Fluff, Crunch, Theme, Competition and Balance: Part One

This started as a comment over on Kirby’s blog, but rapidly accelerated into something far too teal deerish for a comment box, so it’s being dumped here instead rather than taking up people’s screens and offending their delicate sensibilities.

Kirby was talking about the fifth edition 40K codices, and how they enable theme building by fielding a special character who alters things like a unit’s location in the force organisation chart, or the weapon options it can take, or maybe replacing one Universal Special Rule with another; the stuff I insist on calling ‘unlocking the build’.

I really like that sort of thing, but then I have an imagination and don’t feel the need for my gaming piece to actually be THE Pedro Kantor or THE Wazdakka Gutzmek or whoever. Perhaps it’s cognitive dissonance, this separation of the name and the backstory and the unique identity from a set of game mechanics that enable me to play a list that does things, but the thing is I don’t especially care whether I’m being intellectually dishonest as long as I’m having fun and not starving to death or anything.

Games Workshop’s prevailing tendency has been to have special characters who influence the construction of entire armies, as a way of unlocking theme builds that are either impossible in the selection rules as written, or just not very good. In particular, I’m thinking of the 40K ones that move units into the Troops section and make them Scoring. If you’re doing a Ravenwing army, for instance, you have a choice:

Without the Master of the Ravenwing, you can take three Ravenwing Attack Squadrons as Fast Attack choices. They can’t take objectives or fill compulsory slots, and so in two thirds of the games you play, you have to include three units that aren’t part of your theme of choice, and your battleplan is going to be based around these units if you’re at all interested in winning games.

With the Master of the Ravenwing, you can take up to six Ravenwing Attack Squadrons as Troops; Ravenwing units fill your compulsory slots, can take objectives, and are now a tactical priority (since they’re what you use to win) as well as a narrative and aesthetic one.

This is good game design, people – it gives you the tools you need to win without compromising your theme, and it doesn’t exactly take much insight or imagination to figure out that there must have been dozens, if not hundreds, of Masters of the Ravenwing; there are at least four Dark Angels successor chapters with a similar contemporary and an equally storied collection of predecessors.  Look at what the piece is, rather than what it’s called, and use your damn imagination.

GMort and his commenters were on about this the other day, discussing how it’s possible for one to theme an army and still try to win games with it – or at least, it is if your army book is well written, with a capacity to unlock new choices.

For an example of one that isn’t, let’s have a look at the Chaos Space Marines, whose Troops units are all some variant or another on a power-armoured Space Marine whose options for mobility are a Rhino. Or Lesser Daemons, otherwise known as Marines with no guns, armour or mobility after deployment. No other dedicated transport options; no way to move Bikes or Terminators into that section. The book, and the choices it presents, are locked. That’s not to say that you can’t theme a Chaos army, just that the theme had better have room for power-armoured infantry in base-line transports. Compare that to the Blood Angels, with their dedicated Land Raiders and jump packing Troops choices, and you’ll see what I mean (hopefully).

GMort talked about the Chaos book, and said something I really like: that there are two ways you can theme a Chaos army. You can sit down, come up with a colour scheme and a name and a story, carefully think about how each of the units you need to play the army effectively can be made to fit in with that… or you can, for example, take everything that can have the Mark of Tzeentch and refuse to field anything else, particularly not anything Nurgly (no matter how much it might help you in-game) because that’s ‘not part of my theme’.

GMort says it’s lazy. I, euphemistically, say it’s quick, but dubious. Setting yourself invisible rules, putting further locks on a locked book, is a sure-fire route to tactical disappointment. I’d rather think about how to fit Obliterators and Bikers into my Tzeentch army than discount them because they’re not Thousand Sons. I know not having to think is very attractive, but seriously, it’s fun, and you’ll be more invested in an army that you’ve thought about than a generic theme-off-the-pegger that you’ve just slapped together.

If, like me, you play WFB, replace the examples: Warriors of Chaos, for instance, can either take an army with lots of Trolls that still has to have 25% of its points spent on Chaos Warriors, or they can take Throgg, move Trolls into the Core and spend the mandatory 25% on them, freeing up Special points for other monster units, and can even take a Dragon who can cast spells. Theme – army of monsters. Non-monster units present in the army – none. Tactical options covered – well, it has anvils (Trolls), hammers (Ogres, Dragon or otherwise), war machines (if you’re taking the Hellcannons – they’re monsters!) or other big scary priority targets (Giants, Shaggoths) and a level 4 wizard with a good Lore (Galrauch).

Contrast that to Vampire Counts; any way you slice it, you’re going to be taking blocks of Skeletons, Zombies or Ghouls, because they’re the only units that use up Core points, and they’re pretty cheap. Nothing moves anything else into that section, and nothing else in that section counts toward your minimum requirements. Want to do a cavalry army, or an army of ghosts? Tough.

So, that’s me just about burned out on the current design philosophy. The stuff I actually wrote in Kirby’s comments was looking back at the way GW used to do things, with either complex systems of Traits or Doctrines that afforded a variety of custom options, or sub-lists, an avenue Privateer Press (and, I believe, Battlefront) still choose to go down. I still haven’t used any of the text I originally typed into that comment box. Save it for next time. There will be a next time. I’ve some grievances to air.

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

2 thoughts on “Fluff, Crunch, Theme, Competition and Balance: Part One”

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