It has been said, although the veracity of it is disputed, that there are seven basic plots in fiction. It seems, to a non-literary critic who only occasionally reads novels, that there might be some truth in the claim, although not all plots will fit neatly into one of the seven categories. For reasons which might become clear eventually, if I ever get around to it, I have been considering the plots of wargames, and, more specifically, plots of wargame campaigns.
As my attentive reader might be able to deduce, this has arisen through my recent pondering that a wargame is a narrative, a story we like to tell because we are humans and humans like to tell stories. This impression of mine was reinforced by a comment in Henry Hyde’s Wargaming Campaigns, to the effect that campaigns are bigger narratives within which each battle is embedded. I am not going to argue with that.
Given that a wargame campaign is a larger narrative (I am not going to say ‘meta-narrative’ here because of its postmodernist connotations) it must, if logic serves me, have some sort of plot. Turning that around, it occurred to me that the seven basic plots in fiction may well enable the wargamer to think of a variety of plots or themes for wargame campaigns. My idea is that to keep interested in the campaign (which is a difficult thing sometimes) an overarching plot might well help.
There might be some logic in this sudden onrush of literary-ness on the blog. After all, something must propel readers, often easily bored teenagers, through Nicholas Nickleby or Far From the Madding Crowd, although one of my schoolfriends described the latter as ‘Far From the Maddening Crowd’ and when corrected, replied ‘I know what I mean’. So an overarching narrative might help us as wargamers drive our campaigns onwards.
The first plot is ‘overcoming the monster’, where the aim is for the hero to defeat their antagonist, who may well be evil. The hero might well be small and relatively powerless while their foe is wealthy, or powerful, or influential. Rendering that into wargame terms is fairly straightforward: we could have a minor principality menaced by a larger neighbour, for example. The neighbour attacks, there is a heroic defence, perhaps defeat and rebellion or other powers, small or large join in.
The second plot is ‘rags to riches’, where the protagonist goes from being poor and ill-treated to obtaining power, wealth, a mate, and so on. Think Cinderella. This is the plot for an awful lot of role-playing game campaigns (as opposed to scenarios). Perhaps, at risk of engaging in modern UK politics, a campaign whereby the Scots rebel against English rule would be the nearest wargame here. Or perhaps I have been reading too much about the Bishop’s Wars.
Next up is ‘the quest’. This is a fairly obvious one, used in many films where the characters, good and evil, are after some object or attempt to get to some objective. The Maltese Falcon is an example. Again, this is a fairly obvious role-playing game device for both campaigns and scenarios (who has never attempted to rescue the Duke’s loot or daughter, for example?). Historically the campaigns of Alexander III of Macedon would qualify I should think, although quite what he was looking for is anyone’s guess.
Fourthly, we have the ‘voyage and return’, where the hero goes to a strange land and comes back changed in some way. The possibilities here are manifold, I think. Colonial wargaming would yield a fair bit of this, as would fantasy and science-fiction. Even campaigns where the strange lands are not so strange and the armies are bigger than skirmish size would still fit the bill; the American Revolutionary Wars probably changed the British Army, after all.
Then there is comedy. I am trying to get my head around a wargame as a comedy without much success, although role-playing games can fit the bill. There is in comedy a plot based around increasing confusion and errors which are finally resolved happily. There might be comedy in wargames, but I am finding it hard to conceive of it as part of the game. Perhaps you can help me out here.
Penultimately there is tragedy. The hero is flawed or has made a mistake, and pays for it, perhaps with his honour, or his life, or that of his loved ones, or possibly all of them – think Macbeth, who probably had most of those things happen. I can certainly think of a campaign along those lines where a nation has made an error and has to back it up with force. The Romans did a lot of it in their provinces, extracting taxes corruptly and then having to deal with the rebellion.
Finally, there is ‘rebirth’. Here events turn the hero into a better person, such as in A Christmas Carol. That would certainly be possible in a role-playing game, I think, but how about an overall wargame campaign? Well, we could consider the political implications of, say, the First World War where women got the vote in the UK as a result of their war service. Is that stretching the point a bit far? Or maybe we could consider the encounter of the Roman Empire with Eastern cavalry which led to the cataphract? That might be considered to be a bit more to do with wargaming.
The point here is not to show that all wargames fit neatly into seven categories. They do not, and I am aware of it. But before launching a major (or even a minor one) wargame campaign it might just be worth thinking about it for a bit and using the basic plot schema for trying to decide what, at least initially, is going to be the narrative driver for the action. Mostly, I should think, this will be fairly simple and straightforward, but the bigger the campaign, or the more detailed, then, I suspect, the bigger narrative drive it will need to sustain interest.