My players are extremely strategic, and they're consistently (and too easily) defeating groups of enemies that I intended to present a real challenge. Probably for the same reason that I suck at chess, I suck at designing effective strategies and tactics for the enemies. Are there any books or other resources that I can read to help me make my monsters more effective in combat?

  • \$\begingroup\$ What's your players' group like? \$\endgroup\$
    – vlad
    Jul 17, 2012 at 12:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE. I feel that your question is too broad to be constructive, and resource requests really aren't all that helpful here. If you narrowed your requirements we would be more than welcome to give you some actual strategies you can use instead of just a group of random links that might not be helpful. \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Jul 17, 2012 at 12:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Sardathrion, I respectfully disagree. The question is pretty specific, and your comment is spot-on for an answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pulsehead
    Jul 17, 2012 at 12:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Pulsehead: iacta alea est. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 17, 2012 at 12:57

5 Answers 5


First of all, remember that the purpose of the game is for players (and, secondarily, the GM) to have fun. As such, ask yourself if your battles need to be more difficult. Do you feel the ease in which the players beat all your monsters makes them bored, or are they excited that their tactics are so successful?

Remember that the game is not you versus the players. You're all playing together, and the purpose of the game is to have fun. You don't have to beat them.

Okay, next thought. I agree that, in some ways, conventional tactics can be useful to GMs. However, those tactics were devised for situations where the participants were in the thrall of nature. As a GM, you define it. Let me explain what it means. You have essentially many ways to provide (combat) challenges for your players, some of which are:

  • Powerful enemies
  • Number of enemies
  • Complex multi-enemy scenarios. Tactics become a much more difficult problem when you're facing multiple enemies of different kinds, of differing power levels, some of which are hostile to one another.
  • Environmental obstacles, such as:
    • Motion-inhibiting (difficult terrain, barriers, lava lakes)
    • Perception-inhibiting (fog, darkness, noise)
    • Ability-inhibiting (underwater, anti-magic, EMP)
    • Damaging (dangerous plants, noxious gas, spikes)
    • Traps
  • Asymmetry between the effect of environmental conditions (provide an advantage for enemies, and disadvantage for PCs)
  • Omniscience:
    • You always know who your players are. Their strengths, weaknesses, etc. Design your encounters with that in mind.
    • You can always surprise them, literally or figuratively.
  • Deceit:
    • Red-herrings. Make your players expect something, and pull something else.
    • Betrayal, deceit, etc, by the characters you control.
    • Misrepresent the combat situation. Make enemies more intimidating than they seem.
  • Omnipotence:
    • Scenarios don't have to remain static. Conjure reinforcements from thin air, adapt the abilities of enemies to suit your players' tactics. Give quiet bonuses. Fudge die rolls.

Note that the mere existence of some of those things (without any long-lasting effort on your part) can have a profound effect on battle, and possibly, on your players' lust for life.

Sigh Okay, there's some more, but this is what I have off the top of my head. The point is, don't restrict yourself to mundane tactics. Use your omnipotence to sculpt scenarios in which you can crush your players, body and mind. Shatter their psyche, and instill in them deep-seated fears of multi-sided dice.

Edit: Hmm, this looks like an interesting project. I think I'll make a more detailed and organized list of ways in which you can make players' lives a living hell. What was that? 'The purpose of the game is to have fun', you say? Why, whoever could have told you such nonsense?

  • \$\begingroup\$ The only thing I disagree with is your last suggestion. Let the dice fall where they may, don't fudge the rolls. If you expect the players to roll honestly, so should you. It's easy to make the players lives miserable. Games with DMs who love to do that easily fall in the category of 'Wish I didn't play'. Take some of the suggestions above but please don't use all of them. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 17, 2012 at 19:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ I should hope no one uses all of them. A large, complicated assortment of powerful enemies encountered in a pitch black lava lake with deadly traps and poisonous gas... is an experience for which the word 'play' is inappropriate. 'Suffer' might be better. Or possible, 'incredulity'. \$\endgroup\$
    – GregRos
    Jul 17, 2012 at 19:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ On a more serious note, remember that the purpose of the game is not to roll dice fairly. The purpose of the game is to have fun, and to tell a good story. The dice don't decide what's a good story. That's your job. They may well result in something that's completely not a good story. Now, because the game does have rules, obviously fudging all your rolls is a bad idea. And if a GM actually likes it, I'd run like hell. All the suggestions above are to be taken in moderation, when appropriate. Oh, I think this is obvious, but if anyone finds out you fudged dice rolls, you lose. \$\endgroup\$
    – GregRos
    Jul 17, 2012 at 19:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the great writeup! You've given lots of food for thought. I definitely need to learn to use weather and terrain to better effect. To be clear, I'm not trying to kill my players-- far from it-- but rather to make sure that their opponents are worthy matches, to really test and exercise their aptitude for strategy. Bringing a brilliant strategy to bear against a bunch of disorganized brutes doesn't seem like it would be fun for long. Essentially, they're playing chess and the monsters are playing checkers. I just want to balance the field. \$\endgroup\$
    – Corey
    Jul 18, 2012 at 3:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ -1 for fun is secondary for the GM, +1 for an otherwise good answer. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 18, 2012 at 8:20

I would suggest reading up on Sun Tzu, Alexander The Great, Hannibal, Scipio Africanus, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Napoleon, Wellington, Clausewitz, Guderian, Patton, and Petraeus... Just to name a few. And if you only have time for one, read The Art Of War by Sun Tzu.

How to apply this to RPG situation? This is not tricky. As a GM you control nearly everything: the terrain, the weather, the intelligence both sides have, and the moral/skill of the opposition. Use those to your advantage: Sun Tzu tells you what to look at and how things affect what. Use the terrain to block the characters from moving. Use the weather to stop those arrows or spells. Use the intelligence to come up with specific weapons/counters for the players. Never underestimate the power of hit-and-run -- especially if poison in involved: Now, all your characters are ill. Shame...

Side note: It is easy for the GM to swap the character and kill them all in one round. This is (generally) no fun for the players.

Edit: Why did I not include Musashi's Book of Five Rings and Machiavelli's art of war. The first one is because it is an individual fighting manual and not a treaty on tactics or strategy. Musashi's legends state that he was a great swordsman but he never commanded armies. Machiavelli, those political work is a must read, I did not include because while as a politician I rate him very highly, military wise, I do not. That is probably prejudice on my part.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In addition to the answer given above that I would get a trusted player or find another DM/player to sit down with you and just run battle after battle with talking over what both of ya'll are thinking. Also go out in the woods, plains, swamp and other areas and see first hand what the terrain is like. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 17, 2012 at 13:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Lastly ready the flavor text, some of monsters have specific tactics like kobold prefer hit and run, sneak attacks and traps. So design the environment to suit that need example a nice narrow cave with pockets for them to hide and harass the PC's with traps and pot shots. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 17, 2012 at 13:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with everything, but I would add "The Book of Five Rings" (Go Rin No Sho) up there alongside The Art of War. It is available free for electronic versions and is a fairly fast read. Also, playing games like Chess as mentioned and Go will improve strategic thinking in general, although in an abstract way. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 17, 2012 at 16:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've picked up Machiavelli's 'The Art of War' and have Sun Tzu on my list as well. I've also just completed no less than four books on the Mongols, and in fact the Big Bads in the campaign are gnolls based on the Mongols. I'll definitely check out some of the other authors you mentioned as well. \$\endgroup\$
    – Corey
    Jul 18, 2012 at 3:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TimothyAWiseman: I am ambivalent about Musashi. Sometimes, I think he's just awesome. Then I think he's a con-man. Then I think he's ... You get the idea. This is pure personal bias and should not stop anyone from reading Five Rings as it is a good read. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 18, 2012 at 16:48

Go read Greg's answer again.

But I'd like to add that if your players are extremely strategic, give them some different scenarios to test their flexibility and give them different goals to adjust to.

How often do you face the enemy in a open featureless plain in a fight to the death? The tactics have to change a lot if the other guy is holed up in a castle. Likewise, you'd be a fool to rush out and meet the enemy if they have a lot of cavalry and you have a really big wall. And it doesn't matter how good the rogue can tumble if you're in hallways facing an endless stream of people. Mr. Fireball is more or less powerless when the enemy is a single urchin darting through a crowded marketplace. Mr. Maginot, the dwarven defender was deeply shocked when the tigers simply skirted around him and began slaughtering the casters in back.

The goal doesn't have to be slaughtering everyone, it can be to simply bypass them somehow. Since actual combat isn't the focus, the DM can place some truly horrific monsters in play. Situations like this need to be conveyed to players. They need to learn the tactic of running away.

If you want a touch of realism, most forces will simply surrender or rout once half of them are taken out. This whole fanatically suicidal fight to the death thing is highly over-rated. And to turn that about, send them on a task to go slaughter a group that has self-preservation in mind. How will they deal with scattering targets? Smoke-bombs and sneaky targets?

Your players may be tactical geniuses, but if you change their goals, you may present new challenges to them.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the suggestions, Philip. Terrain is definitely something that I need to exploit, as well as their enemies' instincts for self-preservation. Not every fight has been to the death in the campaign, so they're definitely amenable to fighting until the fighting is over and no more. I like what you said about presenting new challenges; I need to create an environment that will both test and reward their strategic approach to battle. \$\endgroup\$
    – Corey
    Jul 18, 2012 at 4:01

The first thing that I would need to know to properly answer the question is what game system you are using is. Effective strategy can vary wildly depending on the mechanics.

Greg has a very good group of fundamentals to start with, and some of the key to that is the party itself. Most of the characters I encounter try to stack into being able to succeed at a straight fight, because 9/10 fights are "stand and deliver" setups beyond maybe a sucker punch. Don't be afraid to let the enemy be conservative and keep a few guys back. In an L5R 3e game I ran, I had a group of soldiers that had an ability based on their initiative come up against the party. Half of them sat back and used a rule (for everyone) stating that their initiative could be increased if they weren't hit that round and by the time it was their turn to fight, they easily doubled the party's initiative and had the potential to slaughter them handily despite being half their strength.

Terrain is also quite critical to a combat. Once again with the "stand and deliver" they are often in a broad room/vast plain where space isn't an issue. Feel free to catch them in a valley or a corridor and limit how many of them can fight at a time. In a D&D game I was a player in, we were in a 5' wide corridor and wandered into a nest of spiders (somewhat) giant spiders. They were able to crawl on the walls and ceiling but could ultimately swarm each member of the party at their leisure and we couldn't do much without risking damage to our own people.

Sometimes codes of honor make all the difference. In 7th Sea, an official duel with a member of the Swordsman Guild is a one on one fair fight. If the battle is against the player, nobody else can (legally) step in and do anything about it. This battle will resolve a lot differently than being surrounded by a couple groups of thugs.

Lastly? Stealth. Once again, it's usually an issue that is overlooked very frequently. Have a guy who has highly enchanted armor or is as dexterous as Jackie Chan? Hit'em in his sleep. Magic sword or state of the art gun? Steal it. Then see how much fun they have in a fight.

So with a little more information we can probably give you something to work with.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm playing a 4e DnD campaign in a post-apocalyptic setting, in which a nation of gnolls and their kin have swept across the known world and brought it to its knees. The idea is loosely based on the Mongol invasions of Europe and Asia in the 13th century. Their enemies consist mainly of the gnolls, who fight in organized bands, and the Altern (orcs, goblins, et al) who oppose both the gnolls and the humans. Neither group is stupid, and both are capable of military discipline and strategy. \$\endgroup\$
    – Corey
    Jul 18, 2012 at 3:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ In which case I think that putting your emphasis into terrain becomes very important. Placement makes and breaks the techniques I've seen in D&D 4. \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    Jul 18, 2012 at 4:01

To learn strategy and tactics, do as real generals have done for centuries: read accounts of famous battles, study the way they've played out, and extract your own lessons from them. A visit to your local library and a chat with a research librarian is your best resource, as the sheer number of books that fall into this category is enormous.

Incidentally, this is exactly how top-tier chess players improve their game: by studying famous and not-so-famous games.

  • \$\begingroup\$ "The greatest generals study their losses more than their victories" \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    Jul 18, 2012 at 1:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @CatLord I'm by no means a battle-history buff, so I learned more about strategy and tactics from reading just one pop-history book, How to Lose a Battle: Foolish Plans and Great Military Blunders, than any number of wargames or RPGs. Yeah, losing is way more informative than winning. :D \$\endgroup\$ Jul 18, 2012 at 3:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ I will certainly have to look into this book. \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    Jul 18, 2012 at 3:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @CatLord: The greatest general have no defeats. ^_~ \$\endgroup\$ Jul 18, 2012 at 6:26

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