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Building empathy


 

 

 

This is VAR 1st_officer, one of the components of your company in Burden of Command. Any squad that-

I’m sorry. Let me start again.

 

This is Edgar Gaines Thompson, the son of two schoolteachers from the small town of Piedmont, South Dakota. He was set to follow his parents’ footsteps when Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered World War Two. Imbued by his parents with a strong sense of morality, he saw it as his patriotic duty to volunteer. A quick learner and a hard worker, he was quickly picked out as officer material. Still eager and bright-eyed, he takes command of 1st Platoon. His optimism and courage quickly makes him popular among his men, though some of your veterans shake their heads. They know that idealism rarely survives a trial by fire.

Perhaps he will return home to Piedmont with his idealism intact.
Perhaps he will end the war as an embittered man, old before his time.
Or perhaps he will end his young life on some nameless hill in Sicily, or Alsace, or Bavaria, his chest ripped open by shrapnel or his temple marred by a bullet wound, his hopes and dreams spilling out onto a soon-to-be forgotten stretch of soil far from home.

My name is Paul Wang, junior writer on Burden of Command, and I’m here to talk about building empathy.
When you play chess, do you care about your pawns? Do you agonize over sacrificing them? Or do you see them just as means to an end?

 

 

In 11Bit Studios’ This War of Mine, you also have pieces – a group of refugees – and a board –  the fictional war-torn city of Pogoren. However, because of the way that the game builds empathy between the player and the characters they control, the player can’t sacrifice their “pieces” to win like they would in a game of chess. The question of how to achieve the win state (surviving until the end of the siege) becomes more complex because the player begins to identify with the characters, thinking not only of their own victory, but the well-being of these beleaguered, relatable, but ultimately fictional souls.
The player might find themselves weighing the emotional cost of forcing a character to visit suffering on others for the sake of obtaining much needed medicine  or putting their characters at risk to “be a hero”. The nature of the win state itself changes. Is winning a matter of pure survival? Or is it better that they make it out with clean consciences that will let them live with themselves afterward?
The player begins thinking less like someone playing a game, and more like those who are trapped in a ruined building in a city filled with chaos.

 

 

Burden of Command is This War of Mine seen from the other side. Building bonds of empathy towards the characters under the player’s command serves to turn them into more than little olive drab men on a map. In return, as the player starts to empathise with their company, they begin to feel responsible for their well-being. They begin thinking of the win state not only as a matter of taking the objective, but as a matter of bringing as many of their boys home as possible.

They begin thinking like a Company Commander.

The question for a writer then becomes which characters to focus on building empathy with. Generally speaking, the average player can maintain empathic bonds with anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen characters. Anything more and things get dicey — after all, these characters have to compete for attention with a player’s real family members, friends, loved ones, and co-workers. Anything beyond those dozen characters, and players will start forgetting names, faces, and uttering the eight words no writer wants to hear: “I don’t care what happens to these people”.

A US army rifle company in 1944 had a total paper strength of 193. Realistically, we couldn’t make every single one of them into an empathetic character – players would lose track. We had to decide who we would build our core relationships around.

 

 

The four platoon leaders in the player’s company are the conduit to the nearly two hundred men under their command. These men also carry their own burdens of command, but as their superior, the Company Commander (and by extension, the player) also holds the power of life and death over them in turn. They represent the burden which the player must carry in keeping their men alive and well.

 

 

In his Red Sneaker series, William Bernhardt explains that the most obvious way to encourage a reader to empathise with a character is to give them a trait or two which the reader is likely to admire.

This is the first step of turning a platoon leader from a list of variables into an empathetic character. We can then use those traits as a reference point. We can build a character’s backstory by asking how he gained those traits, his likes and dislikes based on how they relate to his virtues, and then use all of those things to create a coherent way in which that character speaks, acts, and sees the world.

To make sure those personalities build the connections they are supposed to, our current writing process is heavily geared towards ensuring our characters hit the right notes. On the advice of Chris Avellone, one of our senior advisors, we’ve been asking our playtesters to record their emotional responses to major characters, and tweaking how they are written accordingly.

These personalities and virtues are reflected through their mindsets. For example, Lieutenant Thompson is defined by his idealism, This is borne out by his unwavering patriotism, his sense of duty, and his strong moral compass. Other leaders are represented in a similar way. Since mindsets (there are eight) also determine special leader abilities in tactical combat, their personalities also correlate directly to how they perform on the battlefield; yet another reason to get to know your men.

 

 

However, this isn’t the only empathy-building tool at our disposal. Good characters change and adapt (or fail to adapt) through the changing circumstances of the story. In books and films, this arc is immutable, but in Burden of Command the player takes the role of the Company Commander. Through this avatar, they interact with their platoon leaders in ways which can end up determining how they all develop as characters.

It will therefore be the player’s job to offer guidance to their subordinates. They are responsible for their subordinates’ physical well-being on the battlefield and their emotional well-being off of it. Choosing brutal but efficient solutions carries as great a cost as doing the ‘right’ thing and then having to pay for it.Through specific interactions, the player can guide their platoon leaders in a way which allows them to pick up aspects of other mindsets in addition to the one they started with. The resultant changes to the officer’s personalities and command abilities become a partial reflection of the player’s decisions in response to the stress of the war.

 

 

Emphasising the humanity of the men under the player’s command has one other, important aspect. Although the company the player controls is fictional, the battles and campaigns it goes through were very real. The flesh-and-blood men of the 3rd Battalion of the 7th Infantry Regiment suffered and bled and died in the places which Burden of Command seeks to recreate. They were not tokens on a map to their families, their friends, and those who served with them, and it would be a disservice to pretend otherwise.

In our next devblog, we’ll be discussing how we mean to convey the story of those flesh-and-blood Cottonbalers in the most respectful and historically authentic way possible.

 

The heart of war

 

 

 

Many engaging games have war’s trappings but do they have its heart? For example, In Call of Duty, the battlefield is visceral and your squad mates human. But with its near instant restarts, your death is only an inconvenience. Given the high rate at which you personally off endless enemies, their deaths soon become a simple power trip. In other games, your generalship but not your humanity is tested as you dispatch historically accurate “units” at an abstract distance.
In Burden of Command, as in Band of Brothers or This War of Mine, death is not an inconvenience, not a power trip, but a burden.
Men fear death. This dev blog is about the mechanics of how you’ll overcome that fear to provide leadership on an emotionally authentic battlefield.

New to Burden of Command? Check out our reveal teaser

 

Death Here is Thy Victory

Step into  the open unprepared in Burden of Command and you and your men will swiftly become casualties. Burden of Command features Permadeath. When men die they stay dead. Their lives are your burden. There is no “plot armor“ for your young lieutenants.

 

Learn the Art of Suppression

To keep your men alive you must first learn to suppress the enemy.  Unlike many games, tactical success is not about marksmanship, it is about fear. Because men fear death they take cover when bullets fly. As a consequence, casualties from small arms fire are low.  In WWII approximately 8000 bullets were fired per casualty inflicted. In addition, when men take cover their own marksmanship drops dramatically (it’s hard to aim when you’re fearing for your life).

 

In Burden of Command the fear of death is represented by Morale. High Morale units do as commanded. Like firing at the enemy.
Low Morale units do not. A squad with ten Morale has a 100% chance of doing what you order. A squad with five Morale has a 50% chance, a squad with one Morale, a 10% chance, and so forth. Firing at the enemy lowers their Morale. This effect is called Suppression.

Your goal as a battlefield commander is to maintain your unit’s Morale while suppressing the enemy. On real battlefields  firing goes up when the ‘boss’ is near.  Similarly, in Burden of Command, you and your subordinate leaders’ Command Presence (stacking a leader with a unit) increases Morale. Further you can Rally men (which removes suppression) as well as Direct Fire to increase Suppression on the enemy.

 

However, unlike many other games, even those with Morale, Suppression does not cause units to surrender or rout. Imagine seeing a stream of machine gun fire going over your head. Would you stand up in the face of it to surrender or run? Chances are, you wouldn’t, and most soldiers wouldn’t either.

To get the enemy to surrender you are going to have to close with them and assault.

 

“Fear of the Bayonet”

Only psychopaths want to fight hand to hand. In his fine book Brains and Bullets  Leo Murray estimates that left to their own devices fewer than 20% of soldiers are willing to commit to a hand to hand assault. It will be your burden as a leader to motivate that other 80% into finishing the job.

 

Win Hearts: Trust

In Burden of Command the effect of your morale improving actions like Rallying, and Command Presence will be based on your men’s Trust in you. How do your build your Trust stat? By taking risks with the men. Every time you put your own life on the line alongside them, they take note, and your Trust increases. Of course, doing so means risking Suppression, wounds, or even death. It’s a tradeoff.

If you have gained Trust and lead the assault your Command Presence will make it more likely to happen. According to Brains and Bullets a “low authority” (Trust) leader can double the chance that those under his command will follow him in an assault. A “high authority” leader can more than triple that chance. Will you take the risks needed to earn that level of Trust?

 

Lead by Example

Trust is not always enough to get men to take terrifying actions like engaging in hand to hand combat. Sometimes you must lead by example. I recall once being at the scene of a bloody bike accident. Everyone froze, implicitly looking to someone else to take action, to lead the way. This common phenomenon is known as diffusion of responsibility. However, once someone finally did take action, everyone swiftly joined in. This is “leading by example.”

 

In his book on Omaha Beach on D-Day, our advising and playtesting historian John McManus describes how Colonel Taylor stood up under truly withering fire and shouted to the prostate soldiers around him “There are two kinds of men out here! The Dead! And those about to die! So let’s get the hell off this beach.”
You may remember that quote from the film The Longest Day, or how Captain Winters in Band of Brothers stood upright under machine gun fire, kicking soldiers in the rear and urging them up to assault. Their real life examples raised morale and  led to victory.

 

In Burden of Command this is represented by a special leader action called Grandstanding. It can get Suppressed units back on their feet for the assault. But in doing so, you may risk losing Trust, becoming suppressed, or even killed…

 

Your Heart

We’ve discussed how you can take on the Burden of Command by leading through Rallying, Command Presence, and Trust. How you can overcome the dark heart of battle: the fear of death. But unless we create empathy, we will fail to make you personally feel the fear of death for your men, the emotionally personal Burden of Command.
We want to make you hesitate to order that assault, not because you fear losing a powerful “game unit,” but because you don’t want to lose Lieutenant Dearborn.

 

Next time we’ll focus on the artistic, narrative, and historical devices we use to create that empathy. The second part of the emotionally authentic experience that is Burden of Command.

 

Mindsets and Crucibles

 

 

It’s a miserable day in the fall of 1943. Your company has just taken a muddy hill in Southern Italy. Suddenly, you hear the clank of Panzers rolling up the slope towards your men.

 

 

Your company doesn’t have enough bazookas. If you stand and fight, your men might be slaughtered. If you give up the hill, you might expose other friendly units to a flank attack.

What do you do?

 

 

One commander might try and hold the hill because they were ordered to do so. Another might refuse to sacrifice their men and withdraw. A third might even be relishing the idea of a fight against the vaunted Panzerwaffe.  These are the different leadership styles we are trying to translate into gameplay mechanics.

 

 

Hello, we’re Allen Gies and Paul Wang, the writers behind Burden of Command. If you have seen our two minute teaser, you know that this game is about leadership. How do you create RPG mechanics which can faithfully depict the thought processes of someone who leads soldiers into battle?

Our answer is something called Mindsets.

 

 

In Burden of CommandMindsets are a character’s attributes. Instead of measuring strength or agility, Mindsets reflect how a character thinks and sees the world around them. In addition, each Mindset also affects tactical combat. A Zealous officer is more effective when leading assaults, while a Compassionate officer will suffer fewer casualties.

All officers start with a Primary Mindset, which represents the way that character thought in peacetime. But war changes a person. As an officer is exposed to the realities of combat, their personality develops as a result. They gain certain new Mindsets, or reinforce existing ones through events we call Crucibles.

Take the following example:

 

What would you choose?


This example is based on an actual event involving Lieutenant Ronald Speirs, of Band of Brothers fame. According to witnesses, Speirs shot his Sergeant in self-defense. Afterward, Speirs reported the incident to his commander, Captain Gross, who ruled the shooting justified after a short investigation (details here).

Like Speirs, combat will confront your officers with hard choices in Burden of Command. Some of these points will be scripted, while others will occur randomly or as a result of the player’s choices on the tactical map. We call these choices Crucibles, because they add or reinforce the Mindsets of the officer who goes through them, based on the choices you guide them into making. Over the course of multiple Crucibles, each officer will acquire a unique collection of Mindsets. These will shape both their leadership abilities in tactical battles, and their personal Journey as a character. In other words, your narrative decisions will explicitly craft your “character arc.”

 

 

The player’s choices can also affect subordinate officers.

 

 

Leading soldiers into battle isn’t just about deciding which unit goes where. It also means making hard decisions and living with the consequences. How will you decide when the bullets are flying and lives are on the line? How will your choices define you?

Crucibles, Mindsets, Journey. How will you bear the Burden of Command?


What Mindsets do you think you’d focus on if your were roleplaying? Please give us your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter, or leave a comment below.

 

 

“Winning the men’s confidence requires much of a commander. He must exercise care and caution, look after his men, live under the same hardships, and—above all— apply self discipline. But once he has their confidence, his men will follow him through hell and high water.”

-Erwin Rommel, Infantry Attacks

 

Cardboard inspirations

 

Hi, I’m Luke Hughes project lead On Burden of Command. Our two minute teaser video focused heavily on RPG aspects. But what about tactical combat?! While tactical details are still being worked out, today I can give you a high level impression by pointing to inspirations from cardboard. Hunh? Cardboard?  Well IMHO a lot of creativity over the last few decades has come from the physical board game space (a future blog will cover digital influences).  I feel privileged to “stand on the shoulders of giants” (well at least crouch). In this blog I will describe those influences and how they shape Burden of Command’s tactical design. The games below are by no means an exhaustive list, there are many other fine designs out there, these are just the ones that have had the most influence on me.

Most images below come from the marvelous BoardGameGeek site (check it out!).

 

Squad Leader (1977) is the “ur” WWII tactical game. It spawned the still passionately followed Advanced Squad Leader and deeply influenced most subsequent turn based designs. Mechanically, your fire your squads — their fire ideally enhanced by leaders  —  at enemies to cause “Morale Checks” which upon failing lead them to be “broken” (ineffective) or even “routed” till rallied by leaders. Random events like machine guns jamming or troops going “berserk” add unexpected drama.

 

Influence #1 On Burden of Command: Leadership is Compelling: Managing human battlefield psychology (morale) through leaders makes for interesting gameplay. We broaden that model by adding Trust and Respect mechanics and probably attentional ones (fixation, narrowed field of view under suppression, and surprise).   John Hill further recognized the key RPG aspect:


“Squad Leader was a success for one reason: it personalized the board game in a World War II environment. Take the “leaders,” or persons, away from it and it becomes a bore. Though this may sound surprising, the game has much in common with Dungeons & Dragons. In both games, things tend to go wrong, and being caught moving in the street by a heavy machinegun is like being caught by a people-eating dragon. Squad Leader was successful because, underneath all its World War II technology, it is an adventure game, indeed Dungeons & Dragons in the streets of Stalingrad.”

 

Influence #2: Emergent Stories Through Chaos: Making the battlefield psychological, making leaders explicitly present, and including random events means the battlefield becomes it’s own unscripted story generator (e.g., “remember that time when my last squad went berserk and charged through three hexes of withering enemy fire unscathed too finish off the bunkered MG and win the game?”). Game designers call this “emergent storytelling.”

 

Ambush (1983) was perhaps the first true WWII tactical RPG. You control a squad of individual soldiers with RPG like stats (e.g., ‘initiative’ and ‘perception’). Entering specific hexes can triggered narrative and gameplay events (see illustration above).

 

Influence #3: Integrate Narrative: Integrate narrative events directly into tactical gameplay for better immersion. Burden of Command extends this via a more general “StoryTeller Engine” that watches your battle and triggers event not only on entering a hex but also on a variety of other game play occurrences like unit actions (shooting, assaulting etc) and changes (morale checks etc).

 

Influence #4: RPG Creates an Immersive Battlefield: Deepen the experience of battleship leadership by making the player care about your men through classic RPG mechanisms (they persist and gain experience across battles). Making you think twice about sending those sprites (“That’s Dearborn!”) up that hill.

 

In Combat Commander (2006; GMT Games) chaos is pervasive. The actions available to you (move, shoot, rally, etc) are strictly limited to the random cards you have drawn! Even what specific turn the scenario will end on is carefully randomized. A large set of randomly drawn events (e.g., “Sniper!”)  spice up gameplay.

 

Influence #5: Pervasive Chaos Creates Depth:  Pervasive chaos makes interesting decisions about uncertainty equally pervasive (e.g., “does my opponent have a Fire card left? Will the scenario end this turn?”).  Burden of Command will emphasize leadership as a means to manage that chaos (the dreaded “RNG” in digital parlance).

 

Influence #6: And Deeper Emergent Stories:  A larger set of random events deepens “emergent storytelling” and adds unexpected “plot” twists and turns in gameplay.

 

Fields of Fire (2008, GMT Games) designer Ben Hull served in the USMC as an infantry officer and brings that experience to bear in a novel design emphasizing the authentic details of tactical leadership. Leaders receive randomized amounts of Commands to both activate and give squads specific actions (more, fire, rally, take cover etc).

 

Influence #7: Leadership is Always Limited Choice: Leadership should be a constant question of tough choices. For example, do I spend my limited command to rally or move forward to seize the objective before the enemy recovers from suppression? I can’t do both. A classic Sid Meier-ian “meaningful choice.”

 

In Band of Brothers (2011, Worthington Publishing) firepower does not so much break or cause casualties to enemy units as suppress. Meaning that a suppressed unit is uncertain to act when requested (you roll a dice versus its current level of suppression to see if it acts). To finish an enemy typically requires more than firepower, you close with a suppressed unit to catalyze surrender. Which leads to realistic infantry tactics know as the “4Fs,” namely: “Fire, fix, flank, and finish.”

 

Influence #8: Suppression is King: Suppression is a key concept for the psychological battlefield, leading to yet more command and control chaos (will this suppressed unit actually act?). Burden of Command explicitly uses leaders to mitigate the strong effects of suppression. In other words, experienced men who trust and respect your leadership will often overcome their suppression.

 

Conflict of Heroes Solo Expansion (2015, Academy Games) besides its remarkable and dynamic AI, this expansion brings  thePush Your Luck board game mechanic  to tactical play by making when a given unit’s turn ends highly uncertain.  Each single unit action ( a single hex move or fire) a card is drawn to see if the unit’s turn ends. Leading to powerful “push your luck” decisions like “do I try to make it that cover first, or play it safe and take my shot now, leaving myself exposed if the shot fails and my turn unexpectedly ends?”

 

Influence #9: Gamble on the Battlefield: “Push Your Luck” is a deeply appealing gambling like mechanism and adds yet more chaos (noticing a theme here? Burden of Command intends to adopt chaos with a vengeance but use leaders to manage and mitigate its effects. Don’t play Burden of Command if you want to be in control, play it if you want to lead in the face of chaos! Chaos makes for interesting decisions and good battlefield emergent stories!).

 

Fire team: Red Eclipse (TBA, Lock n Load Publishing) is a re-design of the original Fire Team game by our scenario lead Steve Overton (“Mad Russian”), who not only served in US Army but is a famed digital game scenario designer (e.g., Combat Mission). Leaders play a pivotal role in the game with their state determining how many commands they can give each impulse during the turn.

 

Influence #10: TBD: Steve’s design has only recently gone public and he has promised me a game when he returns from his current vacation. Given his role in Burden of Command and my deep respect for his talents I am certain Red Eclipse will have a strong influence over the design evolution of Burden of Command.

 

Putting it All Together

The following illustration summarizes how Burden of Command defines battlefield leadership.  In a nutshell, the battlefield is a psychological landscape where Chaos creates interesting decisions (as well as emergent stories) that leadership mitigates through Directing (via an always too scare pool of command), Motivating (leaders influence morale checks, push your luck, suppression and more), and Preserving (RPG like preserving of your valued men across battles as they gain experience and you gain empathy).

 

We would love to hear from you now! What are your favorite board/wargames? Which one of their mechanics you value most, and why? Do you think a particular aspect of modern conflicts has been underrepresented in wargames? And, most importantly, do you really need a formal question to talk about your favorite games?
Comments are available, social buttons are below, you know the drill!

Making the Characters Come Alive 2

 

Hi, I’m Chris Dworjan, Content Designer for Burden of Command. I’ve been asked to kick off our series of development blogs with an explanation on how we create our character portraits. My role is very much like a casting director and costumer combined. The starting point is nothing more than a spreadsheet created by our writers early in the process with their character notes.

 

For Ashley Dearborn, we had the outline of an aristocrat who had studied the history and theory of war at VMI.

Then it was time to sit down and think about who he reminded me of. I thought about people from my military career, figures from history, and characters from movies. Who did I know that could be Ashley Dearborn? I went to the authors with the photos below and asked them the question: “do you see Dearborn here?”

 

After getting their input, I still had the problem of how to distill a character down to just one portrait.

Early in the portrait design process I hit on the idea that the portrait should be the photo you take out of the scrapbook to show when you are telling your story. The portrait should tell not just what they looked like, but who they were. For Dearborn, it was “smug satisfaction.” It was a man looking beyond the camera at something he was proud of. Arms folded, quietly pleased with himself.

At Burden of Command, to increase immersion and to show respect, we also strive hard for authenticity.

My responsibility in particular is getting the details “right.” Dearborn needed a uniform. I thought he should look like a US Army infantry officer in Italy. At that point, he’s been in the war long enough that his experience has caught up with his theoretical knowledge. I checked multiple photos to see what 3rd Infantry Division and the 7th Infantry Regiment specifically were wearing on operations in Italy.

 

Then the slide deck went to our amazing portrait artist, Mariusz Kozik.

He worked his magic and turned our vision into a beautiful portrait. I looked at it with the writers and we realized that it was a great portrait, but it just wasn’t Ashley Dearborn. This guy was too badass, not smug. So I did the responsible thing; I cast him in a different role.
This portrait got some new insignia and became our quiet professional warrior, Captain Cord Boston of the Army Rangers.

 

I tweaked things a bit and asked Mariusz to make our man a little less “Hollywood”.

It was easy enough to put him in the field shirt and roll up his sleeves. But details… what would make Dearborn truly Dearborn? Hmm. He went to VMI (Virginia Military Istitute). He’s the kind of guy who lets everyone know how special he is. I bet he’s the kind of guy who would wear his class ring in combat. I eventually managed to find a photo that showed at least one officer wore his class ring, and that was enough to show it was possible and we would be keeping with history.

And Mariusz delivered. He produced a portrait that I instantly recognized as Ashley Dearborn.

 

Portrait design has been a fun challenge.

Capturing the spirit of the character, making them visually distinct, ensuring historical accuracy, and keeping them flexible enough to work in all the different sizes and purposes in the game. But it all becomes worth it when we start to notice that the characters with portraits have become much more “real” than the ones still awaiting the process.

And finally we propose you, in pure Burden of Command style, a choice: choose wisely soldier!

 

 

 

STARRING:

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome!

Welcome!

It’s not all sober faces here at Burden of Command. We do engage sometimes in horseplay  donkey play. We even try to be a-mule-sing. But of course, sometimes we just make an <deleted> of ourselves.  

More seriously, our friend above will make an appearance in game, and remarkably, an historically accurate one. Anyone want to guess when and where? 

 While you’re pondering, please give us your thoughts on what you’d like to see us blog about. And if you like what you’re seeing, subscribe to our newsletter (above), and YouTube channel. If you’re feeling kind, please like us on Facebook.

 

Luke and the Burden of Command Team