Tactics and strategy

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.

Telling stories

If there’s a single sentence that can act as a simple summary for what role-playing games are, it is surely “telling a story from the characters’ points of view”. Any modern table-top role-playing game has this at its core; that the players, with the game-master, are developing a world and a story together as they play.

However, other aspects of the role-playing genre, notably computer role-playing games, have struggled with this aspect. The first game to truly crack this nut will attract the attention of role-playing fans, but would it also capture the attention of gamers in general? Why haven’t computer role-playing games been able to tell stories in the same way that table-top gamers do every week? What will be lost from the genre if they do? Continue reading


I have previously dealt with the notion of the cliché on this blog, and closely related to that is the notion of the archetype. An archetype is an ideal example of a type, to give the dictionary definition. Carl Jung also made use of the term to define an inherited unconscious idea. Plato’s ideas can also be seen as the original archetypes and in fact the word itself comes from the greek word αρχετυπον. But how do archetypes play into writing and how can they be used to enhance the experience of a player in a game? Are there any dangers to using archetypes that a writer or GM must be wary of?

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In medias res

A while ago there was an episode of the DnD podcast from Wizards of the Coast that had a tip for DMs to start every session with the players rolling initiative. This usually indicates that combat, or at least some action sequence, is about to play out and initiative determines the order that the characters act in. The idea is that by having your players start the session in medias res, literally “into the midst of affairs”, they will be more engaged in the session as a whole.

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From paper to screen

Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a trend at my DnD table as more players have moved from the traditional pen(cil) and paper to having a laptop, notebook or, more frequently, a netbook or smartphone in front of them instead. In this article, I’ll explore some of the tools available to facilitate this move and explore my own experiences.

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Character development

Whether you’re writing a novel or playing a role-playing game, there comes a time when you have to develop a character. There are a number of ways you can approach this and this series of articles will explore some of those.

I’ll start with the character development that I’ve dealt with the most: Developing a character for a role-playing game, specifically DnD.

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The cliché

Fantasy gaming is rife with clichés from the bumbling human wizard and the gruff dwarf fighter to the kid with a birthmark who turns out to be the rightful heir to the kingdom. Searching the web for clichés in fantasy, it’s easy to find plenty of articles on how to avoid them. However, is that really necessary? Clichés are clichés for a reason: They work as motivations and personalities that resonate with us.

So where did these clichés come from? What makes one idea from fantasy resonate to the extent that it becomes a cliché? And what can a writer or designer do to use those clichés that will work for them while avoiding those that will come across as ham-fisted?

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The written word

Through all fantasy games, single- and multi-player, virtual or table-top, runs a common thread: The writing. It has been argued many times, and reasonably successfully, that the history of fantasy gaming was born of the ground-breaking work of Tolkien, however it is more correct to say that he was the great populariser of a genre that has been with us for hundreds of years. The archetypes that exist in his work still inhabit the games we play today: Orcs, Dwar(f|ve)s, Elves, Trolls, etc.

The images that those names invoke, and that are visualised in modern MMOs, aren’t too far from the descriptions found throughout fantasy literature. So what of the state of writing in fantasy games themselves?

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Player vs Character

The separation between player and character is at the core of the role-playing experience which is what separates DnD, MUDs and MMOs from other multiplayer games. By definition, when you’re playing a role it’s assumed that the role is not that of “person playing a role-playing game”. Aside from the physical and sociological differences between the player and character, how is this split realised in the game? And how has the separation between player and character developed from DnD through MUDs and through to MMOs?

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