• Ignis Aurum Probat: The Fire Tests the Gold - Part I

    Ignis Aurum Probat: The Fire Tests the Gold [Roman proverb]

    Part I
    By Alwyn

    In the fire of battle, the quality of our writing is tested. How can we write about battles in a way that will feel authentic, conjure the sights and sounds of battle, evoke emotions and show how our characters are affected by their experiences?

    Suppose you’re going to write about a battle for your AAR or piece of creative writing. Why does this battle matter? Who does it matter to? The answer depends on the sort of story which you are writing. Are you writing a history-book AAR, a soft narrative, a hard narrative or something else? You may be unfamiliar with these expressions – I’ll explain.

    History-book AARs focus on in-game events, while narrative AARs focus on characters and plot. You might be thinking 'but what if an AAR does both, focusing on how characters experience in-game events and on how this develops the plot?' That's a 'soft narrative'. What, then, is 'hard narrative'? Robin de Bodemloze in Takeda: A Shogun II AAR found himself relying less on the campaign, focusing instead on telling a story using images from custom battles. When the story no longer follows a campaign, but tells a story set in the world of that game, this is hard narrative. The best current example is Hitai's Yōkai, a Shogun II AAR. If you would like to know more about these categories, I suggest having a look at Hitai's article Narrative Trends in Shogun II AARtistry in issue 44 of The Critic's Quill.

    You are invited to join me in a journey across historical battlefields, where the courage and integrity of heroes will be tested and where we can learn secrets of successful battle writing. We’re off to Paris, where we will see how to engage a reader’s interest in your battles and why sometimes the battle is not about the battle.

    Sometimes the battle is not about the battle

    “Paris was, and remains, the battle that would change my life; it was there that I discovered why some saw us as murderers in red coats, why being a soldier is Hell...but also why we train, why we fight, and why we die for the man to either side of us.”
    - The Sun Never Sets: A British AAR for Imperial Splendour
    by McScottish, “So It Begins…” The First Battle of Paris, 1711-12

    If your story uses a history book style, then how does the battle matter for the history of your nation? If you write a soft narrative AAR, then what does this battle mean for your characters and plot? The introduction to the First Battle of Paris answers these questions; the sentence above drew me in brilliantly. This sentence comes before the battle begins, so we don’t know the answers to the questions it poses. This sentence made we want to know how the main character’s life would be changed, who saw British soldiers as “murderers in red coats” and why.

    Writers can make battles memorable by showing their impact on characters, for example if one of your characters has to cope with a surprise. Battles can illustrate changing relationships between countries or individuals. Battles can be about the development of your characters’ personalities. Below, we will see how showing the impact of battles on people and relationships can make your battle writing stand out.

    Sometimes the battle is not about the battle (or, at least, not only about the battle). For example, a battle might provide the focus for a commander’s reflections on the tactics of their enemy, as in these thoughts from a Marcomanni general, Nevelung:-

    “It was a tremendous battle for us. We had lost just over a thousand men but had killed almost five thousand of the Caledones. Two of their armies were completely shattered if not wiped out completely. But there was still one question which bothered me. Why had the Caledones army which had already landed now waited for the other army to land before attacking? It would make much more tactical sense to combine forces and then attack. But one captured prisoner, who happened to be a captain of one of the generals, revealed that the two generals were feuding before the attack. Each wanted the glory of leading the attack for themselves, so instead of working together to defeat us, they were crushed individually.”
    - Reunification: a Marcomanni AAR by hooahguy14, Chapter Seventeen

    Battles can be about surprises and unexpected events

    If you have played Total War games, then have you noticed strange, unusual or surprising behaviour from your enemies on the battlefield? As hooahguy14 showed above, such behaviour can be a useful ingredient for developing your story. We might be surprised because of an unexpected action by an AI opponent (or ally). For example, we might be surprised by an attack on a border fortress which had seemed to be in a secure location. If we are surprised, then our characters can be surprised, too:-

    “The garrison of the small fort guarding the former Kievan-Hungarian border had not much to do since the fall of Brasov. There was nothing to worry about as the new Roman neighbors were trusted allies. The winter months were long and spent with routine tasks. This was an unimportant border of the Rus, with forgotten soldiers and without noteworthy events.”
    - Primus Inter Pares: The Kievan Rus (SS AAR) by Radzeer, Chapter 9 “With fire and sword II”

    Of course, writers of AARs do not have to write about every battle which occurs in our campaign. We might think that an attack on an unimportant border fort is not worth including. But Radzeer seized the opportunity for some great writing. A small garrison faced an unexpected attack from a force with five times their numbers. Despite being surprised, the garrison commander had surprises of his own, sending horse archers to sally forth from the fort and attack the enemy commander and his nobles, lining up spearman to defend the gate and using crossbowmen as a last line of defence. Radzeer’s writing conveys powerfully the courage and desperation of the defenders in a few words:-

    “The fight at the gate was heroic, but the outcome was never in question. The Kievan spearmen were soon overran by the Polish companies. Knowing that this is their last hour, the mercenary crossbowmen were waiting in the center to give the attackers hell. The Polish commander rode in among his troops. His armor was bloody after the fight at the gate. Several Kievan spearmen tried to kill him, but all failed.”
    - Primus Inter Pares: The Kievan Rus (SS AAR) by Radzeer, Chapter 9 “With fire and sword II”

    In Radzeer’s story above, the focus of the chapter was on the enemy commander and the attempts by the brave defenders to kill him, from the perspective of the defenders. The focus of your characters’ attention and their particular goals can be the basis for a chapter in your story.

    Battles can be about the goals of particular characters or units

    We might assume that the focus of our characters will simply be on winning the battle. We might think that we should focus equally on all of the significant events across the battlefield. We may be used to watching battles from above and being able to move the camera from one end of the battlefield to another. But, if we write about a battle from the point of view of particular characters, the story of the battle for them might be about what happened in one part of the battlefield. For this character, the battle might be about how they saw terrifying enemies break through another part of their line and then heard the order to turn and face those fierce foes. Perhaps the story of the battle for one character would be all about how they moved stealthily through thick woodland, only hearing the sounds of the battle, until they reached a position from which they could surprise the enemy.

    Merchant of Venice explained in It's just a matter of perspective: Writing in the view of different characters in The Critic’s Quill issue 43 that changing perspective can add detail and suspense. To illustrate how this can be done, we travel now to the foothills of Odawara in 16th-century Japan, where a fortress is under siege in a cold winter. In his Shogun II AAR Takeda, Robin de Bodemloze tells us about this battle from two perspectives: we see events through the eyes of the commanders of the Takeda and the Hojo.

    While Robin is writing his AAR mainly from the viewpoint of members of the Takeda faction, he tells the story of this battle mainly through the eyes of Yuki Takezo, the commander of the Odawara fortress which belongs to the Hojo faction. Yuki Takezo is delighted when he hears that the Takeda are abandoning the siege and retreating. We can feel his confidence as he leads his army out of the castle:-

    “Yuki Takezo was excited. After the death of Hojo Totome the clan had been left in a vacuum with nobody to lead it. As one of the senior retainers to the late Ujiyasu-sama, he had been one of the regents to the clan for the time being, but now if he was victorious in battle against the Takeda surely the clan would embrace him as…

    The troops were gathered quickly and filed out from the castle gates. A good host of men numbering almost two thousand had travelled with Takezo, and he was confident of the victory lying ahead. The Takeda were slow, too slow in getting out of Sagami, he thought, as he caught a glimpse of the red banners in the distance, and ordered his men to double their march.”
    - Takeda: A Shogun II AAR by Robin de Bodemloze, Chapter IX “The art of war” 1549 – Winter

    I mentioned earlier that, when we tell the story of a battle from the viewpoint of a particular character, we can focus more on the goals of that person, which might be ‘stand your ground, no matter what’ or ‘hide in those woods and make a surprise attack’ or even 'survive this battle even though your own general is trying to get you killed'. Here, Robin de Bodemloze illustrates this brilliantly. The goal of this character isn’t simply to win this battle – in his mind, he has already won. His goal is not even to achieve a particular task within the battle. Instead of focusing on the fight ahead, he dreams of higher status in the Hojo clan. For this character (at least initially) the dream of higher status is what this battle about. The focus of the Hojo commander provides a startling contrast to the events that follow. As the story continues, the excitement and anticipation of Yuki Takezo build up and up, until:-

    “Suddenly, the Hojo commander realised that something was not right. The right flank was fading fast, and the samurai he had put his hopes in were beginning to fall back. As the Takeda gave chase, he desperately ordered his infantry to cover the right flank, hoping to rescue a desperate situation, but realised that in his hubris he had forgotten to retain troops as reserves.”
    - Takeda: A Shogun II AAR by Robin de Bodemloze, Chapter IX “The art of war” 1549 – Winter

    In a moment, the Hojo commander’s confidence turns to anxiety and his hope to fear. The arc of the Hojo commander’s emotions and the devastating surprise when the battle turns against him make this a moving and powerful chapter. Here, Robin de Bodemloze brings together several of the suggestions in this article. Like hooahguy14 in Reunification, Robin has thought about the reasons for the behaviour of the AI opponent – in this case, the reasons for the choices of the Hojo commander. The Hojo commander did not hold troops in reserve because he was distracted. Like Radzeer in Primus inter Pares, Robin focuses on the goals of a particular character (the Hojo leader) and his goal is not simply ‘winning this battle’. The Hojo general was distracted because he thought this would be an easy victory and he was dreaming of a glorious future after the battle, not focusing on the present moment. As Merchant of Venice suggested, Robin has changed the perspective of his story, using the point of view of the general of the opposing army, not the viewpoint of anyone in the army which Robin was directing.

    Battles can be about changes in relationships

    A battle might demonstrate changes in relationships between individuals or nations, for example when former friends meet across a battlefield. An example of this is the siege of Ragusa in Roman Heritage’s Chronikon Ton Basileon:-

    “Ironically, the castle which Ioannis had generously gifted to its Hungarian allies, had now became a rather formidable stronghold over which the two peoples which had once been friends would have spilled each other's blood.”
    - Chronikon Ton Basileon: A Byzantine, Stainess Steel 6.4, AAR by Roman Heritage, Chapter XXI “The Wolves’ Attack (1195-1197 AD)”

    The memory of the ‘generous gift’ and the former friendship contrast in the past with the desperate struggle to win the battle in the present moment. Roman Heritage gives readers a sense of the bitterness behind this fight between former friends. The scorched-earth tactics of the Baron of Ragusa underline the bitterness and desperation in this war:-

    “The Baron of Ragusa, in fact, had spoiled the countryside of almost every single item the Romans could have used to feed themselves, bringing inside the fortifications impressive quantities of grain, vegetables, whole herds of sheep and cows, burning everything he couldn't bring in his retreat.”
    - Chronikon Ton Basileon: A Byzantine, Stainess Steel 6.4, AAR by Roman Heritage, Chapter XXI “The Wolves’ Attack (1195-1197 AD)”

    Of course, it is possible to combine the ideas discussed in this article. For example, a story can involve both a surprise and a change in relationships. One of your characters might – suddenly and unexpectedly – be given a new position of responsibility. One of my favourite moments in Merchant of Venice’s epic tale The Way of the Bow is when this happens to the main character, Yuki:-

    “From now on, you are Ashigaru no ippantekin [General of the ordinary foot-soldiers].” He said, with no significance at all to what should have befitted the title.

    “Are you talking to me, tono?” I asked, wondering whether he might have meant for Dōsetsu-san or Chikakata-san, men who befit the rank much more than I did.

    “I said you are Ashigaru no ippantekin! Now hurry up and order your men before I change my mind.” Sorin shouted, frustrated at the day’s turn of events. “And I want to win this battle, if you could even call it that. Win me this Yuki, and you will never want for anything.” With that he went back to his other commanders. I continued to scan our army, observing their strengths and weaknesses. We had plenty of ashigaru; yari, yumi and teppo alike but little heavy infantry and cavalry. Different formations circled in my head like vultures. I was brought back to the real world by a certain Chikakata-san, who crashed into me rather ungainly.

    “Chikakata-san, I want you take command of the yaris. Get them into order and begin to arrange them in groups.” He looked at me strangely, tilting his head as he stared at me blankly.

    “I do not take orders from you, Yuki-kun.” He replied, blunt as ever.”
    - The Way of the Bow: A Chosokabe AAR by Merchant of Venice, Chapter XV “Keyhole”

    For me, the abrupt orders – “hurry up” and “win this battle” with no more guidance – and Yuki’s confusion help to make this a highly effective and dramatic moment. Poor Yuki! Having been abruptly ordered to take command and win the battle, the first time he gives an order, the person who he speaks to bluntly refuses to obey him. As AAR writers, we could easily take for granted the organisation of our troops at the start of a battle. In the hands of Merchant of Venice, even the organisation of units at the beginning of a battle is an opportunity for dramatic events in which we can see Yuki overcoming difficult challenges.

    Battles can be about character development

    Events in a battle can be a rich source of character development. We might assume that our characters will grow and become better people through surviving in tough situations. But is that realistic, if we write about warfare? Scottish King shows us a different kind of character development when a Hanoverian army attacks Vienna. One of his main characters, Gustav, has seen his friend Hans struck by the butt of a musket and fall from Vienna’s high walls. For a moment, Gustav blamed himself. Then, he found other people to blame:-

    “Gustav pulled himself onto the top of the wall. A musket butt came directly for his head but he quickly ducked and jabbed his bayonet into the abdomen of the Austrian. The man’s face contorted in pain as Gustav pulled out his bayonet. ‘He was the one who pushed Hans to his death,’ Gustav thought as rage burned in him and he stabbed the man again driving him into the wall and again and again until he was pushed from behind. […]

    The group he was in of about thirty soldiers was facing at least seventy-five armed citizens. Gustav’s face became even more determined as he aimed his musket. They were no longer innocent bystanders or civilians the moment they picked up those weapons, the moment they killed Hans. They were now the enemy and he was going to kill them all.”
    - The White Horse (Hanover AAR) by Scottish King, Chapter 13: Battle of Vienna Part II

    “Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering”, as Yoda taught us in Star Wars. Gustav’s anger leads to suffering indeed:-

    “The man let out a slight cry as he stumbled and fell against the nearby gate. Gustav was just about to finish him when from the other side of the gate, an arm wrapped around the collapsed man. It was a woman screaming and pleading for Gustav not to kill her husband. The man with labored breaths complained that he knew someday she would get him killed. Gustav looked from husband to wife not sure what to do. Then he remembered Hans and anger filled his heart and he clearly knew what he had to do. With shout full of rage and hate, Gustav brought his sword down into the man’s chest. The woman let out a heart wrenching scream as Gustav turned away with his bloodied sword.

    ‘No mercy for the enemy for they will show you none,’ he said to himself as he ran toward the city square. ‘No mercy.’”
    - The White Horse (Hanover AAR) by Scottish King, Chapter 14 Battle of Vienna Part III

    A horrifying moment and a turning-point for Gustav – a turn for the worse, not the better. Gustav’s rage and the suffering which he inflicts provide rich resources for Scottish King to explore in subsequent chapters.


    We have seen that sometimes a battle is not about the battle. A battle can be about how people react to unexpected events - giving us opportunities to create explanations for those surprises. A battle can be about the goals of a particular character - enabling us to tell readers why the battle mattered for them. A battle can illustrate the changed relationships between individuals or nations - as friendships are built or broken. When characters rise in the ranks, a battle can show how a character handles being suddenly pushed into a position of responsibility. A battle can even be about the wounding of a person’s soul because of the horrors which they experience – and the horrors which they inflict with their own hands.

    Thank you for reading Part I. In Part II of this article, we will return to Paris, to discover what Winston Churchill has to teach us as writers.

    Comments 3 Comments
    1. Radzeer's Avatar
      Radzeer -
      Great article, and I like the angle you picked to write about AARs in a fresh perspective. Looking forward to reading the next part.
    1. Merchant of Venice's Avatar
      Merchant of Venice -
      Amazing article Alwyn, a really good read and great use of examples and explanation of those examples.
    1. Alwyn's Avatar
      Alwyn -
      Thank you, Radzeer and Merchant!