The typicality of the supported line army formation I spoke about last time is dependent on your 'local meta'. This is another term borrowed from our logic-loving friends on the contemporary tournament circuit. The meta-game is the term used to describe the way people put their armies together and it's helpful to understand that metas vary from location to location, rather like accents or trends. It only takes one person to skew a meta, if everyone is doing roughly the same thing and one maverick decides to adopt a new trick it forces everyone else to adapt if they want to stay at the same level. The game itself is designed this way of course, it encourages more sales as gamers respond to an ever-evolving meta and when metas become stagnant as each trick and ploy gets played out the response is to release a new edition and wipe the slate clean, again necessitating the purchase of more models. This is a feature of 3rd, whether we like it or not, and as rulebooks go it gives more wiggle room than most modern books to fall into the trap of competitiveness. So how do we get around this and take full advantage of the opportunities for good times in the big orange book of awesome?
With role-play of course!
A note on tabletop role-playing.
Before I look at individual racial characteristics, let me talk about one of the biggest differences between commanding troops in real life and pushing toys around on the tabletop (aside from the significant difference in mortality rates, lead poisoning notwithstanding), the 'God perspective'. In a game, both generals can see all the troops of either side, all the time, which I assure you is nothing like the case in actuality. While it can be easily accepted that we want to play a game rather than simulate reality to the nth degree, all your efforts at role-playing will count for naught if you don't experiment with taking this one factor into account. Try using the under-appreciated 'mental' stats that Warhammer provides us with. Does your general know exactly where to direct his troops having been ambushed? Take an intelligence or maybe cool test, if failed the unit suffers from the effects of stupidity (all these tools, right there in the rulebook). Is it obvious that enemy is approaching from an unseen quarter? Take a test or be forced to move towards visible enemy units only! My favourite, announce your orders as you move a unit for the first time (take that hill, engage this enemy unit etc.) and if you ever want to change those orders or enhance them later on, your general must make successful leadership tests! Penalties include stopping to raid baggage, stopping to rest, using own initiative (disastrously no doubt) and getting lost. Try these ideas out for both sides in a battle sometime, control freaks won't get on with it but it will provide an interesting tactical challenge for many of you I suspect.
I want to cover the fantasy races and their characteristics (popular or otherwise), but first let's assume your local meta involves big blocks of infantry that are well supported, to some degree at least. The subsequent decisions you take and the opportunities you seek to exploit while managing this army will depend on how you see your troops and characters, I am hoping it is safe to assume that any retro-gamers reading this will have an interest in the narrative aspect of the game and the role-play potential inherent in a game of Warhammer, and that's a subject worth looking at in a bit of depth. All through the prism of my tortured psyche no less!
Let's start with Orcs. Everyone has heard of Orcs. Have you ever had one of those awkward conversations about the hobby to one of the uninitiated? Chances are they thought of Fantasy Wargaming as 'fighting with Orcs and stuff', am I close? Yet, do we know what an Orc is? Are Goblins Orcs or are Orcs Goblinoids? Are they green-skinned or not? How do we role-play being an Orc Commander? If we even take a single source for our Orc background it quickly becomes apparent that Orcs are a wildly chaotic race with as many different types as we Humans. Tolkien has them as corrupted Elves, the result of a cruel genetic experiment conducted by Sauron's mentor, Morgoth. The terms Goblin and Orc are largely interchangeable, with only the common regional differences being the factor used to discriminate which is which. Our friends at GW has evolved their Orcs over time to make them a bit more of a combat oriented soldier race and less well rounded as villains, so the background we look to from that direction is somewhat tied to a period. So, if defining our Orc armies character-wise is difficult where does that leave us as far as role-play is concerned? Possibly the answer is to spend the effort on creating our own background and sticking to that (or evolving it...), or picking our favourite published narratives and using those to define our Orcs. I like to see Orcs as similar to Humans except that whereas men aspire to civilisation and hide their animalistic urges, Orcs aspire to be as wild as possible while having to cope with the restrictions that living together (in what passes for Orc civilisation) imposes on them. The way I see Orcs, they are not perfect soldiers but they are easily directed to a destructive purpose, they leave Half-Orc brats in their wake, they drink to excess, they squabble with each other and their virtues usually extend merely to cunning and self-preservation. For this reason, 3rd edition Orcs suit me well enough.
Once we have decided on the character of our Orcs we can use that to inform some of our tactics on the tabletop. It is still important to have a strong formation, one based around big blocks of infantry supported by some smaller units, but we can (and should) remember the character of the Orc troops when assigning them tasks. No Orc unit is likely to sell itself willingly as a distraction or a rearguard for example, their sense of social community doesn't extend that far if you ask me. Orcs probably shouldn't be trusted with anything involving complex, accurate timing, such as a pincer movement. They would understand the concept of a trap though, after all they hunt and catch boars and Wyverns for mounts, as well as other game for food. I just don't accept the idea that they are comic and stupid, at least not all the time or more so than ourselves, that simply doesn't make sense. On a small scale, though undisciplined, they can adapt to being guards or soldiers well enough, presumably sometimes in return for pay. On a larger scale, they are successful enough not to have been wiped out long ago!
The mutated Gothmog from Peter Jackson's LotR movies is a fine character to use as an example for our General. He understands fear but also understands how crucial the way other Orcs see him is to his ability to lead, he won't be seen to be afraid if he can help it. He knows Human tactics and how to exploit his enemies weaknesses. He might not be a tactical genius but he is certainly capable of carrying out military tasks for his masters in an effective if brutal manner.
In short, you can strive to be 'Orcy' without locking yourself into a rut of poor decision-making and you can make strong moves without being 'un-Orcy'. It's a matter of flavouring your tactics when the opportunity arises to do so. Describe what you are doing and why to your opponent, it will help enormously in this regard and encourage cooperative story-telling.
Hopefully, by using the Orcs as an example, you can see that role-playing and tactics can exist in a delicate balance that needn't be all or nothing in either department. I won't be repeating all the points I raised for Orcs for each race but try to remember to apply those questions about tactics to your race (if you see it below). Let's look at some of the other races then.
Humans are instantly the most complex characters in any work of fantasy fiction, because they are us and we carry a lot of baggage. Even Tolkien, who set the bar for world creation, couldn't come close to realising a fantasy race on the same scale as humanity. We rarely see Mankind being reinvented in fantasy, it's far more common to see real-world analogues instead. We all know that the Empire of the Old World is based on the Holy Roman Empire, right? We know what Cathay represents, and Nippon. We know full well where the inspiration for Tilea, Araby, Estalia etc. came from. The same holds true for almost all Human appearances in fantasy, though sometimes it's less obvious.
Playing Humans frees us from having to think about their character, we already know we're all very complicated devils, but this is not an excuse to avoid role-playing. We should actually be increasing the degree of role-play and narrative because we have the spare grey cells to do so. What are our character's immediate motivations, why is he here in this battle and what does he believe in? Worth a try, I promise.
Human battles throughout history have often been fought from a 'playbook'. What I mean by that is, warfare has it's periods of readjustment after absorbing new technologies and ideas (a change to the local meta if you will) and then it settles down into a pattern as these ideas become scripture almost. This is how Humans think and fight. You could look to the medieval system of using three divisions or 'Battailes' to create a centre and two flanks for Bretonnian armies. It may be interesting to incorporate the Norman system of running a line of missile troops followed by a line of heavy infantry with cavalry held in reserve somehow. A good study for Empire players would be the Pike & Shotte tactics of the Renaissance.
Ah! Chaos. At once the most varied of armies by it's very definition and yet also the force that has so many alluring stereotypes to unthinkingly fall in with. I'm assembling a Chaos force at the moment. I've decided to chuck out the concept of magic numbers for unit size for a start, what a restrictive chore. I'm using Humans as impossible-to-find Thugs, after all, is that not just what they are? Humans barely on the path to damnation? Once I started to think about it, I fell in love with the idea of a more 'human' Chaos army. If I stop to think about how people adapt quickly to new situations, it doesn't seem weird to me that men could accept fighting alongside Beastmen and monsters fairly quickly without having to grow tentacles themselves first. Yes part of the joy of collecting Chaos is the opportunity to go wild with the conversions but while there will be room for that I want a human aspect to the army as a contrast. I also want their motives to be on the human end of the spectrum too. Their fighting and warring won't be simply about appeasing the Gods all the time, which is a bit of a cop-out if you ask me (Why? Because my God wills it... *yawn*). I want to indulge myself in the 'Economy of Chaos' a little.
If we look at Cicatrice, Johannes and Vukotich's enemy in 'the Laughter of Dark Gods', yes he is off to a big testing ground in the wastes for a big gladiatorial fun-party but he takes decades to get there. He raids, pillages and recruits his way around the known world on his journey. Who makes the banners? That's an interesting question I've seen asked elsewhere. What happens when Ciciatrice's minions run out of needles and twine? Clothes and boots fall apart really quickly when you travel long distances on foot. When Cicatrice leads an attack on a Human settlement, he's not just after gold, beer and women. His band will need servants, artisans, wool, cloth, leather, horses, wagons, food, weapons, armour, dye and other sundries for repairs. You don't have to follow a similar approach of course, what I'm doing is exploring the mundane aspect of Chaos, the banality. My point is, you can benefit from stopping and thinking about how your Chaos army interacts with the world you game in. Do they accept limitless casualties simply to win a river crossing when their journey has many more years to go anyway? Are they likely to fight with insanity and mindless ferocity even if some of them only turned recently? Is giving them a uniform character not defeating the point anyway? I divided up an army of Undead and Chaos allies in a game recently and gave them all competing and exclusive objectives, in essence, it was only possible for a portion of my army to win, not all of it. This could be a useful mechanic to alter the feel of a RoC army, give it a try some time.
Dwarves are one of the worst stereotyped races in fantasy, one can only sympathise with any Dwarf who is not born with an innate understanding of geology and an affinity for engineering because that Dwarf is doomed to a miserable existence. There are occasions in fantasy when Dwarf character is taken from the old Scandinavian Dvergr who are a mistrustful, devious bunch, but the predominant way of seeing Dwarves is very much set in stone, so to speak. The view of Dwarfishness in 3rd is better than some, it allows for a susceptibility to Chaos and gives us Imperial Dwarves (the concept of exiled Dwarves blending into the societies of others borrowed from the Hobbit perhaps, it certainly crops up in FF) and the occasional outrageously flamboyant Dwarf such as Entienne Edouard Villechaize le Comte De La Rougierre from 'Beasts in Velvet'.
In game, there are plenty of opportunities to exploit the clannish, grudge-bearing habits of Dwarvish society to create an almost 'Orcish animosity' atmosphere to proceedings. There are other ways, they can surely be almost as varied as Humans after all, but the temptation is to play them as rather dour, unimaginative men. I see Dwarves as better adventurers than armies personally. They could certainly benefit from being made part of an intemingled force where they can compliment the overall aesthetic. Maybe the answer is to sit down and write an elaborate clan history for your Dwarves, with it's own book of grudges and it's own history of exile and loss. You could certainly just reinvent them from scratch to suit you, but don't be surprised if your Jamaican, steel-drum loving Dwarves draw more than few wary comments.
It might be a fun challenge to try and replicate some of the tactics of Hannibal, Scipio or Alexander (all of whom relied on blocks of stoic infantry to some degree) with the Dwarves. Picture Alexander's stunning victory at Gaugamela. Can you think of a way to deliberately open up a gap in the centre of your opponents line with your numerically inferior force instead of attacking the flanks? It could work if you deploy small units of Dwarves (with a SCR of only one or two) in key locations, knowing they will be pushed back steadily. If you have a reserve force, it should be possible to smash into the exposed flanks of the supposedly 'winning' enemy regiments as they push through your deliberately weakened line, causing the enemy centre to collapse. More interesting than just sitting on a hill with your cannon!
Elves hold a fascination for many and yet get a bad press from their enemies, more so than other races I find. I personally think they are an excellent ingredient in the fantasy mix, they are better at us in some areas and weaker in others, just the right situation to foster a difficult, fraught, allied relationship. Warhammer Elves take the work of Moorcock as their starting point of course and if you are a fan of his you won't need any urging from me to add character to your Elven armies. For me, Elves seem to work best if I take British colonial attitudes as my starting point. For every Gordon there could be a Livingstone, for every Kitchener a Chard. And what about James Brooke the Rajah of Sarawak? Cardigan, even? Or what about Flashman!? Far better to indulge the Imperial glory of Elves in all their arrogance than to get restricted to playing them as prancing, restoration-era fops with a taste for robes and delicate wines (something of a modern view held by young gamers). By the way, do you see how familiarity has bred contempt into so many corners of the fantasy genre?
I haven't forgotten the Dark Elves or Wood Elves. If High and Sea Elves are Imperial adventurers to my mind then to my way of thinking the Dark Elves are their worst fears made real; the Draculas, the Edward Hydes and the Frankensteins of the fantasy landscape. No harm in throwing a bit of Nemo in there too (not the fish, young 'un), I like my Dark Elves to be a bit on the misunderstood side! I like blurring the boundaries between the Elven castes. For instance, I entered a campaign once as 'True Elves', Dark Elves that were outwardly indistinguishable from their 'rebel' kin. This is supposedly how Warhammer's 'War of the Beard' got started (warning: retcon alert), because of rival Elven factions, that were identical to outsiders, fermenting mistrust with their erstwhile allies. The Wood Elves are, of course, those poor souls that have spent too long with the indigenous and 'gone native'. Enough to make a grown Elf shudder at the thought!
It could be interesting to have a go at borrowing some tales of British, derring-do to inspire you to role-play your Elves, whatever the breed. High Elves? The Sudan campaign, against a fantasy Mahdi. Sea Elves? Island hopping and gunboat diplomacy in the South China Sea. Dark Elves? Turn to the many Victorian pulp stories and their colourful villains for inspiration. Wood Elves? Not for me the soft-focus hipsters of the LotR movies, mine are a cross between the East India Company and the lost boys of Lord of the Flies!
Fimir. They're a bit rapey aren't they? I've heard recent complaints about their background and the relationship between the Warhammer World and well-meaning mums and dads has often been uneasy since the 70's and probably beyond. I think that while historical wargames don't work very well as a medium for exploring morality, fantasy and science fiction (particularly if it has a British influence) almost has a responsibility to explore morality to some degree. If you don't know why, I'll never be able to convince you, suffice to say it's what I think. Fimir are an important part of 3rd and as such deserve some thought. They need to emerge from their boggy havens not to expand their borders but instead to replenish their breeding stock. This doesn't mean they are raveningly horny every time they appear on the tabletop though! I see them as having a highly ritualised matriarchal society which is tightly controlled, especially where procreation is concerned.
They look good when used as an experienced guerrilla force, they have been carrying out these raids for centuries after all so they probably have a formula by now. While the bulk of the army distracts and engages the enemy, an infiltration unit sweeps through the foe's rear looking for prospective breeders. They come not to kill or conquer, they want to leave a successful enemy behind so that they can return next time and benefit their own population with a sick, parasitic relationship forming.
Playing the Fimir as guerrillas give you the option of playing them as terrorists or adding a twist and portraying them more like indigenous freedom fighters. A study of the many, dirty little actions of the Peninsular War, the Boer Wars, Abyssinia and Latin South America may lack the precise context but all offer perfect opportunities to borrow tactics and scenario ideas, as well as illuminating the way different cultures view the actions of the other when they come into contact.
Why have I lumped these two together? Not because I think they're the same, but rather because I think they suffer from 'Justorcsitis'. They suffer from the popularity of Orcs and because of their similarity to them. I often find some of the races in D&D are just there to be 'not-Orcs', this is the other side to the equation of course; races have to be interesting enough to deserve a separate identity. Half-Orcs are interesting because they were victims first, born of an unthinkable liason which is either a crime or an abomination. They can never fit it, despite the possibility that they may inherit the best of both races as well as the worst, and they are the archetypal outcast villain we can sympathise with and maybe even feel guilty about killing. Perhaps they can be played as treacherous spies (a la Orc's Drift) but perhaps they can be even better when they're torn between two instincts, using their mental stats to produce different motivations from game to game or even turn to turn.
The tabletop battlefields of the world aren't exactly overflowing with Hobgoblins, where they do appear they are usually tacked onto other army lists as auxiliaries. What motivations and characteristics do Hobgoblins have that Orcs don't? We all love a Goblin thanks to their patheticness which endears them to us no end but what of the Hobgoblin? They apparently have the largest empire of the Warhammer world, did you know that? The 'Mourngul' are obvious analogues for Mongols of course, and there is scope to look at running them as a mounted horde supported by infantry rather than vice versa which is the norm. The problem is, the 'Oriental' races in Warhammer always struck me as a bit rushed, a bit too obvious. The Holy Roman Empire works precisely because it's not as famous or well known on these shores as, say, the Roman Empire for example. The high medieval/renaissance vibe works well as the military and social history of this period are possibly less well known (for many) than a localised curriculum taught at schools, this makes them appear 'fresh'. The problem with Cathay, Hobgoblins and the Nipponese is that they just seem a bit chucked together by comparison. Cathay artillery? The love fireworks don't they, the Chinese, give 'em rockets. Hobgoblins? They all charge about on the steppe and stuff, probably have bandy legs and sleep in the saddle. There is certainly a lot of research to be done if you want a characterful Hobgoblin force, frankly the establishment has a bit of catching up to do here as well because we don't seem to have a well rounded view of the Mongols thanks to us taking all the Romans had to say as our starting point in all things ancient. The Hobgoblins are a force that probably work best as an addition to a force rather than the parent race, though it might be fun to see a Mourngul horde appear one day if someone has had more inspiration than I have in that direction.
Skaven are fairly simple to understand, they are rat men and they scurry about just like rats. We don't need to worry about the complexities of rat society because they are based on the stereotyped view of rats, simple! So what are rat tactics? GW have had a lot of fun with the Skaven background over the years, lots of fun. They never disappoint when they feature, they connive, scheme, spray the musk of fear and deploy wonder-weapons from afar. They undermine, they burrow, they assassinate, they manipulate; all to the detriment of mankind and his allies. Surely, therefore, no self respecting Skaven general should come home with more than half his troops? He has to kill at least half his force in order to purge his political opponents and be safe from their manoeuvres at home or else lose the game no matter the outcome! Why not write down which units contain enemies and which are loyal (or dice for it in secret) and reveal the results at the end to your opponent. They may be dismayed to discover they have done your dirty work and handed you some bonus objectives or they may find to their delight they have killed your loyalists and left you alone at the mercy of your rivals!
Tactics-wise you can view the Skaven as a Persian army, it is huge in size and has many resources but is very unreliable and lacks for quality. You get to play the bad guys at a fantasy Thermopylae, change things for the better at mock-Granicus, burn the faux-Greek fleets in the harbour this time and enjoy the sacking of an ersatz Athens, the birthplace of democracy! Look up these high tide moments (and ignominious defeats) and try incorporating some ideas into your games. Perhaps you can escape a double envelopment (Marathon) or maybe even have to capture an enemy character so you can 'turn' them and use them as a pro-Skaven voice in the opposition's government?
Surely the pinnacle of retro-gaming? But what are they like? The whole meso-american thing works as a starting point, they would primarily fight to capture rather than kill and use tactics to avoid defeat rather than to overwhelm the enemy. The Slann are isolated and used to having things their own way, they dominate the weaker races in Lustria and have subjugated them or at least reached an accord with them, rather unlike the constant state of war that exists elsewhere. They should be out of their comfort zone if teleported across the planet to reclaim some lost relic and thoroughly discombobulated by a 'conquistador' style foe that insists on killing excessively, not caring about capturing enemy soldiers. Perhaps over time (a few games) your Slann become more cynical though, as the Aztecs were by the fall of Tenochtitlan.
The Slann are one of the most alien (literally and figuratively) peoples of the Warhammer world, why not have a go at playing them this way. The ancient Incas used to bathe in the rays of the sun, indeed they had a whole branch of medicine based around it, knowing that it felt good and filled the body with a sense of well-being. Those Europeans who observed this assumed they were simply worshiping the sun as a God, a mistake we still make to this day as a result. Why not incorporate something quirky and indefinable into your tactical thinking as a personal objective, something that will leave your opponent scratching their head? Being an Inca is not something that is awarded at birth, rather it is like the titles of 'man/woman', 'citizen' and 'graduate' all rolled into one. Perhaps you could make the title Slann similar and give your warriors bizarre tasks they need to accomplish in order to prove themselves. We could stray north for inspiration and borrow the North American warrior tradition of trying to touch one's opponents without being touched in return and seeing this as the height of martial prowess. Try waiving the right to throw for wounds one combat round and whooping like a demented barbary ape if your opponent fails to hit your troops that struck accurately. Keep a meticulous record of which models succeeded and joyously remove them, announcing that they have 'ascended to Slannhood'. Your opponent may not quite understand, but he will see that you sure are having a whale of a time and you can tell him all about it over a pint afterwards.
Another race that sell themselves to players, but do the dead need motivation? Character? Any form of role-playing at all? I run my Undead as an extension of my Liche general. He is the only personality in the army, a conflicted genius that has gone mad from manifesting his consciousness as an army rather than as an individual for far too long. This is something of a personal fantasy of mine, ever since I saw that Harryhausen film (you know the one), but it does create problems with long term replayability options. I tend to only bring the Undead out on special occasions. You don't need to fall into the same trap. Vampires, mummies, Liches, Necromancers; they can all have personalities. Though it's not for me, you can always run the skeletons as deadite style characters rather than bony automatons.
Tactics-wise, the Undead are not so easy to categorise. Nobody in history has ever had troops that are immune to psychology, despite being appalling fighters! Here we must turn to literature and the movies for guidance, history doesn't provide us with enough answers. Whether you see them as the Egyptian style Khemrians, Stoker-inspired Sylvanians or the Necromantic puppets of a depraved human, the Undead rely on synergy with other units more than almost any other army in 3rd. They can be either invincible or hopelessly inept, depending on the situation, and it really does pay to think through your tactics with them but at the same time stop short of optimising them too much. I have convinced myself the Undead need a post of their own! Perhaps, as it is likely to be relevant, I will look at magic more closely too, along with the Undead in Tactica III.
As always, throw your tuppence worth in the comments and also requests for any tactical topics you would like to see explored.
Thanks for stopping by!