Monday, 24 August 2009

Something of a different style of entry today. So far this blog has essentially been a record of my modelling and painting projects, but I always intended to make it somewhat broader than that so this entry takes a more philosophical approach. I promise more Chaos pictures by the end of the week. Assuming anyone is actually reading this and I am not just writing to myself.

Back when Games Workshop released its fifth edition Warhammer 40,000 rules, designer Jervis Johnson wrote the following in his column for White Dwarf:

“When we started on the new rules we decided that we shouldn't compromise the new rules out of fear of over-competitive players (or “rules lawyers” as they are known in the trade), but instead we should develop the rules we'd personally like to use ourselves. As long as the rules worked well in our games, then all we needed to do was explain to other players how to use them in their games.”

This was widely taken as an attack on the more competitive tournament players and seen as a signal that the Games Workshop studio was going to shift its focus to cocentrate on 'fun' at the expense of rules balance.

I think there is some truth in that statement, but looking back on it now, over a year later, it seems more like a defensive statement justifying the change in presentation of the rules that was to come, not just in Warhammer 40,000, but in all Games Workshop games.

Allow me to present a specific example from the Warriors of Chaos army book (forgive me, but I have Chaos on the brain at the moment). The rulebook contains a rule called 'Eye of the Gods.' This requires Chaos characters and champions to issue challenges to personal combat whenever they are able and accept them when offered. This strikes me as a pretty characterful rule. Chaos characters are the worshippers of vengeful Gods whose motivation is based entirely around attracting there attention and there is more glory to be gained in defeating enemy heroes than in slaughtering the nameless rabble.

This is how the rule is presented in the army book exactly as written:

“Chaos models that may issue challenges must do so whenever they are able. Furthermore, such is their thirst for glory that Chaos characters may not refuse challenges.”

That isn't the whole rule, but it is the most important part for the example I wish to discuss. On the face of it this is all pretty simple. A Chaos character or champion must issue a challenge whenever he can and accept a challenge when offered.

Actually this second part is less clear. If you read quickly you can easily gloss over the crucial word in the second sentence “Chaos characters may not refuse challenges.” Champions are not actually characters, they are actually an odd kind of hybrid regular trooper that uses the Character rules for challenges and being hit by missile fire, but they are not, strictly speaking, characters. I have to admit that I didn't even notice this second point until I read it in the FAQ published on the Games Workshop website.

So, strictly speaking, the rule states that all Chaos Characters and unit Champions must, when they are able, issue a challenge. When a challenge is offered, characters must accept, but Champions may (but don't have to) refuse. So far so good.

Now, to cite an entirely un-hypothetical example.

In a recent Game I played my Warriors of Chaos against my brother's Ogres. In this game I used a unit of Chaos Warriors including a Champion and accompanied by a Chaos Sorcerer. The unit was charged by a unit of Ogre bulls.

As per the Warhammer rules only one challenge may be issued per combat round. The procedure is that the charging player may issue a challenge on behalf of one character or champion in the charging unit, which may be accepted or refused. If they do not issue a challenge one character or champion from the unit receiving that charge may issue a challenge.

The Ogres did not issue a challenge requiring my Champion and Sorcerer to issue a challenge as per the 'Eye of the Gods' rule. Of course they can't both issue challenges, only one challenge can be issued per combat phase and in any case there weren't enough enemy characters of champions to go around. So I issued a challenge on behalf of my Champion, not wishing to see my Sorcerer ground into a soft meaty paste by the club of an Ogre Crusher.

I assume that this is acceptable as both characters are obliged to issue challenges, but only one legally can. If the Champion issues a challenge the Sorcerer is no longer 'able' and, as written, there is no pecking order.

This wasn't really a problem, a loop hole or an error, just an ambiguity that I would have liked to have seen clarified. However, the plot thickens had the Crusher issued a challenge.

If a challenge is issued the player on the receiving end has two choices, accept and nominate a character or champion to fight the challenge, or refuse and allow the challenging player to nominate on of his champions or characters to sit out the fight.

My Champion is not obligated to accept challenges, but my Sorcerer, as a character is. Does this mean that I cannot refuse the challenge as the Ogre player could nominate the Sorcerer, who may not refuse, to sit out the combat or does it mean that I can refuse, but that only the Champion can be nominated to sit out the combat? What does that mean if I accept. Can I accept with either model? Or must the Sorcerer accept as he is obliged to accept and the Champion is not?

The thing is, this situation is not uncommon. Most units that contain a character will likely contain a champion as well and many may contain two characters and a champion. What happens when two units are involved in the same combat? Or when a character fights seperately but is drawn into another combat involving a unit containing a character? This must have come up in play testing.

It isn't a situation that is hard to clarify. The first minor ambiguity could be resolved with a single sentence of the form:

“When a combat involves more than two models capable of issuing a challenge the controlling player may choose which one issues the challenge.”

The second is slightly more tricky, but can still be resolved in a single sentence.

“If a combat contains a chaos character and a champion, a character must accept any challenges issued.”

Or, alternatively:

“If a combat contains a chaos character and a champion, the Chaos player may choose whether to accept with a character or a champion, but one model must accept.”

Depending on the interpretation you prefer.

The fact that Games Workshop chose not to clarify the rule says something about their policy towards rule design and presentation.

I think that when Jervis Johnson was writing about not 'compromising' the rules he was really referring to making them unambiguous. I think that the GW design studio believe that unambiguous rules look complicated and that complicated-looking rules, while appealing to so-called 'rules lawyers' were actually putting off more casual, and particularly, younger players that Games Workshop are trying to attract.

They may not be entirely wrong in their assessment. Here is a quotation from the rules for De Bellis Antiquitatis (or DBA) an historical wargame to cover ancient and medieval wargaming and so not a million miles from Warhammer in style. They are also described as “simple” and “fast play.” This rule refers specifically to bonuses to combat rolls:

“Pikes add +3 and Warband +1 when in frontal close combat against any enemy except Cavalry, Light Horse, Scythed Chariots, Bows or Psiloi, and Spears add +1 if in frontal combat against Knights or Spears, if in either case they are supported by a friendly element of the same type lined up directly behind and facing the same direction, and neither supported nor supporting element is in bad going.”

I should note that in DBA several models are placed on one stand and referred to as an 'element' or a particular type.

If you look closely at that sentence, everything you need to understand when to apply the bonuses is there, though the multiple clauses make for difficult reading and understanding.

I mean this as no slight to DBA which is an enjoyable game that justifies its claim of being simple and fast play and which, admirably, includes all the rules, army lists, a campaign system and terrain set up all in 52 A5 pages for only £5.

But in an attempt to avoid any ambiguity and to minimise the possibility of situations not covered by the rules, the designers have managed to write some sentences that take serious work to decipher.

In contrast, Games Workshop would rather maintain superficial simplicity and the appearance of a fun and simple game than avoid situations not covered by the rules. Personally, I think good wargame design lies somewhere in between, but if given the choice I would rather try and decipher a difficult sentence to find a rule than to discover that no rule exists to cover a common situation.