My group has long had a very kick-in-the-door attitude towards combat. Characters were min-maxed for DPS, and there was very little strategy to any combat. Characters would charge in, hit it till it died, and move on. Presenting stronger encounters did little to draw out strategy, as the party would still charge in, be hit until they die, then remark how the monster was too difficult.

I'm starting a new campaign and would very much like to change this mindset. I'm going to be very straightforward with my players that this is my goal, and will try to find players who want to give it a try. However, I know how deeply this attitude is ingrained. I'd like to continue GMing Pathfinder since it's the genre and system both my players and I enjoy and are invested in.

I know I can set up encounters to encourage more tactical approaches, such as by presenting plenty of important environmental aspects or more intelligently played opponents, and plan on doing both. Non rule-based approaches is not in the scope of this question. What I'm really looking for here, though, are rules whose inclusion promotes a more tactical approach.

I'm considering the called shot variant so that even weak monsters pose more threats than just a few measly HP. Similarly, wounds and vigor would make critical hits more dangerous, and possibly keep PCs from being too rash. Lastly, hero points would allow PCs to still make heroic kick-in-the-door ends to combat possible when necessary, but make them rarer and a more last-ditch effort, as they can only be used once. I've not played with any of these rules, though, and it's all speculation.

Who has played with these or other variant rules that have promoted more tactical resolution to combat, and how did they change your group's mindset?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you considered a game other than D&D? \$\endgroup\$ – okeefe May 9 '12 at 19:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ You've already tried making the players' existing approach difficult. It didn't work, because the players didn't recognise that it was their approach that was the problem. I say go one further: Make their favorite strategy impossible. E.g.: instead of designing an encounter so that the enemy is hard to beat in melee, have the enemy fly. Instead of designing the enemy to be resistant to magic, put him behind a line-of-effect-blocking wall of force. Instead of making the foe something to face in combat, give him substantial legal protections that the party is contractually required not to break. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe May 10 '12 at 6:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ I know it's been a month, but could you consider accepting one of the answers? \$\endgroup\$ – Eldebryn Jun 13 '12 at 0:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @John - Your answer and the answer suggesting Epic6 are the only two answers dealing suggesting rules, and neither have given any indication they've been tried successfully by the poster. If I get a chance to try either, I may add my comments and accept it, but until then I'm waiting on a Good Subjective answer. \$\endgroup\$ – dlras2 Jun 13 '12 at 14:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ To clarify, do you want more tactical kick-in-the-door play or less combat-as-the-default play? Cause your question doesn't differentiate between those two options very well. \$\endgroup\$ – godskook May 16 '17 at 21:23

13 Answers 13


Here's what I think: If you expect to diminish kick-in-the-door - kill-first-ask-questions-later mindsets by presenting beneficial tactical options alone, it's not gonna work.

If the players put their mind into optimizing, they will create insane combos and deal crazy amounts of damage, unless of course you greatly limit their building choices while carefully monitoring their sheets, and even that is not a safe bet.

If you really wanna change their, apparently quite one-sided, attitude you need something more solid: Combine a traditional approach on enabling creative and tactical play AND cut down regular encounter exp by 1/4 or even half. Then offer significant exp bonuses for compensation to players who fulfill the criteria you look for. Try giving more treasure/items when players do something interesting ( warrior comes up with a plan to use a trap against the enemies. Upon triggering it with a lever, not only do the enemies get hit, but a small crypt opens as well, containing an enchanted dagger ).

That should give them enough motivation to actually do something other than roll dice and plan builds ;-) .

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    \$\begingroup\$ Excellent suggestions, especially for lowering combat XP and introduction more "story" based XP awards. \$\endgroup\$ – BBlake May 9 '12 at 22:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yea, people often complain about how D&D is too action-hack/slash while VtM for instance is RP-focused. Changing the xp reward to be more like WoD is a good step to have that feel. \$\endgroup\$ – Eldebryn May 9 '12 at 23:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ -1 XP and loot are indeed strong motivators, but consider the reward cycle as a whole: you're offering rewards for avoiding "kick-in-the-door," but the things players are earning (gear and levels) are tools for kicking in doors more effectively. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex P Sep 27 '13 at 23:19

My first thought was two words: "Tucker's Kobolds" ... you can read the original article in your old copies of Dragon magazine (issue 127 ... you have Dragon going back 20+ years, right?) or with a sufficient amount of google-fu (here's the DnD wiki writeup). I read that editorial when it first came out and it was a "WOW!" experience. Monsters that think tactically encourage the players to do the same.

Another option is to try something totally new. D&D, and thus Pathfinder, is high-fantasy to it's core. That translates to exactly this kind of combat and mindset. Often the setting encourages PCs to kill a monster for no other reason than "he's big, green, and listed as CE in the manual". While this can be quite enjoyable, it's not good for a tactical style game. You don't necessarily need to change the rules (d20Modern, StarWars, and Stargate are all straightforward adaptations of the D&D rules to other settings) but it might help. New settings and new rules-sets tend to recapture a feeling of wonder and exploration rather than just going the next thing.


If you have presented them with situations where using their current tactics would kill them, and they still kept the same tactics, then I can't see how rules variants would make much difference.

You could, however, introduce situations in which the primary goal of combat isn't to kill something. They could be defending a fairly large area where they can't cover all of it at once. The enemy could use diversionary attacks to draw the party away from the true attack.

They could have to carry something through enemy territory. Some opponents are very tanky but with weak attacks, so stopping to kill them is a bad idea.

These might break them out of their patterns a bit.

You can use opponents that are theoretically weaker but use good tactics. They can use battlefield control spells to keep characters from moving and attack from range, use terrain, lure the party into bad tactical positions by putting a weak opponent where they want the party to go, etc.

At some point the party will hopefully think "maybe instead of getting beaten by weaker opponents all the time we should change tactics".

Some players just don't like tactics though. You've more or less proven they don't really learn. You might need new players.

I haven't seen rules like those you mention (which I've played in other systems, not as a variant), change player's basic style. Players that use tactics incorporate them, those that don't, don't.


I know that you are specifically asking for rules to fix your problem, but I submit that adding some tactical rules with the intent that it will change your player's mindset probably isn't going to work. The PCs will cleverly substitute the most suitable new tactical options for the ones that you are already tired of seeing and then repeatedly use those instead, leaving you with the same problem.

If I understand your problem, you have a desire to see the combat in your campaign become varied from fight to fight instead of being a single well-oiled tried-and-true group tactic dominating every combat.

I think that your best weapon vs this mindset is STORY.

I've been running the same Marvel superheroes campaign virtually every Sunday at 2pm since 1984. Since the PCs are characters like Wolverine, Spider-Man, The Human Torch etc... one could argue that the PCs in my game are already "Super Min/Maxed".

I recommend two approaches to your problem.

Firstly... You partially answered your own question when you touched on "Important environmental aspects", and I believe that having combat occur in various environments with plenty of different objects and terrain can certainly add spice to combat. Allowing all of the combatants involved to use things like cover, hostages, or dangerous terrain like lava pits or a rickety bridge against their enemy can make things much more interesting.

Secondly... You can have a critical impact on your player's tactics and mindset toward combat if there is a STORY permeating the combat. The story doesn't have to be on pause during a battle. Have the foes in your campaign be talkative during a fight. Vary each goal of your combat encounters. Totally destroying the opposition need not always be the desired outcome of the conflict. It will certainly require different tactics to subdue a foe instead of killing them. Having a foe produce a desired item or manifest a new surprising ability might make the PCs change gears.

I've played very simple systems before where the rules basically define combat solely as striking. There were no rules for any sort of tactics. The system was also played without a map or minis. Yet my players were given the opportunity to knock over piles of firewood, set things on fire, scare horses, attract the city guards, knock the curtains down from the window and limitless other story and circumstance oriented actions to offer a tactical advantage providing opportunity for both the PCs and their foes to roleplay.

My point is that adding more rules is probably not your best solution. If you do not wish for your PCs to have this kick-in-the-door mindset using the same tactics repeatedly, then give them the opportunity and motivation to do something else. Adding varied circumstances and story elements might be more helpful.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Best statement of the "you're looking in the wrong place" syndrome many of the answers are getting at. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk - Justice for Monica May 10 '12 at 4:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ As I've stated several different ways in my question, I plan on working with the story to combat the mindset. This question, however, is about the rules. \$\endgroup\$ – dlras2 May 10 '12 at 5:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ Many here are avoiding a rules-based solution to the problem for a reason. If I asked, in a variety of different ways, which kind of new sledgehammers are available for me to fix my wristwatch, I should expect plenty of people to say, "Don't use a sledgehammer" and offer the option of a different tool. You are insisting on a rules-based solution to change your PC's mindset. As it is an RPG, not a board game, rules serve the story, not the other way around. Your plan to "work with the story to combat the mindset" is the correct approach. Adding rules may not be necessary. Just a thought :) \$\endgroup\$ – spidey May 10 '12 at 14:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm asking for a rules-based solution because I'm familiar the alternatives. If I said I knew there were other options, yet still asked how to fix a wristwatch with a sledgehammer, the best answer would be "I tried this sledgehammer, and it didn't work because..." \$\endgroup\$ – dlras2 May 10 '12 at 14:21

One approach is to go down the Epic6 route for Pathfinder. The basic idea is to have character levels capped out at 6, with further XP going towards new feats, not new levels.

The main result of this is that hit points, too, are capped, not reaching into the insane triple digits of high-level characters. This means that a monster with high damage can pose a significant threat even to experienced characters.

It means that feats such as Toughness suddenly become very important, while damage-improving feats, or two handed weapons, become a lot more deadly.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you used this system? It's an interesting approach, and might be what I'm looking for. Specifically I'm worried that a martial character would advance better than a magic user, since a fighter is built on feats, and spell casters stop learning new spell levels. Have you run into this problem? \$\endgroup\$ – dlras2 May 10 '12 at 14:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ While I haven't used E6 specifically, my last Pathfinder campaign was deliberately low-key, starting at lv1 and ending at lv5. The current one is similar, with us recently getting to lv3 in an extremely unbalanced party comprised entirely of magic users (wizard, sorcerer, alchemist and oracle), which is also a lot of fun. \$\endgroup\$ – lisardggY May 10 '12 at 16:15

I have a similar problem with a few friends who partake of a weekly pathfinder game I run. Two of them know very well how to min-max and power-game but choose not to for flavor reasons (or at least limit their ludicrousness), and two others don't know how not to min-max.

To give a quick example, when I ask the two who restrain themselves a bit what kind of character they want to play I get simple and oft mundane answers: Thief who's down on his luck and needs to find some work, or Cleric attempting to be a missionary in unfamiliar lands. When I ask the other two the same question they start in with "what books are allowed, any special races, can I have this feat printed in X third party resource?". And if I say "no, not class... just what do you have in mind for a character... like background... or story?" I get sighs and terse responses saying "I can't come up with a story or background for a character that doesn't exist yet... I need stats and abilities and I'll make up story for why I have them!"

In my opinion the latter two in my group prioritize rules and structure over the story or narrative feel of the campaign entirely. To me it seems a bit backwards to "make up story for abilities" because I learned that in DnD I should "take classes/abilities that fit my character concept".

Now, back to the OP problem... It seems like you might be experiencing the same kind of thing in your game. Your players aren't treating the game you are running as a story or narrative experience where they are the main characters, they are treating it like a hack-n-slash board game where optimized characters and munchkin-combo tactics are, for lack of a better way to put it, how they win. What this all boils down to is that there is no such thing as "complex-but-balanced rules" to solve this problem. If you crunch the numbers and factor in as much data as you can, there will always be a rule combination or specific build that is "optimal" enough to turn a "fair fight" as run by a competent DM into "charge/attack/win.

Aside from attempting to change the mood or mindset of your players with the many well-thought-out options above, which do not require a rule-book, I would suggest taking the vitality/wounds alternate rules and modifying them to your liking. Doing so has produced a much more dangerous environment in my game and has resulted in much more "cautious" play which requires a bit of planning and tactical prowess on the part of my players. The wounds system can be accompanied by permanent injury rules or something similar, to add some gravity to the combat in a game. I find that when players slip into a mindset where being stabbed by a giant with a great-sword "isn't a big deal because they still have half their HP" they need a wake-up call. That wake up call comes in the form of ability score penalties, speed-hindrances and decreased combat effectiveness that is a "burden" upon the others to fix or heal. Social pressure kicks in and on a sub-conscious level players start worrying about getting "hurt" because it will slow things down, which translates into something resembling "actual concern for their character's well-being".

The ultimate goal should be striking a balance between challenge and fun, without players feeling resentment or pitching a fit when their choice of action results in loss or death. The second part is harder because it relies more on the maturity and emotional state of the player. I can assure you it is far easier when dealing with players that put some kind of investment into the personality and behavior of their characters, if they always have the same "charge/attack/kill" response in all situations they may not be able to handle it when things go wrong. They will blame the rules, or the situation the DM put them in, or just flat out say "this is unfair".

I could be entirely wrong with my interpretation of your question or perhaps the motivation behind wanting to change your players' approach. I sort of read the overall problem being that "your players don't seem to appreciate the danger of a situation at all" and "how can I get them to have some real concern for their well-being so they don't just kick in the door on every occasion?"


I'm really not a fan of the critical hit system. It leads to a perfectly good character being offed by a series of lucky (or unlucky, depending on your perspective) rolls. I don't find that they add a lot of heroism to the game either. If your characters are fighting a monster where they have to rely on a critical hit to kill it, then they're better off running away (and most likely will, unless you put them in a situation where they can't which breeds resentment).

When you've min/maxed your character for DPS you will have weaknesses. Exploit these by throwing a variety of monsters at your PCs. Don't exploit all the weaknesses all at once, but maybe throw in an evil wizard who can negate the fighter by taking advantage of his low will save/def. Put the party up against a lot of little creatures (like kobolds) who approach from many different angles in order to trouble the casters. Use poison to slow the wizard down and use difficult terrain or flying opponents to make it hard (but not impossible) for the rogue to flank.

Alternatively, create situations where the PCs might talk their way out of a really hard fight. Give them a chance to survey the battlefield and their opponents, and give them some possible allies. I was running through "Keep On the Borderlands/Caves of Chaos" (module B2) recently (got some people who are new to RPGs) and my players surprised the heck out of me by working out a deal to ally themselves with the Ogre who lives near the Goblins. They were able to clear out the Bugbear cave with relative ease thanks to his help.

The trick, I think, is to give both your players and yourself, as DM, more options than just the kick in the door type situation. The difficulty I have with that sort of combat-informed game is that it eventually devolves into the PCs vs. the DM. If you can pull it out of that sort of bipolar situation, you'll have a game much closer to what you want.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I plan on exploiting min-maxed characters' weaknesses and creating non-combat situations, but this answer doesn't mention any rules which may help promote a more cautious mindset. \$\endgroup\$ – dlras2 May 9 '12 at 22:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Fair enough. My point, I guess, is that you don't need more rules to be able to run the kind of game that you want. More rules create more loopholes for the players to exploit (e.g. really high skill to get better at called shots). Arbitrary rules like only giving 3/4 xp makes the players feel like they're being cheated. There are lots of ways to craft a nuanced game without having to change the basic mechanics of the system. \$\endgroup\$ – Garm May 10 '12 at 15:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ I understand I don't need the rules, I was just wondering what other people's experience using them was. For example, with called shot, I agree it offers more exploits, but in order to exploit them you need to think more tactically. ("Which body part should I hit to best disable this foe?" vs "How many hit points left til it dies?") \$\endgroup\$ – dlras2 May 10 '12 at 15:36

This is all about setting expectations. It sounds like your players expect encounters to be calibrated to their characters' abilities. Thus, they expect to be able to fight everything, and when their characters are killed, it's a problem with the encounter (ie "too hard").

My advice: run a sandbox campaign. There are loads of resources out there on how to do this, but the definitive text is Ben Robbins' West Marches.

The main expectation to set is that they will run into monsters that are out of their weight-class, and when they do, they will die if they don't run away or talk.

You can reinforce this by asking them to bring a backup character in addition to their main PC, so if they die they won't slow the game down.

You can also ask them to make up a "last will and testament" for their main PC, or an agreement among themselves as to the disposal of any gear when a PC dies.

You asked for some mechanical ways to change their behavior. A great mechanic to bring into the game--and be very transparent about it--is a random "NPC Reaction" roll. I thought that Pathfinder and d20 games had some sort of method of determining "starting attitude", as it's termed in the Diplomacy skill, but I haven't been able to find it. The idea is that not all the monsters the PCs meet will be instantly hostile. If they know that combat is not the only option, then they might decide to pursue other options.

Non-combat options also become more appealing when the main way of getting XP isn't by killing enemies. Award XP for the kind of behavior you want to see. Exploration XP, XP-for-loot. You probably don't want to do away with combat entirely, so you could just add XP for non-combat encounter resolution.

Good luck!


It sounds like you're not looking for character-based roleplaying per se, just greater tactics than "optimise my build, then charge"?

I'd suggest, not giving them a scenario where it's beneficial to work together (you tried that and they ignored it), but a scenario where it's easy to work together. Let them explore the possibilities in a fairly low-stress environment and let them discover what's fun/effective about it.

Eg. Have a bunch of tough but very slow monsters with some weakness, so the players can charge in, discover they're too hard to kill, but be able to retreat before they die, and be constantly provided with some really obvious hint (eg. "push them onto the fire squares" or whatever) so they can experiment with different ways of achieving tactical stuff in combat.

Eg. As someone else suggested, have an obvious not-primarily-combat mission, eg. have to find the macguffin by guile, then fight the way out, or escort a character where a fighting retreat works better.


To answer the question, with regard to helpful rules, I have found two approaches useful.

(a) Award xp according to problems solved, not to monsters killed and/or treasure taken. The characters will go with bonking everything as long as that's the way the largest rewards are gained. If they can get the same or better rewards (perhaps even with less risk) through other approaches, then they will be more open to other approaches.

(b) I agree with using a critical hit system. It doesn't have to be common, or even very deadly, so long as it allows at least some small but genuine risk in any combat. Breaking a few arms and poking out a few eyes goes a long way toward making characters a bit more careful.

And: not a rules change, but I agree with the suggestion by @crom of a more sandbox campaign where the characters may well encounter things they cannot beat up, and thus they will have to spend a little thought and investigation on what it is they are about to fight with before fighting with it.


In addition to Tucker's Kobolds brought up by @Goofdad, give them a few encounters where it will be an almost certain TPK if they kick down the door, but with this gem of knowledge (such as a secret passage that opens behind the deaf big bad facing the door) you can turn certain death into a simple fight.

Once they are thinking about things like flanking, reserves, etc. Start throwing them more varied encounters that call on this strategic thinking.

The only downside is if they are min/maxed for DPS, I doubt you will get much player buy-in for strategics.


When the players make a plan before combat, one of them gets to roll BAB+int, or some relevant knowledge skill, or whatever you find appropriate. Record the result of this roll divided by 10, i.e. 10 gives +1, 20 gives +2, etc. (You can make it an insight bonus or a morale bonus if you like.)

If the characters enter combat according to the plan, they get the bonus to initiative checks. As long as they continue along the plan, they get the bonus to AC (or attack rolls, or have them choose at the beginning or every round, or maybe both, or maybe some skills or saves).

As soon as anyone deviates from the plan, everyone loses the bonus.

If you want to make it even more important, have the plan grant hero/action points, or something else that must be actively used. This would also reduce the accumulation of small bonuses that plagues high-level play.

This approach will not work unless the players have enough information to form strategies or pre-plan tactics, and unless the situations benefit from such planning. For example, try to have two things to do in a combat - kill someone and deactivate a trap at the same time, for example. 4E adventures tend to be pretty good at this, as long as you only focus on the single encounters.


There aren't good rules to change playstyles or mindsets, because mindsets aren't made with rules. Mindsets are formed by actual play - the players tried the easy way, charging in and killing everything, and you let it work. As long as it still works, they'll do that. If it doesn't work, they'll try it unless it's obvious that their strategy was the problem (there can't be doubt that the enemy was just too hard, it has to be definite that charging in blindly was the fault). If you change or add rules to try and discourage the playstyle, the players are just going to dismiss it like the encounters that have defeated them in the past- you're changing rules to make it harder for them. It comes across as you just increasing the difficulty and punishment, rather than something that actually makes them want to change anything.

Encounter design is one of the most effective way to change mindsets- players will get more cautious if you start putting traps on the floors and walls; players will get more ways to affect groups of enemies if encounters commonly include a dozen enemies. Throw them into situations where it's obvious that the thing they did wrong was kicking in the door and charging in- such as using enemy battlefield control that inflicts conditions and such on the PC's.

One such example would be putting the party against a pair of battlefield control casters backed up by a couple frontliners. When they charge in, they're charging into an Entangle while their enemies are shrouded in supernatural darkness. The enemy isn't intent on killing them- they are on the run, in fact. The frontliners exist to keep the casters from just getting bum-rushed and killed, but if casters are 70' away from the "door being busted down," they're out of normal charge range so the players have to both get a great surprise on the group and beat them in initiative (requiring wins on both fronts to circumvent the advantage against charging in makes it less likely that you have to design the encounter again, they'll likely get the idea on the first try and not accidentally topple the NPC's advantages). Encounters like this can help in several ways:

  • Not likely to kill the PC's: If they die, they'll think the fight was just too hard and it wasn't their fault. The NPC's just want to run while the PC's try to kill them, but the NPC's have tools to keep the PC's back

  • Keeps the PC's at bay while they use the "Charge In" tactic- entangle makes it very, very difficult to get past it, since it counts as difficult terrain even if you pass the save. You also can't charge targets you can't see.

  • If the PC's do something that isn't charging forward blindly, they can get the drop on the enemies and take them out handily- like sneaking around a few flanks to stop the casters from holding them off, and then unleashing their combat prowess.

For more general encounter design that helps discourage the "kick in the door" mindset, the encounters need one thing: The challenge can't be a competition of damage. The obstacles have to be things that can't just be beaten down or bypassed with a sword (or the obstacles that can be chopped up have to be behind other obstacles that can't). It can't even be something that looks like they could bash through it- because they'll try, and when they get squished they'll dismiss it as too hard (ex: golem in the way, powered by a socketed diamond in the ceiling; they would likely just try to beat the golem and then complain about the golem being too strong to beat, when the goal should have been to sneak to the ceiling to take the diamond, which makes the golem lose power- in this case, lose the golem, make it a door. The players still have to do the proscribed thing, they just don't have a thing they can try to kill in the way).


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