Wednesday, June 3, 2009

More battles are lost than are won

One of the mindsets I often encounter online is a belief by GMs that they must run their NPCs involved in a combat against the players as tactical masters, wise and skilled who never make foolish mistakes. They feel anything else is unrealistic.

How odd, and how unknowing of history.

To take but one example, General Robert E. Lee is considered to rank with the best (if not the best) US generals in history. Yet there was error after error committed by him at the Battle of Gettysburg. GMs of the mindset I noted above wouldn't have allowed such a thing to happen, and by so doing fail in any attempt at realism.

But that example is of one of the greats, a true standout. Most don't rise to the skill of a Lee, but rather more commonly reflect a McClellan. The simple truth is that most leaders of men aren't very good, and they commonly make serious mistakes.

Some shine under some conditions, but fail when the conditions of the test change. Bull Halsey is a good example of this- excelling at times, but failing come the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Such is what it means to be human.

Nor are machines much better, for a AI committed to following the most reasonable course would have failed where C. Wade McClusky succeeded- with a much darker course of the war as a result.

Such things roll all the way down to troops. US Marines are famous for skilled actions, but the same can't be said of WWII troops from Italy.

I tend to run most of the foes in my campaigns rather poorly, reflecting any number of weaknesses both in the 'troops' and in their leadership (Orcs are a wonderful example- powerful and often found in great numbers, but cowards and bullys with little teamwork). My goal is not to have them perform at their best according to the game system- but as they would. And it's rare indeed that I field a elite NPC foe that I pull out all stops on (thus depending only upon my own tactical failings instead of modeling specific ones).

One result is that I tend to field larger numbers, and wait for the players to take advantage of the limits I've placed on the tactical judgement of those numbers. This I feel gives the players both something to test themselves against, and a feeling of earned success when they overcome such an advantage of numbers and resources. Thinking they're backs are up against the wall to start with, it's rare indeed for my players not to find and take advantage of the gaps in their opponents.

As an added advantage, this approach prevents group wipes in what others would consider rather dangerous game systems. Playing the NPCs instead of trying to the kill the players with the near limitless perception of a GM alters such games significantly- and they become far more dangerous to the villians then they are to the heroes.


Anonymous said...

Interesting, but I think it bears pointing out that more often than not heroes go after villains on the villains' home field. While open field conflicts (party vs. bandits up to army vs. army) have that degree of uncertainty that lends itself to justifying mistakes, a villain defending his base of operations should be doing so at a greater efficacy. And though I agree with your assessment of orcs, does your modelling change if the unit is hobgoblins? I think it should, hobgoblins being portrayed as more disciplined and militarily inclined.

I'm not saying there's not a time and a place for keystone coppery on the part of NPCs, and certainly I think that the PCs should be rewarded whenever possible when they do things that are strategically or tactically sound by panic and distress on the part of their opponents. However, in most instances, the heroes should expect their opposition to be at least as facile as they themselves.

Gleichman said...

History is as full of stupid mistakes on the part of defenders as it is anything else, if not more.

Indeed history teaches that being on the defense itself is if anything a mark of failure out of the gate. So no, I don't think defending home ground gives one more wisdom although it does offer other advantages (and disadvantages).

The closest I have to Hobgoblins would be Uruk Hai, and yes they are more disciplined and have better morale- up to a point. But they shatter hard and fast when they break as well.

That's not to say there are not creatures I don't play as best as I possibly can. There are. But their appearance in the campaign is rare.

Zachary The First said...

I think McClellan's a good choice of excelling under certain conditions, and tanking it in others. I've always ranked him an excellent defensive general, with an excellent capacity for organization. But he couldn't follow through on the offensive for anything.

Gleichman said...

There are many who agree with you Zachary. I think he would have served well in logistics.

But you can't win a war setting on your defenses...

jamused said...

Interesting. I think most of my effort as a GM goes into making the NPCs not take unfair advantage of having nearly perfect info.

Gleichman said...

I've heard the flip side jamused, with some claiming that they can't keep up with their players.

But I would think yours and I would be the more common experience, as GMs who can't keep up tactically with all the advantages they have moving to different types of play.