Campaign Complexity or Simply Liking to Fight?

we present here an excellent discussion by George Arnold on simplifying campaigns to produce more “battles”. While I sympathize with George I don’t necessarily agree that the problem with campaigns is “too much detail”. I think George is actually describing a problem with what I call “ordering a campaign” and I will discuss that further in separate post of mine. Until then let’s listen to George Arnold….

Tell Yourself a Story

Campaign Narratives

By George Arnold

Years ago, I took the words of the late Tony Bath to heart: A gamer soon tires of individual games and wants to move on to campaigns, making the battles more satisfying by giving them a broader objective and purpose.

But those words caused me more trouble than I ever could have imagined. I’ spent many of the years since I first read them trying to get out from under their pernicious influence. Bath wrote a book on the joys of setting up campaigns and I plunged in with him.

He had chapters on how to set up countries, characters, armies. He had the cost of men and equipment worked out to fit his imaginary world’s economic system. This was inspiring and I had visions of my own Neverworld, running smoothly along, characters living, dying, begetting heirs, conspiring against their enemies, leading armies across my gaming table. What a grand backdrop this would be for the wars and battles I anticipated.

I even started on such a campaign — several times. I made up countries and characters, drew maps and listed who was who. It was a spectacular, time-consuming endeavor. I still have some of the many lists that I drew up.

The trouble was that I rarely got to the point of having a battle. The battles — the games — got lost in the details that were supposed to provide a framework for my miniature wars.

Something was clearly wrong and it took me all those abortive campaigns over the years to realize it. OK, I’m a slow learner. But I still want to do campaigns. Is that so much to ask?

Obviously, the answer is simple campaigns. But just how simple? How many articles on campaign mechanisms have you read in the Lone Warrior that mention the need to keep them simple? Everybody buys into the theory. But simple is like beauty, or game rules. All are in the eye of the beholder. For some of us, it’s hard to get too simple.

Here’s something that occurred to me lately. My efforts to work up campaigns to organize my individual battles are the way to provide a narrative of what’s going on with my games. I’m trying to tell myself a story. That’s what really caught my attention in one current set of rules, Piquet. I’m not sold on all of Piquet’s mechanics, but I like the way the rules let the player provide a script for what’s happening on the table. Piquet reverses the usual way that rules tell their stories. Piquet gives a result, then leaves it up to the gamer to provide the rationale.

Let’s say the 2nd Grenadiers spend the whole game just standing there in position and fail to carry out their mission of attacking the enemy’s line. If the player needs an explanation for this non-action, he can come up with one that appeals to him: The unit commander was indisposed, the orders never got delivered, whatever. Explanations aren’t provided by complicated battle or campaign backgrounds. The narrative activity is based on the game, instead of being determined by the campaign.

That’s appeals to me, although it wouldn’t be to everybody’s liking. I want a system that provides linked battles, with the least possible paperwork. I can fill in the narrative gaps if they bother me. If not, I don’t worry about it.

Like everything else in my gaming experience, the solution I’ve come up with for campaigns is a matter of a stolen idea here, a tweaked version of something else I’ve seen there. I couldn’t sort out all the influences in my current campaign system if I tried. It still owes something to good old Tony Bath, but it also incorporates things I’ve picked up from other sets of rules, as well as suggestions from articles by other gamers in the Lone Warrior.

Actually, the real foundation of my current campaign rules doesn’t even come from gaming. It’s drawn from card games, those in which the players bid for the opportunity to take the initiative (e.g., declare trump, play first).

Let’s say I’ve set up a campaign of Romans vs. Gauls. I’ve drawn up unit rosters for the overall campaign and I’m ready for a battle. Each side has been given a set number of campaign chits (12 seems to be a workable number) and wagers some of them as its “bid” for the battle. Of course, since I’m solo gaming, the bid is randomized by rolling a 1d6 for each side. The Romans roll a 2, the Gauls a 4.

The bids mean the Gauls have a bigger stake in winning this battle than the Romans do, although neither side will willingly lose. But the winner gets to claim the “pot” of 6 campaign chips, meaning he will move well ahead of the other side in his chip total before proceeding to the next battle.

Then I use other randomized methods to determine which units from each order of battle are available for this particular fight. Not all units will be involved. Need to know why? Tell yourself a story: Some have been left behind on other duties. Others weren’t able to march to the battlefield on time. It’s easier to come up with an explanation afterward than to develop family trees that eventually produce a military incompetent who overlooks a movement order.

If the orders of battle for this fight are unusually one-sided, either side has the option of declining the battle, at the cost of one campaign chip being transferred to the opponent. This can be done as often as the commander wishes, but doing it repeatedly will quickly put that side in a difficult position. Eventually, it will be forced to fight a battle to just avoid losing too many campaign chips.

Once the sides agree to fight and have determined their troops for the battle, I decide the strategy, based on a chart tied to the army’s historical performance, or my assessment of it. Against Gauls, my Romans are more likely to be on the defense. The impetuous Gauls are more likely to attack. If they’re lucky, they’ll even dice up an indirect attack and be able to deploy troops on the Romans’ flank. That happened the last time these foes met on my table. Combined with their dismal command performance, the Romans lost the battle overwhelmingly.

When the battle ends, the winning side collects the campaign chips from the “pot” and each side’s totals are adjusted accordingly. As the totals change and new bids are made, the importance of the next battle shifts. It may become a “must win” situation for one side or the other, which adds to the suspense as the next game gets under way.

An additional benefit for me in campaigning like this is that it allows me to include some naval battles if I choose. My interest in galley warfare has resurfaced in the last few months and fits in well with my interest in ancient gaming. But I don’t need a complicated campaign set-up to provide me with a motive for a naval battle. I don’t even need a map to provide a strategic reason for a fight at sea.

If I want one of my campaign battles to be on sea instead of on land, all I have to do is — do it. I don’t need a notebook full of maps, characters, motivations and troop movements to tell me if a sea battle is due. I decide, and if I need to explain it to myself I can come up with a suitable narrative to make the sea battle fit into my campaign.

A lot of the fun of campaigning comes from the chrome, the details. My minimalist approach may seem to take away too much of that. But it produces battles and they are linked together into campaigns that I will actually fight to a conclusion. That’s a big improvement over the way my campaigns used to work so I’ll gladly accept the reduction in paperwork. I’d rather fight battles on the table than scribble away in a campaign ledger anyway. I think Tony Bath would approve, or at least understand. (see above).

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