Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Empires in Decline

So, with all of the hubbub about new editions, I got to thinking about 2nd edition. The rule set that introduced me to the 40k universe, and of course, the Eldar. When I look at the cover art for the 100 pg 2nd edition Codex: Eldar, I still feel the same excited tingle I felt when a friend in high school first showed me a Space Marine terminator.

Look at the colors! I mean, have you ever seen a Swooping Hawk so heroically displayed? And when's the last time a Pheonix Lord was given a color plate? It all just looks so damned exciting!

Look at him. Completely unaware of the god-awful movie being made in his name...
And that's only the beginning. 2nd edition 40k was a different beast entirely from her streamlined and "tournament friendly" descendants. Each army book was a set of rules unto it's own. Sure there was a main book... And the Dark Millennium boxed set, which contained all of the information you needed to include (gasp) psychers in your army! But the Codex: Eldar traced the blueprints of an alien race so utterly different from what the lowly Terran mind could fathom, that the blunt and primitive rules used by the Imperium of Man were simply insufficient for their purposes.

Let me explain... You know how shooting works, right? You take your BS, compare it to a chart, and roll dice against a target number (modified by range and wargear in 2nd Ed.) to see how many shots hit... Right? Not for the Warp Spiders! No! They roll a D6 for every model caught in the flame template. If it equals or exceeds INI, it's auto death! If a 6 is rolled. DEATH! If you make your armor save??? DEEEAAATTHH!!!

Not really... But even if you make your armor save, you are pinned (and incidentally, are auto hit by any other death spinners that might be aimed at you...)

I thought you'd be taller...
To be sure, this is cheese, in the parlance of our time. It's "beardy." It's broken. It's also incredibly entertaining. I'm no math hammer expert, but I DID play the squad constantly. And in my experience, they were feared. Not because of how many Marines they could kill in any given round (some...), but because the rules represented something from out of the warp. Some un-tread upon territory into which no man could sanely walk. What ARE these damned aliens? What WONDERFUL toys they have! Quickly, rally and destroy them utterly before that shambling mass of molten metal reaches our lines! (The Avatar once had 7 wounds... SEVEN!)

The rules once conveyed a narrative (what some derisively refer to as "fluff") that "tournament friendly" rules never will. They were unbalanced. The 5th edition rules, too, are unbalanced. But in such a way that leaves some amount of, if not entertainment, then wonder, left on the sideline.

I am aware that nostalgia has a disproportionately powerful effect on reality, and I don't think that the rules themselves were better then than they are now. The Codices ought to be updated. The rules rewritten to be more playable. More clearly stated. More fun. And I think it's good that things have gone they way they have; in the direction of tournament play versus the play for fun's sake that had birthed the game industry. It's good because it shows us how the rules we use define not only how we play the game, but in what manner.

Tournament play gets ugly. How utterly in defiance of fun is it to have a single viable way to play one's army, lest they fall prey to the thrashing of a lifetime. And more importantly, it sours the milk of the industry. I'm not trying to marginalize competitive players. If you are having fun with the game, that's a win for everyone. But I am suggesting that competitive play shouldn't be the primary concern of a set of rules.

That's not to say I don't want balance. I'm not in favor of super armies, with super rules, and second class "hobby armies" whose players never knew they were signing up to play an army that simply wasn't designed to ever win a game. I am in favor of a set of rules that panders to the heart of the player. Rules that aren't sufficient to get you through a tournament, but which are an exemplar of exciting play. Rules that reflect a desire to please the gamer in the deepest, most satisfying way.

If only they could shoot as well as a Space Marine, this might be true.
I want the narrative and the rules to share the same pedestal. OR rather, I want the rules to spawn a new generation of Eldar Addicts. Of zealous Space Marines. Of ravenous hordes of Tyranids. I don't want future generations of gamers to fall in love with the back story of an army, only to be ambushed in the rules section of the codex by a set of vanilla, edgeless crunch which is merely sufficiently balanced.

Any step towards making our game to suit our passion, not the other way around, is one in the right direction.


  1. There is something to be said of genuinely powerful and frightening units like Warp Spiders and the Avatar of Kaine. They fun to play for obvious reasons, but it's amazing when you manage to defeat such opponents; either by luck, guile, or attrition, beating someone who is apparently superior to yourself is gratifying in a special way. When games simply describe something as fearsome without the rules to back it up, that situation becomes different, and for me, not as interesting.

    That picture of the heroic Ultramarine gritting his teeth and spitting in the face of a careless and deadly universe? That means nothing unless he's doing so in the face of a deadly foe. There's nothing impressive about fighting someone who's weaker than you, and it's nearly impossible to achieve true parity in a TTWG. Give me glory, or give me death.

    1. I think that's true. If we take the hard edges off of any of our foes, what can we say is the challenge? To overcome a logistical puzzle? To crunch the numbers in such a way as to have maximized our advantage? That's not even simulation any more. It's something meta.

      I think this is the same thing that is happening to Warmachine, by the way. MK II is the tourney rule set. Standardized. Gone are the dazzling effects and flash from each unit. We are left with stat lines and an empty feeling that can only ever be filled by narrative.

      Even losing is fun when your army can do something no other army can.

  2. Good Read. I got into the game during 3rd edition but I hear 2nd Edition was the best of the bunch.