The function of tactics and strategies in role-playing games is one of those areas that offers a prime opportunity to show something about your character, but that is often overlooked. With the recent release of the Player Strategy Guide for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, I thought it apt to write about my thoughts on the subject.
The most important part of this discussion is whether you are talking about player strategy or character strategy. The Player Strategy Guide blurs the line between the two and players who follow its guidance may miss out on a prime chance to role-play their character, as well as an opportunity to have a memorable encounter. Those of you who have played a while, please think back. Are the most memorable encounters the ones where everyone fulfilled their role in the team and the party displayed textbook battle tactics, or are they the ones where someone demonstrated an atypical strategy that fit their character and maybe one where you didn’t even win? In every instance for me, the most memorable encounters have been the ones where character has been at the forefront.
So how should you approach a fight and what tactics should you use? How can you bring your character to life through combat tactics? The answer depends on what sort of player you are, where your party’s interests lie, and your character’s stats.
The role of the player
If you are the sort of player who wants to beat the game and has spent hours tuning your character sheet, and that’s a perfectly reasonable approach to the game, then I’m surprised you’ve read this far in a post about tactics in the first place. Given that you have, the Player Strategy Guide is for you. It will be your Art of War and your Bible and along with the perfect stats that you’ve rolled or chosen you will truly be the paragon of your class.
If, however, you’re the sort of player who wants to weave a tale and has chosen your powers based on a well-constructed background story, you will want to carefully decide how much to lean on the Strategy Guide and how much to ignore it or even deliberately go against it. The next couple of sections should help you figure that out.
The role of the party
Whatever type of player you are, if the rest of the party is made up of people who play differently to you, there is a chance you will either be frustrated or bored in every encounter. If you play their way, you won’t be having fun, and if you play your way, you may feel alienated.
I have left groups before when it became clear that our styles weren’t matched, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to find new groups that match my style better. When everyone is looking for the same thing from the game, not only does it become more fun and interesting, it becomes easier to play.
The role of the character
Neither the 3.5 or 4th edition Dungeon’s and Dragons Player Handbooks state it categorically, but I have always considered a combination of Intelligence and Wisdom to be a fair measure of how well a character handles themselves in regards to strategic planning. The absent-minded Wizard with a high Intelligence but a low Wisdom may come up with a brilliant plan on the battlefield, but might miss one small but crucial detail (see the wooden rabbit scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for example). Similarly, the Cleric who leads the party may insist that he knows where everyone should be and what they should be doing, but with a low Intelligence he might apply the same tactic to every battle instead of learning from his mistakes.
Then there’s the background of the character to take into account. You might have a character who has grown up on the streets as an urchin relying on their wits for survival. Once you enter a pitched fight with your party around them, you may be completely out of your depth and will refuse to fight at all; finding a safe corner to hide in until the fighting is over would be a perfectly reasonable tactic for you to use, though your party may not thank you for it. In this case it might be that you have a high Wisdom and Intelligence but your self-preservation instinct is stronger than any party affiliation. The wonderful thing about this is that after combat you will be able to have a stirring discussion regarding your behaviour with the other members of your party. In character, of course.
As with all things in table-top role-playing games, there’s a wide spectrum of options to choose from in how much tactics play a part in your game. I would caution against blindly following the textbook in case you miss out on the prospect of a memorable encounter and the chance to develop a character further.