Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Postmodern Wargamer

It was suggested recently on a nearby blog ( that I was the first postmodern wargamer that the author had encountered. After an initial period of outrage and amusement, I thought I had better see if he had a point.

Excluding the sillier versions of postmodernism which claim that things do not exist if we do not talk about them, I think there might be a case to answer. Not that I am particularly happy with that idea. As you may have gleaned from the posts here in the past, I have a background in science, and science does not really do postmodern. A frequent stance, after all, between scientists and postmodernists is that of distinct hostility (see the Sokal Affair: Still, let me ponder my ponderings and see if a case can be made that I am, in fact, a postmodern wargamer.

One of the main tenets of postmodernism is a rejection of meta-narratives, by which is meant a rejection of overarching explanations of events, people and things. Thus, postmodernity can reject such ideas as ‘progress’, on the basis that progress is only progress for some, for others it is exploitation. Similarly, hierarchical structures of human society can be rejected as exploitative; things do not have to be as they have always been, as used to be assumed in, say, the medieval period.

Whether this last point is historically true is rather moot, or we would still be there, of course, but that is not really the point here.

With respect to this blog, I suspect that it does tend to reject overarching narratives of wargaming. As I have mentioned several times before, I do not believe the notion that one set of core rules can provide a reasonably accurate representation of warfare over the last several thousand years, no matter how much chrome is applied in the form of expansion packs, extra rules and army lists and so on. I do get somewhat disheartened by the selling of large sets of very expensive rule sets whose mechanisms basically refer back to one original idea in a given period.

So that, I suppose, is the first tick in the postmodern box. I do not buy into the idea of an overarching rule set, from which all other rule sets are derived, with just a bit of polishing.

A second point is that, more or less as a consequence, I do not agree with this idea that a single model of an event will capture the events, or even a reasonable subset of events. That is, a single model or rule set will not capture all the nuances of a battle.

At some level, this is astoundingly obvious. An army level rule set will not, cannot, capture the events of a single person at, say, the Battle of Balaklava. Some individuals were in the lancers charging up the valley, some in the infantry or the heavy brigade, some making tea in the camp overlooking the whole debacle. A few were generals. We might be able to capture the important events and influences on the units, but not the trajectory of the individuals on the day.

To tackle the events in an individual’s battle, we would need to narrow the focus to, say, a skirmish level game, or even a role playing game. This, of course, would allow us to track the progress of the individual, but we lose the bigger picture, at the unit or army level.

I also do not think that we can, in principle, assume that many role playing game level activities going on will give us the battle. An army unit is, in some senses, more than just a crowd of people. It has training as a unit, esprit de corps, and whatever else is drilled into it. It is not just a bunch of several hundred people hanging around together. So even several hundred role players will not, I suspect, give us a historical unit’s behaviour.

Even at a given level, I am really not sure that a single model will yield the results that we need. Any model surely has to take some sort of average of behaviour, and exclude the extremes. A unit may have run at the first shot, but most units do not do this. The average tends to blend out the extreme. So we have to choose our models to pick out the things that we thinks are important, and the way we think they are important.

Clearly, these decisions about importance and the interactions of the important things will vary among models. At a simple level, interactions between training, morale and tactics will determine how we are imagining our soldiers will fight. Some may close in for close action; others stand off and shoot at long range. This may not be due to a single factor, but the ways even these three items can interact can, and will, vary from model to model.

If, therefore, postmodernism indicates a fragmentation of overarching narratives, then, as a wargamer, I probably am one.

If postmodernism means that I do not think that one single description of reality (or, in this case, a historical event) will do, then again, I suppose I am probably, in that sense, postmodern.

Furthermore, I have, in these posts, occasionally questioned our sources of historical, and hence, wargamer-ly information. I suspect that lurking somewhere in here is something that could be accused of postmodernism – a scepticism about what people have written and why. As it happens, I do not subscribe to postmodern theories of deconstruction (which I think tend to the incoherent), but I do think that, as wargamers, we have a tendency to pick out the bits about battles we like and ignore the rest.

As a brief example, frequently classical writers bemoan the poor state of the army, and explain how a new general got them up, trained, fit and generally raring to go, and thus winning the next campaign before the enemy (used to the old, lax, army) got out of bed. This happens too often to be particularly true, I think; it is a literary trick to explain a success, to lay it in the hands of the victor. We need to be more careful with how we read, but we do not need to dismiss everything we do read.

So, counting up the issues here, I seem to be about two-thirds postmodern. 

I'm not sure whether to say 'oh dear' or 'hooray'...


  1. Being "100% post-modern" wouldn't be very post-modern would it? And being post-modern wouldn't be either positive or negative to a post-modernist surely?

    The only appropriate reaction would be to give a Gallic shrug.

    1. If I had been 100% postmodern, I suppose I would not be postmodern at all, but some sort of deranged modernist.

      On the other hand, perhaps I am, and I've just not noticed yet.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you!

      That's the kindest thing anyone has said to me for a long time. I'll just dig out my copy of Jack Kerouac and walk off to look for America.

  3. So, being neither scientist nor philosopher I am now wondering what a scientific approach would be. Perhaps examining the evidence, perhaps limited largely to primary sources and archeology for older periods, forming a hypothesis for what happened and how/why, formulating rules and scenario of the given historical event as an experiment, running the game multiple times and then check the results against the hypothesis? I think I'm missing something in the checking area and of course the data is some what shaky at times leading to lots of non-scientific conjecture.

    My difficulty with wanting a unique set of rules for each engagement or even each campaign is the difficulty in constantly coming up with ideas and mechanisms that have not already been used and having to reject ones that look suitable because they were designed for something else. After all, if they aren't new, one is back to adapting or tweaking and remixing existing mechanisms.


    1. I suspect that part of the problem is that we look for a 'scientific' approach, but the data is too poor to find one. But, given that, culturally, we are conditioned to equate science with knowledge, we land up thinking that we don't know (and can't know) anything. Other subjects do contribute to knowledge, but not in the same way that science does, and even science is not quite as good at producing knowledge as it sometimes thinks it is.

      There is an interesting boundary problem between creating rules per battle, and creating rules per enormous time period. I'm not sure where the boundary lies, but I do object to rules '3000 BC - 1500 AD', simply because I no longer believe that there can be any stab at historical modelling on such a time scale, except in the very broadest, most abstract sense. A man with a pointy stick is very different in Sumeria to one in Medieval Scotland, even though the pointy stick might be similar.

  4. I'm not a fan of postmodernism (it did, after all, hasten the end of the English department at my old university), but would admit that it has, for good or ill, had an influence on the ideas of the age.

    I would not however agree that the classical convention of a new commander raising fighting effectiveness with a bit of spit and polish is an example of a wargamer's conceit, and nor would I agree that it is a convention devoid of meaning. Cultivation of the will to fight and the importance of morale in achieving victory are well attested. Caesar is a particularly good example of a commander who believes victory will come down to the morale of his troops. If he doesn't think they are up for it he will not risk a battle until they are (see the campaign against Ariovistus and his commentary post-Dyrrhachium, for two instances).

    We see modern parallels in rugby union: when the difference between success and failure is small, attitude *will* tend to be the decisive factor. I can easily understand that a new, vigorous, commander could be just what an army needs to turn failure into success. Of course, it goes the other way, too...

    1. I don't think it is necessarily wargamer's conceit, but it happens an awful lot in, say, Tacitus, so much so as to raise suspicions that it is a literary trope, rather than reportage.

      Caesar, of course, was self-reporting. He'd hardly note that he arrived and morale went down, spit and polish went out of the window and still his troops won because the opposition were even worse, would he?

      I'm not claiming that there is no effect, but I do suspect that the literary reporting of it goes back through Livy and Polybius, and possibly through to Thucydides. I'm not sure we can use the sources in quite so straightforward a way as to say that such and such a commander always improves troop efficiency.

      These sorts of comments often seem to be to be wise after the event; finding a way to explain why a force that lost last year won this, rather than direct comments on the state of morale and efficiency of an army.