Tactical Combat

Go to the Pathfinder: The New Deal Index

This is an introduction of sorts to future posts on the tactical (grid-based) combat rules that are used in the Pathfinder. There’s a few issues I wanted to try and clear up, and I also have an important question to ask which will guide how I proceed.

Obviously, a strict rules-as-written approach to Pathfinder would mean adopting the tactical rules for grid-based combat. That isn’t going to happen. The second of the three tests I’ve been applying to the rules is “Games without Miniatures” – i.e. will this published rule work without a grid? I’ve voiced my objections to using miniatures and a gird many times, so I’m not going to bore everyone by going over them again here. However, there is something new(ish) that I want to say on the issue.

Combat is complex, and it is dynamic. There are numerous factors that influence where a character wants to be, and what he wants to be doing. Without a tangible representation of what the combat looks like and where everything is, then it can get confusing. I appreciate that.

It’s the GM’s responsibility to paint the scene with words well enough that he and the players have a shared understanding of what is going on. The players should be empowered to test the limits of that understanding. They should be asking questions such as how far away the enemies are, how close they are together, whether there is anything to hide behind. If there is a deficiency in the scene as set by the GM then it needs to be addressed with a more obvious visual aid.

Sometimes the GM will realise that his descriptions aren’t sufficient. More often it will be the players who draw attention to the problem. Regardless of who realises it, the solution is easy to implement.

As a GM, I’ve no objection to using maps, drawings, tokens, dice or even miniatures (if anyone owns any) to facilitate the shared understanding of the combat scene: whether it’s a few chicken scratches on a white board, a more detailed drawing prepared in advance, or something inbetween. If there’s an enormously complex combat with dozens of opponents then I can see the merit of preparing the battlefield ahead of time on a sheet of A2 paper. And if I’ve gone to the trouble of doing that, then I can see the benefit of using tokens on that sheet of paper instead of drawing on it – as drawing would become quickly confusing. I used to do much the same running 2nd edition Darksun back in the day – casting different coloured dice as PCs and NPCs just so everyone knew where they stood.

But doing all of that is not the same as using the tactical combat rules.

It’s all very well having a visual representation of what’s going on, but when you start measuring distances, and counting squares the game loses something in terms of immersion and ‘feel’. For me, using tactical rules turns the game world into little more than a computer game: in fact it’s a lot less versatile that most modern computer games. You might be able to implement rules for attacks of opportunity in their entirety, or have more sensible rules for reach… but you lose something. A roleplaying game is a collaborative exercise in story-telling. I don’t want to have to think in squares while I’m doing it. I also don’t want to have to put the time into becoming proficient at it.

I know that not all of my players necesarily share my views, and would prefer the certainty of the combat grid. As a GM I’m not going to be able to deliver that. So this is an attempt to meet you half-way. I know I’ve been been fairly loose when it comes to representing combat in the past. This largely stems from the fact that I seldom prepare a combat in advance beyond statting out the bad guys.

Perhaps that’s something that needs to change. However, I want combat encounters to be as organic as non-combat encounters. I don’t want to get into the habit of scripting great set-pieces and then railroading a party toward them. I don’t want to start thinking: “I’ve drawn this map so I’m going to use it!” There’s a fine line to walk here.

It’s my belief that for combat in a table-top roleplaying game to work, you don’t need to know the absolute position of any of the components. You do need to know the relative position of them. You need to know where the cover is in relation to you, whether you can reach your friends or enemies in a move action or not, whether you’re in range of the evil wizard’s charm person. Sometimes that can be done with words, sometimes we need something more…. but that ‘more’ stops short of adopting the tactical combat rules whole cloth.

The Question

Which brings me to my general question about these rules.

I’m going to start going through the Core Rules (2009) and Pathfinder’s other hardbacks, and look very closely at the combat system. There are certain elements (such as Attacks of Opportunity) that need to remain in the game. These will have to be converted into terms that are easily and fairly adjudicated in a system that doesn’t use the tactical rules.

But there are many, many game elements that reference the grid-based rules that aren’t essential to the game. What do we do with them? What should be our guiding principle?

Should we convert everything that mentions the tactical rules into something we can use? Should I, as a matter of course, go through every race, class, archetype, skill, feat and spell in the game and rewrite it into a version we can properly use?


Should we just identify mechanics that  make use of the tactical rules, and put a health warning on them? Should I just (e.g.) produce a list that says: “These feats make use of the tactical rules. To a greater or lesser extent their utility is less than the written rules intend. Players should be aware of this before selecting them”. Some feats like Combat Reflexes might still have some uses as it starts you on the feat-chain to Whirlwind Attack, but it’s hard to see how you could adapt Sidestep to work in a gridless future.

Do let me know. Obviously, the second approach is much less work!

Go to the Pathfinder: The New Deal Index

3 thoughts on “Tactical Combat

  1. I think we can live with this approach. A bit more awareness of what is possible (from all of us) would benefit combats. Charges have to be in a straight line, moving in on something with long arms is dangerous etc. Tactics are good. Paper and tokens would work well, I think.

    Don’t go through everything to see if it fits the system. You’ll go mad. Take feats and the like on a case by case basis. Detail the basic principles of attacks of opportunity but don’t detail every feat. If everyone knows the basic principles, they’ll know what to expect and won’t take Sidestep without checking.

  2. Fair enough. As long as players don’t allow the tactical rules to limit them. There’s more to combat than the listed maneouvres. Anything should be possible. Creative solutions should be rewarded. A better visualisation of the combat arena obviously helps there.

    I think I will go down the guideline route you advocate. It would be much easier to deal with each individual archetype, feat etc. when if comes up. These are the general rules that I think need revisiting:

    From Core Rules (2009)

    – Attacks of Opportunity (p180, 182, 183) – including notes for cover.
    – Speed (p180)
    – Concentration (p184, 185, 186)
    – Injury and Death (p189) – larger death’s door window
    – Movement, Position and Distance (pp192-193)
    – Terrain and Obstacles (pp193-194)
    – Special Movement rules (p194)
    – Big and little creatures in combat (p195)
    – Flanking (p197)
    – Bull Rush (p199) – especially Greater Bull Rush feat

    Advanced Player’s Guide (2010)

    – Drag (p321) – especially Greater Drag feat
    – Reposition (p322)

    I’ll be looking to these rules over the next few blog posts.

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