Thursday, 15 December 2011

Rules as written

 Nerd Rage in Nottingham
In other news today, a grisly discovery was made in Nottingham last night. The body of a man was found in an alley behind the headquarters of hobby manufacturer Games Workshop. The discovery was made by a group of children playing with a “Thunderhawk”, made from a milk carton, toilet rolls and cardboard. The man has been identified as a prominent games designer for Games Workshop, and it is believed he was attacked as he left work last night. Police say that the murder weapon was found at the scene, and ironically is one of the companys own products. The victim was bludgeoned to death with a “Bloodthirster” a large metal model with jagged parts, making it ideal as a weapon. A cryptic note was found on the body, believed to say, “No Look out Sir for you! The Dwellers Below”. 

It is said that Games Workshop are discussing the murder as a “special character assassination”, but when pressed for an explanation, the company employees have not been forthcoming. A spokesman for Games Workshop declined to speculate on a motive, however he did have the following comments: “The police tell us that the choice of murder weapon leads them to conclude that the attacker was a collector of Games Workshop products. It is very sad to think that a player of our games could be behind this callous act. We are of course assisting them in their investigation, and we believe that we can help narrow down the list of suspects considerably. Our recent pricing policies and trade embargoes should ensure that players outside of the EU can barely afford to play our games at all, let alone foot the bill for a plane trip over here to commit this crime.”

“This tragic incident could have been avoided if collectors everywhere had followed our advice and replaced all their obsolete metal models with the newer Finecast range. This is a superior medium that, although often blighted by casting issues and susceptibility to heat, is far too fragile to be used as a weapon. Granted, the models may cost more in Finecast than in the old metal, however you really cant put a price on public safety. I appeal to gamers everywhere to throw out all their metal models and replace them with Finecast as soon as possible, before anyone else loses their life…”
OK, so to the best of my knowledge, the news story above didnt happen. I also got a bit sidetracked by GW pricing and the ongoing saga of woe that is Finecast, but that is neither here nor there. What I actually want to talk about today is the way rules are written. Or more specifically, the way they are written for Warhammer.

Writing rules for a wargame is obviously a difficult business. The game is intended to provide as much potential variety as possible, with plenty of scope for the players to enact their fiendish plans. Allowing flexibility makes it hard to implement hard and fast rules that keep the game running cleanly, and this ends up introducing grey areas where things dont quite fit together the way a games designer might hope.

Games Workshop have been around for a long time, and are certainly not new to the challenges of writing rules for wargames. After all, we are up to the 8th edition of Warhammer, with a new edition being sent our way every 4 years or so. They have produced hundreds of rulebooks, army books and supplements. Why then do they so often produce rules that make no sense?

I have written before about how much I like Warhammer 8th edition. Of all the versions I have played so far (5 and counting), I believe 8th edition is the least flawed. The game has become the gory spectacle one would expect of such a game, many of the disputes over things being in and out of range have been taken away, and the armies are more balanced than they ever have been before. The game scales up well for larger games and it flows smoothly. As a whole, I think Warhammer is in a good place at the moment.

However, nothing is ever perfect there is always a fly in the ointment. For all that the current edition of Warhammer has a lot going for it, there are still holes in the rules, and sections that make less sense the harder you look at them. This is a problem, given that many games will, at some point, require very careful analysis and application of the rules. This is particularly the case in a competitive environment, where neither player is likely to back down over a vague rule that could see them at a serious disadvantage. Rules disputes are a common occurrence at tournaments. Often they come about because one player has failed to read or understand a rule correctly in those cases the problem is easily fixed. However, there are times when neither party is clearly in the right. When this happens, its generally the rules that are to blame.

GW are to be commended for the way that they have maintained their rules since the introduction of 8th edition. There is a raft of Errata and FAQs for both the core rules, and each of the army books currently available. These are maintained in a centralised location, have version numbers to help clarify what is the latest copy (the most recent wave include dates as well), and each issue highlights in pink any changes from the previous version of the FAQ. This all represents by far the most concerted effort yet by GW to answer the questions arising from their rules. If you have been living in a hole for the last 18 months, its possible you dont know about all these amendments. You can find them here:

(Apparently clicking the link above doesn't work, but it might if you paste it into your browser)

As admirable as the efforts with the FAQs are, there remain gaps. Here are a few examples.

Ridden monster 2 tests or one?
For as long as I can remember, the definition of “a model” has always been an issue in the Warhammer rules. Is a model everything in the same base, or do a rider and mount count as separate? Im pretty sure this question has been answered multiple times, and that the answer has actually been different depending upon the edition and the context. A lot of the time the answer is provided for us, but there are times when things remain unclear. When a spell requiring a characteristic test hits a model with more than one target (be it an Elf Prince on a Star Dragon or a Grey Seer on a Screaming Bell), do both targets take a separate test? I assume the answer to be yes, however does it say this in the rules? No, I dont believe it does. Things like this are best not left to “common sense” some players can display remarkably little of this when the game is on the line…

When is a template not a template?
I started reviewing the Lores of Magic from the Orc and Goblin book a while ago, however I found myself bogged on the very first spell of the Big Waaagh! Gaze of Mork draws a line from the caster, hitting all the models it touches. At no point is it made clear whether this “line” is in fact a template. The answer to this question feeds into the next one: do characters get Look Out Sir? I found it exceptionally difficult to discuss the potential of the spell when I didnt know what it did. 

The recent Skaven FAQ states that Cracks Call is a template, so this most likely answers my question above (finally). However, until they update the Orc and Goblin FAQ accordingly, there will no doubt be people who argue that the two spells are different.

Spell types
As a general rule, GW did a superb job of working the old army books into the 8th edition. The books remained usable with (relatively few) adjustments, and often they became more competitive as the newer rules worked in the armys favour. However, not everything in the transition is completely smooth. The magic rules in 8th edition rely heavily upon the classes of spells described in the rulebook: Direct Damage, Magic Missile, Augment, Hex and Magical Vortex. There are a few catch-all rules to cover spells that do not adhere to these classes, which are most commonly found in the Lores of the old army books. This is all well and good, however the old spells were devised under a different set of general restrictions to those used now. 

The biggest problem here is the rule “The target must lie within the Wizards forward arc”. This was not a general rule in the previous edition in fact, “forward arc” was only introduced as a concept in 8th edition when arc and line of sight were separated. The spells that suffer are the old equivalents to Augment and Hex spells. For example, Invocation of Nehek or Vanhels Danse Macabre. If you were a Vampire Counts player and someone told you that your Vampire cant heal himself because he is not in his own forward arc, nor propel himself or his unit forward, how do you think you would react? These examples are soon to become obsolete with the rumoured new army book, however they are not the only ones of their kind. 

Anytime, anywhere
Remains in Play spells can be dispelled “at any point during a subsequent Magic phase”, or at any time at all by the casting player. Flexibility like this sounds simple, however the execution is not so idyllic. Think of the following examples:
  • A Wizard has transformed himself into a Dragon using Transformation of Kadon, however on seeing that a cannonball is about to touch him, he ends the spell, thus regaining Look Out Sir!
  • A player has a spell in play, and the power to recast it. The opponent has the dice to dispel either the existing version, or the new copy, but not both. He declares he will wait until his opponent is finished before dispelling any remains in play spells, but the caster wont recast the spell unless the existing one is ended. A stupid stand-off ensues.
In 7th edition, dispelling of Remains in Play spells was done after all casting. It was clearly defined and it prevented nonsense like the second example. Why remove a clean rule like that?

After the assault
When assaulting a building, the attackers may be repelled, or they may choose not (or be ineligible) to enter the building. The rules state that the unit is moved straight back 1”. I took this to mean that the unit could not reform, and had to maintain its existing formation. Apparently not everyone chooses to be so literal if they won combat, shouldnt they get a reform as usual, 1” away from the building as per the rules? 

They came from behind…
The shooting rules allow you to see out of the second rank of a unit. Likewise Wizards can cast spells from the second rank with no penalty. But what happens if you want your character to charge out of the second rank? Is this allowed? Is his path blocked by the man in front? This is the sort of rule that will divide players some will say its ridiculous, whilst others will point out that there is nothing specifically preventing it. Many have probably never even considered it, but its something to think about.

The chase is on
Have you ever really looked at the rules regarding the direction of pursuit in 8th edition? There are some issues there that (thankfully) never seem to come up. Perhaps this can be put down to people actually being reasonable about things for a change, and just making things work without paying too much attention to the wording of the rules. It could also be the case that people think things have not really changed since the previous edition, and as such they assume they know how it works, without ever really reading the current rules.

When a unit breaks from combat, both players roll any flee and pursue rolls, then the fleeing unit is moved (assuming it gets away). The pursuer then pivots directly toward the fleeing enemy and chases after it. In a simple case of 2 units matched neatly against each other, this is simple both units will run in exactly the same direction with nothing needing to pivot. If one unit was off-centre, the angles of the flight and pursuit will be different (pivoting away or toward the enemys centre will see to that). 

However, nowhere in the rules does it state which direction you pursue if you catch your opponent. The fleeing unit is removed instead of moving them in their flight, which means you never actually determine the direction of the pursuit. Some people just move the pursuer straight forward as though it were an Overrun, however its not stated in the rules that you should do this. Whether its what the rules intended is anyones guess.

Things get really messy when there is more than one pursuing unit. If they arrived in the same arc, they will most likely be hard up against one another. In the previous edition the two units would pursue side-by-side, and everything was relatively neat. That is not the case in 8th edition, however. The enemy flees, and each pursuing unit is obliged to pivot toward the centre of the enemy before moving. Taken literally, this is actually impossible. As soon as either pursuing unit goes to pivot, it will actually overlap friendly models from the other unit. It may be that this is acceptable, as its a temporary situation (unless you roll too low a number and you dont manage to clear the unit). However, the acceptability of this is not covered in the rules. It will come up all the time, but the rules remain silent. It may even be that the units are meant to stop pivoting as soon as they hit a friendly unit, then move forward on whatever line that gives them. Maybe its better to just pursue side by side, and ignore the rulebook altogether. Im certain everyone who does things that way will have more fun than those whose pursuing units collide the instant they roll to chase.
The red unit flees, the first unit pivots to face... And the mess begins
The 1” rule
The rule requiring units to remain 1” apart was one of the hardest things to adjust to when 8th edition came out. How many of us deployed our units right next to each other, only to realise that it was not how things were done anymore? I still have to remind myself, and leave larger gaps for my units and I still get caught out sometimes. For all that I can see the reasoning behind it, its a very annoying rule.

For obvious reasons, the 1” rule does not apply when units charge into combat. However, its unclear when the rule is meant to come back into effect. Once combat is over, should any remaining units be shuffled 1” apart? Or are they obliged to move 1” apart at the first opportunity, or the first time they elect to move at all? Combat is not just an exception to the rule it breaks it for an indefinite period until the units involved have all dispersed. Whether this is the intention is anyones guess.

How many rulebooks find an opportunity to use the word “finagling” within their pages? Well, GW managed to get it into the Warhammer rulebook, when dealing with awkward charges under the heading Unusual Situations. To put it into context, were talking about “closing the door” once a unit contacts the enemy during a charge, and how sometimes obstacles or other units will get in the way. Normally the charging unit will align to the enemy. Sometimes it will need to reduce how many models would be engaged in order for this to be possible. If this is not enough, the charged enemy will sometimes need to align to the charger. But here we have the kicker: 

“If no amount of finagling can allow the unit to avoid the obstacle, the charge fails”

What does this mean, exactly? If the charged unit is already in combat, does the whole combat spin to accommodate the charge? If its just an unengaged unit thats in the way of closing the door, do you simply “finagle” that unit out of the way? Im afraid that in a book that is meant to be an exhaustive compendium of rules, its probably not ideal to use vague suggestions to cover what players can and cannot do. This rule came up in one of my games at the Masters, and in the end we had to dice for it because we couldnt work out what was meant to happen.

FAQs in general
The steady stream of FAQs has definitely seen a marked improvement in the clarity and consistency of rules in 8th edition, however they will never be without their flaws. We still see some answers that seem to fly in the face of logic, and others that seem so arbitrary that players are still having trouble remembering them a year after they are introduced.

Unmodified Leadership is a strange ruling, and one that keeps coming up in discussions. Why can a model use the generals leadership if hes in the unit, but not if hes just outside it? It feels like a ruling for the Unmodified Leadership of the unit, rather than for a given model within it. It may be where the ruling came from, but the generally accepted use of the rule is for wherever a models Unmodified Leadership is used (most commonly we seem to see it for Spirit Leech). Maybe the community as a whole is misinterpreting the FAQ…

The Ogre FAQ was released recently, and it contains a ruling that is likely to have gamers up in arms until its “fixed”. The Greedy Fist removes a magic level for each hit inflicted by the bearer. The FAQ states that this effect applies to any ranged attacks from the model. Whether they intended it or not, this means it applies to spells. We are going to hear stories of Lords of Change being hit by 2D6 Strength 2 hits from Bonecruncher and losing all magical ability, and of characters in units being sniped by Caress of Laniph and surviving, only to lose all their magic levels due to the hits from the spell. It seems to me unlikely that this was what GW were thinking of when they answered the question. We are left hoping that they change or clarify their answer in a future FAQ, and fearing for the usefulness of our Wizards until that time comes.

It is, and it isnt
The Ogre FAQ also contains a new example of the ways in which GW can baffle and amaze us all. The question was asked, “As Butchers and Slaughtermasters can take an ironfist, does this mean that they can also wear magical armour?” The short answer to this question came back as “yes”. However, this was not the end of the response. It is followed by a note from Jervis Johnson, effectively saying, “My bad I didnt want this to be the case.” He then asks players not to make use of the ruling, as it is against the spirit of the rules! If this is not a confusing response, I dont know what is. Its basically saying that technically yes, you can give your Slaughtermaster an ironfist but if youre a nice guy you wont do it anyway. That is not an answer. I guarantee you that there are plenty of gamers out there who dont care about being nice guys. If the rules allow it, they will do it. This may be a sad indictment on some members of the gaming community, but thats the way it is.

This particular ruling is particularly frustrating. Not only did the game designers leave a gap in the rules, when given the chance to rectify the problem, they instead went out and made it official, followed by a brief lamentation about a lack of foresight. Jervis, you could have just said “no”. When dealing with a specific case like this, and given the FAQs are accepted as a proper medium for official rules clarifications (and amendments), it was the perfect opportunity to set things right make them the way you intended. The consistency regarding a single mundane armour option allowing magic armour could easily have given way to the specific situation especially when you had a particular outcome in mind.
The great debate
Throughout my time as a Warhammer player I have had countless arguments around the “spirit of the rules” versus “rules as written”. Rarely are these debates constructive, and invariably the two people are never going to come to a satisfactory outcome. I admit that I have run into this argument less frequently in the last few years, and the last thing we need is the games designers heaping more fuel on the fire.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting stuff. I read somewhere else about that comment from Jervis, and while I'll always be on the 'spirit' side of the argument (if we have to have it) I do agree that a FAQ isn't the right place to invoke a spirit of the game approach. Rules will never be 100% clear cut and there will undoubtedly be some grey areas but they should always be as clearly stated as possible. And that's coming from someone who would never be interested in playing in a tournament, so I can only imagine how frustrating these issues must be for you!