Non-Mechanical Strategy—How do we Encourage This?

I was very surprised when running Freeform Skirmish Referee (a referee’d wargame) how players who previously weren’t very strategic previously became incredibly tactical and, basically, handled combat in a way that I would LOVE to translate to TTRPGs.

The problem, though, was that Freeform Skirmish Referee doesn’t have any player-facing rules, which is the reason I feel the players acted so tactically. The distinct lack of an attack roll intuitively forced the players to act creatively and leverage advantages. So, in a TTRPG, how do we get players to stop ONLY attacking?

Sure, you could always remove the combat mechanics for players, but I’m specifically interested in applying this style to other TTRPGs with minimal revision. Any ideas?



I think the key is that non-mechanical strategy needs to be incentivized by being more effective than mechanical strategy.

No one is going to be super creative for minor benefits like advantage on a single roll or whatever.

What system are you looking to hack some non-mechanical strategy into? Because I think in more complex games you DO end up having to translate the strategy into mechanics in some way. They key is doing so well.

Probably Into the Odd and its children games, though preferably, I could port it to just about anything.

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One way would be to make direct attacks underpowered — or even impossible — so that if players want to attack, they need to build a proper opportunity through tactical play first. You could do that diagetically: maybe the NPCs they face are heavily armored and the PC has to maneuver them into exposing a weak spot.

Or you could achieve it mechanically: make the threshold for a successful attack high enough that the odds of failure are prohibitive unless you’ve stacked advantages by playing tactically. For example, judge attacks like a d20 rollover, but instead of rolling a d20, make them build a dice pool by giving them a d6 for each advantage they accrue from tactical moves. If they need to roll an 8 or higher to land an attack, then they’ll need at least two advantages, but they’ll probably want at least 3 to improve their odds.

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I like that dice pool idea! That might need its own system :eyes:

Yeah, as soon as I hit send, I realized that it would be a good fit for A Thing I’m working on. Oh well, it’s out there now!

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This is what the Surprise Room mechanic in Goblets & Grues (my perennial-WIP system) is all about. The idea is that, instead of checking for random encounters in every room, you usually only check for them in rooms with interesting environments.

It’s what @substituteadventurer is saying about how you have to incentivize non-mechanical strategies: put a chandelier overhead or a bottomless pit in the room that’s going to do way more damage than hitting the monster with a sword.

G&G also uses ItO-based combat and EB’s anti-gang-up rule, which means players are further disincentivized from attacking a monster when someone else already attacked them this round.

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Introduce more physical elements with potential energy. Ropes, chandeliers, exploding barrels, mine carts…

Making it so “I hit them” is the “big dummy” option. Skorne does this. You can’t just attack things until they give up. Big monsters, fewer dice rolls, hugely reward clever tactics over brute force.


Lately, I’ve been leaning a lot on my Encounter Activity tables to provide some opportunity for this (in addition to various neutral procedures, like determining Awareness (Surprise), their Disposition (Reaction Rolls), how far away they are (Encounter Distance). There are a lot of opportunities this way for the encounter to take a different direction if these are used, but my Encounter Activity Tables can fundamentally alter the nature of the encounter from the player’s perspective in an interesting way in addition to adding a little bit of dynamism, etc.

Once the nature of the Encounter itself is established, then I move onto the Battlefield. Furnishings/Terrain/Hazards in the area itself might spark some ideas or tactical options. One really fun thing I’ll occasionally do is crib from Ryuutama and do what my player’s affectionately refer to as a “Build-A-Battle.” It works kinda like this:

YMMV, as it is pretty different from standard “Referee as lens to fiction” play if you’re cool with surrendering a little bit of narrative control to your Players. I’ve done it before with a variety of games and it’s really fun and it really helps with the mental overhead of having to “always be ON and coming up with interesting scenery.”

Basically, after Initiative is determined (and so we know there’s gonna be a fight!) set the scene as you usually would: It’s a dungeon room repurposed as a Kitchen, It’s a Creepy Forest, It’s a Shard Strewn Scree, etc. the Players create some battlefield objects/terrain/scenery that fit would generally be found in a place like this (I think it’s usually around 5 or so total). As Referee, you’re still allowed to veto anything utterly ridiculous of course (“We’re in a Spooky Forest so no bubbling Volcano lip that is conveniently right next to the Goblins!”), but it can be really neat to let your Players help set the scene by giving them a chance to be creative and help “picture” the battlefield with you instead of having to do all the work yourself :).

You can even reward them for incorporating neat/interesting interactive things into their tactics as well. With the Ryuutama combat system, if a player describes an attack as using one of these objects to assist them, they get an Accuracy Bonus, and the object is “used up” for the rest of the encounter. I’d probably stick with that as a rule of thumb. I suppose if you’d like to incentivize creativity in a more traditional-type game, you could give them “advantage” to a roll, or just a minor bonus to various things:

  • The Attack roll ( “I swing from that Low Tree Branch that Leslie created to stab the Owl Bear!” )
  • Damage Roll ( “I push the Kobold back into the Spikey Statue of a Chaos Warrior that Penelope made up!” )
  • Or even a Saving Throw ( “I jump behind that Big Boulder that Steve placed at the start to avoid some of the Chimera’s Fire Breath!” )

The Referee can add stuff too once the ideas start flowing. And keep in mind, these things are all fair game for the monsters too! Then it sometimes becomes kind of a “race” to take advantage of the terrain before it’s all “used up.”

I think the key takeaways are communicating to your players and making sure the fiction/feel is shared as much as possible between everyone. Obvious attempts at “gaming” or abusing it aren’t really the intention here, so there’s some trust involved.

I like to add the limitation “you can’t use something you created” (so another player has to use it, and you have to use something made by someone else…that really ups the ante creativity-wise). I suppose you could even give any boon it grants an X-in-6 chance of actually taking effect or something, just to keep things a little more “random,” but I like my combats to be quick and to the point, so I don’t fiddle with anything like that :).

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Lots of great stuff here.
But, for me, I find we might want to alter some of the words being used as they are a little confusing and misleading, at least to me.

So my understanding is that we are looking ways to encourage folks to use a variety of approaches and tactics and not only, or over relying on, using just a very simple “I attack” option.

I would suggest that we don’t conflate “I attack” with “Non-Mechanical strategy” as lots of the ways suggested are actually rules, procedures, and mechanisms to have the desired effect. Many of which are themselves mechanisms.

To me, the two obvious pathways (as stated above by many others) are:

  1. Incentivize other mechanisms and approaches, make those more effective. Not only will they be more interesting, they will also work better at doing what the player wants.
  2. De-incentivize “I attack”, sort of a corollary of 1, but make it so “I attack” isn’t effective or optimal. So this can be by making any situation where “I attack” is used is extremely risky. So much so that the risk greatly out values the reward. But it can also be done by making it so the the “I attack” option just isn’t effective, no significant progress is made and clearly communicating that to the player, so they understand that continuing that approach will not get the desired result.

I tried just telling my players, “hey you can try stuff that isn’t on your character sheets” and “if you’re clever you can avoid combat” and it worked pretty well for Troika! and for Cast Away.

I find almost anything can get better by blurting out whatever is on your mind, without having to change anything about the game.

More to the OP’s question though - wouldn’t the equivalent of that wargaming style be to play your ttrpg FKR style, where players don’t know the mechanics?