Saturday 27 January 2024


The Heretical Wargaming blog, run by JWH, has made some comments on the concepts of clarity and inspiration, a video blog post by Mr BigLee of Posties Rejects. I confess I have not watched the whole vlog; they are not my favourite form of communication, but I have seen a few minutes to get the gist of the point at issue. At least, I think I have.

Mr Lee (I could hardly call him ‘Mr Big’ could I?) suggests that clarity and inspiration are opposed in writing rules. That is, the clarity of a rule set is compromised by the addition of pictures, paintings, original documents, historical descriptions, and so on. JWH disagrees, and I think I agree with him.

The fact is that clarity is a usefully vague expression. It is probably best understood along the lines of an irregular verb: I am clear, you are vague, he is all over the place. That is, clarity is in the eye of the beholder. Clarity, however, seems to cover a range of issues, and so it is not just a single ‘thing’.

Clarity is not the same thing as coherence, for example. Coherence is not the same as meaninglessness, either. Meaninglessness is absolute. The sentence ‘The present king of France is bald’ is meaningless because it does not refer – that is, there is no present king of France. The sentence ‘The Pz II is a German Second World War tank’ in a set of rules about Napoleonic Wargaming is not meaningless – the sentence is correct and means something – it is rather incoherent with the rest of the context.

It is quite possible to be coherent without clarity. Much writing lacks clarity, unfortunately (including mine). Wittgenstein once wrote ‘Whatever can be said can be said clearly’. However, later work by Wittgenstein rather nuanced that statement, I think. Sentences are clear in a given context, with a given background and some sort of agreement between speaker and hearer, or writer and reader, as to what is the background of the writing.

Clarity thus depends on the audience, or the implied audience, the reader of wargame rules. An exposition of Godel’s incompleteness theorem might be clear to a class of mathematicians, but not really for a class of linguists. We can aim for precision, but the cost of precision is additional words or jargon. We have to explain what we mean and, moreover, expect the reader to remember what we mean. For example, in some philosophy (and wargame rules) you are barraged with a bunch of abbreviations and acronyms in the first few pages. These are then used extensively throughout the work. My mind does not retain these well – the meaning is clear, of course, but at the cost of introducing many more symbols into the work (and explaining them). Whether this is worth the price seems to me to be a bit moot.

Language is, of course, ambiguous. ‘I went to the bank’ could mean a trip to withdraw money or going fishing. We can try to avoid ambiguity when we write, but, because of the way English works (and, I presume, other languages do too), we cannot avoid ambiguity. Mostly the context saves us. Reading, in a set of wargame rules ‘The guard charges home’ suggests elite infantry advancing, rather than a railway conductor dashing to their house.

There is also vagueness. Vagueness is both a curse and a help. In the early writing of a set of rules, vagueness is extremely useful. As I have mentioned before, in the Polemos rules the initial state of shaken was referred to as being ‘not happy’ – a base that lost combat was described as ‘not happy’, for example. Over time the term was replaced with ‘shaken’ and the meaning of the term was defined more precisely. This is an avoidable vagueness that should be tidied up before the work is published.

However, some vagueness is unavoidable; some concepts are simply vague. We know what we mean, for example, by the term ‘morale’, but try to write a paragraph or two defining exactly what it is, how it is measured, and what effects it has. I would wager a small amount of money that you do not find it as easy as you expect. There is inherent vagueness about the word morale – we know what we mean by it but it can cover a great number of things all lumped together under it’s hat. We cannot demand more precision than the concept demands.

Finally, there is indeterminateness. This indicates that something is missing from our definition or our thought or concept. The sentence ‘The guard is elite’ is, in fact, indeterminate. How many guards are we referring to? All of them some of the time, some of them all the time, or something in between. This is different from ambiguity or vagueness and does indicate a lacuna in the thought. Therefore, wargame rules should try not to permit indeterminateness as it does lead to multiple, avoidable, interpretations.

The final comment is, I suppose, about conciseness. We can all waffle on endlessly about a subject such as the use of firearms in the Wars of the Roses. Whether all that waffle actually contributes anything, particularly anything to a rule set, is a bit moot. In the rules I have tried to write, I do try to keep the interpretative waffle away from the actual rules. I think it is healthy if a writer gives reasons for their choices in creating rules, but those interpretations should not, I think, be part of the rule set itself.

Perhaps this is what Lee means by ‘inspiration’, the background, explanations, and pictures attempting to give the wargamer the impetus to get the figures and play the game according to the rules. Personally, I do not find the pictures, at least, terribly helpful as there is no way that I can paint that many figures that well. I also sometimes find in the background some dubious assumptions about the period (assuming that I know anything about it, which is rare), which are not that helpful in getting into playing the rules either.

Still, I think JWH is correct in arguing that clarity is distinct from inspiration and that they can (and should) be separated in a rule set. But clarity itself is a portmanteau of different sins, some of which are unavoidable but most of which are traps for the unwary writer and reader.

If you have made it this far through the post, I hope the foregoing is clear…...


  1. I did make it this far and I think I understand - but you would now have to set a 10-question quiz to check my understanding! I think I probably agree with a lot of what you are saying!
    I don't like vlog/podcasts much either (well, I say much, I tried to watch one of Lee's you can interpret from that, how much I enjoy them!) It's unfortunate actually, because a lot of the topics Lee posts up on his blog, I would be interested in reading about - but not listening to - odd, isn't it (or, amn't I?!)

    1. Having re-read the post myself I'm not sure about its clarity myself, but that is writing and reading for you. As for a quiz, you'll be asking me about 'sticky knowledge' next, which is in vogue in schools, apparently. I initially thought it was about glue.
      Agreed about vlogs and so on. It is just not the way take stuff in. I guess we are all different on that, and it is why transcripts can be useful as well.

  2. Thanks for taking the discussion on clarity a bit further. I think that we are all going to agree that clarity is itself not necessarily always a very clear term. Morale is a good example to pick - I remember ages ago on the blog quoting Brigadier Nigel Balchin:
    "...any discussion of morale sharply divides into two stages:

    1. The stage of woolly abstractions in which people talk solemnly of ‘leadership’ and ‘discipline’ or ‘group spirit’ without ever defining the meaning of these phrases in practice;


    2. The all-too-concrete stage, in which the whole subject suddenly degenerates into discussions about supplies of beer.”

    I did re-read my post - I don't think I have changed my mind much: inspiration is not inherently opposed to clarity of rules expression; but clarity may be functionally impossible because of the emergent complexities in how the rules are designed, as a function of the number of possible relations between individual playing pieces, terrain items and game mechanics.

    1. Thank you. I think warfare in inherently complex (Clausewitz said something about everything in war being easy, but the easy things were very difficult) and so wargame rules have to reflect something of that, at least. We can be clear but that doesn't make thing simple or easy. On the other hand, some rule sets are simply over complex or conflate too many models into one section for comfort. I suppose it comes down to a question of balancing the complexity and our ability to comprehend and play the game.