Saturday, September 20, 2014

Beyond Rogue Trader: Ultramarines

If you are a Oldhammer fanatic, it's easy to bash the miniatures of the 1990's as clunky, awkward, and abnormally prone to splaying their limbs. Sweet Jebus - why did they think that men charging into battle would start doing jumping jacks? Don't they know that you can ruin your back if you hold a two-handed sword at arm's length for too long?

Well, before I completely lose my shit and fall into a foaming nostalgia rage, I want to qualify myself. There were still some beautiful sculps coming out of Citadel after 1990, and I'm going to show some favourites from my collection in this post, all of them Ultramarines. The best of the best, in my view, is Jes Goodwin's solid metal Space Marine Dreadnought (1994).

Dreadnoughts should be awkward and clunky, so I guess Goodwin's sculpture played straight into the prevailing aesthetic of the Citadel studio. Its square posture broadcasts power. But more than this, this is a well balanced figure: The smooth shapes of its armoured surfaces contrast beautifully with the textured machinery in the rear of the figure and under the plates.

I decorated the miniature with some modern plastic bits, like purity seals and a laurel crown. The inscription on his right plate ("VAE VICTIS") means woe to the conquered.  The battle damage is silver paint applied to the edges of the armour, sometimes with an outline in black or grey. I distressed and rusted the gears by applying thin washes of Chestnut Ink... ah, the long out-of-production Chestnut Ink from Games Workshop. I still have the first bottle I bought (about 10 years ago), and I carefully dole it out like precious saffron, since I don't believe I'll ever see its like again. Urk. I can feel the nostalgia rage coming over me again.

Speaking of nostalgia, in my last post I wrote about the role-playing elements in the original Rogue Trader rules set (1987). I received a lot of thoughtful responses, several of them pointing out that more recent editions of Warhammer 40K have tried to re-insert a role-playing feel into the game, but that there's some resistance from 40K players, who just want tournament play.

And yet, I still think there's something special about Rogue Trader. But what? Over the past week, I've been flipping through my battered copy of RT, and comparing it with the most recent Warhammer 40K edition that I own (5th edition published in 2008). It's hard to fault the more recent version: it's a polished book, with pithy text, spacious pages, and lots of bright colour photos of well painted dioramas.

In contrast Rogue Trader is primitive. It's predominately printed in black and white, with just a few grainy photos of miniatures. Although illustrations abound, they are by almost a dozen different artists, resulting in a confusing aesthetic. The text is dense and long as the King James Bible -- if there was an editor, he had a light touch, or simply died of fatigue. And the layout is cramped, with a self-conscious effort to make the page look like a blue-print or a technical manual.

All of these elements should make Rogue Trader a disaster. But they don't -- in fact, they make it a classic. And I think the reason is because the claustrophobia in the pages of Rogue Trader oppresses the reader with the claustrophobia of 40K universe. The book causes sensory overload, in the same way that you would be overwhelmed when entering a Chapel of the Administorum or when walking the galleries of a Hive World. In other words, this book didn't just describe a game -- it was a portal into a different world.

But this sort of stunning success is its own undoing. The profits and popularity of Rogue Trader led to better production values for subsequent editions: colour printing, tighter writing and cleaner layout. All of these improvements are generally good things... but none of them conjure up the shadowed world of the Rogue Trader.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Age of Dark Technology: Rogue Trader Miniatures

It's time to break out (and refurbish) some of my Rogue Trader miniatures! My last post was a rumination on the close and mutually beneficial connection between roleplaying games and war games in the 1980's. This conversation seques right into Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader (1987) by Rick Priestley.

It's easy to forget how much Warhammer 40K has changed since 1987. Contemporary Warhammer 40K (now in its 7th edition) is mainly a system for competitive tournament play, along the same lines as De Bellis Antiquitatis or Flames of War. But Warhammer 40K's original form, Rogue Trader, was something radically different. It was a story driven adventure game featuring intricate plots and deep background, all supervised by a Game Master. The result is not so much a tactical battle as a cinematic shoot-out. My favourite manifestation of this is the "Plot Generator" on pages 240-248, which includes such entries as "Abdul Goldberg store your ship - the poker game was rigged. Your crew are unhappy - having been turfed from their ship together with their possessions. The ship leaves tonight - unless you can steal it back!" (Incidentally, I'll mention that Rogue Trader seems full of Space Hebrews like Abdul Goldberg. Other examples include Pedro Cantor and Myron Jubalgunn.)

Ultramarine Communications Officer - 2nd Company

Of course Rogue Trader was not completely a roleplaying game either: the players controlled multiple models, they generally fought against one another, and these models had no capacity to develop if they survived from one battle to another. This made Rogue Trader a quick, unsentimental game. It gave players the flavour of a roleplaying game without all the calories.

This hybridization of role playing and wargaming led to some grand results. In my view, Rogue Trader remains the best illustrated, most original and engrossing rule book ever produced. It is no exaggeration to say that every one of its 272 pages contains some image, quotation or photo that stimulates the reader into populating the Warhammer world with his own imagination.


But that's not all. The story-and-character driven nature of Rogue Trader had an important impact of the designs of the miniatures. These early sculpts placed a real emphasis on giving each miniature his own persona, like bucked-toothed inquisitors, skeletal astropaths or bulbous-headed Space Marines. As well, rather than the homogenous armies that would come in later editions of Warhammer 40K, the original Rogue Trader range was populated by misfits: space pirates, adventurers, mercenaries and (my favourite) Eldar outcasts. These characters didn't and never would fit into any army list. Uniforms were not uniform and weaponry was improvised: Space Marines carried shuriken catapults and Eldar carried shotguns. These were just the sort of figures to rescue your ship from that schmuck Goldberg.

 Eldar Mercenaries (note that two are carrying shotguns)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Web of Eldaw: the first warhammer fantasy roleplay adventure

Thirty years ago or so role playing games and war games were not yet separate hobbies. It’s well understood that D&D evolved out of miniature war gaming rules like Chainmail (1979). But it’s also interesting to see how the first and second editions of Warhammer (1983 and 1984) straddled these two different categories, with one foot in the world of fantasy armies and the other foot rooted in role playing small encounters with lots of character development and dungeon-crawling. 

Eventually, these different impulses split Warhammer into two different games: Warhammer 3rd Edition (1987) and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1986). But one of the things that made Warhammer so much fun as a war game was that it retained the flavour of a role playing game long after it was just used for table-top battles. I think that’s a huge part of why Oldhammer is so popular now.

A neglected fossil that captures this moment in Warhammer’s early history is the scenario The Web of Eldaw by Rick Priestly (1985). It’s found in a Games Workshop magazine entitled “The Good Games Guide Vol. I”, which is itself a unique historical document. The Good Games Guide attempts to survey the entire field of the hobby as it existed in 1985, listing every AD&D module with helpful commentary, detailing games as diverse as Fighting Fantasy to Advance Squad Leader, and profiling the best games from GW’s competitors, such as Steve Jackson or Avalon Hill. As even the ads in this magazine show, it comes from an age when Games Workshop sold games of all sorts and so promoted the hobby at large. Sadly, this ecumenical approach to gaming was banished from GW just a short time later when it (and White Dwarf) decided to focus exclusively on promoting GW’s own games. And so, we never got a Good Games Guide Volume II.

That the Web of Eldaw is a hybrid between a war game scenario and a role playing adventure is apparent from the fact that it’s written with stats for both Warhammer and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. In fact, the Web of Eldaw is the first Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay adventure ever published, predating WHFR itself (the rules for which don’t seem to have been finalized by the time of the Web’s publication, since stats in the Web are wonky). The adventure consists of a short dungeon crawl, with the players taking four pre-generated characters and facing off against a referee, who takes the role of the dungeon’s guardians.

The Web of Eldaw itself is of middling quality. The text lacks any illustrations, the perils of the dungeon are boilerplate and the climax of the adventure (an army-sized battle royale between the heroes and villains) is skipped over in just a few sentences on the last page. But that being said, there are some priceless touches. My favourites include a guardian demon, who is described as “polite and apologetic but will slay anyone who tries to pass” and the discovery of a very special magic crown. Not only does the crown grant the wearer immortality, but it can only be removed with the wearer’s permission. Unfortunately, its current owner, King Lufric, was decapitated several centuries ago, and his still-living head was stuffed by his usurper into a box, where Lufric was forgotten. By the time the adventurers find this grisly trophy, the King’s head under the Crown “looks more like a brown leather bag, the features... so distorted and putrefied”. It is, however, still alive and drones in an gurgling whisper about better times.

Although the Web of Eldaw is a flawed gem, it shows how some of the most exciting parts of Oldhammer gaming come from role playing. Like the Terror of the Lichemaster, it uses very few models, making it into a quick and deadly skirmish where one bad roll can doom you to defeat. Like Blood Bath at Orc’s Drift, it throws several players together on one side, but gives them different motivations, goals and victory conditions. Like the Tragedy of McDeath, it derives its spooky mood by drawing on (and parodying) Shakespeare’s plays. And like all of the early Warhammer scenarios, it requires a referee to guide the characters into a rich adventure. Unlike these scenario packs, however, Citadel didn’t give the Web of Eldaw its own dedicated range of miniatures.

As a postscript, I'll say that I believe that war games and role playing games are once again converging, allowing each to benefit from the strengths of the other. Dead Man's Hand is a good example (although one far away from the fantasy genre). This is a skirmish game set in the Old West combining small scale competitive battles with character development and lots of story. Let's hope that games like this become more of a trend!

A pdf of the different pages of Web of Eldaw is below... Please let me know if you ever run it as a game.

The Web of Eldaw pdf full text