Monday, December 30, 2013

“With Your Shield, Or Upon It”: Combat for Players

True to my word, this week’s article is all about the combat. Specifically, about being a player in combat. When swords swing, daggers fly, hammers crunch, arrows hit, and axes cleave, D&D becomes a wholly different game. This is the part where some people thrive, and others simply hope to survive. Either way, combat certainly plays a huge role in almost every story and it is the primary source for character experience and gaining treasure.

On the player’s side of things, your role in combat will depend a great deal on the class of character you are playing. And here’s an important tip: Know your role! I can’t tell you how many times I've seen players step outside of their character’s role in combat and wonder why things aren't working out. Even the most forgiving and accommodating DM will eventually teach the character that thinks they can “do everything” a lesson. I’m not trying to say that these roles are set in stone and there is no room for improvisation or thinking outside of the box, but classes do have limitations and I believe that they should apply more than 50% of the time.

For clarity, I break down the roles into four types as follows: Striker (Rogues, some Bards, some Fighters, Monks, and melee Rangers), Artillery (Some Mages and Clerics, ranged Fighters and ranged Rangers), Support (Some Clerics, Druid, Some Mages and Bards) and Tanks (Some Fighters, Barbarians, and Paladins). Despite my best efforts, I’m sure that there are many opportunities for crossovers and people could cite examples where a Mage could be a Striker or a Barbarian could be Artillery. Despite this, these are the roles that feel work the best for their classes and are the most productive in game.

Let’s take a closer look at each one:

Striker- These characters move in quickly and quietly, do a fair amount of damage, and then slip out. They attack the enemy at odd and unexpected angles and keep them off balance. Sometimes they also work as distractions, keeping the foes focusing on them while the real damage gets done elsewhere. The weakness of the Striker comes into play when they get stuck or surrounded and can’t use their mobility and stealth to their advantage.

Artillery- These characters hit hard and can do more damage than any other group in the game. They stay out of the heart of battle and prefer to overlook everything. This gives them a unique perspective to see the fighting as whole and they can usually predict when things are shifting for better or for worse. Their weakness lies in the age old saying “you can give it but you can’t take it”. The typical Artillery character trades off defence for offence and can be taken out of the fight with a few good hits.

Support- These characters help other characters or harm the foes in non-damaging ways. They can heal, they can add extra hit points, they can buff (improve stats), they can add protection, and they can do all of these things in opposite to enemies. Most people don’t grasp the usefulness of a +1/-1 until I mention that +1/-1 to a D20 is a 5% increase/decrease. The weakness of a Support character is their lack of offence. Don’t look to these folks when the big damage numbers need to be posted.

Tanks- These characters are probably the most misunderstood. Their role is to take damage (not deal it out). They exist to hold the line, take the big hits that other characters can’t, and make the ultimate sacrifice for the party if need be. If your tanks aren't the first to go into negative hit points during a battle, then something is not being done right. Their weakness lies in their lack of versatility. These characters don’t have many tricks up their sleeves and if battles go long they can become burnt out.

It is important for characters to realize that how they conduct themselves outside of combat can be very different from how they need to operate inside. Here are two examples: 

1) A dramatic, flamboyant Bard can be the life of the party (pun intended) at almost every roleplaying opportunity but in combat that Bard will not last very long standing toe to toe against a clan of Orcs. Instead, use him/her as a subdued Striker to confuse and distract the enemy while the Artillery goes to work. 
2) A Paladin in full-plate armor wielding a large shield may be very conservative in roleplaying situations; however, in combat, he/she can be the central figure of the group and should not be running around as a Striker. Not only is it terribly loud (all that clanking and scraping) but it is inefficient. Instead, make him/her the Tank that anchors the battle and holds the ground for the others. 

While it is my personal belief that all plans can go out the window in the blink of an eye, strategy and leadership can make the difference between winning the battle cleanly, or winning the battle with the loss of a character. Part of working as a team in combat is knowing everyone’s strengths and weaknesses and that means everyone knowing their roles. This also cuts down on a lot of the confusion in combat and was the one part of 4th Edition that I thought the designers got right. Combat is sometimes too confusing when everyone is running around without a clear purpose. It can be stressful keeping track of everything for the DM and it can be hard on PCs when battles don’t go their way. I also think this is the main reason why some players dislike combat. They have a hard time understanding the chaos and can’t picture what is happening as clearly as they can roleplaying. The answer, I think, is for the PCs to have an idea of what they need to accomplish going into a battle and for the DMs to be on top of things when it comes to description, explanation, and combat pacing.

(Speaking of combat for the DMs, I will cover that in next week’s article. Cheers!)

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