The Fine Art of Combat Avoidance

The Art of War
(Source: WikiMedia Commons)
"He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight."

- Sun Tzu, The Art of War

I've seen it mentioned on other blogs but I got to experience it myself in last night's Dungeon Crawl Classics game. It is something of a lost art to have characters not plunge into every encounter.

Starting with its 3rd edition, D&D is geared towards balanced encounters. This doesn't mean that an encounter is easy. Rather it means that for any given encounter the Dungeon Master has a pretty good idea what sort of challenge the encounter presents. Moreover, in a bit of meta-gaming, your typical player will know that any encounter is something that the party can reasonably expect to defeat.

In my earlier gaming days this was not always the case. First of all the idea of balance wasn't quite so prevalent in the games which I played. If you were trying to build a reasonable encounter you'd have to eyeball it, there were no real metrics as to what was reasonable aside from the experience point value of the monster(s).

Scene from New Line Cinema's
The Fellowship of the Ring
Moreover, there was less an expectation of balance. There were times when players were expected to take the better part of valor. This is itself in keeping with a lot of the fiction that inspired D&D.  One situation which quickly comes to mind is early in The Fellowship of the Ring when the hobbits hid from the ringwraith which was looking for a hobbit with the name of Baggins. Similarly, in Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser make more than one ill-advised trip to the Thieve's Guild and are fortunate to survive the experiences.

In last nights DCC game the zero-level characters faced the most challenging encounter prior to clearing out the entire dungeon. Though a small dungeon, I'd designed it to be a little less linear than what my players and I have gotten used to. Fighting a giant which had just escaped its imprisonment took a painful toll on the party. The group, already well reduced from its peak of 24, was down to around 8. Though that was the most challenging encounter and they were victorious, they could not afford any more major combats. That lead to some creative handling of encounters. Having been slaughtered by a freeze-ray firing statue, upon re-entering the room two characters went down low and worked to topple the statue. Finding themselves in a room consisting of a broken walkway ten feet above the cavern floor, a floor covered by animated skeletons, the players found a way across without risking a fight with the skeletons. Though the gap was over 25 feet they used their iron spike to secure their rope in the cavern ceiling and swung across the gap Indiana Jones style. Its not how I thought that encounter would go but it was a nice surprise.

Having survived the Shrine of Pluto our heroes have at last reached 1st level. And these are probably the most hardened 1st level characters I've ever seen.

Note - At this point we'll be evaluating what's next for the group. We might go back to Call of Cthulhu but I've a hunch we'll continue DCC. Though the zero-level funnel adventure was fun I think the players are going to want to be able to play some more powerful characters. If that's the case we'll also be looking into how to add new folks in response to a few queries I've had. Though it'd be a pity to deprive those characters of the fun of a funnel adventure...


  1. The whole funnel process sounds like a hoot.

  2. I was reading through the old Frank Mentzer Basic D&D rules and I found this in the Companion Set from 1984.

    The Adventure Planning method gives you an organized way of designing challenges equal to specific character levels. However, be prepared to change the Rate of Progress. That number is a goal, and represents proper rewards for good play. If mere bad luck interferes with success, try to compensate by placing extra treasure on the next adventure. Watch for unexpectedly deadly situations; the monsters may do better than you think. Don’t penalize the characters if your designs are too powerful for them, but do not make things too easy for them, either.

  3. When I think of balance, I always try to ensure that the players know that if they have a chance of killing the bad guys, the bad guys also have the same chance of killing them. It means combats are infrequent, and the time before them is spent planning to gain as many advantages as possible, or just figuring out a way to avoid it. And then when a fight comes it's brutal bloody and quick, with the players expending just as much effort in surviving the fight as in killing the opposition.

    Might not be everyone's cup of tea, but it works for me and mine.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Stepping Away and a New Beginning

Jules Verne Translations That Don't Stink

RPG Review: Swords & Wizardry Complete Edition

RPG Review: Malleus Monstrorum for Call of Cthulhu

1910s vs. 1920s United States in Call of Cthulhu - A Quick Overview