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RPG War Mastery #1: Conducting Better Battles

So let’s talk NPC Combat strategy.Battle and strategy as chess

Whether small groups or full-on military units Non-Player Characters (NPCs) can benefit from better strategy. This so that they can present better challenges for players. Especially if Player Characters (PCs) tend to just barrel through their enemies with little trouble even when the challenges are supposedly on par. Typically, it seems Game Masters (GMs) just rely on assembling a bad-guy team based on individual role (not a bad strategy), plain raw power, and on the dice to prevent a PC massacre. In addition to this old mixed-results standby, there are four strategies for putting together a better battle. However, to conduct a better battle the Game-Master must first construct its framework.

First, You the GM must have a specific goal that will be met by the use of strategizing NPCs. Second, decide which of the 4 combat strategies to use and in which combo. Third, have an idea of or be able to improvise a twist before it’s over. You need to know which goals a battle will fulfill. The basic strategies that the NPCs will use to conduct the battle, and what twist (if any) that will occur in the course of the battle.

The Four Combat Strategies are Confrontation, Ambush, Herding, and Gauntleting. All four of these are simple and time-tested strategies. Strategy referring to a series of planned actions when carried out to the final action is assumed to achieve a specific result. In other words, strategy is plotting out a path to victory in reference to the field of battle. This brings us to what exactly the word battle is referring to in this article.

Battle refers not necessarily to a large war or even a combat between two large forces. It can be a simple struggle between two groups of characters with opposing goals. Both sides are using strategy to tilt the scales in their favor. This can occur on the field of battle, contest, or through manipulative means. However, this article is sticking to the simple idea of a physical confrontation where the deposition/elimination of the other will lead to the desired results.

At the end of a battle, there should be one last unexpected thing, a call to reinforcements initially held back etc., it does not necessarily have to be clever or even turn the tables. It can be as simple as a sniper trying to take out a valued NPC, commander, or PC in vengeance. It can even be a strategy that has already been implemented but not obvious or was hidden until the very end, revealed when it can be the most devastating. This is the twist. A twist in this context is simply another hurdle or one last blow dealt below the belt to engender drama.

GM Battle Goals

To conduct a better battle you have to decide what purpose the battle or confrontation serves in the game. Is it an action set piece, a challenge that breeds immersion, or a fight meant to force the players from their comfort zones? There must be a purpose. A desired outcome for implementing the battle in the first place so that you can best prepare.

A battle as an action set piece, which is just an action sequence, perhaps an action sequence bigger than those that had come before, could be the climax to a story arc or something that has been building up long before the battle.  During gameplay the set piece can be built up through preparation (think preparation montage of an 80’s action flick) or a series of confrontations otherwise creating anticipation.

An example is an NPC villain that has gotten the best of the PCs on multiple situations that they now view as a rival and are chomping at the bit to get a piece of. However, when the battle rolls around they find out he’s an enemy commander, mercenary, or champion. They then realize that their chance will be on the battlefield. The action set piece serving to satisfy player anticipation especially at its climax.

Besides the action set piece, the GM can have other goals such as an important challenge for the PCs, to dislodge the Players from a current rut, but most of all they should have the goal of NOT killing off their players. As a challenge, a battle can bring a real threat to the PCs forcing strategizing and thus immersion for players. This is especially true if they are facing an enemy for which the typical direct confrontation strategy will not work. The players may have previously learned this lesson the hard way.

Challenging combat can also dislodge players from their comfort zones and breaking them from inactivity. This is especially necessary when such inactivity that diverts their energies from the campaign goal and that which has little to no character benefit. The emergence of an enemy that requires extra care and planning can motivate players and thus their characters to head towards a specific goal. However, the enemy should not be so overwhelming as to prematurely end the PCs careers unless they take an obviously stupid course of action.

In addition, remember not to kill off players. A TPK (total party killed) should not occur though a few PCs may be cut down in the course of the battle itself especially if it is a large set piece or the finale to a campaign. In the lead up to the battle they should not die. However, if one should fall, it should be played up to prey on the remaining characters’ thirst for vengeance. What makes tabletop sessions interesting is the evolution and building of characters through experience and trials. That story ends when they fall.

The Four Strategies

The four strategies most effective for NPC’s to carry out in search of victory are the time-tested Head Long Confrontation, the Ambush, Lemming Herding, and of course, Gauntleting. These are simple, easy to understand, and implement, and best of all they can be extremely effective when used properly and with a little luck.

The Headlong Confrontation is the most familiar and common of battle types some would say overused but when one or both sides believe they have the superior power it is the most direct and effective if that assumption is true. A headlong confrontation is an encounter where the NPCs come right at the PCs with little or no set up beforehand or use of simple tactics such as ambush or surprise attacks.

The NPCs can still try to conduct strategy during a straight up fight by either maneuvering their combat lines, attempting flanking, charging the PCs, or using individual combat skills or abilities to the service of their comrades. Typically, these types of confrontations should be among the first the PCs face when dealing with an enemy force that will escalate later in the game. This gives time and opportunity to build up animosity and grudges on both sides naturally.

An Ambush on the other hand is where the enemy takes position ahead of time often concealed in wait for their foes hoping to gain a certain advantage. The advantages of this strategy are gaining a surprise attack on the target, gaining a position of advantage, or the ability to target specific members of the enemy force right when the battle starts. A strike from afar with such things as a hidden war-engine and especially with magic can also be considered a form of ambush sometimes even when the PCs are expecting some form of attack. However, ambushes always run the risk of detection.

The detection of an ambush nullifies the advantage of the enemy group but may not reveal each individual enemy allowing them to still get sneak attacks on individual PCs. Even when the PCs are expecting attack, on guard, they may not expect the kind of attack or the angle it takes in its trajectory at them thus still catching them off guard. Therefore knowing the type of ambush is just as critical as knowing when and where it will happen.

Concerning mass-combat (a large-scale battle) units, ambushes are often perpetrated by smaller more maneuverable units whose purpose it is to disrupt the enemy supply lines or disrupt an advance. The smaller unit will ambush a vulnerable target that may be larger and then will pull back before the tide of battle turns on them. Ambush in the terms of mass-combat is typically a harassment tactic although it is not impossible that an entire army can ambush another. This happened once in recorded history (Hannibal ambushing the Romans at Trasimene) but in a fantasy world, other factors may make this a more frequent occurrence.

The third strategy, Lemming Herding concerns getting the players to wander into a trap or a blind alley. It is tricking or steering the PCs by the NPCs (not the GM) into a position of vulnerability and then striking immediately. This can involve baiting with a weaker force and getting the PCs to pursue, kidnapping a beloved NPC or weakest PC, or stealing a valued object and letting the PCs either chase them or leaving easy to follow clues to the chosen location for them to follow later.

The final strategy and the costliest is Gauntleting. This is having groups of weaker enemies hitting in waves and/or sniping out the player group in order to weaken them and use up their resources before the main brunt of the enemy makes its move. This strategy not only costs the NPCs in lives, albeit low level lives, but requires an in depth knowledge of their adversaries, the Player Characters. They need to know how strong they are, what the limits of their abilities and equipment are. This strategy is often the last in a series of maneuvers having the drained and battered PCs coming out of the other end of the gauntlet only to find themselves exactly where the enemy wants them: in a direct confrontation with a superior, fresh, and eager force.

The Twist

After the PCs and NPCs have made their initial contact, the NPCs have tried all the strategies at their disposal, and the PCs believe they are at the end of the fight; it is time for the twist. The twist takes three major forms: Choosing the Field, the Betrayal, and Reserve Forces.

Choosing the Field involves the enemy deciding either directly or with some manipulation as to where to face the PCs which of course plays to the enemy’s strengths. This often involves a lot of sabotage, deliberate clues, political manipulation, and essentially implementing the Lemming Herding strategy in varying degrees just to allow the NPCs to select the field of confrontation. Sometimes the enemy can prey on the honor of the PCs by challenging them to show up at prescribed time and location for a duel. At this late point, this can allow the enemy to make use of a land feature or hidden cache unknown to the players allowing for a nasty surprise that stands the chance of turning the tide or stealing victory just when it was so close. It tightens the tension very fast and can turn the campaign path on a dime if successful.

The Betrayal occurs when the PCs discover a character within their inner circle to be a traitor working for the enemy. They can be working in the capacity of a thief, saboteur, spy, manipulator, or an assassin. This betrayer, there can be more than one, is usually an NPC especially a torchbearer or other hireling type. If they were a more trusted NPC such as a frequent ally or a supplier, the results can be more devastating in terms of combat and in emotional stress. At this late point a sudden betrayal can not only turn the battle but also it very likely will cost a PC their life if not creating a new foe to pursue after the initial one is defeated.

The Reserve Forces twist is when the enemy has a hidden reserve of warriors or soldiers hidden or camouflaged somewhere near the battlefield lying in wait for a specific signal to join the fight. This twist is a definite game changer during a battle and can if the PCs figure it out in time become a new goal within the greater battle to try to snuff out or stop the signal. Of course, this strategy can also apply to the PCs and their forces as well with the goal inverted with them trying to implement the signal and maybe the villains trying to stop them. Be careful to implement twists sparingly and believably.

Do not just tack it on. The twist can become cliché very quickly and seem like a case of railroading if it suddenly changes the tide of battle with absolutely no clue that it was coming. Note that a clue can consist of a demonstrably clever enemy commander and/or a strange uncalled for confidence on the battlefield.

Summary

GMs can heighten challenge by allowing their NPCs to make strategic decisions, having a clear goal that the battle will meet, and by implementing a twist at the end. To wage a better battle the GM must first have a specific purpose in waging that battle: challenging the PCs, stirring Players out of ruts, adding in an impressive set piece.

After you, the Game-Master has constructed your battle you need to decide on the strategies and methods that the NPCs will use and how the twist at the end will play out. This helps to create a challenge that can get inactive players acting and engage them in a very specific way thus helping immersion. Battles can also be very cool (or tragic) set pieces that put an exclamation point to the end of an adventure or a campaign.

Such battles make great tabletop tales to pass around and retell to receptive audiences.

Rats of Tanglethorn Pt.2: The Green Well

Afheesh the ratling quickling (played by me), Pabst the human duelist (played by Jenn), and Wufcor the ratling Brotherhood of the Green Wellcanny-jack (played by Isis) had been escorted by a contingent of city guard to an office near the White Rose Perfumery. The office was small, crowded with stacks of yellowed parchment sheets. Also scattered everywhere were small wooden ink stamps bearing various official seals from past regimes.

Meanwhile sitting at the desk, which the crew found themselves facing, was a large Westlander in full plate armor. The seal of the city guard, the ring of thorns, emblazoned on his breast. Within it was a black oak leaf under a yellow crescent moon. His plumed helm with spiked facemask sat on the well-worn desktop and his heavy bearded axe leaned against the wall behind him.

The guard that had pushed them into the office had introduced the man at the desk as Captain Fenom. The street crew had to wait while he packed his long stem bone pipe with a fresh load and lit it.

Captain Fenom (exhaling a massive fog of pungent peppery smoke): “Those gangs have been a hassle of late, the uh, Bronze Boys and um, Troll Boys …”

He took another long drag.

Captian Fenom (again exhaling): “I like that; you’re good fighters, real good. Here.”

He reached under the desk and then tossed a leather sack filled with 8,000 bronze thorns onto it. The thud of the bag and the jingle of the coins were music to the trio’s ears.

Captain Fenom: “Take it, it’s yours. You work for me now. There’s another 8,000 thorns for you three if you bring me the head of Feenox, an apprentice of the Green Well. “

He put his feet up on the desk and dismissed the scrappy trio who made themselves gone very quickly. Pabst had snatched up the coin sack.

The trio beat it to a burned out building. The place had been a cult temple but the city lord has been hunting down and chasing out the smaller cults that have sprung up around the city. The rumor was the last holdout of this temple, a black guard, had met her fate within the charcoaled not too long ago. It was boarded up. However, Afheesh parkoured up through a window in the second story and kicked out the boards over the door on the ground letting his partners in crime in.

Wufcor dove into a pile of trash to sleep. Pabst pulled out her sleeping roll in a corner free of debris and Afheesh found a large crack in the wall and a small crevice beyond that. That was where he decided to sleep. It was where he felt most to secure to be able to sleep. However, before he drifted off he made sure to count his share of the gang bounty, 2,666 bronze pieces. Pabst had taken up the left over coin.

The robust yet still small thorn-runner lay curled up and perfectly hidden for most of the night and for most of the night he had slept rather peacefully until suddenly awakened. He heard someone arguing. He poked his head out very carefully and saw that a pair of Mantck ratlings (medium sized ratlings) and a pair of humans one carrying a sack were harassing Pabst. She had her weapon out.

Slowly the quickling crept out of his hiding place and quietly drew his weapons. As he neared striking distance, the sack bearer screamed in pain. Wufcor had stabbed him in the back.

The first Mantck struck at Pabstcan, she parried his dirk. The second rushed Wufcor wounding him badly. Afheesh charged and struck out with both of his weapons at the second Mantck whom managed to dodge the first blow but caught the second full on. It nearly killed him. The human that had been carrying the sack dropped it and taking a defensive position drew his shabby scimitar. Pabst swung wildly with her scimitar at the first Mantck but her clumsy strike did not get anywhere near him. The second human, apparently the leader due to his wearing a scale mail vest, attacked Pabst with his scimitar. She parried then immediately countered but the leaders’ sword stopped it dead. The ring of steel echoed from the blackened walls.

The second human shrieked and dropped to the dirt dead. Wufcor’s dirk had been unerring. The first Mantck lashed out at Pabst narrowly missing. Afheesh slaughtered the second Mantck with his paired swords. Pabst hacked into the leader’s side, blood gushed. He retorted wounding Pabst badly, his scimitar easily piercing her brigandine.

Wufcor moved around the fight flanking the leader and striking injuring him further. The last Mantck struck at Pabst, she barely deflected his blade. Afheesh struck at the Mantck with his first weapon and then at the leader with his second. The first landed horribly wounding the medium-sized ratling. The leader easily deflected the second. Pabst in turn chopped him down.

Wufcor jabbed his blade into the Mantck. Horribly wounded and soaked in his own blood but he was still standing. Afheesh got in close and all but eviscerated him with a double sword strike. The fight was over.

The trio immediately dumped out the sack. Out tumbled two bottles of wine, an ivory box with mother of pearl inlay, 3 silver candelabras, a poor quality carved aquamarine jar, 20 high quality arrows, a highest quality set of wrenches, and a poor quality hand mirror. Inside of the ivory box were 3 gold rings, 1 silver ring with ruby, and 5 copper rings. Their foes had been burglars. Come morning the trio decided to find a fence for the goods.

The next day under the leadership of Wufcor the crew was able to sell off all of their ill-gotten loot with Afheesh receiving a 2,311 bt (bronze thorn) cut for a total of 4,977. He left Pabst to her shopping for a great sword and Wufcor’s quest to find a leatherworker to craft a coin purse from what he cut from the Troll Boy leader. The quickling had decided to take up residence, for the night anyway, in one of the brothels operated by the Livery of Pleasures. There he would get a skilled companion for the night, a hot meal, and a lot of good wine.

The following day, and 1,500 bts poorer, Afheesh caught back up with his other two companions at the Drunken Lotus Tavern. The trio sat for a round, courtesy of Pabst, while they decided if they should pursue the head of one Feenox apprentice of the Green Well. A difficult decision especially since the Green Well was the province of the most powerful guild in the city, the Brotherhood of the Green Well. They could not resist the pay however. It was not long after that they asked around. Shortly after that they headed off to another tavern, the Green Bottle where their quarry was said to spend his lunchtime.

The trio wandered past an old tree, and from the overcrowded, and noisy plaza into the Green Bottle. It was spelled “Bottel” on the signage but all three were illiterate. The rear half of the place was elevated reached by a wide wooden stair. The bar was at the front to the immediate right of the saloon doors. The heavy counter stretched from wall to wall. Behind it at the far end were the doors to the kitchen.

Not an apparent fighter, the bartender was a broad-shouldered human, a wet leather apron over his front. Behind him were shelves lined with bottles of all shapes and sizes filled with various liquors and juices as well as a giant hogshead of ale coming halfway out of the wall. However, in a place of reverence among the shelves was a large green carved glass bottle that contained a glowing green liquid. At the bar were a very drunk barfly druid slurping ale from his leather jack and two young men, humans, in green hooded robes, a pair of apprentices of the green well.

Pabst: “Well, this seems to be the right place.”

Wufcor: “Heh, heh, yeah. Which one do I stab first?”

To Be Continued…

 

How to Write an RPG Actual Play Blog

Here is another Hubpages article from me, Robert A. Neri Jr.A chaotic session of actual play

How to Write an RPG Actual Play Blog

This article explicitly goes through my process for when I write my actual play blog entries. The blog entry that the article refers to for examples is The Dragonslayers Pt. II: The Day the Music Died. The entry is an early one and so the writing quality is a little off but it illustrates my points of construction without them being too obvious. It also shows that the process described in my article is my process and that I have been using it and developed it over time. I consciously think about certain points when I transcribe from my notes.

Sometimes stories and incidents generated during a tabletop RPG session are worth putting out into the world for others to enjoy but how do you transform your session notes into an enjoyable read?

You can read it here: How to Write an RPG Actual Play Blog

Other Hubpages articles by Robert A. Neri Jr.:

Building Tabletop Myths

Game Mastery: Establishing Atmosphere

Game Mastery: War as Set Piece

Handling Game Flow in Tabletop RPGs

The Dark Lord: Building Better Lords of Evil

The regular weekly actual play blog, The Rats of Tanglethorn, will continue next week.

 

Rats of Tanglethorn Pt.1: Street Mercs

The two small groups of gang members were facing off in the middle of the wide paved boulevard just outside of the Caskroom Tavern (#15 on the Map). It was a chill evening and the cobblestones pale and moist with fresh filth. Rag pickers, the occasional wagon, and the odds and ends of Tanglewood society were still trafficking the street in unhealthy droves that parted their unstoppable course to make room for the hooligans.

The whole scene partially lit by a few candle lanterns outside of the rough establishment was bathed in warm yellow half-light. On one side were the Bronze Boys, a gang of 20 humans each with a torque of bronzed thorn vine. Opposing them were the Troll Boys, a gang of 10 humans with a white troll facemask baring its fangs painted on their worn tunics. Their leader was big and appeared to have troll blood in his veins.

Without warning, the street thugs fell upon each other using their fists, feet, and daggers. Meanwhile from the shadows the two ratling, Afheesh (played by me) and Wufcor (played by Isis), and the human duelist, Pabstcan (played by Jenn), watched the fight. It was Afheesh’s plan to wait a little bit and then approach the leader of the losing side offering to assist for a price but both sides seemed evenly matched. Four Bronze Boys had fallen and only a single Troll Boy lay in the dirty street.
Impatient, Pabst stepped from the shelter of the shadows and shouted a challenge to the trollish leader of the Troll Boys.

Pabst (played by Jenn)(brandishing her scimitar): “Come and meet your doom by my blade!”

He ignored her as he smashed in an opponent’s face with the pommel of his short sword. Afheesh took it upon himself to dash into the fray approaching the Troll Boy leader. The big brute accepted the ratlings offer but would pay after the fight was won. Afheesh dashed back to the befuddled and slightly miffed Pabst and the agitated Wufcor. As soon as he delivered the message, the other two lunged into the fight against the Bronze Boys.

Jenn started to giggle.

Cris (the GM)(with furrowed brow): “Why you laughing!?”

Jenn: “Because I picture them as a bunch of blonde and tanned surfer boys without shirts.”

Isis roared with laughter.

By the time the thuggish trio joined the fight there were 11 Bronze Boys and 6 Troll Boys still standing. Afheesh charged the Bronze Boy leader slashing savagely at him with a paired weapon blow. He tried to parry with his dirk but fumbled badly stepping into the blows. The gang leader dropped dead into a puddle of his own blood. Wufcor moved around behind a gangster occupied with staving off an attack from a larger Troll Boy and stabbed him in the back horribly wounding him. Pabstcan hacked at a “random @$$#ole” but was easily parried.

The skirmish continued for about another 15 seconds until all of the Bronze Boys were dead and only two Troll Boys and their Leader stood in the middle of the carnage. The adventurer trio all gave the last gangsters toothy grins expecting a monetary reward. The three gang-members turned and began to walk away.

Troll Boy Leader (casually waving his left hand in a gesture of dismissal): “Get your pay from the corpses.”

The trio exchanged glances and charged while the three gang-members had their backs turned. The leader suddenly spun around and nailed Pabst in the chest with his sword. Afheesh struck one of the other two who dodged one blade but hit by the other wounding him badly. Wufcor tried to stab the same target but missed. He retorted with his dagger but missed. The third Troll Boy also struck at Wufcor with his dagger but missed by a mile.

Afheesh struck at the untouched Troll Boy dropping him with a nasty double blade strike. The leader swung again at Pabst but missed. The other thug fumbled and dropped his dagger while trying to slash at Afheesh. The ratling Quickling sank his twin blades to the hilt into the second to last gangster standing.

Pabst yelled out that she “declares a duel” against the last Troll Boy. The gang leader parried Pabst’s scimitar. Afheesh readied his blades should Pabst’s self-declared duel go badly. Unheeding of Pabst Wufcor flanked the Troll Boy leader and sank his dirk into the man’s side nearly killing him in a single blow.

Afheesh hung back from the fight and Wufcor sank back into the shadows. Pabst engaged her foe one-to-one once again dropping him with a critical chop through the ribs. The butchered corpse flopped onto the cobblestone street. The ruthless group immediately fell upon the corpses and collected the loot. They gathered up 17 dirks, 90 bronze thorns, 10 suits of soft leather armor, 17 pair of bronze bracers, 8 saps, 4 short swords, and 7 pair of greaves.

That was when the trio was aware that they were receiving applause. A group of mercenaries in black was clapping. They had greatly enjoyed the show and invite d the three to drinks in the tavern. Embroidered on their chests was a red rose pierced diagonally by a curved sword with a drop of blood coming from its blade tip. The trio of sweaty and blood spattered adventurers gladly accepted. Especially after some guardsmen who had also been watching prevented Wufcor from violating the Troll Boy leader’s corpse.

The group had just barely begun to wallow in their victory and had only waded through the first round of frothy ale before a group of guards burst through the saloon doors. One of the guards pointed right at the trio and shouted, “Arrest them!” The mercenaries around the adventurers, members of the Bleeding Rose, melted away to other tables.

Jenn (looking at Cris): “Aw man! Already!?”

To Be Continued…