Friday, 15 March 2019

Revisiting Warhammer/40k: Small Armies and the Implied Setting

It's well-known and obvious to even the youngest player of Warhammer or Warhammer 40,000 that there's something fishy going on with the sizes of the armies and the way conflict is described in the fluff: you're supposed to be playing a game of epic war on which the fates of civilisations rest, but the battles themselves are fought out between armies usually of at most 100 models on either side.

There's no point blaming GW for this - after all, there are only so many models you can reasonably fit on a table, and while hardcore wargamers are happy playing games like Advanced Squad Leader where the battles can be billed as just minor skirmishes, that's not really a way to win friends and influence people outside of that extremely narrow circle.

So, I get it. It's more fun to imagine you're taking part in epic war than to imagine you're fighting out ultimately not-very-important skirmishes. But I'm interested in the gap between fictional expectation and gaming reality nonetheless.

Imagine if you just had the bare rules for Warhammer or 40k and the models, but none of the fluff. What would you assume about the setting? What would be implied?

In the case of Warhammer, it's clearly an extreme version of the Dark Ages or something like it - a "points of light" sort of a setting in which no single political entity can summon up more than a few hundred armed men to fight in a war at any time. It might be because of the collapse of a mighty empire as in the fall of Rome - a land a bit like the one described in Pendragon, with lots of petty kings squabbling over very small areas of land. Or it might be because of something more fantastical than that; maybe the internecine fighting between all these different races present among the minis has ground down population levels to such an extent that the survivors are living almost in a post-apocalyptic environment on the brink of total extinction. Or maybe it's a fantasy world that has been hit by a meteor, or devastated by a War of the Magi, or riven by disease or a magical curse - a dying earth. You get the point, anyway.

In the case of 40k, we have the strangeness of what is clearly very hi-tech armies fighting from extremely small population bases. What does that imply? It could simply be a matter of resources. Maybe the galaxy is full of lots of habitable worlds, but they lack the resources to support much in the way of population. Most can only bear a population of a few thousand. As a result, wars are only fought between comparatively tiny armies.

Maybe it's distance. Maybe it just takes so long for people to spread across interstellar space that concentrating large forces in one area is logistically impossible. Maybe this makes for a civilisation that is united only by tenuous communications and where the small groups of people are inbred, isolated, and divergent in language, culture and religion - but perhaps able to unite around a few shared artefacts and motifs.

Maybe the galaxy is ending a la Guardian ("dying universe" rather than dying earth) and there is almost nobody left, but those who are left occupy an increasingly small space and that's why they spend so much time trying to kill each other.

Or maybe in the future war has become ritualised and ceremonial, fought on agreed principles and in a deliberately equalised way, so that disputes can be resolved through controlled violence - perhaps under the supervision of gods of war or referees. There's no need for the wastage of total war when conflict itself can be more like a sport - albeit one that still satisfies the spectators with a bit of blood and guts and meltaguns.


  1. There's an interesting interview with RIck Priestley in which he says that Warhammer was written with an assumed (but unstated) figure scale of 1:20:

    "RP: Well, did you know, that’s precisely how the game dynamics were built? It assumes 1:20. Because I played so much WRG Ancients! So, when we came to do
    Warhammer, the dynamic of what the game is was largely driven by that. So, the size of the units, and the way they move overthe tabletop, was driven off that scale. And some of the manoeuvre rules are based on the big scales. In reality, ten men do not wheel – you don’t have to. So although in Warhammer you always talk about and treat the miniatures as if they were 1:1, for the purposes of developing the game they’re often treated as 1:20. It is a strange abstraction. But it is an abstraction that is invisible.When you portray that to someone who is a prospective young gamer, they don’t immediately say “Ooh, there’s some strange scale anomaly going on here”. It’s not obvious. They take it as read that this is how you should manoeuvre."

    The whole thing is here:

    So I think Warhammer is slightly different from your 'points of light' scenario, because your six units of 20 orcs might represent a horde of 2,400. But as they acknowledge in that discussion, while experienced wargamers would look at a table and assume thousands of orcs, kids would only be seeing a hundred or so.

    Then again, many of the best Warhammer scenarios were clearly skirmishes - from the very first (The Ziggurat of Doom, with six dwarfs fighting off a larger number of goblins and hobgoblins) to the Vengeance of the Lichemaster (with its monks and Skaven).

    But that's a divide I remember well from childhood: the published scenarios were more RPGish and skirmishy (and ultimately more interesting) than our regular massed battles: battles that almost never finished in the available time.

    I suppose it depends on how you come to Warhammer. If you've played historical wargames, the implicit figure scale is obvious and the armies are quite sizeable compared to, eg., DBA or HotT, where the scale seems to be at least 1:100. A HotT army might well contain only about 20-odd figures, which makes Warhammer's scores or hundreds look lavish.

    But if you come to it from RPGs (as I did), the default assumption is 1:1. The 'scaling up' came from the fluff, as you say, from the illustrations, and, when they arrived, from the army lists. Once Ravening Hordes and then Warhammer Armies appeared, their lists and limits gave a very strong sense of *armies* as opposed to the warbands that appeared in the 'Golden Age' scenarios of the 2nd edition.

    1. A couple more points (sorry!): the first edition of Warhammer had a clear figure-scale 'tell' in that troop basing varied according to the role of those troops. So, human heavy infantry had a 15mm frontage rather than the 20mm for lighter troops, and so on. That isn't something that really makes sense with a 1:1 ratio, but it makes a lot of sense if those 3 men are representing 60.

      Also, multiple bases were fairly common in the early iterations of the game. That's another indication that the assumption was that models didn't represent individuals (and that heroes were actually heroes plus bodyguards, etc.).

      Again, though, the published scenarios really pushed things in the opposite direction. And actually, *their* fluff really underscored that they were "utlimately-not-very-important skirmishes". The Dolgan Raiders is an excellent army of this - just a small hobgoblin caravan ambushed by nomads. It's pretty clear from the text that no-one is going to be mourning Bagnol and co. It's very much the stuff of Dr Bargle's excellent "pathetic aesthetic" post, which I'm sure you know.

      What's interesting (to me at any rate!) is how the tournament/army-list/competitive aspect pushed the game in the opposite direction - the clash of armies rather than an opportunistic raid or the defence of some unknown hamlet. So you could almost say that Warhammer began as an implicit massed-battle game (with an RPG tacked on - the first edition is both), became a detailed, characterful skirmish game with a glorious pathetic aesthetic in its Golden Age (second edition) and then veered back towards massed battles and an implicit 1:20 figure scale as players demanded tournaments and official army lists.

    2. Interesting comments. I am not sure if the tournament/competitive aspect is what pushed things in the opposite direction. I would have though "proper" wargamers would see nothing wrong with the "pathetic aesthetic". I think the real issue is more to do with trying to appeal to wallets, especially the wallets of parents. What excites a 10-year old? The Dolgan Raiders or the Horus Heresy?

  2. The way I always interpreted it was that each battle you fight on the tabletop is indeed a skirmish, but one that is taking place within a larger battle that's occurring just outside the bounds of the table you're playing on. Given that the match has and ending to it where one player wins/loses, the implication is that the skirmish that you're playing out on the table is the "decisive" one that determines the overall outcome of things on that invisible, larger scale. Which I guess kinda/sorta relates to the point you made regarding the "Size and Scale of Plot" the other day.

    1. That thought has occurred to me in the past, but then wouldn't you have the opportunity for reinforcements, committing a reserve, etc.?

    2. Yeah it's not air-tight at all, but it was the mental duct tape that worked for me at the time.

  3. 40K reminds me of the victorian British with small numbers (supplemented by native auxiliaries) fighting against much larger numbers and watching their empire expand further and further and being forced to defend an ever increasing perimeter.

    1. Interesting. That has never occurred to me before but I find it intriguing.

  4. I always like these thought exercises of extrapolating setting from rules. It's an interesting way of setting building to me.

    1. Glad I'm not the only one!

    2. I suppose in a sci-fi setting the equipment could be so expensive, and so much more effective than not having it, that nations could only afford a limited number of actual combatants. Unequipped combatants being so ineffective as not to bother using them.

      Think fighter jets, horrendously expensive with a single pilot, but at the top of a pyramid of noncombatants building and maintaining them, along with the people in the control tower, the people feeding and supplying them, the people administering the whole base, and the taxpayers who fund the whole thing.