Story-driven skirmishes – Narrative wargames – A tactical RPG… is it possible to mix the immersive, collective storytelling of role-playing games with dynamic tabletop combat?

Is it the Holy Grail of Gaming? Some ever-elusive chimera? Or do all attempts to create such a beast end up Frankensteined – a patchwork hybrid that succeeds only at being neither?

I’ve been banging my head against this question lately – again.

Bit of background: I come at the table top hobby from a miniature war game and board game background. I grew up with Avalon Hill bookshelf games and my first exposure to toy soldier wargames was back in the 70s when a worker in Minifigs USA factory related how he and his group had rented out a school gym over the summer to refight the Battle of Waterloo in 25mm.

I was hooked.

Fast forward to now… as part of a weekly game group, I’m the one with a deep-rooted urge to translate everything into tabletop 3D, (painted, of course) but most of the guys are long-time RPG players – the pen-n-paper, ‘theater of the mind’ crowd. Aside from a few stoner AD&D games in high school and college, all that is relatively new to me.

Now to be clear: I love stories. I developed a habit of reading as a child and have stuck with it. I even write my own stories now. And while I’m not a classic ‘different voices/stay in character’ role-player, I really enjoy the collaborative, collective narrative experience of an RPG session. But the wargamer in me is frustrated when it comes to RPG combat.

I’ve heard it said in an RPG, ‘a 1 month journey takes five minutes, and five minutes of combat takes an hour and a half.’ Despite deft GMing by my comrades, I have to say this is accurate. When that happens, not only does my inner wargamer grind teeth, but to the guy who was enjoying the road trip through the story, combat scenes are like blowing a tire.

I understand not all RPGers want violence in their games, that they prefer exploration, social interaction, puzzles and investigation. I also know many RPGs try to reduce murder hobo tendencies by minimizing or even complicating combat. I get that. (well, not the complication part) As a writer and avid tabletop miniature wargamer however, ‘story in the midst of conflict’ is my neighborhood. So here I am, a ‘beer-n-pretzels’ game designer, wondering if I can cobble something together that combines the best of both – a role playing (war)game.

The standard method to navigate these waters seems to be to make a skirmish game with named models, some light resource management between battles, and a simple character advancement and campaign system- a method I fully embrace in Zona Alfa, Kontraband, the Exploit Zero series, and Nightwatch.

What I’m gnawing at now is the question of whether I can take it further. Mesh the two a little more closely to have a system, or an entwined system, that handles both solidly, simply, and as seamlessly as possible.

Is it worth the effort? Perhaps gamers are content with the current offerings or are fine with the separation between the two. Does anyone want such a thing or even care? I won’t pretend to know. I suspect there are as many answers to that question as there are gamers, or types of gamers.

The question has been scratching at the back of my mind, so I’m going to carve something out over the next couple months. Using Nightwatch as a foundation for both mechanics and setting, I’m going to experiment in the context of a mini-campaign. More on that as it develops.

For now, I want to thank you for stopping by. Game hard and have an excellent weekend.

UPDATE: Oddly enough, these musings must be in the air. Someone brought one of Tabletop Minions/Uncle Atom’s recent videos to my attention.

6 responses to “RP(w)G?”

  1. I think that if anybody can do it, it’s you mate.

    Have you heard of a game called ‘The Department?’

    In my experience, it’s utterly unique. Check it out.

  2. When you ask “Is it possible to mix the immersive, collective storytelling of role-playing games with dynamic tabletop combat?”

    My answer is: Totally. 4th edition D&D does exactly that. It doesn’t have to be the ONLY game that does that, so design away! But I’d point you firmly in the direction of playing some 4e before you reinvent the wheel.

  3. For what it’s worth, I think you’ve done that really well with ZA, Kontraband, and Exploit Zero.
    I’m a solo gamer, so the heavy rpg bit is pretty much not doable for me other than world building, but when I’m painting my models and thinking about them, I create stories and histories for them and put that on the character sheet. Being able to develop them without cumbersome skills/abilities/GM stories is really fun for me, but it would be interesting to go deeper into that.
    I’ve read some of your fiction as well and really enjoy it, and I would definitely be interested in what you come up with.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. Appreciate that.
      There’s a constant friction in my head between the fiction writer and the would-be war game/RPG designer; defined plots and story arcs versus player decisions and agency.
      My attempts at narrative wargaming thus far have been themed scenarios bracketed with fiction fluff. I suspect any RPG stuff will end up much the same, closer to a guided ‘choose your own adventure’ than sandbox world building. I have to come to terms with that and bring the best of what I can offer to the community.
      To that point, we’re playtesting the alpha rules for the Nightwatch RPG tonight. I’ll be sure to post the results later this week.
      Thanks for stopping by. Have an excellent day.

  4. The Savage Worlds RPG by Pinnacle Entertainment Group started as a skirmish wargame based on the older Deadlands RPG. It’s been straddling that line for decades. I recommend taking a look how they approached the question.

  5. […] clear the author, Patrick Todoroff, comes from an RPG background. Insurgent Earth is almost “RPG-lite,” or what’s been described in other corners of the internet as, “adventure […]

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