Cunning Combat Strategy – 3 Round Combat Plans For Lightning Combats Part II

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1161

How do you make your next combat fast and exciting effective 3 Round Combat Plans?

And what are we supposed to do in each round? What is our strategy here?

That’s what I show you in today’s tips, which are taken from my brand new Faster Combat 5E course launching this spring.

Today, I’ll go through each round with you, using a gnoll pack example.

In 3 Round Combat Plans For Lightning Combats Part I, I shared our three design objectives:

  1. Your Secret GM Goal. Play the strategic Resource Depletion Game to set up dramatic storytelling and a climactic Room IV encounter.
  2. Your Secret Monster Mission. Decide what specific jobs key foes have to win the Resource Depletion game.
  3. Your Secret Clue. We skin our combat for fantastic flavour, and then add Lore to set up future exciting gameplay.

That’s our design framework.

Now let’s dig into your strategy and actions for each round so you know how to run cunning 3 Round Combat Plans.

Round 1: Positioning

The first round is all about movement.

In most melees, one side enters the battlefield first. The combatants might appear from a map edge or somewhere in the middle. They then move toward their foes or take up tactical positions.

The other side enters the battlefield, reacts to the approach, and does the same.

Player characters are usually the aggressors. Meaning, they often enter second.

This gives you a huge boon, because you can put foes in advantageous positions in advance and not burn their movement. Depending on your game system, saved move actions can earn you extra attacks or other options.

When placing foes on the map, first think, how will the characters move?

You aren’t meta gaming here. Experienced foes will have learned that certain opponent types will move in certain ways.

Some opponents will rush to form a front line.

Others will hang back behind that defensive curtain and do nasty things with ranged attacks, special attacks, or magic.

Speedy opponents try to flank, strike, and withdraw.

So observe how your players move into battles and what positions they take.

Learn how they move so you can place foes in the best spots on the map for advantage.

Example: The Gnoll Lair

Say we have gnolls in their lair, which is in a cavern complex, and they are not on alert, but they do have their regular defenses up.

The PCs charge in, as usual.

The warrior types go first and begin hammering the first gnolls they reach.

The rogue follows behind, finds a shadowy area, and begins picking off the pack one by one.

Wizards and priests move in and take up position behind the warriors with their backs against walls but near the entrance for easy retreat.

The standard formation. 🙂

Anticipating this, we set up our defenses accordingly.

We leave a few gnolls in the cave doing their day-to-day stuff. A couple tend a low fire, cooking. A couple dogs nap. Another pair spars, practicing for the day when foes breach their lair.

That day is today.

However, we also decide to put four gnolls on guard at all times. That’s good leadership.

Two gnolls hide in nearby caves so they can run around fast to access squishy foes hiding behind the jerks in the metal coats with pointy sticks.

The other two gnolls climb up and take position in sniper nests built to provide cover – one on a narrow ledge and the other atop a capped stalagmite.

Should the PCs approach without stealth, the snipers can ready their shots to fire as soon as squishy foes break through the entrance barricade.

Meanwhile, the flankers are already in position and ambush the squishies, hopefully before a single spell fires off.

Choose Your Match-Ups

Another thing you want to understand for round 1 is both sides will want to pick ideal match-ups.

Your party will often form standard tactics based on past experiences.

“Ok Johnn, is there a leader type around? We want to focus attacks on them, if we can.”

“Johnnnn, how about magickers. Any of those around? I want to shoot them first.”

Those are sound tactics. Well done, players.

Your counter-tactics depend a lot on what game pieces you have in play.

For example, if you have a leader who serves better in the rear, then put them in that position. If they are more effective on the front line, situate them so they can meet the warriors’ charge.

Likewise with other special foe types such as casters and ranged attackers.

Put foes in positions so they get the match-ups they want and that do not work in the party’s favour.

A Trick

We can derail good character tactics and positioning with clever tricks.

One such trick is The Decoy.

Position foes on the map in such a way as to lure characters into vulnerable positions.

For example, four gnolls cluster around the fire. The PCs charge through the barricade, see the obvious dogs in the middle of the cave, and charge.

The players’ myopic attention immediately focuses on the centre and they react accordingly.

On their turn, the campfire gnolls wait for the PCs to get close and then one smashes a small flask of whiskey into the fire, causing a small explosion (and making the other gnolls bark in anger – it was good whiskey).

Seeing what their comrade is about to do, the rest of the campfire gnolls fall back a couple of paces to stay unharmed, then they strike.

Most of the party has moved near the cave centre due to our trick or because it’s where the action seems to be. There’s no cover or defensive terrain here, so the PCs become exposed.

This gives the ambusher gnolls easy access to the party’s rear. It also gives the gnoll archers short-distance easy shots at their chosen targets.

Decide the most advantageous positions for foes, and lure the PCs there to get yourself a tactical advantage.

Don’t Forget

Also, remember your mission.

You are playing the strategic Resource Depletion Game.

So choose foe positions to best win your game.

Round 2: MVP Actions

Round 2 is all about unleashing our best attacks and moves.

We design our combat to achieve the Secret Monster Mission in Round 3.

So we need key foes to survive until at least Round 3. These are the combatants critical to our plan.

We also need to keep players distracted from our true goal.

And we want to push back hard on the PCs’ initial attack to make our fight even more exciting for them.

All foes should now be in position.

We now unleash MVP abilities.

These are your foes’ best attacks, special abilities, or killer combos.

The MVP ability is a cornerstone of the encounter. Your goal is to squeeze as much value out of it as possible. How you accomplish this varies based on what your MVP ability does.

Abilities that provide utility or crowd control should be used right away. The longer they are in use, the more value you get out of them.

In addition, they help keep your key foes alive for round 3.

Use rechargeable- or reload-type actions as soon as possible. This gives foes more chances to recharge throughout the fight.

For example, use area of attack (AoE) actions only if you can hit at least two PCs. Whereas you want to employ single-target burst damage on low defense or low health targets to drop them fast.

If you cannot use your MVP ability on turn 1, you should prioritize setting up your creatures for the MVP ability on turn 2 or 3.

Gnarly Gnolls

Our dog foes have pretty standard abilities out of the box. They whack with clubs or use bows.

Let’s say this is Room I: Entrance and Guardian.

Our goal is to deplete the party of 20% of its resources.

Meaning this needs to be a Difficult (but not Deadly) encounter.

We add a leader who lives in her own cave nearby, and a shaman, also with her own cave.

We look at the map and see it’ll take the leader two rounds of movement to reach the predicted front line.

That’s not good.

We want the leader’s superior attacks starting in round 1, round 2 at the latest.

There are typically four Combat Roles:

  • Brute => Tough, average or greater damage
  • Artillery => Weak defense other than distance, minor or greater damage
  • Controller => Generally weaker, medium damage, nerfs opponents
  • Striker => Fast, ok defense at best, big damage

With our design hat on, we decide to make the leader a Striker.

So our gnoll leader sticks with light armour, a long-legged speed increase, and a big attack with a spiked club wielded in both paws.

We put the leader at the fire so she can attack right away.

Depending on how the initiative roll goes, she’ll leap ahead, strike the most vulnerable foe, and dart back to the pack again.

From her perspective, if she hits (more likely now because of her choice of target), she’ll deal a lot of damage and maybe down a foe to even the odds right away.

From our strategic perspective, we deliver an exciting shock to the party and drain healing slots.

Our shaman is different. She has a spell that can slow charging foes. So she wants to get out of her cave and within range to affect as many foes as possible before they split up.

Slow foes means the snipers get extra or easier shots in, depending on your game system. It also delays foes reaching the fire, helping the pack survive longer.

Our shaman knows from experience her leader’s terrible might. So she places the area of effect so that the lead dog can reach a foe or two without entering the slow zone.

This tactic also keeps foes clustered longer, which sets up the next spell of holy thunder sure to strike fear and break bones of the enemy pack.

Round 3: Execute Your Mission

The time is now.

We’ve attempted to maneuver characters into disadvantageous positions on the map.

We’ve unleashed our biggest attacks, while we’ve still got them, to further weaken the party and to give us many advantages possible for the final round.

We’re roleplaying foes to meet their level of intelligence, instincts, and experience. Everything executed so far you see in real life animals who build nests and lairs for defense and respond with the intent to intimidate, dominate, and survive.

So we’re not cheating here or meta gaming.

We’re running a solid strategy.

While our Combat Design is hat on, we need to balance the encounter to achieve our goal.

Most GMs do the wrong thing, in my opinion, and balance to make fights fair. Not too weak, and not too tough.

But Wizards of Combat know different.

We “balance” or design melees to achieve our resource objective, which is part of the long-game of our adventure, which is part of our Infinite Game major goal (we play to play again and have more fun at every game).

Consequences of previous rounds start to bear fruit.

Guess what happens when foes use their MVP abilities?

The PCs do the same.

We’ve also done some damage – especially to the squishies who might’ve grown overconfident from weaker foe tactics in previous adventures and are now quaking in their pointy hats.

As our combat strategy and skills level-up, we achieve more with less.

Too often we try to clobber the PCs in an attempt to earn drama from the threat of death.

We’ve got that going for us already with 3 Round Combat Plans. We do not need to bring nukes to knife fights any longer.

Which gives us a lot more breathing room for storytelling because we have what were previously “weak” game pieces punching above their weight now.

So in this round we top-up our Resource Depletion Game. We work to get the last few percentage points drawn from the party.

  • We might have MPV abilities that recharged or remain available
  • Our tactical positions might still hold
  • We can continue to whack, cast, and shoot

How to Win in Round 3

Should our players be resilient and our gap remains large (e.g. we a 40% depletion goal with 20% remaining), we have arrows remaining in our quiver for this final round.

Three examples:

We can bring in a second wave. It’s been two rounds of ruckus. During adventure design, you can place supporting foes nearby. Regardless of party entry location, neighbouring encounters can join the fray.

We can retreat. Withdrawal and flight can also lure PCs into your next encounter, which becomes a perfect hook to keep your adventure going.

And what do the characters retreat into? Traps, hazards, and reinforcements.

And the final example, we can focus fire.

If we have not already, we can turn all survivors possible on one PC.

Greater numbers allow more supportive actions, such as aid another, knock prone, and other mechanics that give allies boons and bonuses.

We can skim resources off every player character, or drain one PC fast.

Our Victory

In round 3 we have two goals.

The first, as described above, is to reach our resource depletion target.

The second is to end non-climactic combats on this round, if possible.

As a player, it gives me great frustration when a GM lets combat linger.

Traditionally, they try to get last licks in for as long as possible, hoping to weaken the party.

But they do so without a strategy.

We’ve got that strategy now. And we’ve raised our thinking to the adventure level.

It doesn’t matter if all the gnolls fall in round three.

An easy party win with high fives all around has you chuckling behind your screen.

In this final round we bring everything to bear to reach our target and then punch out, pun intended.

In some cases we might need to extend the combat for other reasons.

Wizards of Combat create Combat Missions for players to achieve, for example. This key technique injects fantastic story into your fights.

If the party has not accomplished their mission, they’ll want the fight to carry on.

But with the other methods of Faster Combat in your GM Toolbox, your first three rounds are already speedy, and any remainders will be too.

Meanwhile, through clever combat design, you’ve earned your victory.

Your players won’t high five you.

But I will.

Good job.

Gnoll Parting Shots

I have the option here to retreat at any time or stick around if I need more resource depletion.

In this final planned round, the leader if still alive will summon pack members to help her whack the enemy’s toughest member or alpha.

With increased chance to hit now, she’ll likely do some great damage in the hopes the enemy will decide it’s not worth fighting any longer.

The shaman will turn to a damage spell, possibly focus-firing on her leader’s opponent.

Snipers will do the same.

I also have the option to bring in a second wave, as gnolls in nearby caves should be awake and prepared now. They could come in, extract their leader and shaman, and get out to a more defensible area.

I know from some simple tracking that the PCs do about 125 points of damage in a Tier 1 round, and 68 in a Tier II round, on average.

Tier 1 means the party is fresh.

Tier 2 means the party has used their MVP abilities and are down to their secondary, standard attacks.

Tier 3 means the party is down to last spells, ammunition, and weakest attacks.

For an encounter like this, I’ll assume the PCs bring out their Tier II attacks, as this is just an early encounter.

So if I give the gnolls 30 health each, two will drop in a round. That’s a rough estimate – I can’t control the players’ tactics and choices.

Three rounds means six casualties. Add the leader and shaman, and the combat should be just about right for my Resource Depletion Goal of 20%.

It’s Your Turn

Next combat, spend a bit of time with your Wizard of Combat design hat on.

Plan round 1 so foes need move as little as possible to give them potential extra actions, advantageous positions on the map, and the best match-ups.

Plan round 2 to unleash all your MVP abilities to rock the party, control the battlefield, and make your players so nervous that they use their MVP abilities.

Plan round 3 to top-up the remaining resource depletion and make an early exit.

Faster combats plus good strategy plus clever tactics levels you up to becoming a Wizard of Combat.

3 Round Combat Plans help you play a smart game that feeds into your wondrous adventures.

They finish fights faster, giving you more session time for more roleplay and encounters.

They also give you more storytelling options. Combats that grind and linger have terrible stories.

Combats that shock, attack in multiple ways, and have a variety of opponent roles make for awesome stories.

Try planning a 3 Round Combat Plan and see how it goes next session.

Wizards of Adventure, come share your 3 Round Combat plans in the forum for feedback and prepare any questions you have or ideas you need help with in the next monthly Zoom call, which is April 10.

Johnn Four