There’s an old saying that no battle plan survives the first touch of actual combat. For players who want to make a party more than the sum of its parts, one of the key ingredients is strategy. While any adventurer might be a force to be reckoned with by himself or herself, no one is tough enough to take on a slavering horde of the undead or a poison-spewing archfiend all by their lonesome.
DMs, pay attention; these suggestions work just as well on your side of the screen.
Hammer Out a Plan
The first thing a party needs to do is get together (in-character mind you; this is prime roleplay stuff right here) and discuss what different adventurers can and can’t do. Ability determines everything from marching order, to what needs to happen once initiative is actually rolled. For instance, while it might seem like common sense for Lightfoot the rogue to be on point, in some circumstances it might be a better bet to let Harak the half-orc barbarian lead the party; like when it would be smart to let the bruiser with darkvision scope out what’s happening so as not to give the party away with a light source in a tunnel. Alternatively, it’s a smart idea to let the evoker know that the inquisitor is going to be stalking along on the party’s right side, roughly 40 feet out in case the fireballs start flying. Terrain is a big concern in the planning stage, since having a ranger in a tree, or a gunslinger in position behind some rocks can be a huge asset.
Planning sessions should ideally happen before any kind of adventure is undertaken as well. For instance, characters should pool their knowledge about what they’re fighting, and how best to fight it. If there’s a map, get together and discuss things like entry points, possible ambush spots, and who should be stationed where. This is especially true for camping, since it’s a time for the DM to pull all kinds of shenanigans on an exhausted, occasionally depleted party. Come up with code words, hand gestures, or language everyone in the party speaks other than Common for combat communication.
Adventurers, by and large, try to be prepared for anything. That said, there’s some very specific gear that can provide a big advantage when used in combat. For instance, the lasso and the net are very under-utilized items that can trip up enemies for a round or more, foiling their attacks and leaving them rooted to the spot. They’re fragile as far as equipment goes, but that doesn’t make them any less useful in a pinch.
Lots of parties overlook the sheer usefulness of alchemical items. A general list of good investments can be useful, but it’s always a good idea to keep a few thunderstones on hand for blowing out a spellcaster’s ear drums (giving the caster a 20 percent chance to botch any spell with a verbal component if he or she fails the save), a few tanglefoot bags for giving the bad guys an unavoidable status effect (entangled for 2d4 rounds, and a possibility of being stuck to the floor, or crashing if they’re flying), and grenade template weapons in case there’s a swarm (no one ever, ever prepares for swarms, and an alchemist fire does wonders). Lastly, don’t underestimate the usefulness of smokesticks. What archers and spellcasters can’s see, they typically can’t aim at either.
Lastly, it’s a good idea to keep a few, expensive items on hand just in case. Magic ammunition is cheaper than buying a whole new magic weapon, and it’s ideal for foes that a party might not have to fight more than once. If a party’s going on a dragon hunt, it’s a good idea to bring some bane arrows (or bolts, or bullets). If there’s assassins or serpents about, buy some antitoxin, or antiplague if there’s undead fond of using disease. Magic oils are also useful, particularly if weapons need to be good-aligned, magical, or what have you to overcome damage reduction.
A party doesn’t need teamwork feats to fight as a cohesive unit (though good on you if you feel you can make those things work for you). That said, it’s important for every member of a team to know their strengths, to know what they can and can’t do, and to be able to communicate during combat to form the most effective plan.
Initiative order is the most important part of this endeavor. While the sword and board fighter might be going first, if she knows the witch is going to let loose a bolt of lightning, then it’s a good idea to delay until after the spell’s been cast. If the whole party knows what needs to happen (the usual “wait for my signal” is often enough to act as a trigger), then there’s a lot less confusion and frustration once the melee is joined.
Once combat is under way, the most important thing a player can do is take his or her ego out of the fight. On the one hand, yes, it would be great if the oracle could land a blow on the villain and do some serious damage. If that’s not likely to happen, then the smart move is to get into a flank position if possible, and to use the aid another action to provide a bonus to a character more likely to bring the pain—like the rogue with the poisoned dagger and the 4d6 sneak attack, or the great weapon fighter who’s putting everything into a single, overhand chop.
Lastly, don’t forget combat maneuvers. While it’s best to have a character specifically built to trip, disarm, or grapple enemies, or to perform dirty tricks, bull rushes, and sunder maneuvers, anyone can do these things. Sometimes these maneuvers are completely out of the question, such as when fighting a Huge-sized earth elemental. Other times, such as when there are a lot of very average, Medium-sized enemies all trying to gang up on the party as a whole, these maneuvers can provide some serious breathing room. This is especially true if the tripping character is using a reach weapon, and thus can stand behind an armored fighter while knocking an opponent to the ground.
For more handy tips and tricks, check out Neal F. Litherland’s gaming blog Improved Initiative!