Sunday, August 9, 2009

Doing War "Right"

As I've mentioned before, I'm not much into real war, but in fiction and gaming I love a good war story. I'd go so far as to say that with regard to science fiction, it's pretty much the only type of story I'm interested in.

Now I say "pretty much" because I've become a Firefly fan in the last year (which is actually more of a "post-war" film of the "American Civil" variety) as well as a fan of the speculative fiction of S.M Stirling (The Sky People and In the Courts of the Crimson King; both a bit "cold war" type)...oh, and I'm on the second book of the Asimov Foundation series. But all of these are new to in new in the last year.

For most of my science fiction needs, I enjoy a good war story.

And hell, it doesn't even have to be a novel. Short stories are fine (for me, they seem the truest form of the war story, as every soldier has a story or two, but how many make a novel length career of their military life?). Whether we're talking Heinlein's Starship Troopers, Steakley's Armor, or even the Warhammer 40K books (again, the short stories are the best) from GW's Black Library...they're all good.

A series of unrelated short stories used to tell the story of "a war" is one of my favorite types of speculative fiction. Of course individuals have different perspectives...perceptions are as varied as people themselves. And just as there are a myriad of different people, there are plenty o different stories to tell.

The image above is from a graphic novel that illustrated many of Harlan Ellison's Kyben War short stories (a subject he returned to in a variety of mediums, including novellas and tele-screenplays). It's a great piece, and one that I hope to stumble upon one day for my collection (while I've had the chance to read it, I don't own it myself). Hell, if Ellison wasn't so notoriously vicious when it comes to riffing off (or "ripping off") his work, I'd be tempted to write a game or screenplay of my own (I think Run for the Stars would be a great short film...but who would play Benno Tallant? William Hurt would be good if he were 15 years younger...).

Whenever I pick up a new sci-fi RPG, I check to see how it fits into my potential for role-playing military or war stories. This may sound pretty bizarre, but it is what it is. Truth be told, I don't buy that many sci-fi RPGs. Albedo Platinum Catalyst fits the bill pretty well, I really dig its system, but I want something more humanocentric...well, something WITH humans, anyway (which APC does NOT have). Traveller is a great game, but it's more for telling those Firefly-esque POST-war stories (you do your stint in the military during character creation, the GAME is about "life after"). Mutant Chronicles (the RPG) has similar issues.

Problem is, while every sci-fi game out there has "combat rules" (few RPGs don't) most simply use small scale systems, whether abstract or heavily crunch (and most fall closer to the "crunch" side of the spectrum). And that doesn't work for army level skirmishes, at least not well. Problem is, if you want to play a game with decent warfare rules, you ned to play a wargame, a la Warhammer 40,000 or similar.

But while WH40K is loads of fun in and of itself, there's no real role-playing to it. No matter how attached you are to a particular special officer or "hero-type," no matter whether the game includes rules for advancement (as Rogue Trader did) or whether or not you use funny voices for your individual mini' just ain't the same.

Which is a shame. What if I want to role-play something like All Quiet on the Western Front? Or Saving Private Ryan? Or heck...even The Flight of the Eisenstein?

Hmm...I just realized I've mused about the potential (and perhaps futility) of sci-fi "military-esque" games before, though in relation to the "bug hunt" (a la Aliens). Perhaps there IS a way to play this type of game as RPG, but the key is to play it as a true campaign-setting...i.e. the individual players take part in a loosely related series of military short stories.

Kind of like the "galactic war" as a mega-dungeon, huh?

[just by the reason I'm even thinking about war games again is my musings on how to make a sufficient mass combat system for my B/X Companion]


  1. We're playing Gamma World now (the ruined city as dungeon) and it's totally geared towards what you're talking about with all the factions such as the Cryptic Alliances, mutant tribes, clans and some robots and androids battling over territory, artifacts and so forth.

    Even the character advancement system (in 2e at any rate) is more concerned with accruing Status Points to level up in Rank - you don't get extra HP or anything - which lets you acquire more followers and access to higher tech equipment, if your faction has any.

  2. I play (or rather, have played) GW2 mucho in the past, and it has a lot going for it, but I'm not sure it's exactly what I'm looking for.

    Its advancement system, would be interesting to adapt it to a military RPG. Albedo does some similar things, as does (interestingly enough) the Mutant Chronicles BOARD GAME called "Siege of the Citadel" where the reward for completed missions is "credits" to be used in the military store (accomplish more missions, get a better pick of the equipment available).

    Anyway, food for thought. you ever run any "mass combat" scenarios (with more than 10 or 12 fighters on a side?); and if so, how do you run it in GW?


  3. No I haven't run anything like that yet. This is my first GMing ~20 years.

    I reckon the GW/D&D combat rules - esp. how I play - are light enough to handle a skirmish like that. And for all the carping I hear about "war-gaming" from the more experienced players in my group, I find that a good combat really gets them focussed on the game and the sessions seem to go better if we start with a battle. The Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot works for RPG sessions too : )

    I started using my old Star Frontiers counters too for the more complex battles on the SF and MSH maps.

    We're running the Rite of Passage module and I decided to break up the battle with the Carrin in two parts: an ambush by 6 of the Carrin outside the base whom the party defeated and when we play next the emboldened party is going to storm their base.

    I've made an enlarged, taped together colour photocopy of the map that comes with the module to use with the counters.

  4. Righteous. I love the Rite of Passage and everything it implies about the GW society.

    Mmmm...I'm probably going to have to do a whole Gamma World week. Sheesh...

  5. Kind of like the "galactic war" as a mega-dungeon, huh?

    Yes. Flowchart it :)

    Each battle is a decision node, with the varying outcomes providing paths to different 'future' battles. The flowchart of battles is the same a dungeon map.

    Wandering monsters work just the same, traps work just the same. Excellent!

  6. Interesting post - the beast Im looking to get to run a Space Hulk esque game is called 3:16 Carnage in the Stars, it may be right up your alley.

  7. Oh, I KNOW 3:16...purchased me a copy on pdf (don't have it printed up yet). A little frustrating because I was writing a game VERY similar...and 3:16 got published first. Why re-invent the wheel.

    I did mention 3:16 in a previous post. It does a lot of things right (it is very Armor-esque in the John Steakley sense of the term) but not quite what I was looking for...more of a Hammer's Slammers vibe, if you get my drift.
    ; )