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Tactical Play

Let's talk tactics.

When many gamers think about "tactical play," they imagine positioning miniatures on a gridded map, counting squares for movement, and arguing over the various modifiers for lighting, encumbrance, and so on. Especially for modern gamers who like to focus on story over mechanics, this kind of play is off-putting.

I would argue that that level of bookkeeping minutia is not the only kind of tactical play. In fact, I would say that almost every game accommodates and indeed encourages tactical play on some level. It's just that different games approach it from different directions.

First, definitions. What do I mean by tactical play? Simply put, tactical play is play in which a player gathers information about the scene, uses that information to make a meaningful decision, and then experiences the clear consequence of that decision. The consequence then serves as new information, feeding back into the process.

Information

The first step of tactical play is gathering information. Depending on the nature of the game, this can be an in-character process (involving die rolls and traits on the character sheet) or a meta-game process (the player asking questions about the fiction from outside). In any case, knowledge is critical to tactical play. A warrior on the field of battle needs to know where his enemies are, what the terrain looks like, and what resources he has at his command. A political operative must discern who the power players are in a city, what conflicts exist between them, and how each is likely to react when pushed one way or another.

As important as having information is to tactical play, having imperfect information is more important. The fun of tactical play comes from being forced to act without knowing everything. You may not have time to gather all of the facts. You may simple be unable to grasp all of the factors affecting a situation. Eventually you have to accept that you have enough information and move on to the next step.

Decision

Once the player has this knowledge, they can weigh their many options and make a meaningful decision. The word meaningful is very important here, and it is where tactical play can fall apart, depending on the nature of the game. The game must reflect how the information uncovered in the first step affects the game world. Very mechanical games may do this through tables of modifiers or special rules options. Very story-driven games often have the concept of fictional positioning, meaning that different actions are possible depending on how the story has already progressed.

To support tactical play, a game should be able to model situations fairly and accurately. If two situations have an obvious difference, that should be reflected in different game states in each case. But also, even if two identical situations arise by different paths in the story, they should have very similar game states. If these conditions are true, then a player can make a meaningful decision based on the information they've gathered.

Consequence

Once the player makes their decision, the game takes over according to its resolution mechanics. If the game properly supports tactical play, those mechanics should be influenced by the game state such that a player, acting on their accumulated knowledge of the situation, can expect a reasonable chance of the action resolving as anticipated. (What constitutes "a reasonable chance" is open for debate. Frankly, it can and should vary from game to game.)

Regardless of how the mechanics resolve, the consequence of the player's decision should be clear. Specifically, it should be obvious how much the result can be attributed to chance, how much to the fictional ability of the character, and how much to the information gathered by the player. And all of that information contained in the consequence lets the player make an even better-informed decision going forward.

Conclusion

This cycle of information-decision-consequence drives nearly all games. A game without tactical play will often feel unsatisfying or even broken. If you can't gather information on which to act, you feel lost or paralyzed by options without a good way to choose between them. If decisions aren't meaningful, play turns boring as everyone just takes the obvious path in every situation. And if consequences aren't clear, you can't learn from your decisions and improve your play.

Acknowledgements

I'd like to thank +Avery Mcdaldno and everyone who took part in the Micro-Talks panel at Maelstrom in April, 2014, where I first delivered a disjointed five-minute version of this idea. It only took me five months to turn it into a hopefully slightly less disjointed blog post.

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