Key Points in Tactical Encounters

There’s been a lot of discussion online lately about tactical encounters & combat speed in Dungeons & Dragons.  I’d like to discuss tactical encounters in a different light by examining how on-the-fly adjustment of tactical encounters can be used as a tool to insure good storytelling is kept at the forefront of your adventure.

Let’s start off with managing an expectation for your gaming sessions – Fully detailed tactical encounters shouldn’t be expected for every single gaming session.  You don’t need each & every gaming night to be filled with the full fledged encounter of the size that we’ve seen in most published adventures for this edition of the game.  Rather, change everyone’s expectations to this: when adventurers enter into a tactical encounter, it should have an impact on the storyline that’s relative to the size of the encounter. The more detail there is in an encounter, the more of an impact it should potentially have on the story.

I’m sure your next question is how do you do this? Break the combat down by key points, which cover the major possibilities in terms of what could happen during the combat.  If the commander of the orc unit is killed, what do the rest of the orcs in the encounter do?  Do they become subject to a type of Morale system, or are they unaffected?  Regardless, the death of that commander will be seen as a key point in the combat.  Use these key points as decision-making flags for you as the DM to decide what happens next.  Base those decisions on what has happened in the story thus far, the current atmosphere at the gaming table, and even the level of interest in the game at that point in time.  Don’t be afraid to insert skill checks or even skill challenges at these points.  If you really want to get detailed, have each point in the combat become a skill challenge.  Feel free to adjust the power level of key points both up & down during the combat, even to the point of ending combat completely!

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Dungeons & Dragons Experience.  I was fortunate enough to not only meet a lot of great people, but to game with some incredibly talented DMs.  While playing through the adventure “Kalarel’s Revenge”, our DM did an incredible job of reading the player’s interest level & using that to determine what should happen next in the adventure.

I played the part of a female character whose main goal in the adventure was to harvest wayward souls that were found over the area in which we were adventuring.  The module had listed a feature that my character had that wasn’t on my character sheet – she could make Arcana checks to “devour” souls & gain a few nice bonuses.  I had no idea I could do this, and when the DM hinted at opportunities to use the power, I was confused.  After a quick explanation away from the gaming table, I decided to use my power and suck in a particularly powerful soul that appeared at the beginning of our current encounter.  This soul had appeared and instructed “lesser” souls to animate the bodies of some recently-killed nasties that were nearby.  I rolled extremely well for my Arcana check, and managed to devour the apparition.  At that point, the DM informed us that the nasties all fell over, lifeless once again as the souls inhabiting them had lost their control over the bodies.  The encounter ended, everyone at the table cheered & we moved on without even engaging any of the enemies in combat.

What’s significant about this, you ask?  None of it was in the published adventure.  The DM saw an opportunity to change the encounter to fit what had happened on the skill check.  She then used that opportunity to not only increase the potency of the results of the check due to my roll but she went as far as to end the encounter.  I later read the adventure & saw that the encounter wasn’t of any real consequence to the storyline so we didn’t miss out on anything.

It was a great experience and something I know all of us who played in that adventure will remember for quite some time. The DM did an excellent job of adjusting things on the fly.  The key point in the encounter became my character’s absorption of the powerful soul, and she decided that it was enough to end the combat before it truly began.  She knew that it was more important to let the meaningful encounters in the adventure take up more of our time, and those encounters with a lesser impact could easily be toned down

The key point is to adjust as needed based on the players’ current comfort level with the game.  If you find your players are spending 2+ hours fighting against the guardsmen for the evil wizard’s fortress, take a step back & consider if this is where you want the bulk of your player’s time to be spent.  Would that tactical encounter be better served by a skill challenge or a modification to the current encounter where in-combat skill challenges can end combat without the death of all opponents?  Maybe you really do want to spend time fighting against those guards in full detail?  Whatever you decide, make sure the decisions you make do their best to keep the adventure fun, exciting & meaningful for everyone involved.


Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. Jonathan Westmoreland is a 40 year old chemist originally from the deep, dark woods of southern Arkansas. He began his gaming career after seeing the Erol Otus Red Box in a bookstore in 1981 and hasn't turned back since.


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About Eldritch Reverie

Jonathan Westmoreland is a 40 year old chemist originally from the deep, dark woods of southern Arkansas. He began his gaming career after seeing the Erol Otus Red Box in a bookstore in 1981 and hasn't turned back since.
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