Today I want to talk a bit about the link between a games mechanics and the background. Its something that we generally don’t think about too much, but it can make a very big difference. Its also something that some companies do very well, and some….. don’t. In most cases, the background exists side by side with the actual game, and while it may influence most heavily in places like army lists and factions rules, most rules are written ‘background agnostic’, beyond ‘we don’t need rules for lasers in a fantasy game’. This makes sense, as – in general – a core rules engine is designed to be mostly flavourless, and as generic as allowed, so that it can deal with future additions and expansions. As a rule, flavour is added in the armies. The most a rules engine will delineate are things like scale of the miniatures (both the size of the minis being used and the scope of the game, whether this is 30m tall robots at 28mm mini level for example), and the scale of the game, where skirmish games often have more detail built in. Then, of course, there is the type of game you are playing, where rules don’t need to exist for rocket fire in fantasy or tank warfare in a naval game.
Its an odd dynamic, because in my mind the rules are what attracts the attention of your head, while the background is what gets the attention of your heart. And any good relationship must be built on both of these factors. In many ways, the background can be more important than the actual rules of the game, and there are people who will play a game that is not perfect, simply because they are immersed in the background. Conversely, players who love the rules but dislike the background are more likely, in my experience, to create new armies and use the miniatures and armies from a different game. It can be counter-intuitive to say that in the hobby of gaming, the actual game is secondary.
This affects small publishers greater than larger ones, and is something that is particularly relevant to me in my current project. Even if we had the resources to put out a miniature line, when dealing with a game in a fantasy setting there isnt much point. Firstly, most people will already have a stash of miniatures, and allowing them to utilise these will probably be far more productive than asking them to buy yet another army. Secondly, when you think of fantasy you likely picture classical, Tolkein-esque high fantasy, Orcs and Elves and Dwarfs, and these are adequately provided by several sources in good quality, and any ‘new’ range would really need to bring something new to the table in order to be successful. Now, while the core pillars of fantasy background are set, there is still a lot that you can do with this, to make it interesting and a little different. While you may be limited to the common ‘truths’ – Dwarfs have crossbows, axes and hammers, Orcs have cleavers and swords, Elves have longbows, swords, spears – there is a world of politics, social upheavals and alliances and betrayals.
The question of how much background goes into a force is a personal one, and we likely all have different ideas about this. Personally, I like a heavy theme in my armies. Dwarfs don’t use magic and don’t use cavalry. Elves are elite and small in number. Orcs suffer infighting. The comes up regularly, and will bleed into rules design and faction stats at several points. For example, I recently had a discussion with my local gaming group here about the distinction between Orcs and Beastmen. After throwing discussion around a bit, I came to the conclusion that Orcs were more of a grinding army. When an Orc unit got into combat, it would take a lot to shift it, often requiring the enemy to cut it down to the last Orc present, and that the Orc units strength would be in bogging down the enemy. Conversely, Beastmen are more of an ambush force, they strike hard and strike fast, but in a prolonged combat, they perform to the same level as regular humans – who are often seen as the ‘vanilla’ force, and the benchmark to compare others against. When this was determined, and I had a clearer idea of how I wanted the various factions to perform, the task is to represent this on the table with the least number of special rules and exceptions. In my case, this will most likely result in a rule for the Orcs that makes them likely to start infighting if they are standing around, but get them into combat and they get a bonus to their morale, while Beastmen have a slight bonus in the first round of combat in which they charge, representing them lowering their heads and charging (literally) headlong into combat, no matter how many casualties they take on the way in.
Background and theme is what makes each army unique, and its one of the more interesting parts of game design. When creating a faction for a game, you are – essentially – carefully breaking rules from the core rules engine, in order to make them play differently and in a specific way on the table, all the time trying to extract the desired ‘feel’ of an army in the smallest amount of distance from the core rules.
I think that this is a topic that we will come back to.
See you in 7