Thursday, February 6, 2014

Melee Academy: Dealing With Superior Foes

How do you deal with superior foes? Not foes with superior numbers, but foes who are just better than you? That is the subject of this installment of the multi-blog series Melee Academy.

These tactics are generic. These days I usually play Dungeon Fantasy, where fodder is meant to lose and be a threat only in great numbers. In fact, the term is ensconced in the rulebooks:

"Fodder monsters appear in hordes that outnumber the party. [. . .] a mob of fodder is essentially a distributed monster that has lots of attacks [. . .] They often have the advantage of mobility advantage, though, nipping in and out like jackels or piranha [. . .]"

I'm writing this from the perspective of the GM - how do you make these fodder, especially fodder that is outmatched in all quality markers (damage, skill, DR, HP) by the PCs, into an interesting threat?

Obviously, you need to give them some ability to threaten the players, usually using one or more of the four basics - superior numbers, special weaponry, prepared battlefields, or superior tactics. It's the last I'm concentrating on today - tactics. Specifically, the minutia of running fodder. What should your orcs, goblins, giant rats, dinomen, etc. do on their turns to be a threat to a group of well-armed delvers with superior skills?

Threat Potential

First, the fodder must have some way to threaten their opponents. They must be able to potentially penetrate DR with attacks, get a hold with grappling, or have some special ability which puts some cumulative hurt on the PCs. If they don't, they aren't fodder, they are a nuisance at best. They won't get anything done in terms of being a threat, and aside from occupying time (real world and in-game), they're generally a combat non-issue.

So now you've got them as an actual threat, now what? But what about actual tactical choices? What are the GURPS manuevers and combat options they need to choose to make it all matter?

Let's break these up into tactics to emphasize, marginal tactics, and tactics to avoid.

Tactics to Emphasize

These are the money moves for inferior opponents, in my experience.

Make Sure You Hit

The most important thing to do is make sure you hit. Fodder don't have great skill, usually, so don't get too ambitious. Make sure you hit.

You can get cute and do Telegraphic Attacks (Martial Arts, p. 113) to ensure you hit and force defense rolls, too. It doesn't help you roll critical hits, but it helps you hit, and forcing your foe to roll and risk a Critical Failure is better than just missing.

Deceptive Attack

If you can ensure you're going to hit, or at least get enough hits, consider using Deceptive Attack. It's a good tactic against foes that are only a bit superior to you. Lowering a Parry 18 to Parry 17 is worthless, but lowering a 12 to an 11 might make all the difference.

One fun tactic is to mix Telegraphic Attacks from earlier strikers with Deceptive Attack from later ones. The first really only want to force you to defend, hopefully with a Parry or Block so you get a cumulative penalty. The latter ones want to hit your potentially reduced defenses with a larger penalty.
The reverse works okay, too - Deceptive Attack, but then Telegraphic Attack to follow up when you are sure defenses are weak and Retreats used up. But it's demoralizing to spend a lot of attacks setting up a shot and then have the defender make it by the +2 you just handed to him.

Multiple Attacks on One Target

To inflict damage, you need to get through the Active Defenses of your target. In order to do this, you must hit first.

This great thread covers PCs charging a pike formation. Formed up weaker foes with long weapons can represent a good pile of attacks, and limit your options for closing with them. Your goal is to swamp defenses, and hope for critical hits along the way and blown defense rolls as a result of cumulative penalties. GURPS isn't attrition-heavy in the way D&D is, but you can effectively attrit defenses over the course of a turn, given enough attacks.

This also goes for grappling, especially if you're using Martial Arts: Technical Grappling. Even if you aren't, dogpile your foes; the more people you have hanging on, the worse off the opponent is.

Flank, Flank, Flank

Aim for flank attacks. One aspect of outnumbering your opponents is you can often lap around them. Get to the flank hex on the weapon side to avoid shields (and the DB from shields). Get to the shield-side flank to avoid a weapon parry. Even if you just do it through superior movement, the -2 to defend is a big edge.

Committed Attack

If your fodder has multiple defenses, or at least one good one that doesn't depend on Retreat such as Block or a non-Fencing Parry, take a good look at this option.

This beats All-Out Attack (see below) because it means attackers still need to expend some effort overcoming the fodder's defenses. They aren't auto-killed when the PCs' turn comes up. But it also gives them some extra movement, damage, or attacking skill to leverage into a threat to the PCs. Shield-armed fodder should seriously consider this, since they can get off one good Block after getting off a Committed Attack. Use (Determined) for a better hit chance or (Strong) to get a little more damage, and the two step option combined with either can let them perform a runaround attack to give their target a -2 to defend (p. B391) and to force the target to keep backpedaling.


Take a close look at the Teamwork or Teamwork (Pack Tactics) perks. With the Teamwork perk, they can form up and use formations to threaten foes. With Pack Tactics, they can surround and harass foes more effectively.

Another good one is Shield Wall Training so fodder can block for each other, and make it a bit harder to kill them off with the old technique of Feint-and-Attack or overwhelming through multiple attacks. You can Feint Blarg the Orc, but if Lurg blocks for him, your deception was useless.

Tactics Of Marginal Value

These moves have their place, but they aren't your go-to moves turn after turn.

Aiming for Hit Locations

Useful if the targets have a specific weakness or if you must hit to inflict any useful damage. Or, if hitting a specific location trumps the value of hitting anything else. If the only way you can reasonably hurt your foe is an eye strike or a Chinks in Armor hit, you have to go for it. But it's not worth aiming for specific locations if a random strike or a torso strike will inflict some damage.

You must be able to hurt your opponent, so use aimed shots for penalized locations when that makes the difference between damaging or non-damaging attacks.

All-Out Attack

Another one to avoid, unless you're running berserker fodder. It seems tempting - +4 to hit, +2 to damage . . . but unless you dramatically outnumber your foes or they can't reliably one-shot incapacitate or kill your, you are toast. It's mostly useful when your opponent can't defend or can't retaliate, or to take advantage for a golden opportunity to rush in and whack someone who really needs hitting. But in general, you are just making it easy for your superior foe to kill you faster, and rarely for a good tradeoff.

Defensive Tactics in General

All the All-Out Defending in the world is useless when someone smashes your defenses with a solid Feint and then stabs you. AOD is useful if you are close in defenses, and you can force attackers to attack the fodder that are AODing while other fodder attack. If that is the case, do it. If not, avoid it.

Tactics To Avoid

These have a big failure mark all over them.

Feints, Beats, and Ruses

Useless, worthless, and pointless. All three of these require a competitive skill level to make them possibly useful, and a superior skill level to make them worth trying.

If a fodder monster tries a Feint, and you conceal the results (either by rolling secretly, or rolling the results on the following turn), you're basically just saying "Kill this guy now, he might be good." So it's got some use as a sacrifice, if you want to ensure the PCs kill a specific fodder monster by pretending it is some kind of threat. If you are using some version of Setup Attack, that can be useful.

Beat is possibly useful, if the fodder types are really strong, and can leverage their ST-based skill into a number that can potentially threaten the better of ST-based or DX-based skills of the delver. That's rare in normal GURPS games and rarer still in Dungeon Fantasy. It's better for, again, marginally less skilled guys.

Getting Fancy In General

Remember you are inferior in skill, and you must maximize what you have. Throwing skill away for Rapid Strikes, eye strikes, Lethal Kicks, defaulted techniques, etc. is a bad idea. Go for the money moves and apply as many of them to the enemy as possible.

And that's how I run my fodder to make them a threat.

Special DF Note: Remember they are still fodder. The odds are they are going to lose, and lose badly. Even in a minor victory (driving off the PCs, say) they'll probably take terrible losses. Many will die, and even if they fight in-game as if they all expect to live (and not like suicide troopers), they will take losses. Groups of fodder lose members like larger monsters lose HP, and "heal" them by getting replacements. The only way fodder can really win is through vastly superior numbers, in my experience, although they can occasionally present an obstacle by sheer threat of costing time or resources the group doesn't want to expend. If you juice them up until they are a real threat, then they aren't really fodder, or inferior foes, anymore. An army of orcs is a boss fight, even if individually they are all fodder versus your handful of adventurers.


  1. is this assuming these are all ambushes against a superior foe or a foe with -20 points of personal disadvantages that prevent them from choosing another way of fighting or a foe with IQ5 and below?

    1. I think - though Peter will speak for himself - he's assuming that you've found yourself in a fight you sought out or couldn't avoid.

    2. What Doug said. You can't always avoid fighting foes better than you. Plus, for monsters in a DF game, guards in a town attacked by adventurers, soldiers in battle, etc. - you can't just leave and come back when the fight is in your favor. You can always just surrender, back off, bribe the party, etc. All it takes, really, is finding out your opponents have a higher skill than you and effective ranged attacks or 1+ more Move than you to say "You might fight until you, or they, lose."

  2. Also in a less rules more general sense, attack when your foe is weak. Like when they have unexpectedly been teleported over an underground lake for example.

    Even dangerous foes sleep, need to heal, travel through hostile environment etc

    1. Yeah, and I have a post in the works on that kind of stuff - the larger issue of fighting in a world when you know your enemies can take you apart one-on-many.


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