Making Mundane Combat Useful and Storyful

One can’t just line up CR’s in order of lowest to highest and run every game like a prolonged episode of the Power Rangers where you fight the easy then the medium then the hard then the hardest… you can, I guess, but I’m probably in good company suggesting that you shouldn’t.

However, what really can you do with Bandits and Brigands over and over.  Oh, some guards… and then?  More guards?  That’s a bit uninteresting.  Here’s what I suggest for most DM’s to add some flavor to your more mundane combats and give the players a chance to add some “knowing” to their PC’s.

A brief aside…

“Knowing” is what I call “when a PC acts like a character in that world and place should act, without having to tell the player to make his character act that way”.  If a player read the campaign book front to back and memorized all the important and interesting parts, they’d “know” a lot.  Their character could “know” a lot of stuff that would be normal for that character (in the story) to know. 

Two examples, then:  (1) a character in my world of Kalamar who is a cleric would probably know, readily and easily, to recognize the colors that signify the rank of the most powerful, famous church where he or she lives–they should just know that, I shouldn’t have to stop and say “oh, that NPC over there?  Purple robe chased in silver… that means…” and then wait for them to impromptu on the spot a reaction that’s appropriate; (2) a character in my world of Eberron who fought in the last war as a soldier would probably know the ranks and martial habits of at least the nation he soldiered under without me pointing out how Thranish Silverkeeps fight or how rare they are to be found in twos.  When I have one Thranish Silverkeep stalking towards the party, they should “know” there’s bound to be another.

Now, as DM, I have a burden to help create “knowing” and of the tools available to me (source books—which don’t help a homebrew world really; write-ups; ability checks or just notecard passing; explanations in the middle of a scene; etc) one of my favorites is to reduce some of the realism in the world itself to make assumptions about it easier and more reliable.  Essentially, draw your world in bold lines (you don’t have to sacrifice story complexity) to allow quicker acquisition of “facts” to help players react unprompted to new events.

…back to mundane combat.

What I put into my game is a solid sense of combat differences amongst groups of similar antagonists.  Let’s take “guards”.

When my PC’s are ambushed by Thranish guards, I have the guards all adopt a primary combat style (they can change it, but rarely, and so rarely that any divergence from the normal way they’re “supposed to act” prompts a player to see that as a significant anomaly—maybe a plot point—all without me ham-fistedly either pointing it out out-of-character or having an NPC “suggest” it).

In my most recent session, and forevermore in this game, Thranish guards rush in for a clustering surrounding of the nearest target all together… then a series of shoves and knock-downs… then as many advantaged (versus prone) attacks as there are swings left to take.  On someone dropping unconscious (they pull the last hit), two grab him and start running off with the body.  This “takedown” procedure is just part of their story DNA.  With that fight, the PC’s now know (they had to deal with a dozen of them) how Thranish guards (same stats as any old guard) fight.  It sets the stage for their understanding that these are not lethal fights and they come in swarms–it allows me to later have maybe a group of Thranish knights do a similar (more lethal) version of this sort of tactic.  After a little of that, and knowing these sorts of patterns will be presented in my world, I could throw a Mass Combat army of Thrane encounter and their PC’s will “know” something about the world that allows them to strategize and respond without me needling them.

Some ideas for combat styles or patterns for you to use—mix and match however you like:

  • Swarming – Multiple (2 or more) opponents crowd a PC to limit their movement abilities; either one or more PC’s but always multiple opponents.  If they’re ever alone, they squirrel away to join another group.
  • Spreading – Opponents constantly back away to as maximum a range as possible while keeping range with each other.  Imagine a spider-web stretching out.  With ranged attacks, this forces PC’s to have to worry about a potentially 200ft battlefield… chasing one or two in one direction will cost time and separate them from their allies while leaving them exposed to enemies in all directions.
  • Harrying – Opponents only attack 1 round and then flee.  Think of it like giving them only one attack for the whole combat, the rest is movement and running and hiding.  Then, break combat when appropriate, only to have them come again before short rests. They interrupt things.  That’s their role.
  • Thieving – Not really about stealing for profit, but opponents always (first) take the first turn to make an intentional Sleight of Hand or Dex check to take something off the player.  An undrawn weapon.  Ammunition.  Pouches.  Trinkets.  Whatever.  Don’t make it too trivial though.  The goal is to make the player weaker by removing combat options from their gear.  If they have a shield and sword and haven’t drawn one?  Have all the opponents in range try and yank that shield off the PC’s back or shoulder and either toss it far away or scamper off with it.  Disarm, if possible, is good here.
  • Helping – Under-used for mundane or supporting opponents by DM’s.  Have the combat style be lots of Help actions to position multiple opponents into a place where they take (sure) fewer attack actions or ability checks, but are far better at them.  Help and Grapple.  Help and Attack.  Help and Shove.  Help and Feint.  Etc.
  • Turtling – Opponents are defensive specialists in that their combat is one where they stick together, cover each other (like Spartans) and represent an obstacle to PC’s getting somewhere or getting something.
  • Kidnapping – Unconscious and/or dead or dying PC’s are grabbed and dragged off when they drop.  Combat styles like this are extra scary as “dropping” is not the end”.
  • Countering – Opponents are leveraged to identify casters and force lots of concentration and related checks (bonus if they can cast counterspell at all).  Their combat style is forcing a purely physical encounter.

There are a lot more, and one can think creatively on that—but the point is, picking one or two signature things here and having that theme be consistent across these low level encounterable challenges and changing them for other groups will give some flavor and predictability to your world.

This Thief Gang over here addressed combat through Countering and Thieving…. that Thief Gang over there addressed combat through Thieving and Harrying… Thief gangs maybe all Thieve, but they’re different—as an encounter—in how they fight.  These soldiers are going to be culturally different than those soldiers.  These brigands have a different style than those brigands…

And by building some consistency in this way, you leave yourself the room to run counter-factual to it and drive interest.  A thief gang that fights like a bunch of soldiers (from PC experience)?

SECRET PLOT!  And you didn’t have to hand it to them naked and abruptly.

Feel free to come up with your own “styles”, the key is sticking to them—at least at the minion level.

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