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. mflayermonk -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jacob Lewis View Post
      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!
      I don't know exactly how Lew formed the analogy, but there is a reasonable chance he read the Michael Lewis story in the NY Times about Texas Tech and the rise of the passing offense and The Blind Side about why the Left Tackle became the second highest paid position in football (because so many plays are passing).
    1. shidaku's Avatar
      shidaku -
      Tactics are entirely a matter of campaign and personal preference. You can't be a tactical party if your DM is not playing the enemies tactically, for example. I don't know if people were more tactical in the "old days" or not, but my general experience if that how tactically your play is based heavily on how the players like to play, and the level of tacticality(?) imposed upon them by the DM.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      And, there is also the mechanical aspects of tactics as well.

      Imagine a 20x20 room, one fighter, one orc. Now, how much tactics will you actually have? Well, it depends on edition.

      In AD&D, you have pretty much no tactics. Move up, and pelt the orc with dice until it dies. That's about the long and the short of it. There's pretty much no decision points to be made here.

      In 3e and onwards, the game changes pretty significantly. You now have numerous, mechanically supported choices to be made. Keeping with 5e, your fighter could Action Surge, Second Wind, Push, Trip, Dodge, and/or straight up attack. A Battlemaster fighter gains at least 4 more options with his Maneuvers.

      Add in an ally for our fighter and the choices explode. Maybe the fighter has Defender as his specialization, meaning he's going to want to stay within 5 feet of an ally to provide cover. Maybe the fighter Battlemaster has Commander's Strike, meaning he gives up an attack to allow an ally to attack with damage bonuses (handy if your ally is a rogue with sneak attack). IOW, even with a very simple set up - 1 orc and 2 allied PC's, (and pick a different monster if you don't like orcs) - you have several choice options every single attack.

      The tactical level of D&D has exploded since 3e. AD&D simply never supported that level of tactical choice. Which has led to a very different game in play.
    1. Jhaelen -
      In our games we've often found the saying that 'no battle plan survives contact with the enemy' to be true.

      Also, my players would often discuss strategies endlessly until one of them got fed up and just charged the enemy to stop it and get back into the action.
      A particularly memorable occasion involved the party's paladin storming a castle garrisoned by a bunch of giants and being brought down in a hail of hurled rocks.

      Hence the running gag in our group of shouting: "Storm the castle!" whenever a fight starts :-)
    1. Johnny3D3D -
      I prefer a more balanced playbook. I think both types of plays are equally valid, but how well they work depends upon the game's situation. With that in mind, I prefer allies and fellow players who can fit roles which work well in a variety of situations. The fullback who can catch the occasional pass and the quarterback who can manage to scramble for a few yards while under pressure are what I value.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      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.
      The sports analogy is lost on me, but I don't see how fighters holding the line while MUs blow things up or charm them is more "war like" and less "sports like" than the fighters engaging directly.

      As far as I'm aware, the whole "combat as sport"/"combat as war" terminology was coined in the context of 4e, which is all about an integrated "combined arms" approach rather than "hacking the enemy down in pools of blood".

      The idea of "loss on one's side" is also weird in this context: from the point of view of resource management, it's no more efficient to spend MU spells blowing things up then it is to spend healing spells restoring hit points lost by a fighter who engaged the enemy directly in melee. (And this comparison extends to other contexts, like charges from blast-y wands or curing wands.)
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      I am another who would disagree with the first statement. In AD&D my groups were way more focused on tactics than later editions, mostly for the reasons already outlined above.

      I do think there is a discussion to be had regarding the impact different game systems/mechanics have on tactical choices, but I think this brief article misses that mark.
    1. Wrathamon -
      Quote Originally Posted by Henry View Post
      (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.
      I never really connected the dots, but we did way more non-adventurous money making schemes in 1e as a kid then I have done since. I dont think we did it to level up faster or anything but it just connected for us.

      I think this is missing with today's game. I am in a game right now where I'm playing more like I did as a kid. But, I'm not really rewarded for it other than fun... the gold doesn't matter, as it's a plot driven sandbox opposed to a open-ended sandbox. There is a clear victory condition in the plot but how we get there is up to us.

      anyways, just wanted to thank Henry for this, as it clicked with me.

      - W
    1. Wrathamon -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jester David View Post
      I think tactics were always common in D&D, but the approach of the tactics differed.
      THIS

      Every edition has various strategies and tactics that evolve to "win, "succeed" or "survive" most effectively.

      Players figure it out.
    1. Derren's Avatar
      Derren -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mercule View Post
      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.
      That is not the opposite of tactics, that's strategy.
      Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.

      If you are in complete control over when fights happen, you are under no pressure to advance and your best weapons refresh every day then the 15 minute work day is the most sensible thing to do. And instead of expecting the players to behave recklessly or stupid the DM should instead look at his adventure and ask himself why he made this tactic possible at all.
    1. Tony Vargas -
      Quote Originally Posted by Wrathamon View Post
      Every edition has various strategies and tactics that evolve to "win, "succeed" or "survive" most effectively.

      Players figure it out.
      True. Some are the game modeling strategies & tactics from history or genre, others are the players developing tactics & strategies to deal with system artifacts....


      In the earlier editions of the game, the tactics were real world tactics: flanking and surprise. Focus fire and protect the spellcasters.
      Wow. I missed were 'protect the spellcasters' was a real-world tactic.

      Seriously, though, it was pretty abstract back then, and a mixed bag. Focus fire was, IMX, less a thing back then, not because it wasn't effective, but because it wasn't ubiquitous. Enough of us were still clueless enough to think that leaving an enemy un-engaged was somehow bad (because, "IRL Tactics" it probably would be). The effectiveness of focus fire is an artifact of hp abstraction and not realistic-tactics, at all. Realistically, merely wounding enemies is enough - in fact, depending on the nature of the foe (human nature, IRL cases), it can be better, because you stop the wounded enemy, and tie up the buddies dragging him back and stress the resources used to care for him.

      Flanking didn't do much - denied a shields +1 AC vs one of the two attackers. Surprise was a very real advantage, but very random, even if you tried to achieve it, it was a crapshoot (it even involved two 6-sided dice, so very much like a crapshoot).

      The dialogue of planning the attack wouldn't vary much in-world as it does out.
      Sure, in-world characters would /totally/ discuss rounds, hit point totals, AC, initiative...

      Later editions of D&D shift this, where the tactics much more become focused on the characters.
      Well, starting with 2e, there was a more to the characters, so that's not a terrible thing, IMHO. The point of Roleplaying /is/ assuming the character, the more the game can model the abilities of the character, not rely on those of the player, the better it facilitates assuming the character's role. That's something that D&D steadily improved through the editions. And, even though 5e's slow pace of release has the damper on that, eventually it'll probably deliver that way, too.

      The mechanics of the game and coordinated use of powers. The tactics of the characters are disconnected from the tactics of the players.
      It's hard to get more disconnected from what the characters are doing than casting a completely imaginary spell (for 18 seconds, while someone tries to stab you /once/, once in 18 seconds, while you're obliged to stand on the spot, erect, waving your hands in prescribed patterns and speaking very precise phrases...), or spend a whole minute to make one attack roll. Let alone fall 100' and walk away from it without a broken anything.
      D&D was always very, very abstract. There was no seismic shift away from tactics over the decades. (That we're today getting Advantage for good tactics instead of consulting tables of modifiers notwithstanding.)
      We just grew up, got some rose-colored glasses, and started posting about the good ol' days, on line.
      Instead of only annoying anyone on the porch with us, we can be a nuisance to fellow gamers all over the world.
      Ain't technology grand?
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      I'm kinda confused here.

      What tactics are viable in AD&D that don't exist in other editions? If you're a fighter type in AD&D, in combat you have pretty much only have the choice of attacking monster A or B. Flanking? So few monsters actually used a shield and none of them had Dex bonuses, so, flanking was largely pointless.

      Compare to the shopping list of tactical choices a later era D&D fighter has in combat, I'm really confused as to how someone can claim that tactics were even remotely supported in AD&D.
    1. Ninja-radish's Avatar
      Ninja-radish -
      The comparisons in this article are flawed. Whether you run the ball or pass it, football is still the ultimate team sport. If you're going to compare football to an edition of D&D, it would be 4E, because everything in that system encouraged teamwork.

      The "individual showboating" you mentioned is more like basketball. I'm not hating on basketball, I quite enjoy the sport, but there are alot of "iso ball" type players who don't pass or rely on their teammates in any way and just hog the ball and take all the shots. To me, that style is like 3E, and I see that style of play in 5E alot as well.
    1. Tony Vargas -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      What tactics are viable in AD&D that don't exist in other editions?
      Subduing a very young dragon, building up it's loyalty base until it's fanatically loyal to you, then casting Haste on it until it reaches the Ancient category?
    1. Flexor the Mighty! -
      Tactics are more than just "do I use my kung-fu grip feat here". How you approach an encounter, plan for other eventualities, larger strategies, etc. Is 5e less tactical in that regard than 1e? Not really, but I think early on in the D&D life there was more a wargamers approach to the game vs the "I have story to tell" approach more common today. Players tended to approach the game more tactically, IME, YMMV, etc.
    1. lewpuls's Avatar
      lewpuls -
      Thank you for the interesting comments. Evidently I have failed to communicate (I think I cut out part of a sentence to lower the word count), which would be a cardinal sin for a tactical group. We selected spells collectively rather than simply assume a cleric was a healer, for example. (Yes, I did write "Be Aware and Take Care".)


      Shiroiken, the Old Days are the old books and Grayhawk, and 1e D&D, not 3e. To me, 3e is fairly recent.


      I think there were more players who played sound tactically in those old days than now. But there has always been a *majority* of players who barely think about what they're doing and charge forward. A far larger proportion of players then were wargamers, than now, and that had a lot to do with greater occurrence of sound tactical play despite the majority hack n slashers.


      A player in my campaign in the later 80s that you may have heard of from his blog, Rick Stump, remarked after he moved away that he almost never played a game with people who ran away, or took prisoners - until he exerted his influence of course. Even then, if your GM never let a prisoner give useful information, you would stop taking prisoners.


      Nowadays a great many players expect the GM to take care of them (as video games hold players' hands), and it wouldn't occur to them that they need to play well tactically (or in any other way) in order to stay alive.


      (Stealth could be used in 1e, but stealth via magic item, not via thief capabilities. Elven boots and invisibility rings were far better than thief abilities even at quite high levels.


      Nope, never read the Michael Lewis story. Though I am a Panthers fan, where Oher ended up (but is now seriously concussed and likely will not play again).)
    1. Derren's Avatar
      Derren -
      Quote Originally Posted by Flexor the Mighty! View Post
      How you approach an encounter, plan for other eventualities, larger strategies, etc.
      Thats strategy, not tactics. And yes 5E is a lot less strategic than most previous editions (only 4E had even less).
      After 3E WotC tried to minimize the importance of strategy to the point when they tried to get rid of most strategic options with their combat as sports aporoach.
    1. jasper's Avatar
      jasper -
      To the OP, I just think your xp and my xp are totally different. In all editions I played, it depended on the group (grunts/jock vs. admin/drama club) on how tactics played out. Often times the player who could talk to both sides decided on how tactical the group was (aka Rick). I am currently Dming Adventure League weekly at a game store. I have discovered by swapping out the Ricks tactics change.
      Now some of fine details have changed between editions. 1E AC from behind, AC, AC with shield to 5E just the AC mama. But that has not change how the tactics go down.
    1. aramis erak's Avatar
      aramis erak -
      Quote Originally Posted by shidaku View Post
      I don't know if people were more tactical in the "old days" or not,[...]
      Looking at 1976 photos of convention play
      D&D - several tables shown using miniatures on gridded 3D surfaces.
      EPT - "Phil" Barker shown running it with extensive 3d play surfaces
      T&T - No maps in sight; some maps from adventures survive. (Rules do not support gridded play at all until 1979, and it's not accepted as a standard mode of play until 2015...)
      Met-Alpha - no photos that I've seen of play-in-progress.

      Now, several old salts claim that it was all Theater of the Mind, but the photographic evidence includes visual evidence of minis-on-grid play. The split between the two styles is not a clear one, tho', and many tables used then and still use now both modes, and modes between the two - except for T&T (but T&T was always written for a nearly pure TOTM mode).

      Later convention photos indicate a continued mix of modes.
    1. Tony Vargas -
      Quote Originally Posted by aramis erak View Post
      Looking at 1976 photos of convention play
      D&D - several tables shown using miniatures on gridded 3D surfaces.
      ...
      Later convention photos indicate a continued mix of modes.
      So... it's not hard to post photos...
    Comments Leave Comment