Tactical infinity, RPGs, and wargames

There may be rules for hidden units and other forms of limited information, but that’s sorta the point–anything outside of a stand-up fight will have rules to cover it. That’s in contrast to most roleplaying games, where the scope of action is pretty much anything you can think up, so the rules cannot possibly cover every eventuality and a referee of some kind is practically required.

Back when I wrote that passage in my combat-as-sport vs combat-as-war post, I did not know that there is a term for this: “tactical infinity”. It’s mentioned briefly in this essay by game designer S. John Ross. Zak Smith brilliantly expands on the concept in this video when he says that there is no fluff in an RPG: any fluff (extraneous detail added for color) could potentially become crunch (something affecting the outcome of the story). To re-use an example from that earlier post:

“The hills around the village are roamed by shepherds and the flocks and herds of livestock that they tend.” For most visitors to the village, that’s fluff. But if you want to disrupt the enemy raiding party by stampeding the livestock through their camp, now it’s crunch. Ditto if you need to sneak a dangerous, smelly predator into the village without the herd animals sounding the alarm, or just steal a cow to keep from starving. Literally anything in the gameworld, from the pattern on a blanket to the contents of a character’s pocket, could end up deciding the course of the story.

One of my frustrations with D&D 4E was that the tactical combat options were so powerful, they discouraged the kind of reckless, try-anything creativity that comes from desperation. Like, do I try to think of some clever way to dispatch this monster – which may well fail – or just hit it with my sword a couple more times, which will almost certainly work? Which gets back to a point that Daztur made in the original EnWorld post: games where combat is relatively easy and desirable elicit combat-as-sport play. If you want combat-as-war play, combat has to be brutal and unpredictable (as it is in real life) so people will desperately try to avoid a stand-up fight, even if they have an edge – because an edge in a straight fight is still way worse than completely shanking your enemy before the straight fight ever begins.

Anyway, I think this is a fourth reason (in addition the three here) why combat-as-war goes better with fantasy, and vice versa: both seem to run best when the field of possibilities is as wide as possible. A nearly universal fantasy trope is the extraordinary thing masquerading as something mundane: the apple is really a sleep spell, the ring you found in the cave is the fulcrum of the dark lord’s millennia-long quest to rule the world, etc. Since objects in fantasy stories could potentially be anything, you need to be able to do anything to live with them. The narrative infinity implied by magic cries out for a tactical infinity to handle it.

That might help explain why sometimes I want to play wargames instead of RPGs. Sometimes I don’t want to have to do the mental gymnastics that come with tactical infinity. Sometimes I am literally too brain-tired to play RPGs. But I’m usually still up for BattleTech, because all I have to decide there is where to move and when to fire.

In fact, I’ll go further: RPGs run best when everyone at the table is bringing their A game. They can still work and be fun when people are tired or loopy or not 100% there – sometimes those games are the funniest – but they can also suck. I’ve definitely run RPG sessions that sucked, because I wasn’t prepared and couldn’t come up with good stuff on the fly. (Nowadays I’m much more likely to say, “Okay, cool. Now we have to stop for a while, because I have go think of new stuff to say.”) But I don’t remember any horrible games of BattleTech. The fail mode of RPGs is way less fun than the fail mode of wargames (or at least of BattleTech).

But on the other hand, while I have certainly had some memorable games of BattleTech, even the best don’t achieve the transcendental fun the best RPG sessions. And really, how could they? The greatest strength of wargames – that they cut off the bottom tail of the fun distribution – is balanced by their greatest weakness – that they also cut off the top tail. RPGs bring the full spectrum of human creativity, which makes for lower lows but also much higher highs.

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4 Responses to Tactical infinity, RPGs, and wargames

  1. This is a great article, particularly talking about the consequences of failure in the RPG session, as opposed to the failure in a boardgame session (where there’s just delays in adjudicating rules, or people forgetting what they’re doing, or taking too long.)

    Since an RPG session is also basically participating in improv (possibly comedic improv, possibly dramatic improv) someone needs to be keeping the narrative thread going.

    I’ve found that sometimes, the tactical infinity as you say affects the players and GMs equally. The players might do anything, so the GM has to be prepared for that eventuality. But for the players, the GM might literally do anything, and sometimes they get overly cautious, or overwhelmed by trying to compute what they should even try to do since they have so many options.

    But you are right, when an RPG session clicks, it’s worthy of retelling over and over, possibly inspiring other adventures. A good game of Battletech is pretty much just that.

  2. Hey, I meant to mention that I know John Ross, and have been fortunate to have gamed with him back when he would swing by my old college roommate’s gaming group in Virginia. Class act guy, super funny dude.

  3. Matt Wedel says:

    I’ve found that sometimes, the tactical infinity as you say affects the players and GMs equally. The players might do anything, so the GM has to be prepared for that eventuality. But for the players, the GM might literally do anything, and sometimes they get overly cautious, or overwhelmed by trying to compute what they should even try to do since they have so many options.

    Oh, absolutely! I find that playing and GMing impose similar levels of cognitive load. As a GM, you’re trying to stay one step ahead of the players and to try and make sure that everyone has a good time. As a player, you’re trying to out-think the GM, by out-thinking the adversaries and situations the GM puts in front of you. When it all goes well, all of the desperate improvisation is rewarded with the birth of a thrilling story that couldn’t have come into being any other way. But everyone has to make the investment before they know how big the payoff will be.

    I know I’m making this sound way more fraught than it usually is. Usually, hopefully, people just get together and roll and have fun, and the outcome is neither transcendentally good nor abysmally bad. But I think the promise of the best sessions is a lot of what makes me want to pick up the dice in the first place.

    Hey, I meant to mention that I know John Ross, and have been fortunate to have gamed with him back when he would swing by my old college roommate’s gaming group in Virginia. Class act guy, super funny dude.

    Awesome. That’s certainly how he comes across in his writing. It’s nice to know reality matches the legend. Many thanks for commenting!

  4. Pingback: Thoughts on combat-as-sport vs combat-as-war | Echo Station 5-7

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