Thursday 29 October 2020

Kitbash Attitude

Working on GRIMLITE keeps me thinking about the connection between RPGs (especially the type that I enjoy and make) and miniature wargames. 

I'm especially interested in looking at ideas that might seem out of place in a miniature game. It feels like the design space is much tighter than that of RPGs, and I'm only really interested in making a game if it does something different to what's already out there. How far outside that typical space can we push?

How much RPG-stuff can be crossed over? What must be left aside?

I wrote a list of the key strengths of RPGs for me, and gave some thought to their place in GRIMLITE as a miniature wargame. There's lots of blurring between these topics, so think of it more as a series of prompts then an analytical breakdown of each one in order. 

Rulings Not Rules

Perhaps the biggest difference I've encountered between miniature games and roleplaying games is the desire, almost need, for watertight rules. Some RPG players like these too, but here it's right at the forefront. Can you ditch this rules-focus for more expectation that rulings will be made as needed?

There's a long history of wargames that have one player acting as GM or Referee, making ruling calls for the two or more opposing players. This is even more precarious than the GM-Player relationship of RPGs, as you've got to be firm but fair and make sure both sides feel they are being treated equally.

To be honest, it's never really appealed to me. I like miniature games to focus on the relationship between the players, typically one-on-one, and the idea of inserting a neutral party in the middle doesn't feel right for what I enjoy at the table.

But that really makes the next point a problem...

Tactical Infinity

For me, the core selling point of an RPG when talking to prospective players is "you can try anything!". This is perhaps inseparable from the point above, and a folly to consider allowing it in a competitive game without a GM. 

And yet...

The idealist in me believes that two players could be trusted to make judgement calls for actions outside of the rules. For solo and coop this is easy, but when we're also trying to beat each other? I feel like I could do it when I'm playing with somebody I trust. I mean I have done it during GRIMLITE games on both the physical and virtual tabletop. 

Perhaps the difference is that those battles were always framed as a playtest. We all wanted to win, but we were having fun toying around with the system too. Would that spirit disappear if we were playing a finished game where the rules were cast in ink? Is it unthinkable to hope for this attitude in a pick-up game with a stranger at the local club?

I think it's possible with the right framing...

Play to Find Out

This is a line originally from Apocalypse World, and it's been interpreted in numerous ways. Regardless of any of these, I like it as an alternative to play to win or even play to have fun. You should definitely play too win to make any victories feel earned, and fun for me is really an outcome rather than a process. But ahead of all that, I'd urge anybody playing GRIMLITE to adopt the Play to Find Out attitude. 

This is the story of your warbands. For miniature games I'll always favour an exciting, memorable story over a perfectly balanced tactical contest. I don't want to remember the time I triggered a powerful synergy of three different special rules to mathematically crush your army. I want to remember that time we had three Greater Horrors appear on three successive rounds and ended up just trying to get off the board alive. 

There are ways to encourage this, but it's a balancing act. You want to reward victory and have consequences for failure, but too much and the players will only be thinking of those carrots and sticks instead of what's unfolding in the miniature reality on your table. 

For GRIMLITE it sucks to end the battle with most of your Warband dead and no Glory to show for it, but if even those casualties can give you advantages in the next game. Getting lots of Glory is great, but if you can scrape even one or two Glory then you'll have some good options for rewards. 

I've previously looked down on campaign-based wargames that had permanent death be an impossible or very unlikely result. I thought they were overly precious and concerned with maintaining balance, but I'm starting to see the error of my ways. Characters dying makes for memorable moments, but it comes with a hefty dose of punishment that can leave more of a mechanical sting than a dramatic one. So in GRIMLITE it's now quite rare, and often avoidable entirely if you have a Glory or two to spend. 

But isn't this all contradicted by...

Big Impact

This is when you make a tough decision, then get to see massive consequences sweep across the game. Tabletop RPGs aren't like some old CRPG where you can't fight the King's advisor that's secretly the villain until the designated moment. Want to stab them right here and now? Sure, but this decision will drastically alter the course of the narrative. It's a great feeling!

I'm working on some systems for GRIMLITE now that will ramp this up. At the moment battles feel quite separate from each other, with the thin campaign layer draped on top. 

Horrors are especially ripe for exploration in this area. At the moment there are only a few Scenarios that reward killing Horrors, but what if leaving them alive meant they were more likely to reappear later? What if killing the Horror was actually the risky choice, with that warband member suddenly facing the wrath of those that worshipped the monstrosity? 

These touches are tricky to include without adding in lots of elements to track, so I'm exploring a number of approaches, none of which I've been entirely happy with so far. Stay tuned.

On Balance

Originally, I really wanted to fully embrace the ideas in this brilliant post. Fully narrative wargaming, no points, no army composition limits. That OSR attitude of putting a Purple Worm on the first level of your dungeon or rolling 3d6 down the line for your Ability Scores. Or, as Emmy suggests in that post, just making the character you want, to hell with costs and restrictions. We're all reasonable here, right?

Truth is I just can't hack it. Not yet, at least.

I like picking things from a menu with certain restrictions. Maybe I need to work on my own attitudes here, but building warbands completely freeform feels like I'm cheating, and not in a good way. I didn't feel the same sense of ownership and permanence to the miniatures as when I built them within some sort of mechanical framework. 

Random generation would help with this, but it's not worked for me so far. I tried warband advancement that was purely random (roll d66 on this big table of stuff after each battle) and while it was fun to spin the wheel of fortune, I did miss the feeling of being able to steer the direction of my warband. If my theme is "small, elite squad of Exiles" then randomly recruiting some 1pt grunt feels like it's working against that. In moderation it's a fun "restriction breeds creativity" thing, but I don't want it happening between every game. 

Joseph McCullough spoke about how Frostgrave was designed as a both way to use his dust-gathering monster miniatures, and an excuse to buy new ones. I hate the idea of somebody getting excited about adding a new miniature to their warband and having to wait for the right roll to come up. As it stands now your options are restricted, but you can at least work toward getting that new creation onto the table.

Again, Horrors are where I really get to go wild with things, and encourage players to do the same. 

Horrors break the rules. They should be horrifying. Some Scenarios require a warband to kill them, so you shouldn't make them all entirely invulnerable, but other than that it's a free-for-all. As the neutral enemy of both warbands I'd always lean towards making them too scary rather than too weak, but the best balance is to have both options. Not all Horrors are created equal, and I like the idea that some encounters are especially bad, rather than aiming for some ultra consistent experience.

Fear and Laughter

When I think about the two things I expect to see in a particularly good RPG session, I think of Fear and Laughter.

Not every game needs to have Horror elements, but even the standard dungeon-crawling fear of death is rocket fuel for any table. We've got to work together here or we're all dead. Tread carefully, watch the darkness... wait, what do you mean I hear breathing from around the corner?

And of course laughter is almost inevitable when you're having a good time, even when your game is playing it straight. In fact, I've always enjoyed the idea of the game that takes itself fully seriously while the players have fun laughing at the shocking consequences, unexpected twists, and of course the unceremonious PC deaths.

I'm glad to say this is one of the RPG strengths that's super easy to translate to Miniature Games. The Scene Events and Shock tables were basically designed to create those moments. Your prestigious fighter getting mauled by an overgrown rat and crawling away in panic, your Grav Gun pushing a nasty Horror right into the middle of my warband, or both leaders simultaneously stabbing each other to death through a nasty roll on the Shock table. You're horrified at what might happen to your precious warband, but when it happens you can't help but laugh. 

But now onto what I feel is the strongest connection between these two styles of game for me:

Kitbash Attitude

The first miniatures I bought at the start of my 2020 revisit of the hobby were a box each of Genestealer Neophytes and Adeptus Mechanicus Skitarii and assorted bits from bitzbox. As far as I can tell I didn't build a single miniature from those sets using the proper instructions. 

In fact, the idea of having a miniature that already exists on somebody else's table genuinely saddens me. When I look at other people's creations from the incredibly versatile Frostgrave sets, I cringe when I see that somebody chose the same combination of parts as me. I want my miniatures to feel like my own. I can't make miniatures that look amazing, but I want them to look like my own unique creations.

Work-in-progress with bits from six kits across three model lines. They're janky, but they're mine.
They don't have names or a proper identity yet, but they'll get them when they're ready for the table.

It's sort of adjacent to the idea of anti-canon. This is a creative endeavour. Don't look for permission from above to carry out your ideas. If you want to do something, do it. Make the thing you want that doesn't exist. 

In the OSR there's a joke that everybody ends up making their own Frankenstein's Monster of a system by chopping bits off existing games and stitching them together. I love this spirit of not being satisfied with what's out there. Not waiting for permission to become a game designer, or in this case not waiting for Games Workshop to release that creature you're imagining. Get some sprues from different miniature lines and slam them together. Make something weird and put it in your game. 

You made a bunch of bug-men with big guns? Give them some names and get thinking of how to get them on the table.

Let your Horrors emerge as a mess of plastic and putty, painted in whatever way you like. Throw away that official painting guide. I've never felt like my painting was good, but I felt a real sense of achievement when Grant mentioned that my painting style said something about the game. 

I'd never thought of it that way before, but he might be onto something. 

Of course you can be creative within the official Warhammer 40,000 or Age of Sigmar Canon, but those games sit under the shadow of a greater authority. You can't bring your Imperial Guard to the table in a Games Workshop if you've used the Frostgrave Soldiers 2 set to make an all-female Valhallans squad. You can't show up and run your own Inq28 system, even if you're using all GW miniatures. 

I understand it from a business perspective, but it certainly sets the tone of what's permitted here. It's a different focus. 

But I want that untamed creative spirit. I want to feel like we can do anything on our tables. That RPG spirit of "you can try anything", whether we're talking about rules or modelling or painting. 

Chop up the bits you like.

Stick them together.

Get it to the table.


  1. Easy solution re: "rulings not rules": "If we disagree on a ruling, we each call heads or tails and flip a coin to see whose ruling prevails."

    1. Except that the coin-flip procedure doesn't incentivize fair rulings, but rather incentivizes each player proposing a self-benefiting rule, with a 50% chance that the adopted ruling favors you rather than your opponent.

      This sort of procedure only works if both players propose good-faith rulings without favoritism (or with minimal favoritism)--but in that case, you don't need this procedure, since these hypothetical types of players ought to be able to simply negotiate a fair solution in the first place!

    2. I mean, you can just say - if we can't agree, we negotiate. If we can't reach a consensus - we flip a coin. Kinda along the lines of say yes or roll the dice.

      Honestly, it all depends on the mindset of people you play with. No game is for everybody. This game is not for people who "play to win" or want to prove their superior tactics. It's for people who want to have fun with minis and tell some cool stories.

    3. Right--that's exactly my point. If you play with these sorts of people, you don't need any procedure beyond "work it out in good faith." Folks can work out how to break logjams in any way they want that is acceptably fair to those involved--rock/paper/scissors, "you choose this time, I decide next time," whatever.

      Resolving these sorts of disagreements is part of good-faith negotiating and is something that all adults are already equipped to do, so a procedure for doing so isn't necessary--and, indeed, the presence of one in a set of rules might suggest to folks learning the game that the game expects players to (at least occasionally) come to loggerheads, which may be the wrong tone to set (in addition to being superfluous). :)

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Honestly, even if I plan on handwaving the costs for units, I think it is good that they are there. They give me a good starting point in making the warbands. Just don't worry too much about balancing it all out.

    Balance is for cowards ;)

  4. I've been messing around with my own card-game fighting thing for a while now, and I thought that it *needed* someone as an impartial referee to make rulings on weird (but logical!) card combinations. But then I was waiting around with the first player that showed up, and thought, to hell with it, lets just try a 1-on-1.

    And it works. Because each ruling doesn't exist in a vacuum. It relies on a good-faith relationship with your opponent to go both ways, and if they think up something complex and clever but it matches the fictional positioning, then it's in your best interest to agree or at least negotiate, because then they are more likely to do the same for you. And if they are pulling a hard-veto line on anything not in the rules, well, you can do the same to them.

    And, well... it's a game. If your opponent is getting so caught up in their need to win at all costs then do you really want to be playing with them? Sometimes it's ok to take your ball and go home.

  5. Are the older versions of Grimlite available as pdfs. Just in case you go all Jazz Odyssey that there are older rule sets to use or steal from. Plus the progression of thought would be cool to see.

    1. Not currently, but I've got backups of the publisher documents in case I need to revert or there's sufficient demand after a big change.

  6. Your thoughts on wargaming rules are very insightful. Thanks for this series (and GRIMLITE)!

  7. So first - just, wow. Have been playing EBL and came here to browse, but it feels like you've tapped into a part of my brain with this game. I'm in love haha, and can't wait to see where this goes.

    I'm curious to know what the VTT version of this looks like - for better or worse, I've done a lot of character sheet development on Roll20 and would be happy to offer my services building warband management, dice rollers, etc.. there.

    But just a random technical questions as I read through these rules.

    What is the reason for taking 1x3 weapon vs a 3x1 weapon? I understand that's three rolls instead of one, but if the odds are consistent, isn't it just flatly better to have the option to split your attacks among multiple enemies?

    1. So, to follow up. Spent some time playing with this in AnyDice, and I think I have a better sense of the distribution.

      Comparing 1x5 to 5x1, for a QL4+ unit:

      - They share an average damage value of 2.5
      - 1x5 is a hard 50/50 of max damage
      - 5x1 has a ~97% chance of doing at least 1 damage
      - 5x1 has a ~3% chance of doing max damage

      While there's some sense of "1xN against leaders, Nx1 against followers", I am coming to think of it intuitively as:

      - Take Nx1 to ensure SOME damage each round
      - Take 1xN to ensure max damage, some rounds