Melee Academy: Fighting People Better Than You

I hope that Melee Academy attracted lots of posts today, and so I’ll list them first.

Melee Academy: Dealing With Superior Foes (Dungeon Fantastic)

Melee Academy: Outgunned, Outmanned, and Outmaneuvered – Now What? (Ravens ‘N Pennies)

Next Academy: PCs against really bad odds. (Virtual Table Topping)

Melee Academy: Hero System Style (RPG Snob)


Today’s Melee Academy is about fighting superior forces, and how to pull it off.

It’s possible to sum this up quickly, I suppose. With truisms (no less true for being simple) like “run away!” or “Don’t fight them at all” or “gank ’em from behind” or “engage in asymmetric warfare, pitting your strengths against their weaknesses.”

All true.

Never engage in a “fair” fight if you can help it. Hit ’em all at once, and from behind if your game of choice has facing. Make sure they can’t hit you if you can.

Surprise! You suck!

Still, it bears breaking down a bit more than that, and taking a bit of a tour. One thing to consider is whether you knew you were outclassed from the get-go, or stumbled into it with a painful “snickt.”

If you knew ahead of time, then you’d best have planned ahead, studied your foe, and cataloged known and probably weaknesses, as well as strengths to avoid facing directly.

If you find yourself outclassed by surprise (“Who knew this foppish innkeeper was a Level 20 Warrior/Bard? He hit Gromlik really really hard. Did you see his head bounce off that stone wall?”), then you may be set up for some painful (and potentially fatal) object lessons. Learn quickly, and react even faster.

Consider your Inferiority in Detail

There are lots of ways to be inferior. Stepping back to my imperfectly remembered D&D days, or even better, yanking off the Pathfinder book from my shelf, what might happen if Pelagiyel, my old 6th Level Rogue, happened to really irk, say, 15th level fighter?

Well, Ms Fighter (let’s call her Nonac, in honor of +Kenneth Hite‘s nairabrab warrior) might be sporting STR 18, DEX 16, CON 14 even without magic. That puts her in full plate with AC 22 and a two-handed weapon. Those with more experience than I have tell me that she can do three attacks at 1d12+24 each, plus more with cleave feats, or one big one at 3d12+27, and that with a +1 Greataxe. That’s 46 for the single hit, to about 90 damage for the triple. And with a Basic Attack Bonus of +15 for level, +4 for STR, +4 more for specializing in Greataxe, +1 for magic, that’s a minimum of +24 on the first shot, and +14 on the last. Minimum. I know I’m missing ancillary +1s, too, so I’m guessing that Pel has a 90-100% chance of taking enough damage in one attack by this guy to kill him deader than hell.

Pel might get one shot, at about a 25% hit probability, and if he’s lucky will do 7 HP of damage, or 21 if he crits. Even on a surprise attack to the back from point-blank range using Deadly Aim and Point Blank Shot with Rapid Shot, he probably can’t eke out more than 50% of his foe’s HP in one turn. Assuming he hits and crits twice.

Meanwhile, Nonac can Cuisinart poor Pel into the next dimension probably without resorting to using any feats, which of course he would do, if nothing else than to put this upstart wannabe Rogue in his proper place (which would be in hell, a point we covered nicely already). I’m reliably told that Feats are the real damage source for high level fighters.

This is a situation where your foes are, well and truly, just better than you. While there might be a way for Pel to score a victory, I strongly suspect it will be a moral one. Say, taunting the fighter from high atop a castle wall. Even so,

I’m sure if I get that wrong, helpful advice will follow shortly!

(And in fact, check out Valeros, the 12th level iconic fighter from the game. He’s even more impressive than I show above.) For a more experienced victim, look at Merisiel, the 7th level iconic Rogue.

What if you aren’t totally outclassed

Perhaps there can be more nuance to it. While I’m sure Pathfinder can have plenty of nuance, I’m not expert with it. I’ll stick to something I know better for this: GURPS.

There are many ways that you can be outclassed, so let’s cover some of them.

He has more skill than you (on the attack)

In GURPS, skill comes with a lot of benefits. Obviously, it means he can hit you easily. It also means that he can beat your defenses by virtue of deceptive attacks if he’s pretty good and you are adequate, or if you’re awesome and he’s godlike. As an example, my old Warrior Saint Cadmus had something like Axe/Mace-20. Not too shabby, and it gives him a base Parry-13. (Plus bonuses from Combat Reflexes and defensive bonuses from shields put him at Parry-17).

So he’s good. But what if his foe is better? Two-Handed Sword-30, for example, with a native Parry-18 as well. He can swing for the neck (-5) and do a deceptive attack at -10 (-5 to Cadmus’ defenses) and still net Sword-15 against Parry-12. Against someone with lower skill and worse armor (maybe Sword-16 and a +2 DB shield, plus CR to be nice) the native Parry-14 is all of a sudden Parry-9, which is going to hurt.

The way to beat this one is to try and see to it that either he can’t hit you (get him from range with a spear or bow), or it doesn’t matter if he does hit you, such as with enough DR to simply sit there and take it. Beware this strategy against real foes in high-end games like Dungeon Fantasy, though – Camus has DR 12 and has been tagged through it before!

He can splatter you like a water balloon

A foe swinging a big weapon, or one that if he hits you can kill you dead, needs to be dealt with from range, or non-physically. A parry might break your weapon. A failed Dodge is the end of you. Keep your distance, and bring friends to attack from behind.

You can’t punch through his armor

Victory isn’t always death. Can you grapple him or entangle him so that he can’t use his weapons or attacks? Are there chinks in his armor that you can punch through (there may not be). Are there attacks you can throw that take away this advantage, like Corrosive attacks?

What about that ‘take his advantages’ thing?

Absolutely. Disarming a foe is often rather useful; some are one-trick ponies. +Peter V. Dell’Orto and I have been rediscovering the folly of weapon fighters who don’t know how to grapple, and a weapon fighter, taken down and put in a joint lock, usually will break as fast as the next guy.

Bring friends. Lots of friends.

Even superior defenses can be swamped (in GURPS). Many attacks that can’t be ignored will eventually bring things down to the point where Dodge is your only option. With enough room to maneuver, getting behind your foe makes it impossible for a foe to defend, or even know an attack is coming.

Using Feints, Beats, or (even better) Setup Attacks (from Delayed Gratification, Pyramid #3/52) to open up your foe for a neighbor’s attack. A perk or power-up that transfers the full benefits of a Setup Attack to both you and your friend (say, Teamwork (Setup Attack)) would be a big help here.

Exhaustion is your Friend

If you’re using Action Points (The Last Gasp, Pyramid #3/44) you can follow a strategy of wearing your foe out (if you have higher HT and Action Points than he does) by swamping him with blows that he might be able to defend against, but has to expend resources to do so.

If you have Fatigue Point based attacks, so much the better! Many critters that can’t be hurt directly can still be laid low, or even killed, through making them so tired that they either pass out (at which point their ability to attack and defend is rather moot), or they actually take HP of damage and you exhaust them to death.

Deny them Perception

One way to equalize the odds, to an extent, is to remove their ability to see, hear, smell, or otherwise sense you. Darkness, fog, blinding lights, shrieking noise or explosions can disorient and stun.

Stunning Victory

Speaking of stun, a stunned foe is -4 to defend, and also can’t attack you. Canonically, I think they drop a grapple too.

Parting Shot

Clearly, all of this comes back to the TL;DR part above. Hit them where they can’t defend. Don’t get hit yourself. Drop mountains on their head and don’t engage at all. Run away. Shoot ’em in the back if you can from range, or stab ’em there from surprise while distracting them from the front.

The key is to figure out what their weaknesses are, and attack them. Avoid their strengths. If you want real-world examples, well, we have a couple raging insurgencies right now. Look at any guerrilla war for examples, and look at how a team of six heroes, like Navy SEALS or SFOD-D soldiers, can wreak bloody havoc on a foe much larger (though of course, individually, far less skilled).

And finally, don’t fight a physical foe if you can challenge them mentally. Put ’em to sleep, mesmerize them, mind control them, distract them with the illusion and pheremones of a Monster of the Chosen Gender.

You can’t always run away. But you can try and not be an idiot and bring a knife to a gunfight.

4 thoughts on “Melee Academy: Fighting People Better Than You

  1. In 3.5e D&D, our GM once put us up against a Sith. He was 12th level, we were (IIRC) 4th with nothing better than a masterwork dagger, and the GM had no intention of having us fight him… but failed to properly communicate this, instead making it clear that we had the choice of a) fight or b) lose my ranger (who had Psionic rather than Divine abilities).
    The first 2 characters tried to be honorable and fight one-on-one. It ended horribly, BUT the cleric managed to hit him several times with a Dex-draining attack before he expired, negating most of his combat prowess. My ranger then walked up to the Sith, implying he was going to accept becoming his student, so that I could attack with both weapons as a Full Attack Action. We lost all but 2 of our 4 remaining characters in the resulting melee, the last hit being a critical hit sneak attack (with the masterwork dagger) by our rogue, who was actually below 0 HP (the GM allowed him one last attack on account of a successful Will roll, as he had previously promised the fighter – the only other character still standing – he wouldn't let anything happen to her). There was a moment of silence as the Sith collapsed, then "Now what, you filthy son of a-" *thud*
    So, TL;DR – find out their most important attribute, exploit your GM's poor understanding of the way poisons (or at least Divine poison-like effects) work, and drain it down as far as possible, then gang-gank them and pray you get lucky. Additionally, rogues are CRUCIAL to taking down such foes, as they get the most benefit from that gang-ganking and you really, really need that extra damage from Sneak Attack to drop them.

  2. Seems to have left out an entire category of solution that has to do with objectives: do you need to win? Sometimes, all you need is to do is make it not worth the trouble of beating you up. Sometimes, that's just stalling or being loud (a single warrior against a group of ninjas isn't going to win — but if he screams, it will annoy them by a lot), sometimes it's by escalating the perceived risk of the encounter. This sometimes calls for different tactics than the ones that win the encounter — for example, the difference between 'render unconscious' and 'kill/maim' is almost totally irrelevant to winning a fight, but in a game with healing magics, it makes a big difference to risk. Likewise, spamming your attack with a 5% chance to kill and a 95% chance to do nothing will usually not win a fight, but it will certainly make PCs paranoid (weak monsters with save-or-die effects in d20 are notorious for this).

  3. I've definitely enjoyed the articles in the series so far! I was also wondering, however, if anyone had input on what someone with a character that's not super great at combat can do to still contribute, specifically in GURPS. I've got a thief who could maybe backstab every other second but that doesn't compare very well to the great-hasted knight with extra attack, weapon master, and a skill in the high 20s. I've got a few ideas but am looking for more input.

    Here's what I got so far:
    – Go earlier in the initiative and use Telegraphed attack (from range 2 with a rapier) to try and get the big bad to burn defenses and accumulate penalties for the big hitters in our party. This is not quite as useful because the knight, as mentioned, can already take a -10 Deceptive without too much trouble.
    – Run around as a spot medic with Awaken stones and potions of paut and healing.
    – Specialize with a bit of anti-magery, using Black Dust (DF8 p36) to stick to them if invisible and magebane (DF 1 p29) to try and get them to not even be able to get their spells off. I should note that I'm not even sure if my GM will let me be able to buy the black dust yet.
    – Keep a main weapon with tons of poison on it and try to save it for a big threat. This is probably only practical with the perk that lets you add poison after the fact, but combos really one with the "mage-slayer" idea.

    It's a start but really that much when it comes down to it. More ideas are greatly appreciated!

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