Sunday, July 26, 2009

Abstract Tactics

That post title... that's like Military Intelligence or Jumbo Shrimp, right? An Oxymoron? Ummmm.... no. I'm really going to talk about abstract tactics today. I'll wait while the room empties...

OK. Everyone out who's going to leave? Good. That leaves the sleeping wino in the corner and that confused looking foreign tourist. Lets begin.

First the definition of tactics, from general RPG usage;

1. The use of miniatures to show exact position in a conflict.

2. Fiddly maneuvers which require knowledge of exact position to work. See miniatures.

Doesn't leave much room for "Abstractness", does it?

Until very recently, with the common use of GPS tranceivers, no one knew the exact position of anyone in an actual battle. In a general sense, that group was over there, and that other group was somewhere over there, but exact position? No. Clausewitz wrote: "The great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not infrequently — like the effect of a fog or moonshine — gives to things exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance."

So... No one can use tactics in a real military battle? Of course they can!

Now the definition of tactics from

1. (usually used with a singular verb) the art or science of disposing military or naval forces for battle and maneuvering them in battle.
2. (used with a plural verb) the maneuvers themselves.
3. (used with a singular verb) any mode of procedure for gaining advantage or success.

I particularly want to focus on definition 3, although all three definitions are perfectly valid. Tactics are any mode of procedure for gaining advantage or success. Nothing about exact position, nothing about clear knowledge of the battle.

Player: "I'll delay my move in order to circle around for a better shot." i.e. maneuver for enfilade.
GM: "OK, you move down to last in initiative, but you'll get +X when you go."

Player: "Joe and I will keep their heads down with cover fire while you guys rush in, then you cover us." i.e. fire and maneuver aka leapfrogging.
GM: "Cool. Let's see how good you pull it off. I'll use your degree of success as a minus for them."

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."

These are abstract tactics, using GM rulings in place of rules. No miniatures are needed, and the participants don't have a definite idea of their opponents' disposition, but they are real tactics.

As designers, we can create rules for abstract tactics, taking the load off GMs by making ad-hoc rulings less frequent or unnecessary. By assuming a combat round of flowing maneuver rather than a static slugfest, and making rules to enable this, combat can be exciting without minis and grids.

Here's some techniques I use for abstract tactics:

1. Make combat rounds longer - I use one minute rounds to have time for maneuver.
2. Assume a lot goes on that's not detailed. Most shots fired in combat have no chance of hitting, In swordfights most swings are blocked and aren't ever going to connect. In a long round, I assume bullets are flying everywhere, sword blows are parried like lighting, and there's no need to roll because they are never going to hit anything. Players only roll when there is a decent chance that their shot will hit - i.e. their initiative.
3. Allow free maneuver - in a long round, you can move a long way. Only roll for skill checks when something difficult is attempted. If you're going to use gymnastics to vault an opponent to get behind him, you roll. Circling to the flank unopposed won't - it just takes time.
4. Use initiative as a tool. I allow trading inititative for bonuses or minuses - rushing a shot gains a minus. taking longer for maneuvering gains a plus.
5. Make cover count. I use abstract modifiers for cover - that cover might be worth a -25% penalty, or -2 dice, or whatever is appropriate - so I don't have to know the terrain, and neither do my players.
6. Make firing for supression worth doing. Using your initiative to provide cover for your buddies should gain you tangible benefits. I base those benefits on the degree of success the supression has.

Now what works in your games can be very different, but these techniques work fine in mine. Combat zips along, and it's still fun and flexible.



  1. Good post.

    I think it’s also important to realize that tactics have a part to play even when there isn’t a direct mechanical effect. Lots of people seem to miss this.


    Even without a bonus, flanking and surrounding a foe means you can bring more hurt to them than they can reciprocate. Generally, maneuver to minimize the number of attacks the enemy can make and maximize the number of attacks you can make.

    Take out the mage first since a sleep spell could mean instant defeat but a few hp in damage from his goons won’t. Protect your own artillery.

    Spread out to lessen the effectiveness of an enemy’s area-of-effect attack.

    Even a very small set of fundamental rules covering maneuvering and attack opens up the ability to apply tactics without the need for special rulings. Which, I think, also makes the special rulings even more effective.

    Also, I think it helps a lot to ensure that the goals of most combats aren’t just to destroy the enemy. Tactics are just the means of accomplishing your strategy. So, your tactics will depend upon your strategy. You are trying to get somewhere. You are trying to get something. You are trying to get someone. You are trying to protect something. You are trying to protect someone. You are trying to escape. etc.

  2. Right, Robert! All this is part of that third definition of tactics - any mode of procedure for gaining advantage or success. Tactical play is all about gaining advantages, and minis and grids are only one way to get that.


  3. Great post. I ran a five-year long AD&D 2e campaign where we almost never used minis or positioning, but the players developed a lot of tactics. Some were as simple as yelling "Blue!" when the mage was going to cast color spray so everyone around knew to close their eyes. Others got to the complexity of running IA (immediate action) drills. We kept strict player knowledge/no table talk protocols and they quickly realized that if one person reacted "out of sync" with the rest of them it could be incredibly dangerous.

  4. Hi mxyzplk!
    Thanks for letting me know I'm not alone out here in Abstract Tacticsland! Sounds like your group is really up on the concept!



  5. I like. Bookmarking this article to use as a frame of reference if I ever design an RPG with combat; your ideas sound far more interesting than the 3-6 second/round blow-by-blows you usually see in RPGs.