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For all the talk about the ability for one class or another to crush a game master’s plans every gamer from the newest player to the most ancient of Gygaxian disciples understand that they are ultimately at the mercy of the dice. For all the bluster about good role playing and optimization it all too often comes down to blind stupid luck in determining whether or not we succeed or fail.
This is why much of optimization is, at its core, all about altering chances to favor the character. Or rather it’s about eliminating risk and maximizing reward. Whether it’s forcing a failed save by the enemy with high DC’s or a high, consistent critical range to ensure that you critically hit often many choices are made to make these opportunities happen as often as possible.
Tactics are no different. Actions, positioning, and numbers shift and flow altering percentages either for or against the group. Tactics is all about controlling this chaotic movement so that it allows the odds to always favor the group.
In this section we’ll discuss the two kinds of risks a group must face in every combat and how they affect the actions a character will use.
Hard Risks are the easiest for any player to determine as they are based entirely on raw math.
The first thing any player should know about hard risks is what is sometimes called the 5% rule.
The 5% rule comes from the idea that on nearly every check made by a character using a 20 sided die there is always a 5% chance the die will come up as 20 and thus auto succeed or come up as 1 and thus automatically fail regardless of whatever bonus is behind the die roll. Basically, a critical hit or critical miss respectively.
This rule is what explains how a CR20 dragon can still be genuinely afraid of a large human army mostly composed of level 1 to level 3 warriors. They do not necessarily have to be skilled with their ballista shots, bolts coated in magic weapon oil, or alchemical frost weapons, all they have to be is lucky.
So, keeping this in mind any calculation of a percentage on a d20 will never get higher than 95% nor lower than 5% since the extreme ends of the spectrum are automatic successes or failures.
One method (that is less likely to require a calculator for expediency) is to subtract the bonus from the target number and multiply the result by 5. The number given represents a percentage chance to fail the roll. You can subtract this number from 100 to get the chance to succeed.
If this sounds complicated don’t worry too much. Often times just knowing you need a number above 10 or 12 is more than enough to tell you that the chances are not in your favor for the action to succeed. The only tricky part is finding out the target numbers. Game masters aren’t exactly going to tell you what those numbers are. That’s metagaming. However, simple observation of rolls, bonuses, and whether they succeed or not can give you a fair guess. Often if you at least work at it a GM won’t get upset simply because you knowing the number does speed the game up.
Let’s take an example and put some of this together, let’s say a paladin is flanking with a ranger and trying to debate whether or not he should use his smite evil ability on a particular foe. The ranger takes his full attack of three attacks each with a bonus of +15 on the first two attacks and a +10 on the last attack. The ranger rolls a 24, a 27 and a 21. The 21 and 24 both miss the targets AC but the 27 hits. The paladin has a base modifier of +17 on his attacks. Knowing that the targets AC is at least 25 and no more than 27 he needs at least an 8 to have any hope of hitting the creature or anywhere between a 60% to 50% chance. Deciding that the extra +3 bonus he can get from his ability is worth it he activates smite evil to grant him a 75% to 65% chance of hitting the target. Much better odds and buffs from other party members can be added to the attack bonus to make it easier to hit the monster.
As another example of decision making based on hard risks a wizard has to defend himself from an incoming orc brandishing a mean falchion with his name on it. With a base 18 AC thanks to mage armor and a great dex modifier the orc’s +5 attack bonus only has a 35% chance (a 13 on the roll or better) of hitting him. However he already knows that the orc will charge granting him another +2 bonus on the attack raising his chances to 45%. Given his low hit points the orc has a fair chance of dropping him immediately if the orc rolls high or crits. The wizard could cast shield granting him an additional +4 AC and lowering the chances of getting hit to 25% from a charge. Those are good odds. However the wizard also has the sleep spell which the orc only has a 20% chance of success against. At this point the only real difference is a question of reward, which we will get into later.
Soft risks are chances taken based upon enemy psychology and habits and have more to do with the likelihood an action is going to take place rather than whether or not an action will succeed. These are far more difficult to quantify and much of it relies entirely upon game master habits. This is, yes, metagaming. It’s unavoidable as you are not determining what exactly the orc is going to do but rather you are actually determining the game master’s interpretation of what the orc would do.
That’s important. Because even if you are running the same module, adventure path, or pathfinder society scenario, each gamemaster will run it in slightly different and often significant ways that run counter to your expectations. So, pay attention, consider how the monster may act under your game master.
Ultimately, what it will come down to is experience and a good idea of what you’re doing versus what the enemy is going to react to. Assume the worst, assume the enemy is smarter than they are, and you’ll do fine.
Let’s go back to our above to our wizard example. The worst case scenario for the wizard is that the orc will charge him. However the orc could also decide to instead chuck a javelin at him or perhaps run off and flank with a companion against the groups fighter. The last option may be even worse than the wizard simply getting charged. If the fighter is dropped by a lucky crit the wizard may suddenly go from facing one orc in melee to two or even three. This decision, at once simplified by mathematics, is made more difficult by enemy psychology. Sure, the orc may see a paper thin object with finite hit points to massacre. Or, it could rightly see an object to fear and may choose to engage another enemy to free up comrades to face your threat. Just as likely the game master has chosen to run his orcs as mostly cowards who only face opponents when they outnumber the group a good two to one and thus may decide to flee altogether.
A Factor of Reward
So far we've discussed the concept of risk in terms of enemy psychology and hard game mathematics. We've looked over how we discover chances of success and how they pertain into our decision making process. However one factor we have yet to cover is what success actually gives us.
You see it’s easy to think that simply having a high percentage chance of success is all that’s required to make a decision. But, we also have to factor in the actual rewards for such a decision. What we have to look at is whether or not the outcome fits our goal for the combat.
From a group standpoint this means defeating the encounter while spending as few resources as possible. Individually speaking this means fulfilling your role in the group while maintaining your ability to continue doing so.
If we go back to our wizard example above we discussed the mathematics and various actions the orc can take leaving us with two possible decisions on our wizards part. Casting shield means a guaranteed outcome that gives the orc little chance of actually harming the wizard. However casting sleep gives us a good chance of dropping the orc out of the combat completely. The reward for shield is a heightened AC at the risk of the orc taking another action to make the casting of the spell all but meaningless. The risk of sleep is the chance the orc will make their save and leave the orc more or less open to do as they please.
What the wizard chooses to do is simply a choice of deciding whether or not the risk of either action is worth the reward and deciding whether or not that reward corresponds to their goals. In this case the wizard, whose role it is to control the enemy would find that casting shield would do nothing to control the enemy and does not function to make the encounter go any faster. Casting sleep would not only potentially being the encounter closer to an end but also fulfill the wizard’s role in the group of ensuring the enemy remains controlled. In the end, the wizard casts sleep.