In addition to wargaming, I also play Role-Playing Games (RPGs) and board games. One of the most interesting aspects of RPGs is how individual characters can interact with the game world to achieve their objectives. This at a high-level is not much different from war games, and in fact RPGs are a "modern" off shoot of wargaming. The roots of RPG is in wargaming.
Of course, in an RPG two mechanically identical characters can end up being completely different characters. This differentiation is done via the "role" part of Role-Playing Games. There are a variety of tricks and characterizations decent role-players can bring to a character to make each one feel incredibly different. However, most RPGs also use mechanics to help shape different roles or archetypes that players can fulfill, such as the bard, barbarian, thief, and wizard archetypes.
In wargaming, there is very limited "Role-Playing" elements. However, as designers, you still want to capture the idea that individual models or units are "unique". Typically, gamers do not want to play a number of faceless, joyless, boring, goons all the time. No instead they want to play the 14th Uhlans, the Iron Brigade, Astro-dog, the Joy Hill Gang, etc. Thankfully, as designers there are a few ways to add this level of "character" to your games.
Here are a few things you need to consider when adding in "character" elements to a wargame:
Some style of games demand more character elements than others. In certain historical time periods, such as Horse and Musket; the nature or personality of commanders often comes into play mechanically. I feel this mainly derives from how so many books focusing on the period are using the "Great Man of History" lens to tell the story (which is a side tangent). Therefore, a dithering commander may slow a pursuit, or a dashing one may allow more aggressive movement. Typically, it is the character of the commanding officer that matters most to gameplay. These character traits are often built into the Command and Control mechanics. You tend to see this less in Ancients, Medieval, and Modern games for a variety of reasons. Certain genres have certain tropes that players like to have followed, and as a designer it never hurts to embrace some of the tropes. They are tropes for a reason.
The Scope of the game is a bigger impact. A smaller, model vs model skirmish can put a lot more emphasis on individuals and how they are different than others around them. The two main methods to do this are Stat line changes that lend themselves to various ways to play, or special rules. There are whole games that only use named characters such as Arena Rex, Bot Wars, Mercs, and others. Personally, I am not a fan as I prefer to make my own characters thanks.
As the scope increases, these individual emphasis turns into unit vs unit features. For example, a Scot's Greys Heavy cavalry unit may fight differently than a Old Guard Cuirassier unit. However, this is typically done via the same method as stat line adjustments or special rules. However, the "character" is not the individual soldiers but the doctrine and reputation of the unit itself. Unit vs unit games it would make no sense to make individual model differentiation.
The last element to consider is the Focus of your game. What is your game trying to accomplish and highlight? Your Design Goals will be the key component to review and think about when determining this level of the game. Some games will have a higher level of "RPG" type character interaction built into the mechanics to achieve their Design Goals. Any game that includes an "Action" outside of shooting/fighting allows for more character to be used by the player to resolve a situation. For example, instead of shooting the player may opt to "talk it out", hide from danger, set a trap, etc.
Not all games need this level of detail depending on what the game wants to focus on. For example, the infamous Battle of North Africa board game dealt exclusively with logistics, and included the evaporation rate of fuel in different types of containers. The focus has little to do with units or models and instead is focusing on Logistics. In this situation, character does not matter as the Focus is not right.
Another example is an Age of Sail game. You could add Character two ways. The ship itself could have defined characteristics unique to each named ship AND you could have named captains with unique traits as captain. In this example, the focus is right for Character in a wargame.
How to Create "Character" in a Wargame
Now that we have talked about when it is appropriate to have "Characters" in your wargame, let's talk about how you can go about adding them. First, let's define what I mean by "character". In this case, a character is a model/unit who's role or abilities are influenced by a defining characteristic.
For example, if the soldier is supposed to be "bookish and shy" how does this defining characteristic impact the battlefield? How do you translate the defining characteristic into abilities or role?
I have identified a few methods to add "character" to wargames:
- Special Rules/Chrome
- Special Access
- RPG Lite
As the name implies, the model or units stats are some how impacted by the defining characteristic of a unit. For example, the Iron Brigade was a highly motivated unit with a strong battlefield record. Therefore, on the table top the unit may have improved Morale or Leadership stats to reflect their heightened reputation.
In this case, the Character's defining characteristic is represented by a special rule that other model's do not have access too. For example, in old Necromunda the leader of a gang could rally nearby units to re-roll pin tests.
In this case, choosing the unit allows access to different units or structures in your force construction or mission objectives. Essentially, the character allows you to have special access to something that is normally not allowed or available in the rules.
The rules allow access to various actions or activities beyond shooting/fighting. This allows a player to show a models character on the field by doing something other that just shooting and fighting. Perhaps talk to a foe, read a book to gain access to knowledge, create something, etc. For example, in Frostgrave a Wizard can cast a spell instead of shooting/fighting.
By playing a linked series of games, a model/unit can gain "character" by gaining buffs/de-buffs via action or results of action. This makes the units have an individual character based on their history with the game/player. For example, a Survivor in Last Days can earn a skill that improves their ability to perform a certain action, or take an injury that makes them less likely to perform actions. They have earned a defining characteristic via game play.
Role-Playing games allow a lot of scope and depth for character as they are the main focus of those types of games. They often have various mechanical hooks to differentiate between archetypes, but two models with the exact same stats can play totally differently based on the 'Role" aspect of Role-Playing games. RPGs are an off-shoot of wargames therefore wargames also have a capacity for players to build characters into their games too. However, they will function and integrate into the game differently than in an RPG based game.
There are some types and styles of games where the integration of "character" is better suited. At the minimum all wargames can add a story telling component to them, with little of no impact on game play. However, some genres, scope and focus are better suited for adding "characters" whose abilities and role are influenced by a defining character trait. A wargame does not need "characters" to be a good wargame.
Like all game design, characters are a tool that can be used to help build out and meet the design goals of the designer. It is up to the designer to choose the best tools for the job, and Characters are just another tool. Use them wisely!