Wednesday 20 March 2013

The trouble with stunties

Things continue to be a bit busy for me at the moment, and unfortunately the blog continues to suffer as a result. However, I thought I might share something that has been annoying me recently – Dwarfs.

Dwarf haters around the world probably cheer at statements like that, but it's not what you think. I am not complaining about playing against Dwarfs, and how they sit in a corner, don't move, negate all your magic and shoot all your stuff off the table (the usual complaints tend to be something along those lines). Instead, my complaints centre more around using them. Or rather, around wanting to want to use them.

I have always felt that Dwarfs are one of the most characterful races in the Warhammer world. They are short, broad and hairy. They are tough, tenacious, skilful and decidedly grumpy. It's a strong stereotype – one that I find very easy to hold onto, and that I find rather appealing. Well, to a certain extent I like their character. The other thing I like about them is their history – a fallen empire with its ruins scattered across the Old World and beyond. As their race declines, it leaves in its wake grand forgotten underground halls, endless labyrinths of mines, and seemingly limitless opportunities for adventurous role-players to explore hidden wonders and battle the denizens who helped the Dwarfs pack on their way out (well, maybe they were not quite that helpful. But they definitely helped them make the big decision to move).
The ancient, the old and the almost-as-old.
When I started playing Warhammer early in the 4th edition, the Dwarfs already had their own army book. For me, it has always been one of the finest books GW have ever produced. The artwork of that era resonated more with me than a lot of the newer stuff does. The models were the old Marauder Miniatures, who produced the most characterful Dwarf models we've ever seen in the game. The characters could be massively customised with runic armour and weapons, and end up costing preposterous amounts to field (back when the limits were on the number of items carried, rather than the points spent). I do not pretend that the book was a masterpiece of game balance, but then, I don't think GW cared much about that back then. The book even had the rather interesting-looking scenario, the Battle of East Gate. Unfortunately we never got around to playing that, because back in those days, a 4,000 point army of greenskins was well beyond our means (ah, how times have changed).
My Hammerers. Like many of my Dwarf models, a relic from an older and (to my mind) grander era. 
For me, the book as a whole was a work of art. And unfortunately, I have found that all subsequent Dwarf books have failed to live up to this impressive standard. It feels like each time a new book comes out, a little more of the army's character is diluted. I don't even know why I feel this way. The army itself has changed little, apart from losing the ability to spend like crazy on silly runic weapons that the Ancestor Gods themselves would be proud to wave about. Maybe it's the loss of the old models, and them being replaced by ranges like the Longbeards and Hammerers, who are all posed the same and lack the individual detail (like fancy ornamental helms) we used to see.
The current Hammerers. Not even a shadow of the old Marauder ones.
Old metal and new plastic mixed together. Unlike the metals, I think the new plastics are definitely an improvement. 
I didn't have a Dwarf army back in the days of 4th edition. I loved the character of the army, but I was focused on Elves whilst my friend brought the stunties to the table. In fact, I only started to build up my own collection of Dwarfs when the current book was out. Of course, this is not hard – the current book has been around for 7 years now. 7 years – it's an outrageous amount of time, topped only by the Wood Elves and Bretonnians. All 3 of these books were released 2 editions ago. To say that an army book gets stale under such conditions is something of an understatement. And yet, for all that my Wood Elf book is older than the Dwarf one, it feels much more interesting. I wish it were not so, but I don't think there is an army in the game that is more dull than the Dwarfs.

I have to wonder if the reason we haven't seen a new Dwarf book is the fact that GW find it extremely difficult to add interest to the list without messing with the character of the army. Dwarfs don't use cavalry, they don't make use of monsters, and they all have stumpy legs. Taken all together, this gives you an army where everything moves 3”, with the exception of Gyrocopters (which fly) and the Anvil of Doom (which doesn't move at all – how it's meant to find its way onto the battlefield in the first place is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps the Dwarfs leave them stashed all over the place and only fight battles where there is an Anvil already available...). This monotonous lack of speed might be enough to make things feel a bit same-y, but it goes on to other stats. Without significantly different unit types like knights or different races in the list, the variation you get in Dwarf armies is pretty limited. Weapon Skill might change by 1, some units have 1 more Strength, and armour varies a bit depending on whether the unit wields great weapons or shields. Slayers offer the greatest variety, and even then they have the same base profile as a normal Dwarf, before their extra rules kick in.
Slayers are the most unique unit in the Dwarf list - and they have the base stats of a regular Dwarf. 
The only thing that is substantially different from the blocks of Dwarfs is the war machines, and most people can tell you that it doesn't take long for people to get sick of these in one way or another. Dwarf players have a reputation for fielding gun lines with plenty of artillery and no intention of moving. Of course, this is just playing to the army's strengths (why move when you're no good at it anyway?), but that doesn't make it popular with opponents. It also doesn't make it appealing to me. I have no interest in fielding a gun line, and I find that attempts to do anything else with the list seem doomed to failure. A Dwarf elite has a good profile, but he also tends to swing last and get done by the more exotic troops in the enemy army. With no cheap options to draw upon, a player who tries to pack real punch into his units by fielding them in horde size soon finds himself with perhaps 3 units worth speaking about, and little else. Like the gun line, this does not lend itself to an entertaining game. Whilst it's in character for the army to make no use of the magic phase, ultimately this results in the loss of yet another potential method for adding variety to game play. In effect, the army list is hobbled by the restrictions placed upon it by the things that differentiate Dwarfs.

You do see the odd player daring to be different. These lists tend to shy away from the horde units and head more for the Multiple Small Units (MSU) style of play. Adam Wonderley's list at the Australian Masters last year definitely fitted into this category.

Adam used:
  • Runesmith with Shield, Master Rune of Balance, Rune of Spellbreaking
  • Runesmith with Shield, Master Rune of Challenge, Rune of Brotherhood
  • BSB with Master Rune of Grungni, Strollaz's Rune
  • Dragon Slayer with Rune of Speed
  • Dragon Slayer with Rune of Fire
  • 10 Quarrellers with Great Weapons
  • 10 Quarrellers with Great Weapons
  • 19 Dwarf Warriors with Full Command, Shields
  • 14 Longbeard Rangers with Full Command, Throwing Axes
  • 17 Hammerers with Full Command
  • 2 x 5 Miners
  • 10 Slayers with Musician
  • Cannon with Rune of Burning, Rune of Forging
  • Cannon with Rune of Forging
  • Grudge Thrower with Rune of Accuracy, Rune of Penetrating, Engineer
  • 2 Gyrocopters

It's probably a reflection of the way people view Dwarfs that this sort of list is not really perceived as a gun line, despite having 3 war machines and 2 units of crossbowmen – about as much firepower as you would expect from any army before it started looking over the top. Anyway, the list bravely does away with any really significant units and instead focuses on trying to dictate the terms of the battle by having a large number of smaller units moving around. A couple of Gyrocopters give it more speed than your average Dwarf list, albeit at a price given they weigh in at 140 points each.

When I saw this list, I was impressed. Adam is one of the best players in the country, but I figured this list would struggle to handle the sort of muscle it would encounter in the tournament. As it happened, he did pretty well. I spent all tournament hoping to play him, because I wanted to see how he played with the list. Alas, it was not to be.

I have tried once or twice to make a similarly unusual Dwarf list, however I always find myself dissatisfied with the result. Freeing up enough points to make such an approach work tends to leave the character section under-strength, which flies in the face of how I tend to think of Dwarfs. I am still hooked on the idea of mighty heroes with nasty runic weapons and impenetrable armour. Fielding a Dwarf Lord who can't go toe-to-toe with the enemy general feels like I'm not doing the army justice.
A Dwarf Lord is meant to be one of the most formidable warriors around. Fielding an under-powered general just doesn't feel right.
What I really want from the Dwarf army list is to be able to field a bit of everything, and feel like I have some actual variety and flexibility at my disposal. I want to field Ironbreakers, but I want them to be seriously hard to kill – not marginally tougher than a regular Dwarf with a shield. I want to field Slayers, but I want them to feel really menacing for my opponent, rather than easy meat with little threat value. Hell, I want to be able to field an army loaded with Slayers, led by Ungrim Ironfist himself. Whatever happened to that guy? The current Dwarf book seems to have done away with all the old special characters. I want to be able to make an army without artillery without feeling like I've already thrown the game out the window. Don't get me wrong, I don't want a world-beating army list that opponents despise – I just want to feel like I have some options, and that there is a point in exploring some of them.

Mypainted Dwarf army currently stands at somewhere between 2500 and 3000 points, however I don't have a lot of options within that. I want more options. I want more Dwarfs painted. But I find that I don't want to have to make an army of them and put it on the table. That undermines what enthusiasm I have to paint them, and leaves them kind of in limbo. They're probably still the army I am most likely to work on when I decide to take a break from the Empire (which I have resolved to do this year). I just wish they inspired me a little more on the table.


  1. Very pleasent reading. I 100% agree with you about the old days.

    As an O&G player (specially with a lot of old school night goblins) I always felt that I was missing something as never had the chance to play against Dwarfs... no short-beardeds in my playing group. Sigh!

    I hope the new army book revision makes some justice to this race.

    1. Yeah, if they ever get around to it. I think we've waited long enough.

      And I agree with you, there is always something special about being able to put your army down across from their most bitter enemies. Back in the day, the rules for hatred would have made Dwarfs vs Night Goblins a brutal affair indeed. I reckon one of the main reasons I ended up with an greenskin army was because of their history with my friend's Dwarfs.

  2. I started Warhammer back in 3rd Ed playing with a WE/HE army as the mood took me. Once 4th Ed came round I went looking for a new army and Dwarfs were what took my fancy, very much as you say it's the background and the character that makes Dwarfs appealing.

    After a break from the hobby I came back to them and I played them solidly for 2 years in the UK tournament scene from 7th into 8th. In 7th they were utterly dull, in 8th they gained a lot through random charges but then the game moved on and increasingly I found my supposedly rock hard units being mindrazored/purple sunned/pitted off the board with increasing frequency by opponents chucking all thier dice at the 1 big gamewinner spell in the hope of hitting the irresistable and taking half my army off. And that's not even considering monsterous cav with a 1+ save just being thrown into the front of them and grinding them all off.

    All of this led to the increasing volume of warmachines creeping back into the list and the good old gunline was back in force. At that point I dropped them for a new army.

    In total I've got about 5000pts of dwarfs without characters so have plenty of options, I can put 60 slayers on the board (and watch them slowly die), I can put 50 hammerers down and watch them get whittled away by cheaper troops with multiple attacks. I can even field 50 longbeards (though why I'd want to pay so many extra points for a unit that generally has no better impact than a unit of warriors with GWs I'm not sure). I could even put down ironbreakers and watch them achieve absolutely nothing. Having multiple units of every single unit in the book really doesn't make any difference. There are really 2 things in a dwarf army list - Dwarf with shield or GW and warmachines. No matter how you try to cut it this is what it comes down to.

    Possibly the worst thing GW did with the most recent book was to remove all move & fire weapons from the army, previously the handguns could at least react to skirmishers/fast cav getting round your flanks, now there is little you can do, so even more reason to just box up and shell your opponent.

    I'm all in favour of throwing away the 'we don't change' part of dwarf background, it adds nothing and limits the army. Bring in Monsterous infantry in the form of golems or dwarfs in mechanical battlesuits, lets have that steam train and airship. Dwarfs on bears or something mechanical would be fine by me. Give me a magic phase, make them all bound runes where you don't add your levels to the casting if you want it to be slightly harder than normal magic. But please GW, do something! The army is increasingly shunned by other gamers and I've had people refuse to play me when I've got them as it's a dull game and that's even if I run the anvil and smaller blocks with just 1 WM.

    1. Sorry to hear you've been turned off them, but it's perfectly understandable. It would be a very loyal Dwarf player indeed who persevered in an environment of a stale list and people not wanting to know you because of your army. I suspect most people who have any other option will have embraced that by now, hoping things will change when the army finally gets an update.

      I agree that there are plenty of options for adding some variety to the Dwarf army without really compromising its character. Some people turn their noses up at every army having monstrous cavalry now, etc. But the fact of the matter is, if they don't add something to give the player some options, Dwarf armies will never see the table.

  3. I agree with the sentiments here. I have about 3,000pts of painted Dwarves (mostly 4th ed) and another 2,000 that I haven't been able to summon the enthusiasm to paint, partly for those reasons.

    In addition to the above suggestions (all of them I'd like to see) what about having 'adventurer dwarves' that can purchase different skills on the same way as Ogre Maneaters? That could offer some varying units without upsetting the fluff.

    1. Even if they just give an extra skill to each unit, in keeping with their character. I'm not sure any given regiment of Dwarfs would be as widely travelled and worldly as Maneaters are meant to be, but I guess they do have hundreds of years to gather their experience.

  4. Great write up sums it up perfectly. I love my Dwarfs they were my first army and I always go back to them. But I moved into HE and Ogres simply for that missing variety in model and tactical terms.

    Dwarf fluff is still by far the best in the game and I think the primary reason we havent seen a new book yet is that GW have no idea what to do with them under 8th Edition - hopefully Gav Thorpe has an input into any new books as he has a great grasp of the background to the army. But I am not holding my breath, given the recent 8th ed books particular Daemons I have big concerns about any new book destroying what is a fantastic army.

    At tournaments Dwarfs always struggle and you feel cheated a lot of the time sitting there with an army you love to play against opponents with special rules, tough special characters, monsters and warmachines up the wazoo and you have nothing to fight them with. At least in 8th though step up means that we have a more than even chance in combat, but against say a Skink horde or Skaven army we are pretty much doomed.

    And yes there is a definate anti-dwarf bias in the community in New Zealand. Dwarf players tend to stick together and we once threatened to fill a tournament roster with as many Dwarf armies as we could field (got to 11 in total) which wasnt well recieved. I have 3-4,000pts worth and would love to keep using them at events but until a new book comes out ill be sticking to HE, Ogres or other game systems.

    1. I'm not sure I share your concerns about an 8th edition book. We've seen a lot of big monster kits and monstrous cavalry added, but I generally feel that each army has maintained its overall character pretty well.

      Other than a level of randomness that flies in the face of the utterly predictable nature of the Daemon army in the past, I don't really see why people would be getting up in arms about the new book. The unreasonable reliability of Daemons saw them being one of the front-runners at tournaments for years, but frankly I'm glad they've broken that pattern. I think good players who are determined to still use the army will do fine with it, but there will be fewer mediocre players riding the army's coattails to glory.

      I think if we do get a new Dwarf book in 8th edition, it will be more interesting than the current list and won't do any serious damage to the character of the race as a whole, even if there are options to field an army that doesn't really resemble what is currently possible.

      All in all, I think the risk is worth it. Something has to be done. If the army is left to stagnate much longer, Dwarfs will become a forgotten footnote in the game.

    2. Definately worth the risk but the worry for me is how they will try to fit the rune system into the new magic phase and the trend toward limited race specific magic items. I can see pre-made runic (which would be great), fewer runes for individual tailoring, slight changes to slayers, cheaper rangers and possibly a new special unit definately coming in, buts it what happens after that, that is the con concern for me.

      I get very parochial when it comes to Dwarfs and would just hate to see anything take away from their unique character simply so GW can sell more big bang flash kits. Either way they will always be my army of choice.

  5. Dwarfs. On. Bears. Wake up GW!

    1. Yeah, I remember first seeing Dwarfs on bears about 20 years ago. Old Grenadier models. I fancied the idea back then, and I still do now. After all, grizzly bears and Dwarfs have much the same temperament - approachable, friendly, forgiving... They're a perfect match!

  6. My 10 year old daughter came to me last night, while I was painting my Nurgle Rot-Flies:

    "Daddy, is there any of your Warhammer armies that you don't
    play with? "
    "Yes, Lisa, my Dwarfs"
    "When last did you play them?"
    "Three years ago..."

    The lack of variation in playing against Dwarfs have killed them for me. If you come up against them its just blam,blam,blam. One of my opponents has made it so untenable (and un-enjoyable)to play that I have avoided playing him when he brings dwarfs, as have most of the other members of our club. You may as well play 40K.

    I agree fully, give them (first a new book) give 'em bears, give them machines or monsters, magic, and make some of them move a bit faster.(At least the slayers. Give 'em a potion to drink. Or something.) GW, the Dwarfs are dying!