5 ways you can roleplay in a wargame

Narrative play

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I used to think wargames sounded unimaginative and overly strategic. I pictured players obsessed with military history reenacting, with miniatures, old battles exactly as they were described in the history books. How is that even a game? I couldn't understand how a great game like AD&D could possibly have come from boring old war simulations. Then I started playing wargames, and discovered I couldn't have been more wrong. Wargames can be as creative and varied as roleplaying games, with just the right mix of roleplay and strategy. Here are 5 ways I incorporate roleplay into my wargames.

1. You might like tactics more than you realise

The quintessential roleplay experience for me is the Shadowrun method of gameplay. You spend a three hours [over]planning a mission, and one hour actually doing the mission, which turns into an additional three hours of dealing with all the things your plans didn't accont for. I'm not a "classically-trained" roleplayer, by which I mean I'm no actor and I don't embody my character.

When RPG combat started, the game came to life. In Shadowrun, the planning part was literally planning the game, but once the mission started, that was the game. In Pathfinder, the story is fun and chatting with friends and exploring the world is magical and memorable, but it was combat that would get my heart racing. It took me a long time to realise it, but I'm a high-tactics (not to be confused for good) roleplayer.

Regardless of your preference, the term "roleplaying game" exists for a reason. The game is roleplaying, and within that game there's combat. Wargaming is a way for players who enjoy combat to play a game that's built around combat, and within that game, you can include roleplay. It's the same two ideas, but the bounds are reversed.

In short, if you enjoy the combat parts of your RPG, you'll likely enjoy wargaming.

2. Focus on one character

If you've ever seen a wargame table, you probably notice that there are usually a lot of miniatures involved. Just one army can have 50 or even 100 models. Even the most prodigious Game Master rarely deals with that many non-player characters, so how can a player hope to roleplay 50 characters?

Well, the answer is that you don't. If you want to have a star character whose career path you follow through a campaign, and whose individual choices, however rational or irrational they may be, guide the direction of the battle, then you choose one miniature and declare it as your "roleplay model". That's not an official wargame term, it's just a term I'm using to differentiate your special model from all the rest, but it is what wargamers tend to do. We focus in on a named character within our army's ranks, and follow its career. In a historic wargame, that named character might be somebody from history or it might be a fictional character meant to represent a typical soldier of the time. In fantasy and sci fi wargames, the big wargame companies often sell special models of popular characters from the game world's lore. Either way, it helps to make this model physically unique from your other models, either by purchasing a single special model or else by painting it (or at least the rim of its base) to stand out from the rest.

Use your roleplay model to guide your choices during the game, and between games take time to level up your roleplay model according to the campaign rules of your wargame (or your homebrew version of campaign rules, when none otherwise exist).

There are lots of options. So many, in fact, that I wrote a whole separate blog post about the many different ways to manage your roleplay model.

3. A world where accountants evolved from men??

A wargame, like a roleplaying game, can have a campaign mode as well as a single game (what we RPG players often call a one-shot).

When you play just a single battle of a wargame, it's assumed that everything resets after the game. All the toy soldiers that got "killed" during the battle are no longer dead, and your army has no memory of the experience, just like in a traditional board game.

When you play in campaign mode, each single battle is part of a larger war, and you track the progress and history of your army.

In a roleplaying game, a character sheet is the physical record of your character. The act of filling it out before the game begins, and then maintaining it as the game progresses, is often a significant part of the roleplay experience.

In a wargame campaign, you have a "character sheet" of sorts for the squads in your army, or for your army in general (depending on the game). It goes by different names depending on the game, but it's an army roster, and it's a description of the squads and troops and vehicles and other gear that your army is made of. You get to update this army roster at the end of each battle, representing what it's acquired during the campaign, either by looting and plundering or by requisitioning from central command, and the losses it took.

To some people, this sounds suspiciously like an exercise in accounting, like paperwork for paperwork's sake but disguised as a game. For a certain kind of player though, this is one of the defining traits of roleplay. The act of maintaining a character sheet (or an army roster) is, for some people, the time when the closest connection is made between the player and the character. Whether you treat your entire army as your character, or you treat your army as a resource at the disposal of your single named roleplay character, balancing the books of your imaginary world is an important part of recording the fictional history your games are creating.

4. You can have a Game Master if you want

The most liberating thing about a roleplaying game is that you have a Game Master playing the role of the game world. The Game Master can make judgement calls about the rules that govern that world, and add unexpected complications or surprises to an otherwise static setting. This allows for out-of-the-box moves, like kicking a barrel to knock over that nearby ladder so it upsets the chicken coop and sends furious fowl into the faces of your foe. There aren't rules for that in the game, but in an RPG you can make it happen because there's a Game Master to adjudicate.

Most wargames are written to be played without a Game Master, but many players find it fun to add one anyway to help bring the game world to life. The Game Master usually guides the game through the rounds of battle, and also adds loot or monsters or external forces into the mix. A Game Master can also help decide how actions without rules might be incorporated into the game.

The Game Master doesn't have to be a third person. A fun casual game between friends can encourage collaborative and sudden expansions of the written rules. Just agree on the chances of a silly idea actually succeeding, throw a couple of dice, and deal with the consequences.

5. Exploration and story goals

War is, I think, the worst aspect of humanity, and my distaste for war was one of the reasons I avoided wargaming for as long as I did. I don't have a problem with pretend-fighting, but the term "wargame" is, even today, pretty abrasive to me. I guess it just sounds like it's celebrating war. Then again, it is a [mostly] accurate description of the activity, and anyway I do tend to gravitate toward the dysfunction and dystopia when it comes to entertainment. I watch horror movies and play zombie video games and play post-apocalyptic roleplaying games. The macabre is my playground, and there's nothing more macabre than the regimented fanatacism of war (Warhammer 40,000 helped me recognize this, with its over-the-top zealot characters and mythos).

And yet, wargaming isn't actually all about war. I know! It surprised me too.

There are several wargames and wargame missions or scenarios that emphasize exploration and story over nonstop killing. In most of my games, I incorporate loot boxes that soldiers can open and search. What they find is down ot a random table (sometimes I literally use the Pathfinder Game Mastery Guide for treasure). In many games, there are objectives to secure, or data drops to retrieve, or informants to protect, secrets to uncover, cabals to scatter, sieges to break, supplies to import, and so on.

Sure, there's the constant threat of being shot at as you strive toward your goal. A wargame only has roleplay embedded as a component, not a driving force, but there are threats in an RPG too. An RPG probably doesn't have a threat happening every "round", but then again an RPG isn't played in rounds except during a life-and-death threat. The system is inverted, but I find that this adds structure to the game that an RPG lacks. It's because an RPG falls out of rounds that there are sometimes uncertainty about how long a disease or wound persists or magic spell persists, and why an RPG session can go on for 8 hours. A wargame keeps you on a flexible but steady schedule. Within that cadence, you can explore the story aspect of the game, while dodging bullets or arrows and returning some of your own.

Try playing the story mode

If you enjoy roleplaying, I don't think wargaming is likely a replacement for roleplaying, but I also don't find that it's as much of a divergence as some people (my past self included) believe. The familial connection has been there since the beginning of roleplay, so it makes sense that wargaming historically has had elements of roleplay in it, and that the modern wargaming scene has learned and borrowed from the RPG scene. Wargaming is more flexible than you might think, so if you're at all curious, or you really do love combat in RPG, then you might give it a try. To find some easy ways to get into wa rgaming, read my blog post for a list of 5 boardgames that introduce you to wargaming.

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