[Meta Gaming] Of Free Kriegspiel Roleplaying

Brought to you by a reflection on the Revenant’s Quill.

I sometimes feel very out of synch with the world, and the rest of the time I am asleep.

Half a lifetime ago, when D&D 3.0 was young and rules were in the ascension, I was running WFRP by throwing out everything but percentage odds based on character stats, and Victorian Age Vampire (a good half inch of book with two pages of actual rules in) on a single die hack.

When the OSR rolled around I was saying “yes yes, but people seem to like consistency in their fiction, so let us cleave a little closer to the rules”, a tendency which reached its height with the declaration that Fluff Ain’t Rules and what does not exist in system is not true.

But let’s look at the games I make, hmm? They are all, ultimately, a single activity to prompt and shape emergent fiction. Draw and arrange cards, or roll dice in particular combinations, to decide what happens: then tell us about it. (Or they are Bloodspell, which is as ever weird and ass-backwards: decide what you want to happen, then roll dice to see if you betray your own intent.)

In these circumstances there is no Referee, except in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to Elfland, as a legacy gesture to people who want there to be someone whose job it is to say “you succeed” or “you fail”.

There is a Host. An originating player who had the idea for the game, who brings the others together and welcomes them into their mind for a while. Those others need a spur to want things – sheer curiosity about the world does it sometimes, but sometimes people need a drive that compels them into the world, something which comes from the fiction but has mechanical teeth behind to lead into that “core gameplay loop.”

You know the one. To rise in society you need to gain levels; you gain levels by spending currency; you gaim currency from your adventures. Or: you awaken each night with a rising Hunger that must be quieted, whether you wish it or not, and the longer you leave it the lese control you will have.

And sometimes people sit there and say “well, what am I allowed to do?” – and my first instinctive answer was to highlight things in the fictive world with which they can interact, but at some point the journey brought me to a doorway beyond which were Moves, and Plays, and specific things you were allowed to do as your means of interacting with world.

I know why. I’ve heard the stories of players traumatised by bad hosts who don’t care if they’re having a good time. I’ve been numbed by the finite possibilities of a prepared and purchased experience. Those things lead to a refuge in rules as protection and aid.

Yet now: people are talking about playing the way I used to play. Which is, in the terms of the indie circles I now inhabit, rather old-fashioned. We are supposed to attack and dethrone the Master, and invite full co-operation in the play according to the intent of the absent designer.

Whisper it, but that ain’t how I roll, and it never has been. Designer Whomst? I get tired when I have to act as the spur to inert players, or when the calculation of fairness becomes too heavy, and those elements of Mastery I shun out of pure distaste. But as a foil to active players? Even if it makes me an authority, a monster in indie terms: how could I ever, ever tire of that?

Absolutely years and years ago I wrote a semi-sensate drunken ramble about how great my last Mage session had been, and it was run in exactly that spirit. I don’t think that post is still extant, but it was basically an excuse to quote this:

Sitting behind the screen, my notes heaped high with treasure for the virtuous few, it became clear that what I actually liked was telling stories in more or less real time: snaring bits of player conversation in order to make them flesh, confounding people, embroidering every act in an effort to simulate their worthy band at the highest possible resolution.

I’d been so terrified of the responsibility for another person’s enjoyment that I’d forgotten what happens when it works: you are inviting other people to inhabit your mind. What a strange use of oneself that is; strange, and rare.

Tycho: problematique, but he can’t half write.

What scares me, deters me, bars me, is a standing down from the sense of myself as designing something other people can run, of presenting a Game first and foremost. How long did Tekumel exist before it could be published and consumed? EXACTLY. That is what I need to remember.

Anyway, FKR feels like coming home.

[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.