This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Thirty-seven on 7th October 2020.
Lennon: We can’t put arrowslits in every wall.
Ryu: Sure we can, they’re really easy to make. You just need a vorpal sword, really.
Lennon: No, I mean, we can physically do it but then the walls fall down and instead of a guild house we have an embankment. And an angry research beholder looking for books.
Ryu (with increasing frustration): Fine, why don’t we just go open plan then? Ostron can keep it above 70-
Lennon: You mean 20?
Ryu: Ostron can keep it comfortable with his weather spells, so we can just open the place up with some columns and arches.
Lennon: Has anyone ever explained to you what a chokepoint is?
Ryu: I’m getting really close to one now, I think.
Ostron: Hey you two…am I interrupting something?
Ryu: Yes. Lennon wants us all to die if the guild house catches fire because having more than one door is silly.
Lennon: Controlling the flow of attackers is a big deal!
Ostron: All right, all right, time out. Back up. What topic are you even arguing about?
Lennon: Combat tactics.
Ostron: Oh…I thought the plan was to just tell Libby they stole its books and it would lead a charge of beholders at them?
Lennon: See this is what I’m talking about. All right everyone, time for tactics 101. Here are some cheat sheets.
A number of people who play D&D tend to think about combat in very simplistic terms. Usually it boils down to there being “front line” characters and “back line” characters, with an awareness of which character you’re playing. The front line characters rush forward and hit things, and the back line characters shoot arrows, bolts, ice, or flumphs (that’d be the wild magic sorcerer).
However, despite not being designed to focus on tactical combat like 4th edition arguably did, there is still merit in employing tactics in combat, beyond just figuring out whether a character should be in the front or back line. There are a lot of stories where D&D players have said they’d rather fight a dragon than a group of bandits on the road because the dragon fight is actually easier, and a lot of that comes down to tactics. I mean it also comes down to action economy and the problems with CR and-
Right, sorry. In fights where you outnumber the enemy tactics are less of an issue because action economy gives you an inherent advantage. But when there are more of them than there are of you, you have to start employing tactics or it’ll be a rough fight.
Fourth edition divided creatures and classes into many more categories than just “front line” and “back line” fighters, and their designations are helpful to review for making your approach to combat more nuanced. The categories were Controllers, Defenders, Leaders, and Strikers.
Defenders are easy; these are the characters that take a lot of hits and keep their friends from taking them. The archetype for a Defender in 5th edition would probably be a Paladin. Strikers are similarly easy; they do damage to the enemy above anything else. Rogues are the go-to example in this case. In 4th edition that was a bit of a see-saw; the more damage you did, the less you were able to take a hit and vice versa.
The other two roles are more amorphous. Controllers generally mess up the enemy’s day in ways that aren’t necessarily tied to damage. They inflict statuses and block off routes of attack and so on. Arguably Warlocks are the easiest example of this in 5th edition; most of their attacks are doing other things besides damage. Leaders do the opposite for their own side; giving bonuses to their allies, healing, and letting people reposition themselves. Battlemaster fighters are the OG leaders in 5th edition.
Now because 5th edition didn’t focus on these roles when designing classes, most classes can do several of them. Bards can easily take on the roles of both leader and controller, and Monks can lean toward Striker or Defender. Wizards, because of their access to most of the spells in the game, are really capable of taking on any of the roles, as are Clerics.
The reason we bring this up is because each role has a particular task in combat they should be focusing on. When combat starts, the group should decide what roles each character will fill, especially those that have the option of doing several. Those decisions should be made based on the enemies. If you’ve got a bunch of beasts running at you, anyone with ranged attacks should probably focus on being strikers, and then a defender and a controller should work to funnel the beasts away from the strikers. If you’re fighting a large monster, you’re going to want a leader bolstering everyone’s attacks and defense while a controller tries to reduce the monster’s and keep it from getting away. If you just have everyone try to do as much damage as you can it’ll probably work, but it’s likely a few characters are going to drop to 0hp before the end of the fight.
The other thing to keep in mind is the roles aren’t permanent, even within the same fight. If you’re running a sorcerer and you just spent the last two turns dissolving a target with acid and you see another enemy making a beeline for your ranger, it might be more helpful to hit them with a ray of frost to slow them down so the ranger can both shoot and get away from the target while your fighter catches up to it, instead of trying to do enough damage to kill the enemy.
This is where it can be helpful to have an actual leader at the table or someone that everyone agrees is making the final call on tactical decisions. That can be especially helpful if there are newer players in the group who may need or want direction on how they can be most helpful in combat. But before everyone raises their hand to grab the scepter, remember that if you’re leading, you’re somewhat taking on the role of the DM; you have to be aware of what everyone wants to do and how they want to play. If the cleric wants to get into combat and you always make them sit in the back healing, even when nobody’s taking worrying amounts of damage, that’s going to cause friction and problems for the DM eventually. It’s okay to ask someone to switch what they’re doing if the group needs it, but pigeon-holing characters isn’t helpful for playing or tactically. Do you know how dangerous a cleric with Spirit Guardians is in the middle of a group of enemies?
Beyond how to use your characters, there are some movement and terrain factors to consider in combat. Cover is a huge one that a lot of people forget about. If your character positions themselves so at least half their body is covered by solid matter from their attacker, they get a free +2 to their AC. If they can manage to cover more than three quarters of their body, like someone peeking around a corner? That’s a whopping +5 to your AC. Suddenly your wizard in pretty cloth robes has a 16 armor class without losing a spell slot. Who doesn’t want that?
Difficult terrain is another big deal a lot of people don’t consider. Several spells in the game can create difficult terrain, and a lot of battlefields will have it naturally, whether it’s an oily surface, a bunch of brambles, or even a pile of bodies. Most of the time the melee damagers will just complain about it, but if the melee fighters can hold position and make the enemies cross it to get to them, that’s more time for your ranged attackers to hit them without the up close people taking a beating.
A slightly more complex concept is that of flanking. Basically it just means running around the front line fighters and getting at them from multiple angles. Now unless you’re using variant rules literally moving to multiple sides of an enemy doesn’t get you any bonuses by default, but there’s still some value in trying to set it up. For one, it keeps the creature you’re fighting from moving around without taking a number of opportunity attacks. For another, depending on the terrain, it may literally stop them from moving.
On a larger scale, sending a character around the melee fighters to attack from another direction can have several benefits. For one, they might get a chance to attack the enemy’s less defensive ranged attackers, eliminating them as a source of damage. Or, it may split the enemy’s attention and some of the group charging forward toward the whole party might stop and reverse course, lessening the load on the main party. You’ll want to be careful with this tactic though because the person flanking will likely attract some damage, so you’ll either want someone who can outrun enemies, like a Monk or a mounted character, or someone who can take hits for a while if they need to, like a druid who can wildshape into something more durable.
But why bother with any of this if you’re already winning most of your fights? Well apart from getting players with latent wargaming tendencies more involved, it can actually improve the game at a meta-level. See most DMs aren’t trying to kill their players. If the players are being very straightforward with their combat tactics, the DM usually has to do that as well; if they start employing better tactics the players are going to die pretty quickly. But if the players are thinking and operating tactically, that gives the DM the freedom to do it as well, and that can make for a lot more interesting fights, both mechanically and from a roleplaying perspective.
Think about Lord of the Rings. The fight the Fellowship had with the goblins in Moria was straightforward and, tactically, not that interesting. Everybody just hit, stabbed, or shot whatever was in front of them, and the only real story to come out of it was the reveal of Frodo having the mithril shirt. But engagements like the battle of Helm’s Deep or the Pellenor fields were their own stories as the forces started employing different types of attacks or relocated their forces to counter and respond to different tactics and the evolution of the battles.
Hopefully injecting some tactics into your combat can both help you fight better, and give you more stories to tell.
Ryu: Okay yes, but this is my point, you’re trying to say I just have to stand around waiting for people to come through the door before I stab them. Why not stab them from a distance before they get through the door?
Lennon: Because I don’t do throwy-stabby things and some of the enemies do. I don’t like it when the enemies get to the door and I’m already covered in blood. Which is mine.
Ostron: Oh I could do that leader role thing and cast Prestidigitation. That would get rid of the blood!
Lennon: Yes, that’s exactly what you should have taken away from that discussion. Fine, this is clearly not going to be solved now, let’s head over to the Scrying Pool and see if there are any easier issues to tackle there.