Tuesday, 30 April 2013

What's Your Story?

Greetings wargamers, and welcome once more to my cardboard bunker...

Today's topic is inspired by a post on The Burning Eye blog (please see a link on the right of my page, I recommend a read), which was about the naming of Characters and Units in your army, and by doing so, bringing them and the battles they participate in to life. Not literally of course. That would be weird. Like Toy Story...with Melta Guns. And a two inch tall Vulkan.

I would like to explore fluff from another angle, and that is the creation of the backstory for your army, its history and its place in the setting of the game, whichever game that might happen to be. I guess elements of what I write here can be applied to a variety of games, but my experience is all with GW games, primarily the Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 settings.

Some people might not care about their army background, which is fine, but I feel like I would really be missing out if I didn't tell my own part of the story, and read that of other peoples armies, particularly material written by fans. The setting after all is one of the big draws of Games Workshop games. I mean, look at the vast number of novels you can buy which tell the exact same kind of stories that I would want to be told about my own armies.

In my mind, the story behind my army is very important, and adds immensely to my enjoyment of the hobby. When an army has a story behind it, it stops being a simple collection of playing pieces (no matter how well converted or painted they may be) and becomes a living, breathing entity. There is little difference between reading about a battle fought between the Talosian 3rd Army Group and the Orks of Waaagh Griffnut, and reading about the Battle Of Arnhem Bridge, apart from the fact that one is based on fact and the other a fabricated game setting. A great example of this would be Forge World's Imperial Armour books for 40K, which not only include history, unit details and army lists, but also amazing photos which look incredibly life-like. If you removed all the names from such pieces of text, you might be hard pressed to judge which was the factual history, and which had been made up by a geek (I myself am proud to declare I am at least 40% Geek) on a computer...

When I think about writing background material for an army, I can think of three main ways to approach it, each with varying degrees of work required by you, the narrator of the army's story. First, and easiest, is to simply use existing background material, from a rulebook, army book, campaign book or even a novel based in the same setting as your army.

For example, if you decided to collect an army of Ultramarines for Warhammer 40,000, they are probably the single most comprehensively written about Space Marine Chapter in the history of existence, which is just how Marneus Calgar likes it I'm sure. The point is you can look at their background and simply say 'my army is the Ultramarines 3rd Company', and you already have not only instructions on how to paint them and mark them out as the 3rd Company, but there are probably bits of fluff all over the place that tell you about their history, their famous heroes, homeworld and their part in major events in the history of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

There are lots of armies that have taken part in specific events in the history of their settings, like the First, Second and Third Wars for Armageddon, The Thirteenth Black Crusade, and, more specific to the Ultramarines, the wars with the Tyranids on the Eastern Fringe (may the Hive Mind envelope the snot nosed Tau and their piddly Empire and reconstitute them all as mindless snot licking toad-things...).

This is great if all you want is to know a bit about the history of your force, and are happy go with what's already there. This is probably typical of Historical Wargames in particular, where battles are often re-fights of great clashes from history, and the troops, commanders and locations are taken straight from the documentary evidence. A variation on this idea is to make your army the followers of a particular Special Character, who all come with their own often extensive histories, and tying your army to their background material. Just don't tie your army to Commissar Yarrick and the Battle for Golgotha. That's where we saw the demise of the Squats after all. I'd love to know how the new Black Library novel 'Chains of Golgotha' spins that one...

The second option is to base your army around an existing force, but make up their battle history, create named personalities to lead them and even design your own insignia and such for them, rather than using pre-fab Special Characters. I could use my Dark Angels force as an example. The army is based around and uses the paint scheme of the Dark Angels 4th Company (the one with the fiddly check patterned design). I didn't want to use the 3rd Company because to me it's an obvious choice, being the first Battle Company, and I chose to avoid the 5th because that's the Company that the Games Workshop studio army is based around (in the last Codex at least), so I went for the 4th Company. I say 'based' around the 4th Company because my collection as a whole, in keeping with the established Dark Angels (and Space Marines generally) background, is part of a larger strike force which includes elements of the 1st Company (Deathwing), 2nd Company (Ravenwing) and 10th Company (the Scout Company).

This army rarely includes any Special Characters, but every squad has a name, as well as every vehicle and character model. The history of the strike force is based loosely around the various major battles I have fought with them in the time I have been collecting Dark Angels, which is getting on for twenty years, so they took part in defending Talos VII from Hive Fleet Scylla, they fought on Armageddon during the Third War, and they joined the rest of the Chapter and the Unforgiven as a whole during the Thirteenth Black Crusade fighting Abbadon's forces and chasing 'The Voice' around the Cadian Gate. The whole time, my strike force commander, Teranius, Master of the 4th Company and Bearer of the Blade, has been responsible for hunting down a prominent Fallen Dark Angel known as 'Kraven'.

By taking this approach, you can base your background around a theme or army that you like, but take the step of adding some additional background flavour to make it more personal if that's what you want, to feel like you have had more of a hand in creating the story that supports the army.

The final option I would like to talk about (and the one I prefer), is that of writing the background for your army pretty much from scratch. It's not quite totally from scratch, because every race has its 'army wide' backgound that your own fluff will tend to agree with in most cases. Imperial Guardsmen are, broadly speaking, grunts with flashlights, no matter what world they're from, they all have traits in common. Orks are all frothing thugs who want nothing more than to bash someone's head in, (preferably yours) regardless of whether the Idol represents Gork or Mork. Tyranids want to suck out your brains regardless of whether they are red, green or puce with lime green polkadots. You get the idea I'm sure. Apart from staying within these fairly broad guidelines (unless you can fabricate a good reason not to), you can go wild.

Writing background from scratch opens up a world of possibilities, literally, because you get to create (almost) everything, including cool stuff like homeworlds, culture, colloquial language references, fighting styles, preferred or specialist combat environments, and of course, names. For this one, I'll use my Imperial Guard as an example. They are the Talosian 24th Light Infantry Regiment. The Talos System is made up of giant planets. I took the name Talos from the bronze giant of Greek Mythology.

Talos VII, the planet that my regiment hails from, is also the world that was fought over in a very early (possibly our first ever) campaign played by the group of gamers I went to school with in the mid nineties. The campaign revolved around an Imperial world being defended by the Guard, which was being invaded by the Tyranids of Hive Fleet Scylla (which became my Tyranid army), and which the Eldar (half our group played Eldar) also had a vested interest in because there were functioning Webway Portals hidden on the planet which they needed to shut down or at least seal, before the Hive Mind gained access to the Webway.

These days, the back story of my Guard talks a bit about their culture before the Tyranid invasion, and a bit about after the Hive Fleet was driven off (by the arrival of the Talosian Fleet, led by my Dark Angels strike force of course), and what has become of them today. At the moment, my Guard are embroiled on the staging world of Barakka Prime, which was invaded at the outset of the Third Armageddon War by my Ork army (led by Warlord Griffnut, tasked with this staging world's destruction by Ghazgkhull himself. I think Ghazgkhull just wanted him out of the way because he's got his eye on the crown), as part of the Orks coordinated effort to strangle the supply network feeding the beleaguered warzone.

As you can see, many of my armies have background that is interlinked, which is another benefit of writing from scratch, because this is relatively easy to accomplish when you have free reign to make things up as you go along. In the case of my Imperial Guard, I used a campaign that we had fought way back in the mists of time as the inspiration for their history, which was nice because it really was their history. The names I chose to give my officers were taken straight from my Secondary School teachers, so the Talosian 24th are led by Colonel Riccarius (Richard) Bailey, with Lieutenants and Captains named after teachers I remember. There is so much you can call on to create your background. Why not delve into real world history for some inspiration? Is there a culture or period of history that sparks your interest? A particular commander perhaps? It doesn't take a genius to work out that Lord Commander Solar Macharius is based on Alexander The Great.

The key thing to remember is that whatever approach you decide to take, you have the chance to make your army background exciting, to give your games context in the sense of your army's wider involvement in the setting. If you expand on the army's background through incorporating battles and even campaigns fought within your local gaming group, then the group as a whole has the chance not only to expand their individual army fluff, but also to build one that connects them all together in an epic shared existence.

One last thing to remember...history is always written by the victor.

Thanks for reading...

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