Friday, March 26, 2021

Thoughts on writing a game scenario, illustrated by examples

This blog features a lot of game scenarios from my hand and to be frank I do consider writing them one of the most enjoyable aspects of my hobby. It combines all kinds of fictional and historical background with a creative process and -if it works out well- a good gaming experience as a reward at the end. But then it struck me that I never actually wrote about writing them. So here is my attempt to make good on that. It will probably be a dynamic piece-under-construction, as I add thoughts over time. We'll see. 

What does a good wargame scenario make? 

Well, at least in my not-at-all-humble opinion it must: 

  • be interesting enough to read (because why look at it in the first place)
  • offer a challenge to all playing sides, demanding skill to win, as well as perhaps a bit of luck
  • offer a range of conflicting choices and decisions (let's call them dilemmas) that the players need to make in order to win
  • be able of being won in several different ways. The more the better. 
  • make clear what must be achieved to win it
  • have been thoroughly tested
You might note that rules do not feature in this. That is because one should be able to play a good scenario with  different rules with only minor adaptations. So the scenario must eventually have a connection to a ruleset to be played, but this is just a finishing touch.

Piquing the interest

A scenarios being a good read helps taking in the information and remembering it better, as well as getting involved in -and inspired by- the scenario. Apart from the fact that it has to be well-written, I think offering a copeable amount of context (the famous "fluff") helps to get the reader interested. Challenges become more alive when you know it is about the Spartans needing to stand against a host of Persians at the Hot Gates for at least 6 turns than when reading that the winner needs to score 5 Victory points. A good scenario needs a Story. And if you can't think of one yourself, never fear/ History and Fiction are teeming with good stories. 

I am a sucker for a good narrative. And I am not ashamed to admit it. 

Example part 1: 

Let's say there is a rebellion or civil war somewhere. On a planet, in some country or province, depending on your favorite background. The President/Governor/Grand Dictator of this area is en route to some important political event when his plane crashes near Rebel-controlled territory. Miraculously he survives but is stranded in very inhospitable terrain (jungle, hostile cityscape, whatever) with only his bodyguard for protection, as the plane's crew has been killed. His distress call has gotten help on the move, but also drew the attention of the rebels, intent on capturing him! 

Rise to the Challenge

In order to be interesting to play, a scenario needs to be hard to win. This is scaleable of course, depending on the purpose that the scenario is expected to serve. Introductory scenarios can be relatively uncomplicated when then need to familiarize the players with rules, for instance.  But the outcome may not be a given in any case.

There are many challenges in history that can feature in a game scenario: winning or defending ground, making a stand for a certain amount of time or covering a minimum distance in a certain amount of time, defending, destroying or capturing an objective, which may or may not be portable et cetera. 

It is however very important that the achievements the players have to aim for are also actually possible. If a player needs to cross the table in 5 turns, his troops should be able to actually do that. So it pays to take measurements of the table and comparing them with the realistic speed of the units before settling on the number of turns in that Victory condition. Don't forget to factor in extra time because of inevitable hostile resistance, since his troops will face opposition and this will delay them. 

The possibilities are endless, but whatever the objective; the obstacles between the player and his victory make the challenge. 

Obstacles may be symmetric, offering equal risk and opportunity to all sides. Two similar armies facing off over an empty plain is the best known example of that, albeit not a very interesting one. 

However, they may also be asymmetric. This lack of symmetry may be in means, like inexperienced troops versus elite troops or one side being outnumbered, or in terrain, where one side defends a strong position which the other side needs to take, or in time, where one side may expect reinforcements within a certain period or an objective will only be there for a limited amount of time. 

Whatever the case, all sides need to encounter surmountable obstacles. Preferably multiple ones, as these contribute to the next essential part of a good scenario: the dilemmas. 

Conversely, obstacles should actually BE obstacles. I once played a Battle of Fredericksburg battle game where the Northern troops were able to leave cover, storm the hill AND cross the wall in one turn, without the Southerners even having the chance to fire at them once. This way the obstacle that defined the battle wasn't even an obstacle. 

Example part 2: 

The challenge here may be twofold. First of course there will be a race between the players (one playing the Rebels, one playing the Special Operations Team that comes to rescue the Prez). But besides that the terrain must also pose problems. The SOT can not land anywhere near the crashed plane, so will have to land at a distance and move on foot to their target. Only a few spots on the table can be used as a Landing Zone, all several turns away from the crash site. 

The Rebels may be less trained and less well armed than the SOT, but they are many! Starting their move off table they too must race to reach the crash site and capture their target. The SOT's expertise and firepower will be their challenge, just as their numbers will be the SOT's challenge. Rebels will have starting forces but also reinforcements, rolled for on a table each turn. 

Lastly, while the Rebels may be less trained, they might have combat vehicles on the ground, lethal to the lightly armed SOT. On the other hand, the SOT might have a gunship hovering the area, being able to take out Rebel vehicles that do not use the abundant cover prudently enough. 

The Choice

Just like a scenario should present the players with some obstacles, so should each obstacle present the players with a choice. Preferably from more than two options. This way, the course of the game will be unpredictable, it will be re-playable when you lose it the first time and you can deploy your resources tailored to the approach you have decided upon. Will your SWAT team enter through the front door guns blazing? Or will they attack from multiple directions? Or will they smoke out the bankrobbers with teargas and engage them in the street? 

All this is of paramount importance to avoid that great threat to any enjoyable game scenario: railroading. Railroading is forbidden. Never road rail. Let me explain. 

You will know that you have been railroaded when you ponder your options to tackle an obstacle and you come to the conclusion there is just the one. Not just one that seems better than the others but just one. This will leave you without a choice. Your moves have been predetermined for you and all that is left is to time them well and roll dice. This bodes ill for an interesting game. 

The same thing might happen (someone pointed out to me recently) when your choice must be based entirely on chance, like the arrival of reinforcements without which you will lose. When you can't influence their arrival and can't plan for it either (since they might never arrive if you don't roll a 6 or something) this actually doesn't give you a choice at all. 

So in designing a scenario you will have to enable multiple routes to the objective. And multiple ways to counter them. They don't have to be equally promising, but they should all be possible under the right circumstances. 

Example part 3:

Both sides need to decide where to start. Sides will nominate their initial starting points unaware of those of the enemy. But once the game is on its way the Rebels may choose the starting points for their reinforcenements freely. The Rebels must choose between speed, eliminating the gunship or a combination of both. The SOT must choose between speed to and from the crash site or defending the crash site with the gunship's help. And will they leave their shuttle craft on the ground where it is readily available but only at that point while vulnerable to ground attacks or in the air, knowing it might be vulnerable to Rebel AA fire and will take longer to reach the LZ for the pickup, but can reach any LZ? 

Victory conditions

While this may seem rather obvious, I have read scenarios that could -for example- be won by "taking the enemy ground", whatever that might mean. 

Describe specifically what must be done to be considered the winner. You might make a list of possible  achievements and award Victory Points to each, but my favourite solution is simply a clear description. Drive all enemy forces from the Fort. Save all the hostages. Blow up the radio-antenna, then escape with at most 30% losses. Hold the pass for at least 6 turns. Things like that. So the players know what to aim and plan for. 

Example part 4: 

The winner must capture the Prez and escort him off the table in any way possible. If he dies, the game is a draw (if perhaps a moral victory for the Rebels). 

If the ruleset you use does not have rules for capture, make up some. Like the Prez will surender when his bodyguard is dead, Rebels have him cornered and under fire and no friendly forces are within line of sight.    

And then test it to bits! 

The best test players are the malignant ones. The people that will want to take advantage of any loophole in the scenario and exploit them in order to win. Any given scenario will take two to three games at least to sort out the defects. Or more when the scenario is a more complex one.

Only when players have genuinely tried to break the scenario at least a few times and it still yields an interesting game, only then is it a good scenario.