RPG-a-Day 2021: Day Three – Tactics
Today is the third day of August – and the third day of RPG-a-Day 2021, a month long series of prompts from Autocratik and Casting Shadows to encourage creativity and conversation in the TTRPG community. You can see the full calendar and a little more discussion of what RPG-a-Day is in our post on the first prompt, Scenario. Today, we’re going to use the primary prompt – Tactics – for our discussion.
Recently, a lot of games have been moving to battle maps to drive their combat. While most of these games don’t strictly require a battle map, the designs of various portions of the game strongly encourage them to determine the locations of each and every character, how far away everyone is from one another, and just what areas are covered by abilities. A lot of this is in pursuit of tactical play where characters cooperate to pull off potentially complex battle plans. A number of them, however, are very random in their nature – deducting from the overall tactical experience. In the end, I think most modern games fail at being very tactical in nature, even when they claim to be, by failing to
Today, though, I’d like to talk about Lancer – which is, apparently, a fairly common game for people to name regarding tactics.
Lancer is a tactical sci-fi mecha RPG from Massif Press. Previously, we discussed it a bit more at length in our review and even have a biweekly game, Let the World Burn Away. This game, unlike others I hinted at before, absolutely requires a battle map with a grid of some sort – either a regular square grid or a more gamey hex grid (which is what the book assumes in default and what I would highly recommend personally). This allows the players to know exactly where they are, what stands between them and their friends and their enemies, and to make decisions based on that information.
Perhaps the first and most important decision to be made is what order characters will act in. Unlike most other games, the Initiative order in Lancer is loose and fluid. When combat begins, a player will always go first – and it’s up to the players to decide which one of their characters or allies will act first. After that player completes their turn, the game master gets a turn with an enemy unit of their choice acting. Once the game master is complete, initiative returns to the players who get to decide again which character acts next. This goes back and forth until neither side is able to act anymore – if one side uses all their activations for the round, the other side gets to perform a chain of actions. The side that doesn’t go last in a round acts first in the next until the battle is complete.
Overall, it feels very much like the strategy roleplaying games I grew up playing on my consoles – both Final Fantasy Tactics and Front Mission (also mecha focused) come to mind. Both of those games let you freely customize your characters that you use on the field and Lancer shows up there as well – and it’s here where a lot of the real tactical decisions end up being made.
At the time I’m writing this, there’s almost three dozen mechs to choose from. As your characters advance, you put levels into the licenses for these mechs and are then able to freely combine the pieces of each of them provided by those licenses to customize the mech you take into the field exactly how you want – each and every time your Lancer gets ready to embark on a mission, you can adapt your mech frame’s loadout to what you think will work best on the mission. And this is, of course, a great time to talk with your fellow players about what they’re bringing as this open customizability adds a lot of tactical depth to the game.
In our own game Let the World Burn Away, we have five characters, each of whom specializes in something different. We have a drone jockey who deploys and manipulates remote weapons on the field, a heavy gunner who sits back and lobs a variety of powerful blast weapons from range, a sniper who is extra accurate but gives up mobility and a bit of range safety to make his shots, a close combat specialist who can ping pong around the battlefield to tear up the enemies, and a crowd control specialist who can help enable any of their friends’ abilities with their own. And, as it turns out, the crowd control specialist is the one who serves to great effect on the battlefield.
By employing their abilities, our crowd control specialist is able to move both friends and enemies around the field, lining them up into the right positions so that weapons can be used to greatest effects. Frequently, their ability to move enemies around can be used to drag multiple enemies again for the heavy gunner to lob their Howitzer into, to move them out of cover for the sniper to pick off, or even to propel the close combat berserker closer to hit things with his sword. And, as most of their abilities end at the end of their next turn, the initiative order can be used to great effect by choosing to go early one round and late in the next to give their allies longer to take advantage of the control.
In the end, I think tactics in tabletop games end up being represented best by giving your players the ability to choose from a wide array of actions to play the way they want to and in tandem with their fellows by giving them the greatest amount of choice in how it comes to implementing those actions on the battlefield. In this respect, a lot of games come up short and end up failing on the promise of interesting and engaging tactics.
It’s interesting here to note that Lancer finds it roots in Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition – which itself was quite a tactical game that always fell just short of being truly great in that regard. While I know it’s not often well looked upon, the fact it drew heavily upon and strongly resembles some of the skirmish miniatures games I play as well resounded with me in a way and I fully believe it would have been better received had it born a name that wasn’t Dungeons & Dragons.
But that discussion on 4E is something for another day. I’ll see you tomorrow for a talk on Rewards – and how they don’t always need to be material in nature.