Monday, March 28, 2011

Why Don't They Throw Rocks?

About three weeks ago I made a comment on one of the combat simulation posts about how there are ways to foil the old "falling back to defend the doorway" trick that has been part of the dungeon strategic lexicon since the beginning of time.  I never did say how ... nor did anyone online ask.  But DMs must know why it wouldn't work.

Let us set up the usual scenario.  A party enters a dungeon.  It then enters a room, such as I had in my simulation, finds a group of creatures, and then falls back to the doorway in order to reduce the number of possible attackers.  The fighters 'hold' the doorway while the mages cast spells and the cleric keeps the fighters whole ... and when the enemy starts to dwindle, the party moves forward and mops up.

There are a couple of assumptions being made here - first and foremost being that the enemy has any reason to force their way through the door.  Why shouldn't the enemy, as soon as the party retreats to the doorway, simply move to a place where the party can't see them?  After all, its the party doing the invading here, not the enemy.  Logically, the enemy should have their lair set up so that A) the party in the doorway is vulnerable to some trap which can be sprung at will by the enemy; and B) the party in the doorway isn't a threat until they leave their comfortable, safe doorway and venture across the prepared, open surface to where the enemy is lodged in their own defensive location.

Just look at what is typically used as a "guard room" the party would likely encounter at the front of a creature's lair:

Lot of thinking went into this one.   Typically, it's all of 20' across - why would you make it bigger, it's only the forward defense for all your stuff? - so of course the enemy gets wasted.  The thieves with bows and the spellcasters can see every corner of the room, and a torch can light everything, so even if the enemy does pull back to the corners they're still vulnerable.  The players can assess the strength of the enemy and implement their spells/attacks accordingly.

Note that the combat simulation I provided gave a wide expanse with places to hide.  This above is just a death trap ... for the defenders.

Why not this?

Much better.  Even if the party does stick to the door, the enemy can line up behind the wall on the opposite side and keep a barrage going with arrows and crossbows.  There are spaces for unknown numbers of enemies to stand where they're protected.  If the size of this is forty feet deep and sixty feet wide (and we assume more arrow slits in the defending fortification than just three), there's plenty of room in the far corners for additional troops, equipment and so on, for when the party tries to enter.  And when they do, the 20 degree slope leads them down, where they become increasingly vulnerable as they move forward.  So what if the party defends the 'door'?  Whoop-dee-do.  You want the treasure, you're going to have to get in.  The enemy has no reason to come to you.

This isn't particularly clever.  Even goblins with an 8 intelligence could have been shown how to do this by a passing stranger of potentially any race.

All right, what if it is just any door?  What if the enemy does have a reason to push past the party?  It happens.

Missile weapons, anyone?  I might not be able to get more than two hand-to-hand attackers in the space the doorway provides, but I bet I can fit quite a number of thrown missile weapons into it.  I recognize that often humanoids don't have missile weapons ... at least according to the books.  I didn't give the goblins in my simulation missile weapons - but I could have very cheaply.

What if, throughout my lair, I pile up small cairns of fist-sized stones?  As the party moves through the rather empty dungeon area, these piles are everywhere.  Being stones, they're not convenient to collect or otherwise remove, and even if the piles are broken apart, what matter?  When the enemies find the party, there should be more than enough missiles around.  A fist sized stone may not travel very far, it may not do the damage of a long bow, but I'll be the party runs out of arrows before my fifty or a hundred kobalds run out of rocks.

And if we're fighting something a bit brighter than kobalds and goblins, how about a little lamp oil, hm?  Doorways are nice, cramped spaces, excellent for fire attacks ... lots and lots of splash damage.  And just how long is that fighter going to hold the doorway when he's suddenly covered in burning oil?  2-12 damage may not be much, but it isn't the sort of thing you can just ignore and go on fighting.  It is the sort of thing you react to by breaking ranks, falling to the ground and quickly rushing to put out - and needing aid to put out.  Gee, that doorway doesn't seem like such a good defense any more.

It takes a fair while (in combat terms) to prepare a new burning flask of oil (even if you have the flame and the flask ready), so there's time to run, slam the door ... or rush the room.  The last thing you want to do is stand passively in the doorway until the oil is thrown.

Incidentally, I haven't ever found any real military tactical manual, ever, which has a chapter on the benefits of fighting in doorways.  If someone wants to send me a link, I'll have a look at it.  I'm guessing this is just a long standing D&D canard that has somehow gained the status of being tactically brilliant because its hard to believe a goblin can throw a rock.


JDJarvis said...

Excellent stuff. I often wonder why so many doorways to humanoid stronghold in a dungeon don't have murder holes over places the PCs may stand. I also wonder why do goblins build battlegrounds that favor 6' tall barbarian warriors?

sirlarkins said...

Reading this, I was struck with the thought that probably the best way to consider dungeon assault and defense tactics would be to consult old WWII urban warfare manuals. It would be interesting to see what they had to say about fighting from a doorway...

Imon Fyre said...

Alexis, you make me think very evil, evil things, that I am going to spring on my unsuspecting party when I eventually make my way to running a game.

Zandari said...

I also like to have some sort of simple lever in place over there on the goblins' side of the room that will just CLOSE the door. Party falls back to just outside the door? Excellent, push button, close door, dungeon protected, let's have lunch.

Lasgunpacker said...

Excellent post.

The only defense that I can think of is "non-constructed dungeon", by which I mean that the gobbos are occupying someone else's structure/ruins/mine, so they did not set up any defense in depth.

Another answer? It is heroic, in the sense of the fight in Moria (although you will note that the heros were on the inside there, and still left...)

Labyrinthian said...

I think the reason tactics like this are common is because the party is typically outnumbered and retreating to a choke point serves to nullify the enemies numeric advantage. I'm sure choke points are discussed in real world military tactical manuals.

Anthony said...

It just makes sense to have every fighting group, from army sized down to 'squad' level, have ranged capabilities of some sort. By the book, very few monsters have ranged capabilities period, almost forcing them to mindlessly rush forward as a rule. Just the addition of ranged weapons to any old monster completely changes the face of D&D combat in my experience.

James C. said...

I'd argue that holding the doorway isn't a D&D trope, just sound hand-to-hand tactics. There's lots of reasons why this is so. Taking away space from a numerically superior foe, ensuring a means of withdrawal, bringing your forces to bear at a decisive point. If you really need a source, try Sun Tzu... particularly those passages dealing with superior numbers or the final chapter on the nine situations. Yeah, I know he doesn't talk about doorways or dungeons, but the principles at work apply.

I don't have access to a field manual on ship's self defense, but when in the military I did enough drilling to know that when trying to kill somebody or keep from being killed on your ship, doorways are important.

None of this is meant to counter your initial point Alexis. If, as DM, one is simply tossing the enemy into the meat-grinder of the doorway again and again, never forcing the players to adjust or fall back, then of course one isn't being particularly clever or realistic.

Dave Cesarano said...

I've run plenty of games where the players don't expect a realistic response from the environment. For example, the sound of combat attracting a wandering monster that totally charges into the party while they're trying that "hold the door" tactic. Also, guard rooms aren't always empty--furniture can be used by the defenders. Goblins are smart enough to tip tables on their sides and use them as makeshift pavises from behind which to shoot at the door. And how many PCs expect the bugbear to just slam the door and lock it in the PCs faces when they fall back like that?

But for me the goal isn't to kill the PCs but to present a realistic reaction to their actions. The PCs falling back to a choke-point (as previously mentioned) is a sound strategy. The reality is, though, in the dungeon, sound is going to travel and reinforcements are going to show up. The PCs, if they aren't careful, could end up with a TPK. The best way to deal with that room is to get all of the goblins OUT OF IT somehow (diversion, perhaps)? Or come at the head of an entire column of soldiers and sack the entire goblin stronghold. When the alarm sounds, everybody's going to be after the PCs.

richard said...

yes. Certainly. Only I thought you liked your goblins as a stupid, entry-level threat ;)

Seriously, I have problems with the whole dungeon conceit. Thinking about it, a dungeon would either be an excellent, near-impregnable stronghold with at the very least a loosely-organized mutual-defense society, or a deathtrap just waiting for somebody to brick up the entrance. The dungeon as it appears in published products, however, seems like an apartment block with an exotic entrance, full of groups of people who have nothing in common. And then nobody cares about the people in 2B because they're always making loads of noise. But dead bodies in the corridor? That's got to raise alarms.

I'm in favour of haunted tombs and subverted dwarven cities: each has its own kind of ecology, neither really needs practical contact with the outside. But the goblin warren is one of those things you'd want a good 30 people to clear. And you'd start with smoke or gas.

Alexis said...

Ah, richard, but I did point out the goblins would need someone to show them how. A bugbear chief, for example. Bugbears have an average intelligence.