Saturday, 13 July 2013

Imagineering an Imagi-Nation

You would be surprised at where people can draw inspiration for their settings. Warhammer Monty Python Style.

In the last post of this topic, I went over the vague principles of why someone might want to create either an imaginary nation, or an imaginary war between real nations and also touched on two quite successful, but different settings. This time I'm going to go over a few things to be considered when you begin to create such settings.

Think Big or Think Small... But Think!

While I sort of rubbished the 'Top-Down' model a little in the last instalment, the fact remains that you do need some idea, however vague, of what the finished result will look like. This doesn't need to be complex and as I mentioned last time, simply defining two belligerent opponents or states, within an era and then giving your units and commanders names, has worked and worked well. You don't even need a map as such, as the games you play will serve as locations in your world. You could even record these on a blank map, in relation to each other and in time your country will appear.

If you don't fancy making up something from scratch, you can use the real world, or a fictionalised one. Bob Cordery has used 'Laurania', a country which featured in Winston Churchill's only fictional novel Savrola, as the basis for a 19th Century Imagi-Nation, building on the brief snippets of information which Churchill provided.

Churchill's response to Herr Hitler's "Prisoner of Zenda was better" comment.

From these he fleshed out a map, which over time outgrew his needs, so he began to flesh out Laurania's neighbouring state; Maldacia. Bob uses a lot of Imagi-Nations in his gaming, to the point that he has begun to create an Imagi-World!

Murph, owner of the Bongolesia blog spot, took a different route. To support his AK47 Republic games, he created a fictional African state from scratch. Whether you approve or disapprove of his portrayal of an African failed state, the point is that his process worked and has lasted since 2006, gaining some degree of popularity (or notoriety, depending on your views) and prompting others to game in or around his creation. Besides his initial outlines, the 'world' has been fleshed out through the medium of 'Government Approved' News bulletins, which have added small details about events in Bongolesia as they have occurred, or become relevant.

A setting popular enough to generateits own 
range of figures.

Murph started by outlining the President, the President's wife and family and a broad but brief pen picture of the state's military. He then produced a very simple map, showing a few strategic locations and gave brief outlines of Bongolesia's neighbours. Finally he outlined the opposition (rebel) forces and he was good to go. By not going into great detail about anything much, he left himself openings to expand in any way he wanted, without being restricted by what he had already created.

In both of these examples, there has been two different levels of 'world creation', one 'information intense' and one 'information lite'. Both have however begun with detailing a single country and its internal problems. Having outgrown these settings over time, both have moved on to disputes with their neighbouring states. While you can't fully predict (plan yes, but predict no) where you will one day take your own creation (if anywhere in fact), don't fall for the temptation of creating too closed an environment (like an island nation state for starters).  

Both these examples have also played to what was available to begin playing games in these environments. As we are talking about creating countries in which we want to set our games and not just creating countries for the fun of it, this is actually very important. Going back to the Grants, they had quite large armies to begin with, so could go straight to their wars. Bob Cordery also had existing armies, so could go straight to gaming his world. Murph had a small collection of figures for Bongolesia, so he started with those in a counter-insurgency scenario and expanded into a  more fuller conflict at a later date.

Best Laid Plans...

Myself and a couple of other folk have not only attempted to create settings with rather grand ambitions, but also for which we have had no figures or models with which to fight in them. This then creates a delay between creating the country and playing games in it. If you are actually blogging during your development, this creates a massive gap between information on the country and actually starting to present scenarios, after action reports and the lead porn, which is really what many of your 'followers' want to see in the final analysis.

Often we become aware of this gap and the only way to fill it, short of actually buying and painting what you need (figures, models and terrain - a few months worth of work at least) is by producing yet more information on the setting. The odds are that by the time you actually get your troops together and ready to play, the followers who still read your blog, are those few people who do actually find the mechanics of banana export in your country interesting. This number is probably a lot smaller than the numbers who originally followed your posts when you began!

If your new project only has forces waiting in the 'lead pile', or even not bought yet, is it worth creating your nation at this time? I would say yes and no. If you are realistically going to crack to it and get them on the table in weeks, then yes. If you are like me and are far quicker to buy stuff than actually do something with it, then no, at least not publicly create it at least. There is nothing to stop you creating a blog for your new country/war and then deleting it after each work session. Blogger retains deleted blogs for quite a while (90 days or so, if I recall correctly) and it's no real effort to resurrect them to work on them some more.

Why do this I hear you ask? Why not publish and be damned? The simple reason is that you will miss out on followers in the long term. People who are interested in the same things as you, routinely search for new product to read. If they find your 'work in progress' and decide it has little content, no pictures, whatever; the next time it turns up on their search, they will pass it over, regardless of the changes you have made in the interim. More followers means even more followers as word spreads (or the opposite if it doesn't).

First impressions count, so save your blog until you are ready to unveil it. If deleting-resurrecting your blog sounds like too much work, you can just write out your ramblings on word or notebook, whatever and then just cut and paste it into your blog as and when you need to. It will even do this with photos you have imported into word (and I presume other programmes too).

If you find this curbs your enthusiasm for your new project, then perhaps you don't have the level of commitment in the long term that you really need. If nothing else, it will save you from being seen as an ass, as successive projects flourish and then wither and die on your blog (That's my niche! Keep off!). Having said all that, if your blog has a historical basis and your posts will have relevance to others out there, then informative posts, in lieu of actual gaming content, have some value and will draw people to your blog.

Size Isn't Everything

When it actually comes down to it, the 'world' you create should also conform to the games you intend to play. Bob Cordery and the Grants played with armies, brigades and battalions. Murph's AK47 setting, also conforms to a 'Brigade' level game. If you are essentially playing something much smaller, say a company level game, do you really need to detail a whole country to do this?

Mort, one of the originators of the VBCW concept, has confined his games within the wider setting, to a small area of Somerset and its 'Freedom Fighters', which through the course of his games has filled out the 1938 setting in that region. Three years on and it is all still going strong. Others have taken a similar approach and concentrated on an immediate area too. While VBCW has broken the mould somewhat, as it's a collaboration across a wide number of gamers, most historical or semi-historical fiction takes the same approach.

Instead of creating a setting, or in conjunction with the creation of one, most literature usually confines itself to a small body of characters, or an individual unit. While Tom Clancy style writers tend to take the wider view, some of the most popular fiction concentrates on quite small settings. Harold Coyle created a whole campaign in 'Team Yankee', by drawing on the actions of a unit he created, which fell inside the wider scenario that General Sir John Hackett created in his original and panoramic 'Third World War' novel.

While peripheral units of the Team's brigade and battalion were mentioned, the focus was on a single combined arms company's actions. The action takes place in a relatively small area of Germany, with events elsewhere only added for colour, rather than having any particular relevance to the story itself. Coyle followed this same formula for the best of his other books, while others such as Larry Bond and to a somewhat lesser extent, Tom Clancy, have also used variations of this approach.

People Not Places

While somewhat similar in nature, Bernard Cornwell and other 'serial' novelists, tend to use an individual hero as the central point, not the lands they are fighting in, or the units they are involved with. This is somewhat the same with Simon Scarrow's two Roman centurions, Cato and Macro, and even George MacDonald Fraser's Harry Flashman novels.

The point here is that there is no reason why you should focus on creating a region or a country, you could just as easily centre it all on an individual character's varied career, or that of a single unit or formation. There isn't even any need to keep it in chronological order. Once you have explored an initial period, say the Zulu War and then go onto the gaming the Crimea, you can present this earlier war as part of your character's memoirs (or even some other family member's adventures), or something along those lines.  

This is something more common in role-playing settings, but there is no reason why you can't develop your setting as a 'character', rather than a 'country'. If you can conceive that your gaming will take you across a limited area of history, say 'Colonial Wars', this might actually be a better approach, as while units and officers fought in varied places, few were the countries who had multiple wars in the same period. It's a simple mechanic and adds far more to your gaming than creating a detailed locale that has limited applications.  

Wrong On So Many Levels...

Multiple formats of gaming can be used in a single setting. Some of you do, or plan to, game the same period in different scales/sizes, often using the same nation's forces to do this. There is no reason at all why you can't combine them all within your setting, with the smallest figures/models acting as the parent formation, with ever increasing sizes forming its sub-units... sort of a Russian doll in reverse. For example, for battalion-brigade sized engagement, breakout the 6mm or 10mm figures, company sized action, use the 15s and if gaming a reconnaissance patrol, or Special Ops, use the 28s.

Some periods work with just one scale of course, but more recent ones don't. There is nothing to say that you have to stick to one scale though and it really won't work for some periods (imagine the table needed for a 28mm WW2 company-sized game). Having said that, don't feel that your setting is inadequate if you don't. As I have said before, work with what you have, or genuinely intend to get. If it's appropriate, you can even segue a board game into things, to handle the higher levels of command.

While not 100% accurate historically speaking, 
I'll challenge anyone to find a better 'off the peg'
system for running a fun Wars of the Roses 
type setting.
Use different sets of rules too and give your games some variety. Such things will not only give your setting depth, but will also keep it fresh for you and your players. If I was doing a Vietnam type setting, I would use FNG to provide the rules for the platoon I would be leading during my 'tour'. Where my platoon was involved in larger engagements or operations, I'd fall back on Force on Force to handle those games. If the full company and its supports were needed, I'd opt for Charlie Don't Surf.

Going back to the board game for a moment, consider the use you could put one to. I have known of people who have run an entire campaign or setting using a boardgame, sometimes to the point of sticking the board up on the wall. Instead of using the board game rules, where there is a contact between opposing forces, the battle is then played out as a typical wargame. Once that has been resolved, then the moves continue on the board until the next clash. Settings based on these have lasted for years of gaming between regular opponents and can of course be done solo.

Anchors Aweigh!

Whatever method you decide on, it's essential that you do have something to anchor your project in place, however vague the idea. Planning to the nth degree isn't essential, unless like me, you get off on that sort of thing. The downside is that you can waste a lot of time doing this, only to hit a snag, or to never carry it through to actually playing games. If this happens, it isn't the end of the world. Don't delete everything, or if you really want to, save it somewhere. Who knows, maybe you will return at some point with a fresh perspective and be able to carry on where you left off.

If your setting revolves around an 'alternate history', take a look at the alternate history sites that exist. Odds are that something similar will exist there and you can measure up your setting against them. While most wargamers are generally nice and kind people, the alt history crowd are vicious and exacting, so generally people who post there know their apples. While I'm not suggesting you join in, the environment has little allowance for the inaccurate and improbable, so you can check what you have got against what some other unfortunate has suggested there.

The important thing is to have a base on which to build. Only you know what it is you want to do, but having a look around at what others are doing, picking up on their successes and their failures, will all help you succeed in what it is you do. 


  1. More good thoughts. I have some experiance of making my own world with my Runissia 'alternate medieval' setting. It first began as a basic map i made for a high fantasy story (dragons and all that) but i went off the idea (and fantasy all together) and abandoned the idea years ago. Now i've reanimated it and keep adding to it, either through gaming/modelling the figures to bring the world to life or through my writings. I often look through old notebooks and find cool forgotten ideas that i sometimes use or put awa for later use.

    So for me, what started off as a story set in a fortress has become a full world that i'm continually adding to as my collection expands. There are parts of the world i haven't explored yet, but the journey is a pleasurable one and keeps me hooked.

    It always changes though. Before, it was a typical medieval world; knights (called ritter), kings, feudal system..., then turned more anglo-saxon/viking, only now to settle at a mid point that has bits of both times to create something that didn't exist, but could have existed in the real world, at least i hope so!

    I think the main thing is just to 'do it' as you say. Doesn't matter if you have no info on the place, do something and it evolves, so i'm 100% with you on that point.

    Right, this comment is a bit long so i'll stop and take a breather :-D

    1. Never worry about over-long comments, they're so much better than one-liners. ☺

      It's your world, so change it to suit what you need... you started off the right way and if you are doing an Imagi-Nation right, in a way you are still telling a story too.

      If you think about it, even almost up to the present day, there were 'stone age societies' living in a reasonable proximity to industrialised societies (Amazon, New Guinea etc). The Medieval Scottish Highlands and Islands were as 'Viking' as you're likely to get, while their Lowland neighbours were somewhat more like the English... so not quite as far fetched as you would imagine.

  2. Ooops, this is actually me, forgot to change google acounts!

  3. One of the best posts I've read in ages, Jim. Absolutely great, practical advice for all sorts of campaigns and linked games - imagi-nationary or otherwise. I very much enjoyed the section on "People and Places". Terrific stuff, and really useful!

    1. Thanks Sidney... I always worry that my more philosophical posts are as dull as anything...

      Yes, I started out specifically to talk about Imagi-Nations, but as you say, there's a very blurred line within the wider implications of how we generally play any series of games (they are all imaginary, even 're-fights' as the first turn begins), however loosely they are connected.