Combat encounters hold extraordinary potential for generating excitement in a Dungeons and Dragons game. Unfortunately, many in-game combats degenerate into dice-rolling exercises, with little or no tactical planning on either side. Ultimately, one side or the other wins a war of hit point attrition, after which a victorious party proceeds to the next encounter or fallen heroes are replaced with new characters.
Practical application of accepted axioms of war can greatly enhance the structure and mastering of combat encounters. When these maxims are applied to encounter design, the Dungeon Master (DM) can expect two results: unique combat challenges for the player characters, and encouragement for the players to begin thinking in tactical terms.
The military axioms to be outlined in this three-part series are drawn from military historian Bevin Alexander’s Rules of War. While not every game monster will be familiar with all of the tactics described below, those who are intelligent or have intelligent leadership will certainly employ them if the need arises.
Strike at Enemy Weaknesses
Attacking lightly-guarded or unguarded targets is a tactic as old as warfare itself. While this tactic has been successfully used by regular forces throughout history, it has been most dramatically employed by irregular forces against regular forces.
A fine historical example of this axiom can be seen in the deployment of troops during the Vietnam War. Realizing that the characteristically heavy firepower of the American armed forces would quickly overwhelm communist forces in a face-to-face confrontation, the North Vietnamese rarely entered into pitched battles with U.S. troops. Instead, they would attack with overwhelming force at a weakly protected target, such as a supply depot, a column of troops on the march, or an isolated airstrip. Even though nearly half of American troop strength in Vietnam was devoted to protecting bases and lines of supply and communications, it was nearly impossible to guard everything. The North Vietnamese forces would identify a comparably ‘soft’ target, destroy it, and melt back into the jungle before American reinforcements could arrive. Eventually, the growing American death toll tipped the balance of public opinion against the war, and the communists’ strategic aim of evicting American forces was realized.
A DM can apply this maxim in two areas: striking at specific party members or arranging an attack at a time, location or terrain that exposes a party weakness.
Consider an adventuring party that has entered into the territory of a band of kobolds. The humanoids know that engaging the front line heroes in toe-to-toe melee will likely result in defeat, so they may instead use missile weapons against unarmored party members, or focus the brunt of attacks against a specific hero. For example, after the kobolds see a PC cleric heal wounds during a combat, eliminating that cleric (and the regenerative capacity the cleric provides to the enemy) quickly becomes a combat priority.
Another facet of this maxim involves attacking at a time or location that magnifies a party’s weakness. Instead of ambushing the heroes on sight, that same band of kobolds may decide to quietly follow the party and attack three hours after the party has made camp and settled into their bedrolls. Without armor, those mighty heroes don’t last nearly as long.
Alternately, the kobolds could set an ambush for the party in terrain that exposes a party weakness. What if the party needed to pass through a rocky area, where the kobolds could attack with missiles from behind boulders that provide 50 or 75 percent cover? The heroes would be hard-pressed to successfully return fire while closing the gap to engage the kobolds with their heavy weapons. Or what if the kobolds retreated to narrow, winding burrows only wide enough to allow the use of daggers and shortswords? The heroes would have to leave their two-handed swords, battle axes, halberds, longbows and flails outside in order to clear the burrows, greatly evening the playing field; the heroes may even leave a party member to guard these weapons, presenting yet another lightly-guarded target. Heroes deciding against clearing the burrows could suffer repeated hit-and-run attacks.
The next part of this series will be published Monday.