Wednesday 15 April 2015

Game Design #42: Fluff n Stuff II

I was thinking about fluff in the context of generic rules.  You know, ones without their own game universe.  This was prompted by a few things:

-The obvious love of the author for the setting of PMC 2640 - and the lack of purpose-built minis for it

-Looking through the Infinity V3 rules (I'll review it one day - it's just so damn big!) which comes with a separate 250-page background book (!)

-40K's focus on Horus Heresy and very "set" history, factions and locations (what I call their "shrinking" of their factions and universe)

In my last fluff post, I mostly concentrated on how to best use it. I.e.
Don't put in fluff in such a way as it messes with the readability of rules
Don't ramble on/be overly detailed or assume everyone loves your universe
Don't use family members as proofreaders and critics
Don't assume you are the next, undiscovered GRR Martin
Don't make fluff prescriptive (i.e. closed universe)

This post is kind of an elaboration on that, and is more "What makes fluff succesful?" and "how can fluff improve my rulebook and be appealing?"

Fluff is pretty important. I mean, how many people play 40K for the engaging, deeply tactical rules?  Of course not.  Everyone I know plays it because of the cool models and interesting universe.

This post kinda follow my train of thoughts, so may ramble a bit or contradict itself.  I'll need to sit back and re-read it later methinks.  But here goes:

Successful Fluff
So what makes fluff successful?  How come we engage with some universes and not others?  Should indie writers even bother with official factions? I mean, they want to sell rules for everyones minis, right?  How can we chose a background that makes our game more appealing - that adds value to the rules?

An appealing, but wide open universe.  
I think 40K has gone away from this compared to their early years.  Even their fanfiction Black Library is heavily proscribed and follows a strict timeline with strict rules.  Early 40K was so wide open - it was a darkly comic playground, using fantasy tropes mixed with sci fi, and borrowing from pop-culture ideas i.e. orks, elves, D&D, Star Wars, terminators, Alien aliens - for its main factions.  You could make your own factions and stuff and add them to the game. Now 40K seems very insular.  I mean, the Horus Heresy narrows things down even further.  It was once energetic and creative, but now the 40K universe is narrow, static and proscriptive. 

Recently successful universes - Infinity and Warmachine - have evolving timelines.  Infinity in particular hints at a much wider universe - yes, it's focussed on inter-human skirmishes, but we know there are other species out there - not all of which have made contact.  A universe needs breadth - to be an open place where players can carve out their own niches, instead of being told where to sit.

Adding a unit builder might encourage "cheese" but it also encourages creativity. I noticed PMC 2640 specifically stated it had no unit creator to allow you to stat up models, due to the risk of players abusing it.  Trust me - douchebag, cheesy players will find ways to annoy you anyway - don't withhold creative tools from the nice guys just because of them.  Open up the universe.

In short: Don't limit the players by having a strict, proscriptive universe. Also, include a unit builder.

Some People Need "Official Factions"

Whilst many people glory in the creativity of making homebrew armies and creating ("statting up") their own factions, weapons, vehicles and gear, some people also need the security of knowing what they have is official. (The same people are often the ones who most cheesily min-max within those official guidelines, secure in the knowledge they are making a "official" army).

However, you need to cater to those people, and good fluff is an additional "hook" to get people to play your rules.  Heck, good fluff can disguise average (or outright poor) rules.  Think how many people would play any crappy game as long as you put "Star Wars" on the cover. 

Whilst I'm not personally that interested, I do think any wargame needs some "official" factions. They also give creative players an example and a starting point.  It's a bit like point systems.

Whilst including official factions isn't going to drive off many players, not including them almost certainly will.  Some players dislike venturing outside the box. So give them a nice comfy box.

How many Factions?
I'd recommend 5-8 "official" factions.  Why that figure?  Games with few factions tend to stagnate. I.e. LOTR with "good" and "evil" needed to break into sub-factions.  Starship Troopers (with bugs vs humans) was never going to fly long term.  Too many factions can lead to imbalance and a lack of focus, and "forgotten" factions.  The rumours that Warhammer Fantasy (15 factions!) will be trimming/consolidating factions seems sensible.  Besides, most of the other top games fall in this category:
Warhammer 40K (8)
Warmachine (6)
Flames of War (7)
Infinity (8) <- the small figure count of the game encourages you to own multiple factions

Personally, I'd follow the tried and tested method: start a game with 4-5 factions and slowly add to them until I had around 7-8. 

Borrow from the Familiar/Ride Current Trends
Warhammer rode the D&D wave, and meshed with terminators, Alien, as well as other movie and cultural influences as they came.  It used existing tropes and adapted to pop culture at the time.   Warmachine was perfectly timed for the Steampunk craze (which also boosted Malifaux, another fluff-centric game) and mixes magic and steam robots. Like the original 40K, it started out with a over-the-top vibe.  Undead pirates lead by a dragon, who use steam powered robots? That's almost trying too hard!
Infinity taps into the anime/mech genre that is now firmly rooted in our culture, and like 40K, adds a mish-mash of random "cool" stuff  - sword-wielding space nuns, Scottish werewolves, transforming robots, shapeshifting aliens, along with staples like religious space knights.  

So on current form, a vampire-werewolf-zombie game will be the next big seller?  Actually I'd say not.  There are already a bazillion games involving the zombie-werewolf-vampires out there.  For example, I don't see Sedition Wars becoming the next 40K.  At the time they were made, 40K, Warmachine and Infinity were "fresh" - they were the first to jump on the wave to ride it.  I think say a game like XCOM/an alien invasion game is more likely to succeed, as though we have the background culture, it hasn't been done to death already within the tabletop sphere.

Pick a popular topic or borrow from pulp culture that hasn't already spawned a million tabletop games.  Be the first guy on the wave, but make sure it's a good, big wave before you hop on.

Fluff with Generic Minis
Most indie rule writers are working with generic minis from multiple manufacturers.  This increases the appeal of their rules.    Obviously, having a nice shiny miniature line to promote your rules is nice, but most don't have that luxury. They work with that they're given. So how can this work?

Making "Official" Factions from an Existing (Single) Manufacturer
I'm surprised more don't do this.   For example, Khurasan has a hugely varied 15mm line-up, from ancients, to pulp, fantasy to blackpowder, and of course its standout sci fi.  It even has heaps of models in 28mm.  Go, visit the site and have a look.  I bet you could make up a whacky, cool faction with just one of the product lines - let alone if you combined them.  Fantasy and sci fi are so flexible.

Aztecs leading lizardman warriors...
Octopus cultists with black-clad SWAT-style special forces...
Shapeshifers (you can mix and match any human + similar size animal/alien model)...
Medieval knights leading packs of demon bugs...

...the permutations are endless.   A common complaint about 15mm is "armies made up of minis from 4 different companies."  Personally, I think this is a bonus, but if you are making a faction, you want to make it easy to buy.  So I'd go with a single manufacturer per faction.

That said, don't limit to ONLY that manufacturer.  More like "you see I used all my models from Khurasan here, but you could also use models from GZG instead."  Make it so players who want to buy their faction all in one swoop, but encourage "proxying" - after all, the writers are selling rules, not miniatures (unlike GW, where it is the other way round).

If it pains you to "shill" a miniatures line, you could do this implicitly by photographing a faction made of all miniatures from CMG "All models from CMG" rather than saying "Only a CMG Arc Trooper can be a Krieg stormtrooper")

I'm pretty sure if your rules are promoting their minis and are sufficiently popular, many manufacturers would be happy to sell unit packages specific for your game, which may be mutually beneficial.

In short: Using a single manufacturer's existing model lines as the basis for a faction is a good move, and makes it easier for players to source them. However don't limit yourself to single miniatures line.

Making Generic Factions Interesting
If you're using a generic hard sci fi trooper in body armour - you know, the not-Stormtrooper/not-Imperial Guard that 100 manufacturers all have made in some form - then you need to make the faction colourful or distinct in other ways.

It could be literally colourful - the grey stormtroopers of Krieg, or the light blue troops of the Solar Federation.  Models with exposed skin could become the green lizardlike Sauri.  That helps units feel distinct.

But I meant more in other ways - equipment, tactics, ethos.  Also, special rules.  Whilst I like to limit special rules (and using them to replace stats for the most basic, common gameplay aspects is false economy), special rules shine when used to differentiate between factions. 

The death magic of the Krieg might means units get a +1 modifier for each foe they kill as they absorb their life energy.  The cyborgs of the Space Federation can resurrect on a 5+ roll, and deploy shield bubbles that linger on the battlefield.

Another issue with special rules is that they can be hard to balance, especially if they are powerful ones. We don't want too many or too powerful special rules. When the special rules (exceptions) are the basic rules, you have a problem.  I.e. a drizzle of chocolate topping adds flavour.  Drinking straight chocolate topping isn't healthy. 

The rules don't have to be that strong or unbalancing to add flavour.  LOTR does this well. Most factions might have a single special rule, with elite units perhaps having an extra rule.  And they are pretty simple too. I.e. goblins can freely move over any surface without falling.  That's very simple to understand.  I abuse use that rule a lot, but it isn't confusing for my opponent, unlike the tangle of special rules/exclusions in games like Infinity and Warmachine.  
Rule of Thumb: If a special rule needs more than a sentence to describe it, it's probably too complicated.

If the rules haven't thrown out stats altogether (like many modern rules do) you can add subtle differences - i.e. a +1" speed here, a +1 melee there - without appearing ridiculous, within the parameters of your humanoid hard sci fi mini. (I always found it odd that a Space Marine captain could have more Wounds and strength than a gigantic demonic cyborg spider).  It's why games like Tomorrow's War can come across as bland. Basically you have d6, d8 and d10 troops, based on a single universal stat, and have to rely on adding a zillion special rules to do the heavy lifting.

Again, keep stats distinct but controllable. A MMO developer once called it "the rule of 20%". Basically, he said any stat bonus beyond 20-25% was beyond player skill to consistently overcome. Give an average player 20% more health and a good player can still consistently beat him.  Give him 40% extra health and the better player will lose most times.

Use special rules (and stats, if you haven't abandoned them with the rest of the fickle mob) and stats to give factions flavour.

Well, there's a lot more to this topic, but my toddler has woken up and is demanding "Daddy play!"
Let's recap what we have so far:

Don't limit players with a narrow universe. Leave it "open" to player creativity.
Do pick a popular pop culture trend for your fluff with the proviso that you...
....Don't pick a genre that is already done to death in boardgames/tabletop format (zombies?)
Do include a unit builder
Do include 5-8 "official" factions
Do make official factions colourful and differentiated
Do use special rules and stats to add flavour to generic factions
Do keep said rules simple and not overly powerful
Do use models from a single manufacturer where possible when making a faction

It seems a lot like common sense,actually - I don't know how I managed to get such a wall of text out of that.  Oh well, over to the readers!


  1. Too lazy to edit properly - but just after I posted this I noticed that Assault Publishing does "repacks" i.e. sells on models sourced from Odizial Osmy, Rebel and Antenociti - for its factions. I.e. you can do all your shopping in one place, but uses models from different companies. Clever idea.

  2. I enjoyed the vast scope of the Battletech universe. OK, it was just human factions but they differed in outlook, technology and lots more. If you were willing to roleplay in large BT games, a high-tech Clan force might follow honour rules by fighting individual foes while their lower tech Inner Sphere foes might might gang up on them or use underhand tactics like minefields...
    You had a whole load of set factions to pick from with lists of typical gear they might use, or you could create your own mercenary unit, there were lots of isolated periphery worlds where you had free reign to make stuff up.
    With the huge series of novels (55+ on my bookshelf - although a few are rubbish, the majority are pretty good) covering over 30 years and lots of current and "historical" sourcebooks available, it's easy to use pre-set scenarios and troop lists or to devise your own. The Inner Sphere is such a vast battleground that you can merge with or diverge from the main plotline as you choose.
    What's more, they've had a background which has developed chronologically rather the way that WH40K has continually retconned certain factions (I'm looking at you Squats) out of existence or changed their identity entirely with no explanation.

    1. Funny you should mention this - you'd never guess the PC game I've started playing again.... (article pending)