Insider 8/31/10

Writing combat fiction for both WARMACHINE and HORDES is fun but sometimes tricky. Clearly it’s important to include exciting and engaging action in our ongoing narrative. We want our readers to get caught up in both the small skirmishes as well as the grand epic clashes that occupy our characters. At the same time it is important that the battles are not only exciting but feel representative of the games themselves.

What is fun in a game is not necessarily what is fun to read in a story, and vice-versa. Similarly, things happen a little differently in the narrative than they do in the game. One of the most obvious examples is that there are no distinct turns in the narrative. There are many things that happen in the narrative that are beyond the scope of the game. Finding a good blend where the stories feel closely related to the game but also distinct requires work but is always worth it.

Not too long ago I moved my office to one between Jason Soles and David “DC” Carl. DC was surprised shortly thereafter when, while working on one of our forces book stories, he heard the distinct clattering of dice on my desk. The gamer in him couldn’t stand it after a while and he felt compelled to ask what the hell I was doing (he was likely a bit more polite about it).

The answer was I was testing the odds for a few things in the story. For example, I might try to see if an Ancestral Guardian with three souls can kill a Woldwatcher. Postulating an initial charge, buying another attack and boosting the damage with souls, and then buying a third attack, I’ll do the math. Given all three hit (quite likely given the Woldwatcher is at DEF 10 and the Ancestral Guardian at MAT 8), rolling average dice against ARM 17 gives 15 damage. Respectable, but woldwatchers are tough buggers with 26 health! Average would not be good enough, clearly.

In a story I take liberties, but only to a point. I don’t like to exceed the possible. Unlikely is fine, so long as it’s not impossible. The absolute upper limit for the Ancestral Guardian attack example would be 36 damage, well over what is needed to kill that pesky woldwatcher. Unlike someone on the gaming table, a writer can cheat probability for dramatic impact. I could postulate that this ancestral guardian got in a lucky round, maybe rolling triple boxcars on his charge attack. Why not? For narrative you want the action to be fast and engaging, which means leaning toward higher potential damage. Ol’ Rowdy isn’t going to roll a triple-1’s on a charge attack damage roll at the climax of a story!

Krueger always rolls high damage with my dice. There is no average.

DC asked, “Do you roll all the battles for your stories?” The answer was: not at all. But I do read model abilities closely and try to use their attributes to create a mental picture of their capabilities. For regular battles I try to avoid doing things in the narrative that would be impossible. I’ll be the first to admit “possible” and “likely” are two entirely different neighborhoods, and I’ll often settle for the former.

I feel at liberty to break this rule with special characters that are acting in their element or flexing their power in an area of core competence. Certain characters most certainly have abilities beyond what we could represent easily on the tabletop while retaining play balance. The Old Witch and the Harbinger are good examples, as is someone like Victoria Haley. Sometimes it is dramatically effective to break the normal limits precisely to demonstrate that something unusually epic is happening. (A rather extreme example can be found in the upcoming Forces of HORDES: Circle Orboros, whose story I just finished.)

Even these peculiar outliers can be imagined taking place on the game table under the broad header of scenario play and special objectives. We know Allister Caine can’t pick up a dropped Deliverer rocket in the game to fire it at a Menoth’s Fury storage tank like he did in WARMACHINE: Prime Mk II, but we can imagine a scenario where victory is achieved by killing every defending model in a certain radius of a square of the battlefield that Caine has to hold by a given round. Most of our stories could be transformed into playable game scenarios this way.

One of the great things about writing fiction for a game like WARMACHINE or HORDES is my audience is engaged in constant warfare with our soldiers, warjacks, warbeasts, and major characters. We have a mutual understanding of the battlefields of western Immoren and the Iron Kingdoms. Our readers know exactly what it is like when a Dire Troll Mauler tears open a Charger with its fists; I don’t have to establish those expectations. Instead we can just dive into the action and let it unfold.

The emotional impact of an action sequence does not rely on whether a given chain of events is plausible. Real impact comes from the tension between the characters. But keeping plausibility, most of the time, affords a satisfying symmetry between the game and the fiction. I hope when one of our players reads a story he gets excited to play the miniature games since he can imagine the same battles unfolding on his own gaming table, wherever that happens to be.