The Ballbusch Experience: Generic and Generalities
The inspiration for today’s post comes from a conversation with HoP’s own Thuloid. As is to be expected from such a superior mind, he drops profound sentiments so frequently that they at times escape his notice. However, I find no shame in picking up these pearls of wisdom and taking them for my own use. Today’s question, put simply, is: What are the mechanical requirements for making a game with proper flavor?
Most wargames can be stripped by to a couple of mechanics. I roll against my unit’s combat value and if I exceed it I damage your unit. Alternatively, I roll against your unit’s defense value, or some roll on some table cross-referencing my unit’s ability to attack against your unit’s ability to defend. Following from this, I could write a set of rules the whole history of human conflict that span no more than two or three pages. The result is a complete abstraction, but on the highest level of observation there is no functional difference between Sumerian archers shooting at each other and tanks shooting at each other.
So long as the situation is balanced so that we do not have a case of clubs against cannon the system used to attack and the system used to defend matter little so long as you can chart the ratio of relative effectiveness. 40K proved this by adopting a Sword-and-Sorcery rule set (which was itself adapted from a set of rules for Medieval games) to science fiction. Power armor versus a laser gun or plate versus an arrow is the same thing, all else being equal.
This is what leads us to ‘generic’ rules sets. Most, if not all, popular rules sets are very generic despite the varnish. With minor alterations Flames of War now officially covers the whole of the 20th century. Warhammer’s pseudo-medieval rules were happily adapted to sci-fi, RPG, and skirmish games. (Advanced) Dungeons and Dragons’ “D20” system has been applied to any and every setting under the Sun. This works because these rules at their core supply a simple tool kit that the play can modify to his heart’s content.
The natural inclination then, is to start at the general and work down. As a result, most rules are generic with some amount of trappings to tie them to a specific setting. Which then begs the question, why not just write a completely generic set of rules. And I don’t have a good answer to that. Do for wargaming what GURPS did for RPGs. Create something that covers everything. This was something of the approach designers took way, way back in the 70’s, but it has long since been abandoned.
Let’s say, for example, you want to write rules for the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. A bizarre incident by any standard. Politics aside, what’s involved in wargaming the conflict? Really, it comes down to the interaction between formed, linear European foot and loose formations of close-combat fighters. If the infantry line holds its nerve, the charging warriors will be cut down in detail if not, the line will be cut to pieces. Similar observations can be made about the fighting between the Ottomans and Holy Roman Empire a few decades earlier, the British and Zulus a century later, and the USA and Indians in the interim.
How do you make this into a game? The common approach is modify a set of mid-century ‘Horse & Musket’ rules. The problem is that there isn’t much in the way of horses or muskets involved. You could build from the ground up. focusing on the asymmetry. However, this might lead to a set of rules that boil down to ‘1-3 Hanoverians panic, Jacobites win’ (as at Prestonpans) ‘4-6 Hanovarians hold, Jacobites lose (as at Culloden).
Ha! Rolled a ‘5’ Game over Scotland.
The ground up approach is much more fiddly. And leaves a lot more room to argue with the author’s view of warfare be it historical or fictional. Take the Perfect Captain’s Hoplomachia. These are rules for Classical Greek warfare. Completely pure and unsullied by any considerations beyond the clash of hoplites. I applaud such singular dedication to capturing a moment in history. I also happen to disagree with the Captain’s interpretation of hoplite warfare, but no one wants to hear about that. The more general approach avoids arguments over minutiae (either with others or yourself). Once you plant you standard and declare ‘a turn is five minutes’ or ‘this mechanic represents X’ for better for worse, that’s the hill you’ve chosen to die on. The generic and general allows hand-waving of inconsistencies.
This isn’t limited to historical games. Famously, the fluff for 40k has next to nothing to do with how the table top game plays out. I have read impressive attempts to contort the facts of the rules in order to have them match the game’s background. The result is absurd claims as a space marine figure is one man, but an ork figure is fifty; an the like. Clearly, this is wrong, Warhammer is written on a 1:1 scale and attempts to argue otherwise (even at times by the authors) is doom to failure. However, there is no grounds scale and no time scale. Within the game’s reality what, exactly, rolling on a ballistic skill table, rolling strength vs. toughness, and rolling to save represents is open enough to interpretation that almost anything could be happening.
Nothing is new here. ‘What on Earth is a hit point?’ Is a question that goes back to the birth of the modern era of gaming. At some point, rules have to introduce mechanics. By their nature, game rules are arbitrary. Whether or not this detracts from the game depends on the skill of the writers and goals of the players.
Scale is another factor. On the army level things tend towards the generic. Armored melee fighters seek to fence with their opponents and can be expected to outclass other foot. All are well trained, equipped to the highest standard their society allows, and perceive themselves members of an elite. For the commanding general, does it really matter if these are Roman Legionaries, Viking Hersir, or Swarbian Serjeants? All would operate differently, but in the context of a larger engagement all would have the same effect within their milieu.
Once you start to get down to the battalion or company level you’re really going to see the nuts and bolts of differences in training and tactical doctrine. That’s also where the real writing challenge comes in. How do you express vast differences not just in fighting ability, but maneuverability. Better soldiers aren’t necessarily better fighters, but better able to operate. Wars and battles are generally settled by who “gets there the firstest with the mostest.” The major difference between the Napoleonic Wars and the Seven Years War was massive improvements in the training of company level officers. Companies and platoons because capable of limited independent action. This, in turn, made armies more maneuverable. Translating that to the table top means playing with movement rules and order systems, which are normally not the main focus of a game.
And here we find the true heart of the matter. Wargame rules tend to certain around the act of violence (i.e. combat) rather than the result (degrade command and control) or even the goal (compel the opposition to leave the immediate area of operations). Therefore, rules flow towards generalities because shooting a guy is shooting a guy. However, commanding a horde of nomads on the Ponic steppe and commanding an infantry battalion on the Western Front are two completely different things.