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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Big 4 Problems of 40k 5th Edition

The more and more I look at the problems in 40k, the more and more I realize that most problems with the core game are a subset of a a few overarching major issues.

There are a lot of smaller issues in the game that can be changed without interaction to these rules, but those are the exception, not the rule. More on that in a minute. For now, remember that there are only two kinds of problem: complex problems, and isolated problems. (Notice “simple problems” are not on that list.)

The Big Four:

1.) Vehicles. This problem is the one everyone immediately thinks of when they spot problems in 5th. Tanks are too good, especially transports.

I posted this on a forum thread, which I think sums up my thoughts nicely:
“What's interesting about vehicles is that the two kinds (must-take and never-take) suspiciously correspond to how expensive the vehicle is.  Cheap, spammable vehicles are awesome, expensive ones aren't, no matter HOW much firepower they bring.  A good rule of thumb seems to be that if it's over 150 points, it's almost certainly bad.  Hell, I'd say over 130 is pushing it.

That even applies to transports, the must-take unit of 5th ed. if there ever was one.  Things like Rhinos, Razorbacks, Chimeras and even Raiders on the more expensive end are all really obvious choices.  But now we have a more expensive transport, the Ghost Ark, and it doesn't seem to be seeing a lot of play.  That's because it's expensive, and even though it puts out okay firepower, can really protect the troops inside while they all fire out, and has cool special rules, it just costs a lot.

So why is that?  I mean, you'd expect something that has a ton of utility to cost a lot, right?

It has to do with the vehicle damage chart, or, more broadly, the way vehicles take damage.  The damage chart is very forgiving on light, cheap vehicles, like most transports.  It's okay if a Razorback suffers any of the first four results, because it's wasn't ever a huge part of the armies firepower, and the loss of it's offensive output isn't felt that hard.  If it's immobilized, that's okay, it can still contribute by protecting it's contents and shooting.  Even if it's destroyed, that's alright, because it was so cheap and still provided value by insulating the troops inside.  It's alright if it takes damage, because it's cheap, and therefore a relatively small part of the army.

Compare to a heavy tank, like a Vindicator, or the king of heavy blasters, the Leman Russ.  ANY result has a big effect on tanks like these.  Their guns are powerful enough that the loss of them firing is keenly felt, immobilized can ruin their day, (especially fixed weapon tanks) and destroyed results are a big deal- a significant portion of the army has been lost.  They're expense and firepower mean that even though they're using the same damage chart, the same results have a much more devastating effect on expensive thanks than light ones.

That's kind of intuitive.  I mean, if you could automatically apply a "vehicle shaken" effect to a single vehicle every turn, you'd always pick the Leman Russ Executioner (with plasma sponsons!), and you'd never pick a Chimera.  Same damage result, extremely different values.

So it's tricky, because the problem boils down to: light tanks are too good, but heavy tanks aren't good enough.”

User __Thatguy__ pointed out something else that may account for vehicle over-survivability, the fact that a cover save adds a fourth layer of protection to vehicles, while everything else in the game caps out at three. (With the exception of FNP and Reanimation Protocols.)

(Also, there's a lot going on in that thread. If you're interested, I'd recommend checking it out.)

There's also the issue of transports, which are only partially fixed by changing vehicle survivability. Even just making transports easier to kill, and heavy tanks harder, does not balance the fact that transports provide a great movement bonus and awesome survivability for a very small points cost. There's simply no downside to having a squad in a vehicle instead of on foot. There needs to be upsides/downsides, but it sort of stops being a vehicle problem at that point, and instead gets into another large problem area:

2.) Psychology. “Psychology” is the all-encompassing term for morale and leadership in 40k (not the stuff that Kirby specialises in). It means leadership checks, morale, how combat resolution works, how fleeing and regrouping function, etc.

I don't think a lot of people see this area as particularly “broken”, because it sort of functions pretty well. It's quite random, but it works pretty well on small squads, and failing the tests is outside the norm in most cases anyway.

The interesting thing about the psychology systems in 40k, especially the fleeing/regrouping mechanic, is that it seems to be designed mostly to work with units that are either fearless or have And They Shall Know No Fear (ATSKNF). Actually, the morale system works really well with ATSKNF, it's random but not overly crippling, and it causes tactical issues but it doesn't screw the player. Besides the weird “escort you off the board” thing, it's a fine system.

But for everyone else, it's extremely punishing. Armies that have no equivalent rule get the fun of being sweeping advanced, and never being able to regroup when under half strength. Foot heavy weapons take a big hit, as they're guaranteed to be out for at least a turn, if not two if they have to move up again. (No ATSKNF means you count as moving when you regroup.)

It's also extremely punishing to elite units. Even leadership 10 fails 1/12 of the time, frequently enough to screw you. If you have to retreat... then regroup... then move next turn, your elite unit is set back hugely. If it's a melee unit, a failed morale test early on can mean that it won't be participating until 2-3 turns later than normal. That's an incredible penalty.

Pinning is also a pretty bad mechanic, that follows the same pattern of unlikely-but-really-screws-you. That one most people don't even, notice, though, because so few units can actually make you test for it.

It's odd, because psychology mechanics can be a ton of fun- just not when they're extremely harsh. Why there isn't a median state between normal and pinned called “suppressed” confuses me... But this isn't the place for fixes, not at the moment, I'm just making a list of problems. Though having a suppressed state could help with the transport problem, and maybe help out a bit with the next one, which is:

 3.) Weaponry. There are two kinds of weapons in 40k: “anti-light infantry” (LI) and “anti-everything”. That's because of the way that strength and AP interact in 40k: as a general rule, as strength goes up, AP goes down. That means you have the low-end weapons, like bolters, which are good against light infantry but not particularly effective against anything else. Pick your armies basic gun and it's likely to be this, good at slaughtering guardsmen and gaunts, but fairly ineffective against anything harder.

But then you have your anti-everything guns: a meltagun is good against tanks, and it's good against even the most elite infantry, and it's good against monstrous creatures, and incidentally, it's better than the bolt gun against infantry in most cases. It's anti-everything.
There are guns here and there that don't fit the mold, and obviously anti-everything doesn't in most cases actually include everything (though when it doesn't, the exception is usually only land raiders). But it's still a big issue, and once you start looking for it, you see it everywhere.

Look at the heavy bolter, or any of the anti-infantry machine gun weapons: they just aren't good. And certainly never good enough to take over one of the other swap options. Even the biggest machine gun in the game, the punisher cannon, is a joke: being S5 and heavy 20 aren't enough to make these weapons worthwhile. And that's because they're not doing anything that you don't have in abundance already, because you have to bring some anti-light infantry weapons anyway, and your anti-everything weapons also deal with it just fine. The only weapon of this type that I can think of that I would classify as decent is the splinter cannon, and even then only on Venoms, and even then only because you get two of them and they have 6 shots each. Still, if you could free swap to a dark lance, would you ever take them?

These weapons are necessarily useless because of the way the core rules function. You can't give them enough overwhelming firepower that they actually become effective against elite infantry (read: MEQs) because they then become overly-devastating to light infantry. And if you're just going to raise strength or change AP, you might as well just remove the option to take them and just have everyone take the already existing anti-everything weaponry.

There are potential ways to fix this problem, but they require some deep fundamental game changes, specifically changes in the way weapons interact with:

4.) Cover.
Cover is the thing that most dramatically needs to change. It's oddities are one of the first thing new players point out when they start learning the game, (How come cover doesn't help my marines against most guns?) and it's something that nags at veterans. (Gee, it would be nice if AP 4, 5, or 6 actually meant you'd be taking anything other than a 4+ save.)

A universal switch to 5+ cover doesn't solve the issue of cover. The same things that kill infantry still kill infantry, they just do it a little better. Tanks die faster, but the difference between 4+ and 5+ isn't enormous, and it doesn't fix the fundamental problems with armor or transports. In addition, it makes shooting more dominant in an
already shooting-dominated game.

Cover is also extremely difficult to fix, because it's so universal to every unit. There isn't really a good way for both infantry and vehicles to have the same kind of benefit from cover, for instance. One is either going to end up too good, or they're both going to suck.

I also include LOS in this category, and LOS does need some work. I think it's obvious to everyone that we need better rules for area terrain, specifically forests and rubble. These do not play nice with tanks or monstrous creatures when it comes to determining cover saves. There should also be more ways to block line of sight (though not much more, just a little) than putting down enormous impassible structures. Especially for armies that either lack vehicles, or who have vehicles that can't act as sight-blocking walls. True LOS is fun, but it needs to be tempered with better rules for blocking and terrain.

Of course, changing cover has an effect on
Vehicles! So here we are, with a bunch of interrelated problems.

Remember at the start, when I said “there are only two kinds of problem: complex problems, and isolated problems”? That's what we've got here. That's what a rule set
is, a bunch of mechanical interactions that together produce something (a simulation of high-fantasy-sword-n-sorcery-war-in-space battles). People often think that you can fix an edition by, say, making cover universally 5+ instead of 4+, but that just isn't the case, because altering cover alters more than just cover.

So this looks like a mess, doesn't it? I mean, how do you attack this? Is it just a Gordian Knot, only solvable by a hacking sword?

I don't think so. The trick to to attack in the right order, and make sure that your changes don't disrupt the game you know that it becomes something else completely. You can lose control of your work if you're too zealous, solving old problems and creating a host of new ones. It takes patience, a lot of playtesting, and a lot of revision before you have something great.

I think this problem is a lot like losing weight, or any other goal that you really wish you could do in a day but just can't. You can liposuction the fat out, but you're just going to gain it again unless you make some lifestyle changes. You can try less healthy ways and develop an eating disorder, but that brings about a whole new set of serious consequences.

It's a pain, but you have to make small changes. Eat a little healthier, just changing a bit of each meal. Exercise, just a little at first. Ramp up slowly. If you throw yourself completely into it, you'll probably fail, because you don't really know what you're doing and you'll end up hating it. You can't move a mountain by pushing it, but you can if you just carry one rock at a time. Small steps matter, and make something big.

So that's what we'll do. We'll keep an eye on the big fixes, and work towards them with small ones. This project isn't going to suddenly have a ruleset that's great, it'll have the one you know, that slowly evolves over time and sheds it's issues. (At least that's the goal.)

Psychology is the first problem to attack here. It's the least interconnected of the Big Four problems, simple changes to it can have big beneficial effects across the system, and it's really the least likely to backfire and be awful if we make a mistake.

My next post will be on some planned and potential changes to the psychology system. If you don't want to wait to talk about it, why don't you go ahead and talk about it anyway in the forum?

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