Game Review: X-Com 2, sequels, rebellions, the rule of cool, & verisimilitude (guest starring: BACON)

Addendum (08/01/2019): War of the Chosen Obliterates my criticisms of the game, especially the rule of cool stuff, because it fully commits to the mad, super-heroic flavour of X-Com2.

This week I actually found time to finish X-COM 2! I will scribble some thoughts here, which will serve as my review.

XCOM 2 header

But first. This week I came to a realization. Bacon is becoming ubiquitous. I see it as a donut garnish, marmalade, as burgers flavoured with three types of bacon with a bacon-maple sauce. As I stood in the supermarket staring at bacon flavoured breath-mints, I realized that this saturation level has made it less of a treat, less special, and somehow offensive. I still love bacon, but enough is enough.

X-COM 2 is the second installment of the modern reboot. It was released on Feb 4 and has already sold 750,000 copies on Steam alone. It departs from the familiar tropes of the older games and the first game of the reboot in that instead of encountering, then fighting an alien invasion, the aliens have already won and the player is leading the resistance. They do a decent job of connecting the story and update the game-play with some interesting elements. Overall I enjoyed the game, but I found that it did not correct all of the flaws of the previous version, nor do I think that all of the changes will appeal to fans of the first reboot. With that in mind I will start with the cons.

Cons: What I did not like, or thought needed improving.

  • The Scamper System (major): The scamper system where when an enemy or group of enemies sees the player and gets a free action to seek cover is back from X-COM: Enemy Unknown. This is, by far, the weakest mechanic in the new series: it leads to a style of play where the best tactic is always to advance slowly so as to only activate one enemy pod at a time, kill it, rinse and repeat. Enemies in the first few versions of X-COM seemed to activate in a more organic fashion, open to a variety of tactics. In X-COM 2 they patch the holes in the scamper system by adding timers to many missions, forcing the player to move at a faster pace (this is mostly illusory, I rarely ever triggered more than one pod, save through my own stupidity) and reinforcements which drop enemies in the midst of the players with a turn of warning. They also allows players to scout with a concealment/stealth mechanic. While these patches do make the scamper system more interesting, it is still polishing a turd. I feel that the game would be better served by removing it entirely because the right thing to do is always to move forward as cautiously as you can, given mission parameters.
    • I contend that the scamper system could be used for rooms in a dungeon game, but for triggering larger encounters instead of single pods.
  • The Resistance & Verisimilitude (minor): In X-COM 2 the players are guerrilla fighters waging a shadow war against a victorious enemy, at least on paper. In reality the game does not really play like that, save for a few conceits and mission types. There is very little defense, stealth, and scavenging and far too much insurgency and attack. In the end the way the game plays is very much at odds with the idea of a beleaguered resistance. Weapons and armour are a good example, with the player able to research and manufacture their own superior weapons over time. The idea guerrilla force with the ability to manufacture experimental high tech weapons… just breaks verisimilitude. I would have preferred a more low tech response like customizing old tech and salvaging higher tech weapons directly from fallen aliens. Examples like this are why it does not feel like a resistance and steps on verisimilitude.
    • Guerrilla factions spend a lot of time fighting for hearts and minds. This is obvious from modern warfare as well as successful guerrilla insurgencies in the past. This is not well represented in the game. People just kind of rise up at the appropriate moment. It was a waste of the advent speaker character, as well — why make the guy if I can’t counter his propaganda.
    • Guerrilla resistances spread slowly from specific locations, relying on local relationships. The resistance in X-COM 2 is nomadic and wants to spread as quickly as possible for income and bonuses.
    • Smallest insurgency ever.
  • Small Squads (Minor): I may be in the minority here, but with 5 basic classes with 2 specialties each and many different enemy types I felt that squads of 4-6 were just too damn small. I would prefer to see bigger player squads and bigger enemy pods, just to make use of more of the options available.

Pros: What I loved

  • Variety of enemies (Major): The variety of enemies in X-COM 2 is perfect. Enemies are divided into two types: Advent forces which are the augmented humans and robots who are the face of the alien invasion trying to pass as the future of humanity and the aliens themselves. The advent forces are the baseline grunts and elites specialists who stay similar throughout the game and lend the enemy a kind of uniform feel. Their look and their totalitarian feel lend the game a gravitas far beyond what I was expecting. The aliens themselves are all unique, special snowflakes with powers and abilities that make fighting each one different. Together these two forces give the game both a shifting variety of enemies without losing the sense that you are fighting a single, monumental force. Even the look and feel of each enemy type was above my expectations. Loved the enemies in this game.
  • Turn Based Combat (Major): I love turn based combat. The Combat is X-COM 2 is fundamentally sound, with all of the basics from the first and a few nice improvements like concealment and better sets of character abilities. As long as you do not mind RNG and cover and flank firefights you should enjoy it. That said, the tactical depth is stunted a fair bit by the scamper system.
  • Better Research Trees (Major): setting aside the idea that an insurgency has a better research and manufacturing arm than the people they are fighting, the research trees are the best I have ever seen. Scientists and engineers are greatly desire and the end-game tech opens up a large number of tactical possibilities (some of which are arguably overwhelming powerful like mimic beacons and mines, but that’s what higher difficulties are for). It was nice to see some serious variety in armour types and equipment load-outs in the end-game, even if some options are very much superior on paper and small squads limited experimenting.
  • Hacking and Drones (Minor): The hacking system is interesting and I am pleased to see a nod to futuristic tactics with drones being used for healing, buffing, ranged hacking, and even some nasty attacks.
  • Character Variety (Minor): Crazy amount of customization options for your characters. I also enjoyed the ability of each character to learn a single random ability from another class tree as they advanced. These two things combined to give my squad lots of personality, although I tended toward uniforms.
  • Story (Trivial): Although verisimilitude does take some hits in that the campaign does not feel like a resistance insurgency, the story for X-COM 2 is better than any of the previous iterations. I enjoyed the characters despite the occasional repetitiveness of the dialogue.

Bonus Commentary: The Rule of Cool versus Verisimilitude & Unique Identity

Remember when I mentioned Bacon at the beginning of this wall of text? This is why.

Gunslingers and Ninjas with big swords are cool. I am not sure, however, that adding them to the X-COM universe is a great idea. The idea of the rule of cool is that people are more willing to accept offences against verisimilitude if they are really fun or just plain awesome. Think of it like bacon. If people put bits of chicken on your maple donut it would leave you wondering, but if they put bacon on it you will accept that because bacon is awesome (obviously not everyone loves bacon, but you get the idea). So when X-COM 2 gives their rangers kick ass fusion swords and their snipers awesome plasma revolvers that make them (deadly) space gunslingers it is definitely cool, even if the idea of bringing a sword to a gun fight is kind of stupid when you analyze it (a fusion bayonet/knife would be better).

But while I thought it was cool initially, I felt that something was lost in the way that X-COM 2 gave in to the rule of cool. Honestly if you put ninjas and gunslingers (and vikings, and zombies, and jedi etc) in every game they not only cease to be special, but they have a real chance of overpowering the already established aesthetic elements that made your world-building unique and interesting. X-COM was always had kind of a 80s military movie meets 90s x-files feel to it and this got lost when sword-wielding ninja rangers and I-can-fire-faster-than-an-automatic-weapon gunslingers get thrown into the mix. They may be cool, but for me they detract from the already established feel of X-COM.

Simply put: sometimes subtle, original flavours are better off without your favourite garnish. Would you ruin a perfectly good french vanilla ice cream by loading it with bacon? It might be tasty, but the bacon overpowers the vanilla. Really at that point, maybe you should just admit that you just want to eat more bacon and go cook yourself some goddamned bacon instead of inventing new ways of injecting it into everything.

In all seriousness, I do think that including all of the cool stuff in every game has started to make many games feel very samey and detracts from the unique charms of many properties. (And this from a guy who writes about magical superhero gladiators wielding rune weapons and fighting every monster under the sun.)


Structures and Systems: The Grand Championships in the Domains of the Chosen (part one)

One of my favourite subjects to write about is how systems, especially broken or corrupted systems, can define a character or a conflict. My favourite example is Javert from Les Miserables, an unrelenting, scrupulous Paladin of an utterly dysfunctional system of Law.

In my next Domains of the Chosen novel, I am delving into how the systems that have evolved around the Grand Championships of the Great Games can draw a series of characters in and change their lives. The novel begins with how these people react to hearing that the event will take place, their feelings, the plots they hatch, and the hopes they have and follows them through to the end.

For those of you who have not read my books, the Great Games are a mixture of bloodsports, magic, and politics, and the Grand Championships determine who is worthy to join the Chosen, immortal rulers of the Domains. (You can read a bit about the Great Games in my free short story.)

The Grand  Championships are a huge event, on the scale of an Olympic games or the Fifa world cup. They are usually held every fifty years, but if a Chosen dies they are the tournament is held sooner to find a replacement. In my new book, a Chosen has died very soon after the previous  tournament was held, and everyone is caught off guard and left scrambling as the new Grand Championship is held. Over the years tradition, politics, corruption and plain old opportunism have led to an elaborate set of mechanisms surrounding the games. Let me break it down:

The Core of the Grand Championships (the basic system)

  • Location: The Grand Championships are held in the Grand Arena of the city of Krass, only during the summer. Krass is the Capital of the Empire, an enormous port city analogous to New York/Rome/London as the focal point of a dominant power. The Grand Arena seats over five hundred thousand spectators, a truly fantastic amount of people crammed into one place. This last part is more important than you might think, unless you understand food services, event planning, or sewage. Since the event is always held in the same place, the Grand Arena is the focal point of the Games, almost a place of pilgrimage for true fans.
  • Selection, Part One: Before the event is held the Gladiators must be selected. Selection begins with fans from all over the Domains coming for the cast their votes for their favourite Master Rank (50+ fights & 10 ranking tests passed) Gladiators. The Hundred Gladiators with the most votes make the short list. It is important to note that this is at least partially a popularity contest. A skilled, but boring Gladiator will often lose out in the voting to a fighter with a more compelling story or more fan support. This works to Gavin’s favour in Bloodlust: Will to Power, one of my earlier works.
  • Selection, Part Two: The short list of one hundred Gladiators picked in the open vote must now be narrowed down to fifty fighters. The voting for this part of the selection is limited to members of the highest Popular Assembly and the Council of the Chosen. The politics and horse-trading at this stage is intense, as each faction tries to find the candidates that have the best chance of winning while trying to sabotage the efforts of rivals both in and out of their factions. They must do so without annoying the people as a whole, who will riot if a big favourite is dropped from the shortlist.
  • The Planning and the Parade: Once the final selection is made and the event is booked, preparations for the Grand Championships begin. The people of the Domains are so mad for the Great Games that work more or less ceases, especially in Krass, around the time of the event. This means that anyone doing anything important, such as shipping ammunition or even waging war, must plan around the Grand Championships or suffer some disruption. The event itself begins with an enormous day-long parade winding through the streets of Krass and ending in the huge parade ground in front of the Grand Arena. The Logistics of this parade are impressive, and also surprisingly important (more on that in part two)
  • The Qualifying Round: Most of the matches fought in the Grand Championships are against other Gladiators. However, many fans consider the very essence of the Great Games to be their favoured fighters facing ferocious monsters. Also fifty is an unwieldy number for a single elimination tournament 😀 Thus every single Gladiator must face off against a monster in the qualifying round. The devil is in the details in this round, where some competitors might end up facing tougher monsters than others and the scoring system is often criticized.
  • That One Little Wrinkle: The rest of the Grand Tournament is surprisingly simple. The remaining Gladiators face off against each other in single elimination matches. However, various exceptions and rules can change the nature of each match. A Gladiator can declare Ut Nex before a match, forcing his or her opponent to agree to fight to the death or forfeit the match. Some Gladiators use this as an intimidation tactic, although you can see how it might backfire.
  • That Other Little Wrinkle: It is not impossible that someone is killed or drops out of the Tournament. If this happens a new Gladiator is taken from the selection. Often this causes a riot, and the Gladiator added to the tournament is sometimes picked just to appease the rioters. Sometimes the riots are goaded on purpose for just this reason.
  • Cheating, and Exploits: It is very hard to just cheat at the Great Games, especially at the Grand Championships. But, with so much riding on the line, it is more than worth the risk. Illegal weapons, bribed officials, banned substances, and everything else you might think of can and will be tried. Much worse than overt cheating, however, are those who exploit the rules of the arena to their advantage. More on that in part two.

Stay tuned next week when I will cover the rest of this subject, going over the corruptions and unforeseen changes in this system.WillToPower_Icon


I had a great blog post about Caesar planned for today, alas I spent the entire day moving and now need to write like a maniac to reach my word-goal for the month. So… uh… IOU.

World Building and exposition: Xenophon’s Anabasis

Xenophon’s Anabasis is one of the key texts of ancient Greek literature. Not only is it a historical account of great importance; it is also a simply written tale of adventure that remains compelling to this day and has become the template for other works.

Xenophon was an officer in a mercenary force of Greek heavy infantry (likely hoplites) hired by Cyrus the Younger to help depose his brother, Artaxerxes II, and take control of the Persian Empire. They combined forces engaged the enemy in 401 BC at Cunaxa. (by comparison the battle of Thermopylae was in ~480 , and Alexander’s conquests of Persia began in ~334 BC). The leader of the ten thousand Greeks, Clearchus, arrogantly refused to follow Cyrus’ battle plan which led to the loss of the battle and the Prince’s death. After the battle Clearchus and most of the senior leadership of the Greek forces were tricked and betrayed when they tried to treat with Artaxerxes vassals. Xenophon is one of three leaders elected by the men to replace their lost leadership.

The main narrative occurs after the battle is lost and the Greek leadership is removed. The Greeks are deep behind enemy lines, no longer supported by friends, low on supplies, and with uncertain leadership. The Persians decide to let the elements destroy the Greeks rather than engaging them in a costly battle. Instead they harry them and force them into terrible terrain. And yet the ten thousand endure, marching North from Cunaxa to the Greek Colonies on the Black Sea, through desert and mountain, foraging, fighting, selling their services, and ultimately finding a way home. It is easy to see why this is a compelling tale, and how it can be used as a great template for militaristic fantasy. My favourite anabasis style work is Glen Cook’s Black Company series, although The Warriors movie  holds a special place in my heart as well.

Fantasy enthusiasts often create huge elaborate worlds with dozens of complex cultures, civilizations, places and so on. Take a look at this world building subreddit to see a few interesting examples of people’s imaginations run wild with world-building.

One of the problems encountered with this level of detail, when writing a novel, is that it is hard to download it on the reader without ruining the pacing that is expected of a good story. Games have a much easier time of this — especially open-world sandbox type games. The player being  free to explore and engage with a large world at the pace of their choosing is more or less the point, in that case. However the narrative structure of the novel is such that the author must dictate pacing, and paragraphs of exposition can really get in the way of a story. Nobody really wants to stop and read a long dissertation about where the Orc Barbarians who are storming the castle came from, and what their culture is like. Describing the culture of a people that the protagonists meet in passing, just once, in great detail can really make that escape from the oddly dangerous bandits that are tracking them seem a little less pressing. A lengthy discussion of history is also a great chunk of pacing issues, especially if it is not directly related to the plot. Exposition must be brought out organically, as part of the story in most cases, which makes it hard to show off s big, brilliantly built world.

The tried and true methods of allowing the reader to experience more of the world are

  • The Quest: In a quest base narrative the protagonists must travel to many different places to achieve their goal, often interacting with obscure arcana as part of the Quest. This arcana is a great way expose history and the journey is an excellent way to expose geography. The quest is the easy method of creating a journey that leads through many exotic areas  allowing the author to show off a lot of their world.
  • Multiple Character Epic: A multiple character epic allows the author to set different perspective characters in different parts of the world. In effect, each of those characters becomes the exposition for the part of the world that the author wishes to show off. This strikes me as the best way to showcase a huge world without ruining pace, but it seems quite hard to pull off convincingly.

The Anabasis Story offers an excellent alternative to The Quest for world exposition. Here are the main advantages of such a story type for world-building.

  • Exposition without dissonance: In the Anabasis form, the protagonists are strangers to the area they are in, picking up local customs and history as they try to get home. They have a legitimate void of knowledge that needs to be filled and real reasons to fill it.
  • Realistic Exploration: The easy way home is, of course, blocked. The group must take the unfamiliar path, which will require them to explore just to find that path. Climate, terrain, and food scources all become of utmost import to a group trying to find their way out of a strange environment.
  • Immediate Political Involvement: A small band wandering through an area is hardly cause for the high and mighty to react, an army on the move ALWAYS elicits a political reaction, and not always a hostile one. Opportunities abound: the Ten Thousand ended up selling their services in the their travels, after all. This allows the reader to experience even the most Byzantine political systems with great validity, since the members of the travelling army have a real interest in it and it is directly related to the story.
  • Home: because the characters will constantly be comparing every strange thing, to “the way it is back home.” it is easy for the writer to create exposition for the home culture as well.
  • Structure: The Anabasis narrative provides a strong structure for exposition without wrecking the pacing of a story. The band will explore their options, act accordingly, and move on. The hardships they face, the places they go, and the obstacles that they must overcome are all legitimate uses of your carefully built world that will not derail the story. It is an ideal form for a writer who wants to immerse the reader in multiple parts of a large Fantasy world.

World-Building: Magic, Power, and Economics using Magic: The Gathering Lands as an example.

Lands for Magic: the Gatherng

Last week I scribbled about the idea that magic could have a drastic effect on the economics and power structure of a fantasy world. The example I gave were fairly simplistic and I wanted to follow up a longer, more interesting example. I chose the idea of taking power from the land which is well represented in fantasy. Examples include Magic: The Gathering, where players use land cards to generate mana to power their spells and the Fallen Enchantress series where players capture elemental nodes on the landscape to increase their spell power. The basic idea is that the magic user draws the power needed for their magic from the lands they control. Lets say I like this basic idea and want to use it as a magic system in my game world or story. I’ll start by defining the fundamental characteristics of the system and then move on to how I think those will inform basic world building.

Mystic Lands Magic System

  • It takes time to attune to a land. Only one magic user can attune to a land at a time. Other magic users have a vague sense of who is attuned to a land.
  • The characteristics of a land make it useful for certain types of magic, Mountains are good for earth and fire magic, swamps are associated with death and decay, while forests are good for healing and growth.
  • Because the characteristics matter, not just any land will do, areas worth attuning to are relatively rare and require a certain archetypal quality.
  • A Magic user has some small talent for magic on their own, but to do any complex magic they must have access to the raw power they can channel from their lands. The more powerful the spell the more land they must be attuned to.
  • Lets assume that mages are common enough to have an impact on politics and economics in our world.
  • There are a wide variety of spells but most magic-users stick to one or two specialties based on the lands they control.
  • Since this is inspired by, and not base on Magic: The Gathering, we’ll leave out the MTG fluff like planes-walkers and such.

Our Magic: the Gathering inspired system now has enough characteristics for me to extrapolate some ideas of how it will influence the political and economic environment of  standard fantasy world.

  • Heightened Feudalism: The foundation of feudal power was the ownership of land. If control of land directly increased the magic-users power it becomes even more important to them. We therefore know that control of the land is central to our world, especially to the magic-users. Territorial disputes will be taken very seriously, which will lead to a fair bit of conflict. Mages without access to lands become a sort of magical under-class, unable to fulfill their potential. Ideas of ownership and inheritance of land are central to the laws.
  • Conservation and Protection:  Since the characteristics of a land influence what type of magic can be drawn from it, you can be damned sure the controlling magic-user will be watching over his or her lands and trying to keep them as pure a possible. This might mean that they come into conflict with others who may wish to use the land for more mundane purposes, which would alter their bond to it.
  • That man reeks of the swamps!: If control of lands is important, it is likely that the magic-user will spend a far bit of time near their power base. People will judge a magic-user base on where they live and develop prejudices and generalizations about those who dwell in certain areas based on the type of magic that can be drawn from them. Mountain fold are more warlike, swamp-dwellers are morbid, and so on.
  • Land Destruction: Total warfare in such a world would often entail destroying an opponents places of power. (MTG actually delves into this) This sort of nuclear option could have nasty long term consequences with bitter wars between magic users leading to cataclysms as magic-users destroy each others lands. Even common people could wage war against the magic-users in this way,
  • Mage Lords: Because of their need to control the land magic-users would want to have a fair bit of temporal power as well. After all, an army could really come in useful if a horde of orcs decides to use your forest for firewood. Mages would likely be powerful landowners or warlords in order to keep tight reign over their lands.

Those are nice, simple extrapolations, but delving further into it we can come up with some really juicy ideas.

  • The Problem with Cities: Urban sprawl and human habitation changes the characteristics of the lands where it occurs. Some mages in the world might be very interested in population control as measure to keep their power base safe, This makes for an interesting tension between the magic-users and those who wish to make different use of the land, The problem could be exacerbated if some new-fangled type of magic-user draws power from urbanized lands or some sort of unknown power starts staining the land.
  • Concentration of Power: Even if the magic-users avoid confrontation with the mundanes over land use, conflict can arise as more and more land falls becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Landless mages will always be on the lookout for ways to get their hands on some power while those with great power will have to guard their territories zealously from each other as well as the landless.
  • Land ho!: Imagine the discovery of a new land-mass, unclaimed by magic-users in this scenario. The land-rush would be intense. Magic-users already have a big incentive to explore, given that undiscovered lands are a ready source of power, Colonization in such a case would take on the worst aspects of imperialism, with the powerful competing with the desperate in a bit to come out on top in the mad rush to gain control of all that land…

World-Building: Magic, Power, and Economics (Primer)

“Comfort and habits let us be ready to forgo, but I am not ready for a creed which does not care how much it destroys the liberty and security of daily life, which uses deliberately the weapons of persecution, destruction and international strife. How can I admire a policy which finds a characteristic expression in spending millions to suborn spies in every family and group at home, and to stir up trouble abroad?”  John Maynard Keynes from A Short View of Russia (1925). Reads rather like a certain, more modern problem.

Mo Magic, Mo problems?

For me, magic is the essential element of Fantasy. Magic, even in its subtlest forms, invokes that sense of the Fantastic, clearly showing us that we have passed beyond the looking glass. Fantasy authors and gamers argue endlessly about what makes a good magic system. Many of them make excellent points, and I don’t really feel the need to put forth my own theory of magic system design (yet). The magic in Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale and Bloodlust: Will to power is functional and familiar: I felt that asking readers to accept a long story about Fantasy Gladiators was enough of a departure point for a new author.

Stripping magic down to its bare bones, to the mechanics of the magic system  as a gamer would say, leaves us with the following necessary parts.

  • Internal Consistency: Magic is usually, but not always, supernatural. It does not have to follow the laws of science as we understand them. Because of this, it is doubly important for a writer to be consistent when using magic in their writing. If a reader catches a contradiction in the way magic is used their suspension of disbelief will often fail. Skilled world-builders create rules for their magic systems either beforehand or as they write. The reader does not have to be exposed to these rules, however. As always using folklore and tropes allows a writer to tap into rules that have already been set out in myth and fiction, but make sure to use them consistently.
  • Fantastic/Supernatural/Miraculous Element: Magic should, on some level, be obviously unreal. It helps acclimatize the reader to the idea that they are reading a story in which the impossible is possible. This does not hold true in all cases however. Some forms of Fantasy make good use of the device that characters and readers are unsure if they are facing mundane or magical challenges.
  • Definition and System: The Writer should know what the magic is. Is it the language of creation? Is it the magician tapping into the code of the simulation the world resides in? Is it bargains with Eldritch powers? Is it a gift from the gods. ETC ETC. Again the writer needs to knew these, the readers do not. Costs and requirements are important. Who can use magic? How does one learn?

Pretty basic stuff.  Keep it in mind as we move to what I really want to write about: the effects of magic on power structures and economics.

Much like how magical elements shift warfare, I find that the impact of magic on the rest of the world is often ill considered in Fantasy Games and novels. Here are a few simple example, purely chaotic.

  • Resurrection: In Bloodlust the Gladiators can attune to Keystones, powerful constructs that allow them to survive almost any injury. I am very careful to limit what the Keystones can do, however. They must be attuned to beforehand, they are heavy, and they have limited range. Certain spells and abilities can overcome the magic of the stone or inflict injuries beyond its ability to preserve the life force of a Gladiator. Without these restrictions, Keystones would become weapons of war, allowing the Gifted to engage in warfare without almost no risk.
  • Magical Resources:  If magic requires certain resources, then control of those resources becomes a major part of the economy of the world. Even if the resource is relatively common, a monopoly or speculation can create false scarcity. The nature of these resources can add interesting spins to the world as well. Think of how the nature of oil or steel and how it is extracted has changed our world.
  • Cure Disease: The cure disease spells found in most games are better than modern medicine. If easily available they remove one of the bigger pressures on population growth even in medieval settings.
  • Magical Crops: Magic is likely useful for more than fighting. A spell that enhances crop yields likely isn’t going to excite readers or game players, but it could certainly vastly increase the population of a kingdom. The same goes for magically enhance methods of gathering or processing other resources, creating a better economic base for a fantasy nation.
  • Knowledge Economy: If spells are lore-based, like most Tolkien style fantasy, then their is a definite economy in keeping spells secret. A powerful wizard might trade great favours for important lore, or kill for it. Spying becomes part of magic, and protecting one’s research is a full time job. And the poor fool who tries to share all of his lore with the world for free? the others would gang up on that guy.
  • Light: It is hard to imagine the modern world without a reliable source of light at night. The changes that could be wrought by even this kind of simple magic are profound. Less fires from lanterns and torches, more productive time in the day, and so on.

These are just simple examples. In general every change that magic brings should be thought through. The details make for excellent world-building and will really fire up a readers imagination. I know I am a big fan of Fantasy Authors who delve deep into the changes that magic creates in their world…

Battle Tactics: Wargaming, Warbeasts, and Five Simple Considerations

One of the reasons that I turn critical eye towards the battle scenes in Fantasy novels is that I really enjoy wargaming. Wargaming is a tabletop game where each player fields a little army and attempts to overcome the other in battle. My game of choice at the moment is Warmachine/Hordes by privateer press. Hordes is especially fun with the giant warbeasts having this Pokemon meets Heavy Metal Magazine feeling to them. I enjoy painting and assembling the little figures; I find the craft aspect very relaxing. It also takes me away from the computer, which is very important when I am deep in revisions and spend almost all of available time glued to the keyboard.

A Draconic Warbeast from Hordes (A wargame from Privateer Press)

Playing wargames gives you a sense of strange and exotic tactics. History and actual military theory give a better understanding of warfare, logistics, and tactics but wargaming puts you in the commanders chair and lets you game the outcome of your choices. It is an interesting experience. I feel it is one of the best ways for a Fantasy writer to experiment with introducing new elements to the battlefields and seeing how they could effect the tactics and outcomes of battles in your written work. Here are a few ways wargaming can help you understand how Fantasy elements can change warfare.

1) Exotic Powers = Exotic Tactics: Each wargame has a set of rules. Players will try to exploit the rules to maximize their advantages, often pulling off strange and amusing manoeuvres to give them an advantage over their opponent. In realistic wargames these exploits are often very close to real tactics. Snipers try to find vantage points that dominate the battle and so on. The moment you add unusual abilities to a wargame you start to see unusual tactics develop around those abilities and how players try to counter them. In Warmachine/Hordes several armies can harvest the souls of dead allies/enemies which can lead to all sorts of strange denial games where a players try to position soul collectors to maximize gain, deny the enemy, and so on. It adds an interesting level of detail, especially watching how others might exploit the element you introduce.

2) Visualization: Setting up a little army and gaming out your new fantasy element, be it a strange spell or wierd creature in the battle helps give you better a sense of the impact it might have.

3) Creating Consistency and Definition: Describing a fantasy element in such a way that the reader is enticed is good. However, it is also important to define how the element works and be consistent in your uses of it. If a magical sword can cut through a steel door in one scene and bounces off a shield in another, you might have some explaining to do. Wargaming forces you to create rules for your creation which will give it more definition in your mind.

If I wanted to see how a giant with an aura that freezes everything around it might effect warfare I would first write up a brief description of this creature and its powers. Then I would check and see if Warmachine/Hordes had a figure with similar powers. It turns out the Trollbloods army has a Winter Troll that has a set of abilities similar to what I’m looking for. Enemies that get too close to or strike  the Winter Troll can become frozen. Its a good starting point. Sadly the WinterTroll does not quite seem large or powerful enough to represent a mighty colossus striding the battlefield. So I take the powers of the Frost troll and tack them on to the stats of a bigger, stronger model like Mulg the Ancient, a gigantic troll (removing some of Mulg’s powers as I see fit). I can then fool around with my creation in a game I am familiar with and see how it distorts the battle field and how people react to it.

Frost Troll from Hordes Trollblood army

Mulg from Hordes Trollblood army

But I recognize that you might not wargame. In truth I just wanted to chat about one of my hobbies and litter my blog with cool pictures. So here are a simple set of considerations that I use when introducing a Fantasy Element to warfare. I will use Dragons as an example, to illustrate each consideration.

1) Power: how dominant is the element you have introduced. Power is the easiest consideration for a writer. You generally know how powerful you want the element to be or can get an idea of the power by sitting down and dissecting you descriptions of it. Keep in mind that power is relative. The power level of some fantasy elements are subtler than others. Summoning fog might seem like a weak power compare to throwing fireballs, but quite a few battles have been won by armies that use fog to ambush or gain a position advantage over their enemies.

In most fantasy worlds Dragons are extremely powerful. They have fiery breath that can kill many men. They have thick scales that make them hard to hurt. They are huge and strong. They can fly, which gives them a mobility advantage. Yeah, definitely powerful. If introduced to a medieval setting, the Dragon would dominate.

2) Versatility: Versatility is a little trickier than power. Does the element you are introducing offer a wide array of possibilities and advantages?

Dragons are fairly versatile. They offer advantages in mobility as well as brute power. The can act as mounts for other creatures. Most Fantasy dragons are intelligent as well, which is another form of versatility. They offer significant advantages in attack, scouting, transportation, and several options rarely seen in other units in a basic medieval battlefield. Having a wider variety of Dragons or Dragons that can use magic would increase the versatility consideration of this element.

3) Rarity: is it common, unique, or somewhere in between. If an element is rare in your world, people are less likely to be able to identify or react to it, or might just not consider it worthwhile. If an element is rare, it could mean that only one side of a conflict has access to  it. If it is common then everyone will know its weaknesses and are more likely to prepare for it.

Dragons are usually fairly rare. I could decide to make them common through breeding programs or even make it so than only one nation controls them. If the were too common then I would have to come up with a reason why they don’t displace all the races in my world with their scaly magnificence.

4) Limitations: Does the element you introduce have any significant weaknesses, drawbacks, vulnerabilities or anything else that might limit it.

Dragons are usually greedy and paranoid, which makes them less likely to band together. If their greed is compulsive, it might make finding allies difficult. They are large, so might have trouble getting into small areas and require lots of food which may lend new significance to supply lines or even create atrocities as they feed on enemy soldiers. A low birthrate might make them paranoid about dying. 

5) Reactions: This is the most difficult and most important consideration. How will everyone react to the element? If an element is extremely rare, people might not even bother to prepare for it. However if it is both powerful and fairly common it will warp the battlefield. Things to consider are weapons designed to overcome strengths or exploit weaknesses, how fortifications and supply are effected, and what sort of tactics will take advantage of the element or be used against it.

Since Dragons can fly, missile weapons are a good answer to them. Heavier missile weapons would be required to get through their heavy armour. Wings might be especially vulnerable to ballista shots and such. Since Dragons are huge, breathe fire, and fly Fortifications designed to counter them would have to be stronger, flame resistant, and have some form of aerial defence. Dragons are great at raiding supply lines, but also require a fair bit of food, this could become important elements in your battles. 

Bonus: Interactions (Combos!) Consider how will one element change another or enhance another.

Gunpowder is explodes when exposed to fire. Dragons breathe fire. This means that cannons are vulnerable to dragon attacks. It could also lead to all sorts of shennanigans with Dragon riders dropping powder bombs for the Dragons to light up.

These are just some simple guidelines. In the end them important thing is to sit down and consider how each element could change the battlefield and how the principle actors that you have created with act and react in accordance with that.