Trask's Tactical School–Lesson #1 Initiating Combat

This is the first in what I hope are a long line of posts about tactics in a role-playing game.  Although I am a “D&D” player at heart, I will try to keep the discussion generic enough to apply to any game. I also harbor a deep and abiding respect for Sun Tzu, so expect a few choice quotes from him to appear in these posts.

Lesson #1– Initiating Combat

“Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.”

–Sun Tzu

Few things in life enrage me more than a party that rushes into combat without pondering either their current situation or post-combat realities. I understand there are situations where the PCs have no choice but to fight, often with little warning. In such cases the only option is to drop the hammer on the bad guys and keep killing until you are the only living things standing. This post  is not for those situations.

F or this exercise, we have a party of PCs and they have spotted a group of 20 enemy orcs approaching. The party is reasonably confident of victory and they have orders to kill any orcs they come across by the local lord.  Here is how Trask would handle the situation. I run  these steps every time my party considers combat.

1. Does victory provide any benefit?

Other than a warm glow from slaying evil creatures, does killing the enemy benefit my party/character/goal?  Combat is a dangerous business, more so in a game because the enemy does not care if he dies.  The DM does not mourn the loss of his cannon fodder, a PC death can be really annoying, especially if the player has a great deal of time invested. Just like in real life, risking your neck should have a reward. A reward sufficient to risk your characters permanent death.

2. Can we win?

Most people put this question first on their lists, but I  believe my initial question is better.  Winning a battle that provides no benefit, is a defeat, in my opinion.  In our example…oh, who am I kidding? Any party worth their salt and of a decent level can knock over orcs as easily as a two-legged stool. The PCs are going to win and win easily.

3.  What is the cost?

Assuming no deaths for the party, how many resources will be used? If you are on a long expedition, those healing potions are not growing on trees.  Many PCs have limited resources on a per-day basis, so fireballing the orcs may be satisfying, that fireball is not available for later use.

4. What are the other risks?

This covers a host of potential problems that can arise from a combat. In my example, an orc getting away to alert the  main army of your location is very bad. Perhaps this is an orc band that is fighting against the orcs attacking your nation. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” applies and could provide a useful ally.  Following them back to their main encampment could provide valuable intelligence that may lead to overall victory. Dead orcs are rather hard to follow.

5. Force Majeure

Sometimes you turn over a rock and a poisonous snake tries to bite you. Sometimes you turn over a rock and  a psionic-wielding,  magically enhanced hell-beast with more hit points than a demon lord tries to consume your soul. The first one is dangerous, the second is a “force majeure” a “greater force.” Historically used for a large force appearing on a field of battle unexpectedly, it applies in many gaming situations. The classic example is in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” I will never look at a rabbit the same way again. Every time your party swings a sword at a “weak” enemy, you could meet that rabbit.

The next time you play, use your head, let Trask  guide you and be victorious!

I hope you find these tips helpful. I am anxious to hear about your ideas and suggestions in the same vein.  Please post any ideas in the comments section of this post.

Happy gaming and may you never meet the rabbit.

Trask, the Last Tyromancer



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.