Art & Craft of Writing: Using Maps And Games

(A prior, simpler version of this article appeared as a reply to a thread [on using maps in the writing / marketing process] in the writer’s forums on How To Think Sideways)

I’ve been a wargamer almost as long as I have been a writer, and have been creating scenarios or adapting published material to game systems pretty much since Day One. Ergo, I have quite a number of odd bits available when I want to haul in a working-space for my story characters — and have dealt with some really creative game rules for approximating 3-D line-of-sight using a 2-D map for the playing surface (the FASA BATTLETECH system has been my fall-back there, although the earlier methods of the Avalon Hill SQUAD LEADER game system appeal to others of my acquaintance). This can be a real help when checking LOS (line-of-sight) for story continuity and visualization.

I find that it helps some people to use hexagonal grids instead of the commonly-available square-grid graph paper when creating or interpreting maps, but that may be an anomalous personal bias of mine showing. With either of those aids, or several other possibilities, it can help to find or make a (semi-)transparent overlay that can be laid on top of any printed or created map. This provides an immediate visual scale that can be simpler to read than measurements acquired by repeatedly moving a ruler. Transparency sheets (like those used with overhead projectors) allow for marking up a map without damaging the original; with a little practice, this concept can be used to show damage effects, terrain additions (where DID that parking garage go up?), temporary structures / “placed” equipment, etc.

The concepts of Frontage, Depth-of-Ranks, and March Times I learned in gaming translated well to my own writing, and may help in “feeling” / visualizing the relationship of map to real- / created- world:

Frontage is not just how wide a person or vehicle or critter is, but how much width of passage they need to function at a given rate of effectiveness for a desired activity — movement, hold-the-line defense, active fighting, et cetera. Frex, that five-foot hallway can be run through if “empty”, but add just one console table and a big guy may have to slow and sidle past (or smash the furniture accidentally while fighting).

Depth-of-Ranks or alternately Formations:
People and objects are three-dimensional at the least, and that includes length as well as width! A covey of quail, a homecoming parade, or an army on the march all take an amount of time to pass by any given reference point. If for some reason the moving group stops, it still has an area-of-coverage greater than the sum of the individuals making up the group. Think for a moment about a marching band. Unless there are VERY careful rehearsals and practice involved, each band member is separated from all those nearest by a minimum of an arm’s-length, or (roughly) one pace.

To further complicate our writing and gaming lives, movement is required — both physically and in terms of position-over-time — to shift from normal marching into any selected formation, either for static (“motion-less”) position or relative to allies, enemies, and features yet still in motion.

One Special-Case class of examples in military formations is any infantry unit maximizing defense through use of shields. “Special” here also involves nomenclature: a Testudo is not a Schiltron, and neither of those is a simple Shield-Wall… and all three have cultural variations. These (and most other) formations require varying amounts of acreage depending upon current circumstances as well. Each has benefits, each has limitations, and each has failed spectacularly when faced with advances in tactics or technology. (Massed archery or gunnery, and area-effect weaponry, being the death of most close-quarter formations at one time or another…)

The classical Phalanx is a fourth often-used description for shield- and spear- / pike- intensive infantry formations, and is perhaps the one most often MIS-used or simply misunderstood. Any discussion of the phalanx is further complicated by placement in history: a phalanx in the army of Alexander the Great at the time of his death was different in composition from that of the Athenians a mere three or four generations earlier, and both were different still from the Greek phalanx that would face Roman legions a few generations afterward, and NONE of those really relate to any modern (20th-century or later) military unit, although usage might make us want to believe otherwise.

The basic phalanx CONCEPT was little changed for at least two millennia, however: a mass of men arranged in a rectangular formation, all carrying a spear or spear-like primary weapon and usually also armed with a secondary (dagger / knife / short sword / etc.). Later descriptions indicate some specialization in the ranks: first rank shield, spear, and short secondary weapon; second rank shield and medium-length weapons (or “choked-up” longer ones), third and fourth ranks pike or other long weapons, sometimes without shields. Additional ranks were usually added up to a depth of eight or more, and a minimum front of ten men, usually more. A “true” Phalanx was seldom less than a hundred soldiers in number, although the more common camp & march unit was based upon the file (column or sometimes pair of columns within the deployed phalanx). Some of my sources are loathe to give the title of Phalanx to any formation of less than five hundred or so…

A convoy of vehicles has a minimum-safe separation distance that increases with speed (if you have been through Driver’s Ed or similar learning experience, remember the discussions about reaction time required to brake to a complete stop?), but ALSO typically has a minimum separation distance when parked in a line. That separation should be enough for crew and passengers to move between convoy elements without crawling through / over / under. There may be special circumstances where the minimum separation is reduced or eliminated due to any of several factors. These include but are not limited to providing cover to dismounted forces (use of vehicles as a temporary fortification, a la “Circle The Wagons!”, whether stationary or on-the-move), reducing threat from dismounted opposition, temporary fencing for herds, etc.

March Times: individual or group, living or mechanical (or other), humans assume that it takes some amount of time to move from Point A to Destination B. (Even with teleportation, Glinda – havta at least think about destination / initiate the transfer, after all!) In the simplest cases, this is a straightforward calculation. At a slightly more complex level, add in meal-times / fuel stops / potty-breaks. For any journey requiring more than the normal amount of time between two meals, it is best to include deliberately-scheduled rest time(s) and other possible fatigue factors.

The astute writer also does a little research into the perils of forced-march and subsequent effects upon performance of not only people and animals but also machinery not given extra maintenance attention.

* = * = * = *

(YES, I do happen to also design or expand / correct the rules for games in an attempt to make the experience more realistic. There is a balancing act involved quite simple to exposition in a given story, where too much detail detracts from enjoyment of the experience. I also happen to sharpen knives, swords – and wits…)


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