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Saturday, June 25, 2011

In Defense of Modular Rules - by Apathyman

Here is a guest article by Apathyman on a change he would like to see, and believe has started to see implemented, for 6th edition. It's all about rule streamlining (which Games Workshop in essence, do like. i.e. no more Chapters, Doctrines, Legions, etc. and who cannot foresee We'll Be Back becoming FNP?) without continuous reference to different pages for minute changes. I'll let him explain more.

A few months ago, I read the Grey Knights Codex. Then I read the 6th edition rumours over on Blood of Kittens, and after a thoroughly deep laugh, I took away from the rumors one line, “there are tiers for most of the special rules,” which made me think a bit about how much anyone cares about the format of the rules. After this, and reading VT2’s highly entertaining rant, I have a few comments about the (hopefully) changing nature of USRs. Any feedback you can supply is welcome, as these comment don’t apply to 40k specifically, and can be applied to most games that someone planned on making regular expansions to.

Special rules are important to 40k. Aside from making units more than their statlines, they provide needed quick references to note how a particular unit/gun/whatever breaks the core rules. They need to be specific enough so that someone won’t misinterpret one special rule for another. However, they don’t need to be so specific as to prevent a codex that wants to use a tiny variation of one from being able to without creating an entirely new rule (I’m looking at you, Tyranids).

How Special Rules Performed Pre-Grey Knights

Before the Grey Knights, if you wanted to give a unit a special rule, you either took one out of the core book or just made one up. If you wanted a unit to have multiple rules tied to a specific trigger or piece of fluff (like Dance of Death) you made a new rule to say that the unit had those. Neither of these situations is ideal, and leads to a more opaque rules set.

Take, for example, the Tyranid Carnifex. Living Battering Ram really wants to be furious charge, except that it needs to give 2Init instead of an 1S+1Init. Now look at Eldar Pathfinders. They really just have stealth twice. Neither of these should need to be separate rules.

Finally, and Grey Knights are guilty of this as well, look at the Eldar Avatar. It is immune to all melta, flame, and heat-based weaponry. What does this mean? Currently, it means it needs a FAQ update every single codex release to list all the weapons that count toward that rules. Without typing, this can get out of control, making design more difficult, slowing play, and causing annoying rules arguments.

Grey Knights Rules Changes

Into this mess comes the GK codex. It immediately gets rid of annoying wargear/ability upgrades defining how many psychic powers a unit can use per turn by implementing psychic mastery levels. It applies the new rules it makes widely across the book, keeping most of the information in one place in the book. However, it falls short for several reasons.

The first problem is the remainder of doubled rules. Look at Psybolt and Psyflame. Why are these not two rules? With a quick list of appropriate targets (either in the army entry or in the wargear section) Psy ammunition could easily have been one rule.

The second problem is with the format of the current USRs. Look at FNP on the assassins. It has to specify 6+, making anyone not familiar with the codex not immediately able to gauge the defenses of the unit. The fact that it is easy to point to a page number is less important than the fact that it requires a reference at all.

Finally, it suffers from what I have been called Avatar syndrome: vague rules that require a FAQ to satisfy players and cause arguments and silly house-rulings in the mean time. Plasma Syphons, anything referring to daemons, and to a lesser extent personal teleporters required FAQ entries, and will require FAQ updates as each new codex is released.

Possible Solutions

There are some relatively easy solutions to this, assuming GW feels like spending an afternoon or two rewriting core book entries and then hitting “replace all” a few times per codex. First, make all the USRs modular, and expand the scope of each one to deal with the majority of the conditional changes in existing codex books. Secondly, type all the units and weapons across at least 5 types for each variety (more on this later). Finally, simplify all the rules. This does not mean make them more simplistic. Stay with me, I promise I’ll feed you baby birds (all five of you who didn’t click out when it became obvious I wasn’t posting spoilers or army lists).

Modular USRs allow deisgners to create wide variety of rules without the need to re-write the full text. Take poisoned weapons, for example. It is really easy to scale the power of poisoned weapons, and every time someone wants to give one unit a poisoned attack that is non-standard, they don’t need to write another rule. Now look at FNP. Matt Ward is trying to fix this rule (see assassins, for example), to work like poisoned. This really should be expanded to all rules. Even though lance weapons all currently reduce the armor of an AV 13-14 vehicle to 12 doesn’t mean that there isn’t space someday for a weapon that reduces armor by another amount. Same thing with melta ranges. Why do all melta ranges need to be half? Why do weapons that always roll 2d6 for pen need special rules rather than being melta (range)?

In addition, modular rules allow for faster play, at least in a situation where you’re trying to teach the game to someone. Again, picking on Living Battering Ram, that rule is a one-off for a specific unit that is extremely close to a USR. So even assuming someone has played their tau army against my space marines for two months, they’re going to have to stop play while you explain the rule to them (or, hopefully, you’ll delay play while you explain what everything does). If, however, Furious Charge became “Furious Charge: |stat| -value” (IE: Furious Charge, I +2), I would immediately know what that meant, given that I am a bad player who gives all my crisis suits FNP. This can be expanded for unit (specifically infantry) and weapon typing.

Typing opens up design space, first and foremost. Having a unit weak against flame weapons or preferred enemy (humans) can allow for interesting interactions and balances. However, the main reason to add types to units is that rules already exist that care about what type a unit or weapon is (Avatars, C’tan, Daemons, Plasma). Some people might be wary of this, claiming it will slow play or bring back needless complexity. This is not true. The best part about typing is that unless a unit specifically mentions a type, the rules have no effect and can therefore be ignored. Therefore, taken in moderation, rules that care about type can expand the design space for 40k while simultaneously not increasing the complexity of the game. In a game with as many rules as 40k, this is no small victory.

Rules should be simple. This isn’t to say that you can’t have a lot of rules to describe a game, or that easier and less complicated games are always better. Simple rules can be summarized by three things: readability, length, and understandability. For example, take the Avatar melta immunity (again). What is a simpler rule: Claiming melta and flame immunity, then needing a FAQ to list every single weapon that this applies to? Or the same rule with every weapon already labelled? The subtle difference is that rather than needing a reference sheet to prove you don’t get hurt by that flamer, you can point at the “flame” subtype and end the discussion. Take, also, Psybolt/flame ammunition. Instead of needing two identical rules that specific the same effect for fluff or whatever reasons, you can just change the rules section of psy ammunition to say “Only affects bullet and flame weapons”. I don’t know if bullet is the best choice of words, but I’m using it for the example.

Long story short: putting numbers in the title of your rules makes them far more powerful, readable, and saves the designers and players lots of time balancing and playing your game. This, again, discredits the silly 6th edition rumours, as having “tiers” is not the same as modularity, especially when one “tier” of a rule overwrites another. That isn’t simplifying rules, that’s making rules needlessly complex while not adding significant variation.


So, thoughts everyone? This certainly seems logical and intelligent but could open the door to things like we saw in the rumors (i.e. Instant Death (2) trumps Eternal Warrior (1)) which I think Games Workshop would actually avoid (more referencing needed). Whilst the current system isn't exactly difficult when you know the game well, it does make it harder on newbies and leads to pointless FAQs being required.

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