Sunday, 3 September 2017

Un-heroes for wargames

In my write-up of our play through The Legend of Kremlo I focussed on what I saw as the scenario's weaknesses from a tactical perspective but didn't have space to comment enough on its positives from a narrative perspective - which I've also found to be a strength of other older scenerios. There seems to have been an expectation of many more players (up to five, plus the essential GM, in Kremlo's case) and either a more "ground up" approach to characters or perhaps just a reflection that the rules at the time were more in flux.

Prompted by my recent reading of Citizen Soldiers I've also been thinking about what to me is another of those "where did it all go wrong" moments for Warhammer, which is the introduction from Ravening Hordes onwards of the commander category (for "large scale actions" - there's a topic for another day) and the stipulation that this is the character model with the highest leadership, and also the increasing equivalence of character level / hero status and seniority.

On the fantasy battle front history and literature are littered with examples of force commanders who were anything but shining examples of leaders of men - Earl de Warenne at Stirling Bridge, Edward II at Bannockburn and Constable d'Albret at Agincourt, not forgetting the storied wood elf Forenrond.

Victorian depiction of the Battle of Stirling Bridge
Closer to the present Citizen Soldiers highlights a number of stories where the exceptional warriors were mere troopers, the exceptional leaders NCOs or junior officers, and the more senior officers either inept or studiously avoiding the battlefield. Given the dystopian nature of WH40K (especially in its early editions) it seems a mis-step to have the captains and lieutnants be major or minor heroes.

Going back to Kremlo, the profiles of two of the character models - Ben and Sven (Kremlo's younger "brothers" and rivals) - look like this (adjusted to 2nd / 3rd edition values):

Ben 3 5 2 3 3 1 3 1
Sven 4 3 4 2 3 1 3 1

In later-edition terms these are in no way hero profiles, not even that of a champion, which I find refreshing. And given that they're merely sons of the former cheif that makes perfect sense. In most cultures from which Warhammer armies are formed the same holds true - the commander of a force is probably there because of who they are, not because of their prowess in battle or any skill as a general.

Human warbands from Norsca, the Empire or Brettonia (especially Brettonia!), any of the varieties of elves, dwarves, even Skaven and presumably Slann, probably have had a leader placed over them based on that individual's place in society, not on their ability. Goblinoid society is different - the leader is probably fearsome in a fight (or was once) - but that doesn't necessarily mean they're able to lead on the battlefield. And chaotics, well anything goes - maybe they're blessed by one of the powers (but not yet reduced to chaos spawn...).

Unit champions (not necessarily the unit leader), and any genuine heroes who have joined the army, should be the ones who are skilled at combat. But more often than not their influence will be local to their unit.

In 40K I'd like to see champion or hero profiles for scattered within a squad, and the officers (especially in the Imperial Guard, who I see as exhibiting the worst aspects of the gunpowder-era officer class) having in many cases standard profiles and no real leadership abilities.

The downsides of this approach are pretty clear - from an identity point of view the player will clearly prefer their avatar on the battlefield not to be a complete embarrassment, and in a "line them up and fight" situation these weaker generals will to some degree hamstring their side.

But in games with a GM (you do have a GM, don't you?) this sort of approach would I'd suggest give a much grittier and more interesting tone to the battle.