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Special rules: delicious or bloatsome?


In this post, I’ll be questioning the value of having a special rule for (almost) every unit in a wargame. This is intended largely as constructive criticism of Games Workshop, and specifically the 8th edition of 40K now that we’ve got pretty much the full set of codexes. Let me preface this with saying that I’m a fan of the current edition - it’s had me playing a game I’d not really been into since 5th edition!

I imagine there will be many who disagree with my overall point, and I’ll be happy to discuss at length in the comments section if that’s the case - much like the surprisingly impassioned (and, in one anonymous instance, straight up troubling) responses my post about female primaris space marines. Of course, the odds of this post being as divisive are essentially nil. See what you think.

What do I mean by special rules?
I’m making the assumption that anyone reading this knows what I mean by the term special rules, be they ‘universal’ special rules, faction-specific rules, or unit-specific special rules. I’d define them as any rule a unit of troops or a weapon has in a wargame which is not covered by their statline.

Why special rules are good
They can achieve two things. One is to allow for effects which are too niche to incorporate into the basic mechanics of the game. Since not all units are terrifying supernatural monsters, it makes sense that you’d want to have a special rule which you can apply to anything that’s unusually scary.

The second thing is that they can add flavour. In 40K, the small weedy gretchin have a special rule called surprisingly dangerous in large numbers, where big units get a bonus to hit. On the face of it that seems flavorful, but I’ll return to this example later since it’s a good one.

Why special rules can be bad
The more rules you have, the more complex and bloated a game becomes. If every unit has its own special rule, then a major component of being able to compete and make intelligent decisions lies in simply remembering more rules than your opponent, which some people (including yours truly) find to be a less compelling challenge than developing an understanding of strategy and manoeuvres. Obviously you want different factions to be distinct, and for players to feel like they've learned how to combat the challenge offered by those factions, but if the only challenge is learning the synergies of certain rules then the actual gameplay starts to run on autopilot after a while.

As such, any ruleset is trying to strike a balance between clunkiness and blandness.

They’re also a double-edged sword, in that if a special rule is badly written, its attempt to create additional flavour can backfire by having an effect which makes no intuitive sense. Let’s return to our gretchin example (surprisingly dangerous in large numbers). As soon as you have 20 or more grots, they all gain +1 to hit. I can understand a large mob being braver (safety in numbers) but why are they suddenly more accurate?

Another example would be your basic ork boyz. If the unit has at least 20 models in it, they all get an extra attack. This is clearly intended as a way to encourage some big units of footsloggers, but it seems strange that as soon as the 20th model in a battlewagon is the army’s warboss, the whole unit gets less fighty since there’s now only 19 of them.

I get that the rule is probably intended to reward big foot-slogging units, but wouldn’t it be simpler just to make boyz cheaper so as to make it tempting to take them without transports? That way a Goff player won’t feel gypped when losing one or two boyz to overwatch won’t literally cost them 20 attacks in the coming fight.

The flavour debate
Having a unique army with its own character and charm is one of the most satisfying elements of wargaming. It’s argued that one of the ways to achieve this is through special rules. I'd argue it's one of the least important ways.

Let's take the aforementioned surprisingly dangerous in large numbers rule mentioned above. In terms of flavour, what does it tell us? That they're individually feeble and that people might underestimate them. This is not conveyed by the rule, but by the name of the rule. The actual rule gives a group of 20 gretchin, on average, an extra 3 Strength 3 hits compared to a unit of 19 gretchin.

Now, what does their stat line tell us?

Their low strength and toughness tells us they're diminutive. Their comically poor leadership tells us they're cowards. Their decent ballistic skill tells us they're not idiots. That, to me, conveys a lot more flavour than the special rule, and since the SDILN won't make much difference to the game, why is it there? What purpose does it serve? I have to confess I'm not sure. Were it up to me, I'd probably just remove it.

This is not an argument against all special rules, it's just an argument for careful editing. Furthermore, I think a heavy focus on special rules, faction rules, and all that jazz can take the focus away from what I consider to be much more important factors when it comes to flavour: visuals, background, and units.

If, overnight, all the space marine codexes were suddenly merged into one army list, and there was no rules difference between the chapters, could you still build something that looked, played and felt just like an army of Space Wolves? Or Imperial Fists? I'd argue yes. Unit selection, play style, details on the miniatures, and the paint job all do a lot more than some special rules. Don't get me wrong, I love that we have all these codexes, I'm just trying to illustrate where special rules really sit in the hierarchy of flavour.

Injecting your own flavour
Another thing that greatly affects how the army’s character comes across is how you play them. If you're into matched play then fair enough, you're always going to be looking for the ‘optimal’ units. For more narrative gamers though, you are free to have your army act in line with their characterisation, rather than being forced to do so by a special rule. A wargame where the flavour happens automatically is in danger of creating very homogenised interpretations of particular units. I think it would be perfectly reasonable for a rifleman to be a devotee of Khorne, realising that he can kill far more people with a gun than an axe, and taking pride in his horrifying kill count, and the martial efficiency of his work, but if (hypothetically) the rules say “Khorneate characters get +1 attack in melee” then that naturally encourages a more simplistic interpretation while also adding an extra rule to remember.

By contrast, Frostgrave has no special rules relating to its wizards or henchmen; all its flavours are delivered via stat lines, and yet I've never struggled to end up with believable, entertaining characters and flavour. I’m not saying 40K’s a better or worse game than Frostgrave - they’re very different beasts - but I have to wonder if we’ve got to the point where we don’t feel like a unit has sufficient flavour unless it has a special rule, and I reckon the imagination of wargamers doesn’t necessarily need that crutch.

Final thoughts
In closing, let me reiterate: I’m enjoying 40K, I just wonder if it’s starting to accumulate some of that 7th edition bloat. To be fair, there’s no way the GW studio could’ve cranked out so many codexes without one or two bits of fat than needed trimming, and when have we ever had all the game’s factions packing a codex of such similar vintage? It’s undeniably impressive.

Hopefully that all read as food for thought rather than whining! Now, I’d better get back to the paint station...

Comments

  1. While I haven't found or felt that there is much bloat in the rules and codicies for 8th, there are a few little rules that do seem a little bit unnecessary. With the removal of universal special rules and the use of datasheets, we have moved in to an edition with a huge number of "special" rules, as pretty much every unit has its one special rules, although many are intact the same or very similar, it's just they all have different names.

    As for the marine codices, this is a little more complex than just special rules. Yes, many units are the same (except for space wolves) and they play the same, but the main flavour of the various codices comes from the various different units, as much as from the special rules. My main concern with the marine codices is that were loosing those units and might as well just have one big book and numerous colour schemes, but that for another day.

    To be honest, my biggest concern right now is Vigilus and all that comes in the new book. Specific detachments, stratagems, bonuses and special rules. This feels like a step back in to 7th, something I though we had moved away from. Yes, I know that they cost command points but this, to me anyway, is where the real bloat starts and unfortunately I don't see Vigilus as a one off. We may well end up with dozens of campaign books, with hundreds of specific detachments and stratagems.

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    1. Good points. I certainly share your concerns re: detachments, since this is where things start to get difficult to keep up with!

      And you're right about the unique units; I have no particular issue with those (unless it's something that seems weird only one chapter has it, like when the Storm Raven was first released and was only available to Blood Angels and Grey Knights, if memory serves).

      With the proliferation of identical special rules you mention, I wonder if it might have been a good idea to just copy/paste those rules and keep them on the datasheet, since those datasheets are a really good improvement to usability. One could of course also have the universal special rules listed in the rulebook if one wanted.

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  2. I think it’s a balance GW need to fix, every Codex gets special rules, and 7th was over bloated because of that exact reason.

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    1. I hear you Siph. The other night the four of us who played were talking about stripping out all stratagems except the 3 ones in the rulebook to help make things more slick, and honestly, I wouldn't mind not using clan/chapter/faction special rules. I'm probably in the minority there, and I do understand why others would still want to use them.

      As I say, maybe with repeated use I'll get faster and faster with all this stuff... it's just a lot to remember compared to some older editions!

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  3. Well, you've got universal special rules (USR) and bespoke ones. 40k has gone from having a billion USRs to a billion bespoke ones. I think one of the biggest differences is in how they're presented. 7th-8th had a ton of USRs, often introducing new ones that essentially cloned older/existing ones, which you'd then need to go look up. By abandoning the old system and including them in the unit profiles, the game at this point feels like it has pretty much just as many - or realistically more - special rules, and it does feel a bit bloated and hard to keep track of (wait, that unit can do WHAT now?) but at the same time being more manageable than in the previous editions, due to them being right there in the unit profile.

    If you've ever seen or played KIngs of War, that system has a well done set of USRs and I think it plays really nicely. One criticism of that game and it's army lists from people (not me) though, always seems to be that the army lists don't feel as "fluffy" as Warhammer (of whatever stripe) ones. And that's from the reams of special rules that GW's armies have to make them much more unique to a very similar unit from a different army.

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    1. You're absolutely right that the user interface of unit datacards in 40K 8e has helped make it easier for people to learn how to play, and more manageable for the player of the army. As long as, of course, you keep your datacards to hand. It doesn't seem to help with getting off-book, which I take to be the ultimate intention, but it's definitely better for getting into the game so as a whole, if you're going to have special rules, it's a good way of doing it.

      To your point about people not feeling things are as "fluffy," I think that's what happens when you have a long-running habit of giving everything a bespoke rule. Once 6/10 units have a special rule, users of the other 4 units start to wonder why they don't have a special rule either, and suddenly a failure to have a special rule makes something "bland" in the eyes of the player base.

      Of course, it's also a subjective difference in preference. I like to inject a lot of my own flavour, and I like to play a unit in the way that I think that unit would behave given their perspective, so I don't feel I need special rules to help me achieve that. Not everyone will do that, so I accept that at least special rules incentivise un-fluffy players to do fluffy things.

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    2. The game is still very much (even more) about having your unit profiles to hand these days, as opposed to the old days where you just memorised your unit's key stats and then looked up things like weapon charts when necessary - so there's no question that warhammer (all flavours) has become more bloated.

      I also think you're right as to the cause-effect. People appear to want special rules for everything. And that's fine, I guess (we may as well skip the "when everything is special, nothing is special" argument since that ship has very much sailed.

      I'm personally in the middle. Special rules (whether bespoke or USR) can make units more unique or help to give them that special ability that reflects what they're supposed to *be* on the table, but not everything needs them. Army Special Rules as USR works in this regard in KoW as well. Remember when "animosity" was the main Special Rule in regard to Orcs and Goblins rather than each unit having something of their own? It still worked to give that army a distinct flavour to play.

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    3. Agreed. Having one special rule that covers a whole army can absolutely be enough to set them apart, and that was certainly the case for WFB greenskins :)

      Ah well. Like you say, the special rules ship has kinda sailed, so I guess we'll just have to make the best of it!

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  4. Is it that some armies/units (the money spinning ones) only work with their special rules (?) Perhaps the special rules are one of the things which helps shift the new releases - ie the whole thing is not done entirely with game balance or individual army flavour in mind; it's a consideration, but so are the commercial aspects of making the new shiny desirable through it's ruleset as well.

    Your point about wargamer's imagination being more than enough to make their armies attractive regardless of the specific rules is entirely relevant - otherwise we'd not enjoy so many other game systems.

    I still think that some of the best 40K rules are the 5Ed IG rules where you chose traits for your army and could pick chose to make a really quite characterful army by tailoring the army traits to your particular vision.

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    1. I do remember liking the idea behind those 5e IG rules. Can't remember them well enough to comment intelligently on them, though.

      You're almost certainly right that the studio seems to feel special rules are a key part of selling stuff, and I'm sure for some hobbyists that's the case, it's just not the case for me.

      You're right that certain factions such as genestealer cults really should feel like an insurgency rather than a conventional army, and within the confines of the largely psychology-free 40k ruleset, you probably do need special rules for that faction. Which is a long winded way of saying... good point!

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