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.


6 Responses

  1. Cheating? Seriously? If expecting a castle’s walls and moat to inconvenience a charge of knights is considered cheating then I’m glad I’m not participating in any games of yours.

    • Since that’s an example from someone playing Chess, you’re actually half right; that’s more “idiocy” than “cheating” – which is why the cheating reference is in a later paragraph and is talking about something else. Personally, I’d recommend that you look up “Chess”. A hint; it is not a role-playing game nor a “realistic” battle simulation.

      Now, if you’re playing a game where your charge of knights happens to be immaterial flying things… than yes indeed, demanding that a castle’s walls and moats inconvenience their movement because it would inconvenience real knights is cheating. So is demanding that those same walls and moats inhibit the passage of a modern fighter jet at ten thousand feet over an area – or that flamethrowers be effective weapons against a submarine a hundred feet below the oceans surface.

      You may be an expert air fighter pilot – but trying to use that expertise on behalf of your young, space-based, hydroponics apprentice character who does not have it is indeed cheating.

      It becomes stupid cheating when you try to insist that your target cannot simply turn on it’s axis and “fly backwards” while shooting at your ship because an air fighter cannot do that – when a ship traveling in a vacuum certainly can.

      Still, if you can’t see the problems there, you’re probably not going to do well in most games.

      • That’s not “dragging real world tactics into the game”. That’s refusing to acknowledge a completely different set of physics. It’s like insisting that jet fighters can’t cross certain parts of the field because the PCs seeded that hill will claymore mines. The “tactic” of deploying mines is not cheating. Failure to adapt that tactic to magically airborne targets is foolhardy and the PCs deserve to get their butts kicked if they fail to provide for airpower be it conventional or magical. But it only becomes “cheating” when the PCs deploy the mines on the hill but later lie about deploying them to the valley instead.

      • Such as wanting to move your king and queen inside your castle (or rook) in a chess game? That was the initial example of dragging real-world tactics into a game that you complained about. To quote:

        “Cheating? Seriously? If expecting a castle’s walls and moat to inconvenience a charge of knights is considered cheating then I’m glad I’m not participating in any games of yours.”

        Attempting to use resources in a game which you do not have is cheating. Announcing that you’re taking out the enemy formation with your rocket launcher/fireball wand when you do not have one is obviously cheating – and so is having your character use contacts, money, influence, or information that they do not have.

        Now, to use a common example, players who have recently watched movies about snipers often try to make dedicated sniper characters in d20. That’s fine. The ones who then try to claim that they can instantly kill their targets with head shots and that they can pin down groups of high-level opponents with their crossbows – are cheating.

        Why are they cheating? Because d20 worlds are worlds of Hit Points. Injury and death in d20 are nothing like they are in reality. They’re cheating in trying to bypass the game rules by claiming instant-kill “head shots” – and they’re cheating (albeit subtly) in trying to have their characters use a real-world tactic that their character would not be familiar with because it does not work in the setting. In d20 you can’t really “pin down” a high level target with a crossbow; they’re quite capable of simply absorbing several shots while doing what they want to. What the player is really hoping for is that the game master will be distracted enough to let it work despite the fact that it shouldn’t.

        What I suspect you are missing is simply that game-world tactics cover everything that actually works in a setting. Real-world tactics are stuff that works in the real world but does not work in the setting. Trying to have characters in the game world use real-world tactics is always cheating whether it’s the players or the game master doing it because it’s a tactic directed at the people playing the game rather than something which would reasonably happen with the setting. It’s rather like announcing that your character is, after years of loyally working with another character, backstabbing the other character because you had an argument with the player the day before the game.

  2. So how would the above article relate to the debate regarding Combat as Sport vs. Combat as War? (I’d link to the original post on EN World, but they’re down right now.)

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