I’ve said it before, but I think that a surprise round is the strongest buff in the game. The chance to dictate the flow of battle is a huge advantage, and setting up a successful ambush is a tactical slam dunk. For GMs however, it is also a powerful storytelling tool.

Suppose your standard adventuring party marches into a run of the mill dungeon chamber. A pair of skeletons rise from the earthen floor and attack. If all goes according to plan then the following sequence happens:

  1. The caster lays down some kind of area control spell.
  2. The cleric buffs the front line dude.
  3. The front line dude charges.
  4. The rogue moves to flank.

Those are good (if not particularly exciting) tactics. Your players will feel efficient. They will feel like a team. They may not, however, feel particularly engaged. Especially not if that’s the way most of your encounters seem to go.

Suppose we change it up though? Instead of rising from the floor in plain view of the party, the skeletons drop from recesses in the darkened ceiling. It’s a surprise attack from the rear! In this scenario, the following sequence happens:

  1. The skeletons get a few free shots on a weaker party member.
  2. The caster must find a way to get himself out of danger.
  3. The cleric has to decide whether to heal or buff or wade in himself.
  4. The front line dude doesn’t have a clear charge path! Can he make it into melee this round?
  5. The rogue risks an opportunity attack if he wants to get into an advantageous position.

These are the same enemies, but the feel is entirely different. The party is beset by difficult choices, and the experience is one of tension rather than tactics. Obviously the scenarios won’t play out like this every time, but that’s not the point. As a GM, getting players outside of their comfort zone means giving them the chance to think like characters rather than tacticians. Would my rogue run in to save the sorcerer? Am I frightened enough to waste my dimension door? Do I care more about smiting the undead or healing the wounded? There are too many variables to set these situations up intentionally, but that’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to! If you just remember to present different situations rather than simply presenting different monsters, I find that these cool character moments tend to happen by themselves.

Question of the day then. Have you ever thrown your players for a loop with your encounter design? How did you get them out of their tactics-as-usual comfort zone? Let’s hear it in the comments!