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August 22, 2009, 6:22 am

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How to Write Fictional Military Hardware


Be it a tank, mech, aircraft, or warship, the same basic rules apply for writing speculative fiction about them.

Some Questions to Consider.

1. What was the problem that the machine in question was designed to address?

Military hardware is expensive, and is built to fulfill a specific purpose. Sometimes this purpose is broad and proactive, such as building a multi-role fighter, a main battle tank, or heavy battlemech. Other times, this purpose is reactive, building a vehicle to transport a weapon system or fight a specific enemy vehicle.

2. What are the basic abilities of the machine, in terms of mobility, armor, and special systems? How do they compare to what is already available?

This is the most crunchy of the questions, how fast can the vehicle go, how much firepower and of what type does it mount, how far can it go on a tank of gas, and other questions like that. There are two methods to gauge these capabilities, technical based and plot based. A technical base gives detailed numbers based off of either real world statistics, or their future extrapolation. The Plot based system doesnt use numbers other than in a flash and dazzle method. The quote Michael J. Straczynski when questioned the speed of a Earthforce Starfury, "It moves at the speed of plot." The key to using a plot base is to remain consistant. If an A-wing is faster than an X-wing in chapter 3, it needs to stay that way in chapter 16. If the pulse cannon cannot penetrate durasteel, it shouldnt punch through durasteel in the next battle. Unless, of course, an explanation is given as to why this change is possible.

3. Where there any significant hurdles in it’s creation process? Some things to consider are time tables, as a machine needed in a current war will be rushed as fast as possible. Other considerations are the cost of the machine. Another sort of problem that could come up are mechanical issues such as new technology.

There is a common conception that vehicle X was a golden child from the moment is flowed from a designers hand onto paper to the time that it rolled flawlessly into battle. That is about as interesting as a dungeon crawl with no random encounters. Research and development is about finding problems and fixing them, be it computer aided, or drafting tables and prototypes.

4. Once the machine entered basic production, where there any problems? Is the machine simple or complex, how efficient is the production and assembly process? Is the production facility in danger of attack?

When prototypes are built, they are few in number and are handled by specialists and designers who likely had a hand in the planning of the machine. Things change when full production is reached. Is production constantly slowed by supply problems, are there parts that are tricky to install, or temperamental before being broken in?

5. What were the field trials and first combat outcomes? Did the machine perform as expected, where there unexpected problems? Did combat in the field reveal unexpected flaws in the machine?

There are quirks and flaws in machines that arent obvious until the real deal is there. Computers can anticipate every aspect of a machine and it’s enviroment. A side effect of this is that a machine might actually be mediocre or poor at it’s intended purpose, or might excel at something that wasnt intended when it was being designed. A promising field trial can see a design fast-tracked into production, while a poor one can see a vehicle or weapon system pushed onto a back burner or even cancelled.

6. Once regular production was reached, were there variants of the machine created? (Trainer, Command unit, cargo transport, close combat, ranged combat, specific weapon version, etc) How did these fair in battle?

It is very rare that a machine exists in only one incarnation. What are the other variants of the design.

7. How difficult is the machine to maintain in ideal and adverse conditions? How quickly can it be repaired. Does it suffer mechanical problems in the field, can it take a beating?

Maintenance in the field is more than simply refueling and reloading. Is the machine in question easy to work and functional in even adverse conditions like an AK-47, or is it temperatmental, requiring special tools and care, restricted to certain conditions such as operating in dry weather only? Logistics are big part of military action, does the machine need a steady stream of replacement pieces and parts, or is it one of the rare few that just needs a hammer, a wrench, gas and ammo?

8. What is it’s service record like? Is it successful, or is it mediocre. Does it’s crews and pilots love or hate it? Does it have a reputation, or is it just another machine?

If the piece is being written after the machine in question is no longer in service, how well did it perform? How long did it serve, some machine serve decades beyond their expected lifespan’s while others are scrapped and replaced well before reaching their estimated service life. Some war machines are remembered by their crews long after the machine is gone. Some examples include the WWII pilots who still miss their warbirds, to the more modern era pilots who rather hated their buggy early computer equipped aircraft.

9. Did it have any MVP time? Was it pivotal in a battle or campaign, did it stand out on the field of battle, or was it just another iron mook?

Not every single machine or device is going to stard in the limelight, or be remembered by history. Was there any time that the machine had it’s perfect moment in just the right place, such as the Mustangs that flew cover the bombers deep into the heart of Germany, or the cruise missles that rained down on top of Iraqi targets from hundreds and even thousands of miles away. To tell if it is a MVP moment, would the battle have been won without the machine. If not, it’s MVP material.

10. Does the machine have any pilots/crews that stand head and shoulders above the rest? A machine is only as good as the man piloting it, and the public loves a war hero. Are there any?

Without a crew, be it pilots, technicians operating via remote or any other sort of support, a machine is just a complex piece of metal. It takes the men and women of the armed forces to bring those chunks to life. Fighter planes have ace pilots, and in WWII Germany had Tank Aces, and in the various navies around the world naval ships can be cited for valor and bravery in the face of battle. What is the human connection between the machine and history?

11. Did the machine have a rival machine in the field of battle? Some military hardware is only remembered for the fact that it dueled with a certain type or class of enemy.

Every hero has a villain, Batman has the Joker, the Fantastic Four have Dr. Doom, and so on. In wars sometimes a machine is set apart not for it’s own ability but for the intense rivalry with another machine. WWII brought us the dogfights between Supermarine Spitfires and just about every fighter and bomber in the Luftwaffe. Korea was the birth of the jet engine and the appearance of the Mig and the rise of American jets like the Sabre.

Sample Failures
The Unicorn
The Unicorn is a great idea that absolutely fails in real life. Most likely, the Unicorn is overly ambitious and excedes the capabilites of available technology. The most modern version of the Unicorn is a cost effective flying car.

The White Elephant
Counterpoint to the Unicorn, the White Elephant is the machine that should have been cancelled but survived being cut by some touch of bad luck. The White Elephant is an absolute failure but made it out anyway.

War Pork
This machine might be very good at what it does, but it is entirely too expensive to put into production even in a limited fashion. These machines are usually psychological in nature, such as the Paris Gun. Other examples of war pork could be Airwolf, the triple engine jet from SWAT Cats: Radical Squadron, or the super-exotic gladiator mechs piloted in Battletech. Some other real world examples: the XB-70 Valkyre supersonic bomber, Howard Hughs’ Spruce Goose, the Maus superheavy tank.

Considerations and Cliches

Alone on the Field of Battle - Machines seldom fight alone. A tank battalion will have support vehicles, ranging from ammo transports, fuel carriers, to recovery vehicles. Lang range strikers typically are paired with some sort of spotter or scout, and slower units have faster units to prevent them from being flanked. The mano y mano battle is typically only seen realistically in anime and westerns.

Irresistable Attack, Inpenetrable Defence - It is too tempting to make machines that are described with the above attributes. The main problem with this is that there is always a race between competing ideals, attack versus defence, gun versus armor, fortification versus mobility. Bigger guns bring about heavier armor, which in turn bring about even bigger guns. WWII say this sort of gun vs armor cycle between the Germans and the Russians. In almost any mecha anime, the titular mecha has the best speed, defense and weapons, until the next season and the new mecha comes out to replace it. The best armor can be penetrated by a lucky shot, and the best weapon can fail with a bad hit.

Infinite Range, Infinite Ammo - Watching many movies and anime, war machines never seem to need to be reloaded with ammo or fuel. This leaves many encounters as nothing more than extended rock’n’roll automatic fire until someone makes enough lucky hits to take out their foe.

Handwavium and Ohmy-myeyeshavecrossed (OMMEHC) - opposite sides of the reality coins, it is easy to go too far in either direction. The trouble with handwavium is that simply too much appears lazy, and forces the reader to stretch the suspension of disbelief beyond what is acceptable. (Imperial star destroyers destroy ‘hypermatter’ to fuel their engines and weapon systems. The system is a mix of handwavium and WTF?) OMMEHC, quoting Austin Powers from The Spy who Shagged Me, is the usage of in depth data. The problem with OMMEHC is that after reading a bit of technobabble, the reader has to consult some tech manual or wikipedia to figure out what the heck the writer of the piece was talking about.

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Comments ( 10 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

Voted Silveressa
December 23, 2008, 18:56
Useful stuff for any gm, and good things to keep in mind when playing "inventor" style characters. (Applies to pretty much any genre as well, which is always a plus.)

The only thing I can think of to make it even better is to provide an example or two written up using all this advice.
Voted manfred
December 25, 2008, 14:31
Not sure if I find use for it, but it seems like a pretty exhaustive checklist and a guidebook for writing up military hardware. It seems as well, that the recent technical submissions from Scras could serve as examples of following it. A list to remember.
Voted valadaar
December 29, 2008, 19:37
Not a bad resource - complete and well focused. I would consider it definitely questions to consider.
Voted angryscotsman93
December 30, 2008, 23:41
Truly amazing! All of your arguments are rooted in fact, and are incredibly intelligent. Bravo, sirrah!
January 1, 2009, 13:49
A few to add:
*is it new, groundbreaking tech or an application of old principles?
*is it expensive to make, or cheap and mass-produced? See Sherman Tank.
*does it require only simple personell, or highly trained professionals to operate?
April 1, 2009, 17:20
This article has been featured on, Issue 440. Congratulations to the author - may your machines be ever as functional!

See it here.
Voted axlerowes
April 1, 2009, 17:55
I can see using this as a checklist when you have written up a description the "missile frigate you really want your Jedi to command". How could your GM refuse you.

These submissions are like the list shows on VH1, it is well organized, linear and clear, but not novel or original. Plus even if you disagree it just makes the material that much more interesting to you.

Excellent submission...preach it brother.
April 2, 2009, 16:24
I really wasnt thinking of VH1 (though sometimes I think that way about some of the 30s), rather I was thinking of the old Discovery channel program Wings, where they would dissect an aircraft from it's conceptual drawings, through prototyping and production, and on through it's service in combat and otherwise.
November 9, 2009, 20:40
what I meant was not the format you are using is like a list, but the merit you assign to the format is like list show. Any material that presents meta-information, falls into that category. People like meta-information because they can toss it around apply to various things and disagree with it or embrace it without learning anything new and having pastoral type experience with the stuff they did already know. Still I liked the sub though.
November 9, 2012, 12:31


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