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.
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.