Over on his blog today, Coyote writes about tactical combat: fighting that involves more than a simple onslaught of spells and swords to blow away the enemy.

There’s been very little of this in recent RPGs, and even not-so-recent ones. As Coyote mentions, probably the best in regard to tactics were the gold box games from SSI.

Of course, SSI was known primarily for creating war/strategy games, so tactical combat in their RPGs was no surprise. It’s also no surprise there’s very little today, because you really need a group, and many games focus on a single character.

Even when you have a group, often your control is limited. It seems to be almost a standard that the party is composed of NPCs picked up along the way. You may be able to give them some basic commands, but precise directions are lacking.

Part of the problem is that combat takes place in real time, and that is a bad thing when you consider attack spells, especially those area-of-effect ones. Since the enemy is on the move, most will be out of the effect range by the time the spell goes off.

One way around that is the “fudge” of having offensive magic only affect the enemies. While better than nothing, it isn’t entirely satisfactory, either.

Tactical combat really works well only in turn-based systems. D&D, which started it all, was turn-based. You could be sure, when that fireball or stinking cloud or web spell went off, the enemy would be in the effect area.

For that matter, it works only when you can control what spells are going to be cast. You may have decided that slowing the opponents is the best move, but the NPC mage lets loose with a lightning bolt.

Melee isn’t much better. You might be able to set fighters to “attack strongest”. However, your idea of “strongest” and the designers’ idea are likely not the same. So Muscles the warrior goes running after the ogre, when you’d rather he beat on the mage.

The question to ask, though, is whether today’s gamers want a tactical system, as the old SSI games had. I suspect not. Fighting this way takes time, and I think many would be too impatient, especially given the number of combats in a typical RPG. Fast action has more appeal, and probably always will.

A Tale of Tactics on Coyote’s blog