Wednesday, 4 June 2008

A Brand New Warhammer

This morning I read Jervis Johnson's article in White Dwarf 342 (at least I think it's 342, I haven't got it in the office and White Dwarf's "Next Issue" link brings up an issue that's at least two months old, the dossers) which attempts to explain why we needed a new edition of 40K a mere four years after the last one (six years being the previous average).

The article is both interesting, and potentially deeply disturbing. Obviously, until I can get my caffeine-stained hands on a rulebook I'm shooting in the dark somewhat, but what Jervis said was sufficiently pregnant with implications that I decided it was worth commenting on straight away.

The basic thrust of his argument is really worth discussing, and I think I agree with it. Basically, he's sick to the back teeth (although he doesn't quite come out and say it) with the fact that every rule has to be written whilst considering the number of ways some hyper-competitive tournament player could twist it to breaking point in order to create an unstoppable army. Each successive iteration of the game contains more attempts to plug the gaps through which Christian Byrne (who not only completely embodies the type of player I hate, but has an article in the same issue reminding us all of how good he is at slapping together armies that are invulnerable as they are joyless) can drive a Rhino rush through. What Jervis wanted was to re-jig the game to bring some of the fun back in, rather than just making sure all bases were covered regarding the beardies having tantrums as to whether or not their grotesquely unfair practices just about stay this side of legal.

Which, as an idea, I'm entirely happy about. In a perfect world, the game should be as fun and evocative as possible. The trouble is that it's transparently obvious we don't live in the perfect world. If we did, we wouldn't need traffic lights, or law courts, or microwave-meals-for-one, either. The whole reason the game ended up with so much beard-deflection is that there are too many beards out there. And the easier it is to be a member of that shadowy cult, the more people are going to head over to the dark side, tempted by the prospect of eight Hammerheads, or an army made entirely of Carnifexes, or whatever other idea enters their twisted heads. Relaxing the rules and hoping everyone sticks to the spirit of them isn't just naive, it's insanely forgetful.

The one example he gives of how this change has been employed is somewhat concerning too; Jervis focuses upon the new line of sight rules. Gone, he proudly tells us, are the days in which LOS and cover issues were decided abstractly: from now on, if your model can see a target, he can shoot at it. Automatic blocking of LOS through area terrain is apparently so 2004, as are height values, which have been replaced by the literal size of the terrain being used. This way, we are assured, the game becomes much more exciting, since you no longer say "This Marine shoots at your squad, which count as in cover because less than half of them are positioned within that area terrain", and instead can say "This Marine shoots at that guy, since he's stuck his head above the parapet like a ***ing noob". I'm paraphrasing, of course, but that's pretty much what was said.

There are three reasons why this is worrying, which I shall give in reverse order of importance:
1) Anyone who can only find a table-top war game thrilling if he can draw imaginary straight lines between the tiny painted faces of his own men and the tiny painted bodies of his opponent's is not really someone GW should be catering for. This is a game that simulates battles in which your troops employ ludicrously cool futuristic technology against genetically modified super-humans or hideous creatures from other worlds, galaxies or even realities. If you can't get behind that, then getting to play a table-top form of hide-and-seek on top of everything else is unlikely to sway you.
2) The new rules as presented in the article are just bat-shit insane. Games like this absolutely require some kind of abstraction when considering battlefield views. Forests, for example, have to be sufficiently sparse to allow you to place miniatures inside them, which means they are necessarily easier to see through than a real forest should be. No-one making terrain should have to strike a balance between how easy it is to fit models in a model forest, and how tactically advantageous it would be to do so. Hills, too, are always less tall than they would be in real life, for two excellent reasons: no-one could afford a hill if it was created according to the scale of the miniatures, and even if they could, knocking their exquisitely painted Venerable Dreadnought off a five foot high polystyrene hill to shatter on the battle-mat below is liable to be a seriously de-motivating experience. Applying WYSIWYG to terrain is an obvious non-starter, just from a practical standpoint; we still have to go back to worrying about how the tournament players are going to piss around with it, too. Also, does this mean enemy troops will start blocking lines of sight again, too? Because there were some really good reasons they did away with that idea, as anyone who ended up on the crappy end of my Tyranid army back in the mid nineties can attest.
3) The games developers at GWHQ want me to fork out another £30 for a new rule book, and potentially one or more codices, too, and then make me re-learn everything (or at least check everything to discover whether or not I need to re-learn it), and the best advert they can give me for doing all of that is that the LOS rules are different ? That's the brave new dawn of 40K they've been promising me? I believe the standard phrase under these circumstances is "Fuck that shit".

Still, I suppose a rules shake-up might mean I get a couple of months in which C doesn't completely dominate me on the gaming table. I still won't win, obviously, but my defeats may stay clear of the massacre line, at least.

I won't hold my breath, though.

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