August 7, 2009

As I’ve written before, I’m not really that much into competitive wargaming – such as WHFB – anymore, preferring the narrative aspect of games instead. This is probably due to the fact that I’m a roleplayer at heart, having played RPG’s for 20 or so years compared to my 13 years of miniature gaming.

Every now and then I start toying with the idea of combining RPG’s with miniature wargames, and every time the whole process ends with no real conclusions, except for the fact that it’s pretty difficult to seamlessly integrate the two. The reason for this is the paradoxical nature of the problem, as what I’m basically trying to do is to remove the strict goal orientation from wargames and at the same time retain something of the game aspect in there as well. What I want, then, is a game you want to win and can win, but where winning is secondary to creating an interesting narrative with memorable scenes.

The problem this approach generates is that it easily makes either one or the other of the main components – miniature gaming and RPG’s – redundant. If you want a game you can win, you might as well play a full-blooded miniature game. If you want a narrative, why bother constricting your RPG with miniatures?

The current (4th) D&D edition combines these two elements, but in a way that’s not completely satisfactory. Basically whenever there’s combat, the game goes from RPGing to a very mechanical combat mode that is pretty much a grid-based miniature game. While this would suggest an actual combining of the two styles of game, it’s really more like two different games. When combat is entered, the characters often drop their personalities and become machines geared for optimally disposing of their enemies. This is all well and good, but simply alternating roleplaying and tactical gaming isn’t what I’m after.

How to make games tell a story? The obvious first answer is simply to insert some sort of story into whatever game you are playing.  It’s a valid point: To create a game with a story, we need a setting. I’m sure that a lot of miniature wargamers agree (they should!), that scenario-based games are usually more interesting than battles for battles’ sake. The scenario doesn’t have to be very detailed or even have a lot of effect in terms of game mechanics.  If there’s a rock in the middle of the battlefield, you can just state that you’re battling to claim that rock. What do you know, you have a scenario. Now while this is a step in the right direction, it will not carry the game on its own. Even if you call a game of chess the ultimate battle between good and evil, at its core it’s still a game of chess.

In addition to the setting, we need characters. This is pretty standard fare. A block of plastic soldiers isn’t nearly as interesting as the 43rd Colonial Marine battle squad under Lieutenant Harris. By giving characters, units and places names, you’re also defining them and suggesting that there is something more to them than what you see on the table. That’s where you’re evoking the imagination to fill in the blanks in the game/story.

Those two things are the prerequisites for a narrative game in my view, but they’re also only the starting point. Even if you do have your 43rd CM battle squad battling a horde of bloodthirsty xenomorphs on planet X336, you’re still just basically playing the same game as before. See the chess example, above. The question that now arises is how to differentiate this particular game from a hundred others, and this is where it gets tricky as we wander off into the grey area between miniature games and RPG’s.

Let’s look at this through an example. A lot of games feature some sort of mechanic for handling morale and reactions to killed companions etc. In my view this makes it too mechanical to have significant narrative impact, as basically a characters entire mental structure is compressed into a single characteristic. You roll a six and he’s a hero, you roll a one and he’s a coward. Why can’t you just decide whether he’s brave enough to stand fast or if he just runs away?

Because of the rules. The rules dictate what to do, and if you break them, the game is no longer fair. But fair to whom? As you’re striving to play a narrative wargame, you most likely are not playing against a complete stranger. What you’re trying to do is to have fun, not win by any means necessary. So my first real piece of advice in this article is

Don’t be afraid to change the rules.

The rules are there to serve you and to act as guidelines for resolving conflict situations in the game you’re playing. If they’re getting in the way of your fun, change them. You don’t have to throw them away, you don’t have to ignore them completely, tweak them and tamper with them a bit so that they suit your game better. Often you’ll find that there are parts of a rules system you don’t like even if the system is otherwise perfect. Solution? Simple. Just do away with the bit that doesn’t work and replace it with something more suitable.

This might seem like something so amazingly obvious that it doesn’t need to be said, but trust me when I say it isn’t. 13 years of playing WHFB and we still won’t change a rule without an official decree from GW. Why? We (sometimes unfortunately) play WHFB for its competitive aspect, so the rules are very important. You tamper with one, and you might put the whole thing off balance, which then would lead to it no longer being fair which in turn leads to everyone not having an equal chance at winning. And this elegantly leads to my next piece of advice, which is

Have fun first, try to win second.

This doesn’t mean you have to completely ditch the idea of winning, you just have to put it in perspective. As it’s summertime, I’ve played a lot of football with my friends and would love to see the mentality shown in those games transferred to wargaming. In our football matches it’s not really important who scores the most goals or which side wins. Nobody wants to ruin the fun by taking the whole thing too seriously. You’re probably not playing wargames for money, and most adults don’t need to build their self-esteem on winning in miniature games, so lighten up and have a bit of fun. Once you grasp this mentality, games will provide you with endless chances to create memorable scenes, from the noble knight’s heroic but doomed charge into the ranks of the enemy to the desperate hunter’s useless bullets against a werewolf. Often losing and going out in style can be just as, or more satisfying than winning.

It’s up to you how much emphasis you want to put on winning the game. If you want to retain some amount of competition in the game, you could assign different victory conditions and goals for different characters. You could create relationships between characters, making them act in a certain way (“He will always protect her”), or create rules to govern their actions in specific situations. The sky’s pretty much the limit.

The one thing you have to bear in mind is that in the end it depends a lot on whether players are willing to sacrifice victory in favour of a more interesting game. I’ve found that the more players like to do this, the better the games get. Correspondingly the more people tend to focus on winning, the drearier the games get. I could tell more than a few stories about glorious WHFB battles with mighty dragons, epic heroes and ancient wizards all hiding behind houses or inside woods so as not to risk giving your opponent victory points. Personally, that’s not something I want to see in my games.

I could go on and on with this. I mean, I haven’t even touched on narrated or GM-led games, cooperative gaming or unwinnable scenarios! Who knows, they might be the topics of a future post or three. I feel, however, that I’ve rambled on more than enough. To summarize the whole post, I’ll freely quote a friend of mine who I discussed this subject with.

“So, we make the rules malleable and optional, and there’s no real winner either? We could just as well be kids playing with toys.”



  1. “We could just as well be kids playing with toys.”

    Uh oh, you’re on to me!
    Thanks for sharing this post, I think we share a wavelength. When I was about five or six I was already using dice in my toy soldier games. Then by the time I was in my young teens I was playing ASL type stuff, and was becoming a hard core historical gamer. It didn’t take long for me to get back to miniatures also. But what slowly started happening is I played less and less, and painted and collected more and more. Why? Well I now know it was because in this circle people played very competitively, and it was like gaming against a never ending horde of game lawyers. The games rarely ever got finished and I was not having fun. It became so un-fun that I almost quit the hobby forever but my love of minis kept me going in my own little corner. Then a few things happened which turned my gaming world around. I had some kids! These fresh minded little suckers brought back the real pleasure of the hobby with their uncluttered little heads. The second thing is I was finally exposed to other genres and rules. I have found that gamers who play, or are willing to play off beat stuff are simply much more fun. The horror and post apoc players are my favorites as they tend to do whatever the heck they feel like and I feel like they are much more lighthearted. RPG’ers are funner gamers also, but you need some truly talented people to make RPG work well by itself. With a good group RPG is awesome. The other huge turning point was finding rules that worked for me. I talk a lot about Two Hour Wargames but it is for a reason. These rules have given me a flexible framework to do anything I want. Ever since we changed to the chain reaction system, we have been gaming like fiends. We throw up several games a week and always finish. When myself and a friend want to play hard the games are fast and furious, when my daughter just wants to push figs around the table and go on RPG adventures without much bloodshed the rules work for that too. They are the best mix of Minis and RPG I have been able to find.
    And in the end you are right my friend, the happiness is greatest when you simply realize you are just kids playing with toys!
    LTL Dad


    • Thanks for the long and insightful comment! Like you, I believe that the closer you get to playing (instead of gaming) and the further you get from rules lawyerism, the more fun you’re going to have on your gaming nights. I wonder if it’s going to take having children for most people…that’d make the hobby a LOT more expensive!


  2. […] was most important for me in this game was the story. Look at this post. Then back at this one. Then at that post again. Then back at this one. (Sorry. Too much of this.) […]


  3. […] Warpg’s? […]


  4. […] level currently, but I believe it will work. I’ve talked about adding narrative to wargaming before, and even posted a werewolf game report featuring such a union. I wanted to try a similar […]


  5. […] This is what makes our Blood Bowl that extra bit special. It’s very similar to the idea of Warpg’s I’ve often talked […]


  6. […] of you might remember me time and time again fiddling around with the idea of warpg’s – a combination of wargame and RPG. While I’ve made some forays into it, such as the […]


  7. Hi Manatic, I keep coming back to this post to get ideas flowing, great inspiration here. Any chance of part 2? I particularly like rhe prospect of unwinnable scenarios! 🙂


    • Thanks for the comment, Andrew! Can any blogger really deny such a request? Expect Warpg’s revisited in the near future 😀


      • Thanks, I’ll enjoy what you have to say on the matter…..although I’ve not played a game in quite some time!


  8. […] has been over three years since I wrote my initial Warpg’s post. I’ve linked back to it several times, re-read it and still agree with what I wrote back […]


  9. […] was a great example of the warpg-style gameplay that I’ve been advocating (see earlier posts here and here) – putting fun and a good story ahead of winning […]


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