Asymmetrical Tactical Roles: Players vs GMs

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
I was watching the most recent MCDM/Matt Coville video about their nee game, and during the discussion of the value of tactical options, something occurred to me: in traditional RPGs with a strong tactical element (like D&D, but others too) there is an inherent asymmetry in those tactical contests. While the number of combatants on either side might be equal or even in the GM's favor, the number of minds at work is solidly, explicitly in the favor of the players.

This is as opposed to a traditional war game, where players are expected to be on even footing in that regard.

Now, in RPGs I think it is broadly accepted that the PCs should have an advantage since they are the protagonists, and this inherent asymmetry actually helps with that.

However, I am curious what others think of the tactical asymmetry of such games. Specifically, what are the fun and interesting mitigating factors when the intent is to create a more even contest where te PCs feel like they have a potential to lose? D&D usually does thisvthrough some form of difficulty scaling, but are there other options?

What do you think? Does tactical asymmetry figure into your playstyle or system preferences?
 

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Thomas Shey

Legend
I agree with your general premise, but I do think you have to factor in the fact that the GM has at least two advantages:

1. While he's only got one mind, he also knows the PCs as a gestalt more than they're going to routinely know the opposition, even if they're cookie-cutter opponents (i.e. right out of the book).

2. There's also an advantage of only having one mind, unless the player group is very well coordinated. He doesn't have to guess what the other characters will do on their turns.

Now, you can argue both these are utilizing knowledge that's unrealistic when playing the NPCs, but its at best going to be hard to compartmentalize while running a combat, and I doubt many GM's even try. At best they'll try to ignore some idiosyncratic option they happen to know a PC has that someone couldn't guess from their apparent class or prior knowledge about the PCs.
 

loverdrive

Prophet of the profane (She/Her)
I would argue GM being just one person has a distinct advantage in centralized control, because they can make plans and deliberately create a favorable situation for unit A with unit B without revealing any of it out loud.

I've played a lot of paired Warhammer 40k tournaments where two people basically control one half of the army, and every team that actually wanted to win was, like, "real player and another person who gave them the army".
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
In the group I used to play with, it was a table rule that the DM could use metagame knowledge of the characters in combat to balance out the fact that they had a tactical disadvantage against five or six players.

So in other words, the DM would have enemies target weak saving throws, low AC, characters with few remaining hit points, etc, without needing to justify it in the fiction. On the other hand, players were free to plan together and advise each other tactically, without their characters having to roleplay it out.

This was during a long 4e game, and this agreement really helped the combats be tactically interesting.
 

aco175

Legend
I would say that most of it depends on the DM. I try to play monsters according to their type and INT. A zombie will likely just attack the closest PC and not have much tactics like thinking to not move and block the hall so the other PCs cannot get in. A wolf might stick around for only one round if it does not get the easy hit or knock down. A super-genius lich allows me to use all the knowledge and meta everything. I allow this mostly since I am not that smart and cannot think of all the options that the lich could. I guess I could make this meta knowledge a power by allowing the lich to just add 1d4 or 1d6 to all their rolls or such, but it seems to be fine the way it is.

I also place options for the players to notice and then use. I had this large fight with these large mirrors that allowed you to teleport in one mirror and come out in another one. There was no way for the players to know this until I had one of the bad guys use it to charge out on the side of the PCs. Of course, the bad guy had the amulet that allowed him to choose which one to come out and the PCs had a random one until they noticed the amulets.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
However, I am curious what others think of the tactical asymmetry of such games. Specifically, what are the fun and interesting mitigating factors when the intent is to create a more even contest where te PCs feel like they have a potential to lose?

So, I think you hit an important point here, but maybe it wasn't intentional, so I want to emphasize it:

The intent is to create a more even contest. Not specifically a more even tactical contest. And perhaps contest isn't even the correct word - maybe challenge would be better.

To wit: We note the asymmetry in tactical roles, but that is merely a subset of asymmetry in overall roles in play. While there are some various approaches by playstyle, generally and broadly, the GM is not at the table to be tactically challenged. Their role is to provide tactical challenges to the players.

D&D usually does thisvthrough some form of difficulty scaling, but are there other options?

Once you accept the overall role asymmetry, yes. As others have mentioned, there's information asymmetry - The GM knows the PCs and their strengths and weaknesses and can use that information. Similarly, there's resource asymmetry - the PCs have some limited resources, but the GM does not. If applied in planning stages the resource difference is merely part of difficulty scaling, but if applied at runtime it becomes an entirely different tool.
 
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payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
I’ve gotten back into Battletech which is a mech wargame. I’m not entirely convinced opponents are ever even footed, but agree with the premise that it is a goal by game rules. My sessions are 90% tactical battle.

I really don’t want that in my TTRPGs. In fact I’m happy with the opposite in 90% exploration and social. I prefer to dial back tactics and focus more on strategic play. I want fast and exciting combats not tactical puzzles to drag through. This explains why I didn’t take to 4E/PF2. So, the PCs having an upper hand is a feature.

Thinking further on wargaming, in BT I often run inner sphere against Clan. Translated I often have a technology and firepower disadvantage going in. However, I routinely win matches due to better tactical use of terrain and units. So an upper hand isnt always decisive in play which is another point in the TTRPG favor in my opinion.
 

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