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