Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Examining Role-Playing Mastery by Gary Gygax, Part IX

Chapter 7: Tactical Mastery

Do you like the Successful Adventures section of the Players Handbook (p107)? Gygax obviously did too (and I think it's one of the better, in terms of both usefulness and clarity, bits he's ever written), because Chapter 7 is all about that sort of thing... but watered down a bit for more general usage.

The chapter begins with a lot of hoo-ha about how difficult it is to come up with advice that is universal, since so much depends on the game system in question and the goal of play at the individual table. But never fear, Gygax has assembled a list of tips "that any PC can follow in any game and scenarios that will help assure success."

While I do believe that's a bit of an exaggeration, I also think that players would do well to keep (most of) these in mind.

Know the mission. Based on the information you are given in the background and setting of a scenario, define exactly what you are going to try to do. Sometimes the mission will be spelled out in no uncertain terms; if it is not, you should be able to deduce it logically from the information provided. Keep the mission in mind at all times, so that each activity you engage in assists in the overall aim.

Know the goal. The mission should have a set goal. When that goal is successfully achieved or arrived at, the mission is complete and the adventure should conclude at that point. The distinction between "mission" and "goal" may not always seem clear-cut, but the distinction is there nonetheless. The mission is a description of what must be done to achieve success; the goal is an enumeration of the condition(s) that will prevail when the mission is complete. For instance, the mission of a lawman is to apprehend and detain a suspected criminal; the goal of that mission is attained when the quarry is safely behind bars.

Define the objectives. The mission and goal, once defined and analyzed, will contain distinct places where progress can be measured. Each such objective should take you one step closer to attainment of the goal and completion of the mission. At times, however, the reaching of an objective does not lead directly toward the next objective. After reaching an objective, examine your remaining resources. If you have incurred losses so great as to make further objectives probably unattainable, then break off the mission for the time being. Run away that day, reequip, and return to the mission when you are back at full strength. In our example, one of the lawman's first objectives would be to find the trail of the criminal he is seeking; then he must catch up with and force an encounter with his quarry, and so forth.

I do believe, despite his protests to the contrary, that these things are pretty much the same thing. "Know what you need to do, and break it down into steps if it's a big thing."

I do find it interesting that it seems that Gygax had given up on, or at least accepted that the RPG audience would have given up on, "sandbox" and exploration type gaming. This advice seems to assume a specific mission of some sort. Sandbox/exploration advice might look a bit similar, but I don't think it would be the same.

Make, and follow, a plan. When the mission is understood, the goal is clear to all, and objectives have been set, then it is time to devise a plan that takes into account all members of the PC group and how they will communicate and operate together. Have each team member understand his assignment. Assess strengths and weaknesses. Know all the resources available. The plan is to be adhered to at all times when it appears to have a chance at success - or less chance of failure than some other plan. In the plan should be recognition signals, a rendezvous point in case the team should become separated, and even some cover story to explain your presence/activity in the area where the scenario takes place.

This could probably be put into the first bit as well, but I can also see where "Know what you need to do," and, "figure out how you're going to do it," are separate.

Maintain the tempo. Keep moving. Press toward the goal. Time is often the ally of the opponents, so allow as little as possible to be wasted.


Operate as a unit. The characters involved in an adventure must cooperate to achieve their goal and successfully complete the mission. Utilize each character's strength and cover everyone's weaknesses as a group entity. Separated, fingers are vulnerable. In tightly closed form, they become a fist.
You'd be surprised how many parties don't follow this advice as a rule. Short-term selfishness never leads to long-term good results when you have to deal with the same people tomorrow as you did yesterday...

Use your sense... Use your common sense at all times. Usually it is the best method for average problem solving.

... and your character's senses. Your character has them - use them! How? You have to stay in constant contact with the GM in this regard. When your PC is in any situation in which information is lacking - entering an unknown area, for example - address the GM and assume a mode such as this: "I'm looking up, down, all around. What do I see? Can I hear anything? What do I smell? Do I sense or feel anything unusual?"

Ah yes. Challenge the player and his skills, not a character's "awareness" stat. This also plays into the idea of Gygaxian Naturalism, because only in a more-or-less recognizable world would all of these reap any benefit.

Record, refer, and remember. Keep track of your resources. This means weapons, devices, and anything else useful. (Team members are resources, too, of course, but that utilization has already been dealt with.) Use this information as reference material when you're trying to determine a course of action. Additionally, record information as to where you've been, where you are now, and where you're going. Note anything unusual in this regard. When actual record-keeping would be cumbersome or time consuming, make a conscious effort to remember what you have come across so that you will recognize it if you see it again.

I believe this advice comes from the position that "a PC is a guy who does stuff," not from the "a PC is an awesome hero that we're telling a story about," because in the latter case, all of this stuff would be boring. "What action hero keeps track of his stuff?" In an exploration/vulnerable game, doing that very thing can be the difference between life and death.

And it's funny as hell when a party finally finds the big score... and then realizes they can't carry any of it out because their sacks are full of rations needed for the trip back home. :D

Scout the enemy. Take the time and make the effort to get to know your opponents as fully as possible. This knowledge will enable the most efficient handling of such opposition with a minimum expenditure of time and other resources in overcoming whatever stands between you and your goal. In the example used earlier, the lawman's search for the criminal will go more quickly if he takes the time to question townspeople and find out that the wrongdoer has a cohort waiting for him in the town to the east. With that one piece of information, the lawman finds out two important things: the criminal's destination, and the fact that he (the lawman) will probably have to face two opponents instead of just one when he arrives at the same place.

"Rushing in blindly, swords swinging/guns blazing, is bad, mmmkay?"

Be consistent. Strategy and grand tactics will often dictate unique methods of handling familiar problems, because the opponents will be surprised by such methodology. Small-scale tactical applications, on the other hand, call for a high degree of consistency. Think of how one gets through a maze. By placing one hand, let us say the left, on the wall of a maze and always keeping it on a wall, one will eventually complete the entire path between entrance and exit. In similar fashion, if you are exploring, take a direction that seems promising and follow it. If you are unable to continue in that direction, have a second choice. Thus, for instance, if one moves always north and west, to return to a place previously passed, one need only move south and east.

Advice that again seems only relevant to an exploration/down-to-earth kind of game.

Evade and avoid. Whenever possible, conserve time and other resources by avoiding unnecessary confrontation. Slip away without fighting, negotiate, or use trickery. The goal of the mission is paramount, and only those activities that will lend probable success to attaining that goal should be undertaken.

Classic D&D survival trait. Especially if your evil referee doesn't hesitate to put NASTY STUFF on level one that isn't even intended to be defeated.

Don't be afraid to improvise. At times, the plan cannot be followed. Improvise a new set of short-term plans immediately. Again, at times, resources will not be sufficient to complete the mission. Improvise! Perhaps materials and/or friendly individuals at hand can be utilized. When you are improvising, keep your goal and objectives in mind. In our example of the lawman and the criminal, let us suppose that the lawman arrives at the town and finds the cohort (without revealing his own true identity, of course), but discovers that the man he's after is nowhere to be seen. Was the lawman's original information incorrect? Has he somehow arrived at the destination before his quarry got there? Should be bide his time or resume his search in a different locale? The lawman must improvise because things haven't gone the way he expected them to, but no matter what he decides to do at this juncture, he should always keep sight of his mission and his goal.

"You know all those plans I was talking about early on? They're not going to work. Be prepared!"

Yeah, after the Successful Adventures section of the Players Handbook, this does all seem either wanting, or redundant. Not to mention RPGs have gotten so diverse that this advice is dubious for many of them, and playing this way may actually break genre emulation if practiced (as I think I did during the Dirty World demo at Ropecon...). I'm not sure RPGs weren't already too diverse for this to be weak universal advice already in 1987. It does bring a few questions to mind, as I try to reconcile Gary's gaming style of the 70s with what he's written about the "mission" and such here.

And if there is any doubt about his plot-and-story leanings at this time, after the points above there is a section called The Disappearing Dwarf, where Gygax outlines three scenarios in different genres, all bearing the same title. He then attempts to apply the advice he gave before to these scenarios as an example of how it works in practical play. I think this is a particularly weak section. Gygax, in addition to being a game designer and writer and publisher, has a vast amount of experience playing and running games. He should have given examples from his real-life games, with any appropriate serial numbers filed off if legally necessay, instead of inventing things that give him all the leverage in saying what's best to do. If he'd used, say, Village of Hommlet as an example, then we could read it and judge whether Gygax has a point and how well that point works.

It's fantastically simple to come up with a theory for how things work, and then give made-up examples to demonstrate that those theories are correct. The Forge and the designers there seem to have done it, creating games different from (but hardly replacing) the games that came before. We're all doing it now with the theorizing and exploration of old D&D, learning from and noting, and then playing with these new-old interpretations of What Things Mean. Gygax falls into the same trap we all seem to, in applying these theories universally... and the theories at this point weren't very coherent. D&D, the market, and Gygax's attitudes towards them all changed over the years (note the DMG's given reasons for not providing social status generation for PCs... and note that the same are in Unearthed Arcana). Dragonlance and the other Hickman modules may have been a change in direction that struck deep with many gamers, but we can hardly say that Gary was asleep at the wheel or that he failed to recognize or fix these "problems" as they developed. He seemed to be on board, at least as far as producing product was concerned. I have no idea how he was running his home games as the early 80s shifted undeniably into the mid-80s... (kind of like how I kept saying I was in my "early 30s" until I turned 34. :P)

The next bit in our series will be about Chapter 8: Designing Your Own Game... which, honestly, seems like a disaster-in-the-making considering that greatest standard to judge these tips against would be Gygax's own designs... and I have never read a post-D&D Gygax game. Ah well, the worst that can happen is that the post is a disaster. :D


  1. This advice seems to assume a specific mission of some sort. Sandbox/exploration advice might look a bit similar, but I don't think it would be the same.

    I read through the advice and the only one that might conflict is mission vs. goal. Even then, if I'm in a sandbox and I'm off to explore the NW forest a day's walk away, I'm going to have a clear mission and goal. Goal is information gathering. Mission is to make the trek, look for something interesting and return alive. It might not be as "story" oriented of a mission/goal, but I'm also thinking like a wargamer as well... mission is more about Squad Leader and goals are the outcome of missions, vs. goals from a story-line sense.

  2. The goals are decided upon by the PCs. That's "sandbox". As a player (and I've pretty much only been a player, for 3 decades now, can't DM worth a crap), I ALWAYS keep that in mind, whatever the DM might say. If Duke Wildebrandt says, "Your mission is to go to the NW forest a day's walk away and do yada yada XXX YYY," I reply, "Yes, Your Grace," and then do whatever the f&*k I want. If that gets me in trouble, I move on to the next Duchy. End of story.

  3. Oh, forgot to end my post with, "Deal with it, Mr. DM." Not that the DM/Player relationship has to be adversarial, but I've had waaay too many DMs tell me..."But you teleporting past half of the encounters has entirely gutted my adventure plans." Well, maybe you should've taken into account that I'm a 9th level magic-user! Bitter much? Definitely.