Making the Most of Combat

Also known as “The Art of Being a Hero”, the players and GM alike must be careful not to turn tactical play, and especially combat, into a very dry strategy-type board- or wargame. This is a very real danger when the process is hemmed around as it is with conventions and protocols of formal acts and actions required to define and run those sorts of situations fairly with a reasonable amount of verisimilitude.

The players especially must always be on the lookout for opportunities, aware of the wide variety of possibilities available, the many different ways in which the actions can be arranged and applied, with an eye to adapt them to the needs of the moment so as to put as much as possible into every volatile situation. This part of the game should be kept as exciting, as cliff-hanging, as sudden-death as these sorts of contests are in spirit. These are the scenes that in novels and movies alike keep the reader or viewer on the edge of his seat. The characters should look for ways to “make a splash” with flamboyant, swashbuckling actions, employing the smartest and most unexpected tactics. Teamwork can be amazingly effective, and the lone swashbuckler can swing through just in time to turn the tide of battle if he keeps his eyes open and his wits about him. Taking the unexpected tack or path is one good way to keep the GM on his toes and ensure a good time is had by all. Let the GM worry about how the actions stated must be implemented, that is what he is there for. Innovations in battle can be a delight to everyone around the table.

It is of prime importance that the players educate themselves about the setting as much as the situation allows them to before they become wrapped up in a melée, for the features of the environment must be utilized to the greatest advantage to achieve swift victory – before the GM has the foes do the same against them.

Medieval interiors, particularly those of great castle halls, manor halls, town halls, craft and guild halls, chapels, great churches and especially cathedrals, and other great buildings, and even common halls in inns and houses of call are all renowned for their scale, commonly roofed over with open-work beams and bracing for high “hammerbeam” vaulted roofs. These are great for getting around unseen and maneuvering for position in a contest or battle, if one can manage to up there. Fancy columns, beams and deep-carven bracing or corbels for the seating of support timbers are common architectural adornments, if the nature of the building indicates even a hint of wealth, perfect for clambering up to avoid capture, or get to another part of the conflict, or beat a hasty retreat to a high window embrasure for escape. The larger the chamber, the more likely there is a candolier or two or three hanging over head, suspended from the trusses and crossbeams holding the roof up, and/or candle banks standing against the walls, or large candle stands waiting to be dropped on the unwary or kicked or tipped over to block their foes’ movements or available fields of approach. Simple bowl-and-wick oil lamps are another useful and common method of lighting in the period, and a serious fire hazard. Candlesticks and rushlights are common sources for tabletop lighting and a source of fire in a fight. Green rushes and strewing herbs are common in great chambers and halls to sweeten a room and hide the filth that collects from the residents eating there, but by midwinter they are brown and dried up, just waiting to be lit in a desperate situation. desperate is the key word, indeed, for the people of the period of the game are nothing if not HIGHLY respectful, even fearful, of fire.

Acts that can be viewed as arson should be carefully considered beforehand, as most everything used in building and in the preparation and manufacture of most things burn readily, even the very mortar holding stone and/or brick buildings together. There are no such things as fire retardants much less fire proofing in the period – not without magick, and magick carries too high a price tag for most to afford. Cloth and clothing go up like torches in the blink of an eye (one CS of near exposure, immediately on direct contact), and for modesty’s sake all gowns and skirts are floor-length. A single lamp could start a fire that sweeps across half the town before it is contained.

That is why it is a capital crime to set a fire, worth the author’s life at the end of rope if he should be caught and brought before the law, providing the arson’s victims don’t get to him first and he survives to appear before a judge.

A pot of boiling stock or porridge on an iron swing-arm hook over the fire in the hearth is a great tool for hurling and dousing the foes to burn them, soaking into clothing that retains the eat and continues to inflict damage. The bucket of sand on the hearth for smothering fires that are in danger of getting out of control can be used to grab a handful to fling in a foe’s face to blind him. The bucket outside the courtyard door for collecting piss to ferment into lye for cleaning can be used to fling in their faces and blind them, too, perhaps burn them also if it has been there long enough. These elements are fairly universal in residential houses, or the residential (rear courtyard) sides of houses that are also used for craftsmen’s shops. Chamber pots that have not yet been emptied can become noisome tactical tools in the hands of shameless dastards.

Captain Blood would never have been so great a hero to behold if he had not cut the tie-rope and sent the candoliers hurtling down into the midst of his foes. Hollywood’s Sea Hawks would never have been so popular if in their boarding attacks they hadn’t swung out on rigging ropes to leap through the air into the thick of the fray. The Three Musketeers would never have been such a hit if they hadn’t pulled the tapestries down from the walls over the heads of the Cardinal’s men to give them a sound beating, finding them already long gone by the time they found their way out from underneath them again. Nothing pleases people more than a rascally hero tipping the hapless merchants cart full of fruit and vegetables over in the path of the enemy soldiers who are hot on his tail, sending them slipping and sprawling all over the narrow market isle as it squishes underfoot to eliminate any hope of sound footing.

It is up to the players to make the most of their characters skills, whether trade skills, Petty Skills, or Open skills, to find opportunities to use them creatively in these situations. The Climber skill can enable a character to retreat to safety or a place to Hide, or to get to a remote avenue of escape, to gain a height advantage for the melée or a platform from which to use Hurled or Missile (ranged) attacks. This is especially true in fancy buildings incorporating the intricate stonework of the High Gothic style. Ducking under cover and then leaping out to gain Surprise over a foe is just one application of the Padfoot/Skulker skill. using it to sneak around behind an opponent so as to attack from the Back field of approach, to which he can offer no defense is another (although he is allowed a Sentry/AWA check to sense or hear someone behind him first).

The Player/Silver Tongue skill is great for creating a ruse in using the Cutpurse skill on a foe to take from him a weapon or other object considered valuable or useful in the battle, especially if it should be what the battle is being fought over in the first place. This, followed by the use of the Cache/Conceal skill to quickly make the purloined object disappear, might be most effective on a NPC just arriving on the scene, ill-informed as to the facts of the situation and more susceptible to the ruse because of that fact.

One of the primary purposes behind the use of special heroic tactics in battle or tactical situations is to obtain a simple advantage. Gaining a height advantage isn’t just useful for gaining the upper hand in the melée, it can make an attempt at overbearing a foe more effective and take the place of the movement that must usually preface an attempt to tackle a foe. Jump down on a foe as a part of making an attack on him and add the “falling” damage to the POT of the blow to guarantee Stun and make inflicting multiple wounds more likely.

So, Leap up on that table, ledge or wall! Grab that anchor rope from the chandelier and swing across the hall, don’t risk running through the thick of the fray! The Acrobat skill can come in handy during these conflicts in any number of ways.

Equipping a character with a weapon skill for either hand is prudent and allows for greater flexibility in battle, as does giving him Shield and/or dueling cloak skills in both hands, so they can be used equally well in either.

Stepping into a smaller foe to press an attack can make him give ground and use turns at the beginning or end of attacks over and over to steer him until he is pinned to a wall or in position to be shoved over a parapet or precipice or down a well, or the like – unless he figures some other way to get free, or is a better swordsman. Hard-soled boots are formidable weapons to kick a foe in the shins or stomp on his feet when they are only thinly clad! A knee to a certain sensitive spot can bring him down, or he can be doubled over by a punch to the breadbasket with the heavy hilt or butt of a weapon. The importance of the Brawler skill here can NOT be overstated, especially against a foe whose skill lies only in the formal use of his weapon and not in Brawling for his life on the battlefield.

For those using the optional attacks, the Thrust can force a foe to start taking wounds immediately, and the Slash can destroy the armor of those only lightly protected so they, again, start taking wounds soonest.

Dodge into a foe’s Zone so he can’t use his melée weapon! Especially if it becomes clear he has no skill at Brawling! Work hard at building Brawling skills, they make a character much more adaptable and formidable in battle! The hilt, the haft, the butt of the shaft or pole, all should be second nature for the character to use, and they become that much more effective if he is a Brawler by habit. His SL is going to reflect that fact soon enough. Hands, feet, knees and elbows can be used to beat or shove a foe out of his Zone, if he is subjected to the same tactics, again emphasizing the importance of Brawling. Brawling can truly get the most mileage of all a character’s combat skills if the player is truly into having his character mix it up with his foes.

Acrobat is another equally important skill. From Leaping up upon a trestle table, ledge, embrasure or wall, the character can use his skill as an Acrobat to somersault over the foe now looking up at him (provided he has clearance overhead) and, adding a half-twist, land facing that foe’s back to strike him from behind.

When the PC’s wade into battle or engage in a tactical contest, each must be mindful of their responsibilities to each other. No man is an island – the party survives or dies on its collective merits. There was no mistake in the coining of the phrase “Divide et impera” (divide and rule or divide and conquer) which was used by Julius Caesar. Lining up shoulder to shoulder with one’s fellows against the foes allows the characters to help defend one another, provides handy back-up if Stunned by a blow, and prevents foes from isolating and ganging up on any one character. the party of PC’s engaged in battle should never appear as a string of individual duels. They should work as a team to defeat their rivals with a minimum of injury on their own part. At the very least, characters should pair up or break into trios to stand back to back, preventing any foe from attacking from behind. But how few players think or act this way in battle?

The Wait action can be used for the PC to time a concerted attack with his fellows against a single foe, at the same Initiative, forcing that foe to offer a different defense to each one, and having none to offer at all against the fourth or fifth (as applicable).

If there are enough bodies on the PC’s side, using a formation like a Roman square or a Scots circular or oval Shieltron is the perfect way to surround non-combatants and protect them, perfect for keeping Mystics and Wizards and other practitioners safe. With a safe haven and time to work, they can bring their power to bear to best effect on the battle. This tactic works even better when there are enough on their side to arrange a rank of mid-sized polearms behind still able to reach the foes, and another rank of pikes behind them also able to reach the foes.

When the party has a practitioner of magick or two whose talents might best be used against the foe or altering the conditions of the setting rather than swinging weapons side by side with the rest, some means should be found to protect them, some safe position from which they can best use their Arts whose approach can be protected. Some of these types of characters even expect such aid. If the party has a chance to scout this out and prepare the site with appropriate magicks ahead of time, the party might not have to worry about protecting them at all. It depends on the specific skills in their repertoires.

The bottom line is that there is strength in numbers.

And the PC’s must keep in mind the fact that the NPC foes are likely to be looking for opportunities along those lines in dealing with them in return. If the GM thinks it appropriate to deploy sufficient numbers against the PC’s, such things as pincer movements, separating out squads to make flanking attacks, reserving part of the force to entice the PC’s to engage and then send in once all the rest are engaged to effect a rear attack should all be expected. All of these tactics can serve to make combat more memorable for the players, and make the characters more formidable.

This discussion of the possibilities is by no means exhaustive either, only representative. The GM and players should both always be on the lookout for other elements that can similarly be turned into a tactical advantage. In the end, however, they are only tools, there for the benefit of PC and foe alike, if only they avail themselves of them. The creative the approach to these sorts of situations, the more fun and interesting this phase of play becomes. If the character is an aspiring and eager young Lancelot du Lac, merry Robin-in-the-Hood or fearless Beowulf , this portion of the game is his time to truly shine, to do what he does best. But the PCs’ goals must be identified and agreed upon before entering the fray in order for them to be effective as a team. The warrior-types being run as GM’s NPC’s are going to do the same to the best of their ability, and those groups of them led by accomplished and experienced knights and warriors are less likely to see focus or morale break down as there is only one person, the GM, responsible for running them. They are unlikely to break and run until they have taken heavy losses, unless they lose noticeable number in a particularly short period of time. Then the PC’s will see what sort of leadership their foes have at their disposal, just how tough a force they are up against.

Combat is also the phase of play where the concepts of Chivalry come directly into play for those that follow such philosophies. The value of arms and armor, especially those owned and employed by those of their foes that are noble, are discussed under the heading “Booty”. The nobility is one great fraternity where lives are valued as members of an extended family, and where lives are spared in return for ransom, and where valuable steeds armor and weapons are also ransomed or confiscated and sold off. This is also where the players and GM must keep in mind the law of the land and the nature of their deeds in combat, whether they were set upon or not. There are NPC’s in place to see justice done, and most skilled warriors and knights have (locally) powerful noble patrons. Murder is still murder, regardless if the foe was barring them from their freedom or seeking the end their own lives, or if he insulted the characters’ mothers, fathers, or whathaveyou. The usury of merchant moneylenders and pawnbroker bankers is properly punished by use of the Church courts, not by means of a sword in the hands of a private citizen. Beating up the thugs sent by such notorious penny-pinchers can get the PC’s arrested for assault against the duly appointed agents sent to collect a lawfully incurred debt. Fighting in city and town streets and alleys and on the High ways or King’s Roads is breaking the King’s Peace, a serious enough offense for the local garrison, bedel and bailiffs of the ward, or the Watch, or the Constable of the Hundred and his bailiffs to make the Hue & Cry to pursue.

Have fun! Keep it heroic! But by all means, be conscious of witnesses and the consequences of actions. Some mistakes are irrevocable. Then again, if escape can be made, life in the lamb with a price on one’s head can be exciting, too!!