Live to Tell the Tale: An Introduction to Combat Tactics for D&D Players

In writing this blog, I’ve unleashed a wave of clever, highly evolved monsters upon the D&D world. It’s only fair that I now give players the tools they need to fight back . . . and live.

Live to Tell the Tale: An Introduction to Combat Tactics for Dungeons and Dragons Players is a 67-page e-book that examines combat roles, class features, party composition, positioning, debilitating conditions, attacking combinations, action economy, and the ever-important consideration of the best ways to run away. If you’re a beginning D&D player unsure what to do when you get into a fight, this e-book will point you in the right direction; if you’re an intermediate player, it will help you win more and die less. If you’re a dungeon master with a group of new players, buy a copy and share it with them. Although it’s a PDF download, it’s formatted to be printed as a booklet, if you care to do that. (In Adobe Reader’s Print menu, under Page Sizing and Handling, select Booklet.)

One thing I want to be clear about: This is not a book about how to create a fully optimized character from square one. Just the opposite. “Real roleplayers” are my people. If you want to create an idiot savant sorcerer, a half-orc cleric/bard or a gnome ranger, I wholeheartedly support that. Do what you love. But, that being said, if you love that character, you need to keep him or her alive!

Here’s the secret: Viability doesn’t depend on stats. It depends on behavior. That’s what this book is about: how to get the most from your creation in combat, so that he or she lives long enough to retire and tell boring stories about the old days.

Below is an excerpt from part 1, Character Creation and Combat Roles:

Understanding Ability Contours

Certain combinations of high scores—what I call “ability contours”—favor certain styles of fighting. You may wish to develop a rough character con­cept ahead of time, decide on a fighting style, then assign ability scores to fit that style. Or you may wish to assign your character’s ability scores, then decide on a class and fighting style that fit those scores. How you develop the concept and stats of your character doesn’t matter. What does matter is that if your character’s ability scores and his or her class and fighting style are at odds, your char­acter won’t be as effective in combat.

The Front Line: Strength + Constitution

The role of front-line characters is to occupy the enemy’s attention by charging them and engaging in melee. The most important ability for this role is Constitution, because this character has to be able to soak up the damage that would kill other characters. But an offensive ability is also import­ant, because if this character can’t do meaningful damage to opponents, he or she can’t hold their attention, and the usual choice of primary offen­sive ability is Strength. Medium and heavy armor benefit front-line fighters the most.

The Shock Attacker: Strength + Dexterity (or just Dexterity)

This is a character whose role is to identify key en­emies and eliminate them quickly by doing large bursts of damage. Shock attackers don’t want to spend time in drawn-out combat. They hit first, hit hard and get out, because their lack of Constitution makes them less able to absorb damage themselves. As a defensive ability, Dexterity is good for avoiding damage, but the longer combat goes on, the more likely an opponent is to land a lucky hit. Stealth is often important for shock attackers, so they benefit most from light or me­dium armor.

The Skirmisher: Dexterity + Constitution

This includes ranged and finesse-weapon melee fighters, durable but also highly mobile, who wear their opponents down by dealing modest but con­sistent damage over time. Skirmishers are suited to drawn-out combat. Finesse weapons tend to do less damage than other melee weapons, but these characters also have more staying power, thanks to their Constitution, so their damage can add up. This doesn’t mean they should gratuitously expose themselves to more attacks, however. In­stead, they should stay on the move, taking their shots when their opponents’ attention is divided. Stealth benefits skirmishers as much as it does shock attackers, so they too should wear light or medium armor.

The Marksman: Dexterity + Wisdom

Unless they’re shock attackers wielding finesse weapons, characters without high Strength or high Constitution should stay out of melee and behind cover as much as possible. The idea behind com­bining Dexterity and Wisdom is to rely on Dexter­ity for both offense and defense (in other words, attacking at range, because the lack of points in Constitution makes this ability contour risky for a finesse melee fighter) and on Wisdom to spot stealthy opponents who are trying to hide. Marks­men should wear the best armor they’re proficient with that doesn’t inhibit their own Stealth. . . .


Buy your copy of Live to Tell the Tale at



On page 9 of earlier editions of Live to Tell the Tale, “Warlocks stand apart from wizards and warlocks” should read, “Warlocks stand apart from wizards and sorcerers.” On page 31, “as if you were bright light” should read, “as if it were bright light.” These errors have been fixed in the current edition.

On page 42, Tolmac Yew, a halfling, moves 30 feet at one point. He should only have gotten to move 25 feet, but I can’t fix that one without rewriting the remainder of the encounter. Maybe in a future edition.

19 thoughts on “Live to Tell the Tale: An Introduction to Combat Tactics for D&D Players”

  1. This is super cool! What an exciting secret project; I’ll definitely take a look, and I think my players will love to have something like this around.

  2. At the time of writing, Live to Tell the Tale is the best third party 5e supplement I’ve encountered. The writing is clear and succinct. The formatting is clean and easy on the eyes. My players are either new to 5e or new to tabletop gaming, so I find the author’s commentary on 5e’s combat a very helpful aid for ease of entry into the game. I especially like the focus on being effective at one’s role without min/maxing. Furthermore, I believe this supplement has use for DMs as well, providing a better understanding and appreciation of 5e combat. I would definitely recommend this product to novice through intermediate players and DMs. To be honest, even a guy like me who has been playing D&D since the Moldvay Basic Set can find this useful.

    1. Or a bank transfer would also work, i both enjoy this blog and would love a way to explain more advanced tactics to my players that they can refer to when they need to .

  3. This blog’s amazing. Well thought out, incredibly useful advice for players and GM’s alike.

    Bookmarked !

  4. I’m back running D&D games for my old college friends after almost 20 years away.
    Just purchased Live to Tell. What a fantastic book. Exactly the kind of tactical discussion that’s lacking in almost everything I’ve come across so far. Great advice that adds to my already growing appreciation for this system as a whole. Thanks for the clear and concise insights!

  5. *Buy this book.*

    It doesn’t matter if you’re a player or a DM, if you’re fresh-faced or a grey-bearded grognard, this is 70 pages of valuable insight into how D&D5e combat works as a system. I’d go so far as to say this is fifth edition’s Missing Manual.

    I could go on and on, but that would just be time wasted that you could spend reading LtTtT.

  6. Heya!

    I just wanted to let you know I love this book and your website!

    Ever since I played Dark Souls for the first time, I’ve loved analyzing more ways for players and level design to be tactical in both video and tabletop games.

    One thing I disagree with in the book, though, is that Clerics (besides Trickery domain) can’t make good archers!

    At the very least I think the War domain is viable.

    One thing I do not understand is the somatic requirements for “at least one hand free”. It’s unclear whether a free hand is one merely not immediately using a weapon or shield, or whether a two-handed weapon “occupies” both hands for casting purposes. The latter doesn’t make a lot of sense as you only need two hands to USE a longbow or greatsword, for example.

    Anyway, just for a start as to War Cleric viability, if you combine their Channel Divinity: Guided Strike ability with the Sharpshooter feat, you can potentially take a shot that is +10 to damage and +5 to hit. And this is before adding on things like the War Cleric’s Divine Strike bonus damage to slash/pierce/bludgeoning damage, or the Cleric’s access to the Divine Favor and Magic Weapon spells!

    Just food for thought!

    1. It’s not about the somatic component of the spell, but rather about the need to present the holy symbol of the caster’s god, like a movie character holding out a cross to ward off a vampire. The symbol can be emblazoned on the caster’s shield, but wielding a shield still requires a free hand that isn’t on one’s weapon.

      Some dungeon masters might allow a marksman cleric—especially an elf—to use a holy symbol engraved on a bow for clerical spellcasting purposes—not all, since it’s very much an individual judgment call rather than an explicit written rule. And on the other end of the spectrum, some DMs might require a cleric to keep presenting that symbol in order to sustain a spell that requires concentration. I chose to err on the side of universality. Clever players such as yourself who find potential loopholes with tactical benefits can negotiate their usability with their own DMs.

      One thing’s for sure: Very, very few DMs will allow a cleric to keep a holy symbol on one of these.

      1. Hmmmm, fair enough on concentration casting (and also you choosing a universalist ruling).

        As for other casting, though, I figure with bonus action-length spellcasts that you’re just momentarily handtapping the holy symbol (if worn, rather than shield-emblemed) and for Channel Divinity options (that aren’t Turn/Destroy Undead) the Cleric writeup in the PHB doesn’t specify anything about somatics, free hands, or the like, except perhaps for Domain-specific channelings (i.e. anything that says “you present your holy symbol” like for Light and Nature domain’s Channels, but says nothing about specific wielding instructions for the War Cleric’s Channels).

        I imagine like you said it’ll come down to individual DM interpretation though.

      2. Hrmg, I want to agree with you on the marksman cleric, but from what I can tell it is a viable build.

        In detail:
        Clerics don’t need a holy symbol to cast spells (PHB 58). A holy symbol only has to be visible, not held, to work (151). Holy symbols don’t have any relation to somatic components anyways because foci only replace the material component of a spell (203). Somatic components only require at least one hand free (203). (A little leeway for the DM there.) A bow only requires two hands when attacking (and loading) (146-147).

        Those are all the relevant rules regarding cleric spellcasting that I can think of, and none of them oppose it. While not looking at the cleric features in detail, they seem to support the build as well since they seem to all state “weapon attack” rather than “melee weapon attack”. Re: “presenting a holy symbol”, it seems up to interpretation whether that requires holding it or just keeping it visible.

        That retractable key holder. Anyone who used it at the table would effectively cast Tasha’s Hideous Laughter on me.

  7. Any chance you’ll do a follow up book of the monster tactics from the blog? I love the blog (and the book!) but greatly prefer the PDF consolidated format.

    1. Probably not, TBH. Each of my blog posts is on pretty solid ground as far as fair use is concerned, but since they all draw from the same couple of sources, I’m not as sure about putting them all together in one book. I make my own living off intellectual property, so respecting the copyrights of others is very important to me.

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