Sharpen player combat tactics with a session debriefing

Combat is one of the most common – and most exciting – aspects of the Dungeons & Dragons game. Although the fourth edition (4e) D&D combat system represents melee abstractly, a surprising number of real-world military principles can be effectively employed before, during and after a D&D combat encounter. A handful of these principles, such as force multiplication and the five paragraph order, have already been discussed in other posts at the RPG Athenaeum. This posting will discuss how the principle of event-oriented debriefing (EOD) can be applied by a group of D&D players to improve their party’s combat tactics and effectiveness.

According to the U.S. Army pamphlet, Event-Oriented Debriefing Following Military Operations: What Every Leader Should Know (USAMRU-E PAM 95-2), EOD is defined as “a factual review of events, and individual and unit reactions to those events.” It further states that reviewing events through an event-focused, historical lens accomplishes numerous goals related to refining tactics and helping troops psychologically adjust to traumatic events during a recent operation.

Fortunately, D&D games don’t inflict emotional trauma as actual combat operations do, and some of the goals listed in the pamphlet mercifully don’t apply to D&D players. Goals of EOD named in the document that could apply to reviewing a D&D combat include:

  • Identify lessons learned for future operations,
  • Resolve misunderstandings of events
  • Provide a context to emphasize positive accomplishments
  • Enhance unit cohesion

The pamphlet also explains what EOD is not, specifically stating that it isn’t designed for placing blame, criticizing performance, or to focus on negative emotions.

The EOD process is best applied to squad-sized groups or smaller, so a modified version of EOD is suitable for use by a typical D&D group.

The Event-Oriented Debriefing Process Outlined

The debriefing is normally held shortly after operations have concluded, while troops still have clear memories about events, and proceeds through the following steps (steps related to emotional stress have been omitted):

Purpose: to review events and identify useful lessons.

Construct a timeline: build a sequence of events from troop descriptions, beginning with pre-deployment and ending with mission completion.

Summary: review what was discussed, identifying the most important points covered.

Follow-up: make any necessary changes to tactics or procedures to make future missions more successful.

Obviously, a post-D&D EOD will be much less involved than a military EOD, but going through some semblance of the EOD process after a session can enhance the group’s future performance by identifying tactics that worked particularly well, those that failed to work, and others that may have succeeded and could be tried during the next fight.

An example of a combat encounter that could have benefited from a debriefing took place during one of this writer’s 4e games. The party , composed of six third-level heroes, entered a subterranean chamber with two exits, each sheltered in an alcove. The heroes stood in one alcove, while the other alcove was some 60 feet across the room. Between the party and the other alcove were about 10 skeletal figures milling about four columns supporting the room’s ceiling.

Before entering, the party surmised that no enemy artillery monsters were present, and decided to place its defenders shoulder-to-shoulder across the front of the alcove. Selecting these field positions would allow the defenders to await the oncoming skeletons while sheltering their controllers and strikers. 

When initiative was rolled, though, it was apparent that the party generally would act after the monsters, except the party’s ranger, who would be first to act. The ranger, seeing an opportunity to position himself for a clear shot around the columns at a rather prominent-looking figure at the rear of the room, broke through the defender ranks, moved into a corner, and shot at two nearby skeletal figures the player believed were “one-shot minions.”

They weren’t one-shot minions.

The ranger quickly found himself nearly surrounded and bloodied when most of the skeletons moved in, and the party defenders had to break their line to rescue him. This maneuver, however, left only one defender to protect the party’s three strikers, and the remaining monsters poured through the opening, while an artillery monster the heroes failed to identify earlier rained damage on the lone defender.

The party survived, but was perilously low on hit points, powers, and healing surges, and needed to withdraw.

If, after the session – perhaps while the dungeon master was computing experience points – the players constructed a timeline for the battle and talked about how events turned, some of the following application lessons may have emerged:

  • Without blaming the player of the ranger, the group might decide that following an agreed-upon plan of attack is crucial. 
  • Further discussion may speculate about what could have happened if the ranger player’s hunch had been correct and the skeletons really were “one-shot minions.” In such a case, dispatching the minions and successfully striking the dominant figure in the back of the room could have been critically important. When is it acceptable for a hero to deviate from the plan to capitalize on a sudden opportunity?  Knowing the answer to that question will be helpful to the entire group during future combats.
  • Although the ranger’s actions didn’t work well during that combat, the ranger’s tactic of moving forward and attacking the monsters from the side may have a useful future application, and might be recorded among the party’s list of tactical options.
  • Events from the combat may also suggest a need for the party to develop a tactic for a defender to rescue an isolated comrade without endangering the rest of the party.

Admittedly, applying EOD to a D&D session isn’t for all gaming groups, and even groups that use it may not do so at the end of every session. But groups that practice EOD will find themselves developing increasingly sophisticated combat tactics, to the enjoyment of all parties concerned.

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5 comments on “Sharpen player combat tactics with a session debriefing

  1. Dominic Ford says:

    I think the biggest issue you would run into here is that of emotional distance, or the lack thereof. I know several of my players wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure of an EOD, even if they all carefully avoided placing blame, which is fairly unlikely….

    • Alric says:

      Welcome, Dominic, and thank you for visiting my blog.

      I agree – not everybody can be totally objective, especially if one player’s blunder leads to a total party kill. For combats that aren’t so pivotal or emotional, however, I believe that the practice has its uses.

      One reason for this posting was that some of my players actually did “blame the ranger” for the outcome of that combat, and I was trying to figure out a more constructive way to handle players blaming each other. Have you had any experience with that, and if so, how did you deal with it? I’m unsure what to try next.

      • Raolin says:

        This happens. IS what the ranger did normal to his character. Is he brash and tends to jump in to dangerous situations without regard for the welfare of the group?

        Sometimes you have to play the character. If the Ranger had a Favored foe and thought he could dispatch these quickly. The same could be said for a character playing a dwarf who has an extreme hatred for goblins. Easily going into a battle frenzy at the mere sight of a goblin.

        Since the party did survive this could be a turning point in the rangers character. Realizing that his brash actions nearly cost his life and if it were not for the rest of the party he would surly be dead. That’s a realization that anyone would take to hart.

        If one person is responsible for a total party wipe and the actions leading up to it were blatant then a little blame should be allowed but then you as the DM needs to step in and curtail it. How depends on the situation. There is no general rule in how to deflect blame. Also every one should have thick skin and be able to take a little ribbing after causing a wipe. Unless you have Leroy Jenkins in your group…Then your just screwed. You may have to use comedy to lighten the mood.

        IE stumbling into a dilapidated barn during a fierce storm only to run into a pair of goblin lovers so strongly engaged that they don’t even notice the party. Or the barn could be occupied by a mad Hermit. As the party hurries into the barn they notice a horrible stench and realize that nearly every surface is covered by poo. As this realization hits home a nearly naked, skinny old man comes stumbles out of the dark. He starts screaming at them to get out of his house and starts scooping up and throwing the main decorating theme at the party.

        Adding in unusual Situations and comedy can distract from the previous mishaps. Now instead of talking about who’s fault it was they will be talking about the crazy old hermit or pair of goblins. Or the starving goat that keeps following the party and trys to eat anything left unattended.

  2. Ameron says:

    A very interesting idea. It seems so obvious I can’t believe that I’m not already do this. With regards to the example in the article, I think the bigger problem is the lack of communication. I know this is a BIG problem with my game. Every PC comes up with a plan of action in a vacuum and then when the put it into action someone inevitably groans because it’s screwed up their idea. If we just talked to each other, in-character of course, things would probably go a lot smoother. And in the case of the Ranger above, if he told his comrades how he intended to deviate from the plan they might have cautioned him against it (or given him a green light).

    • Alric says:

      Very true. And in defense of the ranger, it is rare for that party to come up with a specific plan of action, so it isn’t like he’s the only one that does his own thing. At different times, all of the players do.

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