Monday, October 15, 2018

Drunk, Prone & On Fire (Tactical Transparency)

The success of Old School Renaissance games has resulted in this happening a lot in mainstream forums:

Someone’s like “OSR games rule! Player skill! Sandboxy freedom!”

And so then because words like “skill” and “freedom” are coded as good and metal, everyone then tries to explain how whatever random game they like is actually secretly OSR. And then you have to be like “No, sorry Magical Owl-Touch Factory is a wonderful game but isn’t OSR” and you sound like you’re being gatekeepy and grumpy.

So it’s good to clarify things, to give us some verbal technology to talk about them:

An important concept in the way OSR-style system-agnostic player skill is encouraged in a tabletop RPG system is “Tactical transparency”.

Tactical transparency is the degree to which a common-sense idea that would be effective in the “real” situation that the game-fiction mimics would also be effective in the game.

If you need to know the system in order to be effective, the system has a low degree of tactical transparency. Magic: The Gathering has a low degree, Dread has a low degree (all risky actions are represented by pulling a Jenga block, so an idea is only as good as you are good at pulling blocks), Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 has an decreasing degree of tactical transparency as you level up (feats and spells with obscure names and tricks with actions-per-round become increasingly important). You can be skilled at these games but that skill is system-specific, it requires system mastery.

If, on the other hand, common-sense tactics that seem to make sense in real life also make sense often in the game, the system has a high degree of tactical transparency. This is an OSR ideal.

Perfect tactical transparency is impossible and would be problematic anyway: first of all it’d require thousands of rules for things like chemistry and physics (our army’s steel swords beat your bronze ones!) which would take a long time to use and consult. But the point of OSR-style player skill is to be as tactically transparent as you can be while keeping the game playable and smooth: thus the requirement for a high-trust table where all players basically agree on the GM’s good judgment and are willing to speak up when they disagree.


-Classic tactical transparency: a slow moving-monster with no distance attacks and no ticking clock (King Kong in the desert), so obviously you use missile weapons (it can’t hurt you but you can hurt it).

In many narrative systems, this wouldn’t matter—if you’re in a system where killing the monster is just a “Go Aggro” roll and it doesn’t matter whether you use a sword or crossbow, it doesn’t have a high degree of tactical transparency and so isn’t a system where player skill (or at least system-agnostic player skill) matters. Further, if thinking to use a distance weapon would only give you a +1 bonus, that is still a pretty low degree of tactical transparency--it's not giving you all the advantages you'd commonsensically have. In PBTA games, yes, fictional positioning can get you a "that won't work at all" or a "that auto-succeeds" but the whole range of options in-between is narrower, so it's less transparent. Keep reading if you don't understand.

-Fantasy tactical transparency: tactical transparency doesn’t have to be about plausibility. It can be about things that make sense by the fiction’s own rules, as long as they aren’t the just the system’s own rules. For example, one time I was playing with some people and they were trying to kill an OSR monster someone made up (Rules, Rolls, Roles) called the “Man of Wounds”. This guy is a man full of swords stabbed through him at every angle. The players keep bashing on him, landing attacks and spells, but he takes no damage.  They’re getting increasingly frustrated. Someone’s aunt is in the kitchen listening to us play—she doesn’t know the system, she probably hasn’t even seen an episode of Game of Thrones—she rolls her eyes and goes “Just pull out the swords”. They try it: the guy dies. If something works by trial and error in the fiction, that’s still tactically transparent because it required a common-sense tactic unrelated to the system: when faced with the unknown or fantastic, try different things to see what works. Trial and error is a legitimate real-world tactic.

-Vagueness works against tactical transparency. For example, World of Dungeons is not much of an OSR system since, for example, all the spells (regardless of what they’re called or “skinned” as) work the same way: they just do whatever you want and have an effectiveness number. There’s very little weighing of “Ok, well this is an area fire effect, so it will result in this while this is a single-target ice effect so it will have this other result, so in this case…” . The system is not asking you to think with much tactical depth because a lot of your decisions don’t matter. You aren't deciding when a bomb is better than a beam or whether the clear advantage of the bomb is worth wasting now before you get to the boss because you get fewer bombs than beams, etc. Different kinds of games are about the different kinds of thinking they involve you in.

-Limited scales of bonus and penalty work against tactical transparency. Meaning like: if you can only get a +1 maximum due to clever fictional positioning, period, then that limits how much tactical thinking you have to do. For example, in an early draft of 5th edition D&D, it was rare to get a worse modifier than just “Disadvantage” —two disadvantage conditions stacked didn’t matter. And, in addition, being drunk granted disadvantage but also gave a minor bonus (it made you inured to pain or something, if I remember?) so it was literally better in that version of the game to be defending while simultaneously drunk, prone, and on fire than it was to just be defending while prone. If you're not the Human Torch and setting you on fire doesn’t put me at an advantage over you, the system is lacking in tactical transparency.

-When a system-specific tactic competes in effectiveness with a common-sense tactic that works against tactical transparency: like Apoc World’s rule that you get bonuses that make you more effective the more you have sex with the “Angel” PC means a tactic nobody would think up unless they’d read the book (bonus mining via fucks) is a way better way to win a battle than, y’know, planning, digging a trench, concentrating force, choosing the right weapon, etc. Torchbearer is open about how it takes over a dozen sessions to master the system, so while, yes, there is a paragraph about how the GM can give you a bonus if your plan is actually reasonably good, the system has low tactical transparency because gaming the system matters a lot more.

-Systems which abstract tactical thought itself into a character skill reduce tactical transparency: like if there's a “Read a Sitch””Discern Realities” or “Tactics” skill which gives you an abstract bonus when invoked and that bonus could matter as much or more than actually reading the situation described or actually discerning the realities from the clues given or actually thinking tactically then that interferes with tactical transparency. Like if using those skills gives me a +1 and me, as a person, taking the high ground gives me a +1, the relative value of my player skill vs the character skill in that system is reduced.

-Tactical transparency is not identical to “realism”, but overlaps with it: often a tired-ass forum n00b complaint that an abstraction in a game makes it less "realistic" is also a legitimate complaint that it makes the game less tactically transparent. See the "drunk, prone and on fire" example above.

-High-powered abilities within the fiction can work against tactical transparency, or at least against tactics: in the Fantasy Flight 40k RPGs there are some weapons, like storm bolters, which’ll just plain murdalize anyone in your way. So while you can sneak around trying to outflank and trip up the enemy, every round you spend cleverly setting up your attack is one less you spent spinning the Ballistic Skill Wheel to see if it lands on “The tyranid dies immediately”.  The only skill there is reading the book enough to know that this gun is really good--and reading about every other gun and piece of armor that doesn't have a clear name like "spiky club" or "shotgun". When a game is full of powerful abilities with in-world names the best tactic is basically just about bringing them to bear asap—even though they are technically elements of the setting not the system, they still involve you less in player skill because the most skilled player will realize the best option is always just “press the nuke button”. Identifying that takes skill, just not much.

-Obscure or misleading names for character abilities can work against tactical transparency: in DC Adventures you can have "Disarming Finesse" and you can have "Advance Disarm". If you're Captain Machiavelli trying to send the Delta League into the fortress and one of your team has the "finesse" one and the other has the "advanced" one, which one do you send to disarm Plasma Pig? It's impossible to tell without reading up on the system, so: not tactically transparent.

-Tactical transparency is not the same as transparency, clarity, or lack of misdirection in the fiction: If Sherlock Holmes can't find Moriarity because he's dressed as a bunny or can't hurt the Ghost Barghest of Belgium with his revolver even though the revolver should work, that has nothing to do with tactical transparency. If Sherlock can't find Moriarity because Sherlock was built with "Enhanced Perception" rather than "Perception Advance +3" or because the rules say Sherlock only can find Moriarity once he reaches Stage 5 then that is the system interfering with tactical transparency.

-Simple mechanics and tactically transparent mechanics can be completely different things. The rules of chess are simpler than those of almost any wargame. Yet the complex mesh of most wargames' rules generally end up reproducing simple military maxims: concentration of fire works, if there are rules for facing then flanking works, taking high ground works (you are above the enemy's cover so at a good angle), etc. Chess is an example of a game that is fairly simple mechanically but can be extremely tactically opaque. So a simple game system does not necessarily lead to simple choices for the player.

-5e's tactical transparency is arguable. At low levels, things that should matter in a fight do. At higher levels, feats and magic and alternate dice math make it less so, unless the GM is careful. You're picking spells: Is it better to have advantage on damage or 2 attacks? If you're trying to figure it out at all before a battle, that's not tactically transparent: that's doing system-specific math.

-A simple test: Is it worth bothering to get an opponent drunk, prone, and on fire before attempting to kill them? The more often true that is, the more tactically transparent the game you're playing probably is. There will be exceptions (no point in trying to get the robot drunk) but I'm going to make a big leap of faith and assume you get it.

This post is part of a series on RPG Theory:
Part 1--Intro to PIG-PIP
Part 2 
Part 3


Onze said...

One PBTA general exception to your qualms about tactical transparency, however, is that most of these games assert that certain fictional positionnings can allow you to e.g. bypass rolling altogether and simply deal damage, while other positionnings might make what you're attempting simply impossible. Agree with the rest, thanks for the thoughtful post.

Zak Sabbath said...


I didn't say pbta had ZERO tactical transparency, I said it had LESS.

When people write really basic comments like that, I have to dumb down the posts and make them more repetitive and childish in order to avoid getting them.

So unless you want the blog to read like a grade-school primer, please think and read harder before posting. Or, if you can't default to __asking a question_ rather than _making a statement_ in the comments.

Emmy Allen said...

So, WRT PbtA specifically:
In my experience PbtA games don't really care about tactical transparency. Because the game makes the player's aims about creating a story rather than overcoming challenges, the process of deciding what happens resolves differently. Some examples.

Example 1: a trad game.
The situation. I'm playing LotFP. A horrible mutant wolf-bear-scorpion monster shows up. A fight seems likely.
What I do: I ask questions about the monster and it's behaviour. Turns out it looks hungry, and probably can't climb trees. So, my allies and I climb trees to get out of immediate danger. Once up the trees, we intend put some poison in our trail rations and throw them down for the monster to eat.
Result: The GM, thinking about this plan, has us roll to see if we can get up the trees in time while the monster is charging at us. Once up, he decides the monster eats our poisoned sausages, and rolls its save vs poison.

Example 2: PbtA
The situation: My PC (a river-spirit disguised as a teenager in highschool) is confronted by the school bully. It seems a fight is imminant.
What I do: Some conversation about the personalities of my PC and the bully ensues between me and the GM. We decide that a fight is definately going to happen, since neither party seems keen to back down. We roll for the move Lash Out Physically to see how well I do at fighting, and get a mixed success (7-9).
The result: Now, the GM and I have an idea of how the fight's gone down. We discuss the specifics and come up with a narrative that fits the characters and the dice result. Since I do harm to the bully, I've clearly won and we figure that my river-spirit has probably knocked a few of his teeth out with his punch, and then now she's winning just goes to town kicking and stomping on the guy once he's on the floor. However, the mixed success means I get a negative condition; we agree that since everybody has seen me flip out and brutalize this guy I'm tagged with the social condition 'dangerous psycho' as people get worried about my behavior.

It's a totally different set of approaches. In the trad game, you first start out by applying fictional positioning, and the choices you make determine what the result is. In the narrative game, once you've got a broad idea of the scene, you *first* work out the end result and *then* retroactively come up with what fictional positioning would have produced that result.
There's little to no tactical transparancy, because the game's order of resolution is reversed: rather than your actions influencing the result in predictable ways, instead the result is worked out and you decide what actions would have led to that result.

If you go into this sort of game wanting to use smart tactics in encounters, you'll find the system incredibly frustrating because you're not, fundamentally, playing your PC. You're playing the author who writes your PC.

Chris Eagle said...

The man of wounds is indeed from Roger GS of roles, rules and rolls. It's in his low-level critter pdf Varlets and Vermin

Zak Sabbath said...

@Emmy Allen

Yes, but it's important to acknowledge

1. people play pbta in different ways, and

2. many people coming from a storygame background tend to pbta games as a shocking plunge into grit and fictional positioninf from what they're used to, which is even MORE lightweight than pbta,

The only relevant thing to say is: they're less tactically transparent than OSR games. That's the only important thing here

Emmy Allen said...

That's reasonable.
In response to point 1: obviously people will play the game differently, but PbtA seems to assume the method I've described as the default from the bits I've read and played. I suspect that if you try to play it more like a trad game, it's gonna suck because you're using a square peg for a round hole.
In response to point 2: I imagine those people have a very different perspective to us but it's not one that really matters to the discussion at hand.

I don't think it's *only* relevant to say that PbtA and similar games are less transparent than OSR games. I think that the assumed way you play PbtA inherently prevents
Like you have a sliding scale of transparency with OSR at one end and something like 5e closer to the other. You can (for example) tweak 5e to make it more transparent (by, perhaps, cutting out PC options that negate any need for tactics), and it's still basically the same game.
On the other hand, the PbtA games I've played are (to coin a phrase), totally tactically opaque. The tactics you use are always gonna be literally irrelevant because you roll the dice first and then decide what actions would have produced that result. You can't tweak the system to make it more transparent, you have to drastically change the *basic assumptions* about how you even play the game.

(these statements don't just apply to PbtA, obviously, but to that whole style of play where you roll dice first and then invent the fiction to match what you rolled. Indeed, you *can* play PbtA more like a trad game, I just think it's gonna make a rather poor trad game if you do.)
I suspect I'm going off on a tangent here and ought to just turn this into a seperate post of my own.

Zak Sabbath said...

@emmy allen

All I can say to all that is go visit /rpg on reddit some time. There are people there who think Dungeon World is an experience of tactical intensity on par with a bar brawl with Bruce Lee. They're wrong--but I get that they play the game more tactically than is normal for them.

Kyle Traylor said...

Good post. The storm bolter example feels like a lesser complaint compared to the others because it relies on setting rather than system mastery: the gun is really that good in setting and is reflected as such in the system. Seems to be of a piece with your comment about fantasy tactical transparency. My knowledge of the FFG 40K games is limited though: is that a gun people can get easily and early, e.g. at char creation?

Other WFRP example that might be useful where system mastery matters more than setting mastery might be "naked dwarf" syndrome in which an unarmored dwarf is a better frontline combatant than a more heavily armored human because of better Toughness; representing dwarves as that tough seems to have been unintentional and lends to system mastery trumping tactics.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Kyle Traylor

It'a not a common gun but you still need to

Know the Setting and equipment list

more than

Know what a good idea looks like

to be effective in that game. Like i know that plate mail is better than leather. i have no idea whether a Refractor field is better than carapace armor

HAving to know the setting still obscures transparency to a _degree_

Kyle Traylor said...

Makes sense. You're not making a qualitative statement about whether something is made better or worse as a whole by that degree of obfuscation (you do still play and enjoy FFG 40K I think), just whether something is more or less OSR on these criteria.

Do you feel like there are any elements in your own modules that obscure transparency at the level of setting mastery?

PaMar said...

Thanks, this post was interesting to me.
Still - I have some doubts about the Tactics part.

In my experience (mostly based on how Tactics was defined in old Traveller rules, so maybe it won't apply to other games) "Tactics" is just a skill and therefore it helps to fill the gap between the player's actual knowledge and what the character is supposed to do.
In other words, if I want to play an Anthropologist in Call of Cthulhu, while I am just an HTML "coder" with a large Manga collection, I will try to roll under Anthropology when it is relevant.
The only way something like Tactics could reduce what you call Tactical Transparency would be if it prevented the player's common sense by putting a cap on the result of their decisions.
E.g.: being on higher ground in a firefight would grant up to a +2 bonus - but you have only Tactics:1, the other characters have no level in Tactics and the rules says that you cannot get a situational bonus which is higher than the highest level of Tactics in the party.

In other words, at least in my experience, Tactics is used to help "simulate" the fact that characters with army experience should be better at small units placement, teamwork and using the terrain/weapons to maximum effect than people who have no specific training or actual combat experience. In this sense, it stacks with other situational modifiers, but does not limit them.

Zak Sabbath said...


" "Tactics" is just a skill and therefore it helps to fill the gap between the player's actual knowledge and what the character is supposed to do... Tactics is used to help "simulate" the fact that characters with army experience should be better at small units placement, "

Yes I know--everyone knows that. And that is NOT a desired thing in most OSR games.

The skill of "figuring out how to win" is supposed to be more on the player.

Character skills are supposed to be _less_ important in most OSR play

Zak Sabbath said...

@Kyle Traylor

There's always something that works like that--often on purpose as a surprise. I think for example people in OSR games are VERY wary of children in dungeons compared to adults (even though tactically that makes less sense) just because they know Evil Children come up a lot. But these are minor things.

More clearly:

tactical transparency in Demon City is a notch less in some places than in, say, a superhero game because the amount of system you'd need to build to make Giant Monster sufficiently stronger than Dracula isnt worth it since you rarely have GiantMonster fighting Dracula in Demon City. The protagonists are people. So I can sacrifice a level of transparency for clarity and have the game still work for any purpose in the genre.

When i do the superhero version, i end up making it slightly more complicated, systemwise so that the kaiju is wayyyy stronger than the vampire, like you'd expect

V. A. said...

great little supplement. I almost included it in my Perplexed Questionnaire

Pamar Bjornson said...

Thanks, I reread the whole piece after your answer and now I understand the point better (I believe).

One more question: which game, in your opinion, works best in the spirit of OSR, for modern day, "realistic" adventures?

(With "realistic" I mean no superheroes/supernatural stuff, so for example espionage, police procedural or action movies, in order to minimize the need to know setting-specific stuff like "Trolls regenerate so you have to use fire against them").

Rodrigo García Carmona said...

Is "tactical transparency" an original term or did you get if from someone/somewhere else?

I'm a professor teaching game design at a university in Spain and want to use that term in my classes, but giving credit where there is due.

Thanks for a very insightful post.

Zak Sabbath said...

@pamar bjornson

Demon City of course

@Rodrigo Garcia Carmona

Tactical transparency is mine. I think this essay might be the first use of it

Rodrigo García Carmona said...


David Boshko said...

Yeah, Apocalypse games have horrible tactical transparency. Been playing a campaign of one and I can just see the mismatch in my current campaign in which one of the party is acting careful and smart and isn't really accomplishing much while meanwhile my Chopper PC is being played as a thickheaded blundering dumbass and he's really driving the story and being very successful. Am enjoying the game a lot so far (although haven't played it enough to see if it gets samey after you play it a while like FATE does) but understanding that the system encourages you to act stupid in certain ways and embrace that is really necessary to have it function properly, which can take some getting used to.

The same system got under my skin a bit playing The Warren (a Waterhouse Down hack of Apocalypse World) since if anything should encourage smart careful play it's playing a freaking rabbit being hunted by a goddam owl. But apparently the smartest decision was to game the system a bit and kick the owl's ass because that's what the system encouraged.

Alberto Voglino said...

Super insightful, as usual!

Would you say that a game designer wanting to write a RPG today, intended for OSR style of play, should try to design a mechanic that enforces this (like Demon City's extra throw/lost throw, correct me if I'm wrong)? Cause, from what I understand, a lot of new OSR rulesets take an "admission by omission" sort of approach, leaving it to the game master's rulings to reward creative play (lately often resulting in granting advantage/disadvantage), since that seems to be the way it's always been done.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Alberto Voglino

I don't see an especially meaningful difference. Most OSR games acknowledge that bonuses and penalties are part of the system.

Charles A said...

This is a useful term to add to the lexicon.