Combat & Tactics for Cheaters

This week we take a closer look at combat and tactics from the roleplaying side of things (as opposed to the technical rule side):

Hi again,

A thought came to mind recently and I thought I would submit this as a question:

When my party is in combat we make strategic choices, tell each other what to do or where to go in order to set ourselves up. Often, my DM will see this as actually character interaction, and therefore the enemies will know what we are trying to set up for and can thwart some situations. In most games I have played, the enemies don’t have this same kind of interaction, and they know how to set up and work together as if telepathically. How do you handle these situations both for the enemy knowing what the players do and for the enemies communicating during combat?

In my most recent game there was some tension over this issue, and it got me thinking about the two games I run and how I run my monsters/enemies. I try to be tactical to challenge my players, so I am wondering where the balance of that is.


As with most gray areas in roleplaying, I often tell the DM to use his or her discretion in the matter.  The only time I’ll assert myself and my own views is if I see hypocrisy in the way the game is being handled, and the situation you’ve described above is one that’s easy to introduce imbalances into.

I like to keep my roleplaying experiences fairly realistic (within the realms of fantasy of course).  If characters aren’t telepathic, they should never be capable of interacting with each other as if they were.  I call this cheating, and people who do it, pribbling, flap-mouthed, ninny muggins. If players are giving each other verbal information that has to do with the game, I assume their characters are actually communicating, and if they are within earshot of enemies, at the very least the enemies should be allowed a Listen check.

That being said, the enemies shouldn’t receive an advantage in battle because I am the omnipotent DM and control all of them.  This is also called cheating, and I call DMs who do it beslubbering, ill-nurtured, dunderheads.  As DMs we should try and approach each individual in the battle as if we were that individual, and choose the decision that would make the most sense to them.  If they’re a race or monster that cares more about the battle than themselves, than they may be willing to sacrifice themselves to give their brethren a strategic advantage, but if they’re attached to life (like most things), they’re going to make decisions entirely based upon their own survival.

If we do have a combat strategy we really like, there’s no harm in using it.  It’s not absurd to assume that a group of enemies, has worked out a battle plan in advance, especially if they’re expecting to fight.  The one thing to keep in mind though, is that battle plans shouldn’t be considerably altered just because you decide they need to be.  If a group has a plan, unless they have 17 contingency plans also worked out, they’re going to have to communicate with each other to change plans on the fly.

The same technique can be used by players as well.  It’s always good for players to have basic strategies worked out for their PCs.  Multiple strategies are best, as you will probably want to handle a single Wizard differently than a group of Goblins.  This allows the PCs to approach a battle more or less effectively without having to communicate.  Of course, your DM will always throw surprises at you, but that’s why roleplaying is fun.  Sure, some people just like to be able to hack their way through anything and win without much effort, but they’re the same people that use cheat codes in video games, and there’s nothing I hate more than cheat codes, except probably Nazis.

Taken from RPG Musings.

So how do we handle the situations when we really need or want to communicate with our fellow PCs?  I say the only realistic and fair way is to actually do it in the game.  It means you need to weigh the cost and benefits of alerting the enemy to your next maneuver.  As an alternative to actually speaking you can come up with non-verbal cues and gestures to use in battle to relay simple orders to the other PCs.

In order to better handle this sort of situation I use a Tactics skill, under Intelligence.  PCs can use it to communicate silent orders to one another, and likewise, enemies can use it to interpret these orders.  The difficulty to communicate with a PC you know very well might be DC 12 or 14 (or no check at all for simple well-known gestures), while having to interpret someone’s code you don’t know could be anywhere from DC 15 to 26, depending on the race, their methods of communication, and the complexity of the order being given.

Another use for this skill is assessing a potential battle before you head into it.  A successful Tactics roll (as determined by the DM) may grant your party any number of bonuses in battle.  Sometimes I’ll give the party a +1 or +2 bonus to their rolls for 2 or 3 rounds, or I might reveal one of the most likely tactics their enemies could use.  It allows for more complex combat roleplaying and strategy, while still keeping things realistic and balanced.

The two things I look for in a good roleplaying session is realism and creativity.  I’ve altered combat a lot in order to make it feel more realistic to me, but without sacrificing the creative fun that players can bring into it.  Tactics is one of those things that I feel has been a huge asset to my campaigns, and one I would definitely recommend giving a try.  I would also recommend that everyone stops cheating.

Death and Carnage,
The Dungeon Master

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This entry was posted in Dungeons & Dragons, Fantasy, General Roleplaying, Player Advice and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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