[Confessions of an English Zombie Fancier] Blurred Lines and Special Characters

An oft-voiced objection to the Warmachining and the Hordesery often goes along the lines of “I don’t want to take a special character in every game, I want to make up my own dude, if I don’t I don’t feel invested in the game.” We all know someone like that: someone who gives all their troops names, who starts to twitch worryingly if their commander dies, someone who vomits on your shoes every time you suggest leaving their much-beloved piece out for efficiency’s sake. Let’s have a good look at Exhibit S. Gentlemen! Withdraw the safety cordon! Take down the vision shields – careful now! Ready with that tentacle prod! Deploy the Distraction Imagery!

SinSynn has always had a… special relationship… with Shadowsun. In fact, with most of the things in most of his armies. I don’t think it really matters to him whether some game developer tells him what they’re called, or whether he names them himself, or what. The important thing, and I’m sure he’ll correct me if I’m wrong, is that those little dudes are his. Not the company’s, not the developer’s, but his. He’s played with ’em, they’ve served him well or let him down, he’s figured them out or banged his head into them all on his own – he’s achieved some sort of ownership over his experience and the things he uses to experience it.

As one of those grubby roleplaying types, I’m all in favour of exploring a world and immersing yourself in it, as a rule – but I’ve never looked at a named character and thought that taking them would shut down my creativity and immersion. Quite the opposite, really; it’s the named characters, the Ghazghkulls and the Tychos and the Mephistons and the Ahrimans and the assorted von Carsteins who sucked me into the Workshopverses all those years ago. Those named characters give perspective and insight, they demonstrate particular kinds of heroism and villainy and how they work in that world. They turn a bland and encyclopaedic chunk of Fantasy Encyclopaedia into a story about some dude or dudette who has a personality, who can be related to – however superficially – and whose actions shape and reflect the game world you’re about to be playing in.

With Warmachine, I still found myself inventing my own characters, I just deflected that interest downwards, into the solos and unit leaders. My first Skarlock was named Blaksol, and he was very, very bored with the job Skarre had him doing; stabbing a lesser Thrall in the bum every few minutes to keep her going on her power trip. Since his unlife was so uneventful, he was quite able to pay attention to what was going on in the battle around him, and I always saw my games from his point of view.

This sort of thing is becoming harder and harder as more and more of the must-take solos are named characters in their own right; when your Skarlock is Vociferon, your support pieces are Tarturus and Darragh Wrathe, and your focus efficiency piece is Aikos, there’s not as much room to project your own fancies into the game – and yet I still don’t feel that the case is closed.

See, there’s a blurred line between the RPG and the miniature wargame, as we know full well. D&D evolved from Chainmail, back in the day, and you could take a good long look at early 40K and WFB and see them blossoming out of roleplaying like an abundance of mushrooms. Privateer Press both blurs and defines the line. On the one side, you have Warmachine and Hordes, the competitive wargame where characters’ profiles are set for tuning purposes and personae used to frame a military narrative; on the other, you have the Iron Kingdoms RPG, where building your own characters within the same mechanical framework is entirely the point. It’s more than possible to drag particular things back and forth across the boundaries, since the systems are more or less the same; I’ve yet to suggest to anyone that my Cryx warcaster NPC from the IKRPG playtest should see the table in a game of Warmachine, or to have IKRPG PCs cross paths with the Dark Prince of Umbrey, but it’s only a matter of time.

What I’m getting at is that there’s a space for people to project into the Iron Kingdoms, and it’s the IKRPG – a game which is much crunchier than I’d normally have time for, but which in its crunchiness has a certain crossover appeal to people who are more into that tactical-simulation stuff than I’d normally be. The IKRPG is the other reason I bought into Cryx again – and I’ll talk more about that next time.

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