Environmental Storytelling

Sometimes when we Zeus, it can be easy to rely on shortcuts to build our environments so we can save time for other things. Why build up a whole FOB when you could just place a composition? Why hand place units when you could just Instant Garrison? After a while, players will start to catch on to some of the more commonly used layouts and unit placements, and they start to get stale. So this is where we, as Zeuses, get a chance to put our stamp on things and add a layer of depth to the mission. My favorite way to do this is through elements of environmental storytelling.

Environmental storytelling lets us use the placement of things in the world to convey something that happened before players got there. Here are a few general concepts a Zeus might think about when doing some more bespoke work on their missions designs (and to be clear, you can even modify existing compositions to include some of these considerations):

  • Environmental history:

Think about what would have happened to that environment in the past. Is your FOB relatively new and shiny or is it older and lived in? A new FOB might be pretty sparse with just some tents and H-barriers, but something that’s been lived in might have some more interesting things going on and more established structures. Over time, the base could’ve been rearranged to better fit the environment, and there would likely be a bit more clutter lying about. If it’s near a forest, then maybe some of the trees have been cut down for firewood (you can place a stump). A FOB that’s about to be decommissioned might have things packed into stacked up crates and soldiers’ personal gear collected in the middle of the barracks floor.

A town that’s been freshly invaded would look just like a normal town with some troops in it, but as the occupation goes on then some of those structures would likely be fortified with sandbags and gun emplacements. The passage of time impacts what you find in a battlespace.

You can also speak to the history of an area through the state of repair of buildings. You can place down ruined buildings (or destroy a few them yourself using Zeus tools) to show an area that either has been ravaged by war or simply hasn’t been occupied in a long time for anybody to be bothering to fix it.

  • Personal history:

Think about what the people in that environment might have done with their time. A mission I ran recently had a very simply arrangement which included only four items: a trash heap, a case of water bottles, a log, and a hammer placed on top of the log. Some players might recognize this as the soldiers stationed nearby having made themselves a spot to play Hammerschlagen (a drinking game involving driving a nail with the wrong end of a straight-peen hammer). You should also make sure that for the kinds of people you have at a given place, the tools of their trade are available. An intelligence station might have a lot of computers lying around, but an outpost might have some ammo piled up ready to roll next to a fixed gun position or a radio keeping the sentries company on watch.

A town can also have all manner of civilians in it who just go about there lives. Is it market day? Is somebody having car trouble? Does somebody need help getting their precious property that they left when they fled the warzone? Maybe there’s somebody trying to sell knockoff designer watches to GIs to make a quick buck. The actions of the people you place will flesh out the world you’ve created.

People do things, and what they do will leave a trail of evidence that can say a lot about them.

  • Wildlife history:

The animals module is simultaneously overused and underused. I don’t know why we all (myself included) have a thing for goats, but there are other animals there, and they can add to the mission if used judiciously. There really isn’t much to say about them as an environmental thing other than maybe having your herds tended to by a civilian AI as a herder, but you can definitely toy with players using the animals. Have players come over a hill where they hear noises on a stealth mission, but it’s really just some sheep (and possibly a civilian shepherd taken by surprise). Halloween NAK Ops a few months ago started at a hunting lodge with players initially tasked with killing as many goats as possible to earn points for their fire time.

As I mentioned above, the plant life can also be a reflection of the way things have gone. A newer development might still have some growth in and around it, but as time passes the people who spend their time there would start clearing some of it back. But maybe not everything gets cleared out. Maybe there’s a tree in the middle of the town/FOB that was just too big to get out, so they left it and use it as a kind of town square meeting space.

Animals and plants are just as much a part of the geography as the land and the people.