So let’s talk NPC Combat strategy.
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.
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.
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.