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.