As much as I hate using grids for combat, something they really do make things better.
In this case, last session we had our first real wilderness combat in ACKS. We'd had some during previous campaigns, but in the theater of the mind things tended to get very muddled in so open an area of engagement, and the party's melee contingent tended to assume they could always get in and engaged.
This combat was very different.
The party was hunting a group of ghoul woodsmen in the mountainous forests north of Ostergot. Their cunning plan was to catch and field-strip a deer, hoping that the smell of blood and meat would draw the ghouls to them. They were correct, and over the top of the ridge advanced a group of 8 ghouls with bows in a broad skirmish line (I play ghouls as "of malign intelligence at least equal to a human's"). The PCs were mostly 5th-6th level at this point, and the PCs fighters have ACs in the 8-9 range. Eight ghouls at this level is somewhat concerning, but not normally a dire, mortal threat to a PC unless something goes quite wrong. The ghouls advanced down the slope, trading arrows with the party's archers and taking a fireball in the center of their line. The ghouls began a fighting retreat and two of them managed to inflict some pretty serious damage on the party's unarmored witch. The party's heavily-armored fighters were unable to catch them and engage, and in the end it was the archers that did them in.
This was a very unusual combat for us in ACKS. Ranged enemies are not particularly viable in the dungeon, but in the wilderness even weak ranged foes can still be dangerous as long as they're fast. This fight was not the melee fighters' to win; instead it was the assassin and the explorer's (and those few fighters who had thought to bring bows). In the absence of archers in the party, I expect the ghouls would've exhausted their arrows before downing any of the party's superheavy fighters, but the party's wizard and witch would've been toast long before then. I see three counters to this:
- Superior ranged firepower (as happened in this case) - beat the archers at their own game. Honestly a party of mid-levels fighters can be a competent ranged force if they're willing to carry; most archer-types aren't super-high AC, so losing out on dex bonus to hit them is probably not a huge deal, and strength+fighter damage bonus applies to bowfire. The problem with this approach is that it means you can't use a shield, which drops the fighters' ACs by anywhere from 2 to 5 points in this party (shield +3 and fighting style shield), leaving them vulnerable to missile fire and cavalry charges themselves.
- The phalanx / testudo / hedgehog - huddle up (perhaps aided by favorable terrain), shield your casters, and wait for the enemy to run out of arrows. Not a whole lot of fun, and honestly pretty risky, because they are going to get some lucky hits even against high AC PCs before running out of arrows. Also requires a very high ratio of shieldbearers to squishy casters, because a more-mobile enemy can encircle a fixed defense and strike from any side. Performance against horse archers should be comparable to that against foot archers, but might actually be able to receive and stop a heavy cavalry lance charge if done properly.
- Superior speed - mount up and run the bastards down. Takes a proficiency (Riding) and requires a horse (in short supply), leaves you vulnerable to having your horse killed out from under you, but also the premier delivery system for heavily-armored melee fighters in the wilderness, and massed lance charges are spectacular, especially with fighter damage bonus and cleaves. Also scales well into the high levels with monstrous mounts. Still somewhat vulnerable to light cavalry / horse archers, but not in the same way that infantry is to infantry archers - if the horse archers are in range to fire on you, you're in range to lance-charge them. The lance charge can also bog down against tough / high HD foes, leaving the party's fighters engaged with something scary without a good way to retreat (particularly if their horses are slain).
- (Situational) magic and trickery