I've recently begun a new D&D 5e campaign with a group of players who have all just come from a Pathfinder adventure path. I was the GM for that campaign and it was a very on-the-rails adventure with mostly predictable "combat as sport" style encounters.

Now we've switched to 5e, and the rules are great. They really seem to promote the kind of game I want to run, but none of us have played an old school style campaign before. I feel like we're running the risk of getting locked into the same type of rhythm as in our previous game, but I think I did a pretty decent job in our first session of helping them realize that it's not always going to be as easy as running in and killing everything.

How can I continue to encourage my players to think of things in more combat as war-type terms, and consider things such as attrition, strategy and logistics, in addition to the standard turn-based tactical bits of the game?


8 Answers 8


0. Do your players want this, too?

If you haven't discussed a different playstyle I think they're reasonable to still expect the "sporty" style you were previously playing. That's why I think--even one session in--a change like this would be equivalent to starting a new campaign: same setting and same characters, but different game.

If you have not had that conversation, stop reading here. Talk to your players. If they agree on a new style, proceed:

1. Do it to them. Before you do it to them, tell them you're going to do it to them. And tell them while you're doing it.

"The hobgoblin captain has arrayed his shortbowmen on inaccessible ground and they're ducking behind full cover after each shot. Man, this is just a killing field! So, Gary, what do you do next?"

"OBJECTIVES, TERRAIN, COVER, VISIBILITY" are the four words I have written on my gm-facing side of my table tent. Use these to your advantage, and teach the players to use them to theirs.

2. Design your world, not your encounters.

Think about the people in your world, where they might exist, and what they value. Array them as makes sense in a world without your PCs. Do the encounter math as suggested by the DMG. Then don't modify anything!

Now you have a range of possible encounters including (a) not worth even acting out--just declare victory, (b) cake-walk, (c) very easy, (d) easy, (e) medium, (f) hard, (g) deadly, (h) superdeadly (would be deadly even at APL+1), (i) superduperdeadly (deadly at APL+2), (j) death sentence (could kill the party before they even act).

I'm not kidding: "no," "cake," "VE," "E," "M," "H," "D," "D+1," "D+2," and a frowny-face with two exes for eyes are notations next to possible encounters on the mind-map of my current adventure.

Now that you've got this in hand, you are prepared to properly describe the encounters as they happen. In a "cake" encounter your barbarian's axe cleaves enemies in twain (doing 9 dmg); the same hit in a D+1 encounter manages to annoy the enemy. But if you didn't do the homework, you're going to properly convey to the players the crucial information their characters would know: "we're in over our heads, here, and will be lucky to get out alive."

3. Help them find their way to spectacular victories.

There are many gm-styles and I'd naver say one is 'right' or 'wrong.' But if you're looking to help a group transition their style--or to learn a new style--I suggest that the one I call "find a way to 'yes'" may be really useful. In this approach you are explicit about asking players not only to describe their actions, but also their intentions. You work with them to craft their actions so that they to progress toward their objectives.

You don't have to pull any punches in combat or in their opponents' preparations and they don't always have to succeed. But this way their efforts aren't impotent even when unsuccessful. Failures aren't a matter of "the gm screwed us over," but are a matter of "the kobolds screwed us over." And successes can be spectacular. Like Hannibal says: "I love it when a plan comes together."

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    \$\begingroup\$ Instant upvote for step 0, very important. \$\endgroup\$
    – Me_Maikey
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 8:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like "teach them to think tactically" in particular, but there's a lot of good in this answer. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 9, 2016 at 23:26

Recently in my campaign the party wanted to wipe out a large, well established, group of gnolls which took us into combat-as-war. How I handled it was:

Step 1: Discuss Combat-As-War with the party

When the party was beginning to plan their attack I had an out of character conversation with them about the differences between combat as sport and combat as war. I made sure to highlight that these gnolls (well known for hit and run tactics) would be going out of their way to avoid any fight they didn't think they could easily win. I also talked about the difficulties in moving stealthily as a group, the problem of organized retreat, and possible methods of defending a camp and how they could be overcome. Throughout this conversation I made sure to define an enemy that was intelligent, organized, and did not want to die.

Step 2: During early encounters in particular ensure the enemy is only realistically prepared

During the first encounter the gnolls had no reason to believe anyone was gunning for them so they didn't take any special precautions. The party had been scared shirtless by the discussion during the previous session and so took many precautions. In scouting they found an isolated group at a watering hole and executed a very slow, well planned, and heavily in-character discussed attack versus an enemy that wasn't expecting it. It was a slaughter. The whole session, attack planning included, took four hours and in the end the party took 0 damage due to a combination of surprise, bait, traps, and excellent cover.

This was good! Combat-as-war rewards the prepared in a big way and that needs to work for the party. It also gave the party an idea of how ludicrously one sided a battle could become without costing a bunch of PC lives.

Step 3: Enemies learn leading to a tactical arms race

In combat-as-war enemies need to learn to remain threatening. As the sessions went on the gnolls learned someone was out for them so camps posted guards and hardened their defenses. Targets that looked easy turned out to be traps where the party was forced into hasty retreats. PC's died to night raids where it was obvious the gnolls focused on killing one person since they knew they'd just heal otherwise. PC's slaughtered hyenas to deny the gnolls animals. Gnolls deployed elite hit squads backed by priests with sending. As the enemies developed new tactics it became an arms race with the party. Tons of fun.

Step 4: Don't pull the punch

It ended in disaster. The party overextended working to destroy the gnoll hunting grounds. Gnoll scouts found them and by this point knew not to attack without overwhelming force. The gnolls coordinated through Sending, brought all of their squads in to position, and attacked with inane numbers. They used crossbow lines to focus on particular targets, priests blessing to provide bonuses to hit, and when the party broke hunted them relentlessly. The last PC was a barbarian who was finally hunted down an in-game week later less than a day from safety.

I'm not going to say the party loved it at the time but they did enjoy the fight. The end got a climactic, crushing, feel and the players still often bring it up. If I'd pulled the punch and had the gnolls forget their lessons and rush in or just fail to pursue we would never have talked about that fight again.

Step 5: Provide alternatives

Combat-as-war can be soul crushingly stressful to play. When every decision can lead to a one sided slaughter analysis paralysis goes to 11. I handled this by creating another area (a recently discovered temple to a god of boldness and trickery) that was a nice standard combat-as-sport dungeon. We would switch to the dungeon (using other characters) to give the players a week off where they could just kick down the door and see what happens. This was incredibly helpful in keeping the party happy and relaxed which led to better games.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The only thing I want to add: You don't have to pull the punch, but you can make it a knock-out instead of a Total Party Kill. - If the player liked the setting and characters, I would let them be defeated and hunted down, but not killed. Instead they would be prisoners or slaves - and the next chapter of the campain would revolve around starting a slave revolt or escaping prison and hiding... Let them taste defeat, but don't just end the game \$\endgroup\$
    – Falco
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 9:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Falco I strongly disagree. In combat-as-war if the enemy doesn't have a good reason to take characters alive (something the party would know beforehand) the party needs to die. Characters as strong as PCs are unlikely to be taken as slaves as the enemy is intelligent and capable of realizing how hard they would be to handle. If they are taken by an evil enemy it is likely to be a fate worse than death with fighters losing fingers until they can't hold weapons and casters losing tongues or more to prevent spells casting. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ceribia
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 10:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ceribia Great answer, you gave some excellent anecdotal examples and touched on a lot of specifics. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 14:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Erik Historically the rich and powerful weren't heros packing innate magical talents, capable of fighting four on one, and healing all their wounds after an eight hour rest. For enemies who understand the game mechanics at play (a necessity for combat as war) the risk reward is insane. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ceribia
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 12:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Erik The average 5e PC isn't just quite dangerous compared to the rank and file, they aren't even in the same league. Compare the combat abilities of an MM guard to a level 5 barbarian even stripped of their equipment. The historical comparison simply isn't supported by the mechanics of 5e. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ceribia
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 12:37

I have just a couple points to add that actually apply to almost any gaming style.

Communicate Through the Details

As the DM, you broadcast your true desires through the many details you present in your campaign. You can talk to your players until you are blue in the face about wanting a tactical game, but you use the same stock plots, the same stock monsters, and the same stock supply list, you'll get the same stock results.

Reinforce your desires at every opportunity. The dictum is, "Show, Don't Tell." Describe the defenses of the local town in detail, and as the party walks through the woods casually mention that the forest restricts their view and the brambles constrain their motion. Instead of making your next Mary Sue NPC a great and powerful wizard, make him a grizzled combat veteran or Da Vinci-inspired alchemist. Expand on the standard price list with a greater variety of incendiaries, caltrops, smoke bombs, projectiles and such.

Give Them a Taste of Failure and a Full Stomach of Success

One reason that you should describe the visibility in the forest is because you are going to set up at least one or two encounters where it matters. Design a few simple encounters where the PCs are ambushed, tricked or trapped by a clearly inferior force. Show your players explicitly what you have in mind by "combat as war".

And when the players start getting creative, look for reasons to rule in their favor. So often as DMs we get attached to the encounters we design and get a little miffed when the combat proceeds other than how we envisioned it. Don't let that happen to you. If the players come up with a brilliant plan that wipes out in three minutes the encounter that you carefully crafted to take three hours of table time, celebrate! When you have to make rulings about the effectiveness of various tactics or weapons, give the players the benefit of the doubt. Once the players have bought into the new style you can be more demanding, but in the early going you want to be as encouraging as possible.


Teach Them to Think Tactically

In the method known as "learning by doing" you can teach this by example and using lessons learned from one fight to inform the next one.

Run a few one-shot adventures where your monsters and NPC's who oppose the PC's use tactics and are smart. A leader and his minions do not just attack mindlessly. They assess the party (don't mind read, the party has to give a few tells in order for the opponents to see who the leader or high value target is) and try to break up their rhythm.

Fight tactically from the monsters' perspective. Use ranged weapons, terrain, any spells or items, and attempts to disrupt the party. If you end up with a party wipe (TPK) in a one shot -- do a debrief. Explain the tactical thinking of the enemies they ran into. Point out where their tactics left openings for the enemy to exploit, and which of the party's tactics looked effective. Stress the value of reconaissance, scouting, and intelligence in shaping the battlefield.

Use the first few battles, at whatever level of success or failure, as teaching sessions. Discuss after the battle what went well and what didn't. Then hit the next "one shot" to see what they've learned. If they aren't used to it, it will take a few sessions for them to view the battlefield as the lethal place that it can be.

If your players are like most I've played with, they'll learn quickly and try to get the most out of their talents and assets. They'll enjoy it, and you'll have your hands full soon enough!


Leaving off most of the ground already covered well by other answers:

Logic has to support it:

There must be a legitimate risk to something that the players care about. Give them hooks that make them want to protect things... Or destroy them.

(e.g. The innocent farmer who patched them up and fed them was arrested and about to be hung for it. Plenty of guards present ample opportunity for a tactical conflict.)

Further, the threat has to fit the world. If it breaks plausibility, it shakes the suspense, too. Planning what resources are available to various factions ahead If time makes it easier to keep things rational. If players think you are cheating, and you can honestly say, "nope. Counter intel.." Or "your characters just didn't get enough intel", it can really help.

I've explained things after a game leading to "Oh, man, really?" A reputation for honesty helps here, as well.

Descriptions should support it:

If you want a gritty game, you need to describe the action more deeply than "ooh, good hit." The consequences of a blow to the face or knocking a character down with a sucking chest wound should be more than just "he lost some hp."

Get this, though: Even without using house rules, you can narrate most of that. (Though, this is a big reason why I tend to prefer other systems, mind) The character bleeding to death isn't at "negative hitpoints" he's "gushing blood" or "lost a hand". The guy hit takes a 5' step back, staggering. Morale drops as their side does and they get tired.

Run the NPCs as rational beings. They offer surrender---or seek it---in the same ways as PCs. They figure out that they can't win, most run away, terrified. These combine to make this feel real... a good storyteller can get his audience seeing the story. Interactive stories seem even easier.

Finally, your story needs to support this.

If the characters meet in a dive bar and schlep through forgotten tombs, avoiding wars is natural. It's possible to have them get caught up in such a thing, and that is fine, but it must fit.

There should be plot effects to their choices and the consequences need to follow. (Connecting the various points) They duck the fight, the choice should have reasonable consequences. Part of strategy is choosing battles. Make the consequences fair, not predictable. It's not a matter of punishing their choice, It's a question of acknowledging it.

When a player is interested in the outcome of a fight and thinks of it as dangerous, you'll see tactics and even strategy emerge naturally.

General Advice: Use a system with simple rules.

The more rules the players have available to them, the more they tend to rely on them. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The less game mechanics the players have to use as tools to "solve" an encounter, the more incentived they are to come up with creative and more narrative ideas. From what I've heard about D&D 5th Edition, it appears to be a game well suited for this purpose.

Rulings, not Rules

A central part of oldschool gaming is that the rules of the game are tools to help the GM determining whether an action by the PCs is successful or a failure. They are not meant to determine what happens. The consequence of this is that you don't need a preexisting rule to try something. It is up to the GM to decide whether an action be "successful", "possible (roll dice)", or "impossible". When an action sounds like it could work but it could also fail, the GM has to decide what kind of die roll the player should make.

In early editions of D&D these were usually just attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws. If the action is intended to cause damage, you pick a number of d6 that seems to be roughly appropriate. The more recent edition there's also skill checks, which are just a more customizable form of ability checks. When a player wants to do something and points invested in a skill sound like they might help with pulling it off successfully, make a skill check.

To run the game in a more oldschool way, treat the descriptions of the skills as examples of how the skills can be used. They are not a complete listing of all the ways in which the skills could be used. In actual play it's often a good idea to just eyeball target numbers and describe the result of the action as it seems intuitive to you. Don't get out the book every five minute and spend 30 seconds looking for the exact skill description. That would just slow things down way too much and gets everyone back into the habit of trying to solve problems through calculations instead of using creative narrative solutions.

Obviously it's important that the players know you're doing this and that they are okay with the books not always being strictly followed for the sake of having the game run smoother and more flexible. You're not cheating when you're doing this, it's a valid way of playing the game. But the players need to be aware that this is how this campaign is being run.

When in doubt, always say Yes.

Combat as War is not really about having things be realistic, but about things being awesome. It's about the PCs being badass. You also want to encourage the players to come up with awesome and badass ideas to defeat their opponents. So unless you feel that a proposed action really should be completely impossible, let them try with a die roll. And if you think the action really shouldn't be hard to pull off, just say that it succeeds without rolling any dice. If it should work and a bad die roll would be a disappointment for everyone at the table, just don't roll dice.

Also, every time you say no to something, the game stalls for a moment. The players had an idea but you said no. Now they have to think again to come up with another idea. That breaks the pace of the game and might interrupt a heated action scene. So unless you think you have to say no, say yes. That also goes for any time when the players ask questions about the environment. If a player asks "Is the bridge made of wood", he probably has a great idea of what he could do if the bridge is wood. Unless you have a good reason why the bridge should be made of stone, just say yes. It should be fun.

Always make sure you know what the players are planning

A critical part of making a ruling is that you and the player are on the same page about what the situation is like and what's about to happen. If a player says he jumps over the wall but there's a 50 meter drop on sharp rocks, it's almost certain that the player is imagining the situation differently than the GM. The player's character would know because he can see the environment, but the player himself only makes assumptions based on what the GM told him. So before you make a ruling what happens, always make sure that the players are imagining the same situation as you do.

Know the Goals and understand Dramatic Questions

In a Combat as War scenario, the goal of all involved sides is never to kill all opponents at any cost. Fighting and killing is always a means to accomplish an end, not the end itself. A Combat as War battle is not about killing all enemies, but about getting the enemy into a position where they can no longer achieve their goal and won't have any choice but to retreat or surrender. This goes for both the players, as for their opponents. And sometimes it might even be enough to keep the enemy at bay for a while, accomplish the goal, and then leave the battlefield. If your goal is already accomplished, by keep risking your life?

This leads into the Dramatic Question of every encounter. What is this encounter about? What question is this fight going to give an answer for? There is a really great and extensive article by the Angry GM about this whole topic, which I very much recommend anyone to read: Four Things You've Never Heard Of That Make Encounters Not Suck


Outside of game "talks" are so dull...

Ask them what they want, in game

You can present them with two quest opportunities. One much more dangerous sounding than the other (with great reward and glory of course).

If they choose the hard path, tell them what to expect

An NPC gives the old "If you doubt your courage, or your strength, come no further" speech. Another warns, "This enemy is cunning, beyond anything you've faced before, and takes no prisoners."

Allow pinch pinch-hitters

I'd be a little concerned plunking established characters into a much deadlier situation. Players might be happier creating a new character they are not as attached to.

Give them the chance to bring in a new character instead, temporarily or permanently:

"There are other adventurers here, that fill in gaps for your party, in case any of you think better of this quest"

Setting the tone

Then back it up with what they see on the way. A trusty, otherwise stalwart, NPC says they've lost their senses and abandons them or begs them not to go. They find bodies or broken weapons of strong NPCs they know and maybe liked. (Killing off your own NPCs is a great way to let the party this is serious.) Have the PC's wake up from terrifying dreams.

The players should have had a discussion by this point about the risk being very real. If they just...aren't...getting...it, then bang the point home with a sober aside from the DM, like those mentioned above.

Give them one more chance

Remind them now and again, there is a chance to turn back and take a safer route. At the cave entrance, queue up some disturbing music.

If they convey understanding the risks, and still form ranks go into that cave, they're on board.

  • \$\begingroup\$ ...or they think that you've just decided to add mood music and grisly tales to another standard dungeon crawl. Or, when everyone dies, they think that the GM is out to get them for some unexplained reason. Telling the player explicitly how you're going to change the game will at least let them know that this time is going to be different. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 22:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Paul - OK I've amended my answer to account for that party that just doesn't seem to get it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tim Grant
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 0:08

Put the Player Characters in the thick of it.

This will require buy in during character creation; they'll need backgrounds that would support volunteering or being drafted into an army.

Build a war, with objectives that can be assigned or picked up by the party such that they work on the periphery of the larger conflict. Depending on how they like to play, they could be a group of shock troops, scouting party, supply delivery, etc.

Have them witness the larger battle going on around them, but limit the enemies they actually face if they wind up in middle of a larger battle. Empower them to wonder through the trenches of an active conflict.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure if there's text missing from the answer that would explain how a literal war helps to encourage players to approach personal combat with the Combat as War mindset, or whether this answer just misses that Combat as War isn't about literal war. Either way his could use some work to clarify. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 15, 2016 at 16:08

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