Okay, I have to give props, again, to the great work done on Large Polyhedron Collider about adding tactics to RPG combat. That series of posts kind of influenced this 13th Age idea, and while I have linked to them before I think they are worth mentioning again.
That out of the way, let me ask you a question: what do you spend the most time thinking about in combat?
Rolling dice, adding up modifiers, those certainly take up a chunk of the combat turn. Deciding what spell to cast, or limited-use power, might take a little time too - assuming your class has those. In Pathfinder we had all the combat maneuvers, you could try to disarm or trip or stuff - but I found they rarely took a lot of time to contemplate, since they generally sucked. In Pathfinder if you didn't build a character specifically for maneuvers then they were very hard to pull off. Even if you did take a feat or class good at them, a lot of times they were hard to do (unless you wanted to grapple the mage) - generally you would have better odds of success by stabbing something with your sword.
13th Age seems even worse. They don't have any maneuvers. The flexible attacks trigger on die rolls, so you don't need to think about them at all. 1/Battle and Daily abilities you think about, but once you actually use them then you have nothing to think about again. From my limited playing and watching my players as GM, there is not a heck of a lot you really have to focus on. At least, not much that the rules help you with - sure, you could concoct some wild scheme, but without a rule or guideline you have no idea if that might be possible or even helpful. Rules give you a degree of understanding - this might work, that probably won't - and you can't make a choice without some knowledge. New players, I think, really have a hard time trying to pull some hair-brained scheme out of their back pocket.
So, tactics. Tactics are specific maneuvers to accomplish some kind of goal. Strategy is a broad framework, I'm the Ranger- good in the wilderness and with a bow. Tactics are specific, I'm going to shoot that guy. Strategy is pretty well represented in most RPGs, it's all the character creation stuff. The character you built (or rolled) defines your general strategy. But every fight is not at 30 feet on a flat field at noon (or, well, hopefully it isn't) - so you need tactics for how you change your fighting style to accommodate the environment or the opponent. Sadly few games have tactics, mostly tactical choices instead are strategic abilities when you build your character. Pathfinder was pretty bad about that (again, if you didn't specifically build for maneuvers you had slim chance of pulling them off successfully, and who cares about an option that doesn't work?). 13th Age really seems to suck at that, since the flexible attacks that should be tactical are instead taken out of your control and there are no maneuvers, fighting defensively or aid another.
Okay, all that complaining out of my system- here's a house rule to add some tactics to your 13th Age game, that shouldn't imbalance things too badly (actually, given that combat is generally against the players, this might really help them avoid the TPK). Fair warning, I haven't implemented this system in my own game yet, so use at your own risk.
My 13th Age game is a mashup with some Fate elements, but you don't need that for this house rule. I am going to present the tactics tied to the Fate Approaches, but that's just flavor text in this case (though, honestly, I love them a lot better than the default 13th Age "skills"). So this is something you can actually drop on top of your vanilla game despite the strange wording.
So, tactics are about choices. I want these to be choices that anybody can make - so these tactics are available to every character (and monster, if you want). The best choices are conflicted, they have elements that are good and bad, so I'm going to try to make these both positive and negative (in different ways). I'm going to say that a character can change tactics at will, but the post above has a good point that once you start fighting a certain way it can be hard to stop (given the focus on staying alive) so you could say that you have to disengage to switch tactics. You could also say that the lowest initiative has to declare what tactic they are using first, then they are resolved from highest initiative to lowest. This lets the characters/ monsters with good initiative try to pick the best tactic for the situation, which might be worth the extra time (and means some monsters at least need to use tactics, like the "elites" and/or normals - mooks don't seem like they should be skilled enough to use tactics). Basically, there are a lot of ways to play with this system that I will leave up to your imagination.
On to the actual tactics. I have two sets of them, you can use some or all. First, let's look at the active tactics, the ways a character can modify how they attack. These were mostly designed for melee combat, but might work well enough for ranged combat too (this is a work in progress). There is one tactic for every Approach. With every tactic you have to set an Approach Die (AD)- which is just a d6, you choose what number, before rolling or resolving the tactic:
- Forceful- add the AD to the damage you do and also to the damage you take. This could be to only one opponent, or to everybody (up to your GM (or how crazy you're feeling?)). This is like the "power attack" from Pathfinder, better damage at the risk of taking extra damage.
- Clever- roll your attack normally, without any modifier from this tactic. If you hit subtract your AD from your opponent's AD for any positive elements. For example, if your opponent does a forceful tactic subtract your AD from their AD damage bonus - but do not change the extra damage they take from the tactic. (this could go only on hit, or weather you hit or not depending on how hard you want to make combat) This is only good if monsters (by which I mean any bad guy, including humans and humanoids) can also use tactics, but hey- you only need to be clever against damgerous opponents. I guess you could re-work this as a penalty to a foe's special ability (like spells, spell-like abilities and such) depending on your system and how you want it to work.
- Quick- add the AD to your to-hit roll, but subtract it from your damage. This is a fast attack (or series of attacks?), but that means not well aimed or very strong. Good for when you have a hard time hitting anyways (I'd say a minimum of 1 damage after the AD mod) and to make weaker monsters a little dangerous.
- Deliberate- roll your attack normally, without any modifier from this tactic. If you hit your maximum damage is the AD (or, each die rolled maxes at the AD). However, if you get hit the maximum damage you can take is the AD. This is "fighting defensively," looking to protect yourself, at the cost of doing less damage. Good if you need to buy time for an ally to come to your aid. Exactly how to convert the damage depends on your system (I'm actually moving to a different, simplified HP system myself which I'll describe later).
- Noticeable- roll your attack normally, without any modifier from this tactic. On your next turn only, add this action's AD to your next action in a positive way (for example, to the bonus damage done with forceful, but not the extra damage taken). Noticeable is about being seen, so this is where you create a false opening to lure in your opponent. It's planning for the future, watching the fight unfold.
- Sneaky- choose weather to add the AD to hit or damage or armor class/defense. After the action, lower the AD by 1. If the AD is still in play (above 0) then the next time you use a Sneaky tactic in this battle you re-use the die. You can still choose what to apply it to, and again lower by 1 after until it is out of play. Being sneaky is very powerful, and flexible, the feint or backstab kind of maneuvers. But, once you've stabbed someone in the posterior the odds are that they are going to pay more attention to you to avoid that happening again. So I designed sneaky to stick around and lose effectiveness over time, keeping that "burst damage" feel I think.
With those 6 tactics, players now have ways to modify how they act in combat, hopefully giving them something interesting to think about and a meaningful choice to make. But after working out the above system I noticed that something was still lacking. There wasn't really a way to do that "aid another" like in Pathfinder. I debated adding it as another tactic/approach, then had a really crazy thought- what if each tactic could be used either for oneself, or to aid an ally? Now, there would be 6 different ways to help your teammates, which again hopefully you could customize to the situation. So here is a list of six more tactics, when used to help an ally instead of yourself. You still roll a normal attack/action - but instead of adding the Approach Die somehow, instead the AD is used for your ally. If you hit, or no matter what if your GM is generous (since something that you know will work is worth doing as opposed to trying something that may or may not work).
- Forceful- knock your foe off-balance, giving your ally your AD as a bonus to hit.
- Clever- create an opening, giving one ally a free attack (with or without tactic modifiers?) against your opponent.
- Quick- interrupt your foe, subtracting your AD from their positive tactic bonuses against one ally.
- Deliberate- interpose yourself between your foe and an ally, taking the foe's attack against yourself instead. You can intercept 1 attack for every point of your AD, but you also take your AD as a penalty to your defense.
- Noticeable- attract a foe's attention, giving that foe your AD as a penalty to hit any allies.
- Sneaky- set up your foe for an ally to finish off, adding your AD to your ally's positive tactic modifiers.
Combat is important, life is on the line after all. So we want it to be meaningful, to be engaging. Which I think a lot of games have a hard time doing well. Too much combat seems to be crunching numbers or adding dice, and not enough thinking about the situation and trying to find the best actions. You should ideally be thinking about the fight from your character's boots, not juggling standard/move/quick/free actions, attacks of opportunity/reactions and 5 foot squares. I think this tactic system might help add some meaningful choices to the player's list of things to think about. I'm still polishing it to use in my current campaign, so I'll let you know after I have a chance to use it. If any of you are brave enough to try, please throw me a comment below. Theoretically you could use this in any game, Pathfinder or D&D 5th say, that had similar mechanics for resolving a fight.
Random Note- in Fate Accelerated the approaches have slightly different names. What I call Deliberate is called Cautious. And my Noticeable is called Flashy. I kind of like my names better, for reasons, but I wanted to point it out to clarify any possible confusion.