[WFB] The Platonic Ideal

I have, in the past, had some things to say about pick-up gaming, tournament practice, Pitched Battle and the unsatisfactory takeaway of the soul that this kind of setup tends to result in. Of course, it’s very easy to thump one’s tub on the dot-coms and tell people they’re doing Warhammer wrong, which is why I’ve decided to “share best practice” like what my teacher training taught me to do.

What follows is an attempt to lead by example: a wargaming day myself and Mr. Ben staged in the summer of 2019 before the borders were closed and Trafnidiaeth Cymru nerfed into the ground. As hosting player, I had a look through the available resources and picked some scenarios appropriate to the participants, the terrain, and the timeframe we had available.

The forces in these little engagements are my Tomb Kings, in their embryonic “first attempt at a paint job” state, and Ben’s Skaven, in their “what do you mean you’re doing another new army” launch condition. The terrain selection is the Age of Sigmar stuff I acquired in a good-faith attempt to give Soul Wars a go during my year off blogging. The timeframe was a long afternoon, kicking off about noon and ending about six with late lunch at the local hostelry. (We’d reserved the evening for a round of Drunkhammer featuring our “main” armies, and that may see the light of day at some point too.)

I – The Border Patrol

(Rules for which can be found in Warhammer Chronicles 2004, if you’re interested. A Border Patrol usually takes sixty minutes or less to play, if you’re on form and keep your bustle hustled.)

This little encounter represented a Skaven incursion into the outer reaches of the necropolis of Rasetra. The scenery was set up to suggest the outer edge of a poorly fortified settlement; we had a house rule that attacking Skaven units could charge the fences and spend a combat phase knocking them down, as they weren’t terribly robust. The forces were deployed in opposite corners because that made most sense with the orientation of the buildings (and corner deployment always makes a nice change).

Ben lost this one. This is mostly because the Screaming Skull Catapult is very, very good at panicking Skaven units and the compulsory Liche Priest did nothing but ensure it could shoot twice every turn. Some Clanrats did make it some way into the Necropolis and regained a little glory by beating up my Skeleton Archers, but it wasn’t to last. All of this meant I would be setting up second and going first in the final game, as the Tomb Kings seized the initiative above ground.

II – The Skirmish

For our second game we played the Lost Tomb of Hamon Ra scenario from Warhammer Skirmish (the book of scenarios which expands on the Skirmish rules in the core manual; I believe most of it’s available in other forms online).

Some jimmying of the forces to suit available models was required – I had an Ushabti instead of the two Tomb Swarm bases – and we house ruled a little regarding the “crumble” moment, allowing my Tomb Prince a small radius of Leadership to keep some of his associates on their feet after my Liche Priest was destroyed.

Victory for the Skaven would deny the Tomb Kings 10% of their forces in the final battle (and if we’d been playing 2000 points as we originally hoped to, would also deny me the Crown of Kings).

The scenery here is set up to denote the outer walls of the Tomb and provide some internal decoration. There’s not a great deal of cover, although we were generous regarding figures stood immediately behind a sarcophagus or gravestone.

We were at this one for something like two hours as models fluffed hit rolls, wound rolls, injury rolls, and the endless loop of “can’t disengage from melee, can’t roll fives or sixes” set in. In retrospect I now know that Mordheim has a workaround for this (knocked down or stunned models are automatically taken out if wounded) and if Skirmish doesn’t have that I advise bringing it in. The other option is playing Warbands instead: Warbands has the traditional “fail save, lose last wound, you’re dead” resolution and tends to result in faster, more decisive games.

On the flipside, Skirmish also generates moments of real excitement, as even the disposable single-wound trooper can roll over, dust themself down and stage a comeback.

In our game the Skaven Assassin gave his all to destroy the Liche Priest, only to be cut down by a Tomb Prince moments later, and it was a mere Clanrat who retrieved the prize and dodged past an enraged Ushabti to make his final break for the surface, a lone survivor carrying the treasure of the Tomb.

(Ben won, that’s what I’m trying to say here.)

III – The Battle

With the Crown in the hands of the Skaven, we opted for a Breakthrough scenario, in which the Rodents of Unusual Size attempted to make their escape with their ill-gotten gains. I only had 1500 points of Tomb Kings so 1500 points is what we played, or rather 1500 vs 1350 as I’d lost the second game. I think I left out two Ushabti and my Icon Bearer’s magic flag. The terrain was essentially a flip of the first encounter; this time the Skaven would have the open space and the Tomb Kings holding the line on the fenced side of the battlefield.

I don’t really remember much about this game other than struggling to get anything done magically (turns out one Liche Priest isn’t enough at 1500 points, especially against two Warlock Engineers) and my Catapult not putting in the same sterling performance (only one shot per turn and an early misfire). It only went to about four turns – once my Ushabti had folded I didn’t have the speed to close off every avenue of assault and most of Ben’s army had free reign to move off the board.

What I do remember is the context of it. Because we’d set it up with the distraction raid and the temple pillaging, there were mechanical twists to an otherwise routine engagement, rewards for having done well in the early stages. Continuity was furthered by the terrain we used for the first and third battles.

Beyond that, because Ben won (again), my Tomb Kings now have something to do with themselves in future encounters, to whit going out to recover the Crown or maybe fighting their way home after having done so. All my future games with Ben, and maybe the entire backstory of my new army, can be shaped by the outcome of this only-slightly-curated day of play.

All of this was done with by-the-book armies, published scenarios, and terrain I already owned. I don’t think I’d even named my characters at the time! No extraordinary or even especial effort on our part was called for – we were just curious and selective about the wealth of additional material on offer in sixth edition WFB.

We could have simply played a Breakthrough scenario at 1500 points, and when we might have three people wanting a game each on neutral ground with strict departure times hanging over our head, that’s the sort of thing we settle for. But if you have the opportunity to do even a little prelude or aftermath for a game, to make a day of it and weave a little context and set the scenario up as something more than yet another points matched game of Borehammer, I heartily recommend you do so.

[WFB] The Narrative Approach (Paul Gayner, WD290)

Here’s another of those articles that inspired my Vampire Counts – one of those things that came out at precisely the right moment to kick me into collecting, building, painting and playing with the one army that I’ve ever been able to stick with.

For those who aren’t up to squinting at tiny text (reproduced as best I can from a PDF copy of WD 290), Paul’s article basically walks you through a few baseline notions in building a themed army. To synopsisise, you have:

1: an Idea,

derived this from literally anywhere you can plunder an idea from; you’re not looking to lift complete and complex notions so don’t be afraid to nick little bits from everywhere. (I never have been.) The alternative army lists in the back of the Armies books are there but, as Mr. Gayner explains and I reiterate, you don’t need them. You don’t need to deviate from the “proper” army list at all, or sit there wringing your hands because the specific troops you like are in the Blood Dragon list but you want to do Von Carsteins. You’re looking for the reason your Von Carsteins are like they are.

I was directly building into the Storm of Chaos variant list for the Army of Sylvania, which had a core of well-equipped Skeletons and Zombies surrounded by a swarm of bats, wolves and so on and so forth. No Ghouls, and only a limited supply of Knights, which is why I only had one unit for years and years.

2. an Army List,

built around those units that establish and maintain a theme and without which your commander would not be under any circumstances whatsoever. Thinking about your army in different tactical situations (i.e. different kinds of battle) is recommended – if they’re caught on the march, if they’re raided at home, if they’re much reduced in circumstances, which units never leave? Mine are my Black Knights and Skeletons, plus at least one Vampire.

3. some Models,

which are tailored to fit the particular aesthetic that goes along with your Idea.

This is why most of my models, barring the monsters, are kitbashed from Empire stuff – and even my Winged Nightmare, back in the day, was a gnarled-up Empire Griffon rather than the skinless horrors of the core Vampire Counts range. I really wanted to emphasise Sylvania as part of the Empire, a dark mirror held up to the neighbouring provinces, with uniformed Skeleton militiamen and a ragged Zombie levy and later, ghosts swarming out of the haunted Fort Oberstyre (because plastic Flagellants put the “make a Spirit Hose out of Flagellants” option within my price range at last).

4. some Characters,

of a sort who might logically lead the kind of army you’ve created. This is the bit where I go a bit off base, as my characters have been renamed and repurposed over the years and I’ve never quite settled down and defined which of them is which. I have a lot of names, derived from nineteenth-century vampire novels because I’m a pretentious arse literature graduate, but who exactly IS Lord Ruthven and which of these vampire models is him? It’s never been entirely clear.

5. some Other Stuff.

The original article recommends:

  • a baggage train (I never did this, because General’s Compendium style scenarios with extra modelling work that I wouldn’t be using week in week out were a bit too much fiddle and fart for me)
  • writing flash fiction or background to set your army’s personality (I’ve done an Amount of this but it’s all been for non-started attempts at reviving the army for eighth edition)
  • bespoke scenery (I did this once, but my old battle board was given to a gaming club when I moved to a tiny box room in London and had to reduce my hobby down to “fits in a backpack” kind of scale)

Now. This sort of thing is well and good but I don’t quite think it goes far enough. Like a great deal of the ink that’s been spilled over the hobby over the years (bad sentence, but shush, I’m not at work), it focuses too much on the army list. That’s not a reproach to Paul Gayner, who delivered an excellent article on collecting themed armies – more a commentary on how army lists are a quiet and personal process that takes place before games and are easier to discuss in isolation from the heat of the moment. Giving your characters names and converting half your models and putting thought into the colour schemes is only the start. The next step is making it have some kind of impact on the games you’re playing.

After all, this is what it’s all about…

See, I’m not a great believer in backstory, beyond the sort of sketch level that gives characters a name and a motivation and a rough personality. People tend to go too far with backstory, presenting something as tightly plotted as a novel, with no room for other players to stake a claim and have a say and help resolve and develop things.

I like collaborative, emergent narratives; stories that are generated out of actual play and that develop as a result of the experiences players have together. This is a bit tricky if you’re playing week in week out pick-up games and you’re fighting Skaven one week and Empire the next and Lizardmen the week after that only the Empire player’s borrowing some Daemons instead. Kind of hard to sort out a coherent narrative out of all that.

Back in the day, I managed it by keeping records of games and then much later sorting them into rough chronologies. My early games during the Storm of Chaos campaign were a given, and my handful of games against the Reikland Intervention Force were obviously roughly contemporary with Sigmar’s Blood, but my few seventh edition games took place around the time Mannfred von Carstein was first coming to power and the lesser Von Carsteins were fighting back, while the Mordheim campaign I played in 2008 shortly before selling the army was actually the prologue… basically, the army’s fictitious history was nowhere near aligned with its actual one. And games against anything really odd, like – let’s say a Southlands Lizardmen army, or even High Elves – would never make the cut at all because it’d be an odd game out which didn’t fit with anything already on the slate. That was a damned, damned shame.

Nowadays, of course, I tend to play chains of games against the same people with more or less the same armies (or at least the same figures, though they might walk back and forth between editions a little). This means… in theory… that we can actually string together short campaigns, narrative chains of games which let some stories emerge and build up. The People’s Panting and I have this WIP idea about playing through an Albion campaign together, and that’d be a test run for the sort of thing I’m on about.

I don’t want to go mad with it – there are some lovely campaign rules for sixth edition WFB but they absolutely depend on having regular, frequent games, week in week out, to keep momentum. It’s the same problem we have with RPGs: committing to regular weekly sessions around kids and shifts and our respective agonies just doesn’t work. With an added layer of “this is a dead game” and “we all live just far enough apart that it’s a big deal to get together and play.” So I’m looking to do what I did with RPGs: shift from the “weekly episode in an endless picaresque” to the “occasional feature length special” mode of storytelling.

Remember that platonic ideal of Warhammer I was on about, where games are heavily curated and teased up to with some skirmishes and given a bit of context? That’s part of it. Why are these two (or three) armies fighting? What happened in the run up? Does this need to be another Pitched Battle or can we plan ahead and do an Ambush or something?

Wanking away telling stories for myself is fine but I’d love to tell some with other people and really let them build up. So far we’ve been playing tester games, taster games and tournament games – not things that hang together super well – but the opportunity is now knocking to do my favourite thing.

Who ARE you fanged dorks, for goodness’ sake?

To this end, I’m actually thinking I might have to put some definite names to some definite faces, lining up my Vampires of all shapes and sizes and once and for all saying who the hell is whom. Whether Lord Ruthven sticks around or finds himself confined to the Black Coach remains to be seen. There are still plenty of Lord Ruthven’s R-Words left to name lists and reports after, after all, and it seems fitting to stick with the first and greatest of English literary vampires as my officer in charge. Even if his actual Bloodline status becomes a bit… fluid… thanks to a possible new model I have in mind (and me wanting to bugger about with different rules).

Obviously I’ll keep Clarimonde on hand as a backup Countess (a general for when I don’t fancy taking a Lord/second Lord for small games) and the malicious Sir Francis Varney as fighting Thrall and general for small forces. Goodness knows what I’m going to do with the new Battle Standard Bearer. Is he Romauld, or is that my shiny new Necromancer of variant levels? Or shall I take advantage of that loose standard, stick it in a hole on the back of a base, and have it there for anyone who wants it to lug around?

And I have to admit that I liked “The Master and Margharita” as a title/concept for my fifth edition list, hinging as it did around a Vampire Countess and a Master Necromancer. That’s another little vampire literature homage I’d like to keep going. It may be that I end up using the literary references as titles for list archetypes. I used to do the same thing with Cradle of Filth songs, which just shows how far we’ve come since 2004… in some respects, at least.