Tuesday, 12 January 2016

In praise(ish) of 3rd edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle

I've enjoyed reading Whiskey Priest's recent missive "When is oldhammer not oldhammer and does it matter? or How I stopped worrying and learned to love my miniatures". It goes beyond the usual "whither oldhammer" musings and gets into some pertinent questions. I say pertinent, because Whiskey Priest and I will hopefully be playing Frostgrave with the OGRE crew before too long, and although we're a group brought together through the revival of our interest in old warhammer via the oldhammer movement, if we're playing a new ruleset, and not restricting ourselves to old miniatures, are we still an oldhammer group on that occasion? Or only on those occasions when we're archaeogaming with the 3rd ed rulebook?

Now, part of his post concerns 3rd edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle and its hallowed place within our movement: "3rd ed is a bit of a clunky monster. It takes a fucking age to play. Let's be honest, most of the time it's a bunch of 40 year old blokes flicking through a 25 year old book looking for a rule they don't remember (and was probably from a different edition anyway). Don't get me wrong, it's brilliant to be playing a Fantasy Wargame on that scale and the aesthetic of 3rd ed is what brought me back but I've only actually played a single game (and a couple of skirmishes) and I can't see me confining my Fantasy Army to 3rd ed for ever." He's not wrong. It can be a pretty hefty bugger of a game (although I'm sure some historicals wargamers who favour classic rulesets, or even Runequest roleplayers, will scoff at that suggestion.)

I'm in an unusual position among the oldhammerers, in that 3rd edition isn't my childhood edition. I came in with 5th ed, and I pretty much left with it too. So 3rd edition is new to me as of my becoming part of the oldhammer community, it's not an object of nostalgic adoration. I've been playing it for a couple of years now, and although I'm certainly not an expert, I think I have enough experience now to make some comments in praise (ish) of 3rd edition.


1) 3rd edition is full of possibilities
At its core, warhammer is a pretty straightforward game. And you can play it as simple as you like. I've played a very basic version with my 6 year old son with no problems. However, 3rd edition is probably the most fleshed out edition in terms of the possibilities for varying your tabletop adventures. The bestiary is full of monsters I've yet to meet. Then there's the range of formation options. Now be honest, when was the last time you used a shield wall?

A square?

An archer wedge?

There's loads of opportunities for fun and variety trying out these things in battle!

...and this leads me onto perhaps the most important way of thinking about the possibilities for gaming in 3rd ed: this was the last edition to include the all-important psychology stats, all mushed up into "leadership" in later editions. I can't tell you how often I've made ad-hoc use of these psychology stats in the narrative games I've played, especially the small-scale skirmish games, because these are crucial for the storytelling element that I believe is at the heart of oldhammer.

So if 3rd ed is a bit misshapen, then that's partly because there are so many ideas crammed in there. (and that's without getting onto the glorious creative mess that is Realms of Chaos)


2) 3rd edition is slow

Really? Is that an advantage? Well yes, it can be. It depends. You see, I like the idea of my hobby being an opportunity to break off from the rest of life. I like games that take the best part of a day, and so I usually schedule a handful of these in the year rather than trying to find time for more frequent shortish games. And so the slow grind of close combat in 3rd edition, the wheeling, etc., all that has an appeal to me. The world is so fast paced, we're urged to work fast, consume fast, we're bombarded with constant stimuli. I love standing around with a beer chatting and letting games flow. (Actually, anyone who has played with me knows that's a lie - I do have a beer in my hand, yes, but I'm always trying to jog people along and keep the games moving! Sorry, can't help it. But it's not the length of time that the game takes that bothers me, I just like to keep momentum going.) To take time to do something gradually and enjoy it for a protracted period of time is a precious, glorious luxury.

Of course, being a luxury, that means that it needs to be recognised that it's not possible for everyone. As Whiskey Priest says, "Actually finding the time to indulge in a game of 3rd Edition Warhammer is a major piece of logistical juggling and weighs heavy on the spousal favour matrix." I agree. And for that reason, I think while a game of 3rd edition is a precious thing, I don't think we can restrict our games to that. The first decision, really, is about hand to hand combat: the 3rd edition combat table makes it harder to hit, and generally makes it longer before a unit breaks (with no modifiers on break tests). If you have time for that game, it adds tension and interest. If you don't, or if you're playing a scale of game where this is going to cause things to grind to a halt in the mud, then go for the combat resolution from a later edition. 3rd edition doesn't work for all circumstances. So don't be afraid to mix and match. Experiment.

3) 3rd edition is our lingua franca
But in the end, this is the one it all boils down to. The decision to adopt 3rd edition is largely a pragmatic one. It was the "best fit" for the model collections and the interests of the oldhammer community when it came into being, and for now it remains so. It seems to be the easiest to cram the different things we want to do into. We've had massive games with thousands of models, and skirmishes with just a handful. Bonkers fantasy adventures, and games that look very close to historical. But a lingua franca arises from particular circumstances, and different circumstances will require different languages. In the future, will oldhammer gamers still gravitate towards 3rd edition as the 'best fit' for their requirements? Or will they look to different rulesets that meet their needs? 2016 will be an interesting year to see whether new lingua francas might develop...

...or whether 3rd edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle retains its place as the ruleset that brings us together.

13 comments:

  1. The reason I love blogging is thats its a great way to ask questions and start conversations. There are no answers to all of this but it's great to have the chance to talk to about it. A great defence of 3rd Editions place in our lives and I agree with everything you've said (especially the chivvying along bit!) I hope we get a game in soon! Cheers!

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    1. Whatever else about its merits, I'll always be grateful to it for bringing me into contact with all the people I've had the pleasure of gaming with over the past couple of years. I do agree with you when you say that it's not the end, it's the beginning, but somehow I think it will have its place for a long while yet.

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  2. All good points. As you note I think 3rd edition appeals because it matches up with the minis we collect. I've only played one game of 3rd but I loved the complexity of it. I wouldn't want to play it all the time mind you - but thankfully I've found that Kings of War has army lists that can accommodate most of the warhammer figures I've collected over the years.

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    1. I need to have a go of Kings of War one of these days. I've not had the opportunity yet.

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  3. Good post! I think, historically, 3rd Ed will *always* be the rallying point, as it was arguably GW's creative 'high point'. That's not meant as an insult to subsequent or even current rules sets, but it was the rules set that really 'defined' WFB, and also (in combination with WFRP at the same time) fleshed out the Warhammer Fantasy World for people to game around. Loveable as they were, WFB1 and 2 were a bit inconsistent, and at times all over the place, and by WFB4 the 'lore' had been pretty much fixed, army lists became the norm, and that can become a straightjacket to non-tournament gamers.

    Third Edition gives you a great (if somewhat pilfered!) world to place your battles in, and enough freedom to do what you like in there, with all the rules you need to do it.

    And then some more rules, just in case you were feeling masochistic...

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    1. I agree with you that freedom is an important part of it. The warhammer world at that point was in a good position of having been fully drawn but not properly fleshed out, and with a lot of things still left in the margins and full of opportunity for people to do their own thing with (e.g. Albion, fimir, gnomes, half-orcs, Nippon...) In many respects it was an open world, in a way that it would never be after the army books started coming out. But of course, you can be involved in that open world without using those exact rules...

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  4. 3rd to me isn't that complex but mainly because the rules I like I know off by heart and the rest I ignore or have replaced long ago with later rules. That said it can be slow so it sort of depends on the story you want to tell.

    In the past few years I have also played Pulp Alley ( I even started collecting proper pulp figures), Black Powder, 7TV games and quite a few Lardie games.
    Frost grave looks interesting and I have started making terrain for it. Dragon Rampant could be fun though it really isn't that different to Lion Rampant. It isn't a straight swap for 3rd but ticks quite a few boxes, it lack the detail 3rd gives you but ought to capture the feel with the right skin.

    Currently I'm also working on Star Wars, my boys didn't enjoy the new film so we have been binging on the Clone wars TV serial to get over the disappointment. Funnily enough RT:40K is a good fit for the clone wars and I'm knocking together some simple rules for Jedi powers at the moment.

    Oldhammer was I guess really just a label to put on yourself to quickly show other people what you liked.

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    1. Well it certainly worked for doing that! One thing I do wonder about is where the next generation might come from - so far it's all been us men of a certain age, and that's fine, but it would be nice if younger people found their way to the movement and away from the dystopian hell that is modern-day tabletop tournament gaming (melodramatic, me?), and for them 3rd ed may not be the rallying point that it is for many of us.

      I haven't seen Dragon Rampant yet, actually still waiting on Lion Rampant which I'm going to start off with, building up more conventional human forces, and then on to Dragon Rampant.

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  5. Interesting food for thought on this one. I am a sci-fi man at heart so I mainly play RT and 2nd Ed 40k which are based on 3rd and 4th WHFB respectively. They are both great games and serve my needs to scratch different itches. But as far as in cinder dd their still oldhammer. I don't so much think it's the rules that make oldhammer but the ethos behind it. The hobby of our community is so decay more relaxed and cordial than that of our modern peers.

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    1. Yes, much of it is about the ethos and the relaxed enjoyment. Hard to get a feel for that in the facebook groups right now, but I digress!

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  6. Third edition is my old edition of choice, because it was the one I bought but never played - I was still deciding what army to buy when 4th came out. It's my missed opportunities and childhood dreams.

    It is a heinously complex system, but the bean counter in me loves that. I want baggage trains and weird formations and erratic spells.

    If I'm doing a casual quick skirmish, I'll use AoS. If I want a grand battle with formations and wheeling and infantry squares and baggage trains, I'll go for 3rd.

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    1. Exactly, horses for courses. Not tried AoS yet, but the attraction of playing different games with the same toy soldiers is part of the dream for me.

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