Situational Tactics and Role-Playing Games

Chess Tactics Discovered Check

Recommended Tactic: Do Not Allow This To Happen.

“So… I’ve got two mutually-supporting castles and a small force of knights and some peasant militia to protect the royal court from a similar force? Man the castles, put the court in keep in the strongest castle, prepare to fire from the walls, and reserve the knights to sally out and break the siege while we await reinforcements!”

“For the last time George! The game is Chess, it does NOT work that way, and demanding that the rules be changed to accommodate YOUR desire for what you call “realism” is about the most UNREALISTIC thing that I’ve ever heard of!”

One of the most basic rules of tactics is that you have to adapt them to the situation – and, in a role playing game, the rules are a big part of the situation, even if they are usually a bit less abstract than the rules of chess.

Consider d20. It…

  • Is designed to promote dramatic and exciting battles, and so makes it very difficult to one-shot anyone of a roughly similar power level without using carefully-set up limited-use effects – which breaks tactics based on the lethality of real-world injuries and weapons.
  • Uses turn-based combat time, rather than simultaneous actions, to make it easier to run and play and to ensure “fairness” about who gets to do something – which breaks most real-world notions about “covering fire” and tactical movement.
  • Has magic because people like magic and characters with fabulous abilities – which breaks pretty much EVERY real-world assumption about fortification, the advantages of being on the defensive, and information security.
  • Gives similar creatures – say a first level commoner and a tenth level character with a reasonable build – radically different abilities. Otherwise, how can you play a mighty hero? Of course, if you give fifty first-level commoners equivalent armor and weapons, and send them up against a tenth level character with thirty seconds warning… other factors being equal, the tenth level guy will soon have a heap of new armor, weapons, and (if he chooses to be merciful and has the abilities to capture without killing) prisoners. That breaks most tactics based on deploying groups, along with most assumptions about military training and concentrating force.
  • Says that effective combatants may not even need armor, weapons, or supplies – breaking most real-world assumptions about disarming prisoners and logistics.

And so on.

For better or for worse, a great many other role-playing games use similar – or even LESS “realistic” – assumptions, making the characters impossibly skilled, tough, and central to events. Yes, they’re simulations – but they’re usually not simulations of the real world. They’re simulations of a fantastic cinematic reality full of epic heroes, mighty magics, and literary conventions. They’re designed for fun, not for historical accuracy.

Yes there ARE plenty of tactical options and strategies in d20 and in other role playing games – but they rarely look much like anything that would work in the real world. Good tactics in role playing games depend very heavily on the exact rules in use, what the game master approves of, the situation (which is likely to be laughably weird by real-world standards), how persuasive and friendly the player proposing those tactics is, and on whether or not the other players go along with them.

Serious tactical studies for role-playing games are rare to unheard of – and that’s a good thing. It’s a LOT more fun to try to figure out an applicable tactic than it is to quote a tactical study and precedent. You doubt that? Look at serious chess, where the first twenty moves are often straight out of books. Somehow… memories of old chess games rarely become stories that get trotted out years later to tell to friends.

So when your local military-history buff tries to drag real-world tactics into a game – and then gets upset when they don’t work – no, he or she does not have a reasonable cause for being upset or for complaining about the game system. Even if the character has tactical skills (in which case the game master should provide some advice on tactics that will actually work in the game) trying to drag real-world tactics in is just as much cheating as trying to have your spear-wielding stone age tribesman character using your real-world electronics expertise to repair a crash-landed alien spacecraft. Behavior like that should NOT be rewarded.

Fortunately, there’s rarely any need to intentionally frustrate players who try this sort of thing. Since the tactics they’re trying to use probably will not work in the game it’s not ONLY cheating, but it’s STUPID cheating that generally doesn’t work.

Yes, every adventurer should develop some basic tactical notions – but they should be lessons learned from their experiences about things that actually work in the setting, not from reality.

After all, “reality” is what we’re playing these games to get away from.