How I Learned to Stop Worrying and At Least Tolerate Age of Sigmar

Age of Sigmar was a great idea for the future of Warhammer. Kill or cure: take out the ailing game, which had shed more than a few fans over its last two editions, and dump the range of miniatures into a setting tooled around today's concept of 'fantasy worldbuilding'.

The Mortal Realms are barking mad, but there's a method in there somewhere - the sort of thing Blizzard Entertainment would come up with. Imagine Diablo III with a Nordic rather than Judeao-Christian structure to its absurd mythology and you'll get it.

The increasingly huge centrepiece models look like video game bosses to me, too - and this is fine!  John Stallard may have repeatedly declared that video games are no threat to GW's prosperity but they have become a definitive influence on what genres and game modes look like, and how they're understood. Moving with the times is no bad thing. I believe GW could have ticked along forever, doing what they do, to an increasingly grumpy and unpleasable audience of old grogs and and an increasingly churny set of young 'uns, and done fine - but to grow they had to move with the times, and if my day job has taught me anything, it's that capitalists (i.e. shareholders) want to grow.

I didn't get into Age of Sigmar because it came out at a time when I was increasingly isolated from gamerdom at large. I live in a modestly-sized community in the South Welsh mountains, I work from home, and (to the best of my knowledge) I'm the only geek in the village. (There's a school club in the town down the mountains - I know because they pissed off the local model shop owner by not buying their supplies from him - but a man my age playing toy soldiers with schoolkids?)

If it was simply a matter of strolling into town after an early lecture, as 'twas in the glory days, or even after work as 'twas in the not so glory days, there'd be a reason. But when you only play a couple of times a year, the incentive is to stick to what you know of old. Reliable, reproducible good times.

Mucking around buying new armies is also a dubious prospect - again, it's a question of return on investment. I'm not a great believer in ornaments and I don't generally enjoy painting: the lure of actual gameplay is what draws me into my hobby room, and building an entirely new force that I might never play is the sort of thing I can't entirely afford to do. (Ask me what happened to my Night Lords. Go on.)

Another thing - and this is a minor gripe with the product line itself - is that with only four pages of core rules, a massive great core rulebook didn't feel like a sensible way in. What's it all for? Neither did a Start Collecting box, providing one force for one player engaged in a community. Only recently have we seen boxed games that actually contain two functional armies. Those are appealing. Those say "I could get the wife to play this, she didn't mind the Lord of the Rings SBG!" or "this is like a board game, I could play this instead of Blood Bowl next time Angus is up!"

(Angus is one of my best mates, but like all of my best mates, he lives far enough away that we don't see each other very often. When we do, we generally end up playing Blood Bowl and scoffing an inordinate amount of roast beast-meat. I generally win, but only because I've actually thought about the game at all in the months between matches. Angus has better things to do.)

Another other thing, of course, is the relative paucity of releases for Death. While the other factions had stuff from multiple Warhammer Fantasy Battle ranges blended together to form the new uberfactions-in-space, Death was basically... the Vampire Counts. By themselves. On their own. Alone. The big monsters from the Tomb Kings range would've been nice, lads - the Necrosphinx and the Sepulchral Stalkers at least. It was difficult not to walk off with my nose in a sling and see my favourite faction as the embarrassing legacy with the smallest range and the most limited potential.

But then Malign Portents happened, and I have to admit that I bought the book. I wanted to see if it would go down to earth and explore the Realms at a level I can actually understand, i.e. what it's like to live there, where do the citizens acquire pies and go to church or whatever it is they do that makes this feel like an actual world. I also bought the dice, because I'm a sucker for pretty dice, and Isabella von Carstein, because... well, that's a post in itself. I'll hold that thought and I think you'll be glad that I did.

And now Soul Wars is happening. With swarms of new Nighthaunts in the box. And apparently they're one of those forces that relies on proximity and synergy, the stuff that always gets my brain ticking when I sit down to play a wargame. And I do like painting ghosts (spray 'em white, various inks and glazes, base 'em up, done!). And according to the Design Notes, they're "more than just an army, but a way to explore death and the underworlds in the Mortal Realms", which is right up my street. (My fits-and-starts PhD is all about this sort of thing.) And I happen to be relatively flush with cash right now. And there's an RPG coming out #soon.

Might as well give it a chance, eh?

I just popped off to collect a link to Soul Wars, and the landing page thrust this gorgeous ethereal whatsitsname right in my face. Hot DAMN, lads.


  1. I do like the ghostly guys. That gives me no interest in the game itself, but that's at least one set of new figures I enjoy, which is a thing.

    Sunday evening will be session 1 of the old-school AD&D campaign (1st edition, almost none of Unearthed Arcana, and some homebrew adjustments - e.g., I went crazy and "fixed" the weapon vs. armor type table until it looked simple and clean enough for me to enjoy using it).

    I have a nice 100 square miles or so of swamp, scrub, and dismal ruins laid out, surrounding a barely-defended village full of people who dig in the muck for a living. Lord Too Important to Get Involved, Holder of Nominal Title to said swamp, is likely to live up to his name until certain evil cultic objects inevitably get carried to the surface and sold off, at which point he may start to get ideas. That'll keep everyone occupied for a bit.

    1. Someone told me once that the weapon vs. armour type table makes perfect sense if expressed as a mathematical formula, and that Smart Guys who could Do Maths would find no difficulty with it. Bleddy fool.

      Will everyone in your campaign have those odd names-that-are-more-like-desccriptions? I jest, of course, but it would be an interesting conceit... for about ten minutes. Sounds like a good setup. Keep me posted.

    2. The weapon vs. armor table makes no sense at all, even to one who studied physics and once (a hilarious effort recently rediscovered in some old papers) attempted to use wave functions to describe American football plays.

      But underneath it, there's an interesting concept that does SOMETHING helpful in terms of balancing weapons, so that there's a reason not to just go for the one that rolls the biggest die for damage. I'm okay with the version I have created - which depends, among other things, on vastly reducing Gygax's silly polearm menagerie. Oh, it was a hard decision to drop the Lusitanian Bec de Cuisine, what with its extremely subtle curve and many protrusions. Somehow I managed.

      I might now introduce some isolated valley where people really do have names like that. I suppose it could get quite confusing, as the advantage of a name over a description is that the name stays the same when circumstances change, so you'd have to know somebody's history a bit in order to make sense of things - perhaps contributing to the inaccessibility of this culture.

    3. You mean you don't care about the distinction between glaives, guisarmes and Bohemian ear-spoons? What kind of a gamer ARE you, man? ;)

    4. Well, a glaive is a sword blade on a stick, a fauchard is an inside out scythe, and a guisarme is a pruning hook. And I kept those three, along with the bec de corbin, which is really an elongated war hammer, giving each mild but appropriate distinct (and simple) advantages. Did away with the rest.

      What's insane is that Gygax dumped all this (quite well-researched) stuff into the game without explanation in a pre-Wikipedia era.

      I always wanted to be the jerk DM who threw in a guisarme-voulge Holy Avenger as the centerpiece of a treasure hoard. But I'm not that cruel.

  2. That is a cool looking model. Spooky. At first I wasn't sure about the little Elvira-haired anti-cherubs but on second glance, I like them. The whole thing looks like an undead Saint Celestine in a shroud.

    Thuloid... a name I have not seen for many winters. Well met.

    It's a secret dream of mine to play a campaign of 1st ed AD&D. I've collected all the major books. It's my only collector's indulgence (models don't count, I sell them more often than not).

    1. The Elvira-haired anti-cherubs are the best bit, dammit!

      Play the damn game, Jimmy. You know you want to. I ran Ravenloft (the original Module I6) for my housemates when I was still in London and it... went. I'm glad I did it, even if it confirmed for me that D&D has a serious case of the Magic Circle going on and people who haven't been primed to embrace its artifices are going to steer toward the coordinates they recognise, tunnelling into the board game or am dram or historical simulation elements for coherence and being dissatisfied when the game doesn't behave like that.

    2. The major books are good. So is something like OSRIC, which is free to download and is in most respects identical to 1E.

      My party includes several people with limited experience at this sort of thing - nevertheless, enthusiastic about it. In order to get them in proper spirit, I'm attempting to establish a certain kind of sword & sorcery aesthetic for the players, very much inspired by the artwork and writing of the old stuff (and its source material - so took a dive back into Vance, Leiber, Howard, etc. to get my head right).

      Nominally, the setting I'm working with is sort of Greyhawk, but I feel I'm being true to the spirit of the thing (that is, the thing as it was in the early days) by just barely using that as a skeleton. I love that old Darlene map (and I know it pretty well), so it stays, along with some of the pantheons and world background (the Suel Imperium destroyed in the Rain of Colorless Fire, etc.).

      The players will learn soon enough that sometimes you just grab the treasure in reach and run for the stairs.

  3. I do, I do want to play. The problem is my group are a bunch of flaky, nearly middle-aged artists and philosophers who, after four years, have still not managed to internalise the basic rules of 5th edition. I just don't think they could handle it if I unleashed Gygax upon them. If I wanted to be really cruel I could put on that awful Hawkwind album about Elric, hand out PCs I've premade and force them to play. But firstly, I'm not a cruel man. And secondly, I really just want to play a PC for once rather than DM.

    "I'm attempting to establish a certain kind of sword & sorcery aesthetic for the players, very much inspired by the artwork and writing of the old stuff (and its source material - so took a dive back into Vance, Leiber, Howard, etc. to get my head right).

    Argh, why can't I be in your game? Curse you meatspace. Errol Otus encapsulated the 1st Ed aesthetic to me. The bendy characters and vivid colours really get at the wierdness of the novels that were Gygax's inspiration.

    1. Yes! I'm showing them a bunch of Erol Otus art. You know he's my absolute favorite, right? He's like a weird fantasy Thomas Hart Benton. There are paintings of his I could look at all day.

    2. @beat ronin

      I've noticed this: as we age, and our minds become less pliable, and our remaining unpickled brain meats occupied with weightier things, our ability to internalise new rules systems declines dramatically. With the exceptions of my board-gamer ex-housemates, who will play a thing to death for a month or two and then probably never touch it again, nobody I know over the age of thirty is really any good at wrapping their head around rules.

      I've always felt that RPGs do a poor job of explaining themselves, though, and that there's more bulk to them than is strictly necessary. It's why I'm looking at the new Vampire: the Masquerade with such curiosity: the alpha seemed much lighter on its feet than any predecessor edition. If they've managed to do away with rolling four sets of goddamned dice to give someone a little slap and if they can get away with collapsing Attributes down to Physical, Social and Mental I will be legitimately pleased. If the Paths disappear and "blood sorcery" finally works like every other set of vampire powers then LORD LET THY SERVANT GO DOWN TO REST...

    3. Jon you might be on to something. I've played D&D since I was a kid, and one of our other players learned when she was in her early 20s, and we're... the only ones who don't seem utterly baffled whenever something actually needs to be resolved with rules or dice. They others are all well-educated, bright and creative, and none of that seems to matter. The rules just won't stick. Maybe it's age.

      @Thuloid I might have known Otis was one of your favourites, but if I did know I'd forgotten. I think my favourite works of his are the cover for the old D&D Basic book with the green dragon fighting the knight and the boobs sorceress, and the Githyanki on the cover of Fiend Folio. I love that picture. Does he sell prints? You should buy a print off him and put it in your house.

    4. I think it's a combination of age and mindset. If you're brought into the magic circle (d'you know this one? Huizinga? Homo Ludens?) early enough, all this mucking about with rules and charts and polyhedra with numbers on makes sense and has value. Someone who's come in later is going to have a different sense of what's important and valuable, and will need to adjust into the relative trivialities and special significance of things within the game space. Game rules are a lot of fuss over stuff which - in terms I'm going to paraphrase from Huizinga - doesn't matter that much to anyone who isn't balls-deep in it to start with. Most of your players only need to know any of this for a few hours a week and then it stops mattering. Couple that with the point about plasticity of brains and I think we're there.

    5. I'd love to buy an Otus print. Guy doesn't even have a website, though he does show up at conventions and sign stuff, and still does plenty of work. I guess he went to art school after he left TSR, but his stuff in many ways hasn't changed a lot, and that's a good thing. When he's on, the colors are just astonishing.

      One of the great tragedies of TSR's chaos over the years (that company may have been cursed - when you read its history, it's amazing it survived to produce anything) is that somewhere along the lines somebody threw away a lot of the old artwork - Otus, Jeff Dee, Diesel. So many of those originals don't even exist.

      The FF cover wasn't Otus, though, as much as I like it - somebody called Emmanuel, who only did a handful of other projects.

      On rules - perhaps I have an advantage in this, but a big part of what I do in non-gaming life is analyze, compare and attempt to shift between rules systems, as it were. I do it in an unusual framework, I suppose, but I find that one of the things that makes me good at academic theology is the ability (and perhaps not everyone has it) to force myself into a different perspective and structure. The inner mechanics of what I'm after are so very different from 95+% of what I read that there's a constant back and forth translation going on.

      Anyhow, that skill does translate into games. Despite playing much less (and certainly reading much less about games) than when I was younger, I'm probably more able to appreciate mechanical differences and their ramifications.

    6. @Jon - I haven't actually read Huizinga, but have heard a few lectures on him. Worthwhile to plow through Homo Ludens? A part of me hopes dearly that he was the pioneer of the phrase "balls-deep".

      There are magic circles I just can't enter, of course - LARPing, for one.

    7. I'm afraid that part of you will be disappointed. I do think he's worth a shot, provided you come in with no preconceptions about what the magic circle is. As a concept it's been overexposed, overdebated and overinterpreted to the point where most of us have heard a dozen bad takes on it before we get near the original - but then, you're used to that sort of thing.

      (Personally, I don't find it hard to switch paradigms, although sometimes I wish I did: it must be nice to believe in something, or to endorse a theoretical perspective for longer than it takes to write a few thousand words that deploy it.)

    8. Huh, it's not Otis? On second thought it is a bit different. A bit more splattery and English-looking, like the internal art in the early Fighting Fantasy books. Such a great picture anyway.

      The first I've heard of Huizinga was in that Game of Thrones paper I sent you guys. The second I heard of him was on this very blog, not two days hence. Not really up to speed on academic stuff these days I'm afraid - it's more of a diversion for me than a a profession, given that I'm radically skeptical of the human ability to discover truth via reason*

      *Meaning I'm also able to get inside paradigms pretty easily. Any core of truth or belief I have about "reality" is beyond words so is impervious to being explained. Any words that purport to explain the way things are therefore sadly mistaken, but interesting.

    9. Right. I'm writing my thesis on one of the most overexposed concepts in the history of the West, so that's sort of par for the course.

      I'm not sure I'd describe the experience as "nice." Perhaps it is when a position is naively held (or perhaps not, but at any rate I can imagine that such might be comfortable for a while). At a certain point on the far side of madness it comes through as somewhat hard-won, the kind of thing that one can't quite shake even if that seemed desirable (as sometimes it does). At that point, it doesn't feel quite like a theoretical perspective anymore, though it may well gesture in the direction of one.

      That's really the trouble - the things I believe and can't shake make it very difficult to swallow whole that 95%+ of theology that strikes me as hopelessly naive and disconnected. As a minor example, there's a fairly significant school of thought, at least somewhat identified with Nottingham at this point, that is prone to outlandishly abstract paeans to concrete particularity. They don't see the humor in this.

    10. @Beat Ronin - In fact, about the only other things on Emmanuel's resume are some of the early Fighting Fantasy books, and early (pre-Warhammer) issues of White Dwarf. So almost certainly an Englishman (which makes perfect sense, as FF was largely monsters drawn from a regular White Dwarf column).

      I deal with too many people who want to talk about Being itself, which strikes me as hilarious. "Look, I made up a single word for everything!" It's like something a small child might come up with, except taken with dreadful seriousness. At least when the Babylonians said that the world is the cut up body of a wicked god, that had some specificity to it.

    11. I feel pretty certain that our rational faculties evolved not to discover stuff, but to justify our hasty, adrenaline-fuelled words or actions to other people after the fact so that they don't hit us with a rock. Maybe even language itself evolved as a sort of begging for mercy. In that light, virtually all of philosophy, theology and critique is just messing around. Which is not to say it's not as worthwhile as anything else.

    12. Playing is fun and valuable. But we shouldn't forget it's play.

    13. Begging for mercy, trying to get laid, explaining why it wasn't really my fault - I suspect you're right on that. That said, there is definitely a (minority, but well-developed) strand in theology that holds almost exactly this. One can see it in the Old Testament - those texts accuse, plead, command, comfort, and ridicule, but they almost never explain anything, and seem to find the notion of explaining those things that are properly above us deeply offensive.

    14. I approve of that. And right after I wrote the above I suddenly thought that makes prayer (in whatever form) an extremely sincere and pure expression of what our minds are made to do.

      Also remembered I left out trying to get laid - although maybe that's what music evolved for :D

    15. That human females develop language a bit faster than males, and seem to fall into it a bit more intensely, leaves us with perpetual catching-up to do.

      Add a drum beat and those inarticulate grunts become art, which makes the grunter an artist, and now there's a mystery for her to pursue.

    16. White settlers in Australia sometimes used to complain that aboriginal men could steal their women by sneaking up on them and singing or whistling a tune. And apparently they'd just follow them away into the bush. They even had a phrase for it "whistled in her ear."

      I always thought it seemed like such a specific folk tale, it might have had some factual basis.

    17. This seems like a thing that deserves rigorous, systematic testing.


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