Wargames scenario design from army doctrine

Creativity requires effort. After dealing with the demands of advancing adulthood, I often lack the capacity to meet my own expectations for hobby time, especially narrative scenario design. I compensate with tools like random name generators and published scenarios. Right now I’m exploring a new addition for my tool box: US military doctrine.

Army mission planning

Mission planning and scenario design each consider similar things. Who needs to accomplish what, and why? What facts about the terrain and each force’s capabilities will influence how the mission is accomplished? Real military planning is sober and consequential, but I bet the tools it employs could be borrowed to make wargame scenarios more interesting and fun.

Appendix A of Army Techniques Publication 3-21.8: Infantry Platoon and Squad describes Troop Leading Procedures (TLP) for platoon leaders, basically what to do when you receive higher-echelon orders. The mission analysis step of TLP offers a checklist for small unit leaders in the form of an acronym: METT-TC.

METT-TC stands for Mission, Enemy, Terrain, Troops, Time, and Civil Considerations. Stepping through each category helps cover blind spots from a tired brain, and can spark ideas for unique elements in your scenario. Let’s visit each topic in turn, summarizing the ATP, describing wargame applications, and providing examples from a recent game.

ATP 3-21.8 Figure A-2. Troop leading procedures outline, with METT-TC highlighted blue

Hot mess warning

In this post I organize my experience into a structured framework, but also explore new ideas. I don’t distinguish which is which, so please approach the whole thing with a spirit of adventurous skepticism. And if you try any of this, please tell me how it goes!


Army Says

A mission is a task with a purpose. The ATP explains what this means to first-line leaders, but it boils down to the five W’s. Leaders restate the mission explaining who has to do what, where, when, and why.

Wargaming Application

I consider most of METT-TC optional for scenario design, but not this step. If you can explain what everyone’s little dudes are trying to accomplish and (especially) why, you can make any scenario meaningful. I usually go through these in whatever order makes ideas come easiest. Here are my thoughts on each W.

  • Who. Name every soldier (for skirmish) and unit (for skirmish or larger). Use a random generator if you need to. Naming things makes us care about them.
  • What. I tend to favor simple published scenarios for pick-up games. This usually means “stand somewhere better than your opponent can” or “carry things off the board better than your opponent can,” but I get to decide those places and things. It’s worth thinking up something you get excited about.
  • Where. Even if I don’t make a detailed terrain layout ahead of a game, I try to think up and name a general location. This is guided and inspired by my terrain collection and the other W’s.
  • When. For me this usually means the scenario’s place on a timeline relative to other fictional events, e.g., “this skirmish happens early in the War of Coins,” or “this happens right before the scenario I’m planning for Sunday.”
  • Why. The Why question sets apart narrative gaming from other approaches and makes it my favorite. Now something is at stake, and we care which group of little toy soldiers is better at standing in a certain spot. I also like to use Why to imply something about the wider background or events happening “off screen,” stitching the scenario into a broader tapestry.
This guy wants to know why

Mission Example

Here is a mission statement from a recent game of Space Weirdos. We played the book scenario called Objectively Standard Scenario – as vanilla as you can find.

Response Team Theta seize and defend shield generator node 4883-A.209 in Cloister GS-568-8B to assist defense against imminent raid vicinity Munitorum staging point S-7116. Raid expected within 15 minutes.

Enemy / Troops Available

Army Says

The ATP correctly assigns enemies and one’s own troops to separate categories. Knowledge of enemy capabilities and vulnerabilities, most likely and most dangerous courses of action, and other factors are considered. Friendly troop leadership, morale, and capabilities are likewise evaluated.

Wargaming Application

I collapsed these categories into one, since the scenario is written for both players to have fun. I think about providing opportunities for each force to do the thing it is good at. Let the sneaky ambushers be the attacker. Give the tank a decent field of fire and the infantry something to hide behind. Also consider fatigue and morale at the outset of the fight. Are your little soldiers tired and hungry?

Troops Example

My friend and I played Space Weirdos over a lunch hour and kept things small and simple. I knew my friend was bringing soul-snatcher cultists who would be fast and hard-hitting, but fragile. I brought terrain with plenty of columns to jump out from, and a higher central platform to climb.

I fielded an inquisition strike team, more elite in my imagination than I had the points budget to afford. I assigned them lower abilities, explaining that they were tired and off-balance running from threat to threat.

Response Team Theta is tired, like me

Terrain and Weather

Army Says

Terrain is critical to military operations, so it’s no surprise the topic is covered extensively in doctrine. Fortunately, a summary checklist within the checklist can help remember it all: OAKOC.

  • Obstacles
  • Avenues of approach
  • Key terrain
  • Observation and fields of fire
  • Cover and concealment

Wargaming Application

Experienced wargamers probably consider OAKOC factors instinctively, but a checklist is always handy to catch omissions and blunders. After selecting terrain pieces based on theme and mood, I usually arrange them intuitively. Then, I walk around the table and check for each item on the OAKOC list, stooping down to “ground level” and adjusting things. It’s the same loop as painting a mini or drafting a blog post: express, observe, modify.

I often neglect weather in my scenarios, a tradition I will continue in this post. I have resolved to consider the five military aspects of weather in future games.

Terrain Example

Our scenario featured three shield generator nodes along the center line as objectives. The central node sat on the raised central platform.

Friday lunch game terrain set up

For simplicity, the board was symmetrical across the center point, offering each side an arch on one side and a door on the other. The doors could be opened or closed at the cost of two of a model’s actions.

Terrain set up side view

Below are the same images labelled with OAKOC considerations. The labels are not exhaustive; the point is that all factors were accounted for in the terrain set up.

OAKOC-labeled top view. “F” is used to designate Observation and fields of fire
OAKOC-labeled side view. “F” is used to designate Observation and fields of fire

Terrain set up deserves its own post. Should I write one? Do you have a favorite existing source of advice for this I should know about?


Army Says

The doctrine discusses the importance of fitting your own mission planning and execution into the timeline of higher headquarters. Honestly, there isn’t much for miniatures wargamers, so I’ll borrow this section to describe a time-related useful idea.

Wargaming Application

We usually describe scenario time in rounds or turns, but sometimes now I borrow a trick from Rogue Hammer and roll a d6 after each turn to see how many minutes have passed. Special events, e.g., sunrise, nightfall, volcano eruption, etc., or scenario ends could occur after a chosen number of minutes.

To specify a time limit, decide how many turns should elapse on average, and multiply that number by 3.5 (e.g., 14 minutes for 4 turns). Alternatively (I haven’t tried this yet), roll a number of d6’s equal to the average number of turns you want, then sum the result.

Time Example

This could be especially fun for asymmetrical scenarios. Maybe one side is holding out a desperate defense against a superior enemy force, but close air support is inbound for a strafing run in 4 minutes. Maybe a team of infiltrators triggered an alarm but still needs 5 minutes to rig the explosives before attempting to escape.

In this Rogue Hammer game, the command console needed to be activated within 8 minutes

Civil Considerations

Army Says

The ATP spends many words on the topic, even introducing another acronym, ASCOPE. The gist is, leaders should account for civilians and their infrastructure when planning ops.

Wargaming Application

I can imagine organizing a whole campaign around dissident guerillas trying to influence civilian leaders and institutions. In a scenario, you could offer optional actions that provide an advantage for that fight, but damage your faction’s esteem with civilians.

I plan to experiment with this. I want to try designating certain terrain pieces as culturally significant. Missed shots with certain weapons could harm the terrain, resulting in narrative or campaign repercussions.

Civil Considerations Example

What if the two statues at the center of the terrain example presented an additional scenario objective? For example, each team may declare a major victory only if it seizes the most objectives and avoids damaging the statues. This would encourage a big melee pile at the center objective, something I always like to see in a stand-back-and-shoot sci fi game.


This post discussed using Mission, Enemy, Troops, Time, and Civil Considerations as a checklist for scenario design. Though I would rarely incorporate the entire list in a wargame scenario, the availability of all these factors for review gives me a boost when I’m tired and don’t know where to start.

What do you think? Do you agree this is a useful framework? Am I overcomplicating the process of playing with our toys? I’d love to chat about it in the comments.





12 responses to “Wargames scenario design from army doctrine”

  1. grumpygnome101 Avatar

    As a veteran myself I find your application fascinating and well presented. Gaming aside, I also really wish more writers of military fiction would read and understand these principles to create more immersive narratives on tv and in movies.

    1. orcs_illustrated Avatar

      Cheers! I agree. This stuff is freely available if you know where to look, though I admit it is a chore to read sometimes.

  2. Comrade Avatar

    Great analysis! I would be interested in setting aside some time to go through this procedure ahead of our next game, for Science of course.

    1. orcs_illustrated Avatar

      Let’s do it! I am flattered you consider it a procedure. I’m not sure the idea is developed enough to deserve the designation, haha.

  3. Dinah from Kabalor Avatar

    Excellent post! I can easily see a lot of opportunities for GMs using this kind of advance thinking and checklist approach for encounter design in role-playing games too.

    With just a little work an analogous checklist could even be made for session planning as a GM in general—including the non-combat stuff—so you remember to ask every time “Is this session going to provide enough of the stuff my players (and their character builds) tell me they think is fun?”

    If their favorite stuff is listed as potential Key things that you might choose to include, it doesn’t matter if it’s an objective in the landscape (so your battlefield-control-loving player has fun in the fight) or social interactions (so your alliance-builder player can change the larger context of the story).

    (Thanks for sharing this, Grumpy Gnome!!)

    1. orcs_illustrated Avatar

      Thank you! I hear you. Pilots get a pre-flight checklist; why not GMs?

      1. grumpygnome101 Avatar

        Proper planning prevents pi… er… pretty poor performance…. as old grunts often say.

  4. Guru PIG Avatar

    Great post. Glad that “Grumpy” put me on to this one!

  5. Marc Avatar

    Interesting approach!

    If we assume that a sci-fi setting is as suffused with recording devices as our world, an important civil consideration might be who sees what. In a guerrilla campaign, the propaganda value of showing a freedom fighter vaporized by the regime might outweigh the loss of a figure or even the whole scenario – but only if it was recorded.

    There could be security cameras with set fields of view, a random chance of civilians recording from windows, “gargoyle” figures whose purpose is gathering footage…

    1. orcs_illustrated Avatar

      Ooh that is fantastic. Imagine a character whose objective is to martyr himself in front of a recording device

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