Humanoid enemies, like orcs, goblins and hobgoblins can be some of the more interesting enemies in a game, however, all too often, they simply advance to melee range, swing their swords and dutifully gets mowed down by the heroes until they die or fail a morale check.
But even without delving into magical attacks and unusual weaponry, there's a host of interesting tactics that can make these creatures more appealing, and more challenging to fight.
Historically, the spear has always been a pretty common weapon. The reasons are many, including ease of training, but it's worth pointing out a few advantages, particularly in a dungeon setting.
While creatures fighting in tunnels would be rather inconvenienced by spears, what about a ruined castle? Plenty of passable corridors and open rooms. A small group of orcs defending a doorway or corridor with spears can form an unpleasant barrier to any attack characters, and in particular, discourage charges.
No group of warriors should be without missile fire. If the characters skulk about, or wait to cast spells, a few archers, slingers or crossbowmen (crossboworcs?) can pelt them with missiles, ideally while hiding among the melee troops (or the above mentioned spear wall). In magic heavy settings, anyone looking like a magic user is likely to be an initial target.
In the ancient world, it was common to carry thrown weapons to be used while closing in for melee. A group of orcs with melee weapons may also carry a few javelin or throwing axes, to be hurled as the enemy closes in. This gives them a ranged combat option, without toting around bows (which can seem unlikely in a tunnel situation)
Lawful creatures should try to fight in some form of coordinated fashion. Valuable members, such as leaders, missile troops or spell casters should have a few guards. The rank and file should move reasonably close together. Past levels 1 and 2, noone is afraid of an orc. But 5 or 6 of them can be another story. A group can envelop a lone character, and get multiple blows, before he can kill more than 1 or 2 of them.
Particularly if using maps and miniatures, look at the battle layout. Ruined furniture is a good place for crossbowmen to place themselves, to be able to take cover. Wide open area where the players are likely to attack "up the middle"? Make sure it's under missile cover, and that there's melee troops that can intercept them and prevent them from moving around too much.
Impassable or barely passable terrain can be used to anchor a flank, or funnel the enemy a certain way.
Mind the numbers
If the humanoids outnumber the party, make sure their numbers are put to bear. Try to fight in an open area, where they can keep moving groups of combatants up to contact, and where it becomes harder for the adventurers to cover every flank. An outnumbered group (like a few trolls) should find a chokepoint, where not every hero can come at it at a time. If need be, use the grunts to form a chokepoint, by having orcs flank the troll.
Area of effect
If the group carries area of effect weapons, use them early, while the party has not spread out much. Alternatively, early use of this (flaming oil, spells, clay pots full of carnivorous bees) can force the party to spread out, then have groups of orcs rush individual fighters.
A large, powerful target, like a troll, an orc hero or similar is likely to attract most of the party's attention. This helps keep the grunts in one piece. Use the time wisely, to rain attacks, rush into melee (particularly with ranged attackers), and do other things to make life as rough as possible. While a troll might be the centerpiece of the battle, it's only one more unit on the board.
Got nasty tactics to keep your players challenged? Share them and we'll do a follow up article!