I was reading some articles on the WOTC website (which seems to have found a much better balance between insider and open content. go them!) when I stumbled across a question from their “Save My Game” forum:

My group has trouble roleplaying. We’ve been through about five sessions, and they are about to reach level 3, but they still don’t get the roleplaying aspect of the game. They continually pause to discuss tactics and rules wordings, so that when the Diplomacy check is made it’s not entirely the PC who made it. To a certain extent I’m fine with this; I allow two people to assist and let them give advice on how to phrase things. However, recently it has become a hassle in combat. Originally I did not stop it because they were getting used to their characters, but now I’m having trouble with them planning out tactics that they would not be able to do in a combat encounter. For instance, they go into detailed plans of who should use what power and such.

How do I make them come up with their own decisions instead of deciding as a group? I’ve tried giving them six syllables per combat round, and they either make ridiculous sentences that couldn’t possibly convey meaning (“Tweak missile staff!”) or ignore the rule when I’m busy with another player. Help would be much appreciated.

My Tip for today? Don’t be this guy.
I’m tempted to stop right there, but I guess I should expand on that. Alas.

He (she?) is playing D&D 4th edition, a game with a strongly tactical combat system. Each player has a set of well defined actions they can take each round in combat and the rule system assumes that a party will work together to achieve synergy effects in combat. (If you are running a game for players who won’t work together to achieve synergy, make sure to lower the difficulty of combats or keep a copy of the character generator at the table. If they do work together, you can make their standard combat encounter several levels higher than they are and still not have the fights seem unfair.)

The basic assumptions of the D&D game are that the PCs are special, much more competent than the average warrior, and even a first level PC is heads and shoulders above the run of the mill. You have these teams of specialists who take long trips to distant locations together, then face all sorts of asocial creatures that want to feast on their livers. Unless the party is particularly stupid or dysfunctional, they will spend a not inconsiderable amount of time talking things over so that in combat and every where else, they can act as a unit. The PCs will know each other’s powers, they will have arranged signs and signals to make rapid response in combat or anywhere else where they need a positive result worked out ahead of time, and they will have a vested interest in making sure that everyone is on the same page.

These people are professionals in a field where even when you do everything right, it is not uncommon to end up dead. You expect the same sort of coordination you would get from a swat team or a special forces unit, because the party is generally the freelance fantasy equivalent of that sort of unit. If they do the same sorts of things that a special forces unit does, but they don’t bother with developing the same degree of coordination as a special forces unit, then, quite frankly, they should probably end up dead.

Notice I said “PCs” not “Players”. Your PCs live in the world, they face injury, death, and worse in every fight, they spend days and weeks together with their party members when they aren’t facing imminent danger, and a lot of that time should be used working on group tactics and communications. Your players, on the other hand, are sitting around a table on comfortable chairs in a climate controlled room with snacks and drinks and a convenient and hopefully clean bathroom at hand. They get together for 4-8 hours each week, or every two weeks, or what have you to play a game. They don’t have the time or the incentive to spend the hours and weeks it takes to form a well organized and tactically flexible combat or social team. So to represent that down time that your players (if they are at all mentally healthy) can’t be taking but that the PCs (if they are at all mentally healthy) must, you should allow out of character tactical chatter during any conflict scene, be it a diplomacy session or a long drawn out fight against your favorite band of skirmishers using wolf pack tactics to present a solid threat to a party 2 levels higher than them.

As for the nonsense phrases, that is a direct result of the silly restriction that the writer put on the party’s communication, but it created something (completely accidentally I suspect) with a great deal of verisimilitude. Groups of people who go into combat together develop high density methods of communicating intent and needs to each other. The fact that the sentence doesn’t make sense to an outsider is a bonus not a problem. You don’t want your enemies to be able to tell what your tactical actions are going to be based on what you just shouted to your buddies. That is why catchers have hand signals and why a quarterback will shout out a play without giving it a descriptive name, and why combat teams have a whole series of short phrases and signals that they can use in a furball to communicate.

That said, if the players are getting tired of waiting, encourage the ones discussing tactics to hurry it along, but if everyone else is happy, let it go.

(I have played in games where we had 6 hour planning sessions and then hour action sessions. They were fun, but they aren’t for everyone or even most people. They were also modern or future era games. I had a group of fellow players who all enjoyed that part. Most people get bored with it, and so it should be abstracted into table chatter.)

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  1. I had the same reaction. “That’s not a problem. It’s simulating a team working together after far more training and practice than the players have. Indeed, 4e assumes a certain amount of kibitzing.”

  2. Eva

     /  October 5, 2010

    One thing you do need to look out for in “people tactically planning” is when “people” is only some of the players and “tactically planning” is picking another player’s moves for them. There are timid players who won’t speak up or who will allow themselves to be pushed around with little say. Often this isn’t fun for them and it can be hard to tell that they’re frustrated and upset unless you watch them.

    I’ve seen players get to a boiling point of never wanting to play with certain people over this because GMs didn’t realize it was happening and intercede. The other players involved sometimes don’t realize what’s going on either. I don’t think this is a passive aggressive thing. It’s just hard to say to someone’s face, “shut up and let me make my own mistakes” when you can’t articulate that that’s why you’re upset.

    In those cases I think you do need to speak out and remind the players, “it’s X’s turn. Let them decide what they’re doing.” Failing that, talk to some of the players in private and try to explain to them that there’s unintentional hurt being done.


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