Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Models to Soldiers, Boards to Battlefields

I write this blog entry on a bus towards Kingston, to visit Tolworth First Founding, a wargames society that meets weekly to play various games. The iPad in my hand is asking me why I am doing this, so I thought I'd share my thoughts.

I've touched on this topic before, the social aspects of our hobby and why we need to interact as very intrinsic part of our hobby, but this time I thought I'd elaborate on a more personal level.
Beneath my knees currently is an army case full of Chaos Space Marines, including my codex, Rulebook, dice, templates and all the other tools I need to play. On this very iPad I have a 1750 points list written up ready for use.

This journey is thus, premeditated.

It takes about an hour to get there in this bus, give or take a few minutes for traffic, but I don't consider this an exertion. The nature of this journey and my thought process means most of this will be drafted en route, but I'll publish it post-facto.

I suppose it makes sense to start with why I am attending tonight. Firstly, I've not been in a while and had nothing better to do tonight, but that doesn't really answer the question. I'm going to play a game, I hope. Some people go simply to test out a list in preparation for a future tournament. For some, the simple act of playing a game is the culmination of their hobby, the very reason they have built and painted their collection. For others, perhaps in a more negative light, the act of demolishing an opponent is the driving force.

I've already stipulated in the past that for me, the driving force behind my collection is cool models and story. I already have the cool models, and I have the basis for the story. But how boring would Lord of the Rings have been if Frodo heard about the One Ring and then decided to just sit in Bag End and await his fate? How about if Harry Potter had received his invitation to join Hogwarts but had decided to stay at home instead?

My point is, the basis of the story and the idea of where it could go is there, but that stagnates fairly quickly if not allowed to grow and develop. Perhaps this is the attraction of a campaign (and more of that in a later entry) but its the driving force for me to hit a gaming table. Even the recent games I played up in Nottingham were part of the story of my collection. Now, I'm not going to get into a discussion of canon or plot direction; nor would I insinuate that every game is a continuation of that story in order. Again, that's the purpose of a campaign.

However, to me, each game has a point and a fraction of my armies story in it. In Nottingham, Kar'Thanal had taken his new toy out for some testing. He'd encountered, first, a warband of Death Guard, and then later had stumbled across some Orks for him to perform his next field test. Now, having returned (metaphorical clip-board in hand) he's perhaps trying out some more (like the Heldrake in the list) or any of other possibilities.

Perhaps, if I play an objective mission, these are key artefacts for him to prosecute a future war. Perhaps daemonic items or tomes.

Perhaps he's seeking enemy captives for testing. Perhaps the very war in itself is the objective, a dark offering for the Ruinous Powers?

These eventualities and possibilities are what the game is about for me. Telling the story, or as the Warhammer 40,000 Rulebook calls it: Forging a narrative. The idea is that, by giving the game a story, much like basing a well painted model, you give it context. With context comes imagery. No longer are those marines 'just standing on an objective when a Heldrake moves close on kills them all with a Baleflamer', now:

The Space Marines take covering positions around their objective, securing their firing lines and covering the approaches. "Contact! Enemy air support coming in hot!" yells one Marine over his internal vox, "Take cover!". His brothers barely get time to move before a great piercing shriek blasts their auditory senses, and the squad is bathed in a wash of white hot daemonic fire. Brother Castiel is the first to fall, his Ceramite armour plating and flesh beneath dripping to the floor and coalescing into a shimmering molten pool. Six other Marines also fall, their cries of agony lost under the raging inferno of the Heldrakes onslaught.

Personally, I find the latter a bit more exciting. With context, the game ceases to be about models, dice and tape measures. Instead, it becomes a tactical war, every soldier counts and their death means something. Their achievements throughout the battle actually count for something beyond the immediate.

An example of this might be the lone marine who survives a hailstorm of firepower that wipes out the rest of his unit. Through the game, against all odds, he survives more onslaught, moving from cover to cover before launching a desperate one man assault on the heavy weapons team that obliterated his squad. Though he is but one man, his heroic actions tie those heavy weapons up in combat long enough for support to arrive and claim the objective.

We often celebrate events like this and remember them for a long time after the game, curiously even more so than when the heroic actions are from our characters. Everyone expects Abaddon the Despoiler to march across the board and wipe out a squad. Nobody expects a lone cultist to manage it.

These moments crop up all the time in games. I've even heard hardened tournament veterans referring to a Marine as 'Boltgun Billy', the standard Bolter Marine who managed, against all odds, to be one of the most decisive pieces in the game. But why stop there? Why allocate personality and context onto only one model, and even then, awarding him such honours post-facto? Why not give the entire game context?

I'm not suggesting you name all your soldiers, (though I like to name my sergeants and characters, and give each unit a name too) or write epic prose instead of rolling dice. I mean, why not try this:

  • Instead of "Roll for mission. Ok, we got kill points and diagonal deployment. Roll for set up..."
  • Try, "Ok, we've got two objectives and longways deployment. Lets imagine those objectives are wounded scouts deep in enemy territory and my army needs the information they gathered whilst yours is mobilising to keep those secrets out of my hands. Wahey, I seized the initiative, looks like my force has caught yours by surprise."
Which do you think sounds like a more enjoyable game? Why not give it a go?

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