Before giving my own detailed, bullet-point advice, I want to begin with what I see as the most important general advice on adventuring ever written.* It comes directly from Gary Gygax in the first edition AD&D Player's Handbook, under the section title "Successful Adventures:"
"[S]et an objective for the adventure. Whether the purpose is so simple as to discover a flight of stairs to the next lowest unexplored level or so difficult as to find and destroy an altar to an alien god, some firm objective should be established and then adhered to as strongly as possible. [...] Do not be sidetracked. A good referee will have many ways to distract an expedition, many things to draw attention, but ignore them if at all possible. [You should] note all such things, and another expedition may be in order another day to investigate [...] but always stay with what was planned if at all possible and wait for another day to handle the other matters." (109)
The flip side of this, however, is that:
"[T]here are times when objectives must be abandoned. If the party becomes lost, the objective must immediately be changed to discovery of a way out. If the group becomes low on vital equipment or spells, it should turn back. The same is true if wounds and dead members have seriously weakened the group's strength." (109)
In short, stick doggedly to your original objective as long as it remains viable. Once it is not, retreat as fast as you can to safety. In either case, do not give in to distraction.
With this in mind, here are some specific tips for dealing with encounters for those new to OSR games. A non-OSR background may leave you tempted to try and fight your way through every single challenge. Resist this thought. The fights in computer RPGs, MMOs and many modern table top games often emphasize balanced, fair encounters. OSR games often don't give a fig about balance, and many fights deplete resources and involve high – even deadly – risk without offering any reward in return.
Consequently you should, as a general rule, make fighting your last resort whenever you can. Here are some other options when you encounter a monster:
- Go around the monster. Provided it's not sitting on top of something essential to your objective, and provided it doesn't represent an inordinate threat if you bypass it, don't mess with it.
- Talk to the monster. If it's intelligent enough to speak, try to bargain, negotiate, inquire, threaten, bribe, etc. in order to get safe passage through its territory or to get information that will help you reach your objective.
- Trick or distract the monster. Drop food, drop gold, make noise or smoke to draw its attention away from you and/or from where you want to go, etc. This can help you go around it more easily and continue on to your objective, or possibly gain an advantage if you feel you must fight.
- Fight the monster. Sometimes it's unavoidable, and other times there really is something to be gained by it – a major treasure, for example, and or something that brings you closer to achieving your objective. But remember that most monsters you encounter do not have treasure and are not part of your objective – their sole reason for existence is to deplete your resources before you get to your objective.
You'll probably notice that all these bullet points on encounter options relate in some way to the idea of objectives.
When it is time to fight, one thing to remember is that fights are not necessarily going to be fair or balanced relative to the strength of the adventurers. You may often be outmatched. So if you must fight:
- Try to do so under the most favorable conditions you can (e.g. ambush the enemy, distract him, draw him into terrain that benefits you more than him, etc.).
- Try to converge your attacks as much as you can (i.e. focus as many of your own side's attacks as possible against the smallest possible number of enemy targets). It is far better to gang up and do a bucket-load of damage to one single enemy, killing him dead in one round, than to deal a little damage to every enemy each round. Each enemy knocked completely out of the fight means one attack fewer the adventurers have to suffer in every subsequent round.
- Run away when things turn sour. Dropping distractions or deterrents (loot, food, burning oil) or spiking doors shut behind you can be useful tools for getting away. When things go south – and believe me they will – you should change your objective to: "get out of the dungeon alive."
Here is an example of successful (and quickly-learned) objective-hunting-combat-avoidance in action: My wife's character, Olivia (an elf), and her henchmen were exploring the basement beneath a warehouse where evidence of the owner's malfeasance was rumored to be located. So her objective was "find the evidence." During her exploration she peeked through a doorway and spotted a guard at the top of a stairway leading down. At first she tried to trick him, calling to him from beyond the door, pretending to be another guard, in order to lure him outside the room into an ambush. The guard didn't seem to be buying it, but was somewhat uncertain, so she and her henchmen burst into the room, taking advantage of his uncertainty, and pointed all their weapons at him, ordering him to surrender. He did. Prisoner taken, no damage to the party, no spells or arrows used. She then interrogated him and got information that may** help her to find the evidence she was seeking. In one fell swoop, she avoided combat (one trickery attempt, one bullying attempt), and got potentially** one step closer to her objective, without depleting party resources at all.
*Yep, I see Gygax's advice on objectives as even more important than the adage "don't split the party" – though I put a lot of stock in the latter as well.
**It's not yet certain whether the information will actually bring her to her objective sooner. But the information was actionable, and it did give her a means of narrowing down her activity to something more specific than "search the whole dungeon room by room" in order to achieve the objective.