Melee Academy – Team Tactics 101

Welcome to the third installment of Melee Academy!

Today we’re going to deal with team tactics. While +Peter V. Dell’Orto is throwing down with a post on how to keep your berserker buddy alive to rage, maim, and kill with proper gusto, I thought I’d approach this from a back to basics type philosophy. That is, basic questions, probably obvious . . . but given session reports like this one over at Bat in the Attic, and a few of our own games playing through Jade Regent using GURPS Dungeon Fantasy in which most of our party (usually to the accompaniment of both in- and out-of-character derision by +Mark Langsdorf ) seems to just love going haring off on their own.

Still, the game’s designer is on record in this very blog stating:

Keeping everyone together is to some extent my fault, making it a real GURPS issue. I’ll just say it: I think that the PCs should stick together, tactically and dramatically. After 34 years of gaming, I’ve met almost no GMs who can handle split groups well, and even fewer players whose characters run off on their own for valid reasons such as “self-sacrifice” or “advancing the story” rather than lame ones like “hogging the spotlight to show off.” Under my tenure, GURPS has definitely moved toward a game in which your PCs need to be mutually supporting teammates.

So if +Sean Punch has built this into the game, what does that imply?

Well, this is Melee Academy, so let’s start it out with the obvious.
Protect Each Other
This seems obvious, but it’s not always, because you often need a Perk or two to get the most out of this in certain circumstances.
Still, the timeless classic of putting the “squishies” behind a wall of heavily armored friends is timeless for a reason. This is probably true for low-power characters, but can also be true when the disparity between DR of the front-line types and those not on the line gets large. 
Cadmus, for example, just upgraded his armor. Again. For about $40,000 (!), he’s now sporting DR 12 on his head, neck, and torso, and DR 9 everywhere else. It’s a heavily enchanted (Fortify +2; Lighten 3/4) suit of plate armor of various thickness (heavy on the head/neck/torso, medium everywhere else), with another enchantment on his shield (Light large shield) that now gives DB +4. He’s very well protected (but not as much as Thumvar, who has at least DR 14 in places).
Fact of the matter is, you have to be a hero to punch through us. But if you can threaten us, you are likely to make squashy puree out of second-line types if you can hit them.
Anyway, so position yourselves so that the bad guys have to get through you to get to them. And “them” might be your handy thief, the ever-popular spellcaster, or the Cleric types (or as +Emily Smirle‘s infernal scout Staver likes to call them, “God-botherers”) who might either patch you up after, or deliver a really handy world-shaking miracle.
So, how to do it?
Again, this probably seems obvious, but it’s worth repeating. First, stay close enough together that one of the first things you can do, within one or two Move actions (or zero to one, ideally) is to form a line of battle. If you’re only four PCs, that might not be much of a line, but hey, couldn’t hurt. If you’re the classic 6-8, or have henchmen to bring your party from a few PCs to a respectable 6-8, you can do some interesting things.
Here’s but one example of a cluster of seven warrior types. I’ve got two bowmen on the flanks, a strong front line with a left-handed shield user on the left, a right-hand shield user on the right, a two-weapon guy in the middle of the front line. Behind them on the flanks I literally have two spear-carriers, but with only Reach 2 weapons (Reach 3 wouldn’t be out of the question). 
The black lines are the spear’s reach; the red are the areas protected by shields (left and right) and by a Sacrificial Parry from the two-weapon guy.
Anyone stepping to the front line will be open to two attackers; any doofus stepping up front-and center will be hit by five. Plus any incidental ouchitude delivered by the bowmen, who really ought to be well back, enough to be more than a Move or two away, so they can’t get ganked. With a (forthcoming!) modification to something I forgot while typing this, the center line is covered with two shields and a substantial ability to sacrificial parry into five hexes from our dual-weapon wielder. 
But you can see that anyone approaching from the front is going to have a bad time. The spear-types could easily be wizards or priests or anyone who can’t stand toe-to-toe with a fighter type, but can carry a long weapon.

Is this the best way to fight? The only way? Certainly not! It is probably suboptimal in all sorts of ways – but it probably beats running off alone far, far more often than not.

How else can you rely on your friends

One simple way is to just realize that GURPS has pretty specific defense avenues. You can’t parry on the side hex opposite your weapon if you have a one-handed weapon, nor can you block on your off-shield side. This means that even if you can’t get around to the coveted rear hex, you can limit the defenses your foe can bring to bear.
In the example to the left, the two-weapon fighter can parry on either side (red). The one-weapon, no-shield knight can only defend on her right side and front hexes (will be fixed), while mister hammer-and-shield can block on his left, parry on his right (and both in all the front hexes). If two-swords can capture Mr. Shield’s attention, the knight can step up and attack where the guy can only parry if he can get to a flank hex. If that hammer is a U weapon, that might be a big deal – if he’s attacked with it, he can’t parry! And if he’s parrying, he can’t attack. 
(There are ways to beat this, of course).
So, we’ve thus far touched on how to form a line of battle, how to deny approach to your squishies, in a way, we’ve talked about using reach weapons to stand off and threaten from afar, and how to use positioning to attack areas and hex-sides that your foe can’t easily defend. Also, staying close to a friend with Shield Wall training, Sacrificial Block or Parry, you can leverage their superior defenses if you’re busy concentrating on a spell or something.
Soaking Defenses

Another reason to stay close is that in many games, multiple defenses are penalized, with the basic penalty to Parry being -4 per additional, and -5 per extra block (Dodge monkeys rejoice – you can do that all you want). Also, you can only retreat once per turn, which means that the +3 to Dodge or +1 to other Active Defenses, once used, is lost.
If our Dual-Weapon attacker above launches two attacks, and his foe blocks and parries, that means that when our knight lunges in with a Step and Attack (or perhaps better, a Committed Attack with two steps to reach the side hexes), that the defender’s second parry might well be at -4 for being the second parry (if he gets one at all), and another -2 for a side hex.
If you use the rules for Setup Attacks from Delayed Gratification, this can get even more fun, since one of the options allows you to launch an attack that penalizes the defenses against only an attack thrown by your companions.
Finally, if one person can grapple or disarm the foe, or even unready his weapon momentarily – that’s a great opportunity for a friend to rush in and finish the job.
Compensate for Weaknesses 

A classic problem with long reach weapons is what happens when your foe gets inside that reach. If  you’re wielding a long spear that’s Reach 2,3 and your foe steps into Reach 1, or heaven help you, Reach C, you can be in big trouble. 
But if you’ve got a huge armored meatshield in front of you?
Not so much.
Same thing goes for non-DF ranged weapon users (Scouts can use their bow in close combat, so they really don’t need much of a protector). Having someone there to keep goblins off you as you draw, nock, and loose your arrows can be a wonderful insurance policy.
Catch Your Breath
Sometimes the bad guys get a good one in. Maybe it’s just a single blow, but you’re suffering from shock penalties. Maybe you’re knocked down or (even worse) stunned. If you’re off in the wild blue yonder all by yourself, well, GURPS is a game filled with death spirals, and it’s been nice knowing you.
Unless you happen to have a friend nearby. Hey, he can go All-Out Defensive and keep the bad guys away until you pass that HT roll to snap back into the fight.
Parting Shot
This little treatise is less how to use team tactics as it is why you would want to, and what you can attempt to do when you actually group up.
Can this go wrong? 
Well, yes. 
Any sort of area effect attack can rock your entire party’s world. Fireball, explosive attacks, cones, not to mention higher TL issues like grenades or spraying fire.
Also, if you’re fighting many-on-one, like a typical D&D monster encounter, it may well be that the best call you can make is to spread out and come in from all sides (still, the Protect Each Other advice probably applies).
GURPS is a game that can significantly reward team play, but you do have to stick to a few basic rules.
  1. Stick together 
  2. Have a plan on how to get together and stay there
  3. Know your capabilities – if you go advancing at faster than the pace of your slowest, you break the line
  4. Don’t be stupid. Running off by yourself? Usually a bad idea; leaving a hole in a carefully sculpted defensive structure? Often even worse.

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