As I mentioned last time, first level in an old-school game is the baptism through fire of excitement in combat, when your hit die is not too many numbers ahead of the damage die. The situation also creates excitement through other means, if you engage with it, mostly schemes of low cunning in an attempt to not get your character killed.
(Of course, that kind of excitement can be sustained almost indefinitely playing with a system where characters aren't protected from death at high levels, or hacking D&D to be such a system. Along with a lot of frustration and gravestones, of course.)
It's low levels after first where you see boring, line-em-up D&D combats begin. As an example may I present the incident from the high school campaign I played in, where we found a room with about 100 kobolds in it. Our fighter - 2nd or 3rd level as I recall, plate mail and shield - simply stood behind the doorway and took care of them as they came on, in what must have been about 15 minutes of steady dice rolling.
With the wisdom of experience I realize that this kind of play was copied from the computer games we played and had nothing to do with how real authentic kobolds (or even experienced skirmish gamers) would approach the situation. See, I've come to know several kobolds personally and they tell me that instead of the suicide rush, they would fade back, harry with slings and arrows, provoke a charge, and then come at you from all sides. They would choose or make living spaces where they could loop around in that situation and sneak up from behind. This is even before I mention all the Viet Cong-style traps and hazards used by the legendary Tucker's Kobolds. I shudder to think what poor preparation my high school D&D experience would have given me for being jumped by kobolds.
The basic insight is to think of your low level intelligent monsters as possessing the same survival instinct and strategy as a set of good, experienced 1st level characters, rather than being dumb numbers in a computer game. The way to use that insight, without even resorting to traps, tricks, burning oil, or features of the environment - though each of these certainly have their place - is to recognize that combat has more than one dimension.
In the case of kobolds and other intelligent humanoids, that dimension is mainly horizontal. First of all, maneuvering around horizontally allows the foe to bring superior numbers to bear. Also, think of the party as a long worm with an armored head and a soft tail. Horizontal maneuvering puts that tail in jeopardy. Finally, most systems have a mechanical advantage for those who attack from the rear or otherwise outflank their foe.
One of the most exciting dungeon combats I ever ran was in Tomb of the Iron God, where there's a room with an array of about eighty skeleton warriors. Skeletons are mindless, but Matt Finch's module had them programmed by smarter minds, so two detachments of them were seen leaving by side passages. The party figured out what was coming, and the fight quickly turned into a nail-biting, moving retreat that just barely managed to avoid being outflanked.
Positioning and range - where you're moving on the map - is the main tactical decision I ask of my players. I've studiously avoided the kind of "combat options" found in later editions simply because positioning will always be an element, an important one at that, and combining optional attack modes or once-per-whatever effects with that tends to bog combat down. I use critical hits and fumbles with effects like knock down or stun, and feats that automatically trigger when a certain number is rolled.
Make no mistake, fighting this kind of positional warfare to advantage is part of player skill. Some kind of graphic display is absolutely necessary, whether figures or whiteboard, to keep options visible and awareness high. If players don't want to exert tactical skill this way, they're probably better off playing in a more abstract system, where the place of positioning is taken by flashy moves and options - kind of like in the old 2D fighting arcade games.
Well, all this is very good for low-level intelligent foes, but aren't things like wolves and spiders just bound to come straight at you and stay boring? That question will be answered in the next installment, wherein I talk about the vertical dimension.
Hugo Reviews 2014 – Novellas
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