The role playing game is the direct descendent of the wargame, so it’s no surprise that combat — personal, vehicular, or mass units — is often part and parcel of a game campaign. Often, an RPG setting is inherently militaristic, even when it pretends not to be, and sometimes it’s very overt: Dungeons & Dragons may be high fantasy about (essentially) murdering and robbing not-so-defenseless critters stuck in an underground maze, but better camapigns involves more than a string of dungeon crawls — with chivalric pursuits like saving a village/town from orc hordes, or warring on the local (and evil) magistrate. Battlestar GalacticaStar TrekBabylon 5 — most sci-fi properties are intrinsically militaristic as the characters are often members of an armed force. Redcoats fighting Martians in Space: 1889 are commanding cloudships or commanding/fighting with military units. Espionage games are often tied to uncovering or stopping military dangers (at least during the Cold War), but special forces guys are usually the ones in the black turtlenecks backing you up in that raid on the secret subterranean base.

Military-oriented campaigns, or even police procedurals where there’s a rank structure to adhere to, have certain challenges for the player and GM alike.

The most obvious to someone who has been in service is that not all players are likely to be equal. In the military — be it the Napoleonic-era Royal Navy, the forces of some fantasy army, the Colonial Fleet, or Starfleet, not all the characters are going to be the same rank unless that is specifically how the players and GM want them to begin play. That’s just a fact of military life — someone’s always your superior, often someone is your subordinate. There’s always an idiot in the chain of command — the sort of congenital moron that’s going to get someone dead when the action starts. Sometimes, that’s going to be a player character.

So how to handle the rank situation. There’s the standard approach — everybody starts out the same rank or in similar positions: you’re all starting as Starfleet ensigns, you’re all midshipmen in HMS Victory, you’re sergeants in the Roundheads, you’re detectives or special agents in whatever police department or secret service. It’s easy, it’s fair, and if you’re group tends toward power players, or tends to run to the slightly immature, this is a great choice. All the players work up through the ranks at — they hope — the same pace.

Problem 1: That’s not how it works. In real life, you’ll get promoted at different rates simply because not everyone is going to shine all the time. Player A might be the guy that saves the platoon with a mad rush across the field, Tommy gun blazing. Player B might have been just as important to the success of the mission, flanking the Nazis while A is trying to get himself sent on to his maker…who gets mentioned int he dispatches, really? Now A’s a sergeant and B’s still a corporal.

A and B are still comrades and friends, and maybe Sergeant A listens to Corporal B’s suggestions, but in the end, unless there’s an officer in the area, A’s in charge. He makes the final decisions, and it’s on his head if it goes sideways.

Officers tend to have a bit more friendly relationship with each other, but there’s usually rules against fraternization between enlisted and officer for good reason…as Trevor Howard’s Captain Bligh puts it in Mutiny on the Bounty “You can’t expect unquestioning obedience from a partner in last night’s debauch…” So Captain C and Lieutenant D are friends and often will listen to each other’s consul, but in the end, if C gets an order from his superior, he tasks his people (including D) as he sees fit. D might ask for enhancement or clarification on an instruction; the player of D might try to convince C on another course of action but in the end, C’s the man on the spot.

Some players will have trouble with the rank structure and the notions of military order. Role playing for most of us is about getting outside the strictures of our normal lives and being the hero…so in games like this it’s important to point out early that there are consequences to too much insubordination. Even Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica can’t escape punishment for her actions, even though she’s far too valuable to the ship to just lock in the brig or cashier from the service. Even Apollo, who actively mutinied on multiple occasions was held to task for his breaking good order.

Another problem the GM will encounter at the character creation stage:  one of your players is determined to crap all over the campaign from the start and wants to play that character who’s great at what they do to the point that the command structure puts up with their crazy antics. I had one player in a recent Star Trek campaign that wanted to play that engineer that’s too too good for discipline, and isn’t really a fan of Starfleet. Well, there’s no press ganging in the Roddenberry universe, so why would they put up with this crank; it’s not like everyone in Starfleet (even Dwight Schultz’s character) is super-talented…no one with shiny stuff on their collar going to put up with a prima donna for too long.

Make sure, before you even go to pre-production — as it were — that every one is on board.

A related problem to those above: while a lot of role playing gamers join the military, not all are veterans or servicepeople…those with no experience of the service often are nervous about playing characters from a culture they really don’t understand — especially if there’s a vet in the group.

Well, you probably aren’t a half-elf warrior princess, either, but that doesn’t stop a lot of players…being an army sergeant shouldn’t either. If you have a vet in the group, they’ll be happy to throw you hints as to how to act like a soldier: what you can get away with, what you can’t, how your life is structured, how the justice system works for troops. You don’t have to be proficient in tactics, orders of battle…just have fun.

The intimidation factor is often higher for GMs without military experience running a military-based campaign for people who were in service. Don’t sweat it — use their experience to enhance the game. Ask about how UCMJ works, how rules of engagement are structured and decided upon, etc. The internet can get you a lot of the basic stuff, but it doesn’t explain that most of your day in the motor pool pretending to fix that vehicle you’ve signed for, or that all operations might stop for a day of remedial training on how not to be stupid driving after somebody in a completely different country rolls their water truck.

Like any other setting you might jump into playing verisimilitude is essential to really capturing the flavor of a campaign — if the military is involved, you should strive to capture the life, even if you have to exaggerate a few things here and there to do it. There are plenty of good movies, novels, stories that detail the life of soldiers in or out of the combat zone — read up or watch them. For franchise settings like Babylon 5, which does a better job than Star Trek at catching the military life (and honestly, what sci-fi show didn’t do a better job?), but it pales in comparison to the Battlestar Galactica miniseries, or the early seasons of Stargate SG-1.

As with anything game-oriented — first and foremost, have fun. Everything else is icing on the cake.

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