Monday, February 21, 2011

Tactics - Getting into the Mindset

D&D / Pathfinder is a tactical game. It traces its history back to tabletop war games, and though Dungeons & Dragons (TM) birthed the Roleplaying Game genre, it is at its heart a very fun tactical game of choices and strategy.

Now most D&D/Pathfinder games involve at least a fair share of action and combat situations. By default, these games assume worlds that are filled with man-eating monsters, ferocious warriors, evil wizards, and other "high fantasy" themes. Most of the characters are expected to participate in these heroic fantasies by doing heroic things, including slaying man-eating monsters, battling ferocious warriors, and foiling plots by evil wizards; that sort of thing. So of course, a good lot of these games have a solid amount of focus on combat.

So today, I'm going to discuss some basic combat strategies. If you saw my last blog post (A Look at Damaging Spells), then you probably know a little bit of this, as I will be commenting on tactical applications of spells as well.

The Tactical Mindset: What you want to get into is the tactical mindset. Think about things is more than just hit points and damage. You want to do things like flank opponents, take advantage of terrain, and use your resources to the best of your abilities. When you start thinking in terms of strategy, rather than brute force, you'll probably be in the tactical mindset. The truest tactician will happily work with his or her friends to soar to greater heights.

This tactical mindset can be developed even while playing real-time strategy (RTS) games and computer based RPGs like Bioware's Baldur's Gate Series, because they require you to think strategically. This tactical mindset lends itself well to the creative problem-solving of tabletop RPGs, and many of the lessons from either can be applied universally.

A Brief Example of the Tactical Mindset: The following is copied from a post I wrote on the Paizo message boards in a discussion about tactical uses for spells; and gives an idea of the transition from thinking in terms of damage to thinking in terms of tactical problem solving.

Until an enemy is either dead or disabled, they are a threat. HP is binary/Boolean. Either it's ON or OFF; either you're up or your down as far as damage goes. It doesn't matter if you have 1,111 hp or 1 Hp, you can still act and threaten your enemies. This means that even if you "soften" them up, it's not going to stop them from threatening your party; just make it so it takes less time to kill them individually.

Now, a very basic tactical consideration is "don't split your attention". The basic concept is simple. Instead of breaking off and splitting your party's focus among multiple foes, it is more effective to focus-fire one enemy at a time and then cycle between them. Generally this is pretty simple. Pick one guy, and everyone focuses on taking that guy out; then switch to the next guy, and so forth. There are some variations, and if you can take that guy out while also hurting another enemy (such as via the Cleave feat) then power to you; but try not to waste actions "softening" enemies when you could be making it harder for them to kill you.

This basic concept is prevalent in RTS games and even the ever popular Baldur's Gate series for the PC (which uses 2E D&D rules). Early in my time playing baldur's gate, I wondered why I was using spells like magic missile and fireball so heavily, and yet my party was getting slaughtered by enemies almost constantly. I had to reload from save-games like it was my job (eh, I was a young teen, tactics weren't my forte I guess). However, one day, I realized what the problem was.

My enemies didn't often throw things like fireballs. They did cast things like horror which always seemed to result in at least one person in my party having a panic attack and running off to act stupid, and they were quire happy with spells and potions of haste which sometimes had them killing my PCs before I realized they were dead. Stuff like hold person meant that my ever important meat-shield wasn't even capable of twiddling his thumbs, while various charm and dominate spells generally meant my favorite hamster loving ranger was pitching for the wrong team. >.<

Even if my enemies weren't casting spells, I found that damage spells weren't very tactical. You see, damage spells were actually pretty cool in 1-2E because enemies really didn't have many HP (honestly a 45 hp enemy was a pretty strong fellow, whereas that's about CR 3-4 in Pathfinder); so those big damage spells like fireball were a lot sexier (17.5 damage was pretty nice when your enemies probably had 9-12 HP). However, they weren't tactical. If I didn't kill the ogre with my flame arrow spell, or the mage didn't die when I used acid arrow, or that ghoul didn't croak when he was hit with magic missile, the ogre still swung his sword, the mage would cast his spell, and the ghoul would paralyze somebody.

Then I learned to start thinking about things in terms of "don't let them hurt you" or "reduce incoming fire". Suddenly the game shifted from incredibly difficult to challenging. Instead of magic missile, I prepared sleep, which made many of the encounters very easy (fighting a pack of kobolds with shortbows intent on killing poor Imoen? Shut them down!). Instead of casting fireball, summon monster I (a 3rd level spell then) was the weapon of choice, because even if the monster couldn't kill the badguys, it made it harder for them to engage my party; who could then begin focus-firing arrows, slings, and crossbow bolts into its scaled hide.

I realized that hasting and buffing your party improved their survivability and helped them kill enemies faster. I learned that instead of sending each character to fight a different foe, I would have them all pick an unlucky fellow and focus on killing him at all costs; so that when 4 becomes 3, and 3 becomes 2, there's only 3 and then 2 attacks coming back at you. It's better to take down one enemy per round than 4 enemies at once over 4 rounds.

By using buffs and debuffs that affected multiple creatures, I could often sit back and conserve my good spells. A single summon monster spell ensured that I had garnished the worth out of my wizard for the whole fight (even if the summon is killed, that's time my enemies have wasted mowing through the summon). Then my wizard can sit back and counter other wizards (in BG I & II, this is the purpose I found for magic missile, because it has a fast casting time and almost assuredly breaks their concentration; allowing me to get it off before they could finish casting a 2nd level or higher spell).

Fireball was good for abusing the system (you could fire it off screen, killing enemies without them registering that they were under attack) but for actual gameplay, spells like haste, slow, horror, sleep, and summon spells were more effective at actually succeeding. By succeeding, I mean this was the best way to try and keep you and your friends alive, conserve resources (those 3rd level spells are valuable!), and try not too use too many consumables (if you blow 130 gp worth of potions during or after a fight, but you only got 30 gp worth of treasure, the joke's on you! :P).

In actual D&D, these rules still apply. I'd actually say they apply more than they do in this computer based environments because obstacles and adventures are not limited to pre-programmed responses and tactics. You never know exactly what those crazy kobolds are going to do. You can't "cheese" your way through certain encounters by engaging the fight from "off screen", and so on and so forth. You can encounter enemies who attack from three dimensions; more enemies hide from you; and they have a wider breadth of options.

However, the core concept of this remains. If there's four of you, and you're engaging 8 kobolds and they're fighting you like kobolds mean it (could be traps in the area, they're taking cover, using ranged weapons, etc), then instead of trying to hit a kobold with scorching ray, magic missile, or flaming sphere, dive behind a meat-shield (+4 AC vs ranged attacks), and drop a sleep, enlarge person, heroism, or summon monster II and lay down the law. You might not do the killing, but you stand a good chance of making them lose actions, helping your allies kill them, or preventing your allies from getting hurt. And if that's the case, then you're a good wizard and we love you.

A Look at Damaging Spells

I originally began this as a thread on the Paizo Publishing message boards in a discussion about the tactical considerations of "blasting" versus alternatives when playing classes like wizards and sorcerers in Pathfinder (or D&D 1st edition, 2nd edition, and 3rd edition). Someone asked if it was true that "blasting" was less effective in D&D/Pathfinder than other alternatives.

"Blasting" is essentially damage dealing spells. These are the spells most commonly recognized in D&D/Pathfinder, such as magic missile and fireball, and are most commonly chosen by those new to the game. "Alternatives" is pretty much magic that doesn't revolve around dealing damage (at least not directly), such as haste, silent image, or enlarge person.

Blasting has lost a lot of spark since it's previous editions. I love 3rd Edition D&D / Pathfinder, but stuff like fireball was better back in 1st edition and 2nd edition because enemies had less hit points. You could be fighting monstrous demons who only had around 40-60 hit points, whereas the Pit Fiend and Balor have over 300 hit points each in the current edition. The thing is, damage hasn't really increased much. Fireball still deals the same 10d6 fire damage at 10th level (average 35 damage), but that can't even down a Bear outright unless you roll about 80% of your max damage, and it still gets a Saving Throw for half damage.

The second problem that blasting has is it's very limited. Most damaging spells don't have secondary effects or special features for using them, with the exception of fireball (which notes that it can catch unattended flammable objects on fire) most things just deal damage, and even fireball's secondary effects aren't terribly useful (actually, they make it riskier to use since you might accidentally start a forest fire or something). This means that unless you're actively attacking an enemy, the spell is useless to you, and only useful on the round you actually cast it (not before, not after, only during).

The third problem is that most damaging spells are incredibly situational. Things like energy resistance are pretty common in D&D/Pathfinder. For example, any simple fiendish creature has at least fire and cold resistance 5 (but up to 15), meaning they ignore that much damage when they're hit with those elements. Let's use a hypothetical Wolf with the Fiendish creature template, which we could find summoned by a summon monster spell, or serving some evil villain as a minion. At 5th level, our wizard inflicts 5d6 (average 17.5) fire damage with a fireball spell, or half damage (about 8.75) on a successful save, and then reduces the damage by 5; meaning the fireball probably isn't going to kill the 13 Hp wolf outright; but you can only do this maybe 1-2 more times today. Likewise, if you find yourself fighting a Fire Elemental of any size, your fireball is completely useless.

And for those wondering, a 5th level Ranger should have about a +8 to hit (+5 base attack, +4 strength, +1 masterwork weapon, -2 power attack) and deals around 2d6+12 damage, killing the wolf outright on a successful hit. So the 5th level ranger can kill one or two of these things per round without expending precious resources like 3rd level spells.

So What Besides Blasting?
There's a lot of better things that a wizard or sorcerer can be doing instead of trying to compete with the fighting guys at dealing damage. If a wizard or sorcerer really wants to do well and be important in a fight, it's better to change the conditions of that fight. There's a lot of ways to do this. A successful wizard can do this in a variety of very noticeable ways.

1) Buffing: A wizard can act as a "force multiplier", making his friends far more powerful than they normally would be. Casters can do this as early as 1st level, and they make it count. A 1st level wizard can cast enlarge person on the party's fighting guy, making him bigger, badder, and beefier, and it lasts 10 rounds (1 minute). That means the wizard can turn the fighter into an engine of destruction, and then either cast more spells or stall his turns by just defending (total defense gives a +4 dodge bonus for 1 round as a standard action) to increase his own survivability. He can also cast protection from evil on the fighter, preventing the fighter from getting mind-controlled and turning on the party.

At 3rd level, the wizard can cast spells like heroism to give the fighter a +2 to most everything for 30 minutes (and enlarge person lasts 30 rounds now), or cast bull's strength on the fighter making him hit harder, or casting invisibility on the party's rogue so she can sneak into an area to scout and steal the badguys' potions and scrolls before they fight them.

At 5th level, the wizard turns into a true force multiplier. He can cast spells like haste which can affect the whole party, making them faster, more accurate, harder to hit, better at evading, and even lets them get an extra attack in. Since it lasts 5 rounds, you just made everyone on your side much better for most or maybe even all of the fight.

It goes on with more and more options as your levels rise. New spells to make your party stronger become available, and old spells become more plentiful and last longer and longer; so spells that you used to cast only when you needed them can be cast beforehand and last for a good while, so you can prepare for trouble (sorry, cheesy reference).

2) Debuffing: A wizard can also make it easier for enemies to get mashed by the party's fighters. This is a bit harder than making your friends stronger, but it too can be done as early as 1st level and right on up to 20th. Spells like sleep and colorspray can knock enemies out, while grease can make enemies slip, slide, and fall down (making them easier to hit), or can even force an opponent to drop their weapon.

At 3rd level, a wizard gets stuff like hideous laughter which can take an enemy out of a fight. Glitterdust can blind a group of enemies for a few rounds (usually enough to mop them up) while outlining them so they can't hide. Blindness/Deafness can make them permanently blind until they get magical assistance. Web can trap enemies in sticky nets of webbing, making it difficult to move or fight, and other things like this.

At 5th level, a wizard can cast spells like stinking cloud, slow, and ray of exhaustion, which pretty much disable enemies (often groups of enemies) for several rounds or an entire combat, allowing the party to mop them up; and the wizard can conserve his spells.

3) Controlling: The third in the holy trinity of wizard casting is controlling the field. Controlling essentially means that you make the battlefield or conditions favor your party on a more broad scale than just buffing your party. This can involve summoning monsters to help your party with spells like summon monster I-IX, or making certain areas of the field hazardous for your enemies with spells like grease and stinking cloud. In many cases, controlling has a lot of spells that overlap as debuff spells.

At 1st level, controlling spells include things like grease to make areas of terrain troublesome. Sleep can help take enemies out of the fight for a few rounds, giving you and your friends some breathing room. Silent image or obscuring mist can conjure hazy clouds of smoke or mist that provide concealment, potentially robbing enemy rogues of their ability to get bonus damage against you or your party.

There are a lot of great controlling spells, but I'm going to point out just a few of my favorites. Sleet storm is a 3rd level spell that is amazing at controlling the battlefield, as it blocks all sight and covers a very noticeable area in rough terrain for a number of rounds. Black tentacles is a 4th level spell that creates a big area that grabs enemies and beats them up while stopping them from acting. Stinking Cloud is a 3rd level spell that can block sight and make enemies nauseated, which prevents them from acting.

Then of course there are the summoning spells. Summoning spells are a special kind of battlefield control because they literally place new creatures on the battlefield. When suddenly you have a fiendish bull bursting onto the scene, clogging up the path to your friends with its body and getting ready to trample over your enemies, you're doing good. Either they have to kill the bull (wasting their turns) or they have to try and kill the party while the bull tramples them; it's a win/win deal.

Summary: Ultimately the reason that damaging spells aren't very useful is because they lack options and they're here and gone. If you enlarge your fighter, he'll be kicking booty for a while. But you could also enlarge him to help him carry stuff, or to help him climb something, or to reach something, or to make it so something cannot pin him down, or so he cannot be caught in a web or net. You have options. All you can do with magic missile is damage creatures, and only damage creatures.

We can experience a thousand and one different situations while playing a D&D/Pathfinder campaign, so it's generally better to be prepared. Being able to conserve your spells, help you party, and adapt to different situations is what separates a good wizard from a wand of fireball.