Lightning War: Postmortem
I’m a big fan of learning by doing, so I want to write a few articles explaining my design process in certain projects, where it led me, and what I’d change in hindsight.
So, let’s start with Lightning War, my most ambitious project to date.
Lightning War is my tactical tabletop RPG set in a fantasy world’s World War II. Going into the project, I had a lot of inspirations I was pulling from. Fullmetal Alchemist was a huge inspiration for the “post-industrial fantasy” aesthetic I was aiming for. Hellboy, Indiana Jones, and the Mummy movies were also major touchstones for blending fantasy elements with a modern setting. The way spirits work draws heavily from Princess Mononoke – reciprocal beings who repay courtesy with boons and desecration with destruction. World War II movies like Saving Private Ryan and A Bridge Too Far informed the game's grim tone.
Mechanically, I drew from the intense tactical combat and looming atmosphere of XCOM 2, as well as New World Interactive’s Day of Infamy. One of my earliest inspirations was playing on the Flakturm VII map, and wondering, “what if this was a Wizard Tower?”
As I mentioned in my interview with John Thompson, the game was also a reaction to real-life events: the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” march in the summer of 2017. I wanted it to have a clear political message – “Hey, fascism is bad, and there is a cost to letting it spread.” In Lightning War, the reincarnating Dark Lord is fascism personified: an insidious and all-corrupting evil that turns well-intentioned people into mindless puppets.
While making Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg said, “every war movie, good or bad, is an antiwar movie.” If a core truth of my game was “you shouldn’t let things get this bad,” then I wanted the gameplay to emphasize that truth. I wanted character death to be frequent, but meaningful, and that brought be back to a conversation with Craig Campbell and Eloy Lasanta.
The Flashback Mechanic
My favorite part of Lightning War is the flashback mechanic. The first time each session that a character suffers a lethal hit, you can cheat death by revealing a tidbit of that character’s backstory. “Bobby can’t die, because he always wanted to start a pastry shop!”
This mechanic was inspired by a conversation with Craig Campbell and Eloy Lasanta, at a small Atlanta convention in Spring 2017. While giving me feedback on a sci-fi game I was designing at the time, Craig proposed the cheat-death-by-revealing-backstory mechanic. He pitched it as an emulation of a film trope: the wounded character having a flashback reminding them why they fight, then pressing on. We all loved the mechanic, but I decided it wasn’t the right fit for the sci-fi game. But when I started writing Lightning War? It was perfect.
In Lightning War, every player controls a team: one specialist and two grunts. Grunts are supporting characters that grant your specialist a passive stat increase and a useful perk. Whenever your team is attacked, you decide whether your specialist takes the hit, or a grunt. Grunts die if they take any damage, but per the Flashback mechanic, you can immediately save them by revealing some backstory. The most optimal way to play the game was allocating hits to grunts, then revealing backstory to save them. This let you negate 2 hits before having to risk anyone dying. However, it also meant that as you played, your grunts accumulated all this trivia about themselves. When you were eventually forced to kill one off, it had an emotional impact. Your grunt wasn’t a faceless pawn, he was Bobby, and he was never going to get to start his pastry shop.
That’s where the roleplaying comes in. Lightning War is mainly about combat, but if it were truly a wargame, you could just treat your grunts as disposable. However, once I added the emotional investment, it changed the way players played. They were forced to make choices between what was mechanically optimal and what felt emotionally and morally right. For example, in playtests, some players would risk debilitating hits on their specialist before they doomed a grunt to death.
Things Get Heavy
Every time I’ve run Lightning War, I’ve been adamant about using safety tools. As you can probably imagine, it is an emotionally heavy game to play. The gameplay gets so intense, there’s a huge sense of catharsis when a session ends. Like watching a horror movie.
Every session, there’s a moment where the players all pause and ask each other, “Hang on, are we about to commit war crimes?” In one playtest, the players ambushed some enemies, gunned them all down in the surprise round, and felt horrible about it.
“Wow, they didn’t even get a chance to fight back,” one player said, disgusted with their own in-game actions.
"If they did, we could've lost people." Another player pragmatically countered.
The game absolutely captured the horrible “War Movie” atmosphere I was aiming for. There’s this sense of despairing pragmatism in the game – players do what it takes to survive, but there’s guilt and bitterness about it. They stopped the villains… but they don’t get to feel like heroes.
I designed Lightning War to be played in relatively short campaigns – the rulebook recommends as few as six sessions. To me, this was enough time to develop the characters and tell a story, without the game’s heavy themes overstaying their welcome.
Lightning War was released two years ago, so I’ve had a lot of time to wonder what I’d change if I were to do it all over again… or release a Second Edition.
For starters, I claimed the game was “fast and intuitive.” This is technically true – executing the mechanics is fast and intuitive, compared to other RPGs with tactical combat. However, that atmosphere of terror means players spend more time agonizing about their decisions. Even if actions are resolved quickly, it takes players time to agree on what to do. So, the main changes I’d make would be even more streamlining.
At the time, I really wanted rules for limb damage. In hindsight, I don’t think I need hit points and damage in the game at all. If a character gets hit, they could roll Toughness, with a difficulty based on the weapon that hit them. On a failure, they get a random injury from a table (such as a wounded leg). If they get hit again, they die. This would speed up combat immensely. One of the least fun edge cases in the game is when a Major or Greater NPC gets “Black Knighted;” all the damage players dealt was dealt to different limbs, so the enemy is severely debilitated but still not dead.
I also wish I had discovered Evil Hat Productions' Band of Blades before I finished designing Lightning War. Somehow, this game flew under my radar at the time. It hits so many of the same themes, that I’ve considered hacking Band of Blades for games in Lightning War’s world! Giving players agency in a war-themed RPG is always a challenge – a strict military hierarchy is completely at odds with giving players autonomy. It’s one of my biggest criticisms of the Warhammer 40k RPG, Only War. In Lightning War, I used a chaotic and disorganized chain of command as an in-universe explanation. However, Band of Blades just lets the players make those high-level decisions, too. I loved the way Band of Blades lets players control the Legion’s leadership. I also like how, by playing the entire Legion, instead of just one squad, the players play a huge ensemble cast that dwindles as the campaign goes on. It’s reminiscent of the base-building parts of XCOM I chose not to include in my game…
I am still immensely proud of Lightning War, but I couldn’t have made the game without the guidance and mentorship of Craig Campbell in the lead-up to my Kickstarter. The team of freelancers I assembled to edit, illustrate, and layout the game was also incredible. Lightning War was the first (and, at the time of writing, only) Kickstarter I’ve ever managed, and that was a thrilling lesson in project management. I did some things out-of-order, like starting Layout before the manuscript was finalized. The Kickstarter’s success defied the odds and expectations of a first-time creator. It was an ambitious project (maybe too ambitious), but I trusted my team, and got it done.