Friday, 24 July 2015

Where only fools dare thread 1: The importance of fluff (BoLS article)

Whilst the meek sit safe in their homes and offices I have braved where only the foolish dare tread in the search of articles of (at least partial) interest in the parsnip soup of detritus and rage that accounts for what little of the internet isn't taken up with Facebook games and po rn.

Something a bit different today.

My one true love

Killing some time over a morning coffee as I am wont to do on those beautiful and fleeting brief quite days, I was browsing BoLS. Not sure what the Venn Diagram crossover is between readers here and those brave enough to read a lengthy article there – those trolls be fierce! It's an interesting site, good to keep on top of things, a black hole of depressing vitriol and vile if you let it catch you... so basically like any other website visited by too many geeks...

I am often accused, probably with some justification, of being too level headed (something that invariably gets me in trouble with the wife – I really need to learn the signs for when not to play Devil’s Advocate and just *agree*). When the fans of outrage are a’blowing it is easy for people to think I taking a stand against whatever silly and baseless snap judgments they have come up with on a given day.
The truth though, is that I just like good, well put together arguments. Rage for the rage god is for four year olds and avid football fans (arguably the two most terrifying types of people out there).
With this in mind, I stumbled upon the below essay (or “guest Editorial”) from “BoLS Lounge Alumni Muninwing” on Larry Vela’s regular column. And I think, think I agree with a lot of it…

So I thought I’d share, because I am lovely like that

Copied from:
(with some superficial grammatical corrections).

Once again, all credit to Muninwing and BoLS 

I've realized my problem with AoS...
I have a guess that the Age of Sigmar will eventually become something interesting, maybe even worth playing. But I started seeing what it was, heard that there was no WHF 9th, and wrote it off.
It took me some time to realize why.
Flashback: fall 2001. I had seen 40k as a game before, almost bought a starter set when I was much younger and my brother had gotten a catalogue, but I’d been turned off by my utter lack of painting skill, and the money I’d need to get started. a friend of mine, who would go on to co-own my LGS heard me voice my curiosity about the game, and offered me a ton of models -- he'd gotten three of the 3rd ed starter sets, and as such had about 90 Dark Eldar models he had no use for. "$30 and they're yours, and I’ll throw in an extra copy of the rules"
I went home that day, wondering if I should. I did some research, looking up info about the game online. I found a page that had collected transcribed fluff from various sources and hyperlinked to more fluff. I read about Sanguinius' fight with a Bloodthirster, about the drop site massacre... I learned about the treachery of Horus and the failure of the Emperor. I learned about Magnus pleading for continuance at Nikea, and later for sanctuary when the wolves came for his children. I learned about the nameless guardsman whose sacrifice gave the mortally wounded Emperor the chance to stop Horus, and felt as I did when reading history books of great deeds, or when reading quality fiction of depth and richness. When the sun came up, I was still reading.
And that was how I got my start in war gaming.
But I was an avid reader. And I know the gravity that a good background, a good story can create. The author can either create a fully fleshed-out world, or show you enough of the world to make you believe that it is fully fleshed-out -- and those hints are often far more compelling. I wanted to see Gilead before the fall far more than Camelot (I hear it's a silly place anyway). I wanted to read the narrative of Beren and Luthien as a whole story and not as snippets through the Silmarillion. I wanted to know who made the labyrinths from where the Balrog rose, or what Delirium claims is "on the other side of the sky," or what great adventures Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien had with the Green Destiny, or exactly what Mance Raider saw in the frozen tombs. There’s completeness that each of these holds and creates that spins an air of weight about itself.
40k had that, for me, from the beginning. sure, I was three editions in, and it would expand in its own way from there -- sometimes in rich and interesting ways, like much of the HH novels... and sometimes, as with the "Oll Persson was an immortal" it would be obvious that the new writers did not understand why the old fluff had the significance it did. When I realized that those I played 40k with were more into WHFB, I pondered the entry into another arm of the hobby.
I again did research. This time it was easier -- I got a copy of the old WHFRP books, and the Liber Chaotica, and similar sources so I could read up on the history of their world, and understood that it too was a fully-realized place that felt as if it was an alternate history. The rise of Ulthuan, the corruption from within, the struggles of humanity, the whispers of the primal compulsions of chaos -- it all felt real.
Some people throw themselves into a fandom. I have enough students even still who come to school wearing their house colors, doodling snitches and brooms when they should be taking notes, and who look surprised when I tell them I’d be a Ravenclaw. I’m amused, and I like a good read, but I don't feel like it's my home. even with GW worlds, I hold myself back from jumping in headfirst... but the genius of the Liber Chaotica was that it made me forget to hold back... it was as if I’d found the hidden library that inserts itself in my dreams, and I found the worst possible book to pick up and bring home to read. It felt real. And thus, the time I would invest in creating my armies felt as if I was sharing in something far larger than myself.

I bought in, somewhere around 6th, and played strongly throughout 7th. 8th saw my army severely changed, and for the lesser -- I don't say for the worse, because they could still function on the table... but the arbitrary shifts they had made turned them into lesser and less important than they had once been. They lost gravity.
What I’ve recently realized is that Age of Sigmar has no gravity to it.
To sidestep for a bit, I should mention that gravitas -- that sense of weight and significance and importance I was alluding to above -- is actually hard to create. Often it takes years and revisions and alterations and a massive amount of work in order to capture that feel. Many good, experienced writers cannot do so. One of my favorite classics - The Count of Monte Cristo -- has virtually no weight to it, and the same author's better-known Three Musketeers has perhaps one scene of weight (the former priest executing his totally-not-a-ninja ex-wife) amid a ton of action and fun and swordfighting. But both of them have real history to draw from in order to create that weight for them. Fantasy and science fiction have to construct it themselves.
Games do not need this if they have good rules, but without it the drive to be a part of it is largely just another fandom, just a general hobby. If it lacks depth, it lacks weight, and therefore it cannot hold my interest.
Malifaux is like this. It’s an interesting system (but not interesting enough for me to want to play it too much), with an interesting background (which I’d like to read more about, but there isn't much effort made to flesh it out), and some not-terrible characters. It is, therefore to me, a novelty and not a serious game because I’ll have fun and put it aside without a second thought.
Warmachine is like this as well, and Hordes. being that they are both nation-sized games with brewing political and martial machinations, the fact that there are only really about ten people in each country that actually matter is remarkably shortsighted. It reads less like a complete and fleshed-out world, and more like a one-off module for D&D. it tries to substitute gimmick and unsuccessful tropes for quality writing. this is of course my own opinion, and others may find the depth in these that I have not, or they may have bought into the fandom which is related, but I fail to see the compelling elements in these that make me want to be a part.
More likely than not, this gravity is really just my own justification for buying in, and the "fandom" argument is nothing more than my own bias. So interpret as necessary, and insert your own as needed.
Age of Sigmar has been, from my limited perspective of fourteen years' worth of paying attention, the second-worst implementation in wargaming that I can point to. The worst -- certain parts of the 5th ed 40k FAQs that forgot what a FAQ is for -- is also admittedly a personal grudge of mine. allowing the fan base to believe that WHF 9th was coming to allow everyone to dust off their rank-and-file units and play afresh a game steeped in its own constructed and complete history, only to provide a game that is not fully imagined and plays so markedly different was asking for backlash. Plain and simple.

It might turn into an interesting game. It might develop, and enrich, and grow. It might be the very reworking that others have claimed (with far too much gusto to not be blind to the missing weight) that WHF needed.
It might not. And since it was released with so little attempt at a fully-fleshed-out setting (relying on its history and the game equivalent of name-dropping), as well as blatant gaps in acknowledging what the players truly wanted, "not" seems far more likely.
The worst thing? I’m part of the problem. WHF has been slipping, stagnating, for years. I’ve bought exactly three boxes of WHF models in the last five years -- the Wood Elf stag riders because my wife wants to paint them, a 50% off box of Witch Elves I’ll be converting to DE, and the new Bestigors when they came out just before 8th dropped. I’ve got 5000 points of Beasts (formerly of Nurgle, then mysteriously just... not), and another 3000 of Ogres. I’ve got a 3000-point High Elf army in mostly secondhand bits and pieces that I never got around to in favor of other projects. Why would I buy anything? And with that stagnation, something big needed to come out of it.
But AoS wasn't what was needed.

the End Times was interesting, but ultimately just a gimmick that they probably should have milked for far longer, made more of the limited models (I’d love to just assemble and paint a Nagash, or kitbash it with a Chaos Knight), and extended with a community-involved campaign. show that the railroading at the end of Storm of Chaos was a mistake, planned out what would happen in each next phase based on player involvement, and then steer it to a slightly different end based on whoever ultimately won, tied into some design elements and game specifics of the new game.
That’s why a "40k end times?" is at heart a foolish idea to entertain -- they could only do it if they wanted to poison their cash cow.
AoS may still grow, and it may have enrichment opportunities in the future, but it had a botched introduction. And unless they put a lot more work into the next phase of the product, they are not going to keep it afloat. alienating many of their fans was a bad idea from the start, but they still need to sell models and books to stay in business, so they need avenues by which to do these things... but they have not realized that it's the fluff just as much as the game that makes or breaks them.

I propose a "what if?" situation. I want anyone who bothers reading this to imagine what WHF would be like if they had decided on doing it right -- releasing AoS in such a way that it grew its gravitas, connected with its roots, and added to the experience of its fans. Imagine for a moment that they were a little more up-front with their community, and that they created the best possible environment in which to debut and grow their new product. Incidentally, the "appropriate time" for something, or the creation of such a situation in which the appropriate time comes to be, is what the rhetorical term "Kairos" means. For those Tzeentch fans.
Imagine, for a moment, that they extended the End Times throughout another year, but explained that it was going to be exactly as it says on the tin -- the end of the world as you knew it, to be replaced and not rebooted once the ET campaign was over. Now also imagine that they supported ET as a full campaign. then, once it came to a close, imagine that they did not release the final story... they announced the victors, and anyone who had bought one of their books could use a code inside to set up an account that would allow them to access a website that was filled with all those questions that you always wanted to know the answers to, as well as the final explanation of the end.

Now imagine that they gave a definite release date for the new product.
Imagine that rather than being lazy and using the same bulletproof plot-armor characters, they used the goings-on to kill off some of them, building both new characters and the feeling that there were many other worthy people you just hadn't heard of. In other words, escape the warmahordes problem of boiling international conflicts down to the goings-on of a class president election. they could use some for their fluff purposes, but as the game finds its footing they should all be phased out gradually in favor of a new generation (or many) of characters that will change as the game grows.

Now imagine that, since 40k is largely caught up to 7th ed, they then devoted monthly product releases large or small to AoS, in order to bring that game up to speed.
Imagine, for a second, that the release had gone something like this:
Month 1: fiction piece, novella length, from the point of view of someone who had become a Stormcast, about rising to battle and being redeemed, filling in many of the blanks at the end of the End Times books. also, this could introduce the idea behind the new shift in such a way that did not have players scratching their heads at release, and even would drum up interest in what the models would look like.
Month 2: starter set announced with Stormcast vs khorne (now that people know what a Stormcast is), with a steady slow stream of leaks about what the game will be... including a definite announcement that WHF9 will not be a thing (the sooner your diehards get their anger out, the better), had it not been made clear even sooner. this month could feature a 40k release, and then the actual starter could have come out to an expectant crowd instead of an annoyed one.

Month 3: fiction piece, novella length, about the eternal wars of chaos from the point of view of a Nurgle warrior, seeing the rise and primacy of Khorne... and the capture and blunting of Slaanesh (but with care to note that the daemons are still around, setting the stage for an all-chaos campaign or game or the like for later), ending with the resolution to be patient (for eventually everything rots away). release the new starter a week later, having also added new excitement to Khorne's side of the new game.
Month 4: hardcover book like an atlas -- detailing how the worlds interact, who is where, what is happening, why players should care, and how their games make sense in the new format... with a section at the end with rules for campaigns, and a teaser at the end announcing a forthcoming larger campaign.... this way, it both encourages play in a variety of ways, and the new cosmos and maps of various places and worlds and their interactions could actually make sense. 90% fluff and information and 10% relevant game resource would mean that it wouldn't be a must-buy for everyone, but it would definitely add depth and weight to the surroundings.
Month 5: AFTER all allegiances and factions and worlds etc are detailed (in month 4), release of warscrolls for each old model, so that players can get a feel for how it will all come together, and can accurately feel out how their army will play and fit into the greater puzzle, instead of attempting to force the old system to make sense with the new rules. be clear that (a) there will be a later expansion to army-sized conflict, and (b) the old models are not necessarily going to have anything to do with the new game.
Month 6: release of three new starter sets and a small campaign for them, so that they (and the two already-released) were completely up-to-date... maybe focus on Nurgle, Humans, and whatever the Orcs/goblins become. take care to fit it into the atlas.
Also unify the online element of the game -- including the creation of an online record-system for campaigns (maybe a once-a-year $10 subscription that you can use to make army lists, upload pics of your units, share lists with other registered users in preparation for games, buy from the webstore, access your datascrolls/warscrolls/etc, and set up long-term campaign structures). Debut it with the 5-army campaign, but have the ability for the other factions to use it as well, as helpers to one of the existing sides.
Month 7: full-sized novel. fluff piece from the point of view of the former generals of Slaanesh, competing with each other and the skaven and others for supremacy... including some hints at shamylanesque twists. pave the way for the rumormill, invest in creating the background, and show chaos in various forms by depicting more information as to what it really is or what it wants. if the new game wants to use a varied interpretation for of what Chaos is, use this novel to describe and depict it.
Month 8. another 3-faction release, with starter sets for each, new generals (named or not), and a campaign focused around the three. maybe the old-world lizardmen, and the undead, as well as tzeentch. create a campaign around them in order to drum up interest. given the lizardmen's ties to the creators of the former world, and the legends of Nagash that were so integral to the old fluff, the three primary factions could be competing for a number of different causes. map and track based on the month 6 program, and use that later.
Month 9: rules expansion: how to use more complicated magic, additional rules for supporting units, and additional rules for groups of models that act and operate as one.
Month 10: novel-length fluff piece from the point of view of a human in the new world-construct, rising through the ranks and pondering the past as well as the future, and some seeds of chaos beginning to take root. show the effects of the month 8 campaign, and use the novel to broaden information about exactly how the worlds are organized and implemented.

Month 11: another major release: Slaanesh, dwarves, skaven, and Elves, with a campaign that focuses on some dramatic upheaval. during the expansion, it would start laying out everything people want to know about Slaanesh and its place in the new setting, and the idea that nothing is set in stone in the new expanding and developing plot.
Month 12: release rules for integrating old Bretonnians into humans, giving varied elves specific flavor, and reincorporating Beasts into chaos... think like dataslates (or the new DA codex) providing new detachments that fit a specific theme, as well as giving benefits and flaws (only actually add flaws as a balancing tactic instead of just giving away the rhino farm).
Also, expanding off of the month 6 online tools, debut a chess-style/fencing-style ranking system for players of a competitive mind. it'd allow for finding matchups at appropriate skill levels, as well as reincorporating a tournament/competitive nature to the game. it could be simple or complex, could be expanded later to be useable via apps or xbox live or the like, could be used to unlock special achievements via campaigns that would perhaps give their characters further options or ranks or the like in later applications/expansions, and set up a system that would translate into tournaments.
Reinstitute prize support if it goes well.
Have the standings of the various factions influence (a) faq-balancing of warscrolls, (b) benefits/perks in the next campaign, (c) elevation of certain generalities to named heroes, including the ability for campaign/tournament winners once a year to create new named characters for inclusion into the fluff and perhaps the game.
And, most notable, be up-front and clear at the debut of this new plan that this is the direction they want to go in, and why.

Month 13: major campaign: The Return of Slaanesh, with plot and historical/current battles, and using the above-mentioned tracking system for determining the next phase of the world-building. have it span many months, incorporate many phases, and show how the development of the new world is going, even as new events and personnel changes alter the game.
Month 14: release apocalypse-style rules for larger battles, including the use of larger flying beasts and war-constructs. have it play into the Slaanesh campaign.
Month 15: release small-scale skirmish rules for the creation of mordheim-style warbands for use in a specific setting, including specs for treasure-carrying, possessions, equipment, and stealth. include in the campaign the reasons for warband action, and lead it to a finale partially based upon the effects of the players.
Month 16: release a new expansion. no new armies, but a new world/realm/area to play in. a fragment from the past that somehow broke through time, with potential treasures. set up a campaign that would require smaller skirmish games, stealth, and trickery (perhaps using space hulk blip rules) in order to raid the wealth of the new plane... individual maps and mods would come out every week for a couple months to play different scenarios. it would also require standard play, and allow larger play. if successful, make it a once-a-year big release and add warscrolls specific to the new arena (next year could be sea combat, or flying, or jungle, etc etc.

In the future... two releases per year. one would detail a new method of play and/or add new locations to the atlas. the other would be a campaign. each would have in it new models for various factions (1-2 specialized kinds for each faction that fit the new playstyle or events), each would further the plot, each would expand the world. occasionally, a named character might die and no longer be playable. new ones would come along. maybe best-scoring players as per month 12 could be allowed to help design new characters.

If these were once-a-month releases, with the occasional step aside for 40k, you'd have a completely new game, less old player loss, reasons for new models, events that would get players active, reestablishment of tournaments and the competitive end, a feel for the new world, and a fanbase that would feel actively involved in their hobby. in a year and a half or so, it would become as established as the old WHF was, and begin to feel as complete by way of feeling like it is developing and living instead of just existing.

Rather than making it obvious that GW was trying to shed the dead weight of WHF, as they had begun to consider it, they could have (and still could) build something new and aspire to the same scale of what they used to have. instead of a new game that is not really for old models, and the distinct feeling of shame at having believed in WHF9, that so many of us have acting as a roadblock to actually enjoying AoS for what it is and what it could be.


Perhaps pseudo hindsight errs towards the 20-20, and the hypothetical is easy, but there are some interesting point there I think.

I hope (and believe) that in time (hopefully not too long!) the background to AoS will be as rich and ‘real’ as 40k, but I can understand that the lack of a solid grounding – this aforementioned “atlas” is hard for players to get bought into. If GW keeps up the momentum this can be resolved, but it is an interesting point.

On an entirely separate note, big shout out to Saskia on Twitter, who, having found a box of GW stuff with my name on it on a train, ignited an international twitter detective effort to figure out whose it was (it wasn't mine!). Thankfully it was Craig being silly (and probably tipsy), so the mystery was eventually solved. But this just goes to show there are Good People out there.

Until next time



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