Monday, 29 October 2012

Beginner's Guide to Army Background Fluff Part I


You don't need this much background, even the smallest amount can add heaps of character

 This post is long overdue (as is any post). My previous attempt at writing a “fluff advice” post didn't quite work out as well as I wanted to, so I thought I'd revisit it. This is part sequel, part revision – a “requel” if you will, or perhaps a “sequision” if that takes your fancy. Apologies for the repetition in places, but as you know that's common with requels. But hopefully the two posts still compliment each other...

The intent is to be more thematic (less Space Marine references, and 100% less bloody Zen Buddhism references), and a bit more methodical. It should be more or less applicable to any non-historical game. It should apply whether you're adapting existing factions or creating new ones entirely. Whether you're creating a Skitarii Legion for 40k, a Chaos Warrior warband for Warhammer, a faction for Infinity, or whatever the game, the basic principles should still apply. 

This thematic approach does make it seem a little formulaic, and a bit dry, but if you're juts starting out then hopefully this will give you some ideas - and as I say it's just a guideline not a hard-and-fast set of rules.

So, here is the Hitchhiker's Headologist's Guide to Creating Background Fluff

Why do I keep going on about writing fluff? Well, I'm not an expert painter, and although I enjoy conversions I'm definitely not an expert. I'm not an expert writer, but it did used to be a day job (depsite my constant typos), so at least I hope this means I can perhaps give some advice on developing character and narrative and all that jazz.


I also keep going on about it because I bloody enjoy it and it's as a legitimate side of the hobby alongside modelling, painting and gaming. Arguably it's integral, as it's what makes a game more than just sliding miniatures around a board. I know some argue about the tactical side, and that is key for me too – I prefer games with a greater tactical challenge than those that are broken... But if it was just about the pure challenge of the game for the game's sake, I would play Chess or Go or something with nameless, plain game pieces.

Without wanting to sound like someone who uses the word “workshop” as a verb outside of a vaguely industrial context, background fluff adds motivation and consequences and allows games to be linked to create an ongoing narrative. A narrative where you care about keeping certain characters and units alive, and they take on a life of their own – whereas you might not in a straight competitive game. I still remember with fondness the Necromunda game from around 15 years ago where a Juve fell several storeys after a failed jump from one tower to another. He just about survived but received a head injury which led to him going do-lally (it's a proper neurology headology term) every so often in subsequent games. However, we came into a bit of cash and could afford a bit of healthcare for the poor chap. He survived further scraps and scrapes and went on to climb the ranks. However, I don't remember if I won that particulra initial game or not. This is why narrative and story matters to me, the best games are often ones where there is a bit of a plot, narrative or interesting occurrence.

It's important to remember there are various degrees of fluff, and where one person may wish to do little more than name their characters, that's fine. Honest.

Apologies if this is stating the bloody obvious. It is meant to be a beginner's guide, and I'm not assuming that this stuff is groundbreaking or known by only a select few via means of an esoteric ritual. I just hope it's useful whatever your gaming background may be. 

Step 1: Select a Core Concept

Chances are, you probably have an idea of what you want to do here already, but if not, inspiration for concepts can come from all sorts of places.

I had an idea for a short story about a petty bureacrat in the department of Tithes Chamber Notaries, sub. Planetary Census (Abhumans), with heavy overtones of Gogol, which came from a 1950s adaptation of Gogol's The Overcoat, starring Buster Keaton. [Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70YECn4T-IY

I don't know how many people would want to read it, but the idea of a faceless clerk spending all day in a vast dark hall, making sure pointless case numbers were correct, surrounded by thousands of other such clerks doing the exact same thing seemed suitably grimdark. Allowing him to go home and have a life of sorts beyond would break the established fluff that they would do this 24/7, but I thought it would be justified in accentuating that proper grimdarkness of it (sometimes less is more).

Where my Space MarineChapter has taken various specific influences during its existence, the very original idea came from wanting to reflect some of the stories of the Welsh collection of myths, the Mabinogion.

A whole slew of background fluff can have its beginnings in just one sentence or one image, whether that's found in history, a book of fiction, a comic or graphic novel, a film, a religious text, a TV series or whatever. A good place to look is the official fluff too, I spend plenty of time on Lexicanum and the 40k wiki checking facts, but also often end up stumbling across stuff I never knew about at all. Definitely worth a look as you may find something that's been mentioned but not covered in any detail – so go away and do the detail if you like the sound of it.I'm not au fait with other games as much, but surely they all have sourcebooks and websites with material in.

Where to start

The primary theme should be straightforward and solid. Although saying you can look in all sorts of places for ideas, a framework might be helpful, so before you start looking perhaps it might help if we break the key areas of background fluff into Three Points:

(or Why they fight, how they fight, and how they like to dress when smashing someone's teeth in)

  • Purpose / Goal
    Perhaps the easiest point to develop your background fluff from is here, start by thinking what the purpose of your faction is. Why do they exist? Are they an elite group of soldiers formed to fight a particular threat? Were they formed from an administrative oversight? Are they a political breakaway faction of sorts? Are they villagers with pitchforks defending their homes from a marauding jabberwocky?
    Also consider their goal. Do they have a particular briefing/mission/quest? Are they looking for a certain artefact? Are they tasked with fighting a particular foe (related to the above...).
    Either of these can inform Personality (not only their general demeanour, but how they relate to other factions, whether allies or enemies) and Aesthetics.

  • Personality / Approach
    As I said, not only general demeanour but also how they approach combat – are they sneaky, shooty, stabby etc? If you have a faction which likes to go around singing its own praises, it seems quite likely that it was also be quite arrogant and doesn't like supposed allies stealing its limelight – similarly, they are not necessarily likely to be a sneaky group, but perhaps have a fondness for shiny weapons and big explosions which are all the better to get them noticed. And with that you have at least an outline of a Purpose, Personality and Aesthetics: renown/fame, arrogant and snobby, shiny weapons and armour respectively.
    You may not go this way yourself, but there is always a chain of “A = B = C” that you should find yourself developing once you have point A. 

  • Aesthetics
    I know certain games allow for more flexibility with conversions and putting your own spin on the troops and others have a much more out-of-the-box approach. Even so, aesthetics can come down to just having a particular paint scheme that refelcts something of the faction's character and background. I also use Aesthetics to cover army composition to a degree, if you perhaps want a force that has a prevalence of a certain unit. If so, then why? Asking yourself questions that lead to more questions is a great way to develop your background fluff.
Whichever point you start with, you should find your ideas there lead to other ideas in other points

31/10/12 Addendum: A Note on Scale

Something I noticed was missing and should go here rather than Part II was the issue of scale.

Depending upon the physical size of the overall force you're writing fluff for, and their place within existing fluff (e.g. are they a new Space Marine Chapter, a Company/Force of Blood Angels, are they a new Imperial Guard regiment, and entirely new one, or are they just a Kill Team or even Necromunda gang?). Each of these is going to effect the scale of your fluff, if they are a regiment of Cadians, they take on the existing fluff of the Cadians to an extent, but can still have their own Purpose within that framework. Similarly in terms of physical scale of fluff, your factions Purpose doesn't need to be "Bring about the return of the Emperor" (although it can be if appropriate) but can just as well be hold Planet, City or even Building X in terms of a Kill Team sized faction. Just something that adds a little more life and character, as I said at the beginning just coming up with little things like that can make a big difference.

(Apologies for resorting to direct references, which I had been trying to avoid, it was just much easier that way. If none of this makes sense, please let me know...)
Step 2: Know When to Stop

Or as I like to call it, don't dilute and ruin your main theme by adding too much extra stuff

This one was brought home to me very recently. A good friend of mine came up with the jewel of a concept that defined the above, picking a clear strong theme. As a concept it was brilliant and I was hugely envious, despite the love I have for my stone-circle obsessive little Mawdrynites. Immediately I thought from that you can get what motivates them making campaign writing a doddle, it would definitely inform their personality and how they related to other Chapters (again affecting game and campaign narrative), and it could definitely impact their aesthetics (the banners you could do for them would be brilliant...). 
I'm not saying what the idea was for now – it wasn't complicated in the slightest, it was nice, and neat, and simple.

Then he started watering this idea down with motivations that I felt were contradictory to the core concept – I should point out this was my opinion, and your fluff is your fluff - this secondary theme as it were would be a perfectly good primary theme for a seperate army; but in trying to have his cake and eat it, the core idea lost its magic. I felt like I should be able to whisk away the original idea and whisk it away to an orphanage for neglected fluff, it had so much potential that wouldn't be realised. 

(Just to point out to regular readers it's not one of Scipio's ideas – but on another note, the Palladian Guard is another example of a force with a clear concept and theme – more so than my Mawdrynites).

So, Know When to Stop

Again my ambition has been thwarted by my dastardly foe Time, but hopefully this piece was a little easier to read. I've had to split this into two articles (it was getting way too long, I've trimmed this post massively), but the next piece will look at adding specific details and representing your fluff on the table.

As something of an experiment and perhaps a way of illustrating these points, if anyone has any factions they want fluff creating for (for any setting) then please send you answers on a postcard, even if it's the most basic kernel of an idea.

9 comments:

  1. Very very good article. Just goes to show, you're never too old to pick up something new - I'm okay at putting together fluff, and I've NEVER thought about the Palladian's motivations and goals (beyond individual character's personal goals in fiction).

    I will be so bold as to add one final tip and tread on Headologist's toes a bit, and say that I found the best way to write fluff is little and often. Mine took several years to write, in little spurts in notebooks and doodles on notepads, before I brought it all together. Sorry if you were going to say that next time H :p

    Very nice article - I'll whack a link to that on my blog.

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    1. Missed out half the comment on posting, damned machine.

      Thank you very much sir, most kind of you.

      I was going to mention that there's no rush, but little and often is definitely the best way. The Mawdryn fluff has evolved over the years, and even where it's just been a shift in emphasis in certain aspects, it's all moved towards a better fit in the 40k-verse methinks.

      I suppose they are guardians of the Cadian Gate, that's purpose enough, they need to get off-world a bit more though I think, they're too nice to be glorified PDF. But as I'll elaborate a little more next time, they don't all need equal depth to a clear characterful force. Perhaps the key part is translating the character to the tabletop to get the most out of it, and I get the feel of the Palladian's just by looking at them, so that's a superb achievement

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  2. Hrm.... Now I'll have to go back and look at what I'd written about my Nurgle marines and see if it passes muster according to your nicely written guidelines....

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    1. I'm sure it's splendid, I like what I've seen so far - and I'm certainly not an arbiter of fluff :P The end product is more important that the guidelines...

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  3. Purpose, Approach Aesthetics ? Hummm....

    http://www.devos4.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/consolidation.html

    Interested in your opinion. I was trying to be a little less, er, dry.

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    1. Will have a look immediately sir, the three points weren't really supposed to be a "by the numbers" approach, just a starter for those that were new and unsure - and it was the easiest way to boil down the pages of waffle the original post was to make it readable by actual humans lol

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    2. have put the reply on your post Zzzzzz

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    3. Many thanks. Your ability to pick out what was good about it is appreciated. I also find that when I write something, it makes perfect sense. And then no-one else 'gets it' and it turns out I've written rubbish. Some quality control is needed perhaps.

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    4. You're welcome. Without wanting to sound like an arrogant tit, I think a good thing to do is leave it for a few days once you've finished it, and go back and read it with fresh eyes. And when you're writing it, it's definitely good to have an idea of what you want to get across when you start, otherwise you can end up writing a stream of conciousness, great for notes, difficult for anyone else to read. Then again the obtuse nature could be intentional if you're writing "in-setting" fluff pieces, like Scipio's stuff for example. No one but him is ever going to read all of that lol, but it gives a good overall impression. Hope I've not had too much wine and this actually makes sense :P It's all pretty obvious stuff I know, but they're things that I find help. I'm rubbish at doing that modern-military style write up, so I tend to avoid doing them, it definitely works well if you can pull it off though

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