Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Dynamic Combat in Warhammer

As my recent article on lethality creep suggests, and as Gaj's ongoing dramatic battle miniseries evidences, Oldhammer battles often consist of a gritty back-and-forth slugfest of smashing skulls and splintering armour. When the enemy is driven to rout by the press of steel, a friendly regiment can always swoop in, flying the banner to steady their nerves and rally them to return to the fight. Indeed, rallying and returning to seek vengeance on their adversaries is a frequent occurrence on the Oldhammer battlefields.

While this grit and gore is no doubt part of what makes the Oldhammer experience so unique, with every sword strike keeping you at the edge of your seat and each slain foe a small victory, the difficult odds of overcoming an enemy warrior may seem to produce a mêlée that is very static. Certainly, compared to the boosted lethality of later editions, fewer warriors fall to the swath of swords each round and each lost combatant means one less retaliation. So, when every blow counts, what keeps these gritty back-and-forth slugfests so dynamic? The difficulty in overcoming an enemy means that it is certainly feasible that a round of mêlée produces no casualties. Are there still interesting and tactical choices to make, even when the dice turn their back on you? Let's take a look at a few rules in Warhammer Fantasy Battle 3rd Edition to explore the options:

I Challenge You!
No doubt a mainstay of many Warhammer games, the challenge between opposing champions is a dramatic and stirring event. There is inherent risk and uncertainty associated with challenges, as the player is often stepping into the unknown and likely does not know exactly what he is getting into. Is that merely a regiment leader, or a major hero? Are their dangerous magical weapons involved? As models in Oldhammer can only wound adjacent base to base enemies, a powerful combat character is very much wasted on fighting mere fodder, and is best employed for more heroic tasks, including monster slaying and challenges. Matched with a fitting opponent, the warrior hero comes into his own. Refusing a challenge, on the other hand, will cause a cowardly champion to shrink back into the rear ranks and lose all respect he had earned from his regiment. The enemy is then given the chance to cut through the regiment in search of the abject and craven champion hiding amongst the fallen comrades. Challenges allow a hero to contribute more towards the combat results than from regular fighting, particularly against opponents with multiple wounds, and represent an interesting and fun sub-game of pitting your magical weapons and skills against the opponent.

Seize Their Banner!
The regiment standard is a symbol of the regiment's pride and origins. Unlike the aesthetic promoted in later versions of Warhammer, the diverse banners found in old dioramas seem to indicate that each unit is not only a separate component of the army, but comes from a different region, has a different background and perhaps even a different culture. While Newhammer armies tend to have a unified colour scheme of one or two tones that gives the army a general sense of uniformity, Oldhammer regiments are heterogenous, as found in the diversity of their banners which have a lot of individual character and personality. Seizing the enemy's standard is capturing the symbol of their mettle and everything they are fighting for, whether hearth and home or gold and glory. In combat, the regiment standard bobs up and down with the fray, acting as a beacon to summon the regiment's courage and compelling them to make a stand. The rules for capturing the enemy standard in Warhammer 3rd Edition are thus quite exciting and action-packed, as a regiment will fight tooth and bone to retain their icon in the mad scramble for the banner. In game terms, the death of the standard bearer (which is unfortunately fairly common, as the poor fellow has to stand in the front rank) means that the enemy may make a dive to the trodden mud to recover the fallen banner. The result is an immediate second round of combat (literally doubling the action for the round), which could end in the regiment retrieving its colours and chasing off the dismayed enemy, the pennant being crushed into the turf and lost in the confusion or the enemy capturing the standard and sending the regiment to flight (earning a slaughter of free strikes as they rout). A regiment that has lost its standard will remain sullen and demoralized for the rest of the battle, significantly increasing their penchant to retire from the battlefield.

Push Them Back!
Of course, battles can always be won even without causing excess casualties. All things equal, a regiment that has momentum, either carrying forward the impact of a charge or seizing impetus from the changing tides of previous rounds of combat, will overcome their foes. When this happens, the enemy is forced to step back under the press of steel and is forced backwards two inches. While this may not seem like a significant parcel of the battlefield, gaining ground incrementally allows the attacker much more maneuvering room for supporting regiments in the rear while further constraining and compacting the enemy position. Furthermore, while outflanking a phalanx can be extremely difficult, as the battle line is both very wide and is often flanked by powerful cavalry to intercept the enemy maneuver, pushing back the enemy center offers a critical strategy to breaking up stalwart battle lines. After a turn or two of pressing the enemy regiment to give ground, the attacker will have inflicted the quarter unit strength of casualties needed to force a rout test. When the enemy is put to flight, the attacker is now usually four inches deep into enemy lines and, restraining pursuit, is perfectly situated to immediately reform and charge directly into the flank of a central column of the enemy battle line. Needless to say, the resulting panic test can unfold the entire formation. When fighting regiments in isolation of a larger military formation, pushing back also provides other tactical choices. Should the victors leave their trenches to chase off the enemy for good? Should the winning regiment lose some of its cohesion to surround and mob the losers? Are there advantages to expanding the frontage, or would it be better to retain a rank bonus? All of these questions depend on battlefield conditions and can make for interesting decisions for the player.

As we have seen, even with the gritty and uncompromising combat of Oldhammer, there can still be compelling tactical decisions for the player when the dice fail. Exploring all of the options in Oldhammer combat truly helps provide for a dynamic and immersive experience, hearkening back to the roleplaying roots of the game. Importantly, these details allow combat to remain bloody even if it is tough fought, without artificially boosting mêlée lethality to spiral out of control and ultimately devalue the individual dice rolls into a sort of game of statistics and averages. The current tournament atmosphere of more recent editions of Warhammer is a testament to these latter-day changes to the structure of the game, where buckets of dice replace strategic thinking and certain "army builds" are presumed to reign over other, inferior ones. By taking serious the full body of game mechanics in older editions, sometimes dismissed as unnecessary and overly complicated "crunch," there are certain avenues to inject narrative and choice back into a game that some may feel has become entirely too determinate and therefore too prescriptive in its playstyle.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Designing a Battlefield

There has been a lot of good buzz lately on designing scenarios and dioramas to push the Oldhammer ethos into new environs and player communities. Orlygg has offered a very good analysis of "old-style" and "new-style" wargaming tables, following up on Nico's unearthing of early Warhammer tables from the mid-1980's. The contrast between the old and the new, to my eye, is very reminiscent of nearly canonical theory of "combat as sport vs. combat as war" between past and present versions of Dungeons & Dragons. Wargaming tables from the past are covered with interesting and detailed terrain, and there is little difference between a historical wargaming table and a fantasy one. The goal of these battlefields is simulation. Modern tables simply feature a relatively flat plane with obstacles sprinkled evenly across it. In the latter, terrain "pieces" are discrete and atomized elements that have clearly delineated boundaries, set in a "neutral zone" of open ground. The goal of modern tables is to present a "balanced" playing field to compete with opposing army "builds." The former, traditional, table design is much more organic, with terrain blending together in uneven and visually impressive ways.

This got me thinking, how should an intrepid would-be Oldhammerer like myself go about building a proper "old-school" Warhammer table? Even more pressing, what does immersive battlefield design entail? For the former, I have decided that I am officially opposed to modular table design, despite some extremely impressive entries into that genre. I had come to the decision that an old-school board really needs more loving attention than a random layout could possibly provide. Rather, a good table rested on the latter—on proper battlefield design, so that I began to think about what a battlefield geography should do for a game.

This is not to say, of course, that a big open battlefield is to be avoided. Indeed, this sort of battlefield design allows for nice long battle lines to form up, which are visually impressive and can make for a fun game as the hordes crash into each other and force their way through the ranks. While this is one style of game, interspersing terrain settings throughout the battlefield will break up such tactics and allow for other play styles. What should be avoided, I feel, is treating the battlefield as a mere obstacle course, where terrain features are lone particles flecked onto an empty plane with little care for telling individual stories.


Also, No.

Terrain should not be an obstruction, best sidestepped and avoided during the game. It should be something that draws you into the game, giving you interesting stories to tell. Each little pocket of the battlefield should have its own character and plot. How would the battle have been different if the armies had intercepted each other at the old abandoned mill rather than in the forest clearing? If the armies had climbed the brambled hill to the old stone tower, would they have found the recluse warlock that is rumoured to live there? There should be enough places to explore on the battlefield that a single game could have developed very differently if the generals had chose to fight it out over different locales. In this way, the battlefield is actually a handful of smaller adventures, and each area is richly and naturally embellished with loving care and attention to detail. Instead of mere empty spaces between blobs of forests or hills, each locale should feel sheltered and unique.

Let's take a look at the story being told over a classic Oldhammer table:

Notice the many areas that might be exploited: the village on the right, the hedgerows, the forest behind them, the mill in the center, the riverbanks and bridge, the open fields, the ruined monastery on the left and the burying ground. Even for a fairly open table, there are a lot of possible scenarios that might play out. Such as...

In the main field, the battle is joined.

Over by the bridge, Skeletons and Orcs advance on the mill.

Orcs and Goblins attempt to seize the ruined monastery...

... and are quickly put to route.

The interesting thing is that a small army could have equally benefitted from this table as a large one. To achieve this effect, I would recommend developing each location on the table with care, giving it a natural and immersive feel before moving on or even thinking about another part of the battlefield. Instead of just throwing down a few buildings for a town, try putting a lone cottage on a hill, surrounding it with shadowy boughs, flanking it with a small fenced-in field and a path leading away to a clearing in the forest. Add a small stream and a footbridge to allow a second route into the farmstead and think about putting a peasant or two tending to their daily work. This way, when the Orc regiment marches by, it is not merely advancing past an unimportant and nondescript quadrant of a flat board. The peasants will rush to defend their homes, the Orcs will become stymied in the brook and the area will take on an interesting part of the story that will be told about this battle.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Alcoholism in Warhammer Fantasy Battle

First introduced in Warhammer Fantasy Battle 2nd Edition, the special rules for alcoholism only managed to sneak into one campaign module (Tragedy of McDeath, 1986) before disappearing from the game thereafter. Admittedly, the rules were someone clumsy—they simply punished the player by penalizing the drunken unit with lower characteristics. Nevertheless, in the spirit of Oldhammer, I've drawn up a quick treatment of these forgotten special rules for use with the 3rd Edition that is a little more random and fun. Enjoy!

Alcoholism: If the scenario calls for it, one or more units in your army has been 'at the bottle' and is well and truly drunk. Throughout the fight, they will continue to drink from whatever alcohol they carry with them. At the beginning of each turn, take a Will Power test. If the unit fails, they have become well and truly drunk and will react randomly according to the table below. If the Will Power test is passed, then they have managed to hold their liquor for now, and there is no effect for the turn.

Roll 1d6 each time the Will Power test is failed:
1-2 Until the beginning of the next turn, unit is subject to a failed Stupidity test.
3-4 Until the beginning of the next turn, unit is subject to a failed Saga Animosity test against the nearest visible unit (friend or foe) to its front.
5-6 Unit will spend the turn moving towards the closest known building in search of more alcohol (or otherwise, the table edge). If they reach the building, they will spend the entire next turn trashing the place and turning it upside down to find any hidden stores.


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