October 12, 2020

Building a Better Warhammer 40,000 with ProHammer

 From gallery of Mezmorki

Warhammer 40,000, and Games Workshop by extension, has been a part of my gaming life for as long as I’ve had a gaming life, which is to say nearly all of my actual life. Whether it was stumbling upon Epic at a garage sale, being handed a copy of Rogue Trader (first edition of 40K) by a mysterious uncle in the shadows of darkness, or devising my own grandiose campaign rules, the game has made an impact on my gaming hobbies and interests. Sometimes it’s on the front burner, other times the pot is in the back of the cupboard, nearly forgotten. But it’s always lurking around like a bad habit.

For those that haven’t followed the evolution of 40k closely, this year saw the release of the 9th edition of the game. What’s important to note is that the various editions of the game break down into a few distinct eras or styles, roughly as follows:

1st Edition (Rogue Trader) - Primordial Era.
Almost equal parts role-playing game, complete with a 3rd party game master, as it was a tactical miniature game. Silly and convoluted comes to mind. But my gosh is the rulebook ever an entertaining thing to flip through.

From gallery of Mezmorki
From gallery of Mezmorki

David Bowie called - he said you forgot to bring your head.

Aesthetically the first and second editions were like punk sci-fi. Mad Max meets Dune. But the whole atmosphere was a bit cheeky and self-deprecating, a counter-culture statement to the stoic seriousness of other wargames. Grizzled warriors wore ridiculous brightly colored outfits and sported intimidating mohawks.

2nd Edition: HeroHammer Era.
Second edition featured a totally redone ruleset making it more of a proper strategy game. Still has a strong “skirmish” feel to the game, as armies tended to be smaller with more detailed and nuanced rules. Lots of die roll modifiers, crazy special powers, broken stuff all over the place. Most notable was that hero units could be tooled out to ridiculous levels, and often were able to take on entire armies on their own. Very true to the lore. Chaotic but good fun.

From gallery of Mezmorki
From gallery of Mezmorki

In the grim darkness of the far future there is only... awesome facial hair

3rd - 5th Edition: Classic Era.
Third edition rewrote the rules (again) from nearly the ground up. The result was a vastly streamlined game allowing for faster play and larger armies (gotta sell those miniatures!). 4th edition was a clear refinement of the 3rd edition rules, with subtle changes affecting the balance of shooting versus close combat effectiveness and the durability/effectiveness of vehicles. 5th edition built on 4th and added additional gameplay rules to be leveraged, like running and units diving for cover. It refined some aspects of the game with varying results. Overall, 5th edition is often regarded as a high water mark for the game.

In 3rd edition, the artwork and self-image changed. Punk gave way to the gothic. Grim dark was in. John Blanche, long-running Games Workshop artist, depicted the black heart and tortured soul of the 40K universe best. Nowhere was safe. Everything was not awesome. I have the most fondness for this era and the overall aesthetic of the game, which remained mostly unchanged through 6th edition.

From gallery of Mezmorki
It looks a lot like Dante’s Inferno if you ask me

From gallery of Mezmorki
And these are the “good” guys? Count me out....

6th - 7th Edition: Complicatedness Era
While 6th and 7th editions were built on the same base system of 3rd-5th, these editions really started to ramp up the level of detail as well as the chaos of the game. There were rules for heroes challenging units in hand-to-hand combat. A lot of elements that were predictable before (like charge distances) were made variable through the role of the dice. We started getting more convoluted rules for warlord traits and special objectives. Eventually we got a whole psychic phase mini-game. The final nail in the coffin (for me) was the use of special army list “formations” that made the game even more about power army list building than actual battlefield tactics. Ugh.

8th - 9th Edition: Reborn Era
With the introduction of 8th edition, the entire aesthetic started to shift. The raw grim dark imagery - you know the stuff where you look at it and don’t really know what the hell you’re even looking at but nonetheless feel a little dirty and uncomfortable - that aesthetic gave way. It gave way to something that just feels sanitized. Like it’s been retooled for the Disney audience instead of the Stanley Kubrick one. It’s fine - and perhaps makes the whole thing more palatable to a broader audience, but just isn’t something that excites me very much.

From gallery of Mezmorki
Peasant 1: How do you know he’s a king?
Peasant 2: Well... he hasn’t got shit all over him.

As far as the rules go, 8th edition threw everything in the dumpster and started over with a greatly simplified ruleset. While I applaud the willingness to start fresh and simplify the core rules (which fit on less than a dozen pages), the gameplay clearly shifted.

It seemed to me that the game was rebuilt in ways that made the gamplay less about “position and maneuver” and use of cover and terrain (you know, the reason to play a miniature wargame in the first place) and more about meta-level trickery. Forces are now organized into highly variable detachments, each granting different amounts of “command points” which could be spent in-game to trigger certain special powers or abilities. Thus, the focus appears to be about rewarding clever usage of these higher-level resources and “tactical power plays” (i.e. trickery) instead of outmaneuvering your opponents forces on the battlefield. I might be wrong, but in my limited plays (and in watching gameplay videos) it’s the impression I get.

More impactfully, the changes in 8th, in their quest for streamlining, threw out many of the rules that added character (and chaos!) to the game. Vehicles no longer had armor values on different vehicle facings (i.e. weaker armor in the rear creating opportunities for clever positioning), and instead treated vehicles like a standard “model”, albeit with more wounds. Boring. Terrain and cover worked totally differently and likewise reduced the importance of board positioning. It ditched the entire unit morale and regroup process, and instead failing morale tests just meant models were removed from the unit, instead of the unit actually falling back and trying to regroup. Sure, all of this streamlined the gameplay. But at what cost? This isn’t the Warhammer 40K I’m looking for.

From gallery of Mezmorki

Towards a more Perfect Warhammer 40,000

The beautiful thing about 40K, miniature games, and indeed all of analog gaming - is that if you really don’t like something, and so long as you can get others to go along with your ideas, there is nothing to stop you from changing the rules to fit your preferences. Indeed, earlier editions of 40K were explicit about encouraging people to house rule the game and make it their own. Whether it was designing custom missions or just making wholesale rule changes, nothing was really off the table if your opponent agreed to it ahead of time.

And so, in all my years of playing 40K, I was routinely tinkering with rule changes that my group of buddies and I would discuss, debate, and try out. We had made more detailed rules for smaller scale skirmishes. We added our own versions of throwback rules like overwatch and declared fire. We made the game our own. To heck with what everyone else thought!

Recently, our collective gaze returned to 40K, this time in concert with some members of the next generation (i.e. our kids!). And so we had a choice to make. Do we begrudgingly resign ourselves to playing the latest edition of 40K - replete with its distasteful streamlining, trickery-based strategic play, and sanitized aesthetic (not to mention having to buy a small mountain of rulebooks and codexes all over again)? Do we expose our youngsters to this sanitized and streamlined 40K? Or do we go back to an earlier edition where we already have everything we need to play and where the aesthetic is as we experienced it? And if we’re going back in time, to what point in history should we go? And if we’re going back, might this be the time to solidify our preferences around a revised ruleset?

The answers were as follows: Yes, let’s go back in time. Yes, let’s go to the 5th edition as it was the highwater mark for the “classic game” experience (i.e. before things got too convoluted). Yes let’s make some modifications to make the game better suit our tastes.

Thus it was that ProHammer was born.

From gallery of Mezmorki

ProHammer Direction Setting

I’ve often joked that actually playing 40K is 50% army list building, 25% deployment, 15% luck of the dice, and 10% actual strategy and tactics. Except this isn’t really a joke.

Different editions have pushed and pulled on these percentages, but army building remains central to determining your likeliness of success. Failure to bring the right stuff in order to “redundantly” cover all the tactical bases (anti-armor, anti-infantry, anti-elites, objective holding, speed/flexibility) can easily lead to defeat before the first model is placed on the table. From there, deployment is critical. 40K games are really quite short, typically a mere 5-7 turns, so placing a unit in a spot where it can’t do much can be fatal. From there, you can formulate plans all day long, but whether the dice go in your favor or not is where the rubber hits the road!

That said, there are plenty of opportunities to nuance the rules in various ways to bring out the qualities of the game that are most important. Here are some of the overarching “goals” for ProHammer:

Strategic foundation. Broadly speaking, understanding the mission objectives and orchestrating your deployment (including use of reserve forces) constitutes the backbone of your strategy. And consequently, the rules governing army lists, deployment and reserves are important for creating opportunities for strategic choices right at the onset. Putting some boundaries around list formation creates more predictability in what kind of force you are likely to face (i.e. a more balanced and less cheesy one). If army lists are more analogous, like a game of chess, success hinges less on building a list than it does on using it effectively. Obviously you still want to have big playstyle differences between the factions, but having some standard force organization expectations can keep things from going completely off the rails.

Tactical decisions. When it comes to tactics and finer grained decisions, the most important thing to emphasize in my mind is position and maneuver. Where you move your forces and how you utilize terrain relative to your opponent's forces is where the interesting meat of the game is. And so I want to ensure that terrain and movement matters, and that players have meaningful choices and tradeoffs when it comes down to what to do with each unit. The key is to focus on giving units flexibility to be used in more investive and nuanced ways.

Logical flow. There are also areas of the rules where we can improve the “logicalness” or intuitiveness of the game. I think there is beauty in not abstracting the game too much - especially for playing with younger players. I’ve found that the youth are often the first to ask, “why can’t I do X? It makes sense that I should be able to do X!?” Or they pose the question “Why does Y happen that way? That doesn’t make sense! Wouldn’t Z be better?” The more these sorts of questions can be pruned out, the better.

Chaos vs. predictability. Balancing randomness and chaos against predictability is another critical aspect of 40K and its rules. On one hand, chaos adds to the drama and unfolding narrative of the game. When unexpected things happen, it builds a memorable story as well as keeping players on their toes. On the other hand, too much chaos and uncertainty runs the risk of undermining the depth of the game and leads to frustration. If the outcomes of your actions can’t reasonably be predicted, then why bother strategizing at all? ProHammer seeks to find a better balance point.

Turn structure. Another key consideration is turn structure. Many folks have attempted more ambitious reworkings of 40K rule sets to implement things like “alternating activations” instead of the basic “I go, you go” turn structure of 40K. Tempting as these may be, the classic IGOUGO turn structure of 40K is part of the game’s DNA. Being able to plan and then execute a broad sweeping advance and orchestrated set of movement lends a certain “epic” and sweeping feeling to the game, and you lose much of that when implementing “better” rules for turn structure. I want ProHammer to be the best “classic” feeling 40K version, and changing the turn structure is a bridge too far in my view.

From gallery of Mezmorki

ProHammer Nuts & Bolters

If you’re still reading this, you must be really keen on where this is all going. Long story, short, I’m not going to rattle through all the nuances of what’s changed in ProHammer. Instead, I’ll pull out some of the highlights for your consideration, and expound a bit on why I think the changes work towards the ProHammer “goals.”

Shooting vs. Melee: A Tenuous Balancing Act

40K has routinely struggled to find the right balance between the effectiveness of shooting vs. melee.

In some editions (i.e. 3rd), melee oriented units could become nearly invincible due to how they could sweep from one close combat to another and never be exposed to gun fire. Some editions tried to correct this, but ended up overcompensated. The result was melee units having variable and hard to predict charge distances coupled with melee units suffering automatic overwatch fire, and even if they survived and won the combat, then become sitting ducks in the open for the inevitable return fire!

Many of the ProHammer changes are oriented around trying to find a better balance point. Let’s start with the shooting side of the spectrum.

One change, lifted from editions after 5th, is having movement work on a model-by-model basis, rather than unit-by-unit. This means, if a model is equipped with a heavy weapon and that one model doesn’t move, it can fire the heavy weapon, even if the rest of the squad moves a little bit. It’s logical, it’s more intuitive, gives choices, and rewards careful placement.

Later editions also made shooting work on a model-by-model basis, with each member of the unit being allowed, in theory, to shoot at different targets. This makes some logical sense, but it’s also a huge buff for shooting and can slow down the pace of the game. ProHammer uses a more restrained “split fire” rule. If your unit passes a leadership test, they can split fire between two targets. It gives you some flexibility, but still requires you to make some tough choices and tradeoffs.

When it comes to Overwatch I ditched the automatic overwatch fire from later editions, and instead implemented more of a throwback to 2nd edition. In ProHammer, you place a unit on overwatch during your turn. On your opponent’s turn, after an enemy unit completes a move, if they are within 24” you can interrupt their turn to fire at that unit - albeit with a penalty to your accuracy. Again, this gives more flexibility, and can be potentially more powerful, but it's limited in that you would forgo using your unit on the turn you place it into overwatch. It’s a nice way to get at slightly more nuanced turn structure while not bogging down the game too much.

When it comes to melee, I reinstated sweeping advances in new combats, where you can route an enemy unit and use a consolidation move to engage a second nearby enemy. This can be really strong of course, so I tossed in a few things to mitigate this. First, you can voluntarily fallback from close combat (something seen in 2nd edition that resurfaced again in 8th), but you run the risk of being totally wiped out and, assuming it escapes, it basically loses the rest of its turn. But hey, it exposes the enemy unit to return fire!

Secondly, I added a (long overdue) option to fire into a melee, with the risk that your shots have a chance to hit and wound your own engaged models! Folks (myself included) have been clamoring for this option forever. I mean this is 40K. It’s grim dark as heck. Half the factions in the game wouldn’t bat an eye about doing this if it would help win the war!

Given all of the above, it seems like quite a few buffs to shooting. But consider that terrain and cover is a bit more reliable and powerful compared to other editions. There’s also some nuance I added around line of sight and how wounds and casualties are allocated, that tip the balance a little in favor of the unit taking the hits. For example, wounds are allocated in a manner that allows models to take saves for cover even if the majority of the unit isn’t in cover.

But the big constraint on shooting that ProHammer adds is declared fire. Let me back up for a moment. One thing I don’t like in most tactical games is when players are free to choose the order of units to activate.In practice, this means that you can puzzle out an optimal shooting order based on assessing threats, resolve attacks one unit at a time, and then can freely adjust your shooting depending on the outcome of each shooting attempt. If heavy weapon A fails to destroy the big tank, no problem, heavy weapon B will now fire at it, instead of shooting at something else. I despise this and thinks it waters down the tactics.

So the idea behind declaring fire is that at the start of your shooting phase you have to declare what targets each of your units will fire at (including potential overwatch targets!) before resolving any attacks. This change makes shooting substantially more interesting, as you have to make some tough calls. Do you double up fire at the risk of “wasting shots” overkilling something, or do you play a risky strategy and try to hit as many targets as you can. People criticize declared fire rules (likely having not tried it) for being too slow. But in practice I’ve found it to be faster because you make the decisions all in one step and then resolve everything. This is much faster than choosing a unit, rolling to hit, and then reevaluating all the subsequent shooting based on the individual outcomes of each shooting unit. Declared fire adds a nice dose of risk management while tempering the lethality of shooting overall.

From gallery of Mezmorki

Vehicle Survivability vs. Lethality

Another aspect of 40K that’s received a ton of adjustment over the years is the handling of vehicles, in particular how many weapons they can shoot as a function of their movement speed, and secondly how difficult it is to kill vehicles. 40K has oscillated between vehicles being really difficult to kill, with them tending to dominate the battlefield, to being trivially easy to disable or destroy in a predictable manner. Vehicles add a ton of flavor and spice to the game, so getting these rules right is important!

ProHammer pulls rules together from multiple editions, but is mostly a blend of 4th and 5th edition. It separate damage tables for Glancing or Penetrating hits (like 4th) but the tables are adjusted to be a little less punishing on penetrating hits (33% chance for destruction instead of a 50% chance). While vehicles can be easily stunned or shaken, they are still permitted to shoot using the snap fire rules (meaning they will be much less accurate). The result of all of this is that dealing with enemy vehicles is a compelling risk-management game - deciding how much fire power to spend (especially with declared fire!) trying to kill a vehicle versus merely keeping it diabled or hindered is important.

Codex Flexibility

Another goal of ProHammer is to allow players to basically choose any of the 3rd-7th codex books they want to use in ProHammer with minimal adjustment. This means identifying aspects of codex books - like handling of psykers, certain vehicle rules, rules for formations, warlord traits, tactical objectives, etc. - and either prohibiting them outright or providing clarity for how they are to be adapted for ProHammer. This gives players a lot of options for building army lists, but reigns in some of the crazier aspects of later (6th and 7th edition) codex’s that can throw the game’s balance and focus a little out of whack.

ProHammer in Action

I’ve had the good fortune to have some friends that are comfortable with Tabletop Simulator, which has some incredible community support for Warhammer 40k. I’ve knocked out a few games over the past couple of weeks and it’s been a chance to put ProHammer to the test. Each session prompts questions about the rules that become a chance to refine and clarify - which is great fun. I’m fortunate to have friends that are willing to put up with (and in some cases are quite enthusiastic about) my constant rule tweaks.

Below is a gallery from two of our games, one Dark Angels vs. Space Wolves, and the second is Lamenters (masquerading as Blood Angels) versus Craftworld Eldar. Good times!

I’m going to continue to tweak and refine ProHammer through my playtesting. It’s going to be a living ruleset, and hopefully ones that I’ll always be able to go back to when the desire to play 40K strikes again.

ProHammer: Living Rules (google doc)

Dark Angel vs. Space Wolves - Final Turns
From gallery of Mezmorki

From gallery of Mezmorki

Lamenters vs. Craftworld Eldar
From gallery of Mezmorki

From gallery of Mezmorki

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