In a video from AnimeMilwaukee 2017, Matt Mercer and Marisha Ray, as well as a brief virtual visit from Laura Bailey and Travis Willingham, did a panel answering questions about their roleplaying experience as they have been sensations on Geek & Sundry’s series of live tabletop broadcasts in the Critical Role series. What inspired this post was something that Marisha commented about Matt’s DMing style in that he is a fan of doing combat in waves of enemies, so that the initial combat may only be these two enemies that the players use their resources to trounce before seeing three more coming to join the fray. Matt then comments about how not all battles have to be ‘these Chess pieces versus those Chess pieces’, making it akin to one of those logic puzzles you see where one side has to get mate in so many turns.
The idea is that not every battle has to be set up like a Chess problem where you know all the pieces are on the board before deciding your tactics. Combat is more fluid, more varied, hard to plan for if th sayings about plans and first contact with enemies are true. If D&D were a game like Sega Genesis’ tactical combat RPG Shining Force 2, which actually has a literal battle against Chess pieces, the combats would be a lot more like looking at a game of Warhammer 40k or similar miniatures wargame. There would be a lot more rulers and spell template shapes out as they calculate their best move before making it. Instead, to use the Chess analogy a little more, it is like the Rupert the Bear episode Rupert in Gameland, where all the game pieces are playing in a game against the Chessmen. As it is a story instead of a coded game, things evolve and adapt as the story goes to make things exciting to watch as it unfolds. Personally, every time I see this episode it reminds me of the Chess battle from Shining Force 2 and how it could have been done differently. Not saying that the fight was bad, but that beyond the theming of the battle with Chess pieces it was like fighting any other battle. The pieces didn’t move like they would in Chess, though killing the King ends the battle like killing the commander in any fight in that game.
One immediate benefit of not having all the pieces known to the players at the start of the combat is that it allows for the DM to adjust the difficulty on the fly. The players are having a bad night with their rolls and are getting decimated, then hold back adding any new opponents just yet or add some but be willing to give the players some way to get out of the situation should they wish to flee. If things are too easy, then add a few enemies and you can even buff up the stats to make it more of a challenge for them. Of course, be sure to mix up how often you make use of the additional enemies or players will start holding back really powerful reserves as they wait for you to drop in that followup challenge to yet another fight. In other words, give them some small battles, something that may have a twist elsewhere like in terrain options affecting the combat or having the enemies in the fight synergize in their abilities that much that even this small opposition could be challenging. Tucker’s Kobolds works here, but an example I used in one game was a few treants and a dryad who could use the power to step between trees to be popping out anywhere in the field including from a treant.
When you do run a wave based combat, make sure the justification for the waves makes sense. Backup could be coming from the closest location and it just takes a few rounds to get from there to here, that gives the players so many rounds before the new fighters show up. A group hiding in wait for their moment to strike is another option, so long as the enemy has a way to communicate with the other group to flank at a specific time or they have had time to set up the terrain and get in place. After all, having enemies just poof into existence when the terrain is open enough to see anyone coming will destroy the illusion of reality that the game is trying to maintain.
Another twist that could be run in the surprise situation is bringing in a third group. Instead of allies for the enemies, perhaps the new combattant(s) have a hatred for the enemy and rally with the players to help eliminate the enemy. Perhaps it becomes a triangle of conflict, where those just showing up in the battle hate both you and the enemy and are trying to get rid of both. There are so many different styles of plot twists and turns as we see here in the Mêlée à Trois tvtropes entry. That should give any good Gamemaster some ideas to work with for a while.
Building on the idea of three different groups fighting, a Gamemaster could introduce ‘natural elements’ to the combat being the third side. Creatures with little to no intelligence may not be able to tell one side from another, such as wild animals, plants or even the terrain effects like quicksand and lava. A plant that spits seeds at whatever moves or a Venus flytrap that tries to eat whatever gets close enough does not care if it is another NPC that is triggering it, it will still attack. Same as the quicksand or lava stream, they will still be causing problems for anyone who ventures in close enough.
Also, do not be afraid to occasionally have another wav incoming be a supporting piece for the players. Beyond balancing the difficulty, this gives you story options that you can work with to take your RP in different directions. To use an example of Robin Hood, stories have him at odds with the Sheriff and the King before he ever finds the Merry Men. Perhaps, we find Robin dealing with the Sheriff when the Merry Men show up and give Robin’s enemies a mighty thrashing. A few ways this could work include:
- The newcomers being interested in helping the PCs out in some way. Maybe they want to join and have been waiting to prove their chance.
- They are there to recruit the PC to help them into doing something for them. Maybe they will use their helping out for a little quid pro quo,or maybe they were just showing up in the nick of time.
- They are an unaffiliated group of heroes/soldiers/etc and their presence was just to clear out the bad guys. Think of this like the FBI rolling in to take out criminals the cops are engaged in a standoff with. This is that “No, no need to thank us for saving you” moment, whether of not the PCs could have resolved everything themselves.
- Perhaps both parties have a conflict of interests, but are able to put the differences aside to beat a common foe. Two gangs fighting against the police, for example.
There are many ways to make use of this tactic to add some unpredictability to combat and keeping the players on their toes in this way. Have them thinking of every combat as a new challenge with new types of obstacles to overcome. It keeps them thinking, keeps them evaluating their options tactically like they should in a game of chess. Any good player of games like Chess or Poker will tell you that, sometimes, the best thing to do is play defensively and wait for your moment to make a move that will change things into your favor. The opening scene in the movie First Knight puts it this way hen discussing the sword fighting style Lancelot uses:
You have to study your opponent, how he moves, so you know what he’s going to do before he does it…
You have to know that one moment in every fight, when you win or lose, and you have to know how to wait for it…
And you have to not care whether you live or die…