Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Marching Order, Battle Order, and Scouting

The Ravenous RPG blog put up a collection of posts, and linked to this post about marching order.

Footprints of Fools and Wanderers: The vagaries of Marching Order

Did I say post? I meant article containing possibly exhaustive discussion of marching order and marching order concepts for D&D games.

It did occasion some thoughts about my own campaign, and how we depict marching order and who goes where.

Show Me

We represent marching order with minis - it's their primary use, although we do use mapped tactical combat quite often. Marching order is quite literal, and visual - where the minis are on the sample hex sheet is where they are in the game.

Lanes & Marching Order, not Battle Order

What's interesting is the emphasis in our marching order on "lanes." Given a "standard" 3-yard across corridor in a dungeon, the players rarely put three across. Instead, they'll bunch up side by side with a clear lane down one side and place high-mobility characters in those lanes to be able to move forward. Or put ranged attackers there so they can shoot down the lane. In other words, the assumption is marching order is not combat order - it's a mobility-and-protection based employment of space from which bold paper men spring into action when the bad guy minis hit the table. Goal #1 is to protect the weaker characters, goal #2 is to provide lanes for moving into action, and goal #3 is anything like spotting, scouting, and so on.

That could be making lemonade out of lemons, however - if experience tells you berserkers, guys who can't bear to waste a single second of Great Haste, wizards unwilling to take a -1 for range that they don't have to, and so on are going to zip out of "formation," you don't waste time making a formation. You don't create a battle order, you create a marching order and assume it'll explode like a rack of pool balls on a break when combat begins, each character moving to the spot they need to be at the moment. Or want to be in, either way.

No Scouts, So Who Leads?

Another lemons/lemonade issue is who leads.

Same with goal #3 - the party often lacks useful scouts. Lacking literal Scouts - bow-armed Scout-template PCs - and scout-capable templates like Thief or a Per-enhanced fighter-type - the group assumes their Per won't cut it. With that in mind, the "scout" tends to be more of a front-line fighter than an actual scout.

Add in a fear of a low-armor character getting caught out on his or her own, and you get "send the guy with the most DR and HP to scout." It's not a very effective way to avoid traps or trouble, it's more of acceptance that trouble will happen and not dying from it is the way to cope. If your best "scout" is the druid or a wizard who bought up his IQ and got Per in the bargain, or a non-human fighter with Infravision or Dark Vision, then this has merit.

Sometimes this gets extended even with actual scouts - again, fear of a low-armor character getting caught on his or her own. Ironically, this can mean Move 9-10 scouts with Per 15 and Stealth-17 or Move 7 thieves with Per 14 and Stealth-19+ are often crammed in the middle with the wizards to protect them from harm, as a Per-10 DR 9 Knight leads off the group because he's got the most DR and the best Block score. It does have the effect of making the surprise rules (Exploits, p. 26-27) fairly one-sided - the NPCs might surprise the PCs, but PCs leading off with low-Per no-Stealth PCs in close proximity to the others with light extending ahead don't surprise people often. Not even deaf swordsmen!

The Middle

Clerics, Druids, Wizards, Bards if we ever had any, Artificers, Thieves, and Scouts end up here most often. The latter two function better as actual scouts, but often get put in the middle. The middle is the place of default - the party doesn't build out from the middle, but rather walls in towards the middle. Characters who can't usefully protect others go here.

Who trails?

Generally, the rear rank goes to one of three types:

- cheap hirelings, who are less valuable in the front because they aren't the best fighters;

- high mobility guys who can run to the front if needed or just fight from the back if attacked from there;

- a moderate-mobility, high DR guy who can absorb a back shot.

Per isn't as big of an issue. It's hard to walk backwards in the dungeon all day, so no one tries to force the issue. They simply have PCs check their back as they move, at corners, etc. and routinely turn around when they pause to map or force a door or chit-chat.

The rear is both critical and less important than point. You need a strong rear guard, but most of your combat ends up coming from the front as you're heading into, not fleeing, danger. A hireling who would be an obstacle at best, bad footing after death at worst, in the front rank is a valuable speedbump for rear attacks. A high-mobility PC in the back is both a rear guard and capable of zooming up a lane to get to the front to fight.

And as always, a high-DR high-HP character is useful because they're hard to kill.

And that's how marching order works in my game.


  1. Interesting that in your game hirelings trail ... whenever I play (rather than referee), I pile hirelings up front and behind as fodder to soak up damage from whichever direction attack comes. Scouts/thieves are sent out as-needed from the middle of the group to check distant corridors or strange rooms, usually "invisible", but while walking through corridors, they tend to be walled in by fighting-types and hirelings.

    Of course, we're playing B/X D&D where every hit not against a main character is damage "ablated" ... and because I'm the one who instigated B/X play, others tend to follow my lead in dungeon design, which admittedly has very few traps.

    Thanks for an interesting read!

    1. Game system plays into this heavily. Defense is purely passive in B/X D&D, and HPs ablate away over time with limited ability to restore them. In GURPS defense is passive (damage resistance) and active (active defenses), and the active portion is highly skill based. HP ablate suddenly, often fatally, but are much easier to restore.* In B/X, putting hirelings up front to absorb fire makes sense. In GURPS, putting them up front means they take hits that a more-skilled, better-armored PC would be able to negate entirely.

      * Something that showed in our White Plume Mountain sessions - it's very hard to go back to "HP go away suddenly, and don't come back much" when you play in a system where it's easier to recover them, but harder to lose them.

  2. The idea of keeping a lane open is interesting. We may start doing it.

    It's interesting that our gaming group is generally taking a radically different take on marching order. We have a high Per scout, so he does scout ahead despite having no DR and being pretty fragile. The heavily armored and slow fighter is next so she can get into the fight, then the wizard and cleric immediately behind her, and the moderately armored but stupid fast martial artist is last because she can move to where the fight is.

    We tend to deploy into two groups: scout and martial artist move to find a flank while the knight moves up, supported by the wizard and cleric. But we definitely try to sneak around and ambush people, at least for the two that can.

    1. That doesn't sound radically different, except for the scout. High-speed fighters in the back, casters in the middle, front-rankers in the front.

      The sneak, ambush, and flank aspects are deprecated in my game, but fighting in tight corridors probably helps. You can't sneak with lights and lack of sound muffling, as both carry very far. And flanking requires a wide-open fight, which equally leaves you open to being flanked!

  3. My past experiences with mapped combat is that PCs do best starting in a loose skirmish line abreast maximizing each PCs field of fire toward the enemy and with room to retreat and avoid close combat and spacing to somewhat lessen problems from area attacks

    Then from there devolves into a swirling dogfight as the enemies close in and melee PCs surge to battle, and then once in battle start stepping and retreating about

    In general is designed around bringing as much of the parties firepower to bear as quickly as possible

    1. Whoever leads while walking around is either the most able to take a pounding melee type or whoever has the most impatient player . . . Not uncommon for some controversy to arise when the able to take a beating character is a ranged fighter, since mobility is less important for people who can attack without needing to move to the enemy not uncommon to see a nigh immobile super armored 'bunker with legs' ranged guy

      So does said guy go in front due to DR, or go in back due to range?

    2. A loose formation followed by a general melee probably works better in open areas than in dungeons. But "general melee" happens often in my games. Everyone has a very valid, defensible, logical reason for moving to a particular hex this turn or that turn, and eventually there is no formation. That works often enough, but equally, backfires quite often.

      As for the second part - tough call. I'm not sure either is a bad choice.

  4. As author of the original post,er thanks for linking to it! Your article makes a very interesting addition to the subject :) Adding a backlink to the article :)

    1. Thanks for the compliment, and thanks for the backlink!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...