Feb 1, 2011

Strategy vs Tactics in RPG Design

There's been a fair bit of discussion online about the role of miniatures in RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons and how using or not using miniatures is different (or not) from how the game was first introduced in the 1970s.

I think the use of miniatures, and even the amount of combat included in an RPG like D&D is a bit of a red herring. Where you actually see the biggest difference between the editions is in the change in focus from the strategic to the tactical.

How a battle is fought is tactics. The terms and conditions it's fought on and whether it should be fought at all is strategy. Early games focused more on strategy and had weak support for tactics. Modern rpg design favours the opposite.

If you want to always have balanced tactical challenges it makes it difficult for players to employ effective strategies. Effective strategies are all about making the tactical encounter UNbalanced in your favor. Which is why they're used in the real world.

Actions by the players before combat like scouting, diversions, ambushes, traps etc are very important parts of early RPGs, but are often ignored in modern games. The Thief getting the monsters to chase him to a PC ambush of flaming oil and falling rocks means an UNbalanced battle.  Sometimes resource management is available for players to change the balance of an encounter - but this is still different from strategy in a military sense. Using up a finite supply of magic spells or items isn't quite the same as deciding whether to attack an opponent, or setting up the conditions of the battlefield so that they're favourable to you.

I think the change largely came about when the primary focus of the game switched to the longer form "battle" as the actual gameplay experience, rather than a PART of that experience. Tactical skirmish miniatures games from the 1990s were the most likely source of this, and these ideas filtered back into RPGs.

There have been miniature wargames since H. G. Wells' Little Wars in 1913, but you didn't see "balanced" opposing forces become as important a component of wargaming until the late 1980s and early 1990s. WH40K in particular shows that change from the Rogue Trader to 2nd Edition rulesets.

I'll be running a one-shot game of 4th Edition D&D at the local convention next month, and I'm hoping to bring the older ideas about Strategy into the game while keeping the modern rules for detailed tactics. I'm interested to see how it goes and what it means for "balanced" characters if some have more ability to influence strategy than others.