Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Specific vs Generic: Ornaments & Bricks

The settings that really grab my attention have a way of drawing you in with little details. Servo skulls in Warhammer 40k. Carrion Priests in Spire. The noise of a TIE Fighter in Star Wars. Here it pays to be very specific, and if you get it right then the reader/viewer/player should feel their imagination racing to life around this one small piece of your world.

To counter that, a setting that's overloaded with specific elements can feel restrictive, intimidating, or tonally inconsistent within itself. Sometimes a world that's thoroughly planned out is less interesting than one with gaps. There are times when it pays to stay generic. We hardly need to know more about the' Empire and the Rebellion than their name to start to understand them. 

It's a bit like what I wrote about here, but more focused on the overall structure of a setting than the artwork. Let me apply an over-important theory to this.

Specific elements are your Ornaments. These are the things that give your world life and identity. In Electric Bastionland this could be any of the Failed Careers or Oddities. You aren't a Fighter or a Rogue, you're specifically an Avant Guardsman or a Counterfeit Taxidermist. 

Generic elements are your Bricks. These are basic pieces that aren't interesting on their own, but imagination unlocks their potential. In Electric Bastionland most weapons are Bricks. They have a damage die, maybe they're Bulky or do Blast damage, but that's about it. There's no list of fifty weapon types with subtly different mechanics here. The differences between a Sword (d6) and an Axe (d6) exist largely within your imagination. 

Really I was thinking of Lego with this analogy. Think of the Specific Ornament elements as those fancy pieces like a crocodile or set of wheels. They're designed to catch your eye and do a mostly specific thing. These are the pieces that might give you the idea to build a crocodile-car, but it's only the generic bricks that allow the idea to become a reality.

With Electric Bastionland most of the Ornaments are weird characters or objects, but they're held up by a bare-bones system and a vague approach to setting specifics. Bastion is a specific city, but beyond a few core principles it's actually more of an expansion on the generic idea of a city.

When the system and world are both so simple it's easy for me to give the Avant Guardsman a trained attack bear when all of the required mechanics fit neatly on a single line and I don't have to worry about the canonical impact. If I got fancy and designed a new specific sub-system for bear-training, and slipped in a paragraph about the impact of bear-training guardsmen on the city of Bastion as a whole... well you can see how things would get out of control after a while.

GRIMLITE is slightly different. As with so many other miniature games, it's very much designed to be an excuse to kitbash miniatures together and face them off against each other. Here it pays to be vague, but if I use nothing but generic lego bricks then why should anybody care? What's the point in me making this game for anybody but myself?

This is where the balance comes in. There are specific elements in there, but they're also functioning as bricks. Maybe this analogy is falling apart, but where a wargame tied to an official line of miniatures might want a very specific visual identity for their units, I want to keep things vague enough that you and I might both have very different miniatures representing the same unit, but both are equally valid.

This wouldn't be the case if I was overly specific, like this:

Argastes, Rust Priest (3+)
A lithe, brown-robed priest overrun by the nano-corrosion that he serves. His melted-face is hidden behind a skeletal mask and his legs replaced by a mass of iron tendrils.
Oxidiation Pistol (T1x5, one-handed: A sleek, glowing pistol with optic sights)
Shock Pick (T1x3, two handed, connected to Power Pack. Bears the symbol of his order, a half-corroded skull)
Ever-Server - Bipedal Rust-Acolyte and Scroll-Bearer: Once per battle ignore one wound as Ever-Server conjurs an immaterial shield from his texts.
Tactic: Invoke the Nano-Prism - All your units attempt a Free Recovery.

And equally, things quickly become entirely uninspiring when you get too generic, like this: 

Priest (3+)
Gun (T1x5)
Melee Weapon (T1x3)
Accessory: Once per battle ignore one wound.
Tactic: All your units attempt a Free Recovery.

So the actual entry looks like this, which I'm hoping gives enough inspiration to spark your imagination but doesn't tie you down to needing the exact miniature that I had in mind:

Argastes, Rust Priest (3+)
Oxidiser (T1x5)
Shock Pick (T1x3)
Assistant: Once per battle ignore one wound.
Tactic: Arise - All your units attempt a Free Recovery.

The Oxidiser is perhaps the best example here. The name conjures ideas around what the weapon could be, but it really doesn't limit how that weapon might look. I have it as a weird pistol, but you might model yours as a slender beam weapon or a chunky, experimental energy cannon.

It's a tough tightrope to walk, and I think every game should carefully consider how it balances its Specific and Generic elements.


  1. In a miniatures game, aren't the miniatures themselves the ornaments? I'm often ok with very generic bricks in such games because if you want to know what things are like, well, the miniatures & scenery are right in front of you. Not that I don't appreciate an Oxidiser or Shock Pick :-)

    1. Yes, but I would argue that can cause issues when (for example) we both turn up to play a game and my ornaments have a different look to your ornaments. Not a case for every game, or every player, but a factor probably worth considering. Also I'd say I'm more inspired to convert an Oxidiser and Shock Pick on my model than a gun and melee weapon - it helps draw me into the setting.

    2. It's certainly evocative and inspiring. But it does nothing to prevent the situation where players turn up with forces that have a wildly different look. My oxidiser can be a rifle and yours a pistol, and my miniatures might be cleverly converted Perry historicals in tastefully muted blanchitsu colors on swampy bases, and yours might be bright & bold WH40K miniatures on urban bases. The only way to prevent that sort of thing from happening (if you want to, I'm not sure I always do) is by having canonical visual references or coordinating with your fellow players before you even start to build your warband.