Drama Vs. Tactics

To quote Spock, “Logic is a wreath of beautiful flowers that smell bad.”*

There are three questions that constantly plague role playing games:

  1. Do the rules trump the story, or the story the rules?
  2. Is killing the villager really a Chaotic Neutral action?
  3. Who are we forcing to play the cleric?

Today, I’m going to talk about the first question. The answers to the others are “no” and “Why me?”

Story and rules are considered opposing forces in RPGs. After all, an RPG is a game where you tell a story. But sometimes rules interfere with the story, right?

Not exactly.

Stories are about drama. Games are about tactics.

The essence of drama is conflict and uncertainty. The protagonist wants something. Obstacles bar his way. We are not sure if he can overcome them or how he can overcome them. If we are sure, if there is no question, the drama is over, and the story is over.

The essence of tactics are conflict and uncertainty. The tactician has an objective. Obstacles bar his way. He is not sure if or how he can overcome them. Once he is sure, the tactical exercise is over and the game is over.

In short, stories are games and games are stories. The difference between a novel and an RPG is that the RPG has a collection of players, while the novel is an elaborate form of solitaire.

If you go to a lecture on how to write fantasy or science fiction, a good teacher will tell you that your imaginary world must have rules and you must strictly follow the rules at all times, or else you will kill your story.

Non-weird fiction, like cowboy stories or mysteries, work exactly the same way. The difference is that reality has written the rules for us, and so we don’t have to spend time working them out.

Now, the conflict of drama and tactics is a real thing in games. You can summarize the difference in the following way: gaming drama focuses on conflicts of character and personality. Gaming tactics focus on conflicts of sword and gun.

The question is: how many rules do you have for each of these categories?

If most of your rules are about character personalities, themes, and story points, you have a drama-focused game. The gold standard here is Amber Diceless, followed by my favorite game, Fate Core. If most of your rules are about how to hit, flanking bonuses, cover, and spell range, you have a tactics-focused game. The gold standard here is Battletech, followed closely by Pathfinder.

There is no reason you must focus on one and not the other. There is, however, a reason you might want to focus on one and not the other. Two, in fact.

  • Players will tend to be more interested in one side or the other. Catering to their current preference is a good thing that makes the game more fun.
  • The more foci you add to a game the more rules you add to your rule book, the more effort is required to play well. Strongly focusing on both tactics and drama will make for a less relaxing game.

Now, as I said, my favorite set of game mechanics is Fate Core. But I have been craving a game more focused on tactics for some time. While Fate zeroes in on drama more than tactics, its mechanics are not intrinsically anti-tactical.

Thus, I am making Fate Corruption. A tactical game that uses Fate Core as its starting point. Link on the menu above. The chapters are hidden behind a password. Contact me with “SUBSCRIBE” in the subject line and I’ll send you the password. And I’ll add you to my mailing list. Which I will never ever contact unless I have free stuff, or have just released a new book (I put them on sale for as cheap as possible for the first week.)


*Star Trek. I, Mudd. 1967. Yes, Spock actually said that.

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