Friday, January 28, 2011

Game Development – Part 2: Background “Fluff” In Non-Historical Miniature Wargames

Metaphysical Mandate


Plague upon Humanity?

The prevailing bias has been in no way concealed, and anything useful gleaned from the following would be implemented at your own risk. You have been warned.

Background information is essential for Role Playing Games. The players can, if they choose, ignore any part, or all of it and create their own worlds to taste. Not always a good thing, but experimentation is essential to learning.

With historical miniature wargames, there should be a brief overview of the period, as those buying the rules are quite often familiar with the times, conflicts, and participants, but not always. Research should be a part of historical miniature gaming, if, for nothing else, to get the uniforms close to the proper color. Yes, there will always be the great fledgrau debate, but one should put in the effort.

In non-historical miniature wargames, unless you have something galaxy-shatteringly new and unique, you've paid for the license to use someone's intellectual property or this is just a thinly-veiled miniatures catalog, the fluff should not be the focus of the rules. Keep any background brief, avoiding lengthy studies into the inner working of the various races, empires, clans, corporations and factions. And no short stories, please! Put them on your website or publish a pdf, if you must. The horrifying fact is that many folks will be looking at your game just to push toys around a table while rolling dice and will completely ignore your magnum opus.

The best examples of fluff show what the players can do with your rules and their own imagination. Include a few examples or, better yet, a set of short army lists. Just enough to get them started, but not enough to stifle. If things pan out, source books based on each faction may be an option, and a bit more background on the units may be called for to the fill the empty page-space between specialized rules and new, unique units.

Some backgrounds are a marketing mechanism to sell an associated miniature line. I can’t blame the company, as they are a business and have a perfect right to not only sell their goods but to make a profit, as well. And, if the figures are good, members of the miniature gaming community will rejoice in another option to field upon the table.

Yet, sadly, there is a third category which is usually a retread of previously existing fictional universes with the serial numbers filed off because the author either lacks imagination or the licensing fee. Tolkein, Burroughs, and popular TV and film franchises often fall prey to this. Also, the “[insert traditional fantasy race here] IN SPACE!” route has been flogged to death.

In conclusion, fluff is often poorly done and does nothing but add to the page count in an attempt to cater to the “thicker is always better” rules fan. Below are examples of my rather lazy and uninventive attempts at pandering to this mindset without wasting too much time on something that in absolutely no way impacts how the rules play on the table. They are presented both in the pretentious format and the older Giant Shooty Spacefleets style.

Pretentious: The Grand Terran Imperium - The homeworld of all Humans in the galaxy. Imperial fleets plied the stars to enforce the will of the emperor, ruthlessly suppressing anything that might threaten the stability of the empire or hint at independence.

“Old Style”: The Wedgians - They’re big, they’re bad, and they’re completely devoid of anything resembling a sense of humor. And, yes, their ships are triangular. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

The High Lords of Hephaestus

Pretentious – A former Terran colony that rose to the status of “satellite nation”, the original settlers adopted a Greco-Roman motif. Their fleets were decidedly heavy on fighters. Intelligence circles occasionally heard whispers of something called “The Golden Throne”, though nothing substantive.

“Old Style” – A colony founded by Human frat boys with a fighter fixation and possessors of the largest “secret” stash of pr0n in the galaxy.

Pretentious: The Council of Bulblubla - An aquatic species possessed by the desire to expand beyond their home shores.

“Old Style”: The Blub-Blub-Blub – Fish people in space. Ya need more than that? Really? Well, they’re blue. And scaly. Um, that’s all I got.

The Clans of the Great Hunt

Pretentious - A loose alliance of felinoid sapients who would attack each other if no other suitable prey or conquest was available.

“Old Style” – Cat-babes on the prowl. In space.

Pretentious: The Union of Queens - Sapient insect colonies that were constantly searching for the next hiveworld.

“Old Style”: Buggians – Bug folk that were constantly searching for the next picnic.

Next time – Complexity: Relaxing Pastime or Surrogate Religion?


  1. I'm of mixed emotions about fluff. I like creating backstories and tables of organization for my own minis, but too much background can suffocate a setting and stifle players' creativity if they let themselves become slaves to canon.

    One of my favorite fantasy wargames, Hordes of the Things, has no fluff. But it allows players plenty of creativity because you can create your own army list and use any figures.

    So in writing your rules, unless you have your own line of minis to push, there's no need to even get into any fluff, except as examples.

    By the way, I like your "old-style" descriptions; they remind me of the factions in another quick-play sci-fi game, Generic Outlandishly Big Spacefleets. And I wouldn't call your other descriptions "pretentious"--straightlaced, maybe.

  2. @Desert Scribe - HotT always gave me the impression it was meant to be used for whatever fantasy setting the players wanted. The back half of the book was a collection of army lists for nearly every popular fantasy setting ever published despite the fact that there were only 20+ troop types. They had entries for Glen Cook's THE BLACK COMPANY series! It was amazing! I had the use the word “impression” as the first edition had been written in some obscure dialect called “Barkerese”, which, at the time I was introduced to the game, defied my best attempts at translation into “Casual American Gamer”. So it languished on a shelf as other games more accessible to the uninitiated were played and enjoyed. Later, it had been discover that a translated second edition was available! But by then we had settled into whatever we were using at the time (Pig Wars?) and paid it no heed.

    As of this moment, there are no plans for a miniature line associated with SUNDER THE STARS, though that may change. All that is needed, these days, is a free 3D CAD application, an account with Shapeways and a bit of talent.

  3. RF, the second edition is now available online for free, so I encourage you and your group to give it a spin.