Experiments In Immersive Storytelling (and procrastination)

warmachine tableI’m supposed to be finishing a novel. Really, it’s three quarters of the way done. And to the people asking where’s the sequel to Tearing Down The Statues, it’s so cool that you’re asking. And I’m sorry that I’m not even done with the one I’m working on to start that one. So forgive me for this article; but look at that tabletop there! That’s cool, right?

It started around Halloween. My birthday’s in November; and I coerced my wife and kids into playing Dungeons & Dragons with me as my present. Haven’t played since before college, no idea what I was doing. Just thought it would be awesome. I crammed on the game mechanics with Critical Role (thanks Matt Mercer, you’re a gifted genius!) Then when we needed some figurines for the tabletop to help me keep track of what was what, we went to a gaming store and something magical happened.

Some dudes were in the back staring intently at a grassy landscape with trees and steampunk robot miniatures playing some kind of game. I asked the guy helping me what they were playing. He described it as like chess only more complicated and with steam powered robots and magic. Warmachine. I was about to go deep and didn’t know it.

The D&D game went fantastic, by the way. There was a mysterious box with a kraken egg inside, goblin attacks, and three riddles you had to solve before a crushing room at the inn squeezed them into pancakes. They set loose the last baby kraken at the end. Was amazing. But Warmachine, though. Tell me more about Warmachine.

A dude named Matt Wilson started Privateer Press with a couple of friends around 2000, to ‘create expressions of his own original property concepts’. Sounds pretty liberating. I’m glad he did it. Warmachine and its ugly sister, Hordes, are his masterworks. What attracted me was the notion of clashing strategies with steampunk robots on gorgeous scenery, an all-out war in miniature on a tabletop played like a gentleman’s game of chess. Maybe not so much the storytelling side of it, though that will come, but the blend of art and reason.

IMG_8361Since it was Christmas and New Years, and too miserable cold and snowy outside to do anything else, I made some Papercraft houses and started watching videos on making terrain. You should watch this guy. He’s a miracle worker!

I got some sawdust from a guy named Kenny at Lowe’s that cuts lumber, sifted it to a fine powder, and stirred it in with green egg tempera paint. The kids had to step over it on the paper in the garage as it dried out. When it’s glued on primered foam, it looks amazingly like grass. If you get into this sort of thing, you should google ‘drybrushing’. Super easy.

IMG_8364I twisted some wire strips together and bent them to look like limbs, then stuck that into holes I drilled in an old flagpole dowel glued to wooden bases from Hobby Lobby. After I hot-glue-gunned the crap out of them and primered them, I pulled and stretched on some steel wool to make netting. I drybrushed the trunks with brown and white and sprayed the steel wool with spray adhesive. Then I dunked them upside-down in a tub of the dyed sawdust. Boom! Trees. Honestly, you should see them in person. Not bad at all.

IMG_8363I carved out a cavity in a flat piece of insulation foam and coated it with joint compound, glued some rocks I picked up when I was walking the dogs, and glued some dyed sawdust to it too. The bushes were made just like the trees. I drybrushed the lake bottom, then poured some clear resin from Hobby Lobby to make the water. The stuff reeks, but it looks pretty good when it cures. I messed up and put brown paint in it. My daughter said it looked like Willie Wonka’s chocolate pond.


The game is played on a 4ft x 4ft tabletop; and I was avoiding learning how to assemble and paint miniatures anyway, so I took a stab at the wargaming table. The textured surface is gritty sand poured on plywood, sprayed a bajillion times with watered-down Elmer’s glue, and then painted with browns and greens using a ripped sponge. My daughter picked out the dark stain for the wood. Nice choice.

IMG_8367I can’t paint. Never have I been able to paint. It’s bad, seriously. Wish I could. I avoided putting those models together and painting them like it was the plague. Then it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. I used some metallic paints my wife picked up on Amazon and the good stuff Privateer Press puts out. That made up for the scarcity of talent.

The rules are a bit thick. Clear and well structured, yes. But there’s a lot to it. So I had to study it before game day. My son, who’s 15 and grumpy and doesn’t like anything even promised me a game – “because you’ve worked so hard on it”, he said. My wife agreed to one. My daughter didn’t. My daughter’s boyfriend, however, is fascinated although she won’t let him near me when I’m talking about it.

And so game one, entirely solo so I could learn how to play, is over! My approach was to hit the other side as hard as I could with the best and most dangerous strategies possible, then trade places and do the same on the other side. It was an experiment in immersive storytelling, particularly for an intriguing clash of two armies in a custom landscape. I’d like you to live it with me, because it went quite well.

Don’t worry about the rules, just follow what happened. Assume it’s all dice rolls and stats on cards to see what happens when you try something. Let’s dive in! (View the pdf instead of these pics if that’s easier)

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I can’t believe I’m still not working on the novel. It’s been an amazing diversion; but it’s really time to get back into the action. Everything I do affects my writing, so I’m sure something will be different this weekend when I get the ball rolling. Maybe more action, maybe the introduction of a slightly different aesthetic, or maybe a character that likes wargames. I don’t know. The characters are in a difficult bind right now, and trapped. I think maybe I need now to be a little more strategic in what they do next.

Or I could just build some cool ruins and play another game.