Is Tactical Combat Still Roleplaying?

This came up on the GM’s Journal last and this week (Episodes #112 and #113 on Patreon) and I wanted to share the thought more widely: Are you still roleplaying while fighting a tactical combat?

The question arose from my reading this sentence in the Starfinder Core Rulebook:

Anytime you’re speaking for your character or describing her actions
but aren’t in combat, you’re roleplaying.

Starfinder Core Rulebook, page 9

It might just be how I am reading it but turning up, as it does, in a section about the four elements of Starfinder gameplay, the inference is that you don’t roleplay during combat. That struck me as weird.

Roleplaying is when we make decisions and take on the part of the character in our fantastic world. We step into their fictional life and try to see their situation through their eyes. For me, the goal is to be in-character – and thus in role – as much as possible.

When combat breaks out, I will try to make decisions in role as my character. I don’t stop roleplaying during combat. I might even choose to act out my character’s moves (like, pointing my imaginary gun at the GM and making “pewww pewww” sounds) or their words (speaking in first person).

Thinking about this, while I have certainly played in a manner that meant I stopped roleplaying my character during a tactical combat – by which Starfinder seems to mean a fight scene played out on a battle grid with tokens or miniatures – and have made the optimal move tactically rather than the decision my character would take if I maintained the role, I don’t think this is the only way to play during combat.

Personally, I like to maintain my role even during a tactical combat. This sometimes annoys other players who have different goals at the table – for example, those folks who want to win the combat more than they want to maintain their character’s role. But my point is it’s a choice.

While I am enjoying Starfinder and in no way dissing the game, it did strike me as an odd sentence in a rulebook designed to introduce the game to new players. I can’t help wonder if I am alone in feeling that it’s a weird dichotomy for a roleplaying game.

Let me know what you think.

Game on!


  1. I think the system has a lot to do with this. D&D emerged from tactical wargaming, which has nothing to do with roleplaying. This becomes evident from this list of available actions, many of which make no sense from a roleplay perspective and exist merely as a game mechanic with some text to give an RPG “flavor.” Moreover, in a D&D-style game, not only is roleplay in combat not encouraged, but it can distract. Someone insisting on pure in-character talk while other people want to discuss tactics can foster inter-personal conflict at the table, which sours the game experience for everyone.

    In GURPS, Basic Roleplaying, or WoD, it’s easier to maintain roleplay through combat, since characters are still operating in the roleplay world. That is, taking actions a character might actually execute in their worlds, not executing meta-combat options that achieve game results.

    That said, I will go against what much of modern gaming culture believes and say that in-character play is not inherently better than out-of-character. Tactical wargaming has its merits. It depends on the type of game you want. Games that keep players in-character from beginning to end can be exhausting and leave little time for interpersonal interaction. If your goal is to spend time with some friends, an in-character game is not always the best choice. It’s like taking a date you want to get to know to a movie where you have to sit in silence for 2 hours. Sometimes, beer & pretzels fits better.

    That said, If I’m playing with people I only interact with while gaming, or my focus is playing the game, not necessarily the people with whom I’m playing it, I will choose a better roleplay system (i.e., GURPS).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for this – great points and I agree with the idea that all approaches are valid. My preferences are changing from tactical play towards deeper roleplaying in-role… but I love a knock about fight on a battle map. It’s a different itch I scratch when I play (say) Pathfinder or D&D.


  2. I was definitely role-playing during our GURPS Traveller combat last week. It was much more than just tactics relating to combat. I had to think about how much they cared about the other PCs, what would be the fall out either way etc. Stressful but definitely Roleplay and added to the immersion.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There is also an argument about character death. Death is a sensible subject because in a “full” rpg, decisions of life and death are the willing of the GM. If a player death occurs, it can sour people at the table because it might feel as if the GM was too harsh and put out too much danger and makes you feel has if you had no power over the situation. The hand of God came down to earth and slapped you.

    When you have tactical combat “board-game” style, rules are there to ensure everyone knows how to play, and how to lose. Death becomes the matter of the player, not (as much) of the GM.

    To give an example, I am way more responsible for my death if I try to head on attack a dragon at level 3 DnD character because the rules are meant for the dragon to overpower me, and If by mistake I am not versed in the power levels of the monster manual, agood GM will let me know it. So if I decide to go for the dragon, it’s as much a suicide because I knew the rules, I knew the power level, I knew I wasn’t strong enough, I deserve the character death, its on me. And these are the best deaths, the sacrifices.

    On the other end, take the exemple of the 16 HP dragon from dungeon world. The GM can push as much danger he wants before I even have the time to hit the dragon. There are no rules to avoid arbitrary bad decisions. The GM can give me 3 or 15 “defy danger” rolls before I can even try to hit the dragon. It’s all his decision. Which is why tactical combat makes sure everyone is on the same page. A dnd goblin has the same HP and same abilities in every game, which in return makes it fair. Strict rules makes sure the GM doesn’t go in a killing rampage just “for the narrative”.

    Now we could go into an argument on why the GM still can go in a rampage with tactical combat but now is not the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this, Jerome. All valid stuff. As a GM, I feel I want to engender enough trust from my players that we can dispense with the rules being front and centre… but that’s me. And sometimes it’s fun to bust out the tactical combat rules. My main point is that I can still Roleplay (i.e. make decisions in character, even if not tactically optimal) in a tactical combat with minis and battle map.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.