(in which Von finally talks about the HORDES Field Test)
“Although I would like to know the Troll’s secret? … is it just crying enough that get’s you the best tweaks? *boo hoo, my KSA can’t keep up with my army* … Designer: “That’s called balance” … *But I WANT IT…. * … Designer “No. It’s too good” …. *But I’ll scream, and scream, and scream until I’m sick!!!” …. Designer “Well if it shuts you up then … here you go” …. *I love you mummy*”
— Scalpel, of the Privateer Press boards.
To my mind, the secret is “having a boring, limited playstyle that’s hopelessly out of kilter with the design philosophy of HORDES”.
I started playing Trollbloods when Primal came out. Wasn’t entirely my choice – four of us got in, we agreed on one faction each, Legion were already baggsied and the new players wanted Skorne and Circle. It’s important not to put new players off, so I plumped for Trolls (and then decided, the more I read up on them, that they were actually pretty cool, with mad stuff like the Blitzer and a well-tuned backstory and style carried across from the IKRPG, about which they are one of the best things).
I stopped playing Trollbloods shortly after Evolution came out. I felt as if my armies were being chosen for me by the game mechanics and received wisdom, and there was all this mad stuff there that just wasn’t attractive enough to use over the stuff that let me actually play the game.
Received wisdom went something like this:
– Trollbloods need the Krielstone Bearer because they don’t have many other ways to play about with Fury and have more than their warlock’s FURY stat on the board.
– The Krielstone Bearer does other things too. It needs to do those things so that it can clear itself of Fury and still serve as a manipulation tool.
– Since you’re doing those things every turn, you might as well field the pieces that benefit most from them.
Factor in the limited range of Trollblood ranged weapons (which made Far Strike a must-have), their limited ability to negotiate terrain (which made Rush and Fell Calls a must-have), their tendency to be stalled when their Tough rule kicked in and left one member of a unit knocked down, holding the rest in place to keep formation with him (which made another Fell Call a must-have), and their prevalence of thrown weapons and melee damage (which made the excellent Rage animus a must have). Many of these things come from warbeasts and cost Fury, which makes the Krielstone Bearer even more attractive. That’s three warbeasts and at least one Fell Caller necessary to get all these important tools into an army, plus the Krielstone Bearer, plus a small unit that can benefit from the Krielstone Bearer’s Protective Aura (like, ooh, Trollkin Champions, they fit the bill!), and… oh crap. I’ve picked the same army as every Trollblood player uses in every game. It’s slow, melee-biased, tied to the slow-moving Krielstone Bearer, and above all it does not play like any other Hordes army.
Hordes is a game that revolves around striking hard, striking fast and striking first. Overwhelming damage projected at speed onto the enemy warlock for the assassination win. The scenarios which provide alternative win conditions for armies that struggle with assassination conditions tend to involve seizing control of abstract areas on the tabletop, spreading out across the width of your deployment area or penetrating enemy territory whilst holding your own.
That Trollbloods army, the one that picks itself? It’s not too good at that. It’s not fast enough to assassinate and the short range of its interweaving abilities mean it can’t split up well enough to land-grab. They were left trudging forwards through enemy firepower, trusting to their admittedly impressive resilience to keep enough of them alive to fight their way through an enemy army they probably hadn’t dealt much damage to on their way in. Trollbloods became an attrition based army in an alpha strike game.
There were certainly other options available to Trollblood players. Books and books of them. They just didn’t cover those essential basics – spells like Far Strike and Rush and Rage which had to be incorporated into the design process somehow and which may have led to consciously capping the RNG, SPD and STR of Trollblood models to compensate, abilities that mitigated the knockdown downside of Tough and the Trollbloods’ limited ability to control the Fury their warbeasts generated – and didn’t present self-sufficient, tactically viable alternatives to the must-takes. The alternatives were balanced around the must-takes and consequently didn’t have the capability to be effective without them. They were extras. Bolt-ons. Not alternatives.
That’s why I stopped playing Trollbloods. Actually, that’s not strictly true. I also stopped because of goofy comedy sculpts with hands larger than their heads (and I’m okay with that in and of itself, but not when half the range is quite gritty and serious with touches of comedy and well-developed fictional anatomies, and the other half is cartoonish with a very different set of anatomies), and because I couldn’t paint tartan very well. But the tactical limitations of the faction, or at least the monolith of received wisdom that perpetuated those limitations, just became too much for me.
Hordes: Metamorphosis rolls around and I don’t care. Too many fundamental design mistakes in the Primal pieces, too many institutionalised flaws in the factions, too many overcomplicated pieces with so many special rules in such tiny print that you need a sextant even to read the cards. It doesn’t fix anything, other than helping Skorne win some games now and again, and makes some things worse.
Hordes Mark II rolls around and I’m cautiously optimistic but still attracted to Skorne for thematic reasons. And then something happens. Privateer Press look at the Trollbloods, look at the received wisdom, and decide that, true or not, it needs to be broken away from.
The ranged pieces all get bumps in range or effectiveness to reduce their dependence on Far Strike. Modifications to the core terrain rules reduce the dependence on Rush. More models pick up abilities like Weapon Master or Charge of the Trolls (since that ability is now on a tougher model, has a longer range, and interacts better with warbeasts now that more of them have Reach) increasing their damage potential and reducing the dependence on Rage.
The Krielstone Bearer, for its part, finds that other models are fulfilling parts of its role. Trollkin Champions increase their own ARM. Whelps help to manage Fury by removing it directly from warbeasts, bypassing the precise, predictable leaching-spellcasting-and-Krielstone-filling Fury rotations that Trollblood armies were locked into. Oh, and it becomes faster – it can keep up with the Trollblood’s advance, allowing armies built around it to actually cross the halfway line, seize some territory, take the initiative.
The Krielstone Bearer also becomes more expensive, costing about the same as a ranged support piece or an independent-ish melee solo, or a baseline fighting unit. It’s now competing for space with other good stuff rather than automatically finding its way into every army list. There are now times when I would take it and times when I wouldn’t – times when it would be protecting/buffing a drive into enemy territory (while my own was held by my ranged and other support pieces) and times when it would be holding my own territory while other stuff did the attacking and moved away from it, because it has other ways to increase its ARM.
Trollbloods, from where I’m sitting, have developed an array of options: more stuff to do with a Krielstone-centric build and more builds that don’t rely on the Krielstone to work. In particular, builds around Whelps and warbeasts, or possibly around the ranged pieces, although I think the Stone would still be useful to protect a warlock who likes to operate at a distance, or as part of a melee core ensuring that the army isn’t a complete one-trick pony. The strength of the Trollbloods is still their resilience and ability to take a punch and throw one back harder, and their weakness is still their comparative sluggishness and interdependency that means they need to stay together.
I feel, though, that Trollblood players can take some ranged pieces to to project some damage back at the enemy whilst crossing the board, and not feel like idiots for doing so. Warbeasts can be forced for more than a total of five or six Fury across the board thanks to the wonderful, wonderful Whelps, who provide a means of shifting Fury that isn’t tied to that FURY stat and the capacity of the Krielstone. Trollblood players get to choose what they play and how they play it more than they felt they could before.
They might have always had choices that were obscured by received wisdom. Now, it looks to me as if that received wisdom isn’t looking quite so wise, and the choices it obscures are shining all the brighter. Even if Trollblood players have been wrong all along, the proof that they’re wrong and the inspiration to do something different is that much clearer and that much more interesting now. And their received wisdom build still works, in fact it looks like it works better – it’s just not the only one that seems viable to them.
I say ‘them’. I mean ‘us’. Assuming that these changes survive what’s left of the Field Test, or at least that enough of them do (the Whelps and the superfast Krielstone might be a bit too good for their own good – I’m not sure), I’m interested in playing Trollbloods again.
It’s been a while since I could say that.