Tactics (Part 1)

I’m not going to lie to you. I love the tactical aspect of roleplaying games. Some people don’t. They prefer rules-lite, theater of the mind affairs, or storytelling games. Those games are great. But when it comes to encounters, I like things a little more orderly, with clear tactics, but with enough wiggle room for the game master to improvise when necessary.

Like many things in life, this love has roots in my experiences. As a young lad, when I first played AD&D, I was simultaneously enthralled by its freedom and its esoterica. It really was like no game I had ever played. It seemed like anything could happen, and its permissions, procedures, and parameters were so different (and often so confusing in their explanation), it felt like anything could happen.

Eventually, I realized this type of game had its perils.

As I started to hone my craft as a Dungeon Master, bringing stories and adventures to my pear group of pre-teen and then full-on teenage young men (very few young women played at the time for a variety of reasons, one of which being we were stupid pre-teen and later full-on teenage young men in the backward days of the 80s), various cracks became apparent. As we struggled with Gary Gygax’s rather arcane vocabulary and his often bewildering way of writing rules. This created enormous openings for the worst kind of argumentation that would give modern comment sections a run for their money. Ad hoc, ad hominem, and ad nauseam arguments could all grind play to a halt. More often than not, these arguments centered on the same thing: “That couldn’t happen because I wasn’t there.” Sometimes table-flipping occurred, followed by tiffs only mediated by long telephone calls to the parties involved, and much to the chagrin to our parents who were deeply confused (and sometimes worried) as to why these strange games ate up so much of our attention. And so many of the arguments had to do with positioning.

I was undeterred by any of those challenges. I knew there had to be a solution.

The first glimmer of a solution came from the Advanced Dungeon Master’s Guide (1st Edition) page 69. That section titled “Number of Opponents Per Figure” was tantalizing but somewhat vague. We were using a handful of miniature figures at the time, mostly because some of us (including me) found them fun to paint, but we typically only used them to show off painting skill and designate marching order.

DMG Tactics

AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, page 69

But the more I read the section on Melee in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and started to parse some of the more relevant parts of those rules, the more I realized that miniatures could help solve many of the problems that I–and some of my other friends–were facing. Not only that, but it could make the combats within the game more dynamic and more interesting. But how?

It was about this time that Dragon Magazine came across my radar. And what a delight. Almost and entire magazine dedicated to the game that I was obsessed with, full of interesting articles, the occasional adventure, and advertisements for strange products. Some of those advertisements gave me the distinct impression that my epiphanies on positioning and tactics were a bit late to the party. My response to the Campaign Series Game Grid Sheets was, “what the fuck is that and how do I get one?” I even ordered away for a 36-inch by 50-inch map and the transparent plastic overlay sheet, naively shoving two $5.00 bills in my request, and never receiving the maps. And $10.00 was a lot of money for me at the time. It was a good week of going without school lunches and some of my babysitting money ($1.00 an hour), the main ways that I funded my gaming habit in those days. Keep in mind that hardback D&D books were between $15 and $20 back in those days.

Campaign Map

Basically, it was the Chessex BattleMat of the 80s.


Like many kids who discovered D&D in the 80s, I had absolutely no experience with wargames of any stripe, and I tended to gloss over when Gary and other writers just assumed that I did. I just thought miniatures were neat and have very few uses in actual gameplay. I started to realize that I was missing out on their real utility. It wasn’t until another book entirely opened my eyes and lead me on my path toward finding the right way to tactically play D&D.

Once upon a time, there was this thing called the Science Fiction Book Club. It was sort of like Columbia House, but instead of records, you got science fiction book. If you’re too young to know what I’m talking about, ask your parents. Basically, you got a bunch of books for a comically low-cost upfront, but you were on the hook to buy more books later. Oh, and they had a selection each month, and unless you told them you didn’t want the selection in time, they would send it to you along with a bill. Basically, it was a subscription scheme to get rid of books sitting in a warehouse. I did get some great books from the service, though. Notably the Elric novels, which I devoured, and some lovely hardcopy versions of the Lord of the Rings, which I still own. One of the books I received in my original order was somewhat obscure tome titled Fantasy Role Playing Games, by one J. Eric Holmes, M.D.

I had not heard of Dr. Holmes before but soon found out that he was the force behind the original D&D Basic Set. Not the Moldvey version that I was more familiar with, but the one that came before it. In fact, the basic set was Dr. Holmes idea. He approached TSR intending to create a more mainstream successful product for the game—something that a younger audience might latch on to. It was a stroke of brilliance and the reason why Basic Sets, Beginner Boxes, and Starter Sets are still produced to this day—a thing that is more accessible and less scary than massive books full of all those damn words. But I was far beyond that. I was one of those kids that bought the Moldvey Basic set for two reasons—Keep on the Borderlands and a complete set of dice. But this book of his that came in the mail had new secrets for me, first and foremost was how he used miniatures.

Like me, Dr. Holmes thought minis were cool. He dedicates the 11th Chapter of this book, Little Metal People, to their history and use. That was eye-opening enough. I learned about miniature war games, the idea that you should use acrylic rather than enamel paints for better effect, just where those damned pig-faced orcs came from, and this little gem, which solidified my burgeoning thoughts on the uses of minis in roleplaying games.

There are advantages to having figures on the table to represent the characters in the game.

“I shoot an arrow, right into the monster’s eye!”

Where are you? Way over there? Your range is eight inches and you’ve got three of your own group between you and the creature. Roll for a hit, and if you miss, you have to roll again to see if you got a hit on one of your friends!”

“Watch out, don’t shoot me in the back!”

The placing of figures facilitates this kind of dialogue with the referee and vastly increase the ease of visualization. Since many game melees are just that, a melee of characters and monsters running about and in and out, the poor referee finds it a lot easier to keep track of them when they are represented by the tiny metal sculptures. And, finally, the whole thing makes an exciting and pleasing spectacle.

— Fantasy Role Playing Games, page 183

This passage, along with the photos in his book of his method of mapping that involved a table with painted over in chalkboard paint made everything click in my mind. I finally understood how I could keep the craziest fights I could imagine straight and cut down on arguments. I finally realized why some measurements in the game were in inches. I finally fucking got it! I bought a giant chalkboard, painted dots on it with my newly acquired acrylic paint to create a one-inch grid, and I was ready to truly game.

Holmes Image 1

Dr. Holmes running the game on his chalkboard table. Fantasy Role Playing Games, page 4.


Ever since that thunderbolt of a day I’ve been working on improving this form of gaming. Next week, we will take a closer look at my newest iteration.


Over on the Patreon site, last week’s Sneak Peek Friday will give you a little preview of what’s to come. If you’re a backer, you’ll get a bit more before it becomes available to everyone next week.


4 thoughts on “Tactics (Part 1)

  1. I never even heard of that book. But I sure remember the Science Fiction Book Club, LOL.

    For me, the epiphany happened when playing another RPG: Traveller. The players in the group I learned to play with never saw the maps in the AD&D books — that was reserved for the DM exclusively, who was a bit of an ass along with being a control freak — but we were on a starship in Traveller, and had to indicate what system we wanted to head to on the map.

    The hex grid on that map was a smack-on-the-forehead moment. Why didn’t we do that on the gaming table for AD&D? We eventually incorporated that and we, too, argued a lot less about who was where when shit went down.

    1. Fantasy Roleplaying Games is more than a little dated but still brilliant. Within it, in Chapter 4: The Reader Takes a Role, Dr. Holmes presents a sample group of characters and a little mini-RPG of his design. Within that description, he presages so many things that later games take for granted, including at-will spells (which are a big part of Delve). And this was in 1981. There have been many heroes of RPG design over the years, but I think J. Eric Holmes is one of the greatest unsung heroes of design.

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