The Art of Ambush

Crime and Punishment
Author Keith Baker
Series Campaign Style
Publisher Atlas Games
Publish date 2003

When you’re trying to set up the perfect ambush, there are a number of things to consider.


If you know you’re going to get into a fight, you can do all your preparations ahead of time. Get your protection spells up! Spells like mirror image may draw attention if used in a public place, but protection spells, cat’s grace, bless, and the like can all help without making you stand out to your target.

The next issue is positioning. In an outdoor attack, you’ll want to look for concealment, especially for your spellcasters. In an indoor battle you need to cover the escape routes, and position your people close to their designated targets. And as mentioned earlier, you should always look for other ways to skew the odds in your favor-  whether it’s poisoning the beer or setting up traps along likely escape routes.

In the ideal ambush, you want to be perfectly coordinated. You need to be able to quickly adjust your battle plans based on unexpected surprises, like the sorcerer summoning a demon to even the odds or suddenly flooding the area with darkness. At the same time, the less your enemies know of your plans the harder it will be for them to react effectively. If your GM allows open table talk, this isn’t an issue. If she’s strict about it – only letting you discuss strategy if your characters are actually talking – things are more difficult. The ideal solution is Telepathic Bond or a set of circles of thought; both allow silent telepathic communication. Unfortunately, Telepathic Bond is a high level spell and circles of thought are very expensive. Lower-level hunters may have more luck with the message spell or message stones, although these have a limited range.

If you’re going to rely on verbal communication, come up with abbreviated designations for each target and each member of your party. If there are multiple areas that have tactical significance – like doors to an inn – assign designations to these points as well. Instead of saying -Jonath, Kayli, get the rogue who’s headed for the back door,- you want to be able to say “Green, black, coins at the bolt.” This leaves your enemies in the dark as to exactly what you’re doing – and it gives you an excuse to come up with cool code names. A slightly simpler alternative is for your entire party to learn an obscure language, and hope that your enemies don’t know it. If you shout all your commands in Ignan, odds are good that most of your foes won’t know what you’re talking about.

If you’re operating from a long distance and don’t have a method of magical communication, thunderstones or flashstones can be a useful way to signal an attack (in addition to blinding or deafening your targets). This brings up one last point – disrupting your opponent’s communications is just as valuable as getting your own plans in order. If you can deafen your enemies with a thunderstone, it will be even more difficult for them to coordinate with one another. The silence spell can be an invaluable tool for a surprise attack, especially if you’re making a night attack on a camp; it has a long range, and if you hit a sentry with the spell you can charge onto the scene and begin your work without waking any sleepers. Of course, silence will affect you as well, so you’ll need to make sure you’ve done your planning in advance! All of these techniques can also interfere with enemy spellcasting, though again, silence will hinder you as well as your enemies.



Alchemical weapons like thunderstones and flashstones can provide you with a vital edge in combat; if you have to cover a significant distance to reach your prey, a concealed archer providing flareshot covering fire can be an excellent distraction. At close range, thunderstones can be problematic; there’s no way to spare your friends from the effects of the stone. However, allies can shield their eyes to avoid the effects of a flashstone or flareshot. The problem is one of communication. If you can communicate telepathically, you can warn your allies of an incoming flashstone without giving your enemies a chance to react. You can use a verbal signal, but there’s the risk that your enemies will come to recognize the signal. Alternately, you can come up with a code, like counting in Ignan; any number means ‘flareshot!’ but the since each number is a different word, your opponents may assume that the signal has a different meaning. Flashstones, thunderstones, and tanglefoot bags are all grenadelike weapons. As a result, they make excellent back-up weapons for wizards, sorcerers, and other characters with poor Base Attack Bonuses and low hit points. A wizard should be staying off of the front lines anyway, and he’ll still have a decent chance of hitting an area with a flashstone in spite of his poor BAB.


If you’ve done your job, you should get a surprise round at the start of an ambush. If you’re out in the open, you may have to spend this round drawing a weapon – walking around with drawn blades has a way of putting people on edge and spoiling surprise. But even in public, Quick Draw or gloves of storing can let you produce a weapon and still act – while a weapon like a quarterstaff can be carried in plain sight without raising suspicions. It’s just a harmless walking stick, after all.

While your enemy is flat-footed, he does not receive his Dexterity bonus to his Armor Class. Aside from the obvious advantage of making him easier to hit, this has two useful secondary effects. First, rogues and bounty hunters will get bonus damage from Sneak Attack and Painful Blow. In addition, a flat-footed opponent does not get to make attacks of opportunity – so if you’re not in the right position, this is your chance to move in! Get into flanking position. Grapple with a weak enemy. Get close enough to threaten enemy spellcasters in upcoming rounds. And if you’re right next to an opponent and you need to cast a spell or use a ranged weapon, now is the time to do it!

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