Saturday 9 July 2022

The Personality of Crowds

A long time ago, so long ago that I cannot find the post now, I wrote something about crowds and units and how they develop a personality. This was brought back to what remains of my memory by Man Of Tin’s comment a week or two ago about finding it difficult to game anything above a platoon in size, or thereabouts. It is a reasonable point, I think, although I confess that, in my reply, I might have been a little too concise, shall we say, and a better (or at least, longer) answer might be worthwhile.

We can, to some degree, create personalities for our wargames. I am (along with the rest of the wargaming world, it seems) reading through Henry Hyde’s new tome Wargaming Campaigns. He has quite a lot to say on the matter of personalities, both in the sense of creating them for kings and generals for a large-scale campaign and also for doing so for skirmish and role-playing games.

HH takes Dungeons and Dragons as a paradigm for the latter and observes that it would work, or some of it, for larger campaign personalities. The alignments, for example, could be helpful, although you would not want too many chaotic evil characters around, I think, although current world events might make one suspect that there are more than a few lurking in plain sight.

I have never played D & D, I confess. In my role-playing game days, I started with Runequest, moved on to Call of Cthulhu, and finished up with Toon and Flashing Blades. The latter is still on my shelf, and a good game it is too, so long as you make the combat rules a bit simpler. The setting makes the game, particularly if everyone has read Victor Hugo or at least seen some of the films. Nevertheless, it contains quite an extensive process of creating your character, motivations, and skills. The back story is important here, too.

As an aside, my trajectory through role-playing games (which included a friend’s Traveller / Ringworld hybrid) shows a movement towards the silly (Toon was the only game I was actually good at as a player, so much so that I got banned from it) and the perhaps richer setting. Runequest, with its Manicheism division of the world into good and evil (chaos), was serious, and CofC was seriously serious, the burden of defending the apparent last outpost of sanity from nameless horrors beyond led to some fairly intense games.

The point about Flashing Blades is that one of the careers your character can choose is soldier, and here the choice of regiment matters. The different regiments in the French army have different attributes and do different things. The regiments are given different status values, ranging from nine for the Guards to two for the Italian regiment. There are also enmities between the regiments. As is well known the King’s Musketeers and the Cardinal’s Guards did not get on too well. As the rules note, even on campaign duels, if not open conflict, were frequent.

In reality, of course, such activities were not that frequent, but we can start to see how the personality of a unit can be built up. Recently I read an article in History Today about the Falkland War (forty years ago, as the discerning wargamer will know). One of the seamen noted the shock of hearing about HMS Coventry sinking: ‘We’re the Royal Navy. We don’t sink.’

Other units would have similar sorts of thoughts. ‘We are the King’s Musketeers. We defeat the King’s enemies and if that includes the Cardinal’s Guards, so much the worse for them!’ Here the unit is a personality as well. I recall reading an account of the Somme where a debate was held as to which regiments of the British army the officers would prefer to left and right. I do not recall the details, but I think the Guards and the Hampshires came out on top. There was something of the personality of those units – reliability, fighting power – which made other units prefer them.

A crowd can have a personality. Think over news reports. ‘A happy crowd.’ ‘The crowd is turning ugly.’ Crowds do not turn ugly, of course, but the mood can change, and the next step is throwing things. The theologian Walter Wink recalled his involvement in the civil rights movement. Driving to a demonstration he and his friend were pulled over by the police and were terrified. They got a speeding ticket. Later the same day, as part of a mass demonstration, Wink lay down on the road in front of the police without quaking in his boots, because he was with the crowd.

Again, consider those outmoded offices that some of us are being forced back into. The layout of such places constrains how they can be used. An aircraft hanger of a communal office leads to hushed voices and plenty of breaks away from the desk just to break up the monotony. Individual offices lead to many coffee breaks just so you can seek someone to talk to, and so on. The personality of the place of work is mediated by the structure of the building.

The history, traditions, and training of a military unit make for its personality. Perhaps they felt unsupported by another regiment at an obscure battle a century ago. They still treat said unit with suspicion and a wise general will not brigade them together. Perhaps the captains of these two ships fought a duel over the honour of a lady a year ago. The crews drink in different inns and if they meet, there is a punch-up.

The point is that personality can emerge at any level within human society. We use it a lot to characterise, often unfairly, other nations. At that level, it is to be used with care, although there is some truth contained within the jokes. But even within an army different units have different personalities. And, if we choose, as wargamers, we can reflect that.


  1. Very intersting and very true....if you have ever been in the midst of a crowd (a sports match would be the most common for many people) you will know how the general mood can energise individuals. I remember the BBC disco Soldiers with Frederick Forsyth narrating. At one point they had an ex US Mrine on talking about the training for the Pacific War. To paraphrase, he said " If you tell a man he is an extraordinary fighter in an extraordinary unit, he is likely to behave in an extraordinary manner, as this is expected of him. He does not want to be the first marine to run, as he believes he would be. It's not Bull Run in 1862, the marines broke and fled....BUT HE HAS NEVER BEEN TOLD THIS!" This is exactly the same sort of thing that makes up the regimental spirit of British regiments, or the esprit de corps of the Foreign Legion etc.

    1. Thank you. It is one of those things that seems a bit odd when first suggested, but does in fact work. Perhaps we are so used to the atomic individual in the West that we forget the group, except in crowds or military units. I think, with some paperwork, you can go further and award battle honours to your little men. That might be a step too far for me, but it would enhance their unit personalities.

  2. Interesting how you can regard the ‘mood’ or personality of a mob of individuals as being guided or part of the game almost as a single NPC non player character.
    Rereading my old D&D starter rules to again (fail to) try to get my head round it for Scouting Wide Games / Snowball Fight purposes (D&D 1981 whatever ‘edition’ this is), I noticed a list of d20 twenty character attributes that can be randomly diced for each character / non player character.
    This could be done or diced for a crowd or mob every few turns, as they might change character, bolder, routed, pinned and undecided, just as you do for units or regiments etc.
    In this way they would be almost automatic programmed and wildly changing responses, as a flock of people are. Good for solo games.
    As crowds go, it is more nuanced and a different motive / personality from zombie science fiction games where stereotyped hordes of zombies just keep on coming. Maybe personality by their very nature is what is missing with zombies ... or skeleton warriors etc ... Brains!
    This was also the ‘brave hordes’ way that some colonial and ancient gamers used to think of their colonial tribal opponents... “Zombies, sir, farsends of em!”
    I started thinking about mob games (then ground to a halt in late 2019) looking at Victorian railway navvy gang versus landowner riots using handy Airfix track figures such as the 1844 “Battle Of Saxby” - one to return to.

    1. Thank you for the comments. I think you could regard units or crowds as a sort of specialised NPC. You could even have a mood tracker for the crowds, ranging from say 1 (party!) to 20 (destroy everything) with modifiers including, say, police snatch squads, deployment of water cannon and so on. Crowds do seem to be able to turn quite quickly.
      It would also work for formed units with some modifications, and probably for generic 'tribal foot' armies as well. Mostly with zombies and skeletons they keep coming until chopped up, in my limited experience.
      The Battle of Saxby is interesting. A bit like the enclosure riots of the Seventeenth Century. Hmmm.