Before combat starts, you need to answer a few questions:

  1. Where are the players standing in the Marching Order?
  2. Have the monsters or players noticed each other?
  3. What will the monsters do when they see the players?

Marching Order

Knowing where everyone is in the Marching Order is important for setting up the scene. The DM will tell the players how big the space is and how many characters can stand side-by-side. Characters who are not in front cannot engage in melee combat, but can use reach or ranged weapons. Having your Caller instruct the DM on where you want to stand can be helpful.  A narrow passage may only support single-file travel!

Examples of how the marching order impact the game play:

If the party is ambushed, the marching order determines who gets surprised and suffers initial attacks. A perceptive character in front might avoid triggering an alarm, saving others.

The order dictates who interacts with puzzles or triggers traps first, potentially sacrificing themselves to save others or using their skills to disarm the danger.

For a monster to attack a middle of the party player, the player would be in 0-50% coverage, and therefor get a +2 AC bonus or vise versa players attacking a party of monsters going single file.

Setting Up An Encounter

⚠️ Check out the A Comprehensive Role-Playing Game Encounter Guide for an overview of how this feature of the game works.

To set up the encounter, make a Surprise Check by comparing the party’s highest Notice with d20 + the monster’s stealth or wisdom bonus. If the DM rolls above the party’s Notice, the monsters have the upper hand, and the players must roll on the Monster Reaction Chart to see what the monsters will do. If the DM rolls under, then the players have noticed the monsters before the encounter, and they can choose to try to Ambush, Evade, or Negotiate before combat begins.

Evading Monsters

If the players don’t want to fight, they can try to Evade the monsters by hiding or sneaking past them. However, this means they can only move at 1/10 of their usual speed, making it a slow process.

Ambush

If the players want to surprise the monsters, they can try an Ambush. Roll a d20 and add the lowest Wisdom modifier in the party to establish the party’s hide DC. If the DM’s roll is equal to or greater than the party DC, the ambush fails. But if it succeeds, the party gets one round of attacks without the DM taking any actions.

Negotiation

Some monsters may be willing to negotiate instead of fighting. If the players can communicate with them, they may suggest making an agreement. This process is called Negotiation. Remember, not all monsters want to fight, and some may surrender, accept bribes of shiny things, or run away if they are scared.

Combat Round

  1. Declare Actions (some things are very fast or slow and may modify initiative)
  2. Roll Initiative (d20 highest goes first)
  3. One action taken (Move, Spell, Shoot Arrow, Hack with Sword, etc)
  4. Resolve Damage (if necessary)
  5. Optional: Spend a Heroic Point to gain an additional action
  6. Check Morale (continue fighting, flee or surrender are options here)
  7. Repeat Steps 1 – 6

ℹ️ Download the single page Combat Reference PDF to make it easier for your player to reference the rules at the table!

Declaring Actions

This is very important as some actions can be interrupted. Spell casters cannot complete spells if they take damage.

Action Points (combat codified – optional combat system)
Each character has 5 action points in a round to spend however they’d like each round of combat.

Standard Actions (3 points)
  • Cast Spell
  • Melee attack. Take one swing at an enemy.
  • Ranged attack. Shoot an error, throw a chair, etc.
  • Ready action. Prepare a specific action to respond to another specific future action (e.g., “as soon as something comes through the door I shoot it”).
  • Equip Item. Draw a weapon, Put on a ring, Drink a Potion, Use a Device, Open a Door, Mount a Horse or Pick Something up.
Move Actions (2 points)
  • Crawl. Allows prone character to move five feet
  • Move. Allows character to move at their current movement rate
  • Reload. Some weapons or items are slow and require reloading. Eg Crossbow
  • Stand up from Prone
Free Actions (0 points)
  • Drop an item
  • Drop Prone
  • Talk
Gifting Action Points

If a player has left over action points they can “gift” one action point to another player who has not taken their turn that round. That would increase that player’s total by one.

Rolling Initiative

Everyone rolls d20 and add any bonuses noted in races, classes or monsters. Player’s roll individually, whereas the DM rolls for each combat group (i.e.: Group of Goblins would be one and the Dragon would be another – this is at the DM’s discretion).

Combat goes from the highest roll to the lowest.

Initiative is rolled for each round of combat.

Attacking

Casting Spells

The spell caster must roll d20 plus their casting modifier (WIS/INT + Focus) vs a DC 10 + spell cost/level. If the roll does not meet or exceed the required number, then the mana is used, and the spell fails.

For example a 3rd level wizard with +3 INT casting a 2nd level spell roll d20+5 vs DC12

If a spell caster is injured BEFORE their turn in initiative, then their spell is interrupted (not cast) and mana is deducted from their mana pool. See Spell Casting for additional rules.

Melee Attack

To attack, a player rolls d20, adds any bonuses they get from either their Strength and weapon. Compare that roll to the Armor Class of the target of your attack. A tie or greater than an Armor Class is a hit.

bullseye

A roll of a Natural 20 (AKA Critical Hit) will result in double damage or optional critical hit effects. A roll of a Natural 1 (AKA Critical Fail) can have fun effects too.

Ranged Attacks

To attack, a player rolls d20, adds any bonuses they get from either their Dexterity and any bonuses for their ranged weapon. Compare that roll to the Armor Class of the target of your attack. A tie or greater than an Armor Class is a hit.

The two numbers listed as range for a weapon represent:

  1. The max distance used without penalty
  2. The max distance possible.

Penalties are -2 for each additional short distance.

For Example: A cross bow has a range of 80/320.

  • From 0-80 feet there is no attack penalty.
  • From 80-160 attack rolls are at -2
  • From 160-240 attack rolls are at -4
  • From 240-320 attack rolls are at -6
  • 320+ no attack is possible

Throwing other items, like rocks, flasks or furniture, go about 20 feet plus your strength bonus (in feet), minus 1 foot per pound and do 1 damage per pound

Resolving Damage

Each weapon has a damage listed. Roll the dice listed, and if you have any bonuses to damage, like Strength or a Magical Sword, etc. then add that to the total number. If you roll a Natural 20, roll for damage once, add all bonuses, then double the final result. Note: Ranged weapons do no benefit from strength or dexterity bonuses.

Killing Monsters and Character Death

If a monster falls to zero or less hit points the monster is defeated and the players are rewarded experience.

If a character falls to zero or less hit points the death check is triggered.

Check Morale (DC 20 vs Wisdom / Morale)

When a creature or player drops below 50% of their hit points they must make a morale check (DC 20 vs d20 + morale or wisdom bonus) or become broken.  If the last attack was with a natural 20, then the check is made with Disadvantage. 

Broken combatants have two options:

1. Flee the combat.  Move away from combat at double normal movement speed. If a player character (or monster) has a ranged weapon readied in hand, they can make one attack against the fleeing monster.

2. Surrender the combat. Literally throw down their arms and plead for their lives.

Example: A goblin is hit for 4 damage. The DM rolls d20 (5) plus the Goblin Morale (+5) Fail! The goblin takes off running at twice its normal rate. The player shoots an arrow at the fleeing goblin, killing it with ease.

Example: A brigand has been epically wounded with a critical strike. Rather than continue and die, he throws down his sword and offers important information to the party in exchange for his life.

Special Combat Moves and Actions

Charge!

As a Full Actions (5 points) the character can choose to charge a target.  In doing so, they move at up-to double their current movement rate and make one attack with a +2 bonus but suffer a -2 to their Armor Class in the following round for all attacks. Note: The character cannot be in currently engaged in combat (toe-to-toe), but could charge another opponent if the current combatant is defeated.

Disarm

As a Standard Action (3 points), you may attempt to disarm your opponent. You and the defender make opposed Strength checks.  If you beat the defender, the defender is disarmed. If you attempted the disarm action unarmed, you now have the weapon. If you were armed, the defender’s weapon is on the ground in the defender’s square. If you fail on the disarm attempt, the defender may immediately attack with Advantage. Note: The wielder of a two-handed weapon on a disarm attempt gets a +4 bonus on this roll.

Grapple

As a Standard Action (3 points), and with two free hands, you may attempt to grapple your opponent. You and the defender make opposed Strength checks.  If you beat the defender, the defender is GRAPPLED and loses their next attack. If the defender wins, the grapple is unsuccessful. The only action a GRAPPLED monster / character can do as their next action is to try and break the grapple by making another opposed Strength checks. If the one initiating the grapple beats the opposed roll by 5 or more, then the person being grappled becomes PINNED. Pinned combatants can be easily immobilized by using rope or other restraints. 

Backstab

Thieves and Halflings are weak in toe-to-toe hacking matches, but they are masters of the knife in the back. When attacking someone by surprise and from behind, a thief attacks with Advantage and greatly increases the amount of damage his blow causes.

To use this ability, the character must be behind his victim and be hidden. Opponents in battle will often notice a character trying to maneuver behind them and the first rule of fighting is to never turn your back on an enemy! However, someone who isn’t expecting to be attacked (a friend or ally, perhaps) can be caught unaware even if he knows the thief is behind him.

The multiplier given in each character type, applies to the amount of damage before modifiers for Strength or weapon bonuses are added. The weapon’s standard damage is multiplied by the value given and then strength and magical weapon bonuses are added.

Backstabbing limitations. First, the damage multiplier applies only to the first attack made by the thief, even if multiple attacks are possible. Once a blow is struck, the initial surprise advantage effect is lost. Second, the thief cannot use it on every creature. The victim must be generally humanoid. The victim must also have a definable back (which leaves out most slimes, jellies, oozes, and the like). Finally, the character has to be able to reach a significant target area. To backstab a giant, the character would have to be standing on a ledge or window balcony. Backstabbing him in the ankle just isn’t going to be as effective.

Special Attack Conditions

Many monsters (and spells) have Special Attacks, which are mentioned in the descriptions. A character or monster can usually avoid the effects of a Special Attack if a Saving DC is successfully made (although Energy Drain has no save). Read the following explanations carefully, and refer to this section whenever Special Attacks are used in a game.

Energy Drain: This is a dangerous attack form, with no Saving DC allowed. If a character is hit by an Energy Drain attack (by a wight, for example), the character loses one Level of Experience! (A monster would lose one Hit Die from this effect.) The Energy Drain removes all the benefits: hit points, spells, and so as soon as it occurs. The victim’s Experience Point total drops to the midpoint of the new level.

A 1st level character hit by an Energy Drain attack is killed. There is normally no way to cure an Energy Drain. The character can only regain the Level through normal adventuring and earning the Experience Points all over again.

Poison: Poison is a danger to all characters. If a character is hit by a poisonous attack (by a snake, for example) and misses the Saving DC vs Constitution, the character will usually die. Individual poisons will have differing effects. See removing poison.

For additional character or monster conditions, check out the master list here.

Environment Modifiers (optional)

By considering the environment and how it affects combat, players and DMs can add an extra level of strategy and depth to their battles.

Terrain

The battlefield is more than just flat ground. Varied terrain can dramatically impact the flow of combat, offering strategic advantages and disadvantages to both attackers and defenders. From the sucking mud of swamps to the treacherous slopes of mountains, the ground itself can become an ally or a foe. Understanding the terrain and using it to your advantage is a key element of tactical combat.

  • Difficult: Whenever anyone moves through difficult terrain they are effected by the Slow condition (Movement is reduced to 1/2. You can only attack every other round.)
  • Unstable: Whenever anyone moves across unstable terrain, anyone moving through this terrain must make a DC 8 Dexterity save at the start of their turn. On a failed save, a creature falls prone.
  • Elevated: Ranged attackers on higher ground (at least 10 feet higher than their target) have Advantage on ranged attack rolls
  • Narrow: The area is only wide enough for creatures to move in single file. This means only the creature in front can make melee attacks against enemies in the passage. Ranged attacks can still be made normally.
    Incline:
  • Steep: The incline is so steep that climbing is required to move across it. Movement speed is halved, and moving uphill must make a Climbing or Strength check (DC 10) at the start of their turn. On a failed save, they fall taking 1d6 damage per 10’ fallen, cumulative (eg: +2d6 for the second 10 feet fallen, +3d6 for the third 10 feet, etc.)

Obstacles as Cover

The battlefield is littered with obstacles that can be used for strategic advantage. These obstacles can provide varying degrees of cover, impacting the effectiveness of attacks against characters.

Degrees of Cover:

  • No Cover (0%): Open ground with no obstacles. Characters have their normal Armor Class (AC).
  • Half Cover (50%): Provides a +2 bonus to AC. Examples:
    • Chest-high walls or fences
    • Large objects like boulders or overturned furniture
    • The back of a friendly creature (consenting of course!)
  • Three-Quarter Cover (75%): Provides a +4 bonus to AC. Examples:
    • Full cover behind a waist-high wall or barricade
    • Narrow openings like doorways or windows (if positioned correctly)
    • The inside of a destroyed vehicle (depending on size and damage)
  • Full Cover (100%): A character is completely concealed from an attacker’s line of sight. They cannot be targeted by an attack or spell, although some area-effect spells might still reach them. Examples:
    • Completely enclosed spaces (behind a closed door, inside a portcullis)
    • The other side of a thick wall or pillar

Important Considerations:

  • Line of Sight: A character only gets the cover bonus if the attacker doesn’t have a clear line of sight to them. Leaning out from cover to attack removes the bonus for that round.
  • Size and Shape of Obstacles: The size and shape of an obstacle determine how much cover it offers. A half-wall might only provide half cover, while a large overturned cart could provide three-quarter cover.
  • Destructible Obstacles: Some obstacles, like wooden doors or barricades, can be destroyed with enough force. This adds a tactical layer, as players might choose to destroy cover for better attack angles.

Optional Rules:

  • Peeking Over Cover: Characters can choose to peek over cover to make an attack. This grants disadvantage on the attack roll but allows them to maintain some cover bonus.
  • Difficult Obstacles: Moving through some obstacles, like thick brush or debris, might impose a movement penalty.

Light and Visibility

Light and visibility play a crucial role in any adventurer’s life. From navigating treacherous dungeons to outsmarting foes in the dead of night, understanding how light interacts with the environment is key to success. This system explores the different light levels and visibility conditions, their impact on various checks, and how they can be manipulated to gain the upper hand in any situation.

Light Levels

Normal Light: This is the standard lighting condition, similar to a bright day or a well-lit room. No penalties apply to vision or checks.

Low Light: This includes dim light conditions like dusk, dawn, or a torch-lit corridor. Creatures with darkvision have normal vision, others have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight.

Darkness: This is complete darkness, with no natural light source. Creatures without darkvision have the Blinded condition. Creatures with darkvision can see normally in darkness.

Magical Darkness: This functions similarly to regular darkness, but it effects darkvision and it cannot be dispelled by non-magical light sources.

Visibility

Clear: This is the standard visibility condition where there are no obstructions to sight. Players can see clearly up to their movement value.

Obscured: This represents situations where vision is impaired by fog, smoke, heavy rain, or magical effects. Creatures in obscured areas have disadvantage on any checks that rely on sight including ranged attacks, visibility is reduced to 1/2 of the normal distance.

Examples of Environmental Modifiers

The party slogs through the swamp, the oppressive silence broken only by the squelch of their boots in the mud. A thick fog blankets the area, obscuring their vision beyond a few feet (obscured visibility), making it nearly impossible to spot hidden dangers.

Suddenly, a guttural shriek pierces the air, followed by a flurry of arrows raining down from above. The party looks up in shock to see a band of goblins cackling from the branches of gnarled cypress trees lining the swamp path. The elevated position (advantage on ranged attacks for goblins) gives them a clear view of the party struggling through the fog. The goblins, using the swamp and the fog as their allies, have cleverly positioned themselves in the trees (half cover from return fire), while the party stumbles through the mud, their boots sinking with every step in the unstable ground makes it difficult to maintain their footing, forcing them to make Dexterity saves to avoid falling prone.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Tom Miskey

    Free actions should actually be free, that’s why they are called FREE Actions! If you want to charge action points for them, change the name to Minor Actions (but then things like simply talking should never count as a Minor Action).

    Ahhh, I see you changed Free Actions to 0 AP in your example above, but the downloadable combat reference still says 1 AP, need to fix that.

    1. Avatar photo
      A J

      I’ll have to refresh that doc. I also removed the full action section – it was just confusing at our table.

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