[WFB] Warhammer For Adults: the New Testament

When I was a lad, playing at Wild Beasts under the table, I didn’t have the luxuries of time and choice that I have now. None of us guttersnipes did. We ran our regular pocket-money-and-birthday-present lists into each other, because that was all we had the capacity to do. It was rare enough at first for anyone to even bother with points and an army list. I was happy if we had, at least on paper, a fair fight, and so week after week I sent my Chaos Warriors trudging up the field into hails of bows, bolts and bloody High Magic spells, or lurching after Skinks who merrily hovered within eight inches but without ninety degrees for the entire duration. Because that was the only way I could play at all: constrained by the figures.

Later, in those heady glory years of playing sixth edition with my first serious disposable income, the chief constraints were not the figures, but the available space and time. Games were played in GW branches or clubs above pubs, on four foot by four boards with, generally, a queue to use them. There was no time to write up a list on the night – we’d hold things up – and so the games were pick up affairs at modest scale. 1500 points standard, with the occasional top heavy 2000 pointer so we could use Vampire Lords and Dragons and such without crowding the board. But we could get a Border Patrol in, and when we were building new armies or pressed for time, we did. And if there was a Mordheim league or similar on, we’d play that for a month instead. And I played, week after week, because that was the only way I could play at all.

Later still, as a starving graduate student, when the King of Editions had collapsed into “if only Pitched Battles are played, then only Pitched Battles shall be provided!” and my army was showing its age, I tried building another with the limited means available. I had 1000 points of Chaos Warriors, again. The local store played exclusively 2000 point Pitched Battles in preparation for the tourney scene. If I wanted to play at all, I had to borrow half an army and play with some jank I hadn’t made my own and learned and honed through the slow process of scaling up from Skirmish band to Border Patrol to 1000 to 1500 in scenarios that were built for mismatches to baby’s first 2000 point game – and my opposition would be loaded for bear, as the saying has it.

And if that was the only way to play, I wasn’t interested, so my WFB career began its slow decline into second hand armies, a morass of trading and swapping and desperately searching for the game I had loved in the game it had become.

Now, I am an adult. I play my irregular games in modern, spacious gaming centres, on twenty-four or even thirty-two square feet of sleek neoprene, with a CHAIR. Each! Maybe even a side space for rulebooks, templates, casualties and the midgame pint. Such, such are the joys. And these games are scheduled weeks in advance with other adults. They are anticipated, pondered over, thirsted after, and gleefully reported on. These games are a big deal. They should be more than the constantly, carelessly shovelled takeaways of the pick up game. They are more of a fine dining experience; a nice treat.

And this is what makes me think. Dangerous, I know. It reminds me of the admonishments of Brother Ranz, of yesteryear, that a wargame is not escapism: it is played in the real world with and against your chosen opponent. With… and against. With… and against. With… And it’s that With that matters.

When one is an Adult, you see, playing Warhammer for (and against, and with) other Adults, one takes responsibility for fun, rather than expecting the game system to guarantee it.

Back in the day, when we all stuffed our face with the unsatisfactory kebab-stuff of the pickup game twice a night three nights a week, we could afford to write off the duff ones. But now, when every game is arranged with care and anticipated for weeks if not months, we can – nay, must – curate those games to ensure that they are worth the faff.

We may wish for an unequal contest. There are scenarios for that, which curate the experience and frame it. That is well and good. What is neither well nor good is the complete stomping that comes out of the blue, when both participants have prepared for their own different sense of a game – and prepared separately.

Which means that my outdated sense of the Ultimate Spirit of Warhammer, derived from Stillmania and authentic Middlehammer as it may be, is still wrong. It is born from a gaming culture and game circumstances of yesteryear, when we all did this all the time.

Here and now, walking the one list into every game is leaving too much unplanned and unprepared for. It is on me, and you, and all of us, to play With each other and properly curate our battles, so that when we come to play Against each other we actually have a good time.

Here, for reference and record, is my own sense of the Ultimate Spirit of Warhammer (Revised Standard Version).

  • The perfect game is arranged a month or two in advance. A scenario is chosen and unless teaching and learning are the goals, it is not a Pitched Battle. Army lists are constructed through a discussion; what do we want out of this game and how can we be sure we get it?
  • On the day, the big game is teased and trailed with some warm-ups. A Skirmish or two, perhaps a Border Patrol before lunch. The afternoon is the Big Game, a stout 2000-3000 point affair ideally. Play proceeds at a gentlemanly pace without any “gotcha” moments or playing for the draw because it’s a bad match up.
  • It’s all over by teatime, and the outcome and the pitch for the next game can be discussed over your choice of hearty meal and adult beverage. Paid for by the winner, to ease the sting of defeat.

I haven’t quite pulled it off yet. But I live in hope.

[Meta Gaming] Theory Thursday – "Does This List make me That Guy?"

Questions like these come up on Reddit at least three times a week, and those are just the ones I see. “{insert popular tournament list archetype here} – does bringing this make me That Guy?”

No.

Not in a vacuum, anyway.

I don’t care what it is. The latest Internet-approved tri-Riptide donkeyflop laswing with a Seer Council, dual Knights and go-faster stripes on the infinitely respawning Daemon Allies doesn’t make you That Guy in and of itself.

What does?

Powergaming alone

If you’re rocking up with that list and nobody knows it’s coming, you’re probably That Guy. If you’re putting it down on the table and someone takes out their motley collection of metal Guard figures from the 1990s which are barely even a proper army, if you squint and overlook the one missing platoon command squad, you’re definitely That Guy.

If you know for an absolute fact that anyone you might be playing that list against on this day, in this place, will be prepared for it and have something of comparable heft on their side, you are not That Guy. Congratulations.

If you have taken the time to find an opponent and arrange a game before you even write your lists, as God and the Studio intend, you are not That Guy. Not… yet. The thing is, being That Guy is a lot like actually winning games – it’s a lot less to do with list building than you think it is.

Being a helmet

Sadly, there is no defined and qualified list of helmetic behaviours. It sucks. I know. I’m autistic. I’d like there to be a list somewhere. There isn’t. I’m going to take a stab at it, but at least one of these is something that might only be a hot button for me. Bear that in mind.

  • Gamesmanship. Undermining your opponent either more directly (they hand you their list, you glance at it, stifle a snort and hand it back) or less (every time they get their game face on to make a decision, you ask them a well-timed question about something another of their units does). The outcome of a toy soldiers game is not worth playing mindgames on another human being. (Incidentally, I apologise for all the times I’ve pulled this one. I’ve been That Guy.)
  • Slow play/fast play. Playing noticeably slower than your opponent – stalling for time, especially in timed game environments, hoping to get the alpha strike and the last turn – is very bad form indeed. Playing faster than your opponent can follow – scooping up dice before they’ve registered the results, declaring your intent in a series of barked shorthands or worse, not at all, never stopping for anything that might be negotiable, hustling them to take decisions like whether or not to Deny the Witch? That’s also bad form.
  • Looking with your fingers, not with your eyes. Maybe this is more of a pet peeve, but I hate people touching my models even with permission. If break it, that’s on me and I’m allowed to be cross. If you break it I’m expected to eat that anger for the sake of the social contract and that doesn’t tickle me at all. This goes double for insolently flicking my dudes over when they die. (Nobody has ever actually done this to me, but I break out in a cold sweat thinking about it.) I gather that some scenes, like competitive Blood Bowl, are a lot more chill about this, and all I can say is that don’t fly with me. Unless I ask you to touch my stuff, don’t. Assume everyone is as uptight about this as I am.
  • “Gotcha!” There was a time when wargames were closed-information affairs: the exact nature of your list was a secret because there existed rules for scrying, scanning and so on. No more. Lists are open. Rules are open. Withholding key information until someone’s made a decision and then being all “no takebacks bro” is a sure sign that you are That Guy. That said…
  • Constantly reminding your opponents about a rule verges on being That Guy too, especially if it’s something like Stealth in Warmachine, where people often know  the shot will auto-miss but are hoping to catch something with the blast. This one is more forgiveable than the others – some people struggle to retain some rules, some people do pretend this state for advantage, and in general I would consider it good form to declare intent, issue reminders and narrate things like blast deviations, even if it does make you sound like a dice-rolling app on legs. This one is more about reading your opponent – if they seem heated, maybe don’t poke that inner fire too hard. Try asking questions rather than making statements – “you do know she has Stealth, right?” before the shot is taken is a bit less enraging than “Stealth” right afterwards.
  • Taking your eyes off the prize. Yeah, yeah, gaming is a social activity, I get that – but gaming is also gaming. If you’re more interested in the game on the next table over, whatever you watched on Netflix last night, the cute game store girl or telling me about your eighteenth level Paladin, you’re being a bit of a helmet. Maybe a skullcap or something. If you came out to play a game, play the game.
  • Hard tilt. This one is hard to cop to because it is my major sin of choice, but for the sake of honour and completeness it must remain. If you are still mildly traumatised from the unspeakable things that were done to your dudes in the last game, you need to recover before you hit the next one. If your single point of failure has been reached and you’ve already totally blown this game at the top of turn two, you’re either playing badly or being melodramatic, and in either case you need to breathe and think and ideally come back at this another day. I’m really bad at this, which is why I don’t play tournaments any more – the tension from the first game shorts my brain out and I totally forget how to handle myself in the next.
  • The Discourse. Off-colour jokes don’t fly when your opponent isn’t laughing and is squirming. There’s a time and a place for everything, even the dead baby jokes, but come on – read your opponent. If they don’t laugh, dial it back a notch and save everyone a boring argument. Likewise: tone policing. I get it; you don’t want to hear the word ‘rape’ five times in one sentence while playing toy soldier games. Doesn’t thrill me either. The thing is, when people are in mid game they aren’t always watching their every thought and word for every possible BadWrong they might say, and they aren’t going to be receptive to a hot button conversation right that minute. Distract, derail, move them along with the game, and unleash the Discourse afterwards, in controlled conditions. There’s a time and a place for everything.

The bottom line

Your list doesn’t make you That Guy. That Guy is someone you are, independently of the game mechanics. Failure to read your opponents, share desired outcomes in play, and uphold the social contracts: these are the hallmarks of That Guy. We are all That Guy sometimes, when our concentration lapses and our ill side gets the best of us, irrespective of what’s in our figure case today. It’s not what you play. It’s how you play it.

[Meta Gaming] A Moment of Sanity

Apparently this appeared in the New York Times the other day.
 

Judge John Hodgman on the Quest of Dungeon Master Dad

Paul writes: “I have a dispute with my son’s friend’s parents. They feel that Dungeons & Dragons is inappropriate for 5-year-olds. I think the imaginative play is good for our boys, but the other parents believe that the game will make their child an outcast. Help these parents see reason and allow their child to play a game of D&D.”

The court agrees that your neighbors are terrible snobs. I suspect, however, that playing D.&D. with your son is more your fantasy than his. Five-year-olds don’t need a lot of hex paper and dice to imagine that they are warriors or elves (or cyborg mermen with rainbow breath): They’re built for it. It is the adolescent who craves D.&D., as it offers the illusion that all of his increasingly terrifying interactions in real life are governed by a secret math that, while occasionally cruel as a vorpal blade, is at least comprehensible. Your moment as dungeon master will come, Dad, but for now I order you to simply let the children play.

I’m not dead. I’m just playing WoW again. I’m also designing a dungeon crawl for this year’s ArmadaCon. Well, I say ‘designing’, it’s more ‘flipping tarot cards and working out how many undead miniatures I can fit in my luggage’…

[Meta Gaming] Terror, Horror and the Gothic Fantasy

There is a split in the tradition of Gothic fiction, almost as old as the recognisable genre itself. At its most clear, the split is between the ‘terror’ Gothic of Ann Radcliffe and the ‘horror’ Gothic of Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis. This is not after-the-fact critical flimflam but a distinction articulated by Radcliffe herself, around the time she was writing The Italian as a repudiation of Lewis’ style and proclivities.

Radcliffe’s Gothic plays upon the sensibilities of the novel readers of her day – middle-class women for the most part – and beneath its explained supernatural trappings it is as much a matter of manners as Austen. Among its qualities is the emphasis on ‘imagined evils over actual, physical threats, in accordance with theories of the sublime (terror expands our mind through imagination, while horror contracts it through earthly fears)’. The surroundings and situations in which Radcliffe’s heroines find themselves prey upon their susceptible, sensitive minds until they keel over in a swoon of pure terror at the thought of what might be about to happen.

As you’d expect, Lewis’ ‘horror’ Gothic is much more about physical threats: the dagger held to Matilda’s bosom presents the threat of injury to her own person and of sexual temptation to the onlooking Ambrosio, while the novels’ incidents are full of physical desire and panicked flight through dark places.

This is not to say that a given work is either terrifying or horrible, although Lewis seems to have won out. Terror and horror are present to varying degrees in varying works within the tradition. Masterpieces of the Gothic successfully blend them to some extent.

Frankenstein has the grotesque appearance and physical power of the Creature, but it also has the moral sensibility of the Creature and his creator at its heart, the ethical struggle over what the Creature might do or be. Dracula is closer to Lewis, a series of perilous incidents unfolding upon one another, but the physical and spiritual contamination of undeath is a threat of terror to the rational Victorian middle classes forming Stoker’s cast and readership. Gormenghast, the peak of the tradition as far as I’m concerned, comes in for flak because ‘nothing happens in the first book’ – the truth is that the first book is a slow burner which explores terror and, barring the library fire and Steerpike’s flight across the rooftops, provides little physical threat. The third book is a fever dream of horror as Titus reels from incident to incident with little comprehension of where he is or what is happening to him – the great evil which he imagines is the absence of a physical qualifier for his experience, the possibility that Gormenghast does not exist and never existed, but he is constantly beset by lesser physical evils and these drive the narrative. The middle book is the pinnacle, in which the physical perils of fire and water harmonise with the psychological perils of ritual and unfettered nature. But I digress.

On screen, Gothic often slides too far into horror. Horror films are rich with incidents and implied physical threats but they do not always achieve that access to the sublime sensibilities which is necessary for terror and thus the complete Gothic experience. Without cultivated access to the inner lives of characters, the events of Gothic cinema – however faithfully adapted – lose their ability to terrify. This is further compounded by the tendency of Gothic cinema to go easier on the physical threats than the gore porn of ‘pure’ horror. The result is the cosy non-horror of the Hammer movie or the Hinchcliffe-era Doctor Who serial: the style of the Gothic without its substance.

What is all this to the Master of Games? Well, let us consider Ravenloft. The original Module I6 is a blur of Hammeresque visual trappings and generic events which falls into exactly the same trap as the films which set its tone. It has too much of Lewis’ lurid adventuresome romp and not enough of Radcliffe’s excision of sensibility for my liking.

This is a problem of D&D and its ilk, if I’m honest. Terror resides in the imagination and the characters, the avatars by which we navigate the imagined world of the RPG, do not have an imagination of their own. It is the sensibility of the players at one’s actual table which must be identified and incorporated into the events of the game, and we must go beyond “your character may die!” – this is an imaginary peril which puts the wind up a player but it is nothing that roleplaying in some other genre does not accomplish equally as well. For the Gothic we must go further.

I have lunged for and sometimes achieved the complete Gothic experience in my gaming. It has invariably been done with players who I know well. I know their heartstrings and can saw on them as a virtuoso on his fiddle. In the early days of my Victorian Age Vampire group (fourteen years: we were so much younger then…) things were more Lewis than Radcliffe, a lurid bloodsoaked romp through Victorian London, more style than substance. It wasn’t until I knew the people behind the characters that I could feed them clashes in sensory perception, fragmented awareness of time, isolation in exactly the sort of place that preyed on their thoughts or the looming presence of a genius loci, and in so doing provoke them into roleplaying convincing fear or madness – and in one case have one player sleeping with the lights on for a week.

A Gothic module will only ever achieve tired aesthetic Hammerisms – the genre’s lowest common denominator played for lighthearted, unmoving fun. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the pinnacle of Gothic roleplaying. That needs tailoring. It needs players with sensibilities which can be played upon by a DM willing to do so to a point just shy of trauma. It’s not for everyone. Too much resilience drives it back into the realm of cliché and pastiche: not enough and the DM becomes a mere bully, fucking with vulnerable players who aren’t entertained by his antics. I haven’t had a group who can do it right for years and the last time I did I let them down by running Module I6 by the jolly hollow book instead of reaching out for what I knew was there, but I now have a couple of players with whom the right chord (D minor) might just be struck.

[Meta Gaming] The Great Clomping Foot of Nerdism

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, and makes us very afraid.

— M. John Harrison

… I’m fighting the urge to simply type ‘discuss’, really I am.

There’s more to it somewhere, but the original post seems to have disappeared.

Lexington, who showed me the tiny extract that exists, believes there was something about how Middle-Earth’s history, topography and populace merely existed, and was encountered, and only gave you the immediate, necessary details rather than exhaustively finding reasons to explain the unnecessary. That’s part of what’s doing my nut at the moment; the obsessive need to precisely break down how many of X and Y and Z species/ethnicities (if we’re lucky enough to have ethnicities, and not be in the presence of someone who farms off ethnic and cultural traits to non-human ‘races’ instead) are resident in the town and what its primary exports are and generally burden us with a truly tiresome level of detail.

Another thing that’s doing my nut is the tendency, particularly in game-universe creation, to flaunt your sources, to make overt pastiches and parodies and references, to base what you’re doing on “this meets that” – the High Concept approach to world-making. It’s particularly vexing to me since I cut my teeth on Warhammer and Pratchett and that’s how they work, and there’s something fundamentally satisfying to me about that sort of thing – but in my own creative efforts I catch myself simply piking things wholesale. Unlike Frankenstein, I recognise my creation’s ugliness before I give it life; I can see the stitches, and the misbegotten nature of the whole repels me.

Yet another thing: the habit of readers and audiences to look for the seams, and feel clever when they spot them, and consequently make creators feel that that’s what’s wanted; more obvious referentialism and explanations, less sense of atmosphere or wholeness. The production of inert environments, obsessively detailed and often with descriptive vocabulary but… not alive, somehow. Missing a sense of what it feels like to live in them.

It’s the kind of readership fostered by narratology and its outside-the-ivory-tower cousin, trope-hunting (I’m not going to link to TV Tropes, that’s evil). TV Tropes is oddly fascinating and compelling stuff, but… I want you to imagine a well trained and alert Troper, who is very much inclined to navigate worlds through Troperese – everything’s a Negative Space Wedgie or a Xanatos Gambit or what have you – and who world-builds with a very clear sense of what her world is About and how it works and what she wants to express with it, but which ultimately doesn’t lead her to go anywhere with any of it. Laden – positively burdened – with detail, all of it very well tuned and possessed of great verisimilitude, but… there’s no story in it. The nerdist perspective seems to treat narrative like trainspotting; once you’ve established what kind of everything everything is there’s no point in following it through. You’ve found the serial number and that’s all you need.

The obsession with detail and mechanism often – not always, but often – seems aligned to a worldview which tries to take the fantasy out of fantasy, for the sake of some half-cocked ideas about ‘realism’ and ‘merit’ and ‘wanting to be taken seriously’. I feel, instinctively, that this is what leads us down the tangled path to things like Elder Scrolls Online – a game which is certainly richly detailed, but I draw the line at saying ‘beautiful’ because the images I’ve seen seem so… bland, so pseudo-historical, a wealth of effort put into expressing an awful lot of grey and brown and gritty places. I’m sick to death of grit, and realism, and merit, and I’m sick to death of ‘world building’, of sinking our energies into the pseudoscience of things at the expense of the things themselves. Show some people a portal to another world and they’ll be too busy fretting over how the cosmology and relativity and physics works to go through. As Lex said to me, it’s there because it’s there, and in the moment of your story, all of that stuff is irrelevant, even if you know some of it as an author.

One feels like a right heel telling people not to ask questions, but – it’s the spirit in which they’re asked. It can be ‘I wonder how that works’, which is not as fun a question as ‘I wonder where it goes’ but at least a step in the right direction, but all too often it’s a petulant ‘how does that even work?’ – a statement in disguise, an ‘actually I think you’ll find that doesn’t work because’, a great clomping foot of pedantic, overbearing fucking nerdism that comes down smush on wherever we were going to go and whatever we were going to do.

If you expect me to spend four hours working out and explaining how the portal works, don’t be surprised if you never get to go through it. I’m not interested in building worlds; I’m interested in exploring them. We’ll be talking about how on Sunday.

“I did not deliberately invent Earthsea, I did not think ‘Hey wow — islands are archetypes and archipelagoes are superarchetypes and let’s build us an archipelago! I am not an engineer, but an explorer. I discovered Earthsea.”

— Ursula K. LeGuin