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Tactical Choices.

I've been thinking a bit more about tactics in RPGs, prompted by our game this week. What I'm on about is how do you present meaningful tactical choices to players without making the resolution system so complex that it takes ages to resolve, adapts to different situations, isn't too restrictive in what choices are available and allows players to make decisions where they have some rough idea of the outcome.

We were playing My Life with Master this week (see below for more details of that session). For those who don't know, this is game where you play minions of an evil master and attempt to bring an end to his evil ways by killing him.

MLwM has a rather specialised system. Apart from interactions with the master, there are only three ways in which characters can interact with the world.

One of these is about increasing the love for a connection, it's rather particular to MLwM and is more about the internal conflict within a minion and improving his chances of breaking free from the master.

The other two are about how the minions interact with the world. One is violence and the other villainy. In effect it doesn't matter what the scene is, you just have to choose one of these methods to resolve it.

There is a small amount of tatical input. There are three extra dice available to boost your chance. These are for intimacy (d4), desperation (d6) and sincerity (d8). There is only one of each die available and the Master can never be sincere. The dice are awarded depending on how you narrate the scene.

It's difficult for minions to be sincere when carrying out the orders of the Master but it's no great shakes to be intimate or desperate. And it's better to be desperate, in terms of winning the roll, because you get a bigger bonus than your adversary. Winning might not seem to be important in what is styled as a narrative game but this game does have an aim, to kill the Master. You can't do this if you never win any scenes.

The MLwM system is about getting enough Love to counterbalance the Self-loathing or Weariness that increase each time you do the Master's bidding. If either SL or W get too high, in effect you miss a turn. Only with this Love can you kill him.

So what does this means for resolution in general?

MLwM has taken it to the bare bones. You can resolve a PC-internal conflict in one way, or a PC-external conflict in two ways. Almost all RPGs are interested in resolving external conflicts and a few about internal ones too.

I'm only going to look at the conflicts external to PCs. I'm also going to use sweeping generalisations to which there are bound to be the odd exception. I might return to these later but I'm not terribly interested at the moment.

So Violence and Villainy. These are the two ways in which any external conflict can be resolved in MLwM. There are a few tactical choices which come from how you narrate what your PC does but basically not very much. octaNe and Dying Earth have some amount of tactics based on how you narrate the scene - in effect which style you chose for narration determines which dice pool your PC can use. The same can be said for Dogs in the Vineyard. But like MLwM, the choice of tactics does not depend on the situation (it does a bit in Dying Earth, you might trump your opponent but nobody uses these rules much).

I'd like to see a system that whilst having a very basic mechanism, such as Violence or Villainy, gives players more tactical options. Not for use in MLwM btw, the system is just fine as it is for that game, I'm talking about the more usual kind of RPG.

D20 does offer something along these lines with the Feats system but I don't find this satisfactory. Because feats are chosen once and for all, you can't adjust your tactics to the situation. If bull-rushing is your thing, everything is a target to be bull-rushed. Also there are now so many feats that it's hard to keep track.

I'm thinking perhaps more along the lines of StarDrakkar. It's a French indie game about space vikings invading a Federation style utopia (for which there may be a translation soon). You play the vikings. This has only two stats: obstinacy and brutality - pretty much the same as violence and villainy. These are represented by two metres that allow them to vary but sum to a constant. You can adjust the stats at the beginning of a scene and this will tend to indicate how you will deal with what happens.

Applying this more generally: PCs have two stats Violence/Physical and Villainy/Mental which sum to a constant. They can be changed each round by one or more depending on the circumstance (for example angry PCs can become physical more quickly, damaged PCs might become more circumspect and mentally focussed). Under each heading, PCs have bonuses that allow the stats to go outside the normal range. So you might have Berseker which gives +2 to Violence if used but -2 to Villainy.

Obviously the initial choice of stats depends very much on the kind of game you want to play. With StarDrakkar Obstinacy/Brutality are an obvious paring, as are Violence/Villainy for My Life with Master. For something like Pendragon or Bushido you might even go as far as to call them Honour/Duty.

Who is winning can be judged either by reducing the scores of the side who loses each round of conflict, or perhaps by reference to some external score which depends on what's at stake. Tactically it's best to engage any enemy who doesn't mind losing as much as you do!

Then tactical choices are about adapting to the environment and getting a better score than your opponent in the stat which is being used for the conflict.