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Story vs Tactics / Conflict vs Task/Narration vs Description

Something has been niggling at the back of my brain in regards to conflict vs task. That has to do with tactics. One of my big complaints with D&D revolves around how long a fight takes to resolve using the Task based, tactical, descriptive setup. But the more of the indie games I play, I am discovering that tactics is being sacrificed for narration. In DitV, the combats(conflicts) are not taking any less time. The tactics in DitV "combat" revolve around when and how to use your dice. How you use your traits are interesting, but there is nothing tactical about it. I will mention PTA, only because it is the pure opposite of D&D. It is all Conflict and Narration. You tactics are story tactics, really manipulations of the players, rather than the game. I have read Burning Wheel (but have not played it) and I think it might be the bridge between the worlds, but it is hard to say currently.

Here are my questions:
  • Do Tactics have a place in a Conflict oriented, Narration based game?
  • Do you have to sacrifice the Tactics (Gamist) element on the altar of the story?
  • Can you have satisfying Gamist conflicts that don't take more than 15 minutes to resolve?
I feel as though some of this may have been discussed in the GNS articles but if so, I never made it that far.

Matt Snyder's Nine Worlds has some pretty cool tactical stuff in the card play. It could be argued that With Great Power also has some tactical stuff in the cards. WGP uses persistent hands throughout play. When you lose a conflict you get all the cards played in that conflict. This results in some narrative tactical decisions: is this important enough to win and give my opponent a the card I used? If so, how important is it to win, and how small a card can I get away with playing?

Is that the sort of thing you're talking about?


(Quick note- you do know that D&D's combat system IS a conflict resolution system, right? There's lots of tasks involved, but it does tell you when it's over, and what happens as a result...)

Check out Riddle of Steel. I've found that usually the tactical elements take around 5-10 minutes. Burning Wheel usually bumps up to about 20 minutes, which is around the same as Dogs in the Vineyard.

I haven't read or played it (go me...), but my understanding is that Capes is some kind of hideous love-child of tactical decisions and story. I hesitate to say more without experience with it, but many AP accounts make it sound like there's a whole lot of Gamist-based mechanics with the intent of creating story.

Thanks, Thomas! I was going to suggest Nine Worlds as a resource game with some interesting tactics. On to the questions:

1) Certainly tactics can have a place in such a game. We're probably not seeing a whole lot just yet, but the aforementioned The Riddle of Steel is a good start.

2) I suppose that depends on the game and the group. Again, Riddle of Steel does a fairly decent job of hybridizing local tactics of combat with the larger story considerations.

3) Of course you can have gamist conflicts in under 15 minutes, but the trick word there is satisfying. That makes it the judgment of the player. You play game X, its Gamist conflicts take 3 minutes. Are they satisfying or not? Person 1 says yes, Person 2 says no, etc. Not much leaps into my brain about games that accomplish this. Ninja Burger maybe? :)

I find your use of the word "sacrificed" fascinating.

Also, this phrase: "In DitV, the combats(conflicts) are not taking any less time [than D&D}."

Would "taking less time" be desirable? Not for me. The *game* happens *during* conflicts in DitV, not outside them. Conflicts are where the interest and fun happens.

The same goes for D&D. The point of the game is addressed in its long, detailed, semi-tactical combat system. It's when using that system that the players have the most significant, system-supported input into what happens.

In Illusionist, GM-plot driven play, conflicts need to be minimized and pushed past so that the GM can get on with telling his story.

In Nar and Gamist play, conflicts are the key points of contact for the participants. They're the game-driving heart of play, and they deserve all the time and attention they get.

Now, to answer your questions:

- Yes. Others have already mentioned good example games. I'll add Great Ork Gods and The Mountain Witch.

- This question is just too loaded for me to answer. "Story" could mean too many things.

- I can. But people have different tastes.

The general point of GNS that touches on this post is just this: When you play an RPG, you have a goal of "what kind of fun I'm going to have." Your game system and fellow players should support that goal. If they do, your game will be better.

Figure out what the goal of the game is, make sure everyone is in agreement that the goal is good and fun, and then go for it, hard.

The alternative is hardcore gamist D&D games that are supposedly about "drama" and "story" that leave everyone frustrated and bitter. You know all about that.

If by tactics in conflict oriented systems (noting Chris's point that D&D combat is conflict oriented, though it only deals with one kind of stakes), you mean that players have meaningful choices, then absolutely yes. If play is to be meaningfull, then players need to be able to make choices that have meaning for them. In D&D, players have all sorts of meaningfull choices (do I close for melee? do I cast fireball now?).

Tactics don't have to be a gamist element. Sure, in a conflict resolution system, you can game the probabilities, but that doesn't produce gamism UNLESS the reward cycle rewards you in a gamist fashion ("Fred, that was so cool that you manipulated the scene so you got 10 extra dice for that conflict!" - a narativist would focus on how Fred brought several grand issues to bear, and how important the conflict was to the player/character.

People do complain about how long combat takes in D&D, but that's really a fault of scenario design. I've had some incredible game sessions where there was just one combat that took hours. But what differentiates those from my earlier D&D play was what was accomplished. In D&D, often you spend two hours killing the guards to the front door of the dungeon. Which has 10 levels. Which will take an entire campaign to clean out. In other words, that 2 hour combat is almost meaningless.

As I have drifted towards games which take longer than D&D used to take to fight combats, I've noticed that I also try to make each combat count. I don't run "random" encounters. I don't run endless dungeons (in fact, these days, I start to get bored with a module [I do a lot of module play - even with systems that don't have module support] after 3 game sessions or so.

John makes a host of good points.


OK, let me see if I can summarize what I have gotten out this:

1) (per John) Make sure everyone is on the same page as to what is fun. Then play to that fun.

2) (per Frank) I like your description about Players having to make meaningful choices. I think that highlights what I am trying to get at perfectly. In DitV, the meaningful choices I have are which dice to put forward and whether to give. The conflict is meaningful, the narration is great, but the choices aren't there. My choices are there to influence narration but have no game effect. I am not judging this, just highlighting it.

3) (per Matt) Is a quick conflict a satisfying conflict?

What this may boil down to is this:
* Is it obvious who will win the conflict? If yes, then why do it? If no, then does the length of the contest matter?
* Even if victory is assured, could there be consequences? This is the typical D&D conflict. We are going to beat those trolls, but how many resources will deplete in the process?
* Are more short conflicts better than fewer long one?
* Are there there consequences that are unacceptable on a regular basis? i.e. if your PC can die in EVERY conflict, do you really want more conflicts?

Well, I don't know that, that was a boiling down, but at least it is fuel for the fire.

A quick example of a new game I played this weekend:

Anachronism by the History Channel.
Purpose: Arena combat between 2 opponents.
Conflict Setup: 1 Minute.
Game Play: 5 Minutes
Consequences: None or Death of PC (depending on perspective.)
Follow-up conflict: Available immediately.
Satisfaction: Pretty high.
Choice: Most meaningful choice is made in character creation (Choose 4 "equipment" cards). Conflict has three choices (move, attack, or pass.)
If we add more choice, how does that effect time?

It would be an interesting test to see how choice affects combat. I could easily overlay D&D3.5 combat onto this game and see how long combat took. The only variable would be the rule set.

Anyone intersted?

I'm not sure I follow you at all- the mechanical choices in Dogs determine how much fallout you take, and have a good hand in determining how much fallout someone else will have to take. And while the strategy to succeeding or failing the overall outcome isn't that complicated, it does definitely weigh on whether you want to take fallout or not (or escalate).

DitV: Mechanically speaking, everything on my character sheet gives me dice. How I get those dice does not matter. My 2 dice totalling 12 are the same whether I got them when I rolled my Stats (which are D6) or because I rolled average on my 2d10 "Extremely good looking." Once the trait is narrated those dice dissapear into your pool.

So the choices you have to make in a DitV conflict are:
1) Which dice do I use to block?
1b) Am I willing to take fallout?
2) Which dice do I use to raise?
2b) What type of fallout do I want to inflict?
3) Do I want to give one of my dice to my friend?

Mechanically speaking, those are your choices. Narratively speaking you can figure out how to narrate yourself some more dice but I wouldn't consider that a tactical decision.

Compare to D&D. Every character in a combat has a wealth of choices, most of which have a distinct in game mechanic. D&D has melee attacks, Ranged Attacks, spells, special maneuvers, etc ... So many choices that they detract from the game because you spend all of your time looking up the range of Phantasmal Killer or "I want to sunder his weapon. What are my modifiers?"

DitV has a simple mechanic with few choices powered by Narration. D&D has simple narration powered by a huge engine of choices nestled in a complex web of mechanics.

Which is better? I guess it comes back to John's question of what kind of fun do you want to have?

Does that make sense?

Um, I guess. I still don't see how one tactical choices of resource management is less "tactical" than another choice of resource management.

I can see if the concern is that there is less range of options in play, which is totally a valid concern.

Even though you have more mechanical choices in D&D overall, they are usually quite limited by your character, the situation, and the opposition. When your bard, who has only a couple of weapons and spells, is facing a bunch of zombies, there aren't too many viable choices; most choices happen in character generation and equipping. And your narration still doesn't do much in the actual conflict; all you can hope for is a modifier on some roll when you lobby the DM, and that's a rare event in my experience.

I don't know of any tactical game that explicitly puts narration first, which is exactly why I designed Beast Hunters (see the recent Forge thread). I think that's a big gaping hole, because mechanics can only give you so many actual tactical choices, whereas your creativity can give you millions, if the input is properly appreciated.

Mmmm. Beast Hunters. So good.

(Since TARGET tags are not allowed in comment links -- lame! -- you should probably right click that link and open in a new window. And then dowload the PDF from the Forge post. And drool. I'm just sayin'.)

In order to have tactics in a nar facilitating game, they have to at the minimum not interfere with the nar CA, and it's even cooler if they support it.

Consider Sorcerer. Your character is killing someone in cold blood. You narrate a smart tactical choice, and the GM gives you a bonus die. At the end, you're still making the same humanity check.

Thanks for everyones comments. I think that there is still a lot both to work and stuff for myself to work out. My biggest problem is that I am not even sure if I am asking the right questions. Heck I don't even know if what I want is what I'm actually asking for.

I'll do a follow-up post once I have a more cohesive question/example.

I will just throw this last tidbit out before I go: Why are you a bard wandering around alone ... anywhere? Especially someplace where there are zombies. It is a well known place that the bard is one of the "bad" choices they put into D&D :) I loved the 2nd Ed bard, but the 3rd ed bard ... well, he just kind of sucks.

D&D classes work best when they have some core ability that makes them unique. Conceptually, the Bard is supposed to throw "buffs" upon the whole party, thereby increasing everyone's effectiveness. Actually though, their abilities are too weak to really compare to other spellcasters who can do the same things, better.

The "Hunter" in Iron Heroes better fits this concept, because their core ability is to be able to supply tokens to other classes that helps them do what they do even better.

The failure of the Bard was that they tried to follow the "fiction" to build the class instead of looking at it as a game mechanic first. You'll notice that this problem also carries over into a lot of D&D's spell list ("Hmm, would I rather be invisible, or be able to whisper to someone a mile away... let's see...").

Two responses, based on personal Actual Play experience:

1. Nathan on CAPES: "AP accounts make it sound like there's a whole lot of Gamist-based mechanics with the intent of creating story."

Absolutely. Whereas in old school D&D, you constantly face tactical vs. tactical choices like "do I expend the resources needed to kill this monster, or I do withdraw and regroup?," in CAPES you constantly face tactical vs. story choices like "do I expend the resources needed to control how this event is narrated, or do I give in and let someone else pay me resources so they get to narrate it?" What conflicts and characters you choose to exploit for resources, and what parts of the story you are willing to bleed yourself dry to protect, tells you a lot about your priorities -- sometimes to your own surprise. (In my current CAPES campaign, we each get two "spotlight" characters. I chose one self-destructive female, which is what I play over and over again, and one responsible male, trying to break type -- except I find that I'm almost always willing to give on his conflicts and will do almost anything for her).


JudaicDiablo on Dogs in the Vineyard: "Mechanically speaking, everything on my character sheet gives me dice. How I get those dice does not matter. My 2 dice totalling 12 are the same whether I got them when I rolled my Stats (which are D6) or because I rolled average on my 2d10 'Extremely good looking.'."

Mechanically and tactically, yes, any two things on a Dogs character sheet that give you the exact same dice are identical, regardless of the description (except, and this is a BIG except, if you can only access one by using the escalation mechanics, e.g. my character's "I shoot you dead 2d10"). But (even assuming no escalation is required) there can be huge differences in the story which go beyond narrative color. Using "I have beautiful hair 2d6" has a very different impact than using "I'm a bully 2d6" or "I am filled with compassion 2d6," even though you can use all of them in pretty much any circumstance and get the same dice.
Tony Lower-Basch likes to tell people he'd demo'ing for, "This die here, that's your 'I'm a Dog' die. You get that as soon as you're willing to make the conflict be about your status as a Dog and not your relationship to whoever the other person is, as a person." He reports that players then "stare at that die as if it were a snake."

That last example is very interesting. I must have a different mindset when I play a game like dogs, because what I am really thinking about is how I am going to narrate in this trait so that I can get those precious precious dice. There have been some interesting times when I have pulled in "Loki's [the devil] influence is everywhere any must be rooted out." All of a sudden the conflict takes an interesting turn.

But ultimately for me, it is about getting and spending those dice, although I am more than willing to narrate something interesting to get those dice.

On DitV side note. I have noticed that the most important part of the conflict is the decision to give rather than the conflict itself.

Ah. But why do you want those precious dice? Why do you want to win the conflict? What's the *point* of getting a better pool of dice?

In light of those answers, the names and narration of your traits matter greatly, or so I suspect.

*Pffffttttt* I want those dice to win! To Win Damn You!!!! How can I win without Dice?!?!?!

"Wait. What do you mean I won the conflict but Sally left me anyway? The conflict was over me being right, wasn't it?"

Maybe this topic has spun a bit ... off topic. But seriously, when I play a game I like there to be a little more meat to my game. Otherwise you mind as well just be sitting around a campfire telling stories to each other. Isn't that what Universalis is like (asks the man who has never played it.)

I can't tell if you're kidding about Universalis or not.

Because the answer is: NO. Not at all.

Uni is one of the most "gamey" Forge games there is. It can support hardcore competition like you wouldn't believe. I just happen to have played it with a bunch of pansy "storytellers" who don't know how to go for the throat.

Imagine playing D&D. It's friggin hard, but you defeat the dragon. You get to enjoy the feeling of having overcome a tough challenge in the game.

Now, imagine the same thing in Uni. Except, when the dragon-fight is over and you have that victory-glow, you then pick up the fistful of coins you earned and say, "Okay, now, because the dragon is dead, here's what happens to the kingdom..."

And there's no GM to swoop in and sabotage it. You get to say what's what, because you *earned* those coins..

I'm going to reply to myself!

First: Hello, 'pansy storytellers' that I mentioned in my last post. There was no smiley up there when I said that, but you know I love you guys.

Second: What I'm really talking about with the Universalis thing is authority. Winning a battle (or any kind of conflict) in Uni gives you two things: 1) the stakes (as determined before the roll) and 2) authority over what happens next -- the consequences.

You *earn* the coins by getting into conflict and applying your resources well. Because of the way Uni works, the tactical level of this resource management is determined by the group during pre-play and somewhat during play, too. (You could have a Uni master component called "Attack of Opportunity" for instance.)

But coins aren't just points in the game to show who's winning. They're also a measure of your authority as co-GM. They actually quantify how much clout each player has in terms of making statements that "stick."

So, Uni isn't just a game of narration-trading storytelling, it's a game of conflict-driven *authority* trading. That's what I was trying to say above.

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