Sometimes the party does something that, while not anything exciting, ends up being a genius tactical maneuver. For example, simply using a large door as both a shield and a way of creating a chokepoint for the enemy forces. This week, my D&D 5e party did just that.
It’s not like this is a brand-new concept for me. I’ve had enemies open and close doors on the party plenty of times this campaign, much to their frustration. However, I never thought to just close the door a bit to control the flow of traffic.
So, for the first installment of Tabletop Tactics, let’s talk about doors?
What is a Chokepoint?
A chokepoint is a location or geographical feature that forces an army to pass through it. This particular location is narrow and will force the army to narrow its front which means that as they pass through the choke point they are either a) vulnerable to attacks and/or b) considerably weaker offensively.
If you hold a chokepoint you have an enormous advantage over your opponent as you are now fighting both a weaker force and controlling their movement.
Psychologically you will also force the enemy to rush through a chokepoint so that they can limit casualties and losses on their end. This can further open up our enemy to making grave mistakes that you can take advantage of.
You’ll also end up bottlenecking the enemy. A bottleneck is very similar to a chokepoint in that it’s generally a narrow passage that is connected to a wide-open area. This forces the opposing force to, again, break off into smaller groups which will slow their travel speed as it limits how many people can cross at once.
This scenario is both a way to create a chokepoint and a bottleneck for the enemy.
Earlier this week the party in my D&D 5e group was pitted up against a squad of Merregon. They were in a small(ish) room with two doorways that had 15 ft. wide iron doors. Both of these doorways opened up into long hallways that were 15 ft. wide.
The room itself was nothing particularly interesting in terms of terrain or other elements that could heavily impact the battlefield.
The party opened the door and initiative was rolled immediately. The party’s cleric was first-in-line being their tankiest character with the rogue not far behind that. The two spellcasters were positioned next to each other but behind the rogue.
The cleric went first in the initiative order but decided to use their turn to close the door a little more than halfway. They stood behind the part of the door that was providing them with some cover which I ruled to be three-quarters cover for the cleric as they could still shoot through the large crack on the hinged-side of the door.
So basically my merregon had two choices on their turn:
- Pull out their heavy crossbows and attempt to shoot the heavily-armored cleric that now has +5 AC
- Retreat, despite outnumbering their enemy
- I mean, they have 6 INT. If they see that they outnumber the party I feel they’d at least charge forward initially.
- Attempt to open the door all the way
- Go to the open part of the door and use their halberds’ reach to attack their foe
I picked option number four initially. Some had to dash to make it there, but for the most part, most of them were able to funnel in.
However, despite them being set-up for the following rounds, the party had a couple of key advantages because of how this worked out.
- The merregons’ formation was broken
- Many were forced to now target the well-armored cleric and dexterous rogue rather than the two spellcasters
- About half of the merregons had to use a Dash action rather than make weapon attacks
At a minimum, the party saved themselves from taking an average of 54 total damage due to blocking 3 merregons’ attacks which deal an average of 18 damage per turn. Honestly, this was an excellent setup for the rest of the encounter and made it considerably easier due to the cleric’s quick thinking.
Creature, Hallway, and Door Sizes Matter!
The size of both the door and creature will make a huge difference as to how this chokepoint works. Merregons are medium-sized creatures and the door and hallway were large enough to fit three medium creatures shoulder-to-shoulder.
There was enough room for them to squeeze-through a partially-closed door. If it were a 5ft. hallway and/or door it would’ve been a very different (but still effective) type of chokepoint.
The weight of the door matters too! If it was just a lightweight wooden door, I’d probably have just allowed the merregon to just open the door as a free action, provided that the party wasn’t actively preventing it from being opened.
A narrower doorway/hallway would work as a chokepoint. This example includes both a chokepoint and a bottleneck.
Benefits of Using This Tactic
Separate the Enemy
Separating the enemy can make your party’s tanks or frontline more effective at preventing some or all of the enemy forces from reaching your backline. In theory, it’s easier to manage say 4 enemies than it is 8 enemies. This will, of course, depend on each enemy’s abilities.
With that being said, a chokepoint gives the party’s frontline a way to hinder or flat-out prevent the enemy from breaking through their defenses and reaching the party’s backline characters. It also prevents the enemy from completely avoiding the party’s frontline and simply going around them.
The enemy needs to either bypass the chokepoint somehow or force their way through it. Either way, it’s not a situation that they can ignore. It forces them to deal with the well-armored units first which is not ideal.
Slow the Enemy’s Advancement
While all of the enemy forces were able to reach the party within their first turn, not all of them could attack the party. The merregon missed out on a total of six attacks which is a fair amount of potential damage for them.
The merregon were also not able to get themselves into an ideal position. For example, most of them were unable to attack the two poorly-armored spellcasters in the backline due to how the party set themselves up.
Negate (or Limit) Ranged Attacks
Using the door as a way to block ranged attacks will provide whoever is behind it with some form of cover. It’s up to whoever operates the door to determine how much cover will be provided. It will also depend on how the enemy is positioned relative to the door.
Either way, cover makes ranged attacks as a whole less effective. Utilizing cover well may force a primarily ranged opponent to draw closer to the party, giving your melee-centric party members an opening to strike!
Closing a door entirely would provide full cover which would, of course, completely negate the opposing forces’ ability to make ranged attacks on their turn. They would have to either have one creature open the door, or they could all use a Ready action in hopes that the door is opened for them.
The way that the party did it, the merregon were still able to attack the party from certain positions in the room, but it was far from an ideal scenario since they had to effectively choose between attacking the two characters with the highest AC in the party.
How Can the DM Counter This?
Reposition and Use Ranged Attacks
In some scenarios, though, this is the ideal option. For example, if your creatures’ attack options are similar for both ranged and melee attacks you may as well reposition and use your ranged attacks. With any luck, you’ll force the enemy to leave their cover to deal more damage or avoid your attacks entirely.
This tactic turns the encounter into a game of chicken. Whoever moves out from or closer to the chokepoint first, loses.
This is why having a ranged attack option is so important in 5e. Sure, using a longbow may not be the barbarian’s optimal style of fighting. However, suboptimal damage to a flying enemy is better than dealing 0 damage.
Open/Close the Door
If the party isn’t actively trying to prevent the door from being open or shut feel free to have one of your minions waltz over there and open or shut the door. This is a sure-fire way to eliminate the chokepoint for the time being.
The only downside to this plan is if there are no other entrances or exits in the room. Slamming the door shut on the party’s face is only a temporary solution. However, it may buy your creatures enough time for their allies within the dungeon, fortress, etc. to hear the party and flank them.
Retreat and Alert the Rest of the Dungeon
When all else fails, flee!
Seriously, if your creatures are ever caught in an inopportune position retreating is always an option. Especially in a fortress or dungeon filled with other creatures that will gladly join the fray.
You don’t even need to have every creature retreat either. Having one or two break off to go sound the alarms deeper within the dungeon is more than enough! The rest that stay behind and fight are the true heroes of the story.
Also, keep in mind the creatures’ nature or behavior. A creature like a merregon would sacrifice themselves if it meant sending a messenger to warn their master of incoming danger. However, a goblin? Well, they might trip over each other trying to run for their lives.
Admittedly, this does become more difficult for creatures without teleports or other special methods of transport as the party gets more powerful. For example, my D&D 5e party consists of a warlock, a cleric, and a witch. They have so much CC and AoE damage it’s super difficult for my creatures to retreat now.
This is certainly not some mind-blowing, off-the-wall tactic. It’s very simplistic, and depending on the abilities of the opposition may not be very effective. However, when it works, it works well.
Frontline characters such as tanks or bruisers will do well to learn how to leverage their environment to create chokepoints and bottlenecks. These tactics both enhance the party’s ability to fight a large number of foes and protects the less-armored backline casters and archers. It’s a win-win from the party’s perspective.
While this series won’t be specifically tied to D&D 5e I’d imagine the majority of them will be inspired by it since that’s mine and my group’s preferred system. With that being said, a lot of these general tactics will transcend the game system they were used in.
I also don’t plan on this being a regular series of articles like D&D Monster Monday. You’ll probably see new articles in this set after my players pull-off something neat like with this one.
If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!
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