“Because I believe in calling things what they are…And you should make a habit of it too. A group of people who can’t choose an insignia when they have a whole day to decide, who can’t even toss a coin to choose, are a spineless herd…
“And a herd like that is perfect cannon fodder.”
“We have changed our minds,” the watcher spoke directly to me. He didn’t look as repulsive and alien as they usually did–he looked normal, even kind. “Yes. We have changed our minds. We like you now..”
LitRPG fantasies, as a genre, tend to be romanticize the gamer as either a normal person with a hobby or an aloof outsider waiting for the right moment to shine. But what about the obsessive gamer, the type who eats and sleeps with their headsets on, who uses gaming to detach themselves from a reality too painful to bear? In Small Unit Tactics, these lost souls are so far removed from reality that another picks them up. Now, in an alien world one realm away from Hell, these gamers must fight for the gods in a crude parody of a PvP battleground. Alexander Romanov takes an unflinching examination of the types of people who become obsessive gamers, and finds them wanting.
Except in determination.
If that sounds nothing like the elaborate Diablo II and World of Warcraft litRPG clones with their magic, combat skills, and stat sheets, it is but the first of many departures from the established formulas. First of all, and most important to many readers, Romanov avoids stat sheets by avoiding stats altogether. A character’s strength is determined solely by their muscles. Hope you’ve been lifting, because swords and armor are heavy. Any character growth, as a gamer would recognize it, is conveyed purely through words.
Secondly, Small Unit Tactics is laser-focused on melee. This heavy melee focus differs from most litRPGs that rely on lopsided Maple builds*, skill abuse, and magical armor for their heroes’ victories. The rules prohibit mages and fireballs, forcing all combat to be hand-to-hand. And without the presence of perks, the only way to cleave through your enemies is to swing that sword yourself. Romanov is a HEMA-style reenactor, and that knowledge is conveyed to Echo, his protagonist, and to the graphic action scenes that end in crushed bones and liberal blood splatter. The explanations of technique and hold are almost Ringo-esque in thoroughness, but do not detract from the quick pacing of the lopsided fights. A hundred against twenty is the closest to fair odds, so Echo has to rely on the eponymous small unit tactics to carry the day.
But all that might as well be “Tell me about your magic system” to the average reader. And while it is highly novel for a contemporary litRPG or fantasy to not have one, the measure of the story comes down to plot and characters.
The plot is simple and bloody, as Echo must lead his clan of gamers to defile the altars of the other teams’ gods before his own are defiled. And, with the average gamer as spear fodder, typically uncoordinated, overweight, and under-muscled, Echo has to lean on his reenactor past to whip a hundred fighters into some sort of fighting shape. Being gamers, they settle into the grind, by killing the gamers on the other teams. But when a raid defiles the first temple, everyone involved realizes that they are not in a game any more. This is not in the “welcome to hardcore permadeath” trapped in a video game sense that many LitRPGs use. More in that someone put a paper-thin gaming veneer on something far more alien, and that the gods might be more than mere lore.
There are only three characters of note. Grouchy protagonist Echo is one of nature’s sergeants, able to motivate small groups into do crazy acts together. He’s a bit of a cynic, describing himself as a collective egotist out to help himself and his team. His right hand is Ed, a Viking Schwarzenegger clone with an economics degree, whose battle lust can’t be sated, no matter how many times Echo contrives scenarios to reign in Ed’s enthusiasm. Rounding out the trio is Justin, a pacifist Rastafarian trapped in a PvP battleground. Justin would be little more than a druggie joke for most writers, but Romanov makes him the most personable of the trio, with an infectious charisma that not even Echo can stay mad at. The rest of the cast, named or otherwise, fall into more standard bit roles. That makes sense, as Echo sees most of them as either sword fodder or experience points. If you want to be people in Echo’s mind, you have to be on his squad. Again, Romanov presents the unflinching and often unflattering realities about gamers. Even if that means showing the warts on his own hero.
The ad copy for Small Unit Tactics touts “a massive fanbase in Russia, and these novels were in many ways forerunners to some of the most famous Russian litRPG cycles.” While this is my introduction to Russian litRPGs, so I can’t verify that bit of hype, there is enough difference here to be worth following. And not just for a novelty-addicted critic. If the meager gaming aspects were removed, the bloody game of the gods with undying soldiers would still stand as good fantasy. And, as the first of two volumes, Small Unit Tactics shows a brevity and restraint in a time of sprawling epics. Hopefully, Romanov proves to be as influential in English as he claims to be in Russian, as Small Unit Tactics appears to be what the increasingly mechanics-lite branch of American litRPGs are stumbling towards.
The second and final volume of Small Unit Tactics begins as Echo and his clan of Needles have just saved their faction’s city from being razed. But other faction’s cities have fallen in the strange melee game. Enough to drive home the fact that, once enough fall, the players for the defeated factions will die for good, and rise no more. Echo must help with the defense of his city, thread the needle of faction politics, and delve for new weapons in order to win, or he and his Needles will die. But Echo is one of nature’s sergeants, and must find someone he can tolerate to lead the faction. Someone willing to let Echo and the Needles slip the leash and go on the attack.
Compared to just about every litRPG out there, Small Unit Tactics leaves so much money on the table. Two volumes of character growth and go-for-the-throat fighting that stop, not at the end of the campaign when Echo stands triumphant over all his enemies, but when Echo makes a choice. The strange game between the gods becomes real to him, and so do the consequences of his actions. In many ways, Echo learns to humanize his fellow players instead of using them as tools towards his gaming goals. And, in typical fashion, those lessons are driven home with pain instead of homily. As a result, he accepts the cost in blood to protect his own, even if it means the deaths of everyone else.
And as remarkably short as Small Unit Tactics is, for the story told, it should have been shorter, just as its melee-FPS clashes are shorter and more violent than most litRPGs and even the MMO fantasy games they are based on. Don’t get me wrong, Small Unit Tactics takes risks outside the normal guild wars MMO fantasy, both in system and in type of story told. And it might be the litRPG for those who despise stat sheets. It is, however, a freshman effort, and that shows in the pacing, writing, and characterization. But in a subgenre filled with freshman efforts, it stands out on originality alone. Want something different in litRPG from Diablo II clones? Want a bloody fantasy of divine gladiators slugging it out in a game that changes according to the whims of capricious gods? Read Small Unit Tactics.
*Maple is the heroine of the light novel I Don’t Want to Get Hurt, so I’ll Max Out My Defense, who, as the title says, dumps all her points into defense and becomes overpowered as a result. As such, she is the patroness saint of a commo type of LitRPG protagonist. For, far from being a trap that newbies fall into, dumping all stat points into a single stat is a common trope for LitRPG protagonists seeking to imbalance the game.