The Challenge: A role playing game offers a number of entertaining options. Some players will find that the randomness of die rolls is the most exciting part of the game. Others will favor the ability to creatively develop their characters. Some will take great interest in the collective story. Certain players will find the possible mysteries to be the best part of an RPG.
And then there are the strategists, the players who look to the stats and abilities, who memorize the game rules and come up with innovative ways to succeed at the various challenges the game master presents. Tactics, like realism, can be critically important to certain players, and utterly annoying to others. You cannot trust that all groups who play an RPG–or even all players within a group–will have the same views on this aspect of the game. Thus the seventh challenge of creating a versatile role playing game: the challenge of promoting strategy.
Strategy can be tricky, because it sometimes seems that to promote strategy is to sacrifice character value. How can there be strategy if all character types possess equal merit? Of course, the reverse of that question is, what is the point of strategizing if there is a single selection superior to any other? As with all aspects of creating an RPG, to properly use strategy, you must allow it to be useful to those who want to use it, but not overpowering against those who do not.
Promoting strategy in a role playing game does not necessarily require that certain choices be better than others, or even that there has to be a specific counter for each choice. It requires only that all choices have an advantage and disadvantage, a benefit and cost. In this way, it isn’t about deciding which is best or what beats what, but about critically evaluating the situation and determining if the cost, at the moment, is worth paying.
The Risk: Incorporating strategy into an RPG is definitely a difficult proposition. Certain dangers are obvious. Game balance and character value are the most likely aspects of the game for strategy to compromise. The reason is that cost and benefits, as has been noted before, do not necessarily balance out even if they are evenly matched.
Any player dedicated at all to strategic character building will naturally seek ways to get around the limits applied to its choices. When determining penalties, such a player will select those that it deems the least likely to actually impact its character’s performance, while balancing these disadvantages with those benefits most useful to the character’s specialty. This technique is known as min/maxing–minimizing the impact of your penalties while maximizing the benefits you accrue.
Aside from the dangers of strategy with regards to character building, there is also the threat of strategy within the game. This is especially visible in cases where only some members of the group frequently strategize. Improper strategic systems create a situation where those who choose to rely on tactics result in having much greater success during the game. Players less adept at this play style lose interest, and may even be exposed to greater risk as the referee begins to utilize encounters where the opponent strategies are equally complex. To make the game fun, a system for strategy has to allow strategic players to gain appropriate advantages–they are putting more effort and thought into the game, after all–but it should also allow players whose strengths lie elsewhere to handle challenges simply and effectively.