the time being, I hope this is the help you need to pull through against the odds, and to help you be a better player at the table; without relying on metagaming.
If you’re a player or game master in need of help, please send an email to email@example.com, or comment below!