Strategy, Tactics and Logistics for GMs

By Michael Beck 

(Read the original German version at http://spielleiten.wordpress.com)

In the military, one distinguishes between different levels of decisions, called strategy, tactics, and logistics. I don’t want to delve deep into this issue, since I’m no expert in this field. But a short and rough explanation will help understanding the following tip.

Logistics are tiny planning steps. For example, changing the position of a squad. The goal of a logistic decision is always concrete and clear.

One uses logistics to achieve some tactical goal, which is a bit more for the long run and has larger consequences. For example, an organized attack of a combat unit at a certain target. The goal of tactics is a more abstract – to meet the goals of logistics. Hence, to accomplish a tactic, one has to serve several logistical issues.

A strategy lies on top of tactics. Its goals are abstract and long-ranging. For accomplishing the goal of a strategy, several tactical decisions have to be made. An example for a strategy could be involving the enemy into fights at two fronts to weaken him. Let us call the goal of a strategy the operational goal for the moment.

Following is advice on how to utilize this concept of different decision levels as a GM to prepare game sessions. What are the logistics, tactics, and strategies of a GM and her operational goal? How much time should one spend for his planning steps? Can one detect or avoid railroading with these?

Logistics for GMs

How does logistics look for a GM? The shortest-run decisions to make during preparation time are what is happening in a certain plotline.

So, a logistic decision is defining the next step in one single plotline. This could be encountering an NPC, a battle with a monster, or a puzzle.

As GM, you have good control over the situation and can do detailed preparations, such as drawing a map or inventing an NPC.

Here, you can and should spend the most of your preparation time (take a look at Johnns Loopy Session Planning, he is describing there exactly this thing).

After identifying your plotlines, you may notice you do not have many, possibly even just one. This is a strong sign of railroading your group. We will see in a minute how this constrains your tactical options as a GM.

Tactics for GMs

Tactics are more long-run and have more abstract goals. So the next level above one plotline is the adventure. Tactical decisions define the course of adventures. We think about:

  • How to handle the different plotlines
  • Which ones we continue or end
  • How to splice two plotlines together
  • When to start new ones

All these are tactical decisions. As GM you should spend some time on these issues:

  • How many plotlines do I want in parallel?
  • How long should they run, when do they start and end?
  • What purpose and which atmosphere do they contain?
  • Should they lead to the goal of the adventure or distract the players from it?

Creating a flow chart would be an example of multiple tactical decision making. The tactical options you have is strongly bound to the number of plotlines you have.
In the extreme case of one plotline, you just have a limited repertoire of decisions:

  • When to start?
  • When to end?
  • What is its goal and its atmosphere?

We already said that having just one plotline is a sign of railroading. Now we see another sign of railroading: limited tactical options.

Strategy for GMs

The next narrative level on top of the adventure is the campaign. Strategies work on the campaign level of campaigns and the operational goal is the campaign’s goal.

Instead of handling plotlines, we are now managing adventures. In its core, a strategy defines the course of a campaign by setting the number of adventures it contains, together with their type and functions.

Here, we are working on a high level of abstraction. So I recommend not spending too much planning for campaigns. You should plan down to the level of logistics to fully sort things out. This is not only a huge amount of work, it is in parts even impossible, since you are not playing alone.

Investing a lot of time here is like trying to build a house by first understanding quantum mechanics. It says: No plan survives contact with the enemy.

This does not have to hold for your strategy. By keeping the planning of your campaign on a high abstraction level, you keep it flexible and more durable against disturbances caused by players at the tactical and logistical layers.

Closing Remarks

We see we can apply the concepts of strategy, tactics and logistics for preparing our games. But we see also that the different layers need each other!

For accomplishing our strategy, we need tactics, and for these we need logistics.

On the other side, logistics makes no sense if they do not have the purpose of achieving a certain tactical step. And, tactics have purpose in making a strategic step.

If your plotlines and adventures seem dry and aimless, this is probably you are not spending thoughts on the higher layer.

If you have a nice idea for an adventure or a campaign, but are struggling on how to play it out, it’s time to go one level deeper and start planning there.

Hopefully this decision-stack helps you in your planning and preparations. It helps me a lot.

 

 

Laserlight

No, no, no.
Tactics is how to win a battle.
Strategy is how to win a war.
Logistics is how to keep your troops supplied.

    Michael Beck

    uh… and what’s the problem here? I don’t get it.
    Winning war Strategy Campaign planning.
    Winning battle Tactics Plotlines
    Suplies Logistics Pushing the Plotlines.

    As stated in the article.

MaxCarrion

I have to say I disagree with your terminology and where you have drawn the lines for them too, if you want to use strategy, tactics and logistics as terms for GMs I think it sits more around

Strategy – long term planning, plot lines, major NPC motivations and long term plans, interweaving, timelines etc. This is a major part of world building and campaign planning defining the state of the world and how and when the PCs intersect these actions. This contains almost everything you had in strategy and in tactics

Tactics – tactics is encounter and session level planning and decision making, predicting and planning for the PCs likely immediate action and the worlds response to those actions, while some tactical planning can occur between sessions, especially if you are railroading or offering heavily weighted choices to the PCs, some tactical choices will necessarily occur on the fly during sessions, I would say all decisions made that the PCs actually see are tactical. So half of your logistics session and some scraps from your tactics section

Example. You decide that the antagonist wants to attack a major walled city and is infiltrating a company of hobgoblins through the sewers who will take the gate house when the main attack is launched. That’s the strategy

Based on this strategy you decide the protagonists will be given hooks this session to take them into the sewers and that if they investigate sufficiently they will find hobgoblins and you place incriminating documents in the hands of the hobgoblin chieftain, these are tactical decisions which form the bridge between the PCs and the Strategies. You may also decide on rough tactics that the hobgoblins will use and refine them as the details of the encounter become apparent. The PCs do not directly see the strategic decision but its existence takes shape from the tactical encounters that derive from it. If the PCs take a different direction the strategy helps to understand the way this will affect the world – so if the PCs decide to go off into the wilderness and hunt trolls instead of checking for hobgoblins then you may assume that the attack succeeds and when the PCs return to the city they find it sacked.

Logistics – Logistics is the legwork that needs to be done to make the tactical and strategic decisions happen. In the example above good logistics may involve stating out the hobgoblins and other likely denizens of the sewers in advance, creating a sewer map with encounter locations and timings, creating any plot hook hand outs – like you could actually make the documents that the chieftain holds, maybe encoded. Logistical decisions are about facilitating the tactical decisions and should enhance the game (by improving pacing, aesthetics, immersion or some other aspect), if it defines the direction of the game itself then it is really a tactical or strategic decision.

    Laserlight

    What Michael is calling “logistics” is actually tactics (or micro-tactics). What Max is calling “logistics” is actually intelligence (in the “espionage and scouting” sense, not “high IQ”).

    Logistics is about supply–what stuff do your troops need, and how do you get it to them. This affects grand strategy (Japan attacked southeast Asia for logistical reasons–to secure rubber and petroleum supplies) all the way down to tactics (a British company had a logistical problem, in that they got supplied the wrong ammo; the result was that the Zulus overran them).

    In Max’s example, let’s say the hobgoblins are eating the sewer rats. You can attack the enemy force (fighting the hobgoblins directly) or attack his logistics (perhaps reduce their food supply by poisoning the rats, or getting a piper to lead them away).

    Logistics for the Game Master? Having your books, dice, maps and caffeine on hand.

MaxCarrion

Logistics is a matter of perspective, from a PC point of view the maps and stats are something to gather information on and to base decisions on, they are intelligence, but from a GM point of view they are product to be acquired to make the game work/work better, they are logistics. Arguably almost everything a GM does is logistics (the detailed planning and organization of any large complex operation – probably the most useful definition for it at dictionary.com) but I tend to think of it as all the planning and organisation that facilitates the game rather than the planning and organisation that “is” the game, so arranging the time and place of the game, working out which players will be there, who brings food/drinks/books/dice/miniatures, stat blocks, maps, battle mats, other props and ambience tools, writing time (to create plot etc.) and bringing it all together into a game

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