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Pawns — A Guest Blog From Justin Fletcher

September 18th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 6 Comments · Guest Blog, RTS

I haven’t done a guest blog in while, but when Justin Fletcher asked if I would host this essay of his, I couldn’t really say no. Justin is a former Computer Games Magazine colleague, a regular reader and a good writer. This essay was his contribution to this summer’s Gamers With Jobs call for writers and it wasn’t quite what they were looking for.

Good thing I have lower standards than those guys. (Kidding Justin!)

Since his essay deals with a game I’ve been writing about all week, it’s not a bad fit and it addresses other themes that have been perennials on Flash of Steel.



Alpha Squadron had barely entered a low orbit of Chau Sara when I received a high-priority transmission from one of the local magistrates. A guerilla army called the Sons of Korhal was threatening the stability of the Confederate colony; Magistrate Collins wanted the renegades crushed. I briefed my marines, enlisted a few Firebats from the outpost’s Academy, and then gave Alpha the order to move out. They had marched less than fifty yards before my staff sergeant barked at me from a private comm channel. He was furious that I hadn’t put the squad into a defensive posture during deployment. He questioned whether I knew what I was doing.

Three minutes later, he was dead.

The attack had come too quickly. A rebel cell raked Alpha from the high ground; half of my men died without firing a shot. The other half managed to secure the plateau and then charged after the retreating insurgents. But just as the enemy HQ came into sight, a horde of strange, terrifying creatures—purple and black with scythes for hands—fell upon the Confederate base, pulling my attention from the frontline. Within seconds, the remaining members of Alpha Squadron were gone, immolated by their own fuel tanks or smeared across the valley floor in red streaks. The Sons of Korhal had taken brutal advantage of my momentary distraction. Meanwhile, defenseless SCVs were being ripped apart by the wave of alien marauders. The colony was in flames. I hit the ESC key, exited the Starcraft demo, and washed my hands of real-time strategy.

I had never really been on speaking terms with the RTS genre. The frantic pace and frenzied clicking were too much for me to process, so “real-time” always meant kicking “strategy” to the curb. Hotkeys? A high-pressure typing test wasn’t my bag. At least Mavis Beacon didn’t kill anyone when I hit the wrong button.

Which was the root of the bigger problem: I hated losing my men. Cannon fodder was a fact of life in an RTS, but I was an RPG guy. Tabletop role-playing games were never my scene, but I had adventured my way through dozens of computer and console versions by the late 1990s. In each one, the party was my responsibility; their lives were in my hands. Whenever I made a tactical error, as I always did, there was a healer or a surgeon or a potion to make things right again. In more serious cases, there was the load menu. Either way, no one ever died on my watch.

Such perfection was impossible in an RTS, so I usually ignored those games. It was only after Starcraft had been universally praised for almost two years that I decided to give the genre another chance. But the debacle on Chau Sara made it clear that there was no place for me within the real-time realm.

Until Ardania.

When Cyberlore Studios released Majesty in March 2000, it was a godsend. This “fantasy kingdom sim” tasked me with ruling the land of Ardania and keeping it safe from threats both mystical and monstrous. It wasn’t a conventional RTS; due to its mix of elements from various genres, some would argue that it wasn’t an RTS at all. Nevertheless, the gameplay was in real-time, and there was plenty to do. As sovereign, I had to select the state religions, the build orders, and the tax routes. I had to choose which heroes I would invite into my kingdom to protect both the royalty and the commoners. I had to decide which spells to research, when to buy them, and where to use them.

But what made Majesty special—and what drew me to the game in the first place—was the power that I didn’t have, the feature that became the game’s hallmark: I couldn’t directly control any of the units. The priorities I set from on high determined how the peasants and tax collectors would bop about the countryside, but I couldn’t stop them from blindly wandering into the path of a Hell Bear. I could encourage my heroes to explore territory, collect relics, or destroy lairs by posting hefty bounties. But if they felt the rewards were too little or the risks were too great, then it was off to the guildhouse for a nap. And if a first-level wizard chose to take on the nearest Evil Oculus, there was little I could do about it.

In this new and magical land, I wasn’t responsible for the survival of others.

With this burden removed, I could actually concentrate on the strategy. Gradually, I became more nimble at multitasking and more decisive under pressure. At the same time, my personal connection to my subjects began to wane. Why mourn a bludgeoned peasant when a replacement would quickly pop out of the castle? The tragedy of a slain tax collector was not the loss of the man but the loss of the gold that he carried. And the heroes, with their willingness to do anything for a buck, became cogs in the wheel, means to an end.

The death of Vendral, the two-headed dragon, meant that my kingdom was finally secure. I closed out of Majesty, sad to leave Ardania but excited by the prospect of a new challenge. And that was when one particular icon on my computer’s desktop caught my eye. It was an aircraft, a tiny Terran Wraith.

My return to Chau Sara was triumphant. Despite an awkward readjustment to the hands-on control of my units, I was much better prepared for the chaos of the real-time battlefield. The pace that had once seemed murderous had become manageable, and both the alien xenomorphs and the Sons of Korhal were soon vanquished by Alpha Squadron. Despite assistance from the Cerberus Recon Squad, Alpha had sustained casualties. But I didn’t reach for the ESC key. While the deaths of these soldiers were unfortunate, I accepted them as the cost of victory. My marines had died in the service of the Terran Confederacy, and there was no greater honor. To quit in despair would only cheapen their sacrifice. Besides, there were plenty of new recruits back at the Academy.

At last, the king could see his pawns.


6 Comments so far ↓

  • spelk

    An enjoyable read, both in terms of the roleplay style descriptions at the beginning (I initially imagined I was reading a segment of a Warhammer 40k novel) and the revelation that the meanderings in Majesty had gently trained Justin in the ways of RTS cold and calculated commanding and conquering. Top stuff. GWJ were a bit short sighted to pass you over Sir!

  • Justin Fletcher

    Hey, thanks so much for the kind words. Glad you liked it.

    For the record, GWJ got a billion entries for two slots and, judging from the folks they picked, they were all pretty damn good. It must have been an embarrassment of riches. Make sure and check out Chris and Dave’s work over there if you haven’t already.

  • broadmonk

    read it and was enlightened. well, mostly I knew it before, but you spelled it out so nicely. the parabel was well executed.

    allright, so I’m talking bs-english. so what, I mean it anyways.

    great job, Justin! will check out your next reviews.

  • Tom Grant

    Excellent post.

  • DavyRam

    I like this story very much. Top job sir.

  • Tim McDonald

    Excellent write-up. Well, except that it made me want to play one of the Majesty games even more than I do already, for which I will never forgive you, but that’s my own pesronal hang-up.

    Well written and an enthralling read, anyway.