Saturday, 11 January 2014

5 Tips On Writing Tabletop Wargaming Lore

If you've seen any of the reviews of codex supplements up to now, you've probably noticed few to none are positive. Just about all are tinged with varying degrees of rage and frequently commented upon how a total disrespect for established canon, but also how the books were completely getting things wrong. In terms of overall approach, structure and implementation they were critical failures in every sense. 

Barring Codex: Black Legion, each of them was trying to be something besides a wargaming book and written by authors who were increasingly desperate to write novels. Not very good ones at that, with very skewed focuses, poor characterisation and moments of sheer stupidity. Overall the books were ignoring the most basic tenants of writing these codices. What's worse is that they were repeating the same mistakes many fans keep repeating with their own personal lore. The fact paid (supposed) professionals are continuing with these same errors is setting a very poor standard for writing lore for tabletop armies, whether they be for fanon or published in official books.

To answer these problems, here's a series of tips on writing for such armies. Ones which are primarily built off of the flaws found in Warhammer in recent years, but equally count for armybooks in any fictional setting which features organised groups of unnamed individuals in combat. 

This isn't a list asking for your to follow them all, but I ask that you please at least consider them if you're going to write about army lore. 
That done, let's begin.

5 - Research Everything Your Army Is Involved In

This is a critical one even some authors publishing books on shelves seem to be constantly failing at these days. It's a single rule which cannot be emphasised enough no matter the media, and no matter how large the fictional universe is: 
Research everything you are writing about.

The reason for this being a golden rule is simple: The more a writer understand something, the less likely they're going to make mistakes when it comes to building upon it. When it comes to making their own mark upon the factions involved and when it comes to the degree of freedom they have when writing about the universe. They'll start to see potential mistakes before they can happen and better yet, understand just how they can work to build upon what has come before. Plus it can make sure a writer does not run the risk of accidentally re-writing an entire army to be utterly out of character and a shallow parody of its previous self or wrecking decades of very well established lore.

What most authors attempt to do is bend the lore rather than break it. There are certain established facts and pillars which support the universe as a whole and factions which cannot be broken, but with other aspects which can be worked around. While there are certain definite points any work needs to adhere to, others can be justified through certain means or even have decisions which differentiate them from other forces. There is a degree of freedom available to the reader and plenty of lore to build off-of, but they need to know exactly what they are working with before they progress forwards.

The flip side of this is obviously picking out which non-canon sources and stories which need to be ignored entirely while writing, ensuring that a new author does not repeat their mistakes. These can be Black Library novels which contain many logical flaws, armybooks which do not resemble what they were in previous editions, or even simply short factoids and ideas which are not supported in any other part of the lore. Anyone writing needs to see which one needs to be used for constructing an army and which need to be ignored entirely.

For example, Wrath of Iron is recognised as being at least largely canon as it maintains many of the Iron Hands' themes and fits in with the novels, stories and articles. While it may have problems in some respects, it does depict the chapter's structures, ruthlessness and link with the Mechanicus accurately for the most part.
Supplement Codex: Clan Raukaan is an extraordinarily poor depiction the chapter. It ignores what made them unique and utterly contradicts major aspects of the lore which have been upheld for entire editions. Oh, and it manages to effectively render itself entirely non-canon by completely ignoring everything about the chapter which existed until now.

This might sound strange, but it's the difference between looking at CS Goto's Mantis Warriors (which featured, among other moments of insanity, entire devistator squads turning up armed with multilasers) and those written in the Badab War books (which featured the chapter actually performing the tactics they were known for). Or the difference between space marine craft like the Thunderhawk Gunship and the utterly lore-breaking Stormtalon.

- You Are Not Writing A Novel

This has been a primary problem with many books of late, where Games Workshop codices keep trying to include in-depth ongoing narratives mirroring novels and the like. While this might sound halfway decent initially, it causes a great many problems within books. It doesn't take long to see just why previous authors tried to avoid these trends.

The primary reason it causes so many problems is that what a person is writing will inevitably lead away from the army itself and towards a smaller focus. Instead of focusing upon the well established organisation of a military force, the book will become largely about a handful of named troops, usually the faction's special characters. This is problematic for a huge number of reasons, least of all the fact it cheapens the idea of the army actually being a military regiment or organisation. 

No matter how great the figures involved, the army as a whole cannot be represented by a handful of figures. Otherwise the author begins to destroy the idea of the army itself. It becomes less a force which is decorated with victories, earned as much by the faceless soldiers as those leading them, and instead becomes a series of known individuals and their cannon fodder. Along with more obvious problems (such as turning Codex: Sentinels of Terra into "Lysander and Friends, plus some Imperial Fists") it limits the entire book to a specific time-frame and becomes limited to one era of 40K history. Worse still, if this is an official book, having so many named characters and identified figures prevents players from having any degree of freedom when it comes to painting and customising models based upon the army.

Characters in these books should be used to give insight into the army, serving as symbols to what the force represents. They need to be an extension of the army, not the other way around, otherwise you end up making the army itself look unimportant and stunting any future growth. Even if there isn't a focus upon the characters, basing the army around a single story or detailed plotline can often severely stunt its future use or growth. Look at the Crimson Fists for example. Despite a long lauded history and a major part of 40K canon, very little with the army is ever done beyond their disaster on Rynn's World. That story was the only thing used to define them and overshadowed anything before or following that conflict.

When an army is being written about, it's best to give an outline of what they are like. Give a basic four or five hundred word description of what they are like, their general attitudes and best known aspects. Create a basis from which stories are made from, then build outwards from there. Create a brief origin giving them an established history, define the methods in which they recruit people or the tactics they are known to use. Detail some of their more famous battles and give a basic outline of their current leader. Do not fall into the mistake of trying to write an army as a novel from the get-go. Think about how they do things, do not place all emphasis upon what they have done.

3 - Think About Unique Aspects Before Implementing Them

Yeah, this is partially detailed by the first bit but it really needs its own section for reasons we're about to cover. The alternate title for this one was "common does not equate bad" as that's really what we're talking about here. Too many fanon made army lists immediately opt to break away entirely from something which often defines their entire faction purely because they can or because of misconceptions. That latter point might seem as if it was covered entirely by the last subject, but this is issue extends far beyond that. It requires its own section to really emphasise how carefully people need to think about what they are doing.

Now, to make this clear, this isn't shouting down any armies attempting to be specialists. Specialist regiments or forces are good ideas, give variety to the faction they are a part of and can open up new opportunities. The problem is that all too often being "normal" is seen as a drawback and specialists are the only desirable choice. Sometimes this is to the point of not making sense or failing to really be a viable army, often due to looking at a specialist force and then trying to take things a step further.

For example, the White Scars are a famed fast attack force which places heavy emphasis upon light vehicles which can act at great speed, with the majority of their heavy artillery coming from air support. Any troops are traditionally brought in via APCs or drop pods and slow moving units such as devistators or dreadnoughts are rarely seen or completely absent from the armies. While specialised, this still gives a well rounded force and a good selection of units to choose from when building up an army list despite the few units and options lost. It will still only appeal to certain players but it will none the less work.

In their efforts to make their forces stand out, player made forces will generally do something like, if they wish to take the same approach as the White Scars, build their army entirely around Land Speeders. Emphasise heavily upon a single type of unit or aspect of a chapter, then claim it is completely dominant rather than having the chapter following some single ideology. Just to use the above example, Land Speeders wouldn't make sense for a number of reasons: Their inability to take and hold areas, lack of general armour, insufficient firepower and lack of numbers would be the beginnings of problems for such a chapter. At this point it becomes less an army trait and more a form of enforced suicide.

This issue goes as much for the army's culture and traditions as much as their ways of war outlined here. There needs to be careful reasoning behind them and simply avoiding what is normal purely for the sake of it just causes the force to fall apart once you really look at their flaws. For example, the retconned idea of the Mentors chapter being isolationists completely undermines their entire basic concept and the specialty of the Soul Drinkers is rarely focused upon in their books.To contrast with this, the Excoriators' use of attrition tactics matches well with the reverence for wounds and battle damage, not to mention feels like an ideology a chapter on the borders of the Eye of Terror would have.

The real point of this whole section is this: If something works with a generic or standard army, simply don't change it to try and be different. A writer needs to think very carefully about each change they need to make, or new concept they want to introduce, and not be afraid to discard ideas that don't work while sticking with someone else's. It's better to stick with something which is widespread and works well, then tweak certain elements to give some character, than change things wholesale and get everything wrong.

2 - Opinionated Truth Hits Harder Than Solid Fact

One unfortunate aspect which has been abandoned entirely in far too many codices and fan works is the idea of opinionated accounts. Ones which have been written with obvious in-universe bias which makes them visibly somewhat unreliable as a source of information. 

Perhaps the best examples of this are found in Warhammer Fantasy, in the armybooks of the High Elves, Dark Elves and Dwarves. Previous editions featured in-universe texts recording very different versions of their conflicts and who the "guilty party" is each time. Along with giving a distinct flavour to the army and making for a much more immersive text, it allows for many potential problems to be avoided. Chief among these is the problems bias can bring to a work or the initial issues with introducing a new idea and more freedom for writing about an army. Allowing an author to embellish certain events or alter depictions a-la Rashomon means an author can do far more with the setting. Certain forces can be presented in an overly positive or negative light without it seeming as if the author is prone to severe favouritism.

To give an example of where this would have worked, Mat Ward's writings involving the Ultramarines or, well, just about any army he got his hands on would have been much more forgiving. Whereas previous authors had tried to leave some suggestion of authorial bias, he was trying to slam down ill-researched or badly written ideas as fact and it severely negatively effected his books as a result. On a similar note, more minor goofs such as Rob Cruddance getting the Iron Hands' symbols wrong in the following codex could have been put down to an error on a scribe's part. Not Games Workshop failing to research its own works for a major book.

While it certainly helps in giving the book a more genuine feel, and making it stand out a little more from the competition, these works do not always need to be written from an obvious perspective. The bias and potential for misinformation just needs to be made clear, at least enough for the reader to understand. 

My own warband, the Harbingers of Ruin, featured this with their disdain for Khorne Berserkers and frequent mentions of their failings coming from their own perspective rather than some universal fact. Just as they viewed that, they were blind to their own potential hypocrisies involving the Eightfold Path and use of psykers within their group. To give a more famous and official example, the Index Astartes brilliantly utilised this. It featured obvious biases in accounts with rival legions and even certain points to make it clear this was an in-universe record. Rather infamously, it was suggested that the entire Alpha Legion article was a complete fabrication by an agent of the legion intentionally altering certain facts.

At the end of the day, so long as a writer doesn't go overboard on this, they are offered a lot more freedom if they are writing at least semi-opinionated accounts and not fact. It allows for a great deal more understanding of the army, a vast amount more impact while describing their histories and accomplishments, and gives a lot more freedom when it comes to writing about the universe. An author might not be able to retcon the death of Ferrus Manus, but they might be able to include a belief within an Iron Hands successor (or a prophecy) that he may return one day.

1 - Failures Mean As Much As Victories

Above everything else, this is the one which needs to be understood the most: Defeats are not to be avoided entirely. While you are not encouraged to relentlessly smash your army to bits in every battle, a long stream of glorious victories without any casualties or suffering is dull. It will look like you are coddling the force or, worse still, believe them to be infinitely better than their counterparts. Losses do just as much to give character to an army as victories, but these need to be true losses. Not the sort which are erased too long afterwards or simply put down to being a draw, an actual failing on the part of the army.

Too many times these days authors writing new armies list nothing but their greatest accomplishments and nothing else. While there are exceptions to this, any actual defeats will usually either a part of their founding or serve purely to be overcome later on. There needs to be a proper balance between the level of victories and failings an army has achieved.

Just look at almost everything surrounding Damnos. Beyond what Nick Kyme wrote in his novels and the fifth edition rulebook, every event surrounding Damnos seemed to be angled in the Ultramarines' favour. In Mat Ward's Codex: Space Marines the conflict was written to greatly emphasis upon how well the Ultramarines were doing and seemed to be trying to overlook the fact they lost a world as much as possible. The world's loss could have been a meaningful conflict, showing the Ultramarines as not these overly invincible killing machines and heralding just how dark the coming days would be. Instead all that was wasted.

This isn't to say that the reverse isn't just as true. Two better known factions for this are the Imperial Fists and Sisters of Battle, both of who continually serve as sacrificial lambs to beef up a threat. What made these wrong is that these were being done without much reason and very few victories to balance them out. They were just being sent out to die continually because someone needed to be killed and they just became the go-to choices. There was nothing which expanded upon their lore which stemmed from their losses, nothing which built up character or even something which might change how they viewed the galaxy. These were pointless defeats.

Good defeats by comparison are those which are well written and have meaning to them. The Iron Cage was a rare example of a good Imperial Fist defeat (well, pyrrhic victory thanks to someone else anyway) as it established the reasons why the legions could not continue to work independently from one another. It heralded major change within the Imperial Fists and was one of the last major engagements between legions, showing just how badly Dorn had been affected by the Emperor's death. It was not done purely to make the Iron Warriors or Ultramarines look good by comparison or because the author hated them.

Similarly there was an event written into the Blood Angels' lore, the events of the Seventh Black Crusade, which served to build upon their army's character as well as that of Abaddon. It featured the chapter being driven to near extinction (which has to be the third or fourth time now) after heavy fighting against the Black Legion. At the same time though, it described the Blood Angels fighting and dying against insurmountable odds and concluded with a very interesting monument which says a lot about both sides:
"Whatever the truth of the matter, it is known that the Despoiler honoured Jorus once the war was over – perhaps in mockery, or perhaps with nothing but sincerity. After Mackan, thousands of Blood Angels corpses were desecrated, their gene-seed ruined beyond recovery. Of all the Chapter, only a handful of bodies were left undefiled: Reclusiarch Jorus and his Death Company, clad in their battered and broken black ceramite, seated in makeshift thrones made from the armour of those Black Legion warriors they had killed on that fateful night.


The point is that defeats mean just as much as victories, at least when handled well, and really are a requirement to creating a well rounded army background. A writer shouldn't feel as if they need to go overboard or throw their army to the dogs, but having a few outright losses is something which can work to the army's benefit. How well or how extreme they have to be really depends upon the writer in question though.

So those are five tips on writing tabletop wargaming lore. This was focused more upon how to write armies than lore as a whole, but they are the subject most commonly written about people and tend to make up a good ninety percent of Warhammer books. Well, those directly connected to the tabletop game anyway. These are not set in stone, they are just flaws which I have personally seen in fanon armies and canon ones alike, all of which continually reoccur from edition to edition. Take that however you will, but I hope those of you who took the time to read this found it beneficial.

No comments:

Post a Comment