At 2:20am last night I was thinking about the notion of tactics like a healthy and functional human being would. On a recent stream1 about balance updates to my favourite MMO Guild Wars 2, Competitive Designer Cal Cohen pointed to a philosophy of tactics as decisions that come at the expense of something else. There are plenty of decision points in RPGs where this applies: “I choose to move this character to this objective but give up my opportunity to attack,” or “I choose to shift into an offensive stance at the expense of my protection,” just to give a couple examples. I might even posit that tactics in this framework are nearly ubiquitous across challenge-based RPG’s—players are encouraged to weigh probabilities, anticipate consequences, and apply strategies to achieve desirable outcomes.
If these cost-based decision points are critical to this notion of tactics, what then is a tactician?
Tacticians show up in a few different places across RPGs (tabletop and otherwise). Let’s take a look at some of them!
It’s no secret that I am a weeb so it may not come as a surprise that Fire Emblem has some of my favourite examples of tacticians. I have fond, young memories of laying belly-down on the carpet of my bedroom floor and cracking open the only issue of Nintendo Power that I ever owned to read character introductions and campaign strategy for Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance (a game that loved from afar but would miss the chance to play). I fell in love with Soren, the small and frail tactician for your band of mercenaries (and the closest thing the protagonist gets to a love interest!)
Soren’s role as a tactician is purely for narrative purposes, but it’s easy to imagine a player adopting his role in a tabletop game. Between FE’s grid-based combat missions, Soren is one of the characters who sets the terms of engagement. He’s the kind of tactician who sets objectives, develops strategies for accomplishing them, and then allows the player to step in to guide those plans to completion.
Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade and later entries like Fire Emblem: Awakening have the protagonist themself acting as the tactician for the army, where the player’s role in positioning units and taking actions in the field is an abstraction of their role in issuing orders. Tacticians in this model might play like any other character but also have control over other units, or they might be absent from the theatre of combat entirely (a model shared with many other turn-based tactical games like XCOM, Battletech, etc.)
The cult favourite D&D 4e was the first and only edition so far to feature the warlord as an official character class. I recall reading somewhere in the many heated 3.5e vs 4e debates online that the Warlord was the “lazy” class among the bunch. This was largely due to the warlord’s unique mechanical gimmick: many of the warlord’s abilities allow their allies to take actions with them or on their behalf.
The warlord here has a unique role to play as the de facto tactician for their party by positioning their allies on the battlefield in 4e’s heavily grid-based combat ecosystem. This operates a little like the later examples of tacticians in Fire Emblem, but the warlord adds additional, limited actions to other player characters so as not to completely take over other players’ agency. This fits warlords firmly in a support role (or leader, as 4e terms them).
In addition to providing additional actions to allies, the warlord can also provide limited buffs when specified actions are taken. Abilities like the 1st level ability Furious Smash allow the warlord to set a target and provide an ally a bonus when they capitalize on the order. This uses tactics and as a kind of incentive for players with their own agency in the world to follow the commands of their tactician.
A great TTRPG example of a tactician can be found in Slayer’s by Gila RPGs. The tactician is offered as one of the four core classes in the game, all of which have unique and extremely meaty mechanical concepts. In Slayers’ dice-based resolution system, the tactician is able to pre-roll a pool of dice before a fight and replace any other dice with one of their own throughout the encounter. This allows the tactician to manipulate results, turning allies’ misses into hits and mitigating enemies’ actions.
The Tactician, much like the 4e warlord, also has the ability to “issue orders” and allow an ally to take another quick or move action in combat. With both support for the party’s action economy and the ability to control for the random element in combat, the tactician ends up being extremely potent and serves as a keystone for the core games’ party compositions.
While I have not played more than the lifepath thus far, I want to mention Traveller Book I: Characters and Combat (1977) as well. Traveller actually has a few different skills that might be considered under the role of a tactician: strategy, leadership, and tactics, for instance. I want to zoom in on tactics specifically, however, because it provides yet another variation on the tactician theme.
In Traveller, a character with tactical skill specifically can muster and influence the results of large-scale combat (with up to 1000 units). Tactical skill here does not interact with a specific mechanical procedure, but instead is a factor intended to influences the GM’s rulings. Tactics can “provide an advantage in gaining victory or reducing the disaster of defeat.” This is a significantly scaled-up version of tactics that exceeds the scope of all the other models listed thus far.
My friend Emmy also noted a passage in other Traveller texts that indicates yet another way tactical skill can be reflected in play. Up to the GM’s discretion, tactics can “influence the type and amount of information available to the character,” allowing the player to make more informed decisions about their strategy.2
Across these examples, “The Tactician” as a role invokes an idea of someone who takes those tactical decisions that are made at the individual level and expands their agency beyond that. Tacticians are actors or decision makers for the party, the team, the army, etc. The way that takes place, however, can vary quite a bit. In these few examples alone we see tacticians as:
- ToE Setters: characters that set terms of engagement.
- Movers: characters that direct ally actions.
- Boosters: characters that allow allies to take additional actions.
- Incentivizers: characters that incentivize specific actions.
- Controllers: characters that control the results of other characters’ actions.
- Commanders: characters that control many others.
- Knowers: characters that have access to obscured information.
Most of the above models with the exception of the ToE Setter, Controller, and Knower rely on negotiating a tactician’s role as director of allies which becomes an interesting challenge in TTRPGs where you’re often playing with a group. When I set out to write this post I was interested in exploring a model of tactician that skirts around that concept—one that took their own actions but whose scope exceeded the individual. This, in my mind, fits somewhere in between all of these options.
For instance, what if the offensive stance example in the intro applied to more than just myself? It’s a very video-gamey solution but as someone exhaustingly interested in JRPGs I’m excited by the possibilities. When chatting about this post, my friend Jay also suggested the idea of a character who calls shots for group formation (and signalled that the group leader in Masks might be an example of this). I think Slayers’ example of a tactician sings to me in a similar way: the tactician’s mechanical concept might be support-oriented but is not contingent on exerting control over others. The individual tactical decisions for both parties are preserved.
I don’t really know why that interests me, and writing about the above examples reminded me how much I love the mechanical quirks of these directing-type tacticians. Maybe there’s something there for me to work with after all. More to reflect on in the future!
- Don’t ask me which stream this is from. I’ve looked and I can’t find the quote anymore 😭
- “When small units encounter hostile forces (in battle, by ambush, or while adventuring), tactical skill can provide an advantage in gaining victory or reducing the disaster of defeat. Because tactical skill is an intangible, the exact results in battle are left to the referee to implement as necessary and prudent. It might influence the type and amount of information available to the character in a miniature figure resolution of a battle which uses hidden movement, or could be applied as a DM in crucial situations.”