In the last post, I discussed the nature of creative improvisation with regards to establishing believability. The key point was that doing things "in-universe", in an explainable or justifiable way, makes the action more tangible for the player. As a follow-up to that concept, I think it's only fair to discuss how such improvisation can be aided and benefited. Certainly it's easy enough to say "you should do things that make sense", but it's not exactly fair to do that without some sort of guideline or examples.
In this post we'll be looking at resources as grouped by general type. Resources play a lot of different roles - in addition to a direct tactical role, the concept of "improving" these different things can also play a part in motivating or rewarding players. It's one thing to give your players a chest full of gold, but then the question becomes "what do they spend it on?" and "how does this help them flex their creative muscles?"
"Equipment" in this context means the character's main methods of attack and defense: weapons and armor. This is probably the most directly important resource, and generally receives the most focus. Equipment serves as a "character upgrade": if a character puts on better armor, then they can take more hits. It's generally passive, rather than active - while there might be tactical options for different weapon and armor types, throwing a "high-quality" or a "+1" on it won't really change the dynamic. It will, however, create a sense of marked, notable improvement.
However, apart from "magic", there's not always justification for things being better. In more "realistic" games, an artificial divide is created so that the sense of direct improvement can be sustained. "Assassin's Creed 2" had the protagonist buying improving weapons and armor through the course of the game; the armor is somewhat justifiable, but the weapons seem less so (especially since things like weapon type are largely unimportant). "Far Cry 2" went through the same thing - two guns that fire the same round in real life were made artificially different to serve as the "low-level" and "high-level" assault rifles, which made the game feel fake and ungrounded despite the amount of detail work that went into it.
While there is advancement in real life, it's primarily a matter of quality and situational value. This gets brought over to video games in a sort of vague way (shotguns and SMGs for close range, rifles for long range), but has to be way more extensive due to the longevity of the game. The less "realistic" weapons are, the more they can be specialized into their own niche roles. While weapons in real life have different uses and can be customized in many different ways, these differences are often subtle enough that they simply don't register in an abstracted game.
Essentially, equipment choice is going to come down to attributes. This includes things like range, damage, and speed. In an action game, the actual method of attack is part of this as well - swords slash, spears stab, and so on. In an RPG, the mechanics of actually swinging a sword are usually abstracted, so it's not part of equation. If attributes are properly represented, then weapon choice can be an avenue for a player's tactics. If they aren't, then players are going to be restricted (hence my griping about the hand weapons in WFRP). Also, enchanted weapons include more opportunities than a simple "+1" bonus; magic also includes the addition of various properties, such as fire or lightning, that serve as another resource for the player to draw upon.
Ideally, tools should be examined in terms of their effects. A crowbar provides leverage. A lantern provides light. With magic items, one can get more creative, but the basic concept is the same: This is an x. It does y. Having a consistent effect allows for creativity by applying it to a problem. In that way, tools are essentially verbs added to the player's arsenal. When looking at a situation, each tool adds to the repertoire of what the player can do: fire can burn, ice can freeze, and so on.
One of the most prominent examples of a tool-centric game is, naturally, "The Legend of Zelda". In Zelda, every item you pick up has some use outside of direct combat. Bombs can open secret passages, shields can reflect beams, bows can shoot switches, boomerangs can retrieve items, and so on. Every item has some way to be applied, and while the dungeons may be very specific about what things are used where, it's still a lot more creative than "slash everything that's in your way". The main limitation is that each item applies to a specific type of area - you can only bomb cracked walls, for example.
With pen-and-paper games, that limitation should be gone (for the most part). Programmers can only implement so many ways that items interact, but a human being's adaptability means that a DM should be able to react to new information on the fly. If a character wants to use some string to set up a tripwire-based trap, or use explosives to collapse a tunnel on some enemies, then the DM should be able to include that in a reasonable manner.
Tools aren't limited to items, naturally. Spells are tools of a sort as well: they provide a reliable effect that can be applied to different situations. This is most obvious with cantrips, because their low-power abilities are really only useful when applied to something. If you've got a fireball spell, you can launch it at a crowd of foes, but if you've only got a little tiny flame, you're going to have to find something creative to do with it. In that way, "magic" isn't necessarily a detriment to realism - it's just a way to create effects that wouldn't otherwise be present.
One aspect of both equipment and tools is creating and improving those items. In many games, this is done simply through purchasing them: there's enough ways to make money that it's no big deal to say "okay my character spends some gold on the miscellaneous stuff I'd need to cast my spells". However, the idea of this update is finding more ways for the players to interact with the game. Materials provide a way to do this.
In a fantasy RPG, for example, most player-characters will spend their time hacking through monsters and looting dungeons. However, killing a monster can be based too much on the loot they're guarding. Many games try to deal with this by assigning value and use to the monster's body itself, as spell components or potion ingredients or what have you. This creates a direct link between "killing a monster" and "getting something out of it", as opposed to the more vague concept of a monster guarding a valuable item.
Skinning works best as long as the monster is reasonably threatening, and the value of the item is appropriate to the reward. As long as there's risk to the player characters, then the option of hunting a specific monster kind is more of a weighted tactical decision. In contrast, if there's no risk, then it's just grinding: "We need four yeti pelts, let's head north". The risk transforms it from an inevitability to a choice. If you're going out to hunt a powerful monster, there's a balance of risk versus reward.
Monsters aren't the only source of materials, though. Materials can be gathered in less violent ways, such as simple collection. Herbalism, for example, relies on the idea that there are plants in the wild to be identified and harvested. Spell components cover a wide variety of materials, but the most famous is probably "bat guano", necessary to cast a fireball in AD&D. It's one thing to buy that in a town, but actually having to scrape bat droppings off of a cave wall ensures that an enterprising wizard will make every fireball count.
Some games go for the "skinning" option, but don't necessarily follow through with the "doing something with it" part. There's plenty of games where you can turn in skins or body parts for cash, but not all of them include the option to use them for something. That's the important part here - the use of materials to construct new tools, whether as improvised weapons, gadgets, or spell components.
Making an environment work for you is one of the basics of tactics. From simple concepts like cover and concealment to advanced projects like defensive earthworks, there are plenty of ways to factor one's surroundings into the game plan. Using the environment is just as important as any other tool or ability, although more specifically "the environment" is a thing to use tools and abilities on. For example, at the battle of Crecy, concealed pits and sharpened logs were able to hold back the impetuous French knights who charged headlong at the English archers. Trenches and earthworks have long been used as defensive positions. The practice of "mouse-holing" changed the dynamic of urban warfare. Adapting tactics and items to the environment is a key part of planning.
In most video games, the environment is just sort of there. It's best described as a set of impenetrable outer walls holding objects and characters. Concepts like "GeoMod" attempt to do something with this, but it's not always feasible. All the permutations necessary - deliberate and otherwise - might be considered too much to pull off. However, when it does happen, it's usually a pretty intriguing gameplay mechanic. If the terrain's destructible, then that becomes as much a part of the dynamic as anything else. What was formerly unimportant is now a major part of the game, and cover that was formerly reliable now breaks apart or collapses.
For example, in "Company of Heroes", destructible terrain results in things like a garrisoned house suddenly gaining new firing ports, or an artillery crater that's usable as cover, or walls being blown apart by explosives. This reshapes the battlefield and changes the tactical dynamic, meaning that what was once a vulnerable section is now exposed, or what was once a secure area can now be flanked. Company of Heroes also allows the opposite: building up defensive positions with sandbags, barbed wire, tank traps, and land mines. Both creation and destruction use the environment in a dynamic, shifting manner.
In the realm of pen-and-paper, the improvisation of the DM once again comes to the forefront. These sort of tactics require adaptability and flexibility that most video games simply can't handle. Whether it's using spells to knock down trees and rocks or just using a shovel to dig a ditch, there should always be ways to affect the environment. Once rules for the terrain involved are established, it's just a matter of considering how long it takes and what it will accomplish. It can range from the short-term (whip up a quick plan in a dungeon) to the long-term (build a defensive position against orcish invaders).
People who talk about AD&D often underestimate how important henchmen, hirelings, and retainers were. Almost every class gained retainers eventually; fighters became lords, clerics became abbots, mages gained students, and so on. The important thing about underlings is that all the other resources apply to them as well. Every decision that is made for a single PC is also made for the PC's subordinates. People who have played games like X-COM or Jagged Alliance will understand easily: it's not just about making one person the best, it's about upgrading everyone as well as they can be upgraded.
Subordinates must often be equipped and given items, which affects the economic role of the player. It's easy to advance if you're buying swords and armor only for yourself - what about if you're paying for a whole armory? There is a Japanese anecdote where a lord is reprimanded for buying an expensive sword when its cost could have paid for thousands of spears. The same principle applies here: most games escalate to the inclusion of magic because the influx of money is only used on one person. How hard is it to collect some gold to buy some mail armor or plate? In a "realistic" setting, though, you've pretty much hit the top at that point, hence the need for magic to provide all the bonuses that keep things escalating. On the other hand, you could hire a bunch of friends, and make sure that they all have good equipment as well. The focus on small bands of player-characters generally prevents this in most RPGs.
Subordinates are also useful for carrying out plans, because they increase the scale of the endeavor. The planning stage of a battle goes from "deciding what to do" to "giving orders to a small group" to "giving orders to entire armies". Each new hireling is an addition to the tactical dynamic, requiring more and more complex plans (and more and more people to carry them out). For a lone PC, "gathering materials" might just be some herb-gathering; for an army, it could be staking out mines and setting up operations. For a lone PC, "using the environment" means a few well-placed snares and spells; for an army, it means intensive construction and planning.
Subordinates also allow for a lot of roleplaying. I've talked in the past about making soldiers believable, and subordinates are a great place to put those concepts to use. A subordinate should feel like a real person with their own loyalties and mannerisms, not just a robot for the player to order around. This deepens the experience - not only does the subordinate feel more like a real person, but the player should feel like they're interacting with a real person, which adds weight to their command position. One thing I liked about Warhammer Fantasy was the hireling system, where different factors would influence whether or not a hired subordinate would be willing to do something for you. A simple request would be most likely done, while a request like "throw yourself at that dragon" would require some major loyalty to even attempt.
In the movie "Kingdom of Heaven", the main character, Balian, gains some territory and some followers. He is thus able to interact more meaningfully with his environment, either through civil means (helping to construct irrigation systems on his land) or military ones (leading his men in a charge to help save civilians). Some of his men are around fairly frequently, and the audience sees if they live or die - although they didn't really get enough characterization to make that effective. In a game, that's not a problem: a player interacts with their subordinates more often, and thus has more time to identify and characterize them.
Essentially, improvisation is just the application of "real logic" to different situations. However, it can mean the difference between a "normal" game, where everything just proceeds as usual, and a "special" game, where the players have a chance to really make a difference. Allowing for player input should draw the player in more than if they were just playing "by the rules". It's a question of believability by the nature of the interaction. If the DM or developer says "no, you can't interact with that", then it calls attention to the fakeness of the experience. Of course, it's not always possible to let everyone do everything, but if someone has an idea it's the role of the improvisational DM to react to that idea in a way that makes sense in the universe.
So, to sum up:
1) Choosing weapons and armor is part of a passive tactical dynamic, which should allow for player choice in terms of defeating a specific enemy type or playing to a character's strengths.
2) Tools represent the ways that a player interacts with the game world. Making these interactions logical and simple is an important aspect of connecting the player to that world.
3) Giving players a way to gather resources as part of their normal adventures provides a new perspective on resource accumulation, making it more intricate and personal than simply buying them.
4) The environment in a game represents an area that can be acted upon by tools. Making these actions logical and grounded rewards players who use creative thinking.
5) Subordinates reflect points 1-4 on a larger scale, which can represent power accumulation in a more direct way than simply "being stronger". In addition, subordinates provide an avenue for roleplaying and attachment, at least if they're fleshed out sensibly.