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One Die Short: Combat & Tactics

Written by One Die Short - Published on September 23, 2011

Welcome back.  This time we take a closer look at combat and tactics.  In the below panel from my webcomic, One Die Short, combat unfolds as it does in any good comic or movie: quickly and purposefully.  We all know this isn’t generally how things work when the dice get involved, but there’s another aspect missing from these panels that I find pops up quite a bit around the gaming table: player to player chatter.

As a player it can be difficult to resist openly strategizing with your fellow players – telling the wizard what to cast, telling the rogue where to move or what ability to use.  Everyone wants to win; there’s nothing wrong with that, but from a DM’s perspective, if players are communicating with each about combat strategy, then their PCs would need to be doing this as well.  It makes good sense, and it’s realistic.  Of course, we’re playing a fantasy game, but still, I feel like this adds some imbalance to the game. Granted, the DM knows the players’ strategy and can adjust accordingly, but from a larger point of view this almost defeats the purpose of strategizing at all.  If you can’t come up with a plan that the enemies won’t immediately react to, what’s the point?

The DM could just ignore the PC strategies and play their NPCs fairly, but at the same time, if I’m going to do that, I would ask my players to find a new method to communicate their tactics that also reflects more realism.  Unless PCs are telepathic, developing a combat strategy during combat means words are being used, and therefore the enemy can probably hear you.  There are two techniques to this that I’ve used:

First, you can tell players that anything they say during combat, their PC says as well (exceptions being “pass the Cheetos”, but you get the point).

Second, you can encourage them to develop battle plans and strategies outside of combat to implement during combat without having to communicate.

Both of these things I find helpful, but neither of them are much fun without an additional component.  They take away from combat rather than add to it, so I’ve added a third solution, which I use in conjunction with the two of these.

My solution to this problem (which I’ve heard others talk about, though haven’t found much actual information about) was using a new Tactics Skill (under Intelligence).  A free RPG called Stars Without Number makes use of a similiar skill, and The Sword and The First guide book touches on these ideas as well.  The main difference between the Tactics Skill and things like Combat Prediction in The Sword and The First, is that the Tactics skill represents a character’s overall, in-depth training in combat tactics.  It’s more powerful than the Combat Prediction and Decipher Strategy abilities and has a wider use.  Also, it’s an Intelligence Skill, because Fighters can be smart too.

Tactics has the benefit of not only making combat more realistic for me, but it also adds a new level to the combat.  I use the Skill in a variety of different ways, one of which is to allow PCs and NPCs to communicate commands to one another in the heat of battle.  The idea behind this is that a player with training in Tactics has learned some nonverbal (hand gestures and the like) ways to communicate during battle.  These gestures can be used to communicate with anyone (though they may or may not be successful).  The basic difficulties I use are as follows:

Communicating simple commands to a  well-known ally with Tactics training:      DC 12 – 14 (go left, attack, etc.)
Communicating simple commands to untrained allies:                                                      DC 15 – 18
Communicating complex commands to an ally with training:                                         DC 16 – 20 (flank someone, cast a specific spell, etc.)
Communicating complex commands to an ally without training:                                  DC 19 – 24
Communicating with someone unfamiliar with your gestures and commands:       DC 16 – 24
Communicating with a race that possesses grossly different anatomy:                       DC 18 – 26 (a race that doesn’t have hands, fingers, etc.)

Additionally, two allies with Tactics training that have been adventuring together for a long while and are familiar with each other’s commands will probably not require any roll at all for most commands except the most complex.  This Skill can also be used to interpret an enemies nonverbal commands.  The DC is simply higher than whatever the NPC rolled.

Aside from this use of the Skill, I also allow rolls before and during combat for other things.  Anyone with training in the Tactics Skill has the chance of guessing at the enemies tactics.  A roll of DC 15 and higher (depending on how common the enemy race/combat style is) can grant various bonuses to the character and his allies during battle.  If the Skill is rolled before a battle takes place I will grant the following bonuses depending on how much their roll beats the DC by:

Beats DC by 0 – 2:     +1 attack for 2 rounds
Beats DC by 3 – 5:     +1 attack and parry for 2 rounds
Beast DC by 6 – 8:     +1 attack and parry for 4 rounds
Beast DC by 9 – 11:   +2 attack and parry for 4 rounds

These bonuses apply to both the character and his allies, so long as he has at least 1 full minute to speak with them before the battle begins, otherwise they apply only the character.  If Tactics is used during a battle, the character using the Skill must make an opposed roll against the enemy Leader (only if they are trained).  If the character wins they receive a +1 bonus to their attack for that round only (this does not apply to allies).  They may attempt this roll every third round, but after the first attempt, whether trained or not, the enemy makes an opposed roll with a +3 cumulative bonus each additional time it is used (+3 on the second attempt, +6 on the third, etc.).

Sometimes, in place of offering bonuses I will simply reveal one of the most likely plans of attack the enemy might use.  For example, I may say that some particular soldiers are trained to push enemies into advantageous flanking positions instead of offering bonuses.  If I’m feeling particularly fiendish (or if the PC has a particularly terrible roll), I will occasionally give bonuses or Attacks of Opportunity to the enemies instead.  The rationale being that the PC has had such a terrible tactical mistep that they leave a perfect opening for the enemy.

This isn’t a perfect system, but it works for me and my players.  If you have an interest in adding a new dimension to combat give it a try.  While it could slow down the rounds, something that a lot of people try to avoid, there is the possibility for fun.  There is also a potential to explore other aspects of fighting as well, such as setting up ambushes for enemies, or commanding large numbers of troops.  As always, every group has different needs and desires, which is why I say continually try new things.  You’re bound to find a few that successfully add to your game.

Thanks for reading, and please be sure to check out the rest of One Die Short, as well as my personal advice blog, Ask the Dungeon Master, all about Life, the Universe, and Roleplaying.

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Written by One Die Short

I’m a long-time Dungeon Master and roleplayer and will bring my dice to the grave with me. I write a webcomic entitled One Die Short. It’s a story of love, life, nerds and roleplaying. Both the adventures and “real-life” segements are based on my own roleplaying experiences as a DM of over fifteen years.

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9 Responses to “One Die Short: Combat & Tactics”
  1. Graham Charlton says:

    I’ve always considered the player-to-player chat about tactics during a fight to be a replacement for the character-to-character chat that professional adventurers would no doubt have about strategy and tactics between adventures. They would be better at this sort of on-the-fly stuff than the players would be.

    I do however have a “no talking to the others whilst it’s your turn to act” rule, but that’s just to speed things along.

  2. Matt says:

    Yes indeed, this is no doubt the assumption many of us make. I just like to nitpick things and come up with new rules to add some variety to things. Sometimes rules get tossed out, sometimes they get modified, and sometimes they work well. I think the main thing for me was that any PC to PC chatter could be overheard by the enemy, especially when you’re talking about a relatively small battle in an enclosed area. This means that as the DM I have a good excuse to adjust my own strategy to try and foil them. Which is also fine, nothing wrong with it. I was just looking for some more complexity, and complexity isn’t always the best idea during combat, but it works for us.

  3. Darren says:

    “Sometimes, in place of offering bonuses I will simply reveal one of the most likely plans of attack the enemy might use.”

    I think that that’s better than giving a bonus, personally. It’s like in my system, where the “Perception” attribute can let the characters notice details, small things that are important.
    In a similar way, if I used a form of Tactics skill, I would use it more to slip hints to players than add generic “boring” bonuses.

  4. Matt says:

    Darren, I would have to agree with you that hints are more interesting than bonuses. I actually use hints much more than bonuses in my own games, but I’ve found (and maybe I’m wrong) that the majority of players and DMs like concrete numbers and bonuses, so I wrote the post slanted more toward that. But I’m a much “softer” roleplayer. I ignore rules quite often, and I will nearly always go for more of “story” driven bonus over a concrete number based one. Thanks for the comment!

  5. Darren says:

    Aye, some players do indeed like number-crunching.

    Which is why I annoy them by, say for Flanking bonuses, never giving a concrete bonus, but only based on what they do.
    I mean, +2 bonus because you flank is fine and dandy (for some) but I hate fixing numbers to be crunched. Improvisation for the winz!

  6. Matt says:

    I talk about Improv frequently in my personal DM advice blog (the link is above). You might want to check it out. Thanks again!

  7. Great idea. I’ll try it in our next D&D session.

  8. Matt says:

    Well, I certainly hope it goes well Tobias!


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