In any modern-day team environment, there is usually one member of the team who focuses on the tactical situation. Characters that each go their own way tend, sooner or later to get in each other’s way, or make the mistake of two going for the same target while another target is left uncovered; the team tactician is charged with the responsibility of making sure that doesn’t happen – that priority targets get achieved, even if it means passing up opportunities to take advantage of moments of vulnerability on the part of lower-priority targets. Going for the quick score can be gratifying, but can lose the overall battle.

The tactician’s job is to assess risk, reward (probable outcomes), capabilities, opportunities, and priorities, and to assemble a series of individual moves into an overall successful strategy. But there is a big difference between a character having the skills to accomplish this task and the player who operates that character being able to do so. This article describes a series of “training exercises” and game aids – everything from chess to online gambling – that are intended to teach a player what he needs to know in order to fulfill that role within an RPG.

Boardgames & Wargames

When the enemy combatants are more-or-less interchangeable parts, the tactical considerations tend to be fairly elementary. One goon or soldier is much the same as another on the battlefield. Things get more complicated when the tactical considerations grow more complex and the risk-vs-reward analysis of tactical moves is more difficult to assess. Giving soldiers different types of equipment, for example. Each now tactical element increases the number of combinations, and only one of them will be the best choice (though several more may be close). The number of combinations quickly exceeds the capacities of even an expert tactician. That’s what makes wargames and boardgames such as Axis & Allies and Fortress America
interesting and successful.

Like a game of chess – which has relatively simplistic rules compared to those of more modern games – iteration of moves produce so many tactical combinations that it soon becomes impossible to consider a single “grand plan” covering an entire game; instead, one is forced to redefine the tactical objectives into something more achievable, notably the accumulation of tactical advantages and the forcible accumulation by one’s opponent(s) of tactical disadvantages. Eventually, as smaller skirmishes and battles are resolved, those advantages and disadvantages add up until one side or the other can no longer achieve victory.

Still, the actions of any given unit are constrained to a relatively number of pre-set options, and – theoretically – an optimum strategy can be determined by a mathematical analysis of each possible battle or conflict. While this approach has its limitations, as exemplified by many years of chess-playing computer games, it’s still a good place to start.

Tactical Roleplaying

A further increase in complexity arrives when we step up from boardgames to roleplaying games. Characters in an RPG have almost unlimited freedom of action, with only the consequences (including likely success or failure) to confine those choices. Furthermore, each character is a discrete individual with a relatively unique combination of abilities, skills, and powers.

Once again, the simplest problem such characters can face (in terms of tactics) is identical, interchangeable foes. This is also by far the simplest conflict for the GM to prep for and to referee.

More complex are encounters in which the characters are confronted by a variety of creatures. A Drow, its giant spider-mount, and its matched pair of pet trolls would be typical of the level of complexity – there is a rationale, however specious, for these diverse creatures being elements of the one encounter. Each will have strengths, weaknesses, and different combat capabilities. Fortunately for the GM, that rationale also usually provides some pointers as to the tactics that the group will employ in combat – in this case, the trolls would engage the PCs while the giant spider gives the Drow mobility and the ability to use his ranged combat capabilities, initially against others with ranged combat abilities. Still, even at this level, an overall strategy on the part of the PCs is relatively straightforward.

A further increase in complexity can be found in a combat involving a similar group of adventurers, complete with class levels. The diversity of the combinations at this point becomes truly staggering. No longer can the PCs be sure of just what their opponents are capable of, and nasty surprises are sure to occur from time to time. In fact, the only real restraint a GM has on his fiendishness and creativity (since he is permitted to create his own character classes) is to remember that any magic items he bestows apon his “team” have a fair chance of ending up in the possession of the PCs. At this point, the unknowns loom so large over each encounter that tactical decisions must be tentative and subject to revision.

To be fair, my default assumption is that if I use a character class for an NPC, that class is also available for any PC that wants it – and can qualify for it. But that’s a side-issue.

Progressing one step further is the standard barroom brawl, because of the greater number of combatants and the greater diversity that they will contain. Many of the gamers with whom I have been associated employ this encounter type as a litmus test for the effectiveness of a game design’s combat mechanics – if the action (best described as “restrained anarchy with intent to commit mayhem”) flows freely and naturally, it’s a good design; if it stutters and limps and is more number-crunching than theatre-of-the-dramatic, it’s a poor one. This is a situation in which the number of unknowns and combinations are so over-the-top that any sort of overall strategy is impossible – one simply deals with the action, seizing opportunities as they come to hand, one combat round after another, until someone wins.

Which brings me to the ultimate complexity: superhero team battles, team “A” vs team “B”. Each combatant is as unique as its creator can make it. Each side is (theoretically) used to working together, and has devised tactics that enhance their strengths while covering or concealing their weaknesses. The action is deliberately over-the-top big-budget-effects-movie stuff, laden with gosh-wowery, and – theoretically – as individualized as a fingerprint. There may be parity in numbers or one side may outnumber the other. Any semblance of parity of power is usually a polite fiction at best. Each member of each group has a variety of tactical modes covering different combat ranges, though they will also have an optimum range from which thery operate. The number of variables is staggering – but at the same time, there is less anarchy than in a bar-room brawl.

The Tactical Genius

The PCs will usually put one of their number – whoever seems best-suited for the task – in charge of their overall tactics on the battlefield; the higher up the ladder of complexity the game exists, the more essential this becomes. And if the player is himself at least passably good with tactics, the result is a happy PC camp.

Things get trickier when the character charged with the responsibility for orchestrating team tactics – and who supposedly has the skills to pull it off – is being run by a player who can barely spell the word.

The usual cover doesn’t work

With most skills, if the player doesn’t have the skill but the character does, the GM can simply have the player make his skill roll and handwave the details into a narrative of the results. “All right, you’ve persuaded the chancellor to make the proclamation,” or “The crushed leaves of the bilo-boa fernwood stand speak volumes about the creature who was hiding there and spying on the party. From the vantage point it occupied, it could see everything the party did and hear everything that was said. It should have been obvious to the party that it was there, as the fernwood offers little cover, but none of you saw a thing until the noise drew your attention to the spot. But the area of crushed fernwood indicates something very large and very heavy – at least 140 tons in weight and with feet a full twelve inches in length. Three-toed, with curved claws from each toe that have dug deeply into the earth – and a barbed heel with matching spur…”

That doesn’t work when it comes to tactics in combat – such hand-waving would amount to the GM moving the PCs characters and telling them what to do. It goes over like a lead balloon.

Alternatives, such as permitting another player to advise the one responsible for tactics, might seem to be the solution – but this almost inevitably creates frustration on the part of the player who is supposed to be handling things, especially if there is a tactical failure of some sort. Furthermore, introducing a player-level conversational element to the situation always implies a potential for mis-communications – in which a plan that would have worked is never implemented because the “tactition character”‘s player misunderstands what the advisor is telling him to do, and why.

The only solution

There’s only one real solution, and it comes in two parts: the first is to simplify the complexity of the job, and the second is to train the player in tactical thinking.

Such a process is currently getting underway in respect to my Zenith-3 campaign. The current tactical ‘field commander’ is Runeweaver who is played by Nick. Now, Nick is a lot of things, including a nice guy, but one thing he is not is a natural tactician. He views this as an opportunity to expand his personal skills, and his character was chosen for the position because the character has commanded a small unit in the past and hence has – in theory – all the skills required to do the job.

This article is about some of the techniques that are currently being – or eventually will be – employed in order to bring Nick up to a tactical standard commensurate with being able to at least fake it plausibly on the battlefield.

Simplifying the job

This consists of preparing predigested general plans for the player to choose between, and feeding the player some “inside insights” or crib notes to digest – after a successful suitable skill roll of course.

The Tactical Options Chart

The theory behind this approach is that the character would have worked out these options and basic plans in advance, so there is nothing wrong with someone else doing so and simply handing him the results. They certainly won’t cover everything, and there are still going to be enough variables that this “crib sheet” won’t contain all the answers.

One afternoon, before we got down to the serious business of working on the next adventure for the Adventurer’s Club campaign, Blair Ramage and I started preparing just such a crib sheet for Nick. The page we worked up was intended to deal with one-target situations; you can see what we came up with (in miniature form) to the right. The plan is to produce additional such pages for duos and multiple targets at some point in the near-future.

Above is a close-up – still reduced in size – of the top row of the options chart. As you can see, it depicts 5 reasonably common scenarios based around a common tactical model, imposed by character capabilities. Vala (code V), for example, is comparatively frail and incapable of direct superhero combat – she has to hang back and manipulate events from a distance. Defender – code De – usually has the job of defending her (hence the code name) with his martial arts, but as a Kzin, he sometimes loses his head. The goal is, in general, to have either two front-line attackers or one front-line fighter and one mobile force.

The first option is the one the team expects to employ most frequently, and it’s the only one they have practiced so far. Defender covers Runeweaver and Vala, Blackwing engages the enemy, and St Barbara flies around taking potshots and opportunities, and reacting to unexpected developments in general. The second option shows St Barbara and Defender swapping roles – if Defender loses his head, it can be employed to keep the more vulnerable team members protected while he gets back into position, or if his martial arts are deemed a more effective attack mode (under the circumstances of a given battle), it can be deliberately employed. Attack Mode three is one of the most flexible against a single opponent – St Barbara flies above Blackwing, enabling her to attack at the same time he does, to boost his protection, or to aid Defender’s protection of Runeweaver and Vala. And so on.

To use these, all Nick has to do is decide which character or characters will take the front-line position, whether or not he needs a mobility option, and who is going to provide it – then selecting the plan that corresponds to those parameters. The whole approach is necessary abstract and oversimplified – but once you have the basic plan of attack sorted, you can easily add in other tactical considerations like terrain, specific objectives, etc.

Tactical Training

At least, you can, once you have some tactical grounding. Fortunately, there are some tools out there that we can employ to provide that grounding.

Tactical Considerations

The place to start Nick’s education in tactics will be with board games – simple ones at first, then more complex ones. A game or two of chess will round out this phase of the educational programme.

What will make these more than mere diversions are that I will make concerted efforts to draw appropriate tactical analogies between what is going on in the boardgame and some equivalent tactical situation.

The study of intentions

No matter how many games we play, though, there will be one factor that this approach won’t fully replicate: the impact of the unknown. The reasons are simple: Nick knows me, and the other people he will be playing against – and (at least to some extent) knows how we think. To fully indoctrinate him in the essentials of tactical thinking, something more will be needed.

For a long time, I was at a loss as to what could work. Then I had a moment of revelation.

The Role of Poker

Poker is analogous to combat in an RPG. Individual hands are analogous to individual rounds of combat. But at any given moment, a player is in ignorance concerning at least part of what his rival is holding. This approach offers some additional benefits since it covers behavior that is relevant to an RPG combat that the other solutions mentioned don’t, such as betting strategies and bluffing. Poker could be the answer. To quote Kenny Rogers, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”

Of course, to fully answer the issue concerning Nick’s knowledge of his opponents, he would have to play against machines or strangers. That means, essentially, playing online.

There are a plethora of poker and other gambling sites out there, and not all of them are run to the highest standards. Nevertheless, this remains an option, especially if there are games on offer that don’t require a real-cash investment – look on Facebook and other web-game sites.

The Inside Track

The final element of the process to transform a player from a tactical novice to an expert is to feed him additional information in-game to help him make tactical decisions. At first, these hints should be fairly broad and easy to interpret; with greater experience, they can first be made more obscure and then eliminated altogether. The phrasing of such hints will also be important; they should not spell out the solution, but should focus on potential tactical considerations, things that you, as GM, are bringing to the player’s attention because his character’s expertise should make him aware of them.

I would also expect to employ the “are you sure?” warning against tactical mistakes and misjudgments, at least at first.

The Passing Grade

It’s relatively easy to measure success in this education. If the tactical player reaches the right answers (or an acceptable answer with no major oversights), he has passed this test. When he can reasonably be expected to do so without hand-holding by the GM, he will have graduated from the masterclass in basic tactics. The key is not to take over the character, but to interpose a safety net of competence.

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