Monday, March 23, 2015

Of Strategy in RPGs (Also: Simplify)

Some thoughts following from Transformation of War applied to the RPG context.

If we accept the assertion that "tactics is winning battles, strategy is putting yourself in a position to win battles and then profit from them," the existence of a pair of spectra becomes evident.  In RPGs where tactical combat is a focus, grids are the norm and combat is detailed.  Combat modifiers and options abound in order to model details, and positioning matters.  In RPGs where tactical combat is neglected, there are typically fewer options, fewer modifiers, and less focus on position and teamwork.  In RPGs where strategy is a focus, resource management across battles is typically important.  Ammunition, encumbrance, and limited healing and spell slots are all normal in this form.  Conversely, RPGs which neglect strategy tend to feature readily available healing, per-encounter rather than per-time resources, and generally neglect mundane supply considerations.

Combat as War and Combat as Sport is a false dichotomy.  These are cultures that have grown up around strategically- and tactically-focused combat.  I believe that an RPG which was high-detail in both tactics and strategy is eminently possible, and could provide a compromise position for a group of players with mixed CaW/CaS preferences if done properly; you put the CaW players in charge of the strategy / bookkeeping / mule train, the CaS players in the tactically-complex roles, and make the opponents sufficiently difficult that you need both talents in order to succeed.  The problem is (as usual) complexity.  Such a system would probably be quite the pain in the ass.

Complexity is why we tend to see systems falling into one of "strategically-detailed", "tactically-detailed", or "very rules-light".  There is an upper complexity threshold, above which nobody publishes successful games.

What is interesting is that the tactical branch of the D&D family seems to accept tactical abstractions more readily than the strategic branch accepts strategic abstractions.  4e took this position to its extreme - a highly normalized, tactically-focused RPG where powers all fell into uniform abstractions.  I believe this is a contributing factor to the tactical branch's success in the last decade and a half.

So I guess that's my challenge to the OSR - I like strategic RPGs.  I like resource and risk management and intelligence-gathering and general skullduggery.  But the problem if you want to bring strategy to the masses is the degree of detail.  Your average tactical-tradition player doesn't give a hoot about historical zweihander stances and can't be bothered with weapon-vs-armor tables or weapon speed factors, and the tactical tradition at large accepts that these tactical details are acceptable losses.  We need to ask ourselves some questions in the same vein.  Let's start with gear.  Torch vs lantern: important?  The only time the cost makes a difference is at 1st level.  After that the lantern is straight-up superior except for the torch's extremely marginal combat utility.  Iron vs normal rations?  Five different flavors of medicinal herbs?  Counting copper pieces?  Encumbrance by stone was a good start, a step in the right direction, but we need more usable abstractions.

For example: At the end of the day mundane noncombat gear tends to fall into just a few categories - light sources, tools (stuff you'd get at a hardware store; iron spikes, hammers, crowbars, chain, ...), medicine / alchemy, rations, containers (sacks, backpacks, &c), and specialist tools for particular tasks (holy symbols, instruments, grappling hooks, portable rams, lockpicks...).  What if those were your units of mundane gear?  "I've got my armor and weapons, a stone of tools, and a stone of lighting."  Then during play, either having a stone of X lets you do Y (ie, a stone of medicine lets you treat stuff but has six charges), or you can concretize during play (You had a stone of unspecified tools, now you have a hammer, some iron spikes, 50' of rope, and half a stone of unspecified tools), or they're just sort of one-stone gear packages (ie, a stone of tools is actually a hammer, 12 spikes, 50' of rope or chain, a crowbar, a dagger, and a lock or manacles).  Do these mechanics diminish pre-mission planning, which is an element of strategy?  Yes, certainly!  But is that an acceptable sacrifice in order to make mundane noncombat gear and encumbrance usable voluntarily and sustainably by say, the average player of the tactical tradition?  Just how simple can we make logistics while preserving its essence during play?

Heck, another one I've wanted for a while is hiring mercenaries as squads rather than individuals.  Or you hire a mercenary sergeant and he takes care of recruiting, training, and wrangling a single unit of dudes and sends you a bill and a status report every month.  Yes, you could spend your time sending your PC to scour the ends of the earth for a few good pikemen.  Maybe that's fun for you, and if so you're welcome to it.  But for everyone else, there are sergeants.  Likewise, you could hexcrawl manually, tracking every tree and mountain in the Western Marches style.  Maybe that's fun.  Maybe you just want to hire local guides instead to lead you to the ruined Temple of Ulf.  That works too.  Maybe you like designing castles on graph paper, maybe you just want to plunk down 50kgp plus engineering expenses and go "has castle" and not worry about the details until they matter, if ever.  Maybe you derive great satisfaction from optimising your gear loadout, but many folks don't, and a simple option which keeps things moving while also keeping mundane gear and encumbrance relevant would be welcome.

This is, I think, the wisdom of Traveller.  Trav has a number of complicated subsystems (ship design and trade spring to mind), but they're isolated.  If those aren't your thing, it's not a problem - just pick one of these prebuilt ships and run bulk cargo and it'll be alright.  You can do (much) better if you do it the hard way, but whether that's worth the time is a question of personal preference.  This is something that ACKS and probably other parts of the OSR could learn from (though to ACKS' credit, fighting a battle with Domains at War is much like this - if you want to get tactical, you can use Battles, and if you don't there's a simple system in Campaigns.  We need more options like this).


  1. That complexity barrier is also a stress barrier. If there are no free decisions (decisions where skill is not required), the game is an exhausting, marathon test of skill.

    I think that's why you see skilled players have more fun with complex systems. Even though they're making thoughtful decisions all the time, at least some of those come naturally. It also might result in them backseat-driving for other, less-skilled players. That's why games like Flashpoint can be less fun.

    As far as I can tell, a good co-op game requires a mix of free decisions, open skill decisions, and hidden-information skill decisions.

    Abstraction is the tool we use to adjust the skill requirement of a decision. If I have to worry about blood loss and limb injury, combat decisions will require a lot more skill (and time, incidentally). If health is just HP, decisions get easier.

    There is a tendency to make questions of strategy very low-skill in tactical tradition games. It doesn't matter how you entered the combat, just whether or not you buffed beforehand / were ambushed, etc.

    Obviously it's possible to have both, but what do you sacrifice to stay under that complexity barrier?

    1. So we talked about most of this out-of-band, but I think we didn't get to the note that strategic questions are mostly low-skill in tactical tradition games. I'm not sure this is necessarily true - in 3.x for example, this is definitely not true if you're using the old-style Vancian casters in a setting where cheap scrolls and wands are not available for purchase. 3.x is sort of interesting because it starts pretty strategic; 1st level 3.x is about as strategic as any OSR game. You get more HP, the wizard gets a bonus spell, and the cleric gets a spell at all, but ultimtaely you're still really weak and resources matter. It's weird, though, because over the level range it gets more tactical, rather than more strategic; resource restoration capabilities and abilities that let you control the pace of sequential engagements grow too quickly. Also I guess tactical DMs are generally unwilling to let enemies react to disengagement sensibly... or to react strategically at all, really, so there's a cultural element to it too.

      I guess on some level, though, the 10-minute adventuring day is the ultimate strategic abstraction, so you may be on to something at least inasmuch as emergent abstractions within the culture of play tend towards extreme simplification.

  2. Have you checked out LotFP's encumbrance system? It's actually simpler than the one you outline here but gets enough crunch to be strategically interesting.

    1. I have not! Will definitely do, though; thanks for the recommendation!