Saturday, 6 September 2014

Wargaming Narratives

 WRG - stealing any individuality from your
 armies since 1969.

Traditionally wargaming has largely confined itself to representing the armies it uses as somewhat generic formations. There might be the standard distinction between infantry and cavalry, guard and line, or between missile troops and melee, but by and large our miniature formations are merely distinguished by numeric differences under the rules and by a different figure type and paint job. In those games where commanders are separated from the mass of their men, these too are generally distinguished by some form of limited value rating.

While you could of course have named your commanders and units, rather than constantly referring to them as 'bold sub-general', or 'that line infantry unit', there was typically no weight attached to those names within the game itself. Referring to your commander as 'Zark the devastator' carried no weight at all with your opponent, nor his miniature men. Throughout history in the real world there have been instances of individuals or armies, which have caused panic amongst the enemy's ranks by mere mention of their name; in Dark Ages England it was "save us from the fury of the Northmen" and in Medieval France 'Talbot' would come in the night and take away naughty children. In comparison "Pete's 28mm Patrician Late Romans" are not having the same effect when they get trotted out at the club on Wednesday night.

Okay some players and their armies do generate some degree of awe amongst their opponents, but that is not generally transmitted onto the tabletop in any meaningful way. Games Workshop set the trend for more characterisation of both individual units and their leaders by the use of special rules and traits, but the needs of marketing and profit generally meant that one fearsome unit or character was cancelled out by similar options in other armies. The result was that every army had its fearsome units and leaders and oddly they never went down the opposite route of creating truly awful units and leaders in the same measure.

For many players games tend to be unconnected with each other and each tabletop encounter is a single isolated event. Casualties in one game do not get carried over to the next, with every game seeing casualties replaced and the army completely rejuvenated from its last encounter, whether they were fielded last week, month, or year. Morale is always at the optimum level for each troop type at the start of the game too. As we know that everything will effectively re-set at the end of the game, we are often inclined to commit troops to suicidal attacks, in a way no leader would usually consider if he had only the survivors to rely on the following day.

I'm Ragnar, a corporal of a unit of levies and I ride a dragon. What's your point?


The closest we usually come to addressing these issues is the wargames campaign and being wargamers these are often very grand designs indeed. Taken to the extreme these incorporate population taxation, trade in raw materials and commodities and the raising of armies is dependent on these factors. The prime example of this is Tony Bath's legendary 'Hyboria' campaign, as featured in the old WRG Wargame Campaigns book. Games Workshop's Warhammer had its own much more modest campaign system, set in their world's version of the Balkans - the region known as 'The Border Princes'. This was far more player friendly in the main, but was an 'empire building' exercise, that does not fit well into most historical gaming settings and was also lacking in some respects (losses were not carried over etc.).

 Awesome book, though losing half your army,
 due to a loss of mining income, resulting from 
 a strike in one of your provinces, might be a 
 touch too much depth for most wargamers.
More recently somewhat more usable systems have begun to appear, which although are tied to a particular rule set, are often fairly adaptable to other periods. The best of the bunch from my limited experience, are those produced by Too Fat Lardies (Dux Britanniarum and At The Sharp End) and Two Hour Wargames (FNG and presumably its WWII equivalent Nuts!). Where these win for me, are that they offer quite limited campaigns, with just what you need for the context of the campaign. Dux Britanniarum has a great one, which although is in the same context as Border Princes as a small-scale 'empire builder', offers all the extraneous detail for a most satisfying campaign, with the minimum of book-keeping.

The others are much more tightly focussed and allow a campaign to be played within a much wider setting (WWII & Vietnam). The player is typically leading a platoon-sized unit and has to deal with missions handed down from command, command's rationing of replacements and all the other things that would beset a platoon commander. Despite their limited scope, such campaigns are far more immersive in my opinion and largely conform to the ' imaginary play' psyche which my subconscious has been throwing at me since I was a child. I was often said to be 'off in my own little world' and now these rule sets and those like them, allow me to let my 'inner child' run free, but with adult rule mechanics to use to control that play.
Whose History?

Characters are important to history, what would the Wars of the Roses be without the enmity between York and Suffolk, or Northumberland and Salisbury, to name but two examples? How would the violence be perpetuated without Clifford's murder of Rutland after the battle of Wakefield, or the supposed murder of the Princes in the Tower and other such acts? Why did the Duke of Gelderland, a man committed to the destruction of the Burgundian State, agree to lead its forces despite being imprisoned by them for years? All these things were part and parcel of 'the history' and the personal motivations of often minor personalities often drove the wars more than the desires of the big men at the head of the armies.

For me the best historical novels and films are those in which the characters pursue some goal within a much wider and overarching story line. What they do often has little overall effect on 'the history', or is made to contribute to it in some small way, either works. The classic tale of this kind has to be 'The Three Musketeers', which is set against the backdrop of the French Wars of Religion. Our heroes encounter key personalities of the period, act on the periphery of a major military operation and their adventure is to prevent a major historic alteration, the result of their actions therefore allows history to progress as it did.

"I'll be in the front rank, so you will all be getting to use my +2 for shooting and melee".

While tabletop recreations of the book might be more suited to role-playing, or those rule sets which are small scale skirmishes and which feature role-playing elements, I am sure you get what I am driving at. Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe Series is another example, but is a bit more ambitious in its scope. There are the same historical hiccups to prevent or assist, but the action often involves ever-larger commands for Sharpe as the series progresses and is perhaps much more suitable as the setting of a wargame campaign as a result.

What is important here is that Sharpe has a career which develops over the series. While rising from the ranks was unusual in that time and playing out Sharpe's days as private and then sergeant, might be a touch too granular for a wargames campaign, the idea is there that successful people progress. Two Hour Wargames does this in FNG, even including a 'post-war' element to give you closure on what happens to your character after Vietnam. Added to this are such events like having one of your most experienced guys finish his tour and leave the platoon, to be replaced by a 'FNG', from which the rules get their name.

While we are talking fiction here, real people progress and have careers in the same way. Juan Salazar, was apparently a Spanish soldier of fortune and is mentioned as being one of a number of captains of Burgundian troops in Artois in 1477. He next appears at the side of Richard III at Bosworth in 1485, where he tries to get Richard III to call it a day, to little avail. Between those two points there is a huge blank space, which I could use as the tablet on which to write Salazar's story as played out in my games. Obviously getting Salazar killed between the two points might put a crimp in that career however.

Lt. Colonel David Niven 1944.
"Look, you chaps only have to do this once. But
 I'll have to do it all over again in Hollywood with
 Errol Flynn!". 
As wargamers we often focus on 'the war' and not on the people fighting it. We therefore chart events as they relate to armies, but not as they relate to individuals. Ask a wargamer about his hobby and armies, and you will usually get stock responses like; "I play Wars of the Roses and I have a Lancastrian Army", or "I'm into WWII and have a German Panzer Grenadier unit"... could it be any more vague? How often does someone come back with "I'm into WWII and I have replicated 'A Squadron' No.1 GHQ Reconnaissance Unit, you know? The unit David Niven led in 1944"... or something like that? Outside niche type periods (VBCW springs to mind, as it actively encourages its players to create 'named' people and units), the trend is for anonymous and generic units.  

While there are one or two people out there who define their hobby by a particular army or campaign, I have yet to come across one devoted to wargaming an individual's or a specific unit's history. I am as guilty as the next man in committing this sin of generalisation though. We routinely play fictional actions as a matter of course, so even if real information is lacking to flesh out the men in our armies, why can we not make those up too? What sounds better to the ear in a game; "my falangist platoon", or "Jefe Garcia's falangistas"? It makes no real difference to how the game plays out, but I suggest that it does alter your mindset to a point; in console gaming they call it 'emotional investment' - you 'care' what happens to your leaders and men within the context of the game.

So What?

All this might not be everyone's cup of tea and if so, no problem here with that. For myself however I am going to try to incorporate the idea into my gaming more fully than has previously been the case. I do not claim any of this as original thought, these ideas have been kicking round since H.G. Wells was a lad; ascribing a supposed persona to your army's leaders goes way back. Allowing that to impact directly on the game is a fairly new concept however and has pretty much resulted from a crossover between wargaming and role-playing, which is evident in more recent rule sets. Whether real people or fictional personas however, it adds an additional dimension to your games.

As for the units themselves, the idea that they are specific, rather than generic, is also not new; 18th & 19th Century wargamers typically collect specific units, while in other periods there is often somewhat of a 'these can also be used as' train of thought. I plan to knock that on the head and to re-create real, or at least realistic, named and themed units and their leaders. There are of course those of you out there already doing this, so once again I make no claims for originality and I am just spreading the idea in essence.