Full Tactical Mode

Monday night’s game in Mystamyr – the seventeenth session – was a lot of fun and the party was involved in a big fight against Orcs and Goblins up at The Whisper Caves. But, about halfway into the fight, I did notice a very big shift once we were in full throttle battle mode using Roll20: we all pretty much stopped describing and slipped instead into full tactical mode.

We are playing using Mythras Classic Fantasy – d100 dungeoneering with the classic vibe and a whole bucket of tasty tactical options. For quite a few sessions now we’ve been moving deeper into descriptive “theatre of the mind” while dealing with a few social interactions. We snap out of that for combats, especially when they involve multiple “bad guys” because the group generally enjoys the full experience with maps, tokens, and a lot of tactical crunch.

The scene at the end of session.

About an hour into the fight on Monday, I noticed that I had stopped describing the scene. It was an effort to narrate the swings and blasts in the fight because in lots of ways, given the way Mythras plays, it seemed unnecessary. But when a player decided to add some back in I noticed the difference this made to my experience of play: I loved it!

I have noticed that if you give me a tactical battle map, tokens or miniatures, and let me run or play out a fight then I will slip (often without realising it) into a different frame of mind. Let’s call it Skirmish Mode – wherein I become focused on how to use the rules of battle to get the most effective outcome for the combatants. This stands in sharp contrast to when the maps, tokens or miniatures go away.

In Descriptive Mode, such as when running the Northern Isles game wherein all the rules are behind the screen, I focus on the details of the emergent narrative. Every detail, second by second, gets amplified in my mind and it’s as if I am in the scene. Roleplaying is easier for me in this mode of experience because I am there: in the imaginary moment, present in the character’s perceptions, and deciding based on their needs and desires. And it’s fair to say that my heart skips along happier when I am deep in the Otherworld.

There is nothing wrong with Skirmish Mode – the full tactical combat scene is replete with challenge and excitement as I try to milk the rules for all they are worth – but given a choice, I would choose the immersed Descriptive Mode any day. Of course, one provides for one’s table and tries to give the players what they want.

Therein lies the rub: I can run a fully tactical skirmish combat game like the best of ’em, but at heart what I really prefer is to live that fight through the eyes of the characters. On Monday, I had the cowardly Goblins begin to act like cowardly Goblins and, right there, I could see a few players expressions shift towards, “Why are they doing THAT?”

It’s a different style of play, just as valid as any other in my mind. But it is different. Once again, I realised that I really prefer gaming without Roll20, without maps and tokens, and without focusing on getting the most from the rules of the game. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

Game on!


  1. Hmm. Gaming takes place in the mind, right. And, gamers have been using illustrations to really enhance the experience since there have been printed games. And most games (RPGs notwithstanding) have tokens of some sort. Now, as I’ve written before, if you want players to be able to make tactical decisions in a fight, they need to see the layout. A verbal description doesn’t cut it. It has nothing to do with rules or exploiting them. Six people hearing a verbal description will have six different understandings of the situation. How can you play a group combat under those conditions? As I wrote on my blog: You don’t know where you are, you don’t know where your friends are, you don’t know where the nearest exits are, you don’t know if there’s anything nearby you can hide behind, jump on or in or under, you don’t know where the enemy is who hit you or how many there are, you don’t know if you have line of sight for a missile attack, if there’s any way to distract the enemy or if you can sneak away, you don’t know what’s in your way if you want to run, you have NOTHING.
    That’s not exploiting rules. It’s making informed decisions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm. Well, I guess I will respectfully disagree. When I describe a combat scene in the Northern Isles, the players were all able to visualise the scene and take decisions within that descriptive framework no problem. So, maybe it’s a difference of mindset. What I do know is that hovering over the battlefield drone-like is a different experience from inhabiting the eyes and ears of my character. It’s a different imaginative perspective. But like I said in the post, battle maps are as valid an approach as any other and your mileage many vary. And that’s all fine by me.


  2. My experience was one of a mentally and physically tired player trying to stay in focus.
    I also fell into the trap of writing ‘too detailed’ notes so I could write up later, but I’ll try to give my observations for any help it may provide.

    As Shelby said above, I do struggle to find reference points, make any sort of tactical play in a combat that remains in the ‘Theatre of the Mind’, though I would like to remain closer to it than we did in the last session.

    There are several things that break the colourful imagery down to plain functional language:

    – One of my gripes with the ‘special effect’ abilities in Mythras, is that all too often I could describe my attack, but
    depending on how high I roll under my skill value, or if I scored a crit’ will determine which special effects I might choose, and thus unless I end up with the option to select my desired special effect(s), then my described/intended attack choice becomes void.
    (a high success roll means that opposed roll special effect actions become more viable, 2 effects means an alternative combo can be applied.
    Perhaps we should declare an intended action / effect to use… then maybe a different option presents itself and we take that instead.
    Frankly I get frustrated… more so with low mood/energy and just resort to ‘I strikes at X with my hammer’ (It only sounds mildly better than, ‘I’m gonna try hit X again’).

    – The temperature and life or death pressures of combat also focus one (even in real life) down to primal, instinctual actions and thought patterns. I suppose when this occurs in RPGs, it means perhaps we are still roleplaying very much in character, that we become focused on move, shift, strike.. the simple tactical/survival decisions needed to keep us alive and defeat our foes.

    – I do get frustrated with not being able to tell if a foe has armour on without stopping to take ‘a good look’. At a glance I would argue I could at least see what body parts are covered … no need for a more detailed description of what specific type of armour.
    It’s easy to know that they have something either dull (leather/fabric) or shiny (metal) visible over body areas. Granted, a foe could be wearing a cloak over metal armour.. which could be anything from plate armour down to a chain shirt, but that might not be visible…. they could even have bare arms under that cloak …. but if their armour is exposed, I’d know instantly if their body / arms / head are covered, just as I’d spot what weaponry they’re using – shield, and axe perhaps?
    Depending on my stance/view it may take longer to see if legs are covered.
    Extra details of how good the armour is, what type, what type of shield / axe, any sidearms etc… would take longer.

    – Initiative ordered actions, while necessary for fairness and structure also force us the break immersion a little.
    Skipping SirGuy’s activation irked me when Derek had to take a call, but it made sense at the time to keep flow and I was pleasantly surprised u let him take that action later in the round. .. that made it feel less like a ‘dither’ and more like a waited action. It wasn’t his choice to dither.
    It’s one of those odd things with the initiative function, essentially everything is happening almost simultaneously and yet one thing slightly out of order can hugely determine what someone is able to do, rather then take an opportune opening.
    Systems and GMs can have very different rules/rulings for how this is interpreted and it can make things either chaotic to track or allow for a little more rule of cool, depending on circumstance and if it becomes abused.

    – Choosing appropriate effects in the midst of melee and being anxiously aware of how long that can take and delay flow, especially in a protracted combat encounter, can actually compound the delaying effect… and cause brain freeze.
    There are a few go to effects appropriate for each of our weapons/characters fight styles, but like a facing a big menu in a restaurant, I get brain freeze and stall. I’m very thankful in these occasions where players like Lars can give me a nudge in the right direction, to keep flow going, even though it does end up feelign like I didn’t run my character myself.. better that than stall altogether. He usually chooses what I would have intended anyway .. given time.

    – The longer a combat encounter extends, the more functional players are likely to become, especially if they feel like they’re struggling (no matter how much that may be due to their own choices).
    It’s easy to become desperate and begin trying to anticipate future actions of their foes and allies, fighting with a top-down perspective, rather than their character’s view-point. I believe this needs to be a conscious player choice, to stay ‘in’ their character’s view and mindset.
    Maybe a veteran soldier would have the wherewithal to keep an eye on all going on around them while fighting an enemy in their face, but maybe more non-combatant classes would get tunnel vision unless they’re positioned in more distance/safety from the nearest threat.

    I do hope we can muster some more colourful descriptive language to make it at more visual affair in future.
    I will endeavour to be a little better prepared with intended effects to maintain flow.

    My genuine belief holds that we could not do the combat scene we’re in effectively purely with theatre of the mind.
    Without a map and counters/icons, we’d have no real way to track all the movement/actions/injuries, and you’ll recall that several things had to be clarified even with a map.
    It’s still only a suggestion of what the GM believes they are presenting.. as Shelby said, 6 players will still have 6 interpretations of what’s there, but with a map and icons, it is far more likely to be at least a similar mental image.

    Despite grumbles and observed limitations, I was enjoying the encounter and the observed behaviours of goblins and orcs … just too tired and frustrated with my poor rolls to be particularly effective.

    Thank you again.
    I look forward to next time… hopefully with a full team.

    With others spending magic points at a rate of knots, I’ve only spent 1 in each of the last 2 sessions.
    Other than Bless (and healing in breaks when I’m not on the front line, or taking hits) I have no spells of any real use in a melee .. or at all. When Sigurd misses I feel quite impotent, but now our Magic user has spent up his resources, we’ll see how well we progress.



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