Skirmish Games

So, I’ve been fascinated by small scale skirmish wargames lately. Stuff like the ones in this excellent post. Why them?

Partly because a down-and-dirty infantry firefight is what I like in a story, having also read many small-unit action stories recently. Partly because it reminds me of XCOM, Fire Emblem, and other low-unit strategy games. And partly just because I can think of the figures more as individual characters than generic units.

Viewpoint Characters

While I still dislike too-large numbers of viewpoint characters, I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re more a symptom than a cause of questionable writing by themselves. I say this because I’ve read a lot of good books that have their share of them.

Now, this could be just the stories themselves being good enough that I can brush past the viewpoint character issues. But I think the bigger issue isn’t too many viewpoint characters per se so much as too many environments. Team Yankee was able to flow well despite having, on-paper, a lot of viewpoint characters, simply because almost all the action was in the same general environment. It adds a sense of connection, a feeling of purpose, rather than just being a clunky “this happened here, then this happened here, and then this happened here…”

It’s obviously not hard and fast, and all boils down to that intangible writing art. It’s possible to have a bunch of environments that works better, and it’s also too possible to have a one-environment story that still ends up as clunky and dubious. I’d still recommend trimming the viewpoint characters, simply because it’s an easy solution, but I think they’re symptomatic of just too many environments and plotlines.

Good Fiction Spotlight: Brannigan’s Blackhearts

So, I’m delighted to note that I’ve read an obscure series worthy of a good Fiction Spotlight. Overjoyed. Because Peter Nealen’s Brannigan’s Blackhearts is just the type of cheap thriller that fits me right now.

The series  is about the “adventures” of an ex-USMC colonel and his band of mercenaries. And it’s what I’d call a “cheap thriller”. But in a good way, for these books are what cheap thrillers should be like. I had good timing in that the latest book in the series was released after I’d started digging into the series.

The best part of the books is that they combine visceral yet exciting action with very good literary fundamentals. Not only is there action, but it’s varied action. The action goes from the forests of Myanmar to offshore oil rigs to the frozen fields of eastern Europe. It feels truly varied, and Nealen isn’t afraid to punch readers in the gut every now and then.

What Nealen also demonstrates is a welcome display of, for lack of a better word, restraint. Some of the plot setups feel a little contrived, but they aren’t dwelled on. There’s exact descriptions of the weapons, but not too detailed. Having read stories where the fundamentals weren’t there, it’s a treat to read ones where they are.

I must give a few obligatory criticisms. The villains aren’t that great as characters and the “shadowy conspiracy organization” meta-plot that’s developed in the later books has me raising my eyebrows with apprehension. But even these are worked around-the latter is streamlined in as a setup hook for the adventure, and the former work in the context of a thriller story. Plus these are still thrillers and not “high literature” by any standards.

But they’re good cheap thrillers, and I urge anyone who likes pulpy thrillers to read these.

A few further genre fiction thoughts

So, a while ago, I mentioned Tanya Huff’s Valor series as an example of someone who could work around a writing weakness. Basically, an author whose background and resume would be, on paper, the last person to write effective military fiction managed by setting up the plots so that the characters were in small groups and situations she was comfortable with. It was a sign of working around weakness.

Now, a part of me thinks that its success might not have been in spite of her lack of experience, but in some ways because of it. That is, she had less of the genre’s baggage because she didn’t know you were “supposed” to do something. Granted, all this could just be me viewing the Valor books with rose-tinted goggles as I count the cliches in my latest binge of technothrillers, but still.

(Besides Team Yankee, I’m reading another piece of “Tank Fiction”, Michael Farmer’s Tin Soldiers. The latter hits a lot of the technothriller cliches but is still a good “cheap thriller”)

The Magnificent Forward Observers

Poor me.

I know too much for a Seven Samuraiinspired battle to be both realistic and dramatic. At least against an army, which is what I was going for when I thought of the concept. Because against a larger and at least somewhat disciplined force willing to take any sort of loss, seven people are going to get crushed effortlessly. The best they could do, and this assumes they have the support in the first place, is hide and call in reports and fire support similar to the Marines at Khafji.

Now, against er, “irregulars”, as was the case in the original inspirations, it’s a different story. Still implausible, but they’d likely be far less skilled, and more crucially, have a far more timid risk calculus. Which is to say, there’d be more pressure to just “give up” and loot an easier target rather than take huge losses for the sake of a victory. The historical record of militia shows that, in general, they’re much worse at attacking than they are defending.

But could one still make a good story out of either a semi-plausible or outright implausible version, against either type of opposition? Of course! As long as it was well-written and fit the tone of the overall work, any sort of setup can work very well.

The FE Battalion Has Arrived

So, my insane, twisted mind is taking the playable characters of the heroic fantasy series Fire Emblem and forcing them to work as drilled soldiers in a more modern battalion. Trained in technologies, these confront a level of war they could not understand before.

There are roughly 500 playable characters across every Fire Emblem game[1]. Enough to fill a small-medium battalion. Several large problems are:

  • Age and condition. These range from the very young to the elderly.
  • Division of labor. These people range from kings to lowly nomads.
  • Willingness to go into the more drudgerous parts of the unit (support, etc), which ties into the above point.
  • Degree of support the FE Battalion would have from higher levels.
  • Overall objective and type of opponent they’d be facing[2].

Another question mark is what the basic type of battalion it would be. A boring but effective plan would be using the healers as the basis for a medical unit and using the rest as just guards and clerks to support them. But since logic got thrown out, I might as well have them be a line unit.

A mechanized one, with the horse-mounted fighters as vehicle crews and the footbound ones as dismounts? Or a lighter one that takes advantage of their experience in less-developed conditions?

And finally, which of the heroic commanders would get to lead the whole unit?

[1]My count was preliminary and either ignored or double counted the same characters appearing in different games. But it’s around that number.

[2]This is actually clear. It’d be a conventional conflict against a powerful but not too powerful OPFOR.