I have been thinking heavily on the subject of strategy since proposing a tutorial on the subject. Later today I'll be delivering the class to my first student for it. As such, I'd like to write about it today, gathering my thoughts. I'm content that whatever I might say here, it cannot begin to cover the personal struggles that any one person might have with the material described below. All I am doing here is sketching out the barest bones of the subject ~ though I hope to go on some time about it.
It would be impossible to write a blog like this without touching upon strategy more than a few times. The subject itself is pervasive and at the same time remarkably fuzzy with regards to the understanding of those who talk about strategies, plans and goals. Experts of every stripe use the terms interchangeably, making a mess of discussions. Those who feel they have a perfect and comprehensive understanding of "strategy" where it applies to military matters will scoff at strategy applied to management, game theory or personal growth. In effect, we have a minefield. This leaves one recourse, where I'm forced to clarify what I mean when I use these terms ~ and please understand, for the sake of this post it simply doesn't matter what other people mean. For this I ask ~ kindly ~ that the reader simply accept these definitions so that we can move on and be productive here.
A strategy is not a plan; it is a collection of plans. Neither a strategy nor a plan is a goal; the goal is the end result of a given plan ~ and because strategies are made of many plans, it follows that strategies incorporate many goals.
Strategies are flexible; they propose plans and abandon plans as need be, while remaining more or less the same. Rarely do we abandon a strategy, since most often strategies tend to be imperative. It is our goal to win; it will take plans to achieve that goal; but a strategy is more appropriately thought of as "We are mustering our resources in the present to achieve the best possible result, whether or not we win in the short run or the long run." Strategies are not contingent on winning; they are not contingent on any specific collection of resources or feasible outcomes.
In other words, I am saying that making the players happy and satisfied is a goal; running a given adventure or campaign is a plan towards that goal; but immersing ourselves in an activity that we love, regardless of this campaign and regardless of these players, that is a strategy.
The first step in developing a strategy is becoming conscious that we are already in the process of having carried a strategy this far, with or without giving it any thought. We have learned how to dress and feed ourselves, we have learned how to find our tongues, we have found others who will play the game and we have gotten ourselves ~ alive ~ to the place where we are right now reading this post. What we do going forward from here is up to us. We've been making plans throughout the process. In a moment I plan to interrupt myself to make a cup of coffee before continuing this post; I have achieved this plan thousands of times in the past, on the whole without realizing that doing so was a plan.
Consciousness here means that we choose to fine-tune our strategy beyond the immediate and the most convenient. This is what I have been on about in the past when I have argued that as DMs we can be better. This is what I have been on about when I've talked about work. Any moron can construct a bad strategy; most already have. What else can we call a strategy where every plan is concocted on a moment's notice and carried forward with hardly a thought for the future, where every goal that is planned for is impractical or unobtainable? The trick is to create a good strategy. For this, we must apply principles to the manner in which we make plans to master goals that we can achieve.
To do this, we must first change our minds about something. The Game I proposed Monday is a measure of that. Each person who answered ~ and presumably many who thought about it and did not answer ~ found themselves reconsidering decisions they had made. They have changed their minds since first feeling that they were making the right decision ~ some almost at once and some after years of experience and consideration. We are all capable of changing our minds; the difficulty is whether or not we are able to recognize that it is time to change our minds, faced with realities that we are prepared to accept or not. Very often, it is better to deny the reality than submit to it.
Choosing to devise a better strategy is changing our minds, since it begins with the comprehension that the strategy we have employed thus far isn't working. Sometimes, we won't do so until change becomes an act of desperation: we have lost all our players, all our motivation to play, all our supposed resource of creativity . . . or we simply have lost the power to control our lives enough to give ourselves time to do that which we enjoy. The random plans we have been making have led us to this point and now, at last, we see we're in trouble. Well, what to do about it?
Following awareness that some strategy has been in place up until now and that we're prepared to adjust it (that is, to make better plans to achieve what we want), our next step is diagnosis. And here, for a time, I will employ a medical metaphor ~ in part because medicine deals so well with this particular issue and in part because we all, in one form or another, have had that experience where medicine helped us or someone we knew.
We are the patient. We're aware that something has gone wrong with us and we're at last prepared to take action: in this case, to seek care. Now, this need not come from another specific person; we have access to books and the messages of countless other people, we have our own minds, we have resources of our own. The source does not matter: the point here is to determine what is wrong with our strategy. What isn't working. In what way is the patient ill?
We should not make the mistake of thinking it will be one thing. It won't be. We are terribly complicated people and the game is a terribly complicated thing. Any one of us could easily sit and in the course of ten or fifteen minutes come up with a dozen things that are definitely not working as well as they should. These are all things I covered in How to Run: presentation, continuity, decision-making, self-control, structure, confidence, bad habits, understanding others, finding our center, organizing the game and our world, aesthetic improvements and so on. The internet's take on role-playing is a laundry list of complaints, from the tiny micro-management of how a given rule works to macro issues like not having enough time to play due to family, real world commitments, lack of players and DMs, whatever happens to be on the blog or board's agenda today.
Simply listing what's going wrong will itself depress the desire for a better strategy and as such, most people just won't do it . . . or they will start to do it, become disheartened and retreat from the bare-knuckled brutality of fighting against overwhelming obstacles. Most often, it is easier to return to the comforting sanctuary of the strategy that hasn't worked up until now. It is, at least, familiar.
But let us press on. If we approach a doctor for a battery of tests, we're going to get from that same doctor a list of things that will make us distinctly uncomfortable: high blood-pressure, the potential threat of a poor diet, a heart arrhythmia, an unexpected lump somewhere that might be a tumor, something disturbing that the doctor notes in our left eye . . . and much more terrifying things that I don't need to list here. That is why many people do not go to doctors.
From the doctor's perspective, however ~ and in this metaphor we are not only the patient, we are also the doctor ~ these are largely solvable issues. If we are right now walking about and able to make our own way into the clinic without much trouble, if we are not actively in pain, these are probably going to be things which do not require immediate care. We are not, after all, being carried in with a gun-shot or as the result of a car-crash. There are much more immediate, difficult problems to be managed in the here-and-now.
Thus our next concern should not be the number of troubles but with the nature of each one. We're not going to deal with them all at the same time; rather, we are going to concern ourselves with triage. We need to sort those troubles based upon their urgency ~ which, if any, needs to be dealt with first. This can do a lot to shorten our list to just two or three items, about which we may deliberate for a time before choosing which can be managed first to produce the best results in the shortest time. That is what we're doing: managing our shortcomings, building a plan that will overcome a goal that is self-evident.
Too often, we are living with a philosophy that argues that our "goals" should be synonymous with our wishes. That we should dream for things and then struggle to obtain these dreams. This is all well-and-good, except that for the most part the obstacle that keeps us from obtaining our dream is our failure to first address our shortcomings. Before I can be rich, I need to examine what it is that makes me poor. Before I can find love, I need to examine what keeps me from loving others. This is a step that is most often forgotten or deliberately ignored. It isn't as "fun" as winning the lottery or achieving fame. Hospitals, where sick people get well, aren't nearly as sexy as reality TV shows, where sick people get rich.
Partly because many sick people never get well. Nobody minds if some sick people don't get rich.
We want to base our triage on basic principles that have been established, again, by the medical field. Before choosing that one, most urgent illness that troubles your campaign, where you hope to make progress, ask yourself the following:
- What resources or experience exists, that is available, that will let me manage this problem; if we have no idea whatsoever how to start, we should probably approach some other matter.
- Regarding those things for which we have a plan (or for which we can make a plan), what are we prepared to address right now, given our time constraints and abilities?
- What will make the most difference from the perspective of other people? If we're the only ones who will notice a difference, there's little likelihood that it will affect our games much.
- For which things can we get assistance?
- Finally, what is most likely to produce results that will then, in turn, make us better and more able to address the next thing.
That is, after all, the strategy: to make a plan that obtains a goal, which in turn suggests another plan that produces another goal, until we are moving towards goals that we have not yet conceived. Remember, big picture. First we make the body well, and then we use that wellness to bring change to others, not only in achieving our dreams but in achieving the dreams of other people.
Yet how do we construct a plan?
We can, first, search for one. It is probable that others have found themselves in the same fix that we find ourselves, who have learned to extricate themselves and then ~ happily ~ have chosen to write or speak about it. This is why we read. It is very unlikely that we will personally meet people who have the same struggles as us, considering how many possible struggles exist, but finding a book about someone like ourselves can be remarkably easy. Moreover, as people in print tend to be more forthcoming than our family and friends, we can even pick up books at random and find ourselves agreeing with a total stranger who seems to know us better than our nearest and dearest. It is a strange thing, often ignored and discarded by people who feel that book-larnin' ain't got nothin' on larnin' somethin' ourselves.
Let's say, however, that we can't find someone else's plan, that there's nothing out there to help us find our way. Then what?
There's no easy solution here. Sorry, but that is how it is. If we're alone in this, we've got a fight on our hands, no question. Still, there is an answer and it is simple. We need to fail. A lot. We're going to sit and think and propose a plan for ourselves, which we will then put in place and watch fail. Then we're going to do it again and again, not because we "know" that one day we'll succeed ~ there are no guarantees ~ but because we'll be collecting a pile of data about what doesn't work.
I know, this seems pointless, but it isn't. Virtually everything about human knowledge is based upon what doesn't work. The whole medical field, for example. Tried this and the patient died. Tried that and the patient died. Tried this other thing and the patient lingered a bit and then died. Then we tried this and the patient died more quickly. And so on.
As as the knowledge advances, someone comes forward and says, "What if we do this?", producing the answer, "We tried that. Didn't work. Yes, we tried that too. Yes, and that." And so on.
This is where we are. We're steadily working out for ourselves what doesn't work, narrowing the vast field of possibilities until we have less and less things we can try. Even if we don't succeed, we might find something that will at least arrest the problem we're working on long enough to drop it down in the list of triaged items so we can work on something else. This is forward movement! We may not cure the damn problem but we can make it chronic and manageable. And in the process of planning to overcome this particularly disability, we've also been teaching ourselves how to make better plans and make better mistakes.
Regarding making plans and finding plans that succeed: there is a famous quote from Helmuth von Moltke: "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy."
[frustratingly, I could not find this in the German; if someone would please send me the original German text, I would much appreciate it]
I have consistently seen people interpret this as meaning that plans are therefore a waste of time or that somehow plans lead to failure. Moltke is not saying that it is wasteful to plan. He is merely saying that after the plan has been set in motion, that's as much as any of us can do. The planning stage is done and it is time to watch, learn and use what we've learned to make the next plan. The reason for this is because battles are a raging storm, where far too much is going on and it is therefore impossible to assess what's needed or what to do. Of course the plan is decimated by the battle; once the battle has taken place, that plan can never be employed again. The world has changed. The circumstances of the war has changed.
We have to incorporate into our thinking that plans are more than structural, they are also chronological. They are as dependent on the time they are put in place as they are upon the problems they seek to solve or the situation they seek to manage. Once a plan has been put into place, any plan, it is time for a NEW plan. All too often we get ourselves into trouble thinking that the plan that worked long ago will still work, or that we can keep using the same tactic over and over without taking into account that players, the game, the whole activity will have been changed. We all know worlds like this, where DMs say, "if it ain't broke, don't fx it." But it is broke. That's the problem. It is broken and because there's nothing as clear as shattered glass on the floor to reveal that fact, it's assumed that everything is just fine.
We do need to make a plan but we also need to make new plans, all the time. The success of a strategy comes from falling in love with goals and not with plans.
I also wanted to talk about knowing when and if a plan has failed. All too often, before a plan can prove itself, the strategist will seek to retract it, certain that it was the wrong plan and that leaving it in place will now be disastrous. Again, we come back to Moltke. Once the battle has begun, it is too late to do anything. Meddling at that stage, for whatever perceived reason, will only guarantee the plan's failure. It is difficult, going through the motions of a plan, feeling that it is certain to produce the wrong results, feeling embarrassed that the plan isn't better, feeling uncomfortable with daring to have produced a plan at all. We have all been there; we've introduced something into a campaign and because it isn't taken up at once with the greatest enthusiasm, we're ready to abandon it at once . . . solely on a feeling.
If we want any measure of success, we cannot abandon plans until there is evidence of failure. We have to ignore our gut. Yes, the players will grumble; they are human and all humans are uncomfortable with unfamiliar things. We are searching for inconsistencies in the plan, for evidence of insurrection in the players, for situations that the plan fails to address and ~ following a discussion ~ where it is agreed upon by consensus that a new plan is needed. Until that time, however, stay with it. Persevere. Even if it does happen that it is a bad plan and the goal isn't achieved, we're learning. We're learning what doesn't work, what fails, because it will help us design.
When we produced the plan, we did it with the best instincts we had. We have to trust those instincts, at least for a little while. Let's say, for long enough. When we go back to the drawing board, we want some idea of what to draw.
Those, then, are the basics of building a strategy. I am sorry that I can't give the reader one out of whole cloth. I could pretend to do that (there's a big business in it), but I won't. I'm not here to screw you, I'm here to enlighten you.
Go back around and read the post again. Take your time. You'll find that I'm making a lot of sense. Then ~ and I urge you to do this ~ find some content regarding the creation of strategy and get started. You might find this interesting.