How I Write Skirmish War Games: Narrative As Goal Not Excuse, Part 1 Scenarios
Updated: Jan 21
There is a sentence that turns up in various war games, it amounts to something like this: “if rules are unclear/confusing/badly written stop arguing over them and remember that you are not having fun/have lost sight of the story.” Because of course if rules are unclear it must be your fault for not choosing to have fun and being a cut throat tournament gamer. This is not an acceptable sentiment, narrative and fun are the goals of good rules, never an excuse for bad ones. Narrative is used as an excuse as opposed to “competitive” or “tournament” rules because this claim cannot be flown in a game that has any ambitions to be a tournament game (or at least it shouldn’t be). I’ve been to plenty of top end miniatures tournaments and the very concept of telling someone to “just have fun” in the middle of a rules dispute is unhelpful to say the least. As such some games take the attitude that their game is “narrative” meaning never intended to be run at a tournament, so it can be sloppy. This attitude is unacceptable for two main reasons. First and most important, we’re all the heroes of our own stories, even the most narrative of war games lacks “narrative imperative” in that anyone can fail or die at any time. Clint Eastwood can get his head blown off act 1 scene 1 and that just does not fit any story where he’s my hero, but it can fit your story when its your hero who does it. If I want to tell a story with loose rules I can do it better with no rules, I need the rules to show me a story I didn’t know I was playing to, not to be formed by my stories or conform to my ideas. The second problem is that narrative and competitive are not on the same continuum, saying a game cannot or should not be competitive because it is narrative is like saying a car can’t be fast because its green.
Many of the same issues arise in response to the claim of fun as an excuse for unclear rules, although personally I find the use of fun as an excuse far more heinous. I don’t need a set of rules to have fun with people that I find fun to be around, I need them to make annoying, petty, obnoxious and socially unpleasant people fun to be around. Frankly, about the only thing I really do need a good set of skirmish war games rules for is to create a space within which myself and a total stranger can have fun together, irrespective of our attitudes or personalities. There is a difference, and a significant one, between fun and fun in the set context of a set of war games rules. There is a technical definition of a spoil sport. The spoil sport is the player who breaks the contract of the game to decide that for example, the best game to play Ticket To Ride is by turning it into a game of train stacking Jenga or by turning Catan into a game of mini Frisbee, they question the basis of the game, the purpose of play. Part of the point of a game is that it tells you what will be fun within its play space, just as part of the offence of the spoil sport is that this is the only rule of the game that they question. As such the concept of the game which absolves itself of the responsibility to define fun within its play space offends me. A game’s rules need to define and shape its version of fun, a game that tells me to define fun and then have it is useless.
There are two general sources of narrative and fun within a skirmish war game system, scenarios and rules.
Mise En Scenario
Scenarios come in two general shapes, set form scenarios and emergent form. Set form scenarios put out a range of rules and a goal for a particular game. These can range from very specifically set stories, most prescriptively seen in historical re-fights, including set high value battle field locations, unit's timed arrivals or actions and named characters. Emergent form scenarios arise from a set of rules for special locations, random events, short term, individual, shared or hidden goals that players can select from randomly or intentionally to create a story. Apart from a few issues to do with cross matching the two abide by the same conditions for construction and so can be discussed together for our purposes, besides which the two methods often combine.
Incidentally, if you include a scenario allowing your players to simply line up and batter each other it will be played more often than you intended, irrespective of how much more fun other scenarios are, unless you explicitly force players away from it. For example, in Gaslands it is clearly set out that the Death Race scenario should be players standard game choice, being a story scenario representing a post apocalyptic televised motor sport. There were other scenarios included with the only guidance on selection being that players could randomly or intentionally select. Despite the Arena Of Death scenario being low on the random selection table polls on-line and other anecdotal evidence have made it clear that a large number of players split their games 50/50 between Arena Of Death and Death Race with the other scenarios relegated to occasional play. The reason for this seems to be that Arena Of Death involved everyone turning up and killing each other so everyone felt it was a standard scenario. The lesson here is that if you give the option for a basic turn up and kill scenario make certain its fun and shows your game off in the best possible light because people will play it more than you think, advise or imply.
So how do you write a good scenario? Its more an art than a science but practice is the best teacher so if you play war games regularly (and if you don't designing them is probably a bad idea) try to write some scenarios for your favorite system which: 1) does something distinctly different from all the scenarios provided by the system; 2) breaks none of the system's existing rules and adds no more than three new rules. Then give the scenario to another group of players with no explanation. If they enjoy themselves you've got your eye in and can consider writing your own scenarios. However, there are some good rules to follow in scenario design.
Let The Tail Wag The Dog
How your scenario ends is more important than any other part of it. There must be a clear and total eventuality covering set of end conditions, including events brought about by player activity. That is to say, if the game end conditions depend on an alterable game state ensure the players are never encouraged to constantly avoid that state. If the game ends when a set of objectives worth one point each are completed then if one player is wiped out with two points and their opponent has forces remaining and zero points but only one objective remains your game will never end. A turn count is a simple fix but can lead to final turns which are peculiar and anti-climatic as troops wander off from the enemy to claim random bits of ground.
Use A Three Act Structure
Try to think of your scenario in a classic three act structure: 1) the beginning, in which the game state is balanced and equal but in which it is unclear which elements will be vital and which worthless; 2) the middle, in which some questions are answered and some posed; 3) the end, during which all questions should be answered. Ensure firstly that the end comes as late as possible or rather that it comes once all questions of victory are answered. Secondly, that the end comes about due to the most climatic event possible and one that has been set up by previous events. Its for this reason that many games include break points so that rather than running after the dregs of an enemy force they can be eliminated when no longer interesting. Remember that hidden objectives and random events are tempting to create dramatic moments but that unknown is not the same as dramatic; the end of the game should be unknown because the result is balanced on a knife edge not because nobody knows what they are fighting over until the turn count says five. Finally, make certain that everyone knows what the end and victory conditions are, at least potentially, upfront. The more conditions diverge from the game's standards the clearer they need to be.
The opening of any game tends to be the part most full of dull admin and choices that are both important and unclear, so keep it minimal and simple. Admin is annoying, try to make sure it includes no more than one or two things during set up with as little choice, measurement and calculation as possible. The set up section of any scenario should be its shortest section.
Front Loading Is Heavy Loading
Relating to the above, front loaded choices are a very bad idea because they are the two worst things choices can be in gaming, vitally important and totally unclear. Analysis paralysis is best avoided if possible but if it does come up it should be due to balancing lots of interesting options with full information. Set up paralysis tends to happen because there is very little information to balance choices against, they lack context. If there must be significant choices at the top of the scenario make sure they are regular to the system, such as deploying units, so people can practice and become comfortable with them. Avoid forcing tactical choices in set up relating to elements that exist only in the scenario.
Don't Double Dip
Sometimes its unavoidable but try to avoid rewarding players for what they're doing anyway. Particularly, in relation to rewarding players for removing their opponent's miniatures. The main reason for this is that whatever a player is trying to do in a scenario it will be made easier by removing the opponent's ability to interact with the game play. If what the player is trying to achieve is wipe out their opponent this can be acceptable but if they are trying to achieve some other goal rewarding them for wiping out the opponent should be handled very carefully. Additionally, rewarding players for removing opponents limits methods of victory if the system allows them to build model removing elite forces then this will undermine any other force building options. Not to mention that having your ability to interact with the game removed is an extremely negative experience, seeing your enemy rewarded for doing it is never pleasant.
Somethings You Do Do
There are a range of useful elements to consider including when designing a scenario:
1) Create the option for story moments within the game as well as at its conclusion. Well defined story moments actively triggered by players are well worth the effort.
2) Keep it simple, you will be deviating from the standard rules of your system in a manner that most players will not encounter until the table top so keep them clear and simple.
3) With relatively few rules, offer players as many alternative routes to victory as you possibly can.