Tactical Breakdown

I love Dungeons & Dragons in all its myriad, varied, and mostly contradictory forms. In high school, i started with the Holmes Blue Box and graduated quickly to AD&D. I went all down-and-out-in-Greyhawk-and-Faerûn during 2nd Edition, but continued to read the game even though i wasn’t playing it. I was intellectually and emotionally revitalized with 3rd Edition and the idea of Open Gaming, and am now one of the few people lucky enough to be asked to watch over 4th Edition and (unless Wizards finally gets tired of me and fires my freelance ass) the implicit future of the game.

So here’s a confession — i really, really, really dislike the tactical encounter format. I disliked it when it appeared at the tail end of v3.5; i dislike it in 4th edition. I dislike all previous attempts to revamp it, to streamline it, or to make its fragmentation of the playing experience less obvious. (The one narcissistic exception to this is the RPGA Tomb of Horrors update that landed last month, for which i asked and gained permission to flow the tactical encounters freely within the overall text. However, that combat-light adventure is a specific corner case that can’t be automatically applied to adventures as a whole.)

Why i dislike the tactical encounter format isn’t for any of its mechanical features. Taken for what it is, the tactical encounter format does its job extremely well. Combat encounters are easier to play by far with a well laid out tactical encounter breakdown in front of you. The problem is that not all combat encounters deserve or need to be tactical encounters, but current adventure design is slanted so strongly toward the tactical encounter format that it creates a dependent relationship. Tactical encounters now define the game session as anchor points, where they were once simply part of a continuum of process and play that shaped itself in a largely gestalt fashion.

Well-meaning contemporary game designers like me are thus responsible for an entire generation of gamers (a generation of gamers being about half the life of any particular edition of a game, so figure five years on average) who no longer know how to conduct an encounter unless the tactical encounter breakdown is sitting in front of them. And, in my view, the basic style of gaming has undergone a sea change because of that, and not necessarily for the better.

I got an email shortly after my adventure “Test of Fire” appeared in Dungeon the beginning of this year, which read in part:

When I download an adventure I expect to be able to run it not have to dig out stat blocks. All these random encounters in the [“Through the City of Brass”] skill challenge, why am I doing your job?

I wept openly when i read this, and not just because of the comma splice, or because like all writers, i crave validation and the rejection of my work makes me suicidal. The bigger issue for me is that there are now countless D&D players —players of all ages, of varying experience — who don’t understand that improvisation is the heart of what this game is supposed to be about.

The tactical encounter format has done more than simply make certain players forget how to wing a combat encounter on the fly. The tactical encounter format has actively taught certain players that combat cannot be conducted that way.

The reason that there are random encounter groups tabled in the big cross-city skill challenge in “Test of Fire” is that the question of which of those combat encounters are necessary depends entirely on how the skill challenge progresses. Nothing is set; everything flows from the players’ decisions and the luck of the dice. And this underlines for me that the singular problem with the tactical encounter format is that it makes combat inevitable — and thus makes the expectation of combat inevitable. A tactical encounter format makes a tactical encounter necessary, and for all the wrong reasons.

(Next: Firestorm the Foundations)