Flank You Very Much: Tactical Play in D&D

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An interesting question came up in an online discussion of D&D Next, and I very much anticipated seeing how the answers would play out. The question regarded how players and DMs handled flanking in the playtest, since the current iteration of the rules do not mention flanking. I was most interested in not what people would say, but how they would approach the question.

Having played all editions of D&D, I am happy to have seen no special rules given for flanking yet. Two things have slowed down my 3e and 4e D&D games more than anything, and flanking plays a big role in both of them. I don’t have a problem with the concept of flanking per se. But what flanking leads to can be problematic in RPGs. One problem is what tactical movement can do to a game, and the other problem is tying benefits gained by “advantage” or “combat advantage” to powerful character choices.

Groups that I played D&D, AD&D, and 2e AD&D with rarely used tactical maps. We sometimes used minis or hastily sketched maps to show general positioning, but that was it. Occasionally the DM might give bonuses or penalties based on position and player description, but nothing was formally codified. There were rules in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide that covered changes to Armor Class based on positioning and the number of attacks coming at a creature, but we ignored those as overly fiddly. Once in a while we would try to codify positioning rules—either from the book or home-ruled—but we invariably scrapped them because the group decided that we ended up spending too much time trying to get into positions rather than telling a cool story.

With 3e and then 4e, when I started running (and writing) lots and lots of D&D games for the public, I noticed that the counting of squares and the precision of movement took up about 10% of total game time—sometimes more with certain players and DMs. Of course, much of this tactical movement had to do with attacks of opportunity, but flanking was definitely a part of this problem. The focus on tactical movement could grind the pace of a game practically to a halt.

The other problem with flanking is that when you give a character powerful abilities that are tied to game mechanics—specifically sneak attack/backstab damage bonuses—when that character has advantage, then tie those abilities to tactical positioning, you are changing the focus of the game dramatically. By making flanking the easiest way to get advantage, and by making a character’s most powerful attack reliant on advantage, you are essentially making a whole class reliant on positioning to be effective (or what certain players think of as effective). That makes it hard for DMs who want to run—or have players who want to play—a more “theater of the mind” type of game to make that class work. Certainly it can still be done, but it takes more tweaking than it should.

It got so bad with some 3e and 4e D&D players that if they couldn’t get advantage, they didn’t even want to bother attacking. That is a shame, and it was generally short-sighted on the part of the players, but the rules did too much set the player’s attitude. In fact, Feinting Trick was added to the 4e D&D Essentials rogue’s choices to give damage bonus to attacks that DIDN’T have advantage. When you need a power to entice a player to attack when she doesn’t have advantage, something is wrong.

When I brought up this problem with flanking in the discussion, trying to highlight flanking not just simply as a tactic to get a small bonus in the game, some of the responses speak to the problem that game designers, and especially the current D&D Next developers are having. The “simulationists” cited their years of fighting experience, challenging me to try and defend myself from flanking attacks. And I get it. But that’s not the point. I probably wouldn’t be able to defend myself very well while unarmed either, or while on fire, but that doesn’t mean we need rules giving advantage against unarmed foes or creatures taking ongoing damage. The “power gamers” cannot imagine a game where they cannot get a bonus based on where their mini is positioned. That’s a valid thought.

When considering why something is or isn’t in the game, if we want to talk intelligently about the subject, we need to actually think about why something is or isn’t in the game. Spouting preferences has its place, of course. Liking a certain aspect of a game, or disliking it, is only natural. But at some point there has to be a recognition of the basic building blocks of the game. That little rush when your character (or monster) gets into a good tactical position and hits because of the bonus supplied through tactics can be sweet (maybe doing more damage in the process), but at the other end there is a price for it. The evaluation of that rush versus the price the game pays for it is at the crux of game design.

I understand there are players who love 3e and 4e D&D because of its tactical skirmish bent. Heck, sometimes I am that player. But when the game’s tactical rules make it harder to run a fast but still fun story-based game, then it is time to revisit them. That is why I am happy that flanking is not yet present and the opportunity attack element of D&D Next is lighter. I would have no problem seeing a tactics-heavy combat scheme added as an option in an advanced version of the game, but I want the base game to not rely on positioning. And because of that, I think characters must be created in a way that lets them be effective without relying so heavily on tactical movement.

Comments

  1. I have the opposite take on it. For me, in both 3.x and 4, the tactical combat was what made D&D work. It’s not that I don’t like story games – quite the contrary – it’s that in almost every conceivable sense, there’s another game that does it dramatically better than D&D. Tactical Combat was the only area that D&D was keeping up.

    Without that, why wouldn’t I play a Cortex+ game, or FATE, Dungeon World, or one of many others?

  2. As always, I’m a fan of your articles. I’m appreciative of your position anyway, Shawn, and just to note: I wouldn’t willingly play Cortex or Dungeon World or Fate if given the option. D&D has always been best for telling it’s own kind of adventure stories and no “story game” is ever going to compare to it.

    I’m glad you mentioned that rules that are similar to flanking have been part of AD&D (and even Basic D&D) for years, but they were always applied on a discretionary basis- the DM might give them to you or he might *not* give them to you, but the point was what happened between one moment of combat to the next (which power? which attack?) should never have taken precedence over what is going on in the story overall…(we are in a dungeon! we are on a quest!) or the fact that suddenly your characters are fighting in the first place.

    This has everything to do with Combat as War vs Combat as Sport: (link: http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?317715-Very-Long-Combat-as-Sport-vs-Combat-as-War-a-Key-Difference-in-D-amp-D-Play-Styles )

    Under the ‘sport’ model, the sides are always even and flanking is a matter of skilled player behavior to squeeze advantage (and possibly sneak attack damage) from one round to the next out of an attack. Bottom line– if it’s a players decision whether or not to flank for an additional +2? well than all players are expected to flank, otherwise they are playing it wrong. They were “inefficient”.

    Making a tactic like flank an optional wrinkle or DM controlled whim emphasizes that player tactics and decisions *outside* the rules (for example, trying to avoid the encounter entirely via roleplaying or using a clever plan involving a diversion on the opposite side of the camp set up by the ranger suddenly becomes a viable option). It opens up possibilities. It’s more creative. The Dm gets back into the role of handling situations as they come up, and not in prescripting plans for the PCs or managing these very structured combat procedures where players are pressured to always perform efficiently.

  3. I agree with the author. Perhaps I go even farther. I’ve found the tactical aspects of 3e & 4e to be a needless complication that slowed down the game and made it really easy to put the story in the backseat. That being said, I admit that many players are more interested in mechanics than a story.

  4. cnelson says:

    Flanking and zones of control are really at the heart of tactical play. So it seems to me they must be addressed somehow. Flanking has not slowed down my 4e games but the multitude of powers, fears, and stances associated with them at times are really miserable. Add to that the difficulty of calculating to-hit and damage and you have some long combats. But in my opinion flanking is an important, and really fundamental, tactical mechanic that needs to be codified.

  5. I’m with Kate and CNelson’s comments above. I find the lack of flanking to be a fundamentally missing component in Next. I’m keeping an open mind though and running my first Next adventure during game day. I’ve never understood why tactics and theater of the mind couldn’t co-exist peaceably. If you are playing theater of the mind style, I don’t see why just saying “I move into a flanking position” wouldn’t suffice to grant advantage, etc.

    Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I’ve been playing 4E since launch and we’ve had whole sessions with just RP and skill checks and had a blast. My combat advantage-heavy classes have always had something to do (heck at high levels they have had too many options).

  6. “I wouldn’t willingly play Cortex or Dungeon World or Fate if given the option. D&D has always been best for telling it’s own kind of adventure stories and no “story game” is ever going to compare to it.”

    That’s really a shame, Peter. While you may always prefer D&D, other games have a lot of interesting new game ideas that have different solutions to problems such as this, and it’s worth at least trying them before being dismissive like this.

    13th Age has my favorite solution to this kind of thing, where there are engaged groups of enemies, so flanking is handled more by what enemies you’re battling, and is a good compromise between the minutiae of exact positioning and the totally open “the DM gives permission” style.

  7. Toldain says:

    Just as I like my poetry to have some strict form -14-line sonnets with three stanzas of ABBA and a final couplet – I like my D&D game to have some tactical meat. Constraint inspires creativity, or it should. (I’m not knocking other story game systems, by the way.)

    Those players that are unhappy when they can’t get flanking are probably the same ones who run out of healing surges and want to stop and take a long rest when everyone else could keep going. Because when they jump into the middle of combat, they get tagged pretty hard.

    The solution is not to scold them, or to get another game system. The solution is to lead them, to demonstrate to them how restraint and creativity will make a game that is more fun and more interesting, not less.

    This is one of the basic plot threads of the moving The Gamers: Heart of Dorkness.

  8. Dave: We’re getting a little off topic (this is about flanking!), but I’ll just say I have a long history with the community and the movement that eventually became the story games movement (starting at the Gaming Outpost around 1996, through the forge years) and it hasn’t really all been positive. There was a big struggle at the time over who got to say their game had any story at all, or whether gamers were literally (not metaphorically or rhetorically..) suffering brain damage from playing “traditional rpgs”. It became increasingly vicious over time, it peaked sometime before 4e was released, and is generally regarded as old news, now.

    My personal decision was to boycott. I’ve never regretted it.

    • Fortunately, those exact games listed above have almost nothing to do with any of that. I’m just saying that there are a lot of interesting games out there that have other solutions to these kinds of issues and they’re worth looking at for that alone, even if all is done is to steal bits for D&D.

  9. Shawn Merwin says:

    Thanks to everyone who has added to the conversation. I hope that my main point isn’t getting across. For the game designer, this isn’t about preference between tactical gaming and story gaming. I am trying to call out how even a seemingly simple question–what about flanking–has larger ramifications. The addition of flanking, or more specifically what benefit flanking gives, has huge ramifications in terms of both game play at the table and the overall design and development of a game. If we only get as far as “I like flanking (or tactical play),” then we are only having about 1% of the conversation we need to have.

    I, for example, do like tactical play most of the time. Lots of fun can be had with an encounter full of moving parts and in-depth strategy. The question is this: can we envision and create a game where sometimes we can have tactical play, and other times have battles that are more free-flowing and narrative-driven, and have the rules make sense for both? Can we have players who like different styles playing at the same table and be satisfied, or even pleased?

    • Shawn Merwin says:

      Of course, I meant to say that I hope my main point isn’t getting lost!

    • “Can we have players who like different styles playing at the same table and be satisfied, or even pleased?”

      This is the crux of all the issues that D&D Next is trying to resolve, yes? It will be interesting to see how DDN tries to unite players of all editions without it turning into some murky compromise in terms of rule sets.

  10. richgreen01 says:

    I think Shawn makes a very good point here. I’ve had to call my players out recently on moving their minis around like chess pieces in an effort to get into an optimal position that everyone round the table agrees with. It wastes tons of time and slows the game down to a crawl.

    I have no issue with flanking but coupled with potential attacks of opportunity and player dithering, it contributes to slow combats and not getting enough time in the session for roleplaying and exploration.

    I’ll have a look at how 13th Age handles flanking as Dave suggests as that might be the answer.

    • Good gravy, do I agree with this. I GM’ed a 4e “boss fight” last session with a 4-player party up against a beholder. It was a big battle, I admit it, but with all the tactical positioning and the ongoing effects and the opportunity attacks and and and… the bloody encounter took more than three hours. THREEE HOURSSSS! And that was with me doing my best to fudge things after 90 minutes to move things along!

      I take some of the blame as the GM, I have to, but the 4e system is just ever so painfully slow. I’m done with it.

  11. I definitely see where you’re coming from on this, and think my preference would be to go with those commenters who suggest a “DM’s consideration” approach to tactical bonuses. I know that my game suffers horribly from this stuff. I had to implement a sand-timer to discourage people from trying to plot intricate courses through chaotic melee scenes just to avoid attacks of opportunity. The rules for diagonal movement in 3e only made this worse. I also am still dealing with a PC rogue who gets a little defeatist if the group runs into something he can’t backstab, like undead. I wonder if the discrepancy in damage dice between 1d6 or 1d8 for a regular hit and many d6 for a backstab contributes to this problem. I wonder if rogue players would be less fixated on their primary advantage if it didn’t grant as much of a boon. I’ve never met a fighter who is cranky about facing enemies with high AC, preventing them from using a power attack.

    Unfortunately, when playing with certain types of players, who require concrete rules and visual aids to understand what is happening, going with a looser story of the mind approach is not always an option. The guy who plays the rogue in my D&D game has elected not to participate in a FATE-based game I am starting up for that very reason.

    Geoff at http://www.roflinitiative.com

  12. Alexander says:

    Great article.

    I had some of the same concerns moving from AD&D into 3x and then 4e. I own virtually every version of D&D except the original mail order folios. I play other games but I have a nostalgic soft spot for D&D. As an experiment I ran a d20 Conan (Mongoose) without minis or battlemaps. Immediately the question was how do we flank? My response was to ask who will you flank with?

    In this way I could still use both my preference for theatre of the mind and the rules as written. Similarly I could keep attacks of opportunity although they happened only when I described enemies trying to flee opponents they had been fighting.

    For this to work players need to trust that the GM won’t try to screw them with “surprise” elements. Informing players that the creatures are standing at long range only after initiative is rolled won’t do. So far I think it has worked well.

    I have also started running a 4e game (all of my experience has been as a player). In this game I am using battlemaps and minis. It will be interesting to compare the results.

  13. It comes down to this: You can’t have flanking without facing. And since D&D is abstract combat (one round is a series of feints, flourishes and the potential to do damage) it doesn’t make sense to have facing a “thing”. A simple solution is to have some sort of AC penalty the more enemies are attacking a single figure. Having more than one enemy attack a single figure should be ample to represent the distraction of having multiple attackers from multiple directions.

  14. Good post Shawn, and a great time to bring this issue up again. Grounding the idea in recent Next playtests, it seems like the key question is this: should detailed positioning give advantage usually, never by itself, or only when the DM says? The important point you raise is that the answer shouldn’t be determined *only* by the realism-is-good or tactical-combat-is-good proponents, since the answer has a cost for everyone.

    I have a friend back East who’s been playing and DMing since the early days of AD&D. We used maps all the time, and often used minis, pre-3e. A couple of years ago, he switched back to 2e for his games, and declared the 3e rogue to be `the face of the problem’ – when detailed positioning became essential to such a fundamental part of the game, everything slowed down to match.

    I’ve experimented with narrative flanking and TotM play in both 3.* and 4e, and it works – but it takes a while to get into the mindset, especially to re-develop the ability to evoke the mental image of the battlefield, and to develop group trust. Running playtests of 13th Age really helped with one group, largely because they didn’t feel like they could fall back to the map, so they didn’t seem to wish for it so often. The result was faster combat that generally replaced some tactical depth with narrative depth. In my experience, basically everyone had some trouble making the switch, and basically everyone liked it after they had done so.

  15. I’ll have to disagree. I never found story in the simple combats of older editions. I found that players would run up to the monster they were going to fight and stand their swinging their sword until the monster died or stay back casting their one spell per round. Sure a descriptive phrase might be given but that really isn’t story to me (and isn’t mutually exclusive with more complex combat systems). The story is the adventure, the role playing and everything else except the combat.

    Fourth ed finally (and 3rd to some extent) added a reason, bonuses and penalties, for maneuvering in a fight. Those moments where good tactics paid off or those times when someone dared to give up an opportunity attack to save a friend… those moments added to the story for me in ways the older combat styles never did.