Monday, February 25, 2008

My Take on Tactics

While discussing tactics, thanuir mentioned Wushu. I have since taken a look at the free version of the rules. I then purchased the Pulp-Fu rules, and I'll probably pick up the rest of the PDFs soon.

The game has an interesting take on conflict. I wholeheartedly support the way it encourages players to participate in the narration. I also love the way better narration and more-dramatic actions generate bigger bonuses. However, I was a little concerned with the way the game decouples descriptions from results.

Basically, when you describe your character's actions, you're not announcing what you would like to happen--you are actually narrating the story at that point. The die rolls then determine how influential the action is on the eventual resolution.

For example, I could narrate that I draw my revolver and plants three bullets into the big bad's chest. However, if I roll crappy, the oozing chest wounds still exist, but they don't slow him down.

Yes, this example is a little contrived. The GM (or any of the players) could, and probably would, veto my description unless there was a good chance that the fight was about to end. Still, the same problem occurs on a smaller scale.

However, after sleeping on the rules (No, not literally. That would be uncomfortable.), I don't think this is a major problem. The Veto rule should prevent the worst problems. More importantly, fiction pulls this stunt all the time. Our protagonist gets kicked bloody. His arm's broken, ribs are cracked, and there's a jagged piece of metal jutting from his leg. But, he still manages to claw his way back to his feet, raise a shaking pistol and plant the fight-ending bullet in the bad guy's forehead.

The only catch is, the players (and the GM) must play off of each others descriptions. If you do that, I think everything will work out fine.

Anyway, while researching Wushu, I found several references to it as a tactic-less game system.

That just doesn't sound right to me. Yes, it lacks many of the trappings of tactics. Resource management is minimal. You don't need to master a number of arcane rules. You don't need to worry about picking just the right skills and abilities when building your character (OK, that's more strategic, but it's related). But, from my perspective, it's still tactical.

When playing, you are still concerned with winning each and every conflict. There is an unwritten assumption that the players will win the majority of the conflicts, and the story is driven forward by their successes.

See, my idea of tactic-less play includes de-emphasizing the tactical trappings, but it also includes a mental shift. Ultimately, the players should not worry about whether they win or lose a conflict--either result should move the story forward. Indeed, loosing a conflict may move the story better than winning.

Of course, we always want our characters to win, but the success or failure of the story should not depend on victory. This obsession with victory is, for me, the key characteristic of tactical play. I could be playing with miniatures, rulers and six-page character sheets, but as long as I can lose the fight and still move the story forward, it's not tactical play.

The story is driven forward, not by characters successes moving them closer towards their goal, but by the decisions they make during times of trouble. Conflicts build and evolve over time, and the story ends when they find a resolution to a major external or internal conflict.

Of course, this brings up a paradox. For the story to succeed, we need the players to become engaged in the story. Tactic-less play runs the risk that the players won't care about the actions, since (to some degree) the results don't matter.

Of course, there's more than one way to engage someone. The characters could become engaged by the competitive win-or-die nature of most tactical play. Or they could become engaged with the characters, or with the plot. Personally, I'd prefer the latter options.

Let's look at a concrete example. I was playing an slender, acrobatic character in a high fantasy game. We were attacked by a group of ogres. After repelling the raid, one of the ogres was escaping back into the woods. I decided to jump on his back from behind, in the hopes of stopping him.

In my mind, I knew the action was tactically bad--the ogre would swat me like a fly--but it fit my character. I was young and inexperience. I had an idealistic view of heroics and a gross overestimation of my own abilities. As a player, I also hoped the action would open up possibilities for the GM. The Ogre would probably injure me or embarrass me. It might leave me with a scar as a reminder. The experience might dull my heroic dreams. It might make me question my own abilities. Alternatively, if we ran into the Ogre again, I would have a more personal stake in the next conflict.

Unfortunately, the GM only saw the action as a tactical mistake, and could only see one resolution for the conflict--my character's death. We stood on two very different sides of the tactical divide.

Anyway, I hope that makes my thoughts clearer. As always, I'd love to hear what you have to say. Please leave a comment or two.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Update on my life

Sorry to disappear for so long. I've been busily working on another magazine article. The good news is, the editor really liked it. The bad news (at least as far as this blog is concerned) is that I will be working on two more articles for him. So, don't expect many posts over the next few months.

In other news, I recently submitted a short story to the Writers Of The Future contest. I just learned that my story recoeved an honorable mention. As I understand it, that puts me in the top 5-10%. So, It's been a good week on the writing front.

As far as this blog is concerned, I have been thinking about a new post on tactical play. Based on some of the comments from last time, I think I have a different definition of tactical play than some of you. But, I'll save that for next tim