Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Fluffy Rules Are Better Than Balance Rules (The Quiet Rules Revolution: Part 2)

Over the weekend I had a good read of some of the unofficial player-produced army books for WFB. In the past I'd given these a cursory glance and nothing more, but as I've had rules on my mind I thought I'd give them a closer look. And what I found was a veritable goldmine.

Take the Dogs of War book for example. This contains rules for pikemen - a unit type that isn't currently catered for in 8th edition. The rules are outlined as follows:

This would be an excellent and characterful addition to an Empire army, particularly my Marienburg army, which is mostly comprised of mercenaries. Pikemen gain a real advantage in terms of extra ranks and always striking first, but they are still just basic level humans, so making the most of that advantage would still require good tactics and some luck. Their basic points value is listed as 6 pts, which seems fair, although the additional single point increase for each model to equip them with heavy armour looks under costed to me. But then, if these are the mainstay for the DoW army and the only ones to have heavy armour available, then that's fine. For another example, here are the rules for crossbowmen:

The inclusion of the Pavise is a great touch. It adds a little protection from missile fire, a good bit of borrowed historical detail, and makes for some good modelling opportunities - I have some WotR Perry mercenaries that look fantastic with them either on their backs or wedged in the ground in front of them. One final example, this time from a character:

All these additional rules have one thing in common: they are all unit or character specific, rather than stemming from some common formula. If there's one thing that really lets the recent editions of WFB down it's the way that balance is built into army lists through the sharing out of roughly positive and equal enhancements. They may be characterful in name, but the mechanic is one that is shared across various races. What I like about the above examples is that they might be game changing either in your favour or in favour of the 'enemy'. More than this, I like the idea that the characterful attributes/weapons/items of a unit or hero could turn out to be either a blessing or a curse, depending on strategy, circumstance and accident.

The Dogs of War book, along with the other (as they say) strictly unendorsed and unofficial army books, provides a wealth of ideas. They are not perfect by any means; Lorenzo has a magical sword that negates all armour saves. But they do show, I would argue, that fluffy rules are better than balance rules in making table top war games that are enjoyable and challenging to play. They illustrate how to take the basics that are provided by GW - the human stat line for example - and then enhance them, not to give a player an advantage, but to stretch their tactical nous and present them with a varied and unpredictable gaming experience.

Ultimately games like WFB and 40k should be played for fun, character, and as forms of fantasy roleplay. They are not competitive in the way chess could be simply because they belong to a different family of games. They can be played in the spirit of competition but that should never be the main aim. Some kind of balance achieved through a points system is a helpful mechanic, as this will stop games regularly ending too soon simply due to an overwhelming force on one side or the other. Of course, sometimes a scenario might call for this and that's just fine... as long as everyone involved is enjoying their evening.


  1. A long time since I played WHFB but I'm sure there used to be rules for pikes. Pavises I don't think I've ever seen, but don't the current Bretonian infrantry have something like that? I assumed there would be rules for them.

    As for your general point: I agree that rules should start off inspired by the fluff, though it ought to be possible to preserve balance, for instance by costing abilities properly. So there shouldn't be the need for an either/or decision.

  2. The pike rules and indeed pavaises have been around since the DoW army book by Alessio Calvatore, i think pdfs of the army lists including the RoR are still about on the web. As you say though nice touches and the 'unofficial' army book you use as your example is very well put together, along several other ones the same team has put together and worth checking out.

    As you say, you need some like minded players to be able to put the fluff before the product, and if you've got that then the game is enjoyable for everyone.

    GW are a company who have share holders to keep happy the same as all the other plc's, not a problem, as a punter you've just got to pick and choose where you spend your cash and get the fun out of your gaming you want too.

  3. Nice one. Agree entirely with the philosophy. I have ignored a lot of the homebrew armybooks, but might have to investigate. I also agree with Ben - getting the balance right might just come down to assigning a relative points value to an ability.

    But hey, why not have pike wielding Orcs too!

  4. Thanks all for commenting.

    I imagine - although I've not had the chance to check as of yet - that pikes etc. are well accounted for in Warhammer historical (as well as a number of other rule sets of course). The picking and choosing without being shackled by the GW monoculture is what's key, i.e. not swallowing the notion that only the new and shiny is the only thing that's good and right.

    On points value, I think it would be hard to game on a regular basis entirely without a points system - in this way, I'm in favour of them.

    But the trouble with assigning points to abilities is that this is usually done on a per model basis. This doesn't account for a whole number of factors, including, for example, how many of these units are fielded and how the benefits are lessened or increased by this. I'm going to write about this tomorrow... probably...

  5. Just an additional thought... the unofficial books by Mathias Eliasson are worth a look (such as DoW and Estalia). The others, like a recent one for the Fimir, are a mess and best avoided.

  6. The shift toward "generic" special rules probably has as much to do with making it possible to learn the game as it does balance. It doesn't take long before people start complaining about an endless tide of special rules appearing in each book, and it being impossible to keep track of them all.

    Special characters will often have something that is unique to them, however in general I think most players would prefer units to have a set of rules that can be easily understood through general game knowledge, rather than every new unit doing something nobody has ever seen before.

  7. Another advantage of fluffy rules - they save us from dry wads of poorly-written background padding. If 'who this dude is' can be extrapolated from 'what this dude does on the table' plus some brief flavour text describing the faction he belongs to and maybe a scenario in which he appears... do you really need the Fantasy Encyclopaedia Entry that sits alongside it?

  8. Fair points Hoodling, although as you can probably tell, the kind of game I prefer has an abundance of unit/character specific rules. Of course, it's important that these don't impede the overall experience of gameplay, because no one wants to be making reference to stats and rules every time they any game turn action. This, I would say, is probably avoidable through playing smaller games - between 500 and 1500 points - as part of a linked campaign.

    I agree Von, some of the background that's added to take the books up to approximately 90 pages can be very ropey. I have a suggested solution for this that I'll put in my next post...


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