Review: Live to Tell the Tale – An Introduction to Combat Tactics for Dungeons & Dragons Players

Live to Tell the Tale – An Introduction to Combat Tactics for Dungeons & Dragons Players by Keith Ammann — creator of the blog The Monsters Know What They’re Doing — is an in-depth study of the combat system of D&D, as well as the class- and ability-related features of characters and how they can optimize their tactics (rather than their stats) to fight smart and work as a team while still playing the characters they want. This isn’t about building a “perfect” character so much as it’s about how to play smart and have fun doing it with whatever character you roll up, build, or are handed as a pregen. It is a necessary read for understanding the consequences and permutations of the D&D 5th edition rules, and can strengthen the game of every player and DM!

Rating: Content 5/5 and Form 4/5.

Read on for the full review!

Live to Tell the Tale - An Introduction to Combat Tactics for Dungeons & Dragons Players

Live to Tell the Tale

Content (5/5)

Live to Tell the Tale – An Introduction to Combat Tactics for Dungeons & Dragons Players is written by the creator of the amazing monster tactics blog The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, something every DM needs to bookmark and read. RIGHT. THE. HECK. NOW.

Done? Great! Well, Live to Tell the Tale is the player side of things, and it’s a separate booklet for a very good reason: it’s a necessary read for all players and DMs. It lays bare the underlying permutations of every combat-related piece of the D&D 5th edition system and shows players how to play the game in a way that is both fun and optimal without resorting to finding the most min-maxed character build. Truth be told, it doesn’t shoehorn anyone into any sort of character build, though there are plenty of pointers in various directions throughout the text.

This is all so important because it applies equally to players and DMs. While Keith’s blog goes over specific monster tactics (there are articles for orcs, kobolds, giants, specific constructs, etc.), this book is looking directly at the action economy as a whole, each of the individual actions (attack, dash, dodge, etc.), all of the conditions, special things like opportunity attacks and good triggers for ready actions…everything that’s available to both Player Characters and monsters. Most of the book is written and laid out to be more “player-facing,” but it’s by no means strictly player-centric in terms of its discussion outside of the character creation guidelines. Not by any measure.

Let’s look at this book part-by-part.

Part 1: Character Creation and Combat Roles

This section is admittedly a bit more “player-facing” than most, but not entirely. It covers ability scores, ability contours (a new concept), class and role combinations, and feats.

Ability Scores

This section is framed by how ability scores contribute to class builds, combat actions,and the weight each holds with regard to saving throws that target them. In a way, it measures and compares the ability scores to one another, but far more importantly, it lists how ability scores apply to what actions, class features, and what types of spells and monster attacks target which ability scores for saving throws (and sometimes what conditions are most likely to get applied). This information can be used to get the most out of your class features, and how to shore up certain weaknesses or optimize defenses against attack types that are more common than others.

Ability Contours

Ability Contours are a new concept introduced to suggest how different combinations of high ability scores can suggest a “Role” such as Front Line, Skirmisher, Supporter, Spellslinger, etc. Combined with your class, this gives you a general “build” to shoot for, but it’s not so much about min-maxing a character and more about simply making your scores & class work well in a team-work situation, which is what D&D encounters are all about. The beauty of presenting this largely by ability score first and class second (rather than the other way around) is that it speaks to the different methods of generating ability scores, in case you roll that up first and then pick a class, which is a more “old school” style of play.

Class and Role

Next, we’re told about how classes interact with ability contours to suggest certain builds, but it’s not just about “how to get the best damage” or something as simple and one-dimensional as that. Instead, this section speaks to specific power choices such as what animals are best for Druid Wildshape based on certain ability score combinations, as well as marching order and relative combat positioning.

Feats

Although not every feat is touched on, this section very briefly talks about which feats interact best with the different roles we’ve now defined through ability contours and class choices. This section is one of the best at showing how this book isn’t about optimization, interestingly, because it shows how various feats can apply across role/class combinations rather than limiting them to one “optimized build.”

Combat Role Reference Table

This part ends with the Combat Role Reference table, pictured below, which sums up much of the information in the chapter. While it doesn’t contain everything covered, it does act as a fantastic character creation reference tool once you’ve read the material in-depth. Groups that understand the overall thrust of this book and who are looking to make a well-rounded party (or perhaps even a very specialized party) can use this table to come up with a much more versatile, flexible solution to choosing individual classes and abilities rather than the typical, “We need a fighter, rogue, magic-user, and cleric!” mentality that tends to shoehorn players into specific, much more limited choices.

Combat Role Reference table

Combat Role Reference table

Part 2: Tactics In Action

Here begins the discussion on the combat rules, and thus it is the first part of the meat of this book, useful to all players and DMs regardless of their individual choices, monsters, and what not. It begins with discussing the permutations of the action economy, understanding opportunity attacks, and finally discusses conditions.

Action Economy

This section lays out the action economy that binds each and every player character (and most monsters, short of Legendary Actions). It talks about the importance of bonus actions, reactions, and features like Extra or Multi Attack. It even covers how to operate characters who carry multiple weapons, something that becomes important when facing creatures that are susceptible or immune to certain types of weapons or magical effects.

This section has to be one of the most important reads for any D&D 5th edition gamer, and does a much clearer job of stressing both how simple and yet how flexible the action economy is, and how to best engage with that. It forms the basis for much of the rest of the book since any attempt at gaining “system mastery” relies on understanding when to make choices that might sacrifice limited action types (bonus actions or reactions) or how to take the most advantage of additional actions in tandem with “normal” maneuvers like splitting up your movement (i.e. move-attack-move) or using class features or special abilities to take the hide action, for example.

Understanding Opportunity Attacks

This section is pretty self explanatory, but it pays to point out how much this can influence damage potential, how certain high AC characters or high HP characters can take risks of triggering opportunity attacks, and the best positioning to keep enemies from fleeing.

Understanding Conditions

As the book notes, conditions are absolutely integral to understanding some of the most powerful maneuvers and “combos” any character can pull off, yet their location in an appendix of the Player’s Handbook somehow diminishes or alters perceptions about them with regard to the rest of the combat rules. This section lists all sorts of sources and triggers for conditions, how they interact with other rules mechanics such as advantage/disadvantage and sources of that from lighting, hiding, and spells, and it ends with a very handy chart of conditions (primers) and vulnerabilities (detonators) that players can use to pick the best attacks, spells, or maneuvers to work in tandem with their party members.

Of course, all of this information is equally useful to the DM, and provides insights into how one can avoid certain conditions, which is often a huge deal during “boss” battles. DMs will easily be able to pick out synergies among different monsters when it comes to figuring out defenses or quick cures for certain common conditions that reduce or inhibit a creature’s action economy.

Part 3: Playing Your Part

This chapter covers some very specific mechanics in more depth, and gives some great advice on particular tactics for each class. Though it’s a lot of info, players can dive into the specifics most related to them, or they can skim everything to get a great sense of how their party might mesh together best to make the most of their teamwork in a combat encounter.

The Ready Action

The importance of a ready action and the range of good triggers for them is addressed here. Seeing how readied actions interact with things like Extra/Multi Attack, casting spells, and specific maneuvers like dodge (useless), dash (great), and hide (great when your team is working well together) all gets covered.

Plan B: Dodge, Dash, and Disengage

This section breaks down these seemingly similar actions, showing how they interact with traits like high or low Armor Class or Hit Points, other movement-related actions or special class abilities, and Extra Attacks. This section shows how poorly understood some of these actions are if taken simply by their name. Additionally, it discusses how these actions are combined with the previous section about the ready action and earlier discussion of Opportunity Attacks, creating a lot of permutations that need to be understood to take the most advantage of teamwork, positioning, and understanding your character’s role.

Party Composition & Positioning

Building upon all of the previous advice, this section gives some of the best general ideas applicable to entire parties of adventurers. Party role interactions, battlefield control abilities and spells, how the Flanking optional rule (DMG 251) applies, as well as formation/marching order notes for tight quarters and spread out areas all comes to the fore here.

Class Tactics

This section closes out with a class-by-class discussion that compiles the previous information and goes into a little more depth about class features and abilities, specifically as characters level up and thus gain access to new powers or in some cases new action options during combat. While every class is given several paragraphs of notes and tactical ideas, this section really shines when it goes over things like every single Fighter>Battle Master maneuver, or Sorcerer Metamagic options, because it provides extra layers of details that may not always be immediately apparent to new or even experienced players.

Part 4: Tactics In Practice

The book ends with three detailed, round-by-round encounters, one each at levels 1, 5, and 9. They provide simplified character sheets for the included characters, initiative orders, and a description of what happens each round using randomized rolls to determine the course of the battle. They come with multiple pictures showing the flow of each encounter so that readers can easily get a sense of the constant repositioning and movement along with the text’s notations of what actions and abilities are being used.

Part 4: Tactics In Practice from Live to Tell the Tale

Part 4: Tactics In Practice from Live to Tell the Tale

Notably, the characters aren’t optimized, but instead the encounters show both “perfect” use of planned tactics as well as decisions players might make that seem optimal but don’t account for monster abilities that the players (or their characters) might not know are in play. So, at times your seeing either “sub-optimal” characters (not min-maxed) or sub-optimal tactical decisions and how those create consequences that plague the group throughout the combat, as well as perfectly executed, planned assaults that trigger all the right choices. Exactly the kind of stuff you see at any gaming table!

This section brings together and reiterates lots of role and action economy related tactics, especially with regard to making decisions about when to hide, inflict specific conditions, reposition, or employ defensive maneuvers to better setup other party members for a stronger attack, whether immediately or in later rounds.

Form (4/5)

Live to Tell the Tale is written and laid out to be utilitarian in every way: it’s clean, plenty of white space, and broken up only by chapters, headers, and the few reference tables found throughout that summarize or compile useful character building or action-oriented information. The figures depicted in the detailed encounters at the end are each full-page images depicting a gridded battlemap and all characters and monsters positioned, and appear in the logical order following the rounds of combat and showing new positioning.

Two-page spread from Live To Tell the Tale

Two-page spread from Live To Tell the Tale

That’s all well and good, but the lack of art does leave something to be desired, though that’s not worthy of any negative stars on it’s own. The problem — minor as it is — is that the figures depicting the flow of the combat encounters are not given any sort of obvious “key” and though most of the action depicted is self-evident or follows the flow of the text, I fear certain learning styles might have trouble picking up on which icon denotes which character or monster from the text. This makes it a bit of a chore to slog through that final section, though in fairness, most readers will probably only do so once or twice for understanding, and then rarely or never reference those sections in comparison to the rest of this godsend of a book.

For what this book is — a fantastic reference and study of the D&D 5th edition combat rules — the looks department does its job fine, but just doesn’t have the same sort of (wanted and even needed!) hand-holding and teaching style of the text.

Reviewer’s Note

I think it’s very important to note that this book is not available on the Dungeon Master’s Guild or directly through any obvious D&D-specific marketplace, but rather through a small publisher website. I bring it up because it means this book could easily get lost and not get the attention it absolutely deserves, but the argument for this book not being in those marketplaces is strong: this is a labor of love that deserves every penny it’s asking, and going through a site that cuts out 50% or so in royalties is simply not working in the best interests of the author.

Agree with me or not, my point is this: if you think this book is at all for you — and I really, honestly think you should! — you should buy it. If you like it, you should share the link to buy it far and wide through whatever circles you can, because it is fantastic and will make everyone a better player and DM.


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neuronphaser is an editor, eCommerce consultant, web producer, and analyst living in sunny Hollywood, CA. He's been playing tabletop RPGs of all kinds since 1985.

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