The Seven-Sided Die

Tactics in abstract combat systems

Posted Wednesday July 29, 2009 at 12:43 AM

Via Trollsmyth I discovered the new-this-month gaming blog I Fly By Night. The article on abstract tactics is great: it conveys in concrete terms how you can have meaningful tactical decisions in combat without needing to pin down the location of every combatant on a grid. He points out that real-world tactics have always been abstract due to the inevitable fog of war, and then gives examples of using manœuvers to gain tactical advantage in RPGs with abstract combat systems.

The example manœuvers given are translated into (A)D&D mechanics, but my thought while reading something like this:

Player: "Rats! They're moving before we're ready! I'll rush my shot to get ahead of them, and maybe blunt their attack." i.e. getting inside of the enemy's decision loop - maneuver for disruption. GM: "OK, take a -X, but you'll go before them."

… is just the sort of thing that Tricks in Savage Worlds are good at modelling.

When I ran our first one-shot of Savage Worlds, we had a really hard time coming up with the game-world actions the characters could take that would justify invoking the Trick rules. Next time I run SW, I'll have Clash's post on abstract tactics printed out for my players.

In general, this is really good material for anyone running or playing in a game that features combat. A lot of people complain about combat in earlier editions of D&D being boring dice-rolling exercises that amount to nothing more than "hit, hit, miss, hit", but they don't have to be. For all that D&D and other game systems' rules mostly focus on combat, creatively approaching challenges is one of the most important parts of playing a roleplaying game and one which doesn't disappear when combat begins. Thinking in terms of objectives and manœuvers helps to maintain that creative engagement with the world even when the great weight of a complex combat system is bearing down on the game.

Comments (3)


Thursday July 30, 2009 at 09:06 AM

The funny thing is that, as time goes on, D&D has less and less to do with actual tactics, and more and more to do with some kind of crazy dice game about statues on a little square grid. I mean both "as D&D goes through more editions" and "as a campaign continues." The more time elapses in a campaign, or in D&D as a whole, the harder it is to die, the more crazy powers come into it, and the less threatening is injury, or even equipment damage or loss.

Battlefield tactics are based on trying to think critically, communicate clearly, and work as a team while large numbers of terrified men are trying to kill you and all your buddies. The longer a military campaign goes on, the worse your health, powers and gear yet: everyone is some combination of wounded, exhausted, sick, dead, shell-shocked, out of ammo, and trying to jury-rig supplies and transport.

clash bowley

Tuesday August 11, 2009 at 08:00 PM

I've never understood the appeal of minis, unless it's a sublimation of the old "talking action figure" role-playing kids do instinctively. To me, knowing only in the most general terms where people were is part of the appeal.



Wednesday August 12, 2009 at 01:46 AM

I do understand the appeal of minis, since I enjoy the more tactile aspects of hobbies. I like wargaming and building terrain, I enjoy building and painting models, and I've even done some diorama stuff in the past. Kinesis is one of my metagame rewards. (Wargames are also really heavy on ludus, which I enjoy too.)

However, because I enjoy those activities I get my kinesis (and ludus) fix just fine and I'd really rather they not also dominate my roleplaying time. I do understand the appeal, but I have other metagame rewards that I'm looking to satisfy when I sit down to a roleplaying game. Any time spent fiddling with models is less time for those other payoffs.