The Ballbusch Experience: Where is the historical line?
Note: Due to the heady intellectual environment here at House of Paincakes, I’m going to state certain assumptions. For the sake of discussion throughout this post I am going to assume that there is an objective, material reality, the past is immutable, and the flow of time is linear. I understand that all of this is debatable, but I’m trying to keep this under 2,000 words.
A question that’s come up a few times during the intense intellectual street fights that characterize the HoP comments section is where we draw the line between a historical and non-historical subject. Like so much in life this is one of those things where the line is very clear, until you find yourself sinking into the boggy middle ground between earth and water. Warhammer is a fantasy, but it takes place in a slightly modified Holy Roman Empire. Game of Thrones has dragons and zombies, but the politics more or less mirror the War of the Roses.
All games are based or rooted in history in a fundamental way. AoS is about as much a simulation of medieval warfare as Pokemon is a recreation of cockfighting. Still our understanding of combat comes from contemporary or historical examples. Often this is grossly misunderstood by fanciful writers and game creators who want to make something ‘exciting’ or ‘cool’. However, once you’ve got a guy in plate armor running around with a sword you’ve created some sort of European medieval proxy.
The D&D assumed setting from AD&D second edition on is more or less Lancastrian England. The game is not ‘historical’ at all, but there is still a historical basis. It’s bastardized, there are bits and pieces pulled in from all over the place. All the same, the heart of the setting remains obvious. Personally, I find the pseudo-high-medieval setting nonsensical without centralized monotheism, but that topic makes a lot of designers nervous.
A trend that has been with us from the beginning, but has become more pronounced over the last twenty years is discomfort with the portrayal of cultural variance. So, at this point most fantasy and sci-fi settings feature 21st century occidentals in funny suits; rather than really attempting to present people from a different time and place. I’m less sure as to why this is.
I suspect that, despite more communication, many people these days simply have less friendly contact with people or ideas with a radically different cultural prospective. The global educated-affluent class has become strikingly homogeneous and insular over the last generation Most Lawful D&D hero-types tend to support truth, justice, relative equality, and the American way. A medieval member of the noblesse d’epee might be down for the first two (as he understood them), but enlightenment concepts of the rights of man would be alien.
This is made worse by the fact that a first level adventurer is almost certainly gentlemen, or at least yeomanry. Your average fighter can expect to start his career with a war sword, chain hauberk or coat of brigandine, a mule, and various other sundries. Further, cruising around the countryside looking for trouble is generally the purview of men who don’t expect to come into property. Only a very wealthy family could afford to give a second or third son such an impressive start in life.
Obviously, the murderhobo lifestyle is going to attract an odd assortment of characters and personalities. However, being a freelance isn’t necessarily anti-establishment in a medieval context. After all, at 9th level you get you own peasants to start oppressing.
Many factions or states in a speculative fiction setting has some obvious real world parallel. Sometimes these are painfully obvious. The more creative manage of hide their inspiration, or pull from so many sources that that they create something largely new. Of course, the genius of fantasy (and sci-fi) is that it presents an opportunity to discuss sensitive, or proscribed, topics by proxy. Sadly many writers don’t understand this potential.
Taking the all of the above, where then do we draw the line between a ‘historical’ wargame and a ‘fantasy’ wargame? Personally, I think the line is drawn between games that deal with people places, and things that actually existed (or are believed to have existed) and those that deal in things imagined. So, is something like FoW a historical wargame? Sure. World War II happened with more or less the participants and equipment that FoW allows. It’s more or less a Hollywood, John Wayne vision of the war, but it still involves historical events.
Any disagreement with FoW involves debating facts and interpretations. There is no disagreement that it’s real. The primary issue people have with FoW is the army lists. Granted, they allow for lavishly equipped forces that, potentially, could have more hardware then ever actually existed. However, the rules themselves while simplistic (except where they are overly complicated) are not unreasonable from a historical standpoint. Even the army lists can create semi-realistic forces so long as you play at around 1000-1500 points don’t take any support beyond battalion/regiment level.
FoW Tank Company
If we’re worried about accuracy, a more pressing issue is that FoW presupposes that you’re company is in ideal condition. No man in the entire outfit is sick, injured, drunk, missing, under arrest, or has the clap (no one is going to let you off for that, but it might be good for a -1 to hit). Plus, all the equipment working in peak condition. In peacetime this would be a minor miracle. In the midst of a major land war it’s inconceivable. If 80% of your establishment is available and fit to fight, you’re in good shape. In the middle of a campaign that number might fall to 40-50%, worse if you’re losing.
In FoW’s defense, it doesn’t really count figures, so a rifle team count stand for three men as easily as five. Still, your boys are in freakishly good condition.
Similar issues exist with any points based army list system. One of the things I like about Peter Pig’s Square Bashing is that once you’re selected your army you then endure weeks, even months, of attrition. So, whatever finally staggers onto the battlefield is much the worse for wear. Which accurately simulates the imperative of the force on the strategic offensive to force a decision as quickly as possible.
There is nothing wrong with army lists per se. The quantity, quality, and types of soldiers available for a campaign are based on economic, social, and political considerations going back decades or centuries. And an army list essentially says ‘this is what you state or nation can or could put in the field.’ The inaccuracy comes from the amount of player choice allowed. You reality don’t get to hand pick the troops you’re given to command (unless you have some serious pull). Sure, you ask for a detachment of Seabees, close air support, and the promise of major reinforcements if things get all FUBAR. You’re also not going to get any of it.
On the subject, FoW handles that fairly well at low point levels since the player is forced to fill out rank and file requirements before he can snag anything cool. Battlegroup does it a little better by limiting the player’s number of elite/rare/seconded troops to a (small) percentage of total strength.
Then we have more troublesome waters. There are many great warlords and captains whose historical existence is debatable. David, Arthur, Mohammed, Jingu, to name a few. If you were to ask me, from a strictly factual prospective, were any of these people ‘real’? I would tell you that such smoke issues from some sort of fire; however, that what we have are garbled stories and likely composite characters who don’t exactly match the words or deeds any one person.
Really, anything before AD 1500 is a matter of serious conjecture. While many a serious wargame covers these periods, how historical they are is a matter of opinion. They are based on speculation, and reconstruction. But, two completely reasonable and educated people could make two very different games covering the same period.
Speaking with HoP’s very own “Beat Ronin” on the subject of Saga. I argued that elements of historical wargames could be divided into the true, the likely, the plausible, the conceivable, and the fictitious. Norsemen fighting some sort of proto-Algonquin tribe? Plausible. Shieldmaidens out of the Icelandic Sagas? Fictitious. A highborn Norsewoman possessing enough military training to lead her retainers in defense of the estate? Likely. So, if you really want your force to be led by some blonde warrior maiden, you could concoct a reason and remain ‘historical’. Though if you’re after warrior women you’d be better off with Picts or some Irano-skythian group. Of course, then they likely wouldn’t be blonde in either case. Not that that should stop you, I’m very fond of doe-eyed, raven-haired ladies myself…
How much history you want in your game is a matter of personal taste. I belong to the ‘as long as you know the rules, it is okay to break them camp.’ Learn the history, get the facts (to the extent there are certainties) straight, and they decide what you want to do with your toy soldiers. I’m well aware that lavish Napoleonic uniforms were largely for the parade ground and troops on campaign wore loose trousers, drab overcoats, and fatigue caps. This doesn’t stop me from sending my men forward in plums and lace, but I know that my army is idealized. Likewise, I tend to paint in fairly vibrant colors. I try to avoid colors that were unavailable for a specific culture of time period, but my figures are much more lively than the muted earth tones that would dominate any pre-Renaissance force. Partly this is simply for effect. Drab looks well, drab. Of course, warriors tend to be wealthy, so a certain amount of flash makes sense.
There is the biggest complaint I can lay against FoW. It doesn’t do a very good job of identifying were liberties have been taken. This leads to the uninitiated doing things ‘wrong’ not because it makes for a more fun army of game, but because they don’t know any better. For me it’s less to do with the game, or the game creator’s intention than it does with the player’s intention. I can take the most historically inclined rules out there and use them to game Sailor Moon versus the Zombie Dinosaur army. I can also play a historical wargame with Warhammer (maybe not AoS, but Warhammer Historical worked fine). If the player sets out to recreate his vision of history (as it was or how it ought to have been) then you have a historical game.