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Question inspired by "Redefining Combat" on Clan of the Gray Wolf:

It provides an excellent list inspired by army manuals of alternate tactical goals for a scenario:

Here are some tactical tasks that can easily define an end-state and can allow your party to end combat without killing all the bad guys. Several of these tasks may also be great skill challenges. Finally, all of these tasks can be refined by adding a duration. For example, control these squares for X rounds = win or accomplish objective in X rounds or you lose. Also, when the players accomplish the objective, combat doesn't have to be over, but the combat can switch to narrative form.

How can I signal to the players that a tactical goal other than "clear the area" is in play without simply stating it?

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I'm not sure whether this is really system agnostic. It's very focused on 4e, or at a bare minimum comes from a viewpoint of tactical minis oriented games. –  mxyzplk May 21 '11 at 15:16
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@mxyzplk I think many games turn into "kill them all" or "clear the map" even when there aren't maps and minis. I've seen it happen with several fate systems with no mini's present. It seems to be more of a player mindset. –  C. Ross May 21 '11 at 16:20
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I think "being murderous" is a general PC problem but that's different from what's being asked here... And it is a mindset problem, but one strongly system linked. I'd bet your FATE kill squad learned to be a kill squad in another system. –  mxyzplk May 21 '11 at 16:24
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Tangentially related: How to communicate to the players that an encounter can be solved also through diplomacy? My answer there (paraphrased, "Lead by showing alternatives with your NPCs") is equally applicable to this question, as are some of the other answers. –  SevenSidedDie May 22 '11 at 5:12

5 Answers 5

If your game of choice has a skill that suggests a proficiency with the ways of waging war (Knowledge: Tactics, for example, or the War ability from Requiem for Rome), a roll on it might give that information to an interested player. If your game of choice doesn't have such a skill, allow PCs with an appropriate class or background to use a skill like Empathy or Sense Motive instead upon catching sight of the enemies to suss out at what level they might "break" or otherwise surrender.

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I'm talking about goals beyond breaking or surendering. Stuff, the link posits, like "Evade" or "Hold" or "Contain." While normal social interaction checks may suggest "these enemies may try to run away" I can't see any non-spoonfeeding methods for the more interesting tactics. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 21 '11 at 14:13

As with all things, there's the game-rules answer and the world-simulation answer.

If you just want to have there be an alternate goal in this one case and your game is otherwise constrained like a CRPG, just come out and list the potential end scenarios. State it. There's no reason to put lipstick on a pig. You'll just frustrate people who want to play a tactical skirmish game that there aren't clearly defined win states.

If you are running a realistic world/game, then think... How do people in the real world get missions where they just need to recon or skirmish or hold a strongpoint or retreat or guard people or defend a place or escort a convoy? Well, they can get orders if they're part of a larger organized force. Or they can be paying attention to the needs of the situation and their in-world goals and the goals of those around them. If the goal is "get the artifact in the chest to Galvin within the week," then wandering off to wipe out every vestige of the orc tribe they just met isn't a good use of time and resources (or heck, it may be way bigger than they can handle). And you have to be flexible as the DM, as they will come up with different ways to accomplish what are presented to them as the goals and parameters, possibly not "occupy these X squares for Y rounds."

Want them to run? Show a force 50x their number coming after them. Want them to hold a point? Put something important (and not man- or available-magic-portable) there. This approach does offer a lot more room for ambiguity, where you have to learn by failure. In a campaign I run, the cleric is quite portly and slow and not all that good in combat. The other PCs figured out after the first couple times they all ran off and left him behind that someone needs to be a blocker for him if they're going to be on the move. This approach engages PCs not just at the simple tactical level but in an ongoing and organic manner.

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Make clearing the area a bad thing

  • Put the party in situations where they don't want to kill everything. When your enemy is a riot of commoners driven to insanity by an unknown power source, the PC's will switch to defensive tactics and start trying to track it down.

  • If the difficulty of reaching a goal scales directly with how many bad guys are killed, the party will start thinking of ways to avoid combat altogether. For example, if the PC's are prowling the streets of a dubious city, each ruffian they dispatch increases their notoriety. Other thieves and brigands will be aware of the party's presence, and the nobleman the party was searching for retreats behind another layer of hostile guards.

Have NPCs and monsters act like sentient beings

  • The enemies flee as soon as they take significant damage or are frightened by a flashy spell. (Wild animals, kobolds and the like doing this early in a campaign can set the tone.)

  • They surrender: "One of the brigands throws his weapons down, trembling all over. He's just a stupid kid, maybe sixteen. You see a wet patch on his trousers."

  • Enemies talk to the players before engaging, possibly either to negotiate or to gloat evilly. This signals to players that there's more to do than simply kill everything.

Throw the PC's in over their heads

  • Create encounters in which the party has no chance of winning or retreating, but powerful reinforcements are X rounds away.
  • Stage a combat in an environment where the party cannot survive for more than a few rounds, forcing them to seek ways to change the terrain rather than just hack and slash.

Give the party tactical tools that take time to activate

  • A powerful divine artifact will slay all undead in a large radius, but it takes a skill challenge to activate. The party could fight off the horde of skeletons but fighting defensively in a ring around the cleric and paladin may be a better solution.

  • The portcullis takes X rounds to drop. The PC's must use tactical positioning to restrict the number of enemies slipping through and deal with everything once the gate is closed.

There's also an interesting encounter in King of the Trollhaunt Warrens where a skill challenge is combined with combat. My party had a lot of fun with this one.

The PC's are attacked by animated statues that are continually healed/resurrected (rebuilt?) until the players successfully open the portal that the statues are defending. Once the portal is opened the party can either escape through it (the statues can't leave the room) or finish the combat since the statues no longer get healed.

When the party just can't win by normal means they are forced to look for alternate methods.

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@AndrewK thanks for improving my answer! –  dpatchery Jan 10 at 14:36

There's always the old chestnut of "hold the line so innocent bystanders can get away".

Imagine, say, a village near a river. There's one bridge across (or a ford or whatever) and suddenly an approaching horde of whatevers (orcs, paladins, evil assassin monks, fierce beasts, whatever works for the party and village) approach at pace. The village elder(s) ask the party (being at this point hopefully well-established as martially skilled) to hold them off as the village evacuates.

There's also the possibility of some villagers helping out.

At this point, "all" that's needed is to make sure that the advancing horde is held at bay for a number of rounds. It may require some behaviour other than "pile in" from the oppo, though, as that would probably lead to one of "players win" or "players die" quickly. But, the bridge or ford would be a choke-point, allowing them to deal with a larger force without too much disadvantage.

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"When you do X, the fight is over. We'll stop rolling dice for attacks and damage, and just summarize what happens and you get your XP."

If you want to make it a little less meta gamey - address this concern to the appropriate player character - "You're a warrior, you can see the critical point of this is holding the area until the gate is closed." "As a burglar, you know sticking around for a fight is not a good idea - get the artifact, and get at least 30 feet away and you've won this." etc.

Trying to use "in game situations" to be the sole way of explaining the end conditions is often confusing. Most gamers are used to playing rpgs where the default is "kill the baddies, then do XYZ". When presented with something like impossible odds, they either assume a) the whole thing is impossible, and run, forgetting the XYZ goals, or b) it's actually secretly winnable, and they have to figure out how.

Better to just tell them - here's what you can do to finish the battle.

And, sometimes reward the players if they find a way to end a battle on their own terms. "Oh, you captured the general and just threw a fireball that took out half the troop? This battle is over. They're not going to keep fighting."

Also useful - my Big List of Combat Stakes.

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