GM Trick: Running Pack Tactics

Discussion on game mastering Earthdawn. May contain spoilers; caution is recommended!
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GM Trick: Running Pack Tactics

Post by lanir » Mon Jan 28, 2019 4:46 pm


This is something I did a long time ago while running 1st edition Earthdawn. I had two players and an encounter with a pack of wolves but you could probably use the idea for any large organized group. Below is a technique to manage and describe an encounter of this type with a larger number of foes in a way that wouldn't be possible with the toe-to-toe brawl style of normal combat. Pack tactics involve a lot of moving, opportunism and some degree of safety in numbers. Sorry this ended up being so long.

1. Select members for the pack: What type of person or creature makes up your pack? It should be someone or something weaker than the PCs because they're going to be acting intelligently and also outnumber the party.

2. Criteria for retreat: Basically choose what will cause individuals in the pack to want to leave the front lines. This will be one of the two factors determining the length of the encounter but it's the harder of the two to adjust on the fly. A wound or damage equivalent to two wounds is not a bad place to start as well as maybe one or two successes on an appropriate social test.

3. Breaking morale: How many individuals need to flee before the morale of the pack breaks or the alpha calls for a retreat? An actual death may have a greater effect than adding 1 to this count as wild animals generally don't fight to the death if they can run away. A pack would probably flee before a quarter of it's number had individually retreated. Generally retreating pack members haven't completely left the area, they're just in the background and no longer attacking or distracting the PCs. This is the other factor that affects the length of the encounter and you can fudge this one on the fly easier.

4. How many will fight at one time: This will be how many attacks you make per turn. It's totally fine not to include every pack member here. The whole point of this is to trim down the attacks and have some of the opponents just maneuvering to threaten the characters (flanking, etc). Those that attack will probably be behind or to the side of the PC while those in front will be more focused on not getting hurt. Any that don't attack will be using defensive actions (keep the bonuses in mind when you choose the pack member make-up). Usually about 2 attacks per PC works fine.

5. Modifiers: Player tactics can have a big effect here. If they "circle the wagons" and act smart, no one gets blindsided. If you think things could use a shake-up though, offer them an advantage on an attack but only if they leap forward or otherwise move out of position. This is also a standard part of pack tactics. To focus on one pack member leaves you open to others. You can use this to make extra attacks against the PC, have some attackers blindside the PC or both. There may also be a cost to getting back into position.

6. Description: So far, all of this is stuff the players won't see directly. This is where you pull them in. Describe a large number of creatures moving to surround the party. When the attacks begin, tell the players some of the pack are sniping at them opportunistically while others are hesitant to charge their blades and magic head-on. The bulk of the pack members pace around the periphery, impatiently awainting their turn or rushing in to snap at a distracted character. It's fine to describe the pack members the PCs attack moving away, just keep tracking damage until a retreat condition comes up and let them land a telling blow (minor damage might be in a sensitive spot). The description really is the key because it gets across to the players that something big happened. With description, the party fends off a large pack of wild creatures and manages to eventually drive them off. Without much description, a few creatures attack the PCs and get beaten up, then a whole big group of them run away.

In my example with 2 PCs and a pack of wolves, I chose these answers.

1. The pack was made of around 20 wolves with I think a storm wolf leading them. It never approached directly.
2. A wolf would retreat if it took a wound or two times it's wound rating in damage.
3. The pack would retreat if 5 members fell back.
4. Two attacks were made against each PC every round.
5. The PCs stood as close to back-to-back as a human and a windling could so they would be harried but not blindsided. I let them see a wounded wolf they could lunge at and kill but they chose not to aggressively attack and ignore their defensive posture.
6. I described a lot of movement and wolves rushing past each other to fall back or spring forward. In the end the alpha howled to call for a retreat and the players felt like they'd had a pretty memorable encounter.

Sorry if I described this poorly or made it too wordy. I feel like I could use a good editor sometimes. :D If you find it useful let me know. If this spurs any ideas, feel free to take it and run with it.

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Re: GM Trick: Running Pack Tactics

Post by Scherme » Wed May 22, 2019 2:02 pm

This was well organized and thoughtfully written.

This has given me some new ways to think about pack encounters and encounters in general.

Thank you from a extremely novice GM
In a perpetual state of lore overload.

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Re: GM Trick: Running Pack Tactics

Post by Slimcreeper » Wed May 22, 2019 3:28 pm

Well done!

And Scherme, welcome to the dark side of the GM screen!

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Re: GM Trick: Running Pack Tactics

Post by lanir » Thu May 23, 2019 10:28 pm

Thanks for the feedback!

I should have mentioned that the most important bits seem to be how you stagger the attacks and how you describe everything. You can wing it for the rest. I mostly did when I used it but it seemed like it would be useful to give it a more thorough description for other people.

I used something vaguely like this for an encounter with mounted knights in a D&D game as well. They rode past the PCs to harry them in small groups so each individual knight couldn't attack every round. I don't use this sort of trick very often but it seems like anytime I do the players talk about it for some time after.

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