Horus Heresy: Choosing a Legion

Horus Heresy
Like many long time Warhammer 40K players, I’ve been enjoying the Horus Heresy books that Forge World is publishing and I’m glad 30K is now supported as an era of play. I have Salamanders and Word Bearers forces for 40K but I’d like to do something different for the Heresy era. I picked up the Battle of Calth game some months ago primarily for the minis (though the game was actually good too, as it turned out). Now I’m pondering what legion to choose for my 30K army.

For the last couple of years, I had been planning to do the Alpha Legion. I like their backstory and iconography, and their Rites of War gives them some cool options. I may go ahead with that but I’m doing my due diligence and looking at other options. These are the other legions I’m considering:

Imperial Fists: A surprise to me actually, but there is a big point in their favor. I really like the look and feel of the breacher squads and the Imperial Fists have a special rule called Resolve of Stone that makes breacher squads sing. The yellow armor isn’t my favorite but I think it could be reasonable if muted. Other Imperial Fist rules are also solid and they have a special knight troop type that are proto Black Templars. I’ve never had much interest in the Fists before but they have become a contender.

Iron Warriors: This legions makes a hell of a gun line with their two unique troop types, the Siege Tyrants and Iron Havocs. 30K Iron Warriors are also completely immune to morale tests caused by shooting, which is killer. And of course you can have giant robot bodyguards in the shape of the Iron Circle. So yeah, super appealing to me and I love the idea of a legion of siege masters. There are only a couple of downsides. First, the Iron Circle models are hellaciously expensive. Second, I have never liked the color scheme of the Iron Warriors. At all. The black and yellow stripes do not do it for me. Now I could just make up a chapter of the legion with a different look, so that could be worked around.

Raven Guard: I like the Raven Guard for many of the same reasons I like the Alpha Legion. They are sneaky and great at infiltrating. They have brutal snipers. They also have access to some unique equipment like the Darkwing pattern Storm Eagle Gunship. The Mor Deythan Strike Squad and Dark Fury Assault Squad models are also badass. Their advantage over the Alpha Legion is that I think they’d be easier to paint. And yes, friends, I’m likely to outsource a lot of the painting, but it’d be nice if it was a paint scheme I could handle for some units and the Alpha Legion teal is tricky. The downside of the Raven Guard is primarily cost. That Darkwing Storm Eagle alone is over $200 and I’m but a humble RPG publisher.

So that’s what I’m looking at. I really need to decide what legion is mine before I start assembling the plastic minis. How I build even basic troops will be colored by that choice.

What to choose? Loyalist or traitor? The galaxy hangs in the balance!

Vigil 40K Tournament

We’re making a Warhammer 40,000 MMO at Vigil so it’s no surprise that the company includes players of the original game. In fact, it’s the only minis game anyone at Vigil plays (which initially made me feel that bringing down all those WWI and WWII armies was perhaps futile). The company has a game night every Thursday and 40K is usually on the agenda. To encourage people to play more and to get the competitive juices flowing, we’ve also just started a company wide tournament. It’s going to be four rounds, double elimination, and Vigil is providing minis as prizes for the top finishers.

My original plan was to play Salamander Space Marines. Having seen the way folks play at Vigil (lots of HTH, expensive heroes and monstrous creatures), it seemed like a good choice. When we had a kickoff meeting and I saw on the whiteboard that 75% of the armies were either Space Marine or Chaos Space Marine, I knew I’d have to be true to my roots and play Imperial Guard though. No one else at Vigil plays IG and most of them haven’t been playing long enough to even recognize my Praetorian troops. I brought back a few things with me on my recent trip to Seattle (including my Hydra flak tank, which I assembled like 8 years ago but have never fielded) and made a 1500 point army tonight. The list can’t change once the tourney starts, so I had to put something together that could handle a variety of opponents. Hopefully, I have chosen wisely.

My first game is Thursday vs. (surprise, surprise) Chaos Space Marines. My opponent is using the favorite tricks of Vigil CSM players: demon prince, sorcerer with lash of submission, and a greater demon. The key will be using my superior numbers to concentrate firepower on his assault units before they get into my battle line. This can be challenging in 40K, which is why shooty armies like Imperial Guard and Tau are a lot less popular than the HTH armies.

I’m not worried about losing the tournament. This is all for fun and when you wargame you need to cultivate being a good loser. My only concern is the tourney rules themselves. Right now they state that tied games have to be replayed until there is a winner. I argued that there should be a system for determining who wins in case of a tie but I’m not the organizer. The first round mission is Capture and Control, in which ties are quite common due to the rules for seizing objectives. Sure enough, the first three games played have all been ties. One battle was re-fought and resulted in…another tie. If this continues, I will lobby for a rules change. Otherwise, this tourney will never end. While I do appreciate the idea of motivating people to play more often, if we’re still playing the first round a month from now everyone will lose steam.

Praetorians, prepare for battle!

Originally published on LiveJournal on February 2, 2011.

A Look Back at D&D Minis

It seems that with the exception of special products like the recently released beholder set, D&D minis are dead. A few years ago the line was doing well so this is quite a change of fortune. So what happened?

For a product like D&D minis, you have three basic types of consumers:
1) People who use them as RPG accessories.
2) People who use them to play miniatures games.
3) People who like to collect cool minis/D&D paraphernalia.

There is some overlap between the groups (I am a classic roleplayer/minis player hybrid) but the crossover is smaller than many people think. Ten years ago when I was working on the game that was ultimately called D&D Chainmail, my team was trying to build a game to appeal to minis players. Since these were going to be minis of D&D monsters and heroes, we also hoped to appeal to the roleplayers but they were the secondary target. (I wanted to maintain a separate line of RPG accessory minis but that idea of kiboshed and Chainmail was increasingly expected to do double duty.)

The plan was to do a skirmish game (something you can play with 8-12 minis per side) and then scale it up to a full mass battles game (in which you’d commonly see over 100 figures per side). Miniatures players are willing to make that sort of investment. Many will buy multiple armies. With a compelling setting and halfway decent rules, you can keep minis gamers buying lots of figs for a long, long time. See Games Workshop. Roleplayers, as we’ll see, have a different psychology.

D&D Chainmail had a troubled existence from the get go, but two events drove the nails into its coffin. First, the decision was made to make it a skirmish game only. Something that was meant to be a six month phase turned into the entire game. Not at all what we planned. Second, Mage Knight came out and proved collectible minis could sell. My team had been trying to set up a more traditional pewter, non-collectible minis business. We faced tough internal pressure to figure out some way to apply the Magic business model to minis, but we really didn’t think that was a good idea. When Mage Knight was selling like crazy, it was hard to argue against it though. This was the Pokemon era when expectations were ridiculous. We were asked by a VP once if Chainmail would make over $10 million in its first year. We said it was unlikely, and that the business would need time to grow to that level. No one wanted to hear that at WotC in 2001.

When Chainmail launched, it was already a compromised product. It got crap support from the company and a key decision from an idiot brand manager made the production costs much higher than the needed to be while creating packaging that did a poor job of showcasing the minis. A year later the game rules won an Origins Award…one week after WotC cancelled it. By this point all the members of that original team had quit or been laid off. Interestingly, two of them (Matt Wilson and Mike McVey) went off and formed Privateer Press, which went to to publish the Warmachine and Hordes miniatures games.

When D&D Minis came back, it was in a pre-painted, collectible format like Mage Knight. There was an attached game (ironically enough, a revised version of the Chainmail rules) but the main target was roleplayers. IIRC, the first starters didn’t even say miniatures game on them. The setting, factions, characters, and stories we tried to create with Chainmail were jettisoned. If you wanted to play the game, you had your choice of bland, alignment-based factions with no background, no cohesion, and no particular reason to fight.

For roleplayers though, the new approach worked initially. Most of the sculpts and paint jobs were mediocre but the roleplayers didn’t care as much about those things as the minis players. They liked popping something ready to use out of the package and if it looked halfway decent on the table, that was good enough. No glue, painting, or assembly required. A secondary market sprang up where common (but useful in a RPG) minis were available pretty cheaply (I bought ten giant frogs once because they were ten cents each). The rare figures were more expensive, of course, and many desirable monsters were only available as rares.

For several years new sets of D&D minis came out regularly and seemed to sell well. WotC was making money, the roleplayers were generally satisfied, and D&D itself became increasingly minis-centric, which should only have reinforced demand. And yet, it eventually became apparent that things weren’t going so well. WotC stopped supporting the minis game. Sets become less frequent. Some gamers complained the quality of the minis was dropping. So what was going on?

My suspicion (and remember I was long gone from WotC when this stuff went down) is the the nature of the roleplaying consumer eventually bit Wotc in the ass. A roleplayer wants enough minis to support his or her RPG sessions and the minis are in many ways incidental to the game experience. A minis gamer wants to build armies and the minis are a key element of the game experience. I believe many of the roleplayers who bought cases of minis for the first few sets began to slow down as their collections grew. At a certain point they had most of their bases covered. So instead of buying a case, they bought a few boosters or cherry picked a few figs from the secondary market.

At the same time, the cost of making the minis was going up. Pre-painted collectible figures are all done in Asia but you may have noticed the weakening American dollar and the recession we’ve been in the last few years. So as sales on each set eroded, the cost to make the minis was going up. Declining sales + increasing costs = the almost inevitable death of D&D minis as we knew them.

It seems that the era of the collectible mini is nearing an end after only a decade. Mage Knight, the pioneer in the field, was ironically one of the first to die. The ups, downs, and acquisitions of its publisher, Wizkids, is a whole other story. They are now part of Neca and seem to be doing OK with a revived Heroclix. Few other games are left standing. The more traditional minis companies survive and in many cases thrive. Games Workshop still dominates the field. Privateer has experimented with a pre-painted plastic game but their bread and butter seems to still be Warmachine and Hordes. Reaper looks solid as a rock and they still do great business selling pewter minis to D&D players.

WotC, I suspect, plans to migrate the minis aspect of D&D play to the virtual tabletop online with the rest of the game. There may even be a business model there, selling packs of virtual creatures and characters. For my part, I wish D&D had gotten a real mass battles miniatures game supported by a full line of pewter and multi-part plastic miniatures. Something that played great on its own but could also tie into your RPG campaign. Something that made the most of D&D’s rich worlds and added new lore and stories to that tradition. I’m a crazy dreamer like that.

Originally published on LiveJournal on January 13, 2011. 

Little Men, Big Games: Running Minis Games at Conventions

I started playing miniatures wargames in the early 80s. I got into them as an outgrowth of my roleplaying hobby via the AD&D Battlesystem rules. I had started collecting miniatures for use in my AD&D game and was transfixed by the idea of fighting big battles on the tabletop with armies of toy soldiers. Over the years I have played many different games, from fantasy and scifi to ancients and World War 2. For many years I only played games with my friends but in 1989 I went to my first GenCon and that changed. There I experienced my first big convention games and I have played many more since.

At first I was impressed by the sheer spectacle of the big con game. When you see thousands of painted miniatures on a huge table covered with lovingly detailed terrain, it is a thing of beauty. Too many times, however, the spell created by the big battle was broken once the game actually started. While many game masters succeeded in putting on a great spectacle, too many failed to deliver a fun game. After seeing some of the same problems in convention miniatures games for over 20 years, I decided to write this article and offer some advice to prospective GMs. I hope my fellow miniatures game enthusiasts find it of use.

Design and Playtest

When I was about 12 years old, I “designed” my first wargame scenario. I tried to recreate the Battle of Kursk using Avalon Hill’s classic Squad Leader boardgame (I know, I know; I was 12). In practice this meant setting up four boards and filling them with as many German and Russian tanks as I could. My brother and I tried to play it and of course it was too big and unwieldy to finish. My attempt was a failure but it taught me an important lesson. Designing a good scenario takes more thought that just using everything you have and yet this is a trap many big games fall into.

You want your game to be playable in the allotted time and ideally there should be a decisive result at the end of the game. Before you put every painted unit you can muster onto the table, ask yourself what you really need to make the scenario work. Are you adding more units because the game demands it or because you think it’ll look impressive? Remember that you are not building a diorama here. This is a game that’s your players will be dedicating 4-8 hours of their valuable con time to, so you want to show them a good time.

Now it may not be apparent to you when a game is too big and when it’s just right. That’s what playtesting is for. I have played many con games that clearly were never playtested at all. You should try to find time to run at least one and ideally several playtests of your scenario. It’s also helpful if you test with a similar number of players as you’ll have in the final game. The more players there are in a game the longer each turn will take due to kibitzing, rules questions, and so on, so you’ll get a more realistic result with the correct number of participants. I have seen several GMs shocked when their games did not come close to finishing. They had playtested, but with two players who knew the rules quite well. A con game is a different beast than a home game.

When you run a playtest, there are four key questions you are trying to answer. First, and most importantly, was the game fun for everyone? Second, were all the players engaged in the game from start to finish? Third, did all sides have a reasonable chance of victory? Fourth, was a decisive result achieved in the scenario in the allotted time? If the answer to any of these questions is no, modify the scenario and try another test game if you can.

Prep Work

I will assume for the sake of this article that you have sufficient miniatures and terrain to put on the scenario you’ve designed. So other than playtesting, what else do you need to prepare before the convention?

One oft overlooked detail is writing up an event description for the convention. This is your chance to sell the game to prospective players. You want to describe your scenario and note its interesting or unique features. You should clearly indicate the game’s genre or historical period, the rules set you are using (including edition, if there are several), the length of the session, and the number of players you can accommodate. If you welcome players new to the game, you should note that as well.

Next you should prepare handouts for the players. Most games have some kind of quick reference sheet with key rules and tables. You should have one of these for each player. If you are using house or special rules, prepare copies of those as well. You also want to have a sheet for each player that details his command. This will allow the player to see his forces at a glance and have needed stats at hand. Laminating this reference material is a nice touch but not required.

You should also pack up whatever other accessories the players will need, and bring enough so they don’t have to fight over them. Don’t assume they are going to have anything, even a pencil. Depending on the game, you may need various polyhedral dice, templates (turning, blast, etc.), wound markers, cotton balls, activation tokens, measuring sticks, or playing cards. Packing a spare copy of the rules is also a good idea. Industrious players may want to look at the rules during downtime and you want to keep yours at hand.

Starting the Game

At last the big day arrives and game time approaches. You should find out from the convention organizers when your table will be open for you to begin set up. Some conventions have limited table space, so don’t assume you’re going to have hours to get the game ready. You do want to give yourself as much time as possible to get everything set up, so arrive at your location as early as you can. You don’t want to waste valuable play time finishing something you could have done beforehand.

Once the players arrive, you should identify yourself and the game to make sure everyone is in the right spot. When you are ready to begin, introduce the scenario, tell the players the basics of the set up, and hand out the reference material. If you have inexperienced players, you should give them a brief overview of the rules and run through the turn sequence. You should also let everyone know up front any house or special rules. That’s not the sort of thing you want to spring on people mid-game. Lastly, you need to divide the players amongst the various sides. You should try to accommodate the players if you can. Let friends play together (or against each other!) if that’s what they want.

Commands and Deployment

At this point you need to give each player a command. You should have put these together while designing the scenario. The last thing you want to do is let the players divide up the forces themselves. That’s just asking for chaos right at the start of the game and you don’t have time to waste. The commands should be fairly balanced. Don’t give one player all the elite troops and another the peasant conscripts. I also strongly encourage you to make sure that each command includes at least one unit on the board and near the enemy at the start of the game. In a similar vein, you should think carefully before leaving any troops off the board in reserve. I say these things because one truism about big convention games is that turns can take a long time. If you give a player a command that starts off the board and his troops won’t begin to show up until turn 2 at earliest, for example, that player may be doing nothing for an hour or more. This is not fun. You want all the players engaged in the battle and interested in the results from start to finish.

Some GMs like to hand out commands and then let the players deploy their own forces. Again, I urge caution. If you deploy the various commands in their starting positions, play can start quickly and this greatly increases the odds of the game finishing. If you let the players do it, they’ll have to confab and then all the minis you set out will get picked up and re-deployed. I’ve been in games in which we didn’t start actually playing until an hour and half into the session. I think it’s better to maximize the play time by having the game ready to go when the players show up.

Running the Game

Now at last the game can get underway. Your job during the session is part referee and part traffic director. You need to keep the came going, which means clearly announcing turns and phases so players know what they are supposed to be doing. In the early turns you should make sure that players are handling the basics like movement and formations correctly. I suggest that you oversee all of the actual combat if you can, so it’s done properly and you know how the battle is proceeding.

During a game, you will have to answer many rules questions. You want to be fair but you should also be decisive. Many rules lawyers will try to argue with you and this just bogs things down. Remember that it’s your game and you are perfectly within your rights to make a ruling and end the discussion. You don’t want to waste 10 minutes pulling out rulebooks and referencing minutiae while the other players stare into space. Make a ruling and go, go, go.

As I’m sure is clear, running a convention game can be a bit overwhelming. That’s why I suggest recruiting one or more assistant game masters if you’re going to have more than six players. I’ve been at games with 16 players and one GM and it’s just too much for one person to handle. An assistant game master can answer common rules questions, help resolve combats on one side of the board when you’re doing something else on the other, and so on. Sometimes a group of friends will put on a game together. This is great, but I do suggest that one person take on the roll of lead GM. It’s good to have a final arbiter in such situations. I have been in games in which all the players watched the GMs argue amongst themselves and it isn’t pretty.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully, when play time is running out, a clear victor will have emerged. As a player it’s a drag to put four or six hours into a game and have a total stalemate as the result. Better a hard fought loss than feeling like the entire battle was pointless. One of your jobs as the GM is to decide when the battle is over. The clock will eventually do this for you, but it is often obvious before time that one side has lost. Don’t feel that people have to be rolling dice up to the very last second. Sometimes the best thing to do is call the game. That way you aren’t making players who have clearly lost fight it out to the bitter end. Most players don’t mind an extra half an hour at the trade stands anyway.

When the battle is done, thank everyone for playing. If there’s time, ask them for feedback on the game. You may want to run the same scenario at a different con and feedback from the players is useful for fine tuning. Even if you never run that particularly scenario again, you will certainly learn lessons that will help you put on even better games in the future.

Let’s Have a War

I hope I haven’t scared anyone away from playing or running convention miniatures games. I have played many enjoyable games over the years and look forward to many more in the future. Putting on a big con game is a lot of work, but it can also be quite rewarding. With a little forethought and a dose of common sense, your battle can be both a great spectacle and a great game. So get planning and muster your forces. Let’s have a war…on the tabletop.

Copyright 2010 Chris Pramas

Originally published on LiveJournal on June 7, 2010. Later published in Wargames Illustrated, Issue #279.

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