My five least favorite antagonists

In no particular order, some of my least favorite antagonists in fiction:

SCP-682 (SCP Foundation)

“The Greek” (The Wire)

The Soviet Leadership (Red Storm Rising)

Andries Rhoodie/The Rivington Men (Guns of the South)

Missingno (Pokemon)

_ _ _ _ _

Missingno:

Missingno is just a glitch. It bugs me so much how a programming error can be treated by fans as some sort of creepypasta scary monster. It’s like making a Fallout or Elder Scrolls fic starring the Glitched Monster From ________.

SCP-682

Now this is what happens when “meme” powers become reality. The lizard is indestructible. That’s it. It’s dull and lame and boring.

“The Greek”

That he’s in one of my favorite shows of all time illustrates that even good works of fiction can gave bad antagonists. A sneering one-dimensional mustache-twirler whose entire gimmick is that he’s greedy, “The Greek” is a bad character in a good story. “The Greek” is supposed to represent unrestrained capitalism, but Stringer Bell shows it in a much more balanced and nuanced way. And even his own lieutenant, Spiros, comes across as a much better and more charismatic character.

The Soviet Leadership

The Politburo scene in the beginning of Red Storm Rising has aged poorly and exists to set up the excuse plot for WW3. Sneering supervillain Soviets might work in a Red Alert game, but in a serious book, it’s a headdesk moment. Their entire plan is invading Europe so they can invade the Middle East later. And this is one of the things the copycats have copied. Ugh.

Rhoodie

Guns of the South does many things right. One thing it does wrong is its antagonists. The Rivington Men are some of the worst antagonists. They exist to make the Confederates look better in race relations by comparison (ulp), and then, when they decide that Lee has to go, with all their futuristic technology, they… have guys with Uzis fire wildly in his general direction.

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Supertanks

So, my big dilemma can be summed up in one work. Supertanks.

There are a bewildering array of paper supertanks that the fall of the USSR nipped in the bud. These, both western and eastern, range from conventional upgrades of previous-gen tanks (many of which were actually made, at least in prototype) on one end, to ultra-exotic “Crew of two and they’re both in the hull” designs on the other. 140 and 152mm monster guns, uncrewed turrets with innovative autoloaders, the list goes on and on. They’re interesting to see, and I’m wondering “If I’m making a semi-grounded fictional supertank, what real one should it most resemble?”

And yet, for one of my main antagonist groups, the question of supertanks gives way to the more important one of “are they the kind who’d have large formations of tanks at all, be they surplus or super”. That’s the question I should be asking.

COIN in wargames, a response

So, there’s been a really good article on counterinsurgency and wargames posted on The Wargamer. Take a read, it’s a well-written and certainly thought-provoking piece. For an examination of Vietnam 65 and Afghanistan 11 on Spacebattles, regarded as the height of well-designed COIN in gaming and far more positive towards them than even the article, see here.

However, I also have some quibbles with it, that I think are worth a response. The first, and it’s purely stylistic is that I think the tone is a little too axe-grindy for my tastes-I’ve been working extremely hard to avoid such a tone even in my own mind, so I’m a little sensitive, maybe more so than someone else would be.

That being said, I think it’s a little too unforgiving. If I had to distill them into three main arguments, it’d be…

  • Gameplay still matters.
  • Asymmetric war exists on a spectrum.
  • Existing games can model asymmetric war better than the article lets on if done intelligently.

Gameplay Still Matters.

Ok, I’ll be honest. This statement tripped a circuit in the scenario-developer part of my mind.

And even then those games are really forgiving when it comes to fog of war. Sure, you can run a company into an ambush in Vietnam or get hoisted by an IED in Afghanistan. But neither game shows the accumulated stress, propaganda-fueled racism or simple evil of your soldiers resulting in atrocities. You don’t risk calling in an airstrike on a wedding or an errant hospital because CIA doesn’t really care about where the information comes from. You don’t need to deal with Generation Kill’s Captain America-level subordinates who will annihilate villages with artillery because they’re scared. In those games, you don’t need to deal with your own side working against you. The military establishment is almost Command and Conquer-like in not being affected by human failings.

My thought was that this sort of thing is a lot more interesting and easier to do in theory than it is in practice. This may be do to my bias against making things too luck-based, but it’s also because the meaning of a game is lost if it’s too difficult or unresponsive to play.

Again, I like it in theory. (Heck, I even included a target that turns out to be a falsely identified building full of innocents in one of my Command scenarios). It’s just that my “better is the enemy of good enough” mind views a somewhat unrealistically “smooth” command system as the price to pay for the experience overall.

And on the subject of atrocities, I view them as something that has to be handled with extreme care, and has the potential to be a “be careful what you wish for” moment if they’re implemented in the wrong way. Because there are people online who’ve been asking, in games like Hearts of Iron, to be able to commit war crimes deliberately. And there the path leads to something far uglier than simple Rambo II-style wish fulfillment fantasies.

 Asymmetric War Exists on a Spectrum

I never thought that the OPFOR chart I did a little while ago on a lark would be legitimately useful to make a point. But it symbolizes, given the prospective threats identified on it, a continuum between the two extremes of “occasional attack insurgency” on one end to “World War III” on the other. I think my own Black Gold Blitz is somewhere in the middle, not just because Iran is closest to the Light OPFOR/ROWEN fictional opponent, but because it’s a conventional conflict where one side still has to try using asymmetric tactics to counter their weakness in traditional arms.

So I’m in total agreement that real, serious COIN would require a game built from the bottom up-to be honest, my biggest inspiration wouldn’t be any existing wargame, but SimCity. It also would be niche even by the standard of the wargaming genre, and have the potential to, as any risky project would, be a swing and a miss that doesn’t live up to its potential. However, especially if the scope was narrowed and the enemy identified/changed to go up the threat scale slightly, there’s something more suitable for a conventional wargame to handle.

Existing Games Can Model-If Done Intelligently

The key word is “if done intelligently”. The comment from “some guy” that helped prompt the original article does not sound like a reasoned, intelligent approach to using an existing model to address a sensitive issue. The words “politically correct” give it all away.

But if narrowed down, it can at least potentially work, especially if it’s toned down to “one tactical engagement”. One option is the classic Mirbat-style “attack on Outpost X”, with an enemy force at least slightly above the bottom of the threat spectrum. At least in regards to Command, I find such an encounter works better in older (definitely up to at least Vietnam, and increasingly so even up to 1991) time periods where the AAMG they lugged up can post a threat to your friendly aircraft that has to fly low to hit anything rather than a more modern scenario where the fighter can fly above and safely attack with smart bombs.

That’s the easy-to-make Command scenario.

The considerably more ambitious, and difficult to make one was something I brought up earlier in the release stream of Black Gold Blitz. Where you do have some “Stuff”-even a lot of it, but where there’s a giant set of proper ROEs, fleeting targets, concern for collateral damage, and so on. It’s still ultimately tactical, and it’s still not for everybody, but it’s a huge variation on the standard Command theme that illustrates the challenges of a low-intensity environment. (Ironically, one of the biggest inspirations, and showing how these restrictions can be modeled, came from a totally conventional PVO-vs-SR-71 scenario)

In conclusion

So, that was my response. I probably came across as more critical towards the original article than I actually am. I have to say it’s because I’m a pretty critical person, even towards stuff I enjoy greatly, and it’s just easier for me to say what I didn’t like about something than what I did.

But I don’t disagree with the main points of the article, whatever my other critiques may have been. I hope my critique and commentary are well-received, and I hope any readers enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed making it.

 

OPFOR Effectiveness Graph

My love of useless graphs and a desire to do some practice with Excel led to me creating this simple chart on the fake exercise punching bag-I mean nations.

OPFORStrength

(For information on the OPFORs in question, see my posts on the subject at Baloogan Campaign. )

Now for the “data” (quotations deliberate). This is based on wild guesses and gut feelings, is oversimplified, and only deals in “conventional” threats. Quibbles include.

  • Whether there was too small a leap from the non-state opponents to the state ones.
  • How to group the Basic Forces and Heavy OPFOR, as they’re both benchmarking the same force. I gave the latter a slightly higher score, as it takes the first step to Mobile Forces organization.
  • How much greater the “Mobile Forces” are at the top from their closest rivals.

I did not include any “Hybrid” opponents, nor did I include any historical comparisons. These are purely in relation to each other.

 

The Tank Army Out Of Nowhere

It may be implausible, but I love the concept of the tank army out of nowhere. I’ve seen it in a few cheap thrillers of dubious quality, and if the context allows it, I love it. It’s just a sign that the author simply does not care about those silly things like “logistics”, or “direct plausibility”.

Where I think I love the tank army out of nowhere (again, assuming the right context, which boils down to not taking things too seriously) has to do with my own hang-ups, where I’ve been too focused on “plausibility”. As a literary tool, seeing the tank army out of nowhere without any explanation save for a lame excuse (and sometimes not even that) makes me think “Ok, here’s tanks-this is going to be ridiculous, whether the author intends it or not.”

And I like ridiculousness in my fiction.

No Appeal: Special Forces

Ok, some topics don’t appeal to me. This is a matter of personal taste, but still. I might as well give my opinion. I’ll start with the first, and one of the largest. Special Forces.

There’s multiple reasons why I dislike (and wouldn’t routinely use, at least for a main character) the trope of “special forces” or “elite warriors”. One of the biggest is a knowledge of the very real limitations of real special forces, the very different roles employed from the fantasy, the very different basic definitions of the term across different countries and times, and how all of them (in a setting with some degree of realism, at least), differ dramatically from the common fantasy. So that’s one piece of the pie.

But the second has nothing to do with practicality. It just feels off to have someone start the story at the top of the heap. It takes away from the sense of development and heroism, and (especially if used in a fictional fantastical role rather than a more plausibly limited one) smacks of wish fulfillment. It just seems better to have someone ordinary doing something extraordinary than someone extraordinary doing something ordinary-for them.

Twilight 2000

Twilight 2000, the classic semi-postapocalyptic tabletop RPG, is a very contradictory game, one of the most so I’ve ever seen.

See, the plot is good enough. It’s more realistic than many WWIIIs in that the nukes fly, but manages to stay intact enough so that all the cool toys aren’t taken away. And whatever the many plausibility issues, it works for the sake of setting up an adventure.

The problem is in the dichotomy. The mechanics have a detailed, often-realistic unglamorous focus on the dirty work-logistics, disease, and the like. Characters are quite vulnerable. This mixed with the shattered, post-nuclear war-bandit setting means it should be poised for a low-tier, somber look, right?

Wrong. Sharing equally with the dirty-work mechanics are detailed stats of individual guns, tanks, and artillery pieces, starting dubious already but taken to excess in supplements. The post-apocalyptic setting is there to provoke challenges, but it’s also clearly there to take away the command post and those pesky orders. The target audience and themes are for the “bored soldier and military enthusiast” crowd, not exactly something somber. It’s like This War of Mine was jumbled together with Medal of Honor Warfighter and printed, to use later video games as analogies.

And then some of the later supplements got-weird. I’m talking “save Arkansas from evil airships” weird.

It’s still fascinating, both as a product of its time and for the “excesses” and contradictions it has.

 

Bad Fiction Spotlight: James G’s WW3

On alternatehistory.com, there have been published a handful of World War III in 198X stories by user “James G”, formerly known as jimmygreen2002. The finished stories are:

Lions Will Fight Bears

For Queen and Country

National Volksarmee

Fight to the Finish

Going West

Spetsnaz: Week of the Chameleons

And I really don’t like them. Even I don’t know exactly why. Applied in isolation, they’d just be dry sequence-of-events war fics. And they even have better prose than a lot of them-which may be the problem. Because somehow, mysteriously, through a way I might not even recognize, they push every single one of my buttons in a way that Red Storm Rising itself, many of its imitators, and even fellow 198X WW3 stories on AH.com do not.

(To give credit where it’s due, Week of the Chameleons isn’t as bad as the rest. I think it’s structural, being inherently more interesting.)

Why? I think it’s a melding of the board culture and text itself into a group of factors that, all together, make it something that stands out from the pack. It’s a bunch of little things and slightly-worse-than-normal stuff that adds up.

  • First there’s the obvious. Clunky prose, little characterization, a sequence of events plot with little flow, and a nonsensical background. But if this alone were the criteria, it wouldn’t be enough.
  • I’ll start with the prose. It’s just good enough to make me take the stories more seriously. This isn’t like say, bashing a fanfic with bad prose and grammar where the narrator overslept and had to get an unusual choice as his first Pokemon. This series has enough skill to get it to a higher threshold for taste.
  • The prose is clunky, but what’s worse than the usual overly descriptive descriptions and infodumps is the tone. There’s a sort of feeling of forced Deep, Solemn Seriousness that goes through every update of every story. And while I can get most of it (I mean, it is about World War III after all), even a story in that setting would benefit from different moods.
  • The characterization is, interesting. First, like the prose, that there’s characterization at all means I view it from the perspective of a story and not a pseudohistory. But a lot of the characterization-when mentioned at all, is not only in shown-not-told infodumps, but infodumps that feel like the description of how many T-___ tanks or ____-class sloops were made before the war began. It’s a writing trait I find telling.
  • The plot, well, the plots start with the usual ridiculous ways to get the war to start, and I can forgive those. They have no flow, and cut from a scene that individually offers a bit of at least potential poignancy to another update that does nothing but remind the reader that yes, Military Unit _____ does in fact exist. It’s a great example of bowl-of-ingredients writing, where all the individual parts are there but the whole is not.
  • Lots of undeveloped viewpoint characters. This almost goes without saying.
  • Action I feel absolutely no involvement in. Far too clinical. It’s more even-handed than an outright nationalist fantasy, which paradoxically makes it worse instead of better. Imagine if an 80s action movie had semi-realistic firing at the occasional muzzle flash (but without any drama) and then cut back to some general at his desk at random intervals and you get the idea.
  • The setting, well, hmm. It’s basically the same story in the same place repeated multiple times with slightly different names. I’ve said some bad fiction resembles a dry, overly literal let’s play/AAR. This feels like different LPs of the same game with different time and difficulty settings. Oh it’s easy mode this time. Or hard mode! Map X as opposed to Map Y!
  • And it’s like the stories set out to hit every single cliche that the niche genre had. That’s how many of them there are.

Those are the main issues with the stories themselves, with “take a genre cliche, make each genre cliche slightly worse than the norm, then pile them up and make it just ‘big’ enough to judge by a literary standard” pushing them over the top. But maybe it’s the AH.com board culture that sets it apart, as my dislike of the stories grew with the dislike of the site. That could be a reason why I feel the way I do. I can’t say I’m unbiased given that I’ve been in arguments in the threads, so I don’t want to go into detail about those. And I feel like I shouldn’t make an appeal to that-the stories should speak for themselves.

So yeah, that’s them. I wonder if my personal biases and experiences skewed them from mediocre to terrible in my own eyes, or if the works by themselves merit a Bad Fiction Spotlight.

Good Fiction Spotlight: The Defense of Hill 781

It’s time for another Good Fiction Spotlight, in light of all the “Bad Fiction Spotlights” I’ve done. This Good Fiction Spotlight goes to James McDonough’s The Defense of Hill 781.

The book is intended as a late Cold War version of the classic Defence of Duffer’s Drift and is styled as such. The action is evenhanded, detailed, and possibly a little over-detailed. But here’s what sets it apart. Instead of trying to move away from its inherent artificiality, it embraces it completely.

There are very good reasons for this in the proper context-it’s meant to be educational and show the equivalent of a “battle” in the National Training Center in detail-this isn’t attempting to illustrate a full World War III or any other story in any other sense. It’s not like I think McDonough made a deliberate stylistic choice to focus the story entirely on a completely artificial engagement. It was just the nature of a Duffer’s Drift-style tale.

However inadvertedly, the book nonetheless is the closest in-print work to the kind of artificial OPFOR thriller I talked about wanting to see-making no pretentions about being anything more than what it is, and having a sense of humor that stands out in an otherwise serious genre.