Combat Tactics (A GURPS Newbie Post)

Despite the difference in system mechanics, our current GURPS campaign in Rob's Majestic Wilderlands feels very much like our Swords & Wizardry campaign of a few years ago. Same setting, same GM, same players (with a few new additions), and same lousy weather.

GURPS is very different from S&W, yet the gaming sessions feel much the same. That makes it easy for a GURPS newbie like me. I have noticed, however, that GURPS does play differently in combat. Of course, the list of tactical options in GURPS is much greater than in S&W. However, even taking that difference into account, I have noticed a difference that I will illustrate by recounting a recent encounter in the Majestic Wilderlands. But, before I do that, I need to reference a recent post by Patrick at Renovating the Temple.

In his post, "Maintaining Encounter Balance", Patrick notes the following differences between GURPS and AD&D (and, by extension, S&W):
  • AD&D is about managing resources (in combat, managing hit points) while GURPS is about managing actions.
  • AD&D characters increase in defensive capacity faster than in offensive capacity. In GURPS, characters generally increase in offensive capabilities faster than they do in defensive capacity (I am not sure if that holds true for magic-users).
  • In AD&D, one really powerful bad guy is a greater threat than several weaker bad guys. In GURPS, the opposite is generally true.
The above is my summary of Patrick's post and I could be misunderstanding his point, but as I never let facts stop me on this blog, I'll continue.

My epiphany came after reading Patrick's post and thinking about a recent Majestic Wilderlands session involving a fair amount of combat. Our characters are a group of low-powered mercenaries who most recently have been engaged in a series of border raids. As Tim Shorts puts it in a summary of one of our sessions, "Kill the lords, free the slaves." (or, for us, "kill the conquering Scanadians, free the peasants").

In this particularly session, our characters are attacking a small Scanadian manor house at the edge of a small village. The manor offered just enough defensive works to slow us down (low stone fence surrounding it, sturdy stone walls, and stout wooden doors). Our group attacked the few guards we could see posted on the outside of the building. As we overpowered the guards, I (Delvin the dwarf) took a peek over my shoulder to see what was happening in the village. Behind me, I could see about a half dozen armed Scanadians scattered around the village doing whatever Scanadians do in their conquered villages.

At this point, I had to make a tactical decision: Do I dismount and continue with my group on the assault of the manor house or do I turn my horse around and go after as many of the Scanadians in the village as I can get? In S&W (and AD&D), it doesn't really matter which I do, at least from a tactical perspective. I might be worried that a Scanadian will escape and get help, but that is a strategic worry, not a tactical concern. In AD&D, being outnumbered is not good, but it is not usually a significant tactical disadvantage.

In GURPS, however, being outnumbered is a bad thing. Although I didn't really know why at the time, I realized that we could be in big trouble if the Scanadians in the village were able to mount a counter-attack from behind us. Intuitively sensing the danger, Delvin wheeled his horse around and rode down the Scanadians, killing, wounding or scattering them as I traversed the length of the village.

That is one of the things I have come to enjoy about GURPS. Tactics matter in a way that they do not in some other systems.