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Elements of Tactics

by Brian Gleichman
Nov 01,2002


Elements of Tactics

As many know, RPGs had their beginnings in the miniature wargaming hobby. The first systems were extensions of many of the same concepts and were highly tactical games in their own right.

The old wargame empires (SPI, Avalon Hill, etc) all but died and those that survived to a noticeable extent (GW) did so by moving to extremely simple rules in order to appeal to the widest possible user base. RPGs (with the exception of D&D) followed the same course with "Story" and simple mechanics becoming more and more commonplace and rules taking an ever decreasing importance. Entire game lines became based on such mechanically shoddy grounds as a core dice mechanic that increased your fumble chances the more skilled your character became. It seemed that few noticed and even fewer cared. It almost looks like the need for solid, let alone tactical, game systems were a thing of the past.

However much of that appearance is illusion. D&D always remained at the top of the market and new games designs are once again returning to more traditional styles at least in part. The interest in tactical games actually is as strong as ever.

A couple of the newest entries into "tactical rpgs" are Riddle of Steel and Rune. Both games that market themselves in part on their combat systems. A welcome change of pace for old timers like myself, but are they actually tactical games? What does one look for? How can a system design be optimize for it? How do we judge a system's suitability for tactical play in an era where nearly everything the old wargame designers learned has been forgotten? We need some standards, or at least some concepts to used in our judgment.

I'd like to take a stab at it by defining three major elements of tactical game design, one characteristic, and one thing it is not- in that order.

Element 1: Resource Management

One of the bedrock concepts of tactical play is to make the most gain with the least expenditure. After all, if you have unlimited resources and no reason to avoid using them- you can do anything. Being able to do anything without thought hardly makes for good tactical play.

The exact nature of resources can vary greatly in rpg design. The number of spells you can cast in a day. The amount of ammo you can carry. The number of Hit Points you have and the number of healing potions you have to restore them. At the most basic, there's the number of characters in play and the number of actions each can take in a turn.

D&D has always been a masterful example of a game design heavily built on resource management- limited charges on items, limited number of potions, only so many pre-selected spells per day, etc. D&D forces its players to decide how to best spend resources at almost every turn.

As a general rule, increasing the number and types of resources you need to manage increases the tactical play of the game.

Element 2: Dissimilar Assets

To study tactical battle one must study combine arms. And combine arms is nothing but the use of Dissimilar Assets to achieve a goal.

To use a modern warfare as a model: Artillery is powerful and long ranged- but vulnerability to almost any attack. Armor combines protection, firepower and mobility into one powerful package- but even so encounters major problems in certain infantry defended terrain. Infantry is slow and light on weapons- but can make maximum use of terrain. Name an asset and you name both strength and weakness in a single word.

Combining Dissimilar Assets into a functional and dangerous whole takes skill and knowledge. Failure to do so (like France's failure in WWII) can be disastrous in the extreme.

Early game designs had Dissimilar Assets as a core feature. D&D with its classes- Wizards are very different than Fighters who in turn are used differently than Clerics. Even later games still maintain this to some extent. Vampire has its clans. Deadlands its gunslingers, hucksters, and blessed. These games are designed such that each character becomes its own niche, its own type of Dissimilar Asset that enhances tactical play when viewed within its own group of player characters.

Other games however consider such stark limits as unrealistic and seek to reduce all the characters to common terms. Even D&D weakened its class structure in its latest version although it still remains strong enough to function as a tactical enhancement.

As a system weakens character niche, it reduces tactical play. Universal Resolution systems, lack of character differences, sole dominating weapon selections, all these things can combine to create a tactically bland experience where the answer to any problem is obvious and unchanging. Even though such reduction is often done from the standpoint of realism, a simple look at real world combat would show that it is in fact a failure from even that perspective- there are no single dominate weapon, no one solution to every threat, no single plan that ever survives contact with a foe.

Element 3: Maneuver

Managing resources is the bedrock of tactical play. Controlling Dissimilar Assets each with their own resources is the first step to being a tactician instead of an accountant. It is however with Maneuver that one masters the subject. Sadly, it is in Maneuver that most rpg design perform worse.

At its most basic, Maneuver is getting the right resources into the right position at the right time in order to maximize your chance of success while protecting against the same from your opponent.

Of course for Maneuver to matter, you have to be able to maneuver. Many designs forgo the use of a map completely and either ignore movement or abstract it out of the realm of character decision. In so doing, the remove this element of tactics completely from their design.

A design that focuses on tactical movement will likely include rules for facing (and flank and rear attacks), multiple opponent rules, the effects of range, the impact of terrain and other factors that can (when properly used) allow a force to defeat unskillfully played opponents with greater resources.

Characteristic: Pace of Decision

The three elements above, added to the rule system in use determine something I call "Pace of Decision". Pace of Decision is at its most simple how fast can the player lose. It's a measure of the importance of each individual decision and movement.

While a number of factors determine a game's Pace of Decision, how lethal a system is may be the most important. For example: D&D provides Resource Management by having Hit Points. However these same Hit Points reduce the game's Pace of Decision since they act as a buffer to bad tactical choices. You can lose a few hit points by moving to an inferior position, but it's easy enough to move again afterwards and use a healing spell or potion and thus carry on the battle. In other games, that single bad decision could result in a disabled or dead character. Hence the Pace of Decision can be said to be Low (D&D like systems where many hits are needed to kill) or High (one hit means a dead character).

If Pace of Decision is too low, any tactical error of Maneuver or even Dissimilar Asset can be forgiven since its impact is minor at best. The winner is almost solely determined by who had the greater resources. On the other hand if it is too high, the battle is over before it started with initial deployment likely determining the winner.

The ideal position between these two extremes is one of personal taste. Indeed, what combination of the three elements above and how that works with the system's resulting Pace of Decision is a question that can only be answered by each individual. Everyone has his or her own tastes and the possible range of answers here is immense. And this explains more than anything else, why there is room for more tactical games.

A non-element

Something this isn't a true Element of Tactics needs special note because (all too sadly) it is what some people think of when you say the words Tactical Play.

Rock-Scissors-Paper (RSP) is not tactical game design. RSP design is the use of options that have provided little or no in-game reason for the selection of one over the other.

Riddle of Steel for example requires players to drop either a red or white die to determine if they are attacking or defending.

Top Secret used a combat maneuver matrix (low kick vs. high block for example) where the result mattered- but the player could only base his decision upon what maneuver he (the player, not his character) thought the opposing player (and again not his character), would select.

There is a certain skill in using such mechanics, same as bluffing and mind games are part of poker or chess. However this is playing at the meta-game level and isn't really part of the game design itself. Chess for example includes no rules for psyching out the other player, nor does poker include mechanic rules determining when to bluff.

In addition to that fact that this type of mechanic is playing at the meta-game (using information not available to the character, such as "Joe tends to drop red")- it often completely overshadows the real game's tactical elements detailed above, thus reducing skill at the game itself to a sideshow.

The actual effect is to remove a key determing factor of play outside the game. A worthwhile goal sometimes- but not something that should be seen as tactical game design.

Tactical Elements in Combinaton

Each of the three elements and one characteristic I noted above combine to produce the final tactical favor of a game system. D&D has high Resource Management and Dissimilar Assets together with rather low Maneuver and Pace of Decision. A combination that produces a style and result that is famous or infamous depending upon one's viewpoint.

Age of Heroes on the other hand has very high Pace of Decision and Maneuver, medium Dissimilar Assets, and comparatively low Resource Management. As a result it plays very differently from D&D, so differently that I've seen D&D players encountering it almost reduced to a state of shock.

Some games may do completely away with one or more elements. Others will select completely different mixes. There are a huge number of possible combinations, a fact that puts the lie to a common statement I've encountered saying D&D has covered all that needs to be covered in tactical rpgs. Indeed, it seems clear that the subject has barely been scratched.

Finally, an Observation

If one reads between the lines above, you'd find an interesting common thought. The core of tactics is providing options (resources, different assets, movement options)- but its framework is one of limits.

A resource once spent is lost for an important period of time. A dissimilar asset can't do everything. Requiring maneuver means that you can't be everywhere. Etc.

The heart of tactics is operating with limits to bring the best assets and resources to bear at the correct point at the correct time. The theme of tactics is overcoming limits. Consider that the next time you look at a game that promises to let you do anything...

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