Tactics And Combat In Fantasy RPGs
  • Tactics And Combat In Fantasy RPGs



    Think of the old days of FRPGs when parties bumbled into encounters, opening doors without preparation or scouting. Think of how few parties actually took prisoners in order to gather information! And how few parties ran away occasionally rather than engage in a fight that had nothing to do with their mission and might get them killed. And today?

    "Battles are won by slaughter and manoeuvre. The greater the general, the more he contributes in manoeuvre, the less he demands in slaughter." --Sir Winston Churchill

    I want to talk about tactical styles. There are two extremes of approaching a fight in a magic-rich environment. These can be seen as something like an American football team that runs the ball constantly ("4 yards and a cloud of dust") and a team that passes constantly. Sixty years ago in football, the former predominated, nowadays the latter.

    Translating into FRPG terms, the first method is to charge in and cut the enemy down thanks to suitable character classes and lots of perks and magic items that make your folks "meat cleavers." (As in the 9th level character I watched recently do more than 90 points of melee damage in one round.) The second is to set up a defense while the specialist spell casters use area effect and selected individual spells to blow the enemy away. In the first method the characters are more or less like running backs and linemen; in the second they are quarterbacks (and receivers) and linemen. In the first the linemen fire out and try to wipe out whoever they’re up against (run blocking), in the second the linemen are more interested in protecting the “skilled positions” (pass blocking) while the latter do most of the damage.

    The first method is more common, perhaps partly because it requires less thought and planning. It’s easier for players and for the GM. As a person who knew the first time he played D&D that he was going to be a magic user, I favor the second method because you "should" use magic instead of brawn. That’s what magic-use is about!

    A lot depends on the rules. 1e D&D, where the "squishy" magic users had to be protected, encouraged combined arms cooperation rather than individual flair, and the essence of the "passing" method is exactly that, while the essence of the "running" method can run to individual flair. In days of 3e D&D the "one-man army" was in vogue and individualism was everywhere, while cooperation was rare. From a design point of view, having a typical party include only four characters required the one-man-army approach. The spellcasting method requires a larger group.

    In a sense, the "cloud of dust" treats the fight more as a sport, while "pass them to death" treats it more as war. Sports are supposed to be fair; "war is hell," and in war the ideal is to force the enemy to surrender because they face annihilation, or if they won’t surrender, to annihilate them without loss on your side. This is more elegant, and efficient, than hacking the enemy down in pools of blood. But perhaps less satisfying for some...

    “Your mileage may vary,” and most campaigns are somewhere in between. Some sets of rules, and some GMs, don’t allow one method or the other to be practical.

    Article contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
    Comments 71 Comments
    1. Henry's Avatar
      Henry -
      I'm afraid I don't quite understand your position - are you making the case that tactical thinking was MORE or LESS common in the heyday of 1st edition? The article feels a little confusing in the position taken.

      In my experience, it was MORE common to be tactically minded in AD&D for several reasons: (1) because of the lethality of average creatures due to the 0 hp = dead state; (2) AD&D initiative could cause some really nasty friendly fire incidents if the group did not communicate; and (3) the incentive of gold for XP over combat encouraged PCs to rob people blind rather than fight them, and extort every trick possible for making more money even via non-adventurous means.

      Though the pendulum has swung back somewhat over the past 15 years, for a while it was all showboats, everyone vying to show, not that they were good team players, but they had the most awesome character/most damage/highest save-or-suck/ what have you.

      5e has done a lot to move this back, and in my own groups I've seen a lot more teamwork and "completions and hand-offs" where people set up others for one-two punches.
    1. EthanSental's Avatar
      EthanSental -
      A lot of quotation marks with little explanation of the meaning left me kind of confused reading the article.
    1. DerekSTheRed -
      I'm from Texas so I immediately get the analogies here. I'm guessing some of the international readers won't. I tend to think the individualism style is more common since damage is fun and everyone sharing in the damage helps group dynamics. The whole style of keep the bad guys off the mage so the mage can win the encounter probably won't work with most groups.
    1. R_Chance's Avatar
      R_Chance -
      We started playing in 1974. My original players were all wargamers. Tactics were always present. Miniatures, rulers and (for dungeon / indoor environments) 1" gridded maps were the norm. Protecting the magic user was a necessity. It became less important in 3.x but never completely went away. That could be because my players were creatures of habit by then though...
    1. MNblockhead's Avatar
      MNblockhead -
      A bit of a disconnect from:

      Think of the old days of FRPGs when parties bumbled into encounters, opening doors without preparation or scouting. Think of how few parties actually took prisoners in order to gather information! And how few parties ran away occasionally rather than engage in a fight that had nothing to do with their mission and might get them killed. And today?


      to

      1e D&D, where the "squishy" magic users had to be protected, encouraged combined arms cooperation rather than individual flair, and the essence of the "passing" method is exactly that, while the essence of the "running" method can run to individual flair. In days of 3e D&D the "one-man army" was in vogue and individualism was everywhere, while cooperation was rare.
      So which is it? Where the "old days" tactics and cooperation free, or were tactics and cooperation emphasized more than in later editions?

      In my experience, in 1e, we ran away a LOT more than in 5e. We took prisoners and had to role play our way to information, as opposed to "I make an intimidation check."

      Like you I prefer a more cooperative, tactical approach, but I like the increasing emphasis modern TTRPGs place on narrative and improv, rather than slogging through wargame minigames. Though—that's not *entirely* accurate. We never used minis and map in 1e. BUT so much more of the game in general was moderated with rules minutia than in 5e. 1e was tactical, but not necessarily in the minis-and-rulers sense, but certainly in the resource management sense.

      Nobody's way of having fun is better. I've enjoyed playing both extremes and in the shades of gray between.
    1. Quatermane's Avatar
      Quatermane -
      IMHO, tactics in almost all RPGs still fall back to fundamental factors that translate to real world conflicts even today.

      - Terrain
      - Knowledge (intelligence about ones self, ones team mates, and the opposition)
      - Training/Talent either side of the conflict may have.
      - Elements of surprise (what your opponent doesn't know can kill them quickly)
      - Availability and quality of resources
      - Environment (weather, time, motion, sound, politics, etc)
      - Communications capability and skill (The single largest hurdle to success for any team is the establishment and maintenance of effective and consistent communications).

      Any and/or all of the above come into play for any given conflict situation.

      If there was anything that I found consistently frustrating to observe as a GM of any RPG, it was the common failure of a group of players to take a few moments to define and plan team roles and tactics to address the most common tactical circumstances and situations. In the military, we generally called this SOP (standard operating procedures).
      Of course, sometimes SOP has to be summarily developed among a group of people who have just met. But any professional crew (in just about any vocation or situation) who may have just met will (before moving out) try to take a moment to at least assign/assume roles within the group so that they can have some semblance of coordination and preparation for an unexpected conflict. This practice will include an assessment of each others capabilities to ensure the right people are in the right roles... and that they are up to the task of fulfilling that role.
      Although RPG character classes generally define role definition from the outset as part of the game structure itself, it is never safe to assume that what you initially observe is the real situation. I recall many an occasion when a party stepped into an engagement assuming the cleric was a healer but to find out that the cleric was specialized as something else completely.

      As a retired military veteran, I can attest that the most effective combat units are those that constantly train in team focused tactics where everyone knows their role in a given situation as well as the roles and capabilities of their team members.
      By knowing their role in the team, each team member can focus their individual skills and resources to carry out that role in a manner that is usually efficient and effective.
      By knowing the roles and capabilities of their team members, everyone can hone their interactions with those around them to compliment each others capabilities... working as a team.

      And always remember.... In hostile territory or situations, avoid splitting the party for any but the most extreme situations.
    1. Olgar Shiverstone's Avatar
      Olgar Shiverstone -
      I have two words: LEEEEEEROY JEEENKINSSSS!!!!!
    1. Over the Hill Gamer's Avatar
      Over the Hill Gamer -
      As someone who has experience playing every edition of D&D and many other RPGs, I would argue with the premise that players were less tactical/strategic in the old days. Starting with later editions of D&D and quite frankly continuing to a lesser degree with 5e, players have many abilities, spells, feats, skills, etc. Tactics are more about which ability to dial up and coordinating one's various abilities with other players for maximum advantage. In earlier editions, tactics tended to be more about the situation, the terrain, and other factors. Why? Well simply put, you had fewer abilities in the old days and had to look for other ways around the problem. Another way of putting it, players now have more cool stuff to do than they did back in the old days. I think both new and old players think tactically and strategically but the focus is different.
    1. Shiroiken's Avatar
      Shiroiken -
      I'm pretty sure the author is referring to 3E as the "the old days," which totally throws off the rest of the article for anyone who started in AD&D or earlier.

      Most new players start with "kick in the door" tactics until they get their butt handed to them. Some never actually grow out of it (which is a failure on the DM's part, IMO), but most move on to actual planning and tactics. Even in 3E, the height of individualism, you were still more powerful when working with a strategy.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      There was always a mixture of play styles in my experience (all the way back to 1E). Smart players fought as a team and focused their fire. Showboat players fought as a group of individuals. Think of it like the difference between the Roman legion (all about the team) and the heroes in Homer's Illiad (all about the individual). Of course most people are a mixture of these types to some degree and games do need to take that into account. Most people who play want to feel like they contributed to the victory in an important way.

      I did notice that in 4E especially people would often make the "party of strikers" who maximized their individual DPR. This party works OK against certain kinds of foes but it's definitely a glass hammer.

      I've also played with less tactically savvy groups who don't do things like focus fire or else go for the most proximate target regardless of the tactical soundness of it. IMO it's challenging to run for those groups because they are often much weaker than you would suppose unless the group of players managed to coalesce on a powerful strategy somehow, in which case they became way more powerful all of a sudden. In short, they were very spotty. 4E did really encourage tactical play, almost to a miniatures game level, but IMO the more tactically interesting and potent character types often had the flaw of being boring to play. While the strikers took long turns and rolled buckets of dice, you'd sit there waiting and have to take solace in the fact that the super short thing you did was crucial for that to happen. Turn speed really matters, especially if you want to have characters with less damage-dealing abilities and more tactically important things like buffing or healing.
    1. Jester David's Avatar
      Jester David -
      I think tactics were always common in D&D, but the approach of the tactics differed.


      In the earlier editions of the game, the tactics were real world tactics: flanking and surprise. Focus fire and protect the spellcasters. The dialogue of planning the attack wouldn't vary much in-world as it does out.
      Later editions of D&D shift this, where the tactics much more become focused on the characters. The mechanics of the game and coordinated use of powers. The tactics of the characters are disconnected from the tactics of the players.
    1. Bill Reich's Avatar
      Bill Reich -
      My experience has been that the best tactics are an adaptable mix of the two extremes that you mention. Even if the rules or the level of experience that the party has means that the spell-casters can't be decisive, there is usually some effort to protect them. If missile weapons are not short-changed, as I think they were in early D&D, that gives another possible group that should be kept out of melee if possible. While hanging back and forming a defensive line may be optimal under some circumstances, advancing while keeping enough cohesion that no one should be able to get through you to the back ranks is often more effective or as effective and is more attractive to the melee fighters.

      The party I run for on Thursday night has five characters (not counting Fluffy the Forest Bison who just hauls their equipment around) When time and distance permit, they protect the one effective magician and the Hobbit on the crew-served crossbow by forming a front of three fighters and either standing their ground or moving forward in a coherent groups. One person can't reset the crew-served crossbow, so after shooting it, Hobson uses a sling.

      They avoid many hostile encounters by taking alternate routes and also by negotiating.


      -----------------------------------------------
      https://sites.google.com/site/grreference/
    1. Tony Vargas -
      I'm not sure if I'm agreeing or disagreeing, but I have seen the edition pendulum swing back and forth around tactical vs, say 'strategic' emphasis, though with subtle D&D-specific shades of meaning, there...

      The early, still close to it's wargaming roots, game (and, IMX, this was already a 'generation gap' issue when I started in 1980, obviously in the younger generation) had more tactics to engage in, while the treasure hunting aspect was more strategic, and 2e even had pretensions of storytelling. 2e C&T, 3e, & 4e got back to tactics, and 5e swung away again.

      However, like I said, subtle shading of meaning. By tactics, I mean the game gives you known quantities to work with - stats, combat options, turns, special abilities &c - that you strive to make best use of, cooperatively.
      Strategic is an even greater departure, in that I'm trying to get across the idea that you avoid well-defined areas, concentrating on engineering foregone conclusions, or at least 'unfair' advantages by leveraging the greyer areas in your favor...
    1. Mercule's Avatar
      Mercule -
      Quote Originally Posted by Shiroiken View Post
      I'm pretty sure the author is referring to 3E as the "the old days," which totally throws off the rest of the article for anyone who started in AD&D or earlier.
      I'm going to assume you're right, on this, because nothing else makes even marginal sense. To that I say, "3E is not the old days". It was, at best, the beginning of the modern era of D&D.

      On to the OP's article, though:

      If I understand correctly, the assertion is that having the fighters guard the wizards so that the wizards can bring their firepower to bear is the height of tactics in D&D. There might be some truth to that, in character. Out of character, when the game has a standard pattern, it shows a flaw in the design of the game. Trying to enshrine the results of that poor design as "good tactics" is a flaw of play.

      While there are, no doubt, certain party configurations that would be ineffective, a well designed game will allow the players great latitude in how they play. If you want a high-stealth group, then play one, but be aware that there are tactical choices that must be made. One of the most effective AD&D groups I ever DMed for had no real magic-user or cleric (some multi-class goodness that I don't fully recall). The ranger and thief were very good at sneaking past and flanking their enemies, then flushing them towards the fighters. Were there times that they were at a disadvantage because they lacked fireball or cure wounds? Oh, sure. There were also many times where they took down foes well above their weight class because they had their stuff in a pile and did a better job of scouting things out (and acting on the intel) than most wizards did, in practice.

      Somewhere along the way, D&D turned from a game where every class had something it could do and scarce resources were to be managed, not spent, into a game where many folks want to solve any problem of note with magic and, when the magic runs out, it's time to rest. To me, that's the opposite of tactics. It's a mindless rinse-and-repeat where neither the players nor the DM have to do much work. The players because they're going to kick in a door, shield wall, and nuke everything. The DM because all the carefully calculated encounter building tables assume that approach and deviation would wreak havoc upon the balance of the game.

      Now, I actually tend to think much of the problem is in the culture that was created during the 3E days where certain expectations were set. That's something that I'd expect to change (and think has) as those players shed some of that mindset. Just like some of the folks I played AD&D with, who would almost have to be told that their characters were getting tired and should probably rest, started to adapt to the 15-minute work day of 3E.

      So, assuming I understand the OP correctly, I'll agree that every player doing their own thing is bad tactics, but that's tautological. Is forming a shield-wall around the caster good tactics, though? If the answer is anything other than "sometimes", I'd say the poor decision making was in the selection of the game system.
    1. Henry's Avatar
      Henry -
      Quote Originally Posted by Shiroiken View Post
      I'm pretty sure the author is referring to 3E as the "the old days," which totally throws off the rest of the article for anyone who started in AD&D or earlier.

      Most new players start with "kick in the door" tactics until they get their butt handed to them. Some never actually grow out of it (which is a failure on the DM's part, IMO), but most move on to actual planning and tactics. Even in 3E, the height of individualism, you were still more powerful when working with a strategy.
      If Lew Pulsipher is the original contributor via Christopher Helton, then he very much knows of "the old days" as OD&D and AD&D, as he wrote one of the first strategy articles in Dragon Magazine, "Be Aware, Take Care":

      https://boardgamegeek.com/rpgissuear...ware-take-care

      ...hence my confusion at which stance was being taken by Dr. Pulsipher, exactly. This was one of my favorite articles in Dragon Magazine, EVER, and the article that introduced me to his writing. He talks about security precautions in camp, interrogation techniques for untrustworthy NPCs, strategy between party members, even checking coins in hoards for numismatic value (though i've never quite had to be that paranoid.

      Quote Originally Posted by 1983 Be Aware Take Care Article View Post
      Think defensively. As long as you stay alive you can "win" in the long run. In a choice between firepower and protection, lean toward the latter. Sure, the best defense is a good offense, but all the big-hilting spells in the world are no good if the enemy incapacitates you with his first attack because you lacked protection. In an AD&D® game, for example, I like to have two or three dispel magic spells in a powerful party, in case one of the spell casters is charmed, possessed, or otherwise magically incapacitated. A dispel magic can be worth a lot more than a fire-ball or lightning bolt. You can always run away as long as all members of your party retain free will and free movement.
      That is NOT 3e late-era philosophy. Heck, it's not even modern Char-Op philosophy.
    1. Mercule's Avatar
      Mercule -
      Quote Originally Posted by Henry View Post
      If Lew Pulsipher is the original contributor via Christopher Helton, then he very much knows of "the old days" as OD&D and AD&D, as he wrote one of the first strategy articles in Dragon Magazine, "Be Aware, Take Care":

      https://boardgamegeek.com/rpgissuear...ware-take-care
      This is exactly the article that doesn't to my mind. I couldn't have named the author, but I definitely remember the article, and still have a copy.
    1. Tony Vargas -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mercule View Post
      . If you want a high-stealth group, then play one, but be aware that there are tactical choices that must be made.
      There are also system artifacts to be confronted. Move silently & hide in shadows were pretty poor at low levels, failing either could be a problem, and only a few classes had them. In d20, even when consolidated into one stealth skill, contested checks made sneaking a party past anything a bad bet. Group checks finally improved on that, but they're relatively new.

      One of the most effective AD&D groups I ever DMed for had no real magic-user or cleric (some multi-class goodness that I don't fully recall).
      plenty real through 5th or even 11th level.
      The ranger and thief were very good at sneaking past and flanking their enemies, then flushing them towards the fighters.
      I don't doubt your anecdote, but I suspect it involved variants on the 1e rules or DM judgement...

      Now, I actually tend to think much of the problem is in the culture that was created during the 3E days where certain expectations were set. That's something that I'd expect to change (and think has) as those players shed some of that mindset.
      Many of those players jumped to PF in 2009, in part so they wouldn't have to shed that mindset.
    1. Jacob Lewis's Avatar
      Jacob Lewis -
      I just want to point out that the author used a real sports antecdote with real sports terminology to a bunch of D&D nerds, and no one even batted an eye. Maybe because none of us basement-dwelling, jock-strap fearing, asthma-suffering geeks understood a word he said? Go sports!
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Hey, we're about two weeks away from pre-season. Go Foobaw!!!!

      I think one of the bigger differences between older and newer versions of D&D is the shift from logistical strategies to tactical level ones. In AD&D, you could pretty easily lose equipment, for example, so, it made a great deal of sense to bring back ups. A single failed save and you could need new armor and weapons. In latter era D&D, this went away. It's pretty hard to lose equipment now and has been for quite a while. So, you don't really need a back up weapon since you're always going to have that weapon and you can build your character around that weapon.

      OTOH, tactical level decisions are more common now. In AD&D, shooting into melee, for example, was a random thing. You couldn't really aim. So, your choices got limited rather strongly. Shooting into melee was a BAD idea. So, generally, players didn't do it. Melee fighting started up, you dropped your bow and went wading in. Now, you can pick and choose your targets, possibly without any penalties at all. There's no reason to switch out weapons, and you make your tactical choices accordingly.

      Or, take spells. Area of effect spells like fireball were extremely difficult to pull off. The blow back wiping out the party was very much a thing and a player that toasts his party generally got pelted with dice. Now, you have a battlemap (usually) and spells become exacting. You have the option of using pretty much any spell you want to use whenever you want to use it. Plus, you simply have FAR more spells to use in a given day. Particularly in 3e where you had cheap scrolls.

      Add to this the mechanical changes - forced movement, grappling, disarming, that sort of thing. Yes, I know that AD&D had grappling, but, let's be honest here, it was far more of a PITA than it was worth. So, not many people did it. Now, a grapple focused character is pretty easy to use and is quite effective. Thus, more tactical level choices.

      Note, I'm not saying one is better than the other. But, I do agree (SHOCK!) with @lewpuls here in that there has been a pretty strong shift in D&D towards a different approach to combat.
    1. Bill Reich's Avatar
      Bill Reich -
      The scouting game can be very important in ones tactics. The obstacle to using scouting and stealth effectively is that stealth is not multiplied and having the whole group move with the scout makes the whole thing rather pointless. Having the one or two characters best suited to the environment scouting ahead leads to a non-tactical problem. Players sometimes resent doing nothing for several minutes so you have to compromise between really good scouting/stealth rules and some time limit. My Thursday group is extremely tolerant and they really want the advantage that good scouting can provide. So, they will let their point and slack and I work out what happens but I try not to abuse their tolerance.

      ---
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