Tuesday 30 April 2013

What's Your Story?

Greetings wargamers, and welcome once more to my cardboard bunker...

Today's topic is inspired by a post on The Burning Eye blog (please see a link on the right of my page, I recommend a read), which was about the naming of Characters and Units in your army, and by doing so, bringing them and the battles they participate in to life. Not literally of course. That would be weird. Like Toy Story...with Melta Guns. And a two inch tall Vulkan.

I would like to explore fluff from another angle, and that is the creation of the backstory for your army, its history and its place in the setting of the game, whichever game that might happen to be. I guess elements of what I write here can be applied to a variety of games, but my experience is all with GW games, primarily the Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 settings.

Some people might not care about their army background, which is fine, but I feel like I would really be missing out if I didn't tell my own part of the story, and read that of other peoples armies, particularly material written by fans. The setting after all is one of the big draws of Games Workshop games. I mean, look at the vast number of novels you can buy which tell the exact same kind of stories that I would want to be told about my own armies.

In my mind, the story behind my army is very important, and adds immensely to my enjoyment of the hobby. When an army has a story behind it, it stops being a simple collection of playing pieces (no matter how well converted or painted they may be) and becomes a living, breathing entity. There is little difference between reading about a battle fought between the Talosian 3rd Army Group and the Orks of Waaagh Griffnut, and reading about the Battle Of Arnhem Bridge, apart from the fact that one is based on fact and the other a fabricated game setting. A great example of this would be Forge World's Imperial Armour books for 40K, which not only include history, unit details and army lists, but also amazing photos which look incredibly life-like. If you removed all the names from such pieces of text, you might be hard pressed to judge which was the factual history, and which had been made up by a geek (I myself am proud to declare I am at least 40% Geek) on a computer...

When I think about writing background material for an army, I can think of three main ways to approach it, each with varying degrees of work required by you, the narrator of the army's story. First, and easiest, is to simply use existing background material, from a rulebook, army book, campaign book or even a novel based in the same setting as your army.

For example, if you decided to collect an army of Ultramarines for Warhammer 40,000, they are probably the single most comprehensively written about Space Marine Chapter in the history of existence, which is just how Marneus Calgar likes it I'm sure. The point is you can look at their background and simply say 'my army is the Ultramarines 3rd Company', and you already have not only instructions on how to paint them and mark them out as the 3rd Company, but there are probably bits of fluff all over the place that tell you about their history, their famous heroes, homeworld and their part in major events in the history of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

There are lots of armies that have taken part in specific events in the history of their settings, like the First, Second and Third Wars for Armageddon, The Thirteenth Black Crusade, and, more specific to the Ultramarines, the wars with the Tyranids on the Eastern Fringe (may the Hive Mind envelope the snot nosed Tau and their piddly Empire and reconstitute them all as mindless snot licking toad-things...).

This is great if all you want is to know a bit about the history of your force, and are happy go with what's already there. This is probably typical of Historical Wargames in particular, where battles are often re-fights of great clashes from history, and the troops, commanders and locations are taken straight from the documentary evidence. A variation on this idea is to make your army the followers of a particular Special Character, who all come with their own often extensive histories, and tying your army to their background material. Just don't tie your army to Commissar Yarrick and the Battle for Golgotha. That's where we saw the demise of the Squats after all. I'd love to know how the new Black Library novel 'Chains of Golgotha' spins that one...

The second option is to base your army around an existing force, but make up their battle history, create named personalities to lead them and even design your own insignia and such for them, rather than using pre-fab Special Characters. I could use my Dark Angels force as an example. The army is based around and uses the paint scheme of the Dark Angels 4th Company (the one with the fiddly check patterned design). I didn't want to use the 3rd Company because to me it's an obvious choice, being the first Battle Company, and I chose to avoid the 5th because that's the Company that the Games Workshop studio army is based around (in the last Codex at least), so I went for the 4th Company. I say 'based' around the 4th Company because my collection as a whole, in keeping with the established Dark Angels (and Space Marines generally) background, is part of a larger strike force which includes elements of the 1st Company (Deathwing), 2nd Company (Ravenwing) and 10th Company (the Scout Company).

This army rarely includes any Special Characters, but every squad has a name, as well as every vehicle and character model. The history of the strike force is based loosely around the various major battles I have fought with them in the time I have been collecting Dark Angels, which is getting on for twenty years, so they took part in defending Talos VII from Hive Fleet Scylla, they fought on Armageddon during the Third War, and they joined the rest of the Chapter and the Unforgiven as a whole during the Thirteenth Black Crusade fighting Abbadon's forces and chasing 'The Voice' around the Cadian Gate. The whole time, my strike force commander, Teranius, Master of the 4th Company and Bearer of the Blade, has been responsible for hunting down a prominent Fallen Dark Angel known as 'Kraven'.

By taking this approach, you can base your background around a theme or army that you like, but take the step of adding some additional background flavour to make it more personal if that's what you want, to feel like you have had more of a hand in creating the story that supports the army.

The final option I would like to talk about (and the one I prefer), is that of writing the background for your army pretty much from scratch. It's not quite totally from scratch, because every race has its 'army wide' backgound that your own fluff will tend to agree with in most cases. Imperial Guardsmen are, broadly speaking, grunts with flashlights, no matter what world they're from, they all have traits in common. Orks are all frothing thugs who want nothing more than to bash someone's head in, (preferably yours) regardless of whether the Idol represents Gork or Mork. Tyranids want to suck out your brains regardless of whether they are red, green or puce with lime green polkadots. You get the idea I'm sure. Apart from staying within these fairly broad guidelines (unless you can fabricate a good reason not to), you can go wild.

Writing background from scratch opens up a world of possibilities, literally, because you get to create (almost) everything, including cool stuff like homeworlds, culture, colloquial language references, fighting styles, preferred or specialist combat environments, and of course, names. For this one, I'll use my Imperial Guard as an example. They are the Talosian 24th Light Infantry Regiment. The Talos System is made up of giant planets. I took the name Talos from the bronze giant of Greek Mythology.

Talos VII, the planet that my regiment hails from, is also the world that was fought over in a very early (possibly our first ever) campaign played by the group of gamers I went to school with in the mid nineties. The campaign revolved around an Imperial world being defended by the Guard, which was being invaded by the Tyranids of Hive Fleet Scylla (which became my Tyranid army), and which the Eldar (half our group played Eldar) also had a vested interest in because there were functioning Webway Portals hidden on the planet which they needed to shut down or at least seal, before the Hive Mind gained access to the Webway.

These days, the back story of my Guard talks a bit about their culture before the Tyranid invasion, and a bit about after the Hive Fleet was driven off (by the arrival of the Talosian Fleet, led by my Dark Angels strike force of course), and what has become of them today. At the moment, my Guard are embroiled on the staging world of Barakka Prime, which was invaded at the outset of the Third Armageddon War by my Ork army (led by Warlord Griffnut, tasked with this staging world's destruction by Ghazgkhull himself. I think Ghazgkhull just wanted him out of the way because he's got his eye on the crown), as part of the Orks coordinated effort to strangle the supply network feeding the beleaguered warzone.

As you can see, many of my armies have background that is interlinked, which is another benefit of writing from scratch, because this is relatively easy to accomplish when you have free reign to make things up as you go along. In the case of my Imperial Guard, I used a campaign that we had fought way back in the mists of time as the inspiration for their history, which was nice because it really was their history. The names I chose to give my officers were taken straight from my Secondary School teachers, so the Talosian 24th are led by Colonel Riccarius (Richard) Bailey, with Lieutenants and Captains named after teachers I remember. There is so much you can call on to create your background. Why not delve into real world history for some inspiration? Is there a culture or period of history that sparks your interest? A particular commander perhaps? It doesn't take a genius to work out that Lord Commander Solar Macharius is based on Alexander The Great.

The key thing to remember is that whatever approach you decide to take, you have the chance to make your army background exciting, to give your games context in the sense of your army's wider involvement in the setting. If you expand on the army's background through incorporating battles and even campaigns fought within your local gaming group, then the group as a whole has the chance not only to expand their individual army fluff, but also to build one that connects them all together in an epic shared existence.

One last thing to remember...history is always written by the victor.

Thanks for reading...

Monday 15 April 2013

So Many Armies, So Little Time...

Greetings once again fellow wargamers. If it's a bit crowded in here, it's because my various armies have a conference on.

This time I would like to talk briefly about the fix that I and I'm sure many others find themselves in, either due to the length of time they have been collecting, or because they are compulsive buyers. I am talking about owning lots of different armies, and how this affects our hobby experience compared to gamers who play just one or two armies. I don't mean lots of models, because some people have truly huge armies, which comes with its own issues. I mean owning lots of different armies using different army books and codices.

I have been collecting Games Workshop models for just over twenty years, and in that time I have accumulated eleven different armies: six for Warhammer 40,000 and five for Warhammer Fantasy, not to mention stuff for specialist and other games like Battlefleet Gothic, Blood Bowl, Necromunda, Inquisitor and not forgetting Man O' War.

Now having this many different armies (rather than multiple armies that use the same book, like three different Chapters of Vanilla space marines for example), many of which are quite sizeable, has had a number of effects. First, as you would expect, it means having lots of models, which requires copious quantities of storage space and vessels to store the models in.

It also means that, as I did a lot of my collecting in my teens, I have lots of unpainted models. I don't really see this as a drawback, because thankfully it means that now I am really getting back into army painting, my standard of painting is much better than it was when I started collecting. That's not to say I don't have shares in dot 4 hydraulic brake oil. I have had my painting apocalypses in the past just like anyone else. It's also a good thing collecting so many different armies because it's rare for people who have so many different models to paint to get bored of them. Oh look, I have another space marine to paint to add to the company I already painted. Whoopee...

Another impact is the maintenance cost of having so many different armies, and by maintenance I mean the cost of picking up the latest Army Book or Codex as they are released. This was less of an issue when they were knocking them out at around twelve quid each, but now they are going for thirty of Her Majesty's finest pounds, it's a lot more expensive. If it turns out that my armies all have a book come out in a very short period, that's quite an investment just to be able to play using the latest rules, which I guess is par for the course having fingers in lots of pies, and I do like to pick up the occasional new toy here and there (Mortis Engine, ye shall rise soon, I promise) but still...

An advantage is that if I only played one army, I'd be having to rush out and get the new book as soon as it came out to be able to play using the latest rules, but as it is I won't be picking up the new Warriors of Chaos book till Fathers Day, because I have four other Fantasy armies I can play till then. Plus, having half the Army and Codex books available is great if you like fluff, because you end up with a much bigger picture of the background as a whole than if you just had one Codex and the rulebook.

The greatest effect having this many armies is the one it has on my gaming. I like to play all of my armies, rather than focus on just one or two, because they each give me something different and exciting, and I hate the thought of all that hobby goodness being left on a shelf or in a box and not being used. I would never sell one of my armies for 40K or Fantasy, because each has a huge monetary and emotional investment in them. I have had most of my models longer than I have had my wife, and most are older than my youngest brother, plus, they remind me of some of the greatest times and best friends of my childhood.

The impact that switching armies so frequently has is two fold. First, it keeps my regular gaming opponents guessing about what army I'll be playing next, but more importantly, it affects how conversant I can be with any single army. Given I get about two games a month in, if each one is with a different army, and we regularly have new editions of game rules, army rules for my armies and army rules for my opponents armies to contend with, this results in little opportunity to really get used to playing a single army under stable conditions for an extended period of time. 

I have plenty of general experience playing Fantasy and 40K, and know the game rules well, but always find myself learning something new about using my armies from people who stick to the same army week in week out. In my head, this puts something of a cap on how good I can get as a player, because it's easier to get better sticking with one army and getting to know every little detail and trick inside out than picking it up every now and again.

I guess at the end of the day I have a couple choices. I could give up some of my armies, either shelving them (as if), or more sensibly, sell them off (never!) in order to better concentrate on one or two armies and play them until I can beat any player and any army, or, I can continue to play eleven different armies, winning less, but getting to take part in a far wider spectrum of gaming possibilities.
To be honest, I have got quite attached to my armies and their associated fluff, my named characters and the general history of their victories and defeats. I couldn't send them out into void now even if I wanted to...

So, next time you see the grizzled old veteran at the club or store that always seems to bring a different army to play, but rarely walks away victorious, just remember that the more armies you play, the more opportunities you have to immerse yourself in the hobby. Why play 40K or Fantasy one or two different ways when you could be playing a dozen different ways?

Once again, thanks for reading.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Why I don't play at Tournaments.

Greetings Wargamers. Thanks for dropping by, get yourself a drink and have a seat.

I have taken recently to listening to Warhammer & 40K podcasts, and have found some that I really like. Cutting the list to a level that allows me to actually listen to them all has been tricky though. Too many feeds and you can easily find yourself with days and days of shows and not enough time to get through them all.

Currently in my list are:

The Dwellers Below (Warhammer Fantasy)
A Tale of Four Geeks ( Warhammer Fantasy)
Bad Dice (Warhammer Fantasy)
Garage Hammer (Warhammer Fantasy)
The Independent Characters (40K)
The Second Founding (40K)
SkaredCast (40K)
CanHammer (Warhammer Fantasy)

I recommend all of the above, and I get something good out of all of them.

Now I do enjoy listening to these in the car travelling to work and back, and they put out some great shows, discussing all sorts of hobby topics, but one thing many podcasts (and blogs for that matter) have in common is that they talk at great length about the tournament scene, what's coming up next, which events they are attending or running etc.

This is great, and I have no problem with tournaments in general. They sound like fantastic social and gaming events, but there is one thing I have realised about them. I used to think I didn't want to play in tournaments because they involved time and expense I couldn't spare, or because I still haven't managed to finish painting a complete army, or even that I am simply not a good enough player to be successful at an event. I realised while listening to all this talk about the various tournaments going on (Adepticon is the next really big one), the thing that puts me off is the lists that gamers take to events, hoping to do well and give a good showing.

The problem for me is this: broadly speaking, tournaments are competitive, which in itself isn't an issue. Wargames in general are competitive, one person is attempting to defeat the other. My perception of tournments (and as always, please feel free to comment and tell me how very wrong I am), is that these days, with such a comprehensive network of forum sites, blogs and podcasts, all talking about what they think the best lists are, my fear is finding that, in a effort to be competitive, gamers attend tournaments and are all packing very similar lists, varying by race more than by preference. This at least is the impression I am getting from listening and reading about the tournament scene.

Organisers may try and address this by running a variety of scenarios with differing victory conditions, and not knowing who and which armies you'd be playing against will also have an effect, but in many cases lists have been hammered so much and so publicly that the optimal allcomers tournament list is posted all over the internet. Add to this the various power levels of armies at the moment, again something discussed in great detail by the community, and you seem to end up with people who are experienced tournament players and organisers being able to predict with some confidence what races and compositions they expect to see dominate at an event. 

It's reminiscent of a well known fashion guru stating at the start of the season 'this is what's popular at the moment, what's "on trend", so this is what everyone will be wearing this season.'

Now, not all players are equal, and we of course have the dice to factor in (never discount the ability of the dice gods to spit on your well laid plans from a great height), so in the end, every tournament will have a winner who we would hope is the player with the best plan and the most consistent win record, but what is the likelihood that their list is different to the majority of other players fielding the same race at the event?

The point of all this ruminating about tournaments isn't to knock them or people who enjoy them: they are what they are and look like they are here to stay, and they add another facet to the hobby experience, which is great. No, the point is that I like to play my army the way I like it, which is a bit competitive, but equally fluffy and story driven, and this means playing with armies that are not the latest flavour of mean. As an example, I have been playing Vampire Counts since before they were Vampire Counts, and tonight I'll be using Ghouls for the very first time. It seems as though throughout the last Vampire Counts book, winning involved spamming Ghouls and not bothering with any of the other core choices, but that didn't fit my idea of what the army is meant to be.

I don't like the idea that I'm playing the same list as everyone else, and I'm not prepared to take the list that lots of other people are taking just because it's been determined to be the best at the moment. Other people are welcome to do this, and good luck to them, but it isn't for me. I feel happier going against the grain. If that means I win half my games playing the kind of armies I like, rather than winning all my games playing the same list as lots of other people then that suits me fine. I've decided I get more from playing in'the spirit of my army' than I would playing with what feels like someone elses list. I want to progress the story of my army, not rack up wins that mean less to me than the context of the games.

I guess that's why I'm not keen at the moment on attending any big tournaments. Maybe one day I'll have to give one a go and see if my perception turns out to be right or wrong. In the meantime, thanks for reading.