Monday, 23 January 2012

Warhammer for Children

We're nearly almost about to be on the brink of possibly considering the eventuality of completing turn 1 of the Battle of Koles Lorr. Patience, my pretties... patience. We've had a bit of a learning curve considering the long distances this game must pass, as well as some of the idiosyncrasies of the armies in play. We move ever onwards.

But in the meantime, I've been chatting on and off with Chris, of Chris's Gaming Journal. In our myriad of discussions about various different elements of Warhammer, he got me thinking about other editions of the game and its development.

That, in turn, got me to thinking about what I meant when I titled the blog 'Warhammer For Adults'. Of course, I have a whole page on that, but I guess the thing is still focussed on 3rd edition and was written when I was experiencing some ...frustration.

I guess I needed a hug.

Does somebody   need a hug?

Anyway, I thought I'd go into a more analytical look at what I mean when I refer to Warhammer For Adults. I can think of three points to make:

The first thing that got me onto this blog was simply my interpretation of the Warhammer 8 rules. Fundamentally, I felt that they were a dumbing down of the fine institution of Warhammer. I know there were a lot of problems with army books and game balance in the 6th and 7th edition, but I still felt the core ruleset was pretty solid. Warhammer 8 was generally a poor follow up from 6th and 7th.

I don't think that because I found I had a killer army that suddenly became ineffective. I've never played a tournament winning army (which is not to say I haven't won tournaments). I genuinely think that Warhammer 8 has been written first and foremost to sell figures, and to do that, it has been written to be accessible to anyone. Anyone. Not too sure how to tie you shoelaces? That's okay, we know that's complicated, but fortunately you can still play Warhammer. Still wondering who that person who lives on the other side of the silver window in your bathroom is and why they keep doing everything you do when you're in there? That's deep, but fortunately, you can still play Warhammer.

I'm not trying to make Warhammer exclusive, but one should assume that there is some sort of mental commitment required by those aspiring to play the game. One assumes football requires a basic level of fitness and hand-eye co-ordination, but they don't change the rules to say that players should only walk in order to make it more accessible.

I feel that the Warhammer 8 rule set has just crossed this 'simplicity' line. Chances are, if I was new, I wouldn't know the difference, but in my case, I've seen better, more engaging rules (not just 3rd ed, now, I mean 6th and 7th), so I know GW are capable of more.

This brings me to my second point. The Warhammer rule set is now developed with tournament play as its priority. True, in Warhammer 8, they've included a whole battle report in which a GM is used to help run the game. There are sections at the back looking at narrative and special scenarios looking at some non-standard scenarios. These are not present in older versions of Warhammer. My question, then, is why the hell have I not seen them in play? Ever?*

*I'm not saying they aren't played - but I confess, in the year or so that I've had a go at Warhammer 8, I never got to play them. And that's not for a lack of trying.

Simply, I think that people are so taken with the 'ease' of relying on the rules to direct how they should interact with each other (often in a situation where they don't really know each other, such as tournaments) that they just don't explore the possibilities. This leads to a situation where the rule set becomes a limiter, not an enabler. There is a small, but important difference between the questions 'My rule set seems to suggest we have this option, how do you feel about that?' and 'My rule set seems to suggest that we have this option, why are you deviating from it?'

This expectation that players have of each other to limit themselves to the rules, which are then supposed to have a common interpretation. Did you laugh just then? When I said common interpretation? Of course its impossible. The vast bulk of Warhammer forums on the internet exist to facilitate rules discussion between anonymous people, who appear to be hell bent on ensuring that everyone out there agrees with their interpretation of the rules. Some of these discussions take on court-case like proportions, where people submit precedents set by other rules and quote battle reports from White Dwarf as evidence of their understanding and why their position should be 'judged' the correct one.

Note that I've not discussed behaviour at actual tournaments - I'm just talking about the tournament-like or tournament-ready usage of the rules in supposedly friendly games where the players have control over the entire scope of the game. Whilst I'm not prepared to excuse tournaments (don't get me started on tournaments and the 'have fun or else' attitude that seems to permeate them, that's for another day), I can still understand that players might get a bit more competitive if they have something to win. I'm much less clear on why you have to win by quoting rules when its a friendly game between two supposed adults with nothing other than fun as the motivation.

Consider this example I've lifted recently from the forums. Bear in mind that I am aware of the dangers of just using internet forum examples, because I don't know the whole context of the discussion, and I will most likely never actually know the people or the circumstances. Also, I have no ill will to any of the people involved. I just feel sorry for them. In this case, one player succumbed to the deployment rules and tried his level best to meet their requirements. His opponent just let him. It is my assertion that two adults would have looked at the situation and said something like 'its a bit silly to deploy this way, what would it actually look like?' or 'I wonder if I can construct some sort of narrative that might explain why they would deploy this way.' I was pleased to note that the first response suggested as much, but the fact that the post exists at all is testament to the problem with tournament systems and thinking. That same forum is rammed full of questions about what happens when rule A meets rule B and ways of either getting around the limitation or deriving the most extreme exploitation of that rule combination, again, with the express intention of winning.

My third point takes a comparative look at Warhammer 3. Taking a look at the books of the time - Warhammer 3, The Realms of Chaos books and Rogue Trader, one would be hard pressed to get any coherent rules out of them. Simply put, the rules are terribly written. I'm talking plain, bad english, which is ambiguous and in some cases, incomplete. In spite of these limitations, every single rule is pregnant with possibility, simply because it is ambiguous. Players have no choice but to stop and consider what the hell the designer was trying to say. In the end, most players of this time ended up looking at narrative to get through.

And lets not kid ourselves - there is no rule set in the Warhammer stable that could be exploited more than Warhammer 3. Check it out - you can have a magic sword that automatically hits, automatically wounds, denies your opponent any armour save, and will kill him outright if a wound is scored. A level 25 wizard can summon an elemental onto the table. Do you know an elemental's stat line when it arrives? Put 10 in each column. That's right - it moves 10", has a Toughness of 10 and has 10 wounds. You don't pay points for these things - a wizard just summons one.

Even Warhammer 3 cheese is for adults.

My point is that because the rule set depends on player co-operation (as opposed to player competition) and was designed with the idea of having a GM in place to help, players are immediately less likely to get stuck on rules, because they need to resort to something other than just the rule definition in order to explain what is happening. Most players of the era would be more comfortable having an elemental on the table than any Warhammer 8 player (using that rule set means you don't even have to be afraid of it because you always wound on a 6 now anyway). They would find a good narrative reason to have such a thing on the table, and then, as if by magic, would be able to include in that narrative a hero, or villian, or some other similar fantastic creature in order to counter it. Or it would only be available for a random number of turns. Players would resort to narrative to sort out the evident power problem.

That said, you don't need the Warhammer 3 rule set to do that. It's just that its most evident in players who hold to Warhammer 3 standards, because the rule set is so badly written. Take note of what I say - the players use narrative in order to compensate for the rules. Do you play Warhammer 6? You could use narrative to compensate for the rules. Do you play Warhammer 8? You can use narrative.

Think about the forum post mentioned above, where the poor bastard had to deploy his whole army in between the imaginary lines on the field. Could they not have re-arranged the scenery to suggest that there was only a narrow defile in which the army ended up entering the field? The narrative would simply be the opposing force knew that was a bottle neck and had set up in expectation of their arrival. I haven't even written a line of fiction to explain that. That's not even narrative.

Consider this for a parting shot: in the Realms of Chaos books, the points cost for greater daemons (you know, bloodthirsters, keepers of secrets - that sort of thing) are listed for a sense of completeness. One doesn't pay points for them - you simply agree with your opponent how many you will have. If your head just exploded, that's because you're still playing Warhammer for Children.

For more on Warhammer for Adults, check out The Oldhammer Contract and these comments on the 40K OSR over at Tales from the Maelstrom.


  1. "... players use narrative in order to compensate for the rules. Do you play Warhammer 6? You could use narrative to compensate for the rules. Do you play Warhammer 8? You can use narrative."

    Thumbs Up.

    But one thing about rules arguments - it isn't always competition that drives the need for such clarification (though it usually is). Consider the situation where one player has planned a carefully laid trap, based on interpretation A (probably of line of sight!). The other has walked right into the trap, unable to even see the trap, as he is interprets the rule as B. The trap springs, except it doesn't. Now this could be settled by a roll-off, but that would be *narratively* unexciting - the game settled by one roll, unconnected with player skill, the characteristics of the armies, or anything else. Of course, I'd be happy to roll off in these situations if I played WFB two or three times a week. But I don't, for shame. If interpretation A or B is agreed before the game, then the game will be far more satisfying. That's not to say that I need Jervis' ruling on something, just that nothing breaks the narrative of the game more than a disagreement about how the basic 'physics' of the game world operate.

  2. Excellent post.

    I always felt that WFB3 was more about "my Goblins and John's Wood Elves clash but there is a mad Elementalist in the centre who summons loads of Earth Elementals to attack both sides in the defence of his tower - that sounds like it might be an interesting game". This was probably even more true in the WFB2 days where the list of magic items seemed to be aimed not at souping-up armies but as a centre piece to an unusual scenario. A big toolbox of ideas so to speak.

    And then you'd find out. And maybe next time gang up against the rogue Elementalist. We once did a four player game of Epic (2nd edition I think - the one that came with Marines and Orks in the box with the cardboard buildings with plastic roofs) on a desert table with randomly appearing Sandworms that would swallow the nearest unit because we'd just seen the Lynch version of Dune and though it might make a good game. That was followed by a game that pitted a host of Capitol Imperalis (actually 1:72 Airfix Shermans with the turrets removed) against Imperial Guard in a deliberate attempt to have a game that resembled OGRE. Ah, happy days.

    As for Realm of Chaos I always read it as almost, but not quite, saying "look, none of this is play-tested but we think it's all cool stuff. Have a play with it and see what you think. Think outside the box". Most of the stuff published in WD was the same.

    While it covers historic warfare from 1700 to about 1890 and most definately not fantasy, I think you might like Black Powder. It's Rick P and Jervis returning to their roots with a real "make it up as you go along" attitude.

  3. The good Doctor has raised an excellent point. Of course, there could very likely be times where such a thing as you've described could happen. I suspect, however, that most (non-competitive) players might check their understanding with the other player (even if it would be in a circumspect way in order not to reveal the master plan) before they committed to that course of action.

    The reason I say this is that in my experience, the reason players DON'T check it out with the opponent is that they are hoping to argue their point successfully when they get there. This sort of behaviour is most typical of players that have constructed a fairly tenuous link between certain rules and magic items or characters and are planning to exploit a 'rules interpretation' rather than a legitimate battle tactic that has genuinely outsmarted the opponent.

    Also, I've experienced the situation that you've described myself, and I would love to believe that all non-competitive players who are looking to have fun over victory would react the same way I did - laughter - bountiful and light, enough to help your non-competitive opponent to show some good grace as he beats you into the floor now that he knows you had no idea what you were doing...

  4. @Coopdevil - actually - you've hit the nail on the head - the books are just a big toolbox of ideas - not limitations, but ideas. Very well said, sir, those are the simple words I was scrabbling around for yesterday when I wrote the post :)

    I agree with you about Realms of Chaos - hailed as masterpieces and much in demand, one has to admit it can't be for the rules. They really are purely for inspiration and a loose link between the madness proposed within and the common warhammer rule set. That is even evidenced now, in that one could probably use almost all of the 'rules' without any change in Warhammer 8. I also get the impression that the authors just wanted to see how many different types of dice they could get someone to use in the random generation of ...well, anything, really.

    Also, a good shout about the Black Powder. I've been keeping a keen eye on the adventures of young Giglamps over at, where the proprietor of said blog uses narrative to great effect. The whole thing is set in the Flintloque universe, which really, really appeals to me. Assuming the House of Lords (well, my wife) approves the 2012 wargames budget, I might be looking in that direction very, very shortly...

    The thing that really stands out about MC Monkeydew's blog is that his storyline is continuous, and the actual rule systems underneath the narrative change depending on what stage the story is in.

  5. 'Tournaments' seem to stomp all over the friendly DIY aspects of the hobby... and I'm very much a fan of the DIY ... coming up with new unit types and making land speeders out of deodorant bottles.
    Besides GW's own obvious attempts to discourage a DIY approach to their games I'm wondering if it's also a matter of the artwork/graphics looking... too professional.
    I was looking at the 2nd edition of WFB this morning and thought about how 'basic' most of the design/layout/illustration was... most of it is at or below the level I could produce at home. This kind of puts me in mind that I'm on an even level with the game itself... if I want to tinker with it, change things here and there... well, that's OK... I'm not messing with a masterpiece.
    Looking at the newer versions, I get the impression of something handed down from the mountaintop... something so refined that I am barely even worthy to view it... let alone handle it. Don't even think of messing with any of it's solemn truths.
    All that graphic pizzazz seems to convince people that 'official' equals 'sacred'. Encouraging the sorts who won't consider going off the rails and making the game their own.
    Of course, I think the same goes for a lot of newer games that toss big bucks into the marketing... Privateer and WOTC and so on. Creating an audience more concerned with playing the game 'right' than doing what's fun.

  6. @knobgobbler - Wow - this is a really insightful comment, and a very clear and succinct way its written too! I absolutely agree with you. It's so well written, I don't really think I can add anything -

    '...Creating an audience more concerned with playing the game 'right' than doing what's fun...'

    just +1, really. Thanks for this contribution!

  7. I remember a house in redhill a borrowed 3rd ed book and photostatted templates from a rule book :) however once more compus mentus I shall pass a sensible.commentary on why I moved away from fantasy to 40k post 5th edition.