Tag Archives: tactics

What We Can Learn from MMOs

Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs or just MMOs) have been popular for the past fifteen or more years. However, while they have the words “Roleplaying Games” in them, the games can and do exist for many players without them doing any roleplaying. There are hardcore PVP groups, hardcore PVE groups, and, yes, there are roleplaying groups, but it is not a requirement to play and enjoy the game. This fact, and the fact that these are video games, often with puzzle-like mechanics for major combats and memorized “rotations” of moves for other fights, distances them from tabletop roleplaying games. There are many people, especially in the recent surge of popularity for TTRPGs, who have never played MMORPGs, and many people who think that MMORPGs have nothing of value to teach us when it comes to TTRPGs. I disagree; MMORPGs do many things well, in particular when it comes to combat, that I believe DMs and GMs can add to their own games to make combats more interesting.

The only MMO I have played is Star Wars: The Old Republic. MMOs as a concept never really appealed to me, but I figured I would try it because 1) It was Star Wars, and 2) It was made by Bioware. I intended to play primarily for the story, but ended up joining an awesome guild called Remnants of Hope and getting into all aspects of the game heavily (PVE, PVP, and roleplaying). I stepped away from playing regularly in 2015, but recently returned to simply play through the new story content. It was while playing through the story content and relearning both how to play and also the new mechanics that bosses had that I realized how much MMORPGs had to offer to DMs/GMs. A common thinking trap for DMs/GMs is trying to make their monsters or enemies conform to preexisting abilities and rules in the rulebook; so what if PCs can only ever get 4 spell slots of a certain level? This boss has 6 3rd level spellslots! Or no spellslots at all! Do not feel like you have to conform your enemies to the same rules as players, and with that in mind, let’s see what kind of abilities we can bring from MMOs into TTRPGs.

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The first thing that is common to many MMORPG bosses is positional attacks. Because the bosses, particularly in raids, are designed to be fought by groups of between 4 and 8 players, these bosses normally have powerful attacks that hit players based on their positioning. For example, they may have a knockback attack that hits in a frontal cone, or a stomp attack that hits all players within 3 meters, or even a powerful beam attack that hits everything in a straight line 5 meters wide until it reaches a wall or other solid object (SWTOR distances are measured in meters, which is why I’m using them as a point of reference). These types of attacks are great to bring into TTRPGs because combat can often stagnate, especially if there are many close-combat players as there often are in fantasy RPGs (this is less of a concern in modern or sci fi RPGs since most players are ranged combatants, and will move and maneuver to get the best cover and rarely get locked down, but the principles can still apply). Combat in games like Dungeons and Dragons can quickly break down into everyone rushing the boss and then sitting there, not moving, for round after round, beating on the boss until it goes down. Now, some bosses already have positional attacks, such as a dragon’s conical breath weapon, or even spells like lightning bolt, but even these usually turn into afterthoughts. The goal of positional attacks is to make players aware of them and then force them to make decisions because of the anticipated effects. They can keep combat dynamic, and make the encounter more fun and hopefully more memorable.

An example of a positional attack that we could bring into a game like Dungeons and Dragons is the aforementioned knockback attack. This could be an appropriate ability for a large creature like a Hill Giant that has a good reach. Simply stated, the Hill Giant, once per round, forces every enemy within 10 feet in a 180 degree arc in one direction to make a Strength saving throw; if they fail, they take 1D8+5 bludgeoning damage and are pushed back 10 feet and knocked prone. If they succeed, they take half damage and are not pushed back or knocked prone. Since the ability only affects a “frontal arc,” the players can begin to position themselves, forcing themselves and the DM to both make decisions about what they are going to do and where they are going to go. Another positional-style attack is some sort of whirlwind. Let’s say the players are fighting a Drow assassin wielding two scimitars. Normally, this assassin would only get two attacks. The players rush him and surround him to prevent his escape, only to discover that he suddenly makes a whirwind attack; he makes a single weapon attack against every enemy within reach, whether that is two or six. This ability not only makes a single enemy much more deadly, but will again force players to think about where and when they position themselves once they know the enemy has this ability. A final positional ability can be a conical ranged attack, and for this I will use Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars or Genesys rules. Similar to the whirlwind attack, this involves making more attacks than normally possible, but with other restrictions attached. Of course, the boss should have some sort of suitable ranged weapon, such as a repeater or a rotary cannon. The ability could be called Relentless Barrage, and state that the boss makes a single weapon attack against any number of enemies who are within Short Range or Engaged with each other, but increases the difficulty of each subsequent attack past the first by 1. No matter what type of ability you decide to give, attacks that focus on players’ positioning relative to the boss or to each other can make combats more interesting by making players think deliberately about where they put themselves.

The second mechanic type we can take from MMOs is similar to the positional attack, and this is the moving attack. In SWTOR, a few bosses have an ability where they can summon or launch ranged attacks that home in on targets, forcing the unfortunate target to attempt to evade it. These are abilities which can easily be ported over into TTRPGs. Imagine a wizard, or a Sith Lord, summoning balls of lightning and cursing one or more players with them. Said balls of lightning move at 30 feet per round, lasting for three rounds, and if they hit a player, deal 6d6 points of lightning damage to a target. This forces players to remain moving, otherwise they could deal with damage from an ability which occurred up to three rounds ago. Alternatively, you could have the “homing missiles” inflict a status effect, such as paralyzing the target for a single round or giving them disadvantage for a number of rounds. The important thing to keep in mind here is to not give the “missile” the ability to take away a player’s action through its movement. If a player can move 30 feet and the missile can move 40 feet, they will eventually have to give up their action to get away, which is not the intent; players not being able to do cool things on their turn is no fun.

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The third mechanic I’d like to talk about today is the concept of “adds,” or additional enemies that the players have to fight. In MMORPGs, adds are usually enemies who deal little damage and are easily killed, but the threat they pose is in numbers: if the players do not divert time and attention to kill the adds, their damage can add up and their numbers can multiply. Boss fights in RPGs can often end up just being a boss alone, or a boss with a few minions, but once those minions are killed, it turns into just the boss, with everyone rushing in and beating on it until it dies. In MMOs, however, the boss usually has the ability to call adds multiple times throughout the fight, constantly drawing the player’s attention. This is easily replicated in a TTRPG. Either give the boss an ability to literally call more minions to him by shouting, over a comlink, or something similar, and have the minions rush into the room to engage in battle; or give them a magical ability where they can summon or raise minions, like skeletons, near-instantaneously. Again, as I mentioned earlier, don’t be afraid to go outside the rules as written to do this. Yes, Animate Dead in D&D takes 1 minute to cast, but wouldn’t it be much cooler if, in the midst of a battle, a Necromancer can just point at a pile of bones, command, “Rise!” and add a skeleton to the battle? I’ve personally used this exact ability in my D&D game and it does little to unbalance the battle. The thing to remember when bringing adds into battles is that they need to be relatively harmless individually and be easy to kill; a single hit should do most of them in. You want to force your players to make interesting decisions about what to do on their turns, not overwhelm them with enemy attacks and bags of lots of hit points.

If you look to your favorite MMO, or if you don’t play, just do some research online about bosses and their abilities, I’m sure you can find plenty of inspiration for interesting bosses and encounters. I’ve barely scratched the surface during this post about the kinds of things you can add to your game, and I hope it’s been helpful.

If you want to see more content, you can follow me on Instagram and check out my stuff on the DM’s Guild.

As always, good luck and happy gaming!

One of These Things is not Like the Other (or Differentiating Horde Enemies)

The party is under attack! Orcs, or goblins, or hobgoblins, or skeletons, or zombies, or any other permutation of horde-style enemies are surrounding the party, or defending their lair, or…you get the point.

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These encounters pop up many times in most campaigns, sometimes as major set-piece battles, sometimes as random encounters, or even just to give the players a dose of combat to break up some long periods of roleplaying and exploration. While these battles can be fun, they run the risk of being bland in terms of the enemy types players face, particularly if the Dungeon Master or GM only has access to a basic bestiary like the Monster Manual and not advanced books with more diverse enemy types. Perhaps even those advanced books don’t have enough differentiated enemy types. For example, while there are eight different flavors of Orc across three different rulebooks, there are only five types of Hobgoblins you can throw at your players, and two of them (Warlord and Captain), are essentially the same, with the Warlord just having three times as many hit points and a higher AC. Even worse, there are only two types of Goblins! Such narrow options can not only bore your players, it also can rob them of that element of uncertainty when facing interesting monsters; they will get so accustomed to what these creatures’ abilities are that it can lead to even more boring encounters since they know exactly what to do. Today’s post will be an overview on how to homebrew some interesting and simple variations on enemies to bring more variety to your encounters and keep your players on your toes.

The first and simplest way to do modify enemies is to change up their equipment. In the D&D basic rules, an Orc wears hide armor and carries a greatsword and javelin. In my homebrew game, Orcs are more akin to Lord of the Rings Orcs than to D&D Orcs, and I use LOTR wargame miniatures on the tabletop. Those orcs wear mostly chain and half-plate armor, and are armed with a great variety of weapons: swords and shields, two-handed axes, spears, and bows. Since I try to adhere to the principle of WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get, essentially meaning, for example, if a miniature has a shield and half-plate, his stats will reflect that added AC; I want my players to be able to look at the mins on the battlefield and make their decisions off of the information they glean from it, as their characters would be able to), when I throw 40 Orcs on the battlefield for  a major set-piece battle, most of those Orcs have different stats based on the equipment they have. Already, we have broken our basic Orc into at least four different varieties. It requires a bit more bookkeeping since you need to have the stats for the different weapons at hand, but it does make things more interesting for both you and your players. If you are going to change up weapons and equipment, however, I would highly recommend having appropriate miniatures so that the players (and you) can easily tell the difference. It is way easier to glance over and see that a mini has a shield and add +2 to its AC rather than trying to think, “Hmm, wait, was that the guy with a shield or was it this one over here?”

The second way to add some variety is to add some enemies that I will refer to as Specialists. These are enemies that are tougher than your average minion, but not yet tough enough to be something like a leader or miniboss. In D&D terms, they would probably sit around CR1, possibly 2 depending on the level of your party and the encounter, and in something like Star Wars RPG or Gensys they would be Rivals as opposed to Minions, or even just Minions with a higher Wound Threshold. Specialists are simple twists on basic enemies, having a single special ability or schtick that sets them apart and gives them a more defined purpose on the battlefield. In a science fiction or modern RPG, an easy Specialist could be a machinegunner; increase the hit points or armor to make him more survivable and give him an appropriate weapon that can spit out a high volume of shots or target multiple enemies. The key, though, is to give them a special ability. For our machinegunner, we can give him an ability that if he targets an enemy with his weapon on his turn, that enemy gets some sort of debuff as they go scrambling for cover. In Star Wars, this can be represented by adding a black die to that character’s next check, and in a D20 system it could be a -2 to their next check or even Disadvantage. In any system, you can have a Spotter, who uses their action to grant a buff to all allies who target a specific enemy; in D&D you could even make this an enemy cleric who is able to cast Guiding Bolt every turn, though that is the only spell they know. A good option is to create some sort of defensive specialist, who buffs their allies’ Armor Class or Defense, or even can provide some sort of cover for them to hide behind, making it harder to kill the enemies. Feel free to invent new spells and abilities, such as a Concentration spell that enables a Wizard to add +1 to the AC of three different creatures other than itself, for example.

The important thing to remember when creating Specialists is to create them with a very specific role in mind, and make them fit solely within that role. A damage-dealing Specialist like a machinegunner should be attacking every turn and doing nothing else; perhaps even make them a turret character, who can’t attack or gets disadvantages to attacking when they move. A support Specialist like our spotter or a defensive Specialist like our AC-buffing Wizard should not be able to do much damage, and should rarely be attacking anyways. Perhaps they only attack in self defense, when an enemy is directly threatening them. But again, these are supposed to be only one step up from your average enemy, not a full miniboss.

The third way to add variety to your combat encounters with many similar enemies is to create new abilities to add to some or all of your enemies. This is the most complex and requires the most work on the part of the DM/GM, but can really spice up encounters. I recommend, in particular, creating abilities which synergize with each other. You can even combine the above Specialists with these new abilities and create some really interesting combos which force the players to sit up and pay attention. Let’s take the Spotter from above, for example, make him an Orc, and let’s say his ability is to fire a flaming marking arrow which adds +5 to all attack rolls against the target until his next turn. Now let’s give a third of our Orcs compound bows (count as longbows, but longbows don’t seem very Orcish), changing up the weaponry they’re carrying. Finally, let’s give all of our bow-wielding Orcs a new ability: when firing at an enemy marked by the Spotter, add an extra D4 piercing damage to their damage if they hit. Notice that the extra damage only applies to bow-wielding Orcs, not all Orcs, so we are further differentiating our enemies and how they interact with some of the special abilities.

If you want an ability to apply to all of your enemies, ensure that it will change how the players approach the encounter in a fundamental way once you reveal it. Following the Orc example, half-Orcs get an ability where, once per long rest, when they drop to 0 HP, they can drop to 1 instead. This is obviously supposed to be because of their Orcish heritage, but Orcs have no such ability. Why not give this ability to Orcs as well, to surprise your players the next time they face a group of Orcs and think they know exactly how things will go. Maybe make it even nastier; when they pop back up with 1 HP, they go into a bloodthirsty rage where they get advantage on all attacks until they are killed.

By doing a little prep work and having the appropriate miniatures or representations, you can take what might be a tedious encounter and turn it into one your players will remember, and keep them on their toes for future combats you might run. Some players love to read the Monster Manual or other such books to try to brush up on enemies they will face, and this is a good way to discourage that sort of metagaming, even if it is mostly harmless. It can bring a sense of mystery and slight trepidation to each combat encounter, making your players guess, “what is going to be going on with these enemies today?”

If you want to see more content, you can follow me on Instagram and check out my stuff on the DM’s Guild.

As always, good luck and happy gaming!

Tactics vs Strategy (or War, Part 3)

In 1758, at the height of the Seven Years War, the British prepared to launch yet another expedition to attempt to capture or destroy the significant French forts in the Ohio territory. The primary objective was Fort Duquesne, built at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers; the Fort’s location essentially allowed its owner to control nearly all movement, trade, and settlement in the Ohio country, and controlling the Ohio country was a major British objective and one of the primary causus belli. Previous expeditions had all failed, despite the British being victorious in some battles and them losing some which were not disastrous defeats; a common theme in these failed expeditions was British commanders’ frustration with the slow pace of their army’s movement and the subsequent decisions to leave baggage and artillery behind and continue ahead with the infantry.  The French and allied Native Americans would then ambush these isolated infantry and, the British cut off from their artillery and supply trains, could not remain pushing forward. Travel overland through the thick Ohio country was difficult, but leaving supplies and heavy guns behind would always lead to inevitable failure in terrain owned by the enemy. So, in 1758, General John Forbes set off with his expedition. He made the decision to move deliberately, slowly, with pioneers cutting a new road through the forests and over the Allegheny Mountains. At periodic intervals, he stopped and built fortified stockades and supply depots which he could store more supplies at and have a fall-back point to defend if things turned poor for his troops. It took months, and many of his junior officers and some of his superiors were frustrated with the slow progress. At many points along the way, the British infantry were ambushed by French and Native forces, as they had been in previous expeditions, but this time, the British troops could fall back to the safety of their heavy guns or the new forts, and resupply and receive medical attention.

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During Forbes’ expedition, he lost every battle he fought, yet he did not change course. He continued his methodical advance. With fall-back points, artillery, and his supply train always close by, Forbes could continue to advance. The French and their Native allies had no answer for this slow-moving juggernaut, for as long as the British had their supply lines open and protected, the French could not stop them. Forbes continued his advance, and the French were forced to systematically destroy each one of the forts in the Ohio valley as the British neared each one in turn. On November 24, 1758, as the British neared within about five miles, the French commander of Fort Dusquesne evacuated his troops and set fire to the fort. The British occupied the smoking remains the next day and began construction on their own fort, Fort Pitt, present day Pittsburgh. General Forbes had lost every tactical encounter with the French, and achieved his strategic objective.

I use that story often in my profession as an Army officer to illustrate the separation between tactics and strategy, and the nebulous middle ground known as “operations.” In simple terms, tactics are the application of maneuver and combat power against an enemy at a set place and time to achieve local success or victory; tactics deals strictly with military units. Strategy, on the other hand, is the plan by which a nation strives to achieve victory over an enemy nation, and encompasses all assets at that nation’s disposal to achieve it; there may be several strategic “objectives” that the nation sets forth in order to bring about their enemy’s defeat. Operations are groupings of many tactical actions which are linked to achieving or helping to achieve a specific strategic objective. If commanders at different levels do not fully understand or communicate the objectives of whatever they are setting out on are, or do not act in accordance with the higher objective, tactical success can be meaningless; “winning the battle, but losing the war.” At the tactical level, the French dominated the British in the Ohio Country during the Seven Years War. They were strategically defeated there. In a more recent example, American forces dominated North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong forces tactically during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968; the NVA was virtually destroyed as an entity and could not mount major combat operations for years afterwards. However, the Tet Offensive was a public relations disaster for the United States government, who had been assuring the world that the war was well in hand. Despite the overwhelming victory American troops had achieved on the battlefield, the Tet Offensive was a strategic victory for the Vietnamese Communists, who stirred so much unrest in the United States that the US would never be able to recover in their conduct of the war; Tet was the beginning of the end of the US war effort in Vietnam.

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I know you didn’t come here for a history lesson, but if you plan on incorporating war into your campaigns, I believe it is important that you, as a GM or DM, understand the way countries and their armies intend to wage that war. While battles are exciting (as we discussed in Part 2, the next step up is to make sure that the effect of these battles is tied to something in the overall war effort. Battles occur when two armies come together on a battlefield. It’s your job to decide why those two armies came together. What did each country send those armies to do? How does each army fit into its country’s strategic objectives? What are those strategic objectives?

The first thing you should figure out is the strategy of each nation involved in the war. Why did these two countries go to war in the first place? Was it a border or territorial dispute? A trade dispute? A diplomatic insult? Decide the reason for war first, and that may help you determine the strategic goals, but they do not need to be inexorably tied; a causus belli can simply be the way to start a war, with goals that far outweigh the initial offense or objective.  Since I introduced the Seven Years War with my anecdote about John Forbes’ expedition, I will continue with that example. The Seven Years War started as a territorial dispute over the Ohio Country between France and Great Britain. However, William Pitt, the British Prime Minister, made British strategy the complete humiliation and weakening of France, particularly through taking away France’s colonial empire.

Once you figure out the strategy of the nations, decide if there are any sub-tasks that would need to be accomplished to achieve this. There does not have to be, but there may be. For example, since France had overseas colonies in many locations, Britain had many strategic objectives: control the Ohio country, control the Saint Lawrence River and thereby French Canada, control French trading cities and outposts in India, control French trading outposts in Africa. If there are several strategic-level objectives, they can start to inform and determine where the nation will allocate its resources. Some may require more troops than others. Some may require a different approach entirely. For today, to keep things manageable, we will focus only on military assets, though trade, diplomacy, and subterfuge are all additional assets at a nation’s disposal in warfare.

If strategic objectives are identified, you can then have nations send armies on campaigns. These are operational-level maneuvers with a specific strategic goal in mind that they are trying to accomplish. General Forbes’ expedition to capture Fort Dusquesne would grant the British virtual control over the entire Ohio country, achieving a strategic objective. General Amherst led another army in a separate series of campaigns over several years to the north along the Saint Lawrence River which resulted in the capture of Montreal, solidifying British control over the River, and thereby French Canada, and achieving another strategic objective. British troops made amphibious assaults in Africa, capturing Senegal, Goiree, and Gambia from the French. And in India, yet another army under Sir Eyre Coote captured Wandiwash, Pondicherry, Karikal, and Mahe, eliminating French power on the subcontinent. These were all separate armies, with separate commanders, pursuing different strategic objectives. Yet they were all tied to the overall strategic goal of eliminating France’s colonial empire and humiliating them.

Once an army sets out on campaigns, the battles it fights should then be in service to achieving that campaign’s strategic goals. A good commander would not fight the enemy merely for the sake of fighting; he or she would only fight if the battle would further the objective. That is not always going to be the case, but armies, especially in pre-modern settings, are slow and ponderous things to maneuver, and battles were rarer than we probably think. Generals spent a long time maneuvering their armies around the countryside, trying to get them into an advantageous position where they could achieve their objective. When a battle is fought, it should have a purpose for each side, even if that purpose for one side is simply the preservation of the army. The French forced battle on General Forbes many times, to try to force him to withdraw from Ohio and preserve their control; Forbes’s only goal was to preserve his army long enough to reach Dusquesne, and so he conducted his campaign and his battles mostly defensively.

If you are able to have the battles that your players participate in on the tabletop link back to higher-level objectives at the national level, and communicate those effects to them, they will not only understand better what they are fighting for, they will also be more immersed in your world, in the war you’ve introduced, and may even want to get involved in helping to shape the goals and direction of the war.

As always, good luck with your campaigns.