How to Use Marching Order as a Narrative Device in D&D
“Never split the party”: a gaming truism so pervasive that it has its own tv tropes entry. Anyone who has ever played a tabletop RPG or watched a horror movie knows that there is strength in numbers and that to go in alone is to get picked off gruesomely by some horrific monster. Moreover, D&D is a team game, and success often involves all members of a team applying their unique talents to a problem. Sometimes this sense of teamwork is as simple as establishing a sensible marching order when exploring a dungeon or wilderness area. Before grid combat was the norm, miniatures were used mostly to establish marching order. Exact distances and positioning didn’t matter as much in combat, only whether a PC was in the front, rear, or middle of the column. These days, marching order seems like an afterthought, but it doesn’t have to be. Generally, parties will march with their tanks (fighters/clerics) up front and their squishies (wizards/ranged attackers) behind, while mobile characters like rogues and monks are free to flank enemies. Alternately, they might form a phalanx around the most vulnerable party members, with high-hit point, high-armor class characters in the front and back and less sturdy characters in the middle. However the players decide to line their characters up, a Dungeon Master (we call them Quest Masters) should think about the mechanical and narrative possibilities inherent in a party’s formation.
In The Dungeon
When exploring dangerous enclosed environments, the party’s rogue might scout ahead, searching for traps and other environmental hazards. This also might be the task of any characters with darkvision. A shrewd Quest Master (QM) could take advantage of this fact in a few ways:
A pressure plate that requires more than 200 lbs to trigger: crafty kobolds, for instance, might understand that adventuring parties will send a scout ahead. The scout might walk right over a pressure plate without noticing and announce to the party that the corridor is safe. When multiple members of the group step on the plate together, the trap is triggered.
Intelligent dungeon dwellers will understand their terrain and look for advantageous ground. They might retreat to a choke-point (a narrow corridor or doorway) and force the party to fight there, where a rogue can’t flank for sneak attacks and area-of-effect spells become dangerous to use.
The presence of rusted weapons and armor near humanoid bones will instantly make seasoned adventurers think, “rust monster.” These creatures can be deadly to a party lacking magic weapons and armor and may cause a party to rethink their marching order. Aside from the tactical considerations, this situation opens up role-playing opportunities: the lawful good paladin, for example, can either remain in the front line, potentially risking the destruction of a valuable and prestigious suit of plate armor, or elect to cower behind the unarmored monk and leather-clad bard.
In The Wilderness
Whereas a rogue might lead the way through the dungeon, a ranger, druid, or barbarian might guide their party through the wilderness. Whatever the party’s marching order, the open spaces and long encounter distances of the wilderness can have interesting mechanical and narrative ramifications:
It can be narratively significant that NPCs encounter a character more in tune with nature before an urbane knight or scholarly wizard. NPCs encountered in the wilderness may react positively to someone who looks like a local but might distrust someone who looks like a representative of the king or other urban authority.
When fleeing through the woods, will the characters with higher movement speed simply bolt and leave the dwarf or halfling behind, or will they slow down and risk their own lives to protect their allies?
In an enclosed wilderness area such as a narrow gulch or a dense forest, intelligent enemies can use the same strategies as they would in a dungeon to take advantage of a party’s marching order.
Marching order can also affect perception checks. Is the party exploring a haunted castle? Roll perception checks only for the character in the rear of the marching order and slip them a note informing them that they are hearing noises. The party might vary their marching order to better protect their rear, or they might disregard the warnings as the product of an overactive imagination. If the character in the rear has poor passive perception, they might not notice anything at all. The party might also find themselves able to accomplish a task only if they march in a particular order. While questing after a powerful magical item, the party learns (from a cryptic engraving on the wall, or a riddle told by a mad hermit lost in the dungeon) that their wizard must bear a torch and lead the way through a labyrinth if they are to find the hidden chamber. How will they adapt their tactics to accommodate their weakest member marching in the most exposed position? Marching order can be a tactical decision from the players’ point of view, but it can also be a storytelling mechanism for the Quest Master. Has marching order ever played a significant role in your adventures? Tell us about it below.