Light in an Age of Darkness: The Rule Changes Horus Heresy Should Embrace15 Jan 2018 1
Last year, Warhammer 40K launched its 8th edition, bringing huge changes to the system. However, there was a tiny snag: Age of Darkness – the Forgeworld supplement set during the Horus Heresy – was written with 7th edition rules in mind. You needed the main 7th edition rulebook to play – and it was out of sale. The death of lead writer Alan Bligh early in 2017 meant that Forgeworld took till the new year to release their own standalone version 7th edition rules, now firmly rooted in Age of Darkness.
The new book fixes some of the issues previously uncovered in the game – axing the atrocious Invisibility psychic power, for example. However, it still remains a 7th edition rule set, warts and all. And that is understandable: the team might not be ready to tackle a huge rules rewrite yet, as well as to reprint the army books. However, with Age of Darkness uncoupled from the main 40K rule line, we could dream of a rule set that would take good inspirations from other sources instead of just turning into 8th edition eventually. Here are some suggestions that would make the game much better in the future.
1. Alternating activations
One issue with Warhammer 40K is that while one player does his stuff, the other one might as well pass out. There's really no reactive stuff for you to do in the enemy movement phase, and there aren't any real choices in Psychic, Shooting and Assault phases. You're only there to roll dice and remove casualties. With some high strength, high AP weapons, you don't even get to roll dice.
Alternating activations would demand you to be on the grimdark ball at all times. There are many ways to implement this. It can be as simple as one player moving (and shooting, and charging) a unit, then the other player moving a unit, and so on. It could take inspiration from Epic 40K, where each army had a set activation roll; succeed, and your unit can do whatever you want, as well as letting your roll for an another unit (at a penalty, if I memory serves); fail, and your unit only does one thing, before passing the turn to the enemy.
The new Necromunda ruleset shows that this kind of thinking isn't alien to hallowed halls and resin corridors of GW/FW. In the new game, the players alternate activating their gangers. A miniature has two action points to spend on or two actions. A leader or a champion can activate together with one or two nearby regular dudes. This would be great in 40K, placing a more organic, more realistic emphasis on your commanders! Speaking of which...
2. No random warlord traits/psyker powers
Why are warlord traits and psyker powers random in 7th ed? Because some of them are blatantly better – the right choices – and players would only take them if given choice (all armies would be under Invisibility, all the time). Is that a problem with the players? No, it's a problem with rule writers not having the time, budget or wish to get stuck in and actually hash out a set of traits/powers that would be equally appealing.
Having to roll randomly for such things means that players have less agency in crafting their own army and their own heroes. How can you get into seeing your pricey chunk of plastic as Your Dude if you can't assign powers and traits to fit his background? This doesn't matter to tournament and competitive players – they get fairly adept at tailoring their lists to get rerolls on those rolls – but enough players cared that this random aspect got axed in 8th edition (and, previously, in Age of Sigmar). But there are more things that need cutting!
3. No “Look out, Sir!” or Challenges
Previously, you had two reasons to attach characters to units: heroes buffed their attached unit, while the unit itself acted as ablative wounds to the hero – wound allocation rules permiting. “Look out, Sir!” was introduced to make these attached heroes more resilient against shooting. Roll a dice, and a wound inflicted on the hero will pass onto some redshirt. This lead to comedic situations where half a Space Marine squad would jump in front of a bullet in rapid succession to save their commander.
However, Challenges were imported from Warhammer Fantasy Battles to make it harder to hide characters (and their special weapons) once in melee. Challenges mean that when two units clash in melee, a play can say that his character challenges an enemy character into a duel, which they fight out independently of the rest of the troops involved. However, this meant that a Bloodthirster – Greater Daemon of Khorne – could run into a squad of Guardsmen, get challenged by the Sergeant, and then waste a turn killing that regular dude. To avoid such tarpitting scenarios, Challenges were made to cause wound spillover: if you kill the enemy champion, the excess damage you cause makes some dudes in his squad die in sympathy.
Some other game (Bolt Action) would have solved this stupid issue by making heroes harder to hit in shooting and while also having the attacking player to roll a dice every time a to-hit (or to-wound) roll comes up as a 6; if the new roll is also a 6, he can then choose who gets hit. Easy, beautiful, doesn't result in sympathy casualties.
4. Fix vehicles and monsters
There's more than infantry tangling up in the battlefields of the far future - there are vehicles and monsters, too! For many moons (and editions), vehicles had armor facings and scores instead of saves. Weak attacks could cause a glancing hit, shaving off one hull point (health point) from the machine, leading to cases of death-by-a-thousand-cuts. A penetrating hit rolled on a chart of bad effects, from shaking the crew to blowing the tank up in one shot.
Meanwhile, monsters – Monstrous Creatures and their variants – were like infantry, but bigger and meatier. They never lost combat efficiency, no matter how many wounds you inflicted on them. This was bad in itself with Tyranids, but then various walkers (especially of the Tau kind) got classed as MCs, making them a lot more survivable than vehicles.
8th edition made MCs and vehicles the same: they have wound track that affects stats like accuracy and movement depending on how wounded a critter/a car is, However, it's not that fun. Instead, get back to armor facings and system damage. Make it possible to shear a Carnifex's limb off with automatic fire. Make immobilized vehicles a thing again. Remove vehicle HP and give glancing hits the ability to damage weapons, sensors and tracks. Don't just make MCs and vehicles into these damage sponges.
5. Use the good AP system
Speaking of damage: Armor Penetration. For several editions of 40K, AP was binary: it either prevented armor saves or not. Cover and/or invulnerable saves totally ignored AP. This made attacks with high enough AP be totally unfun, as the player would just be forced to remove his soldiers without even rolling a save – and the power creep meant that more and units didn't get to roll saves anymore. My friend got surprised when Guardsmen actually got to roll their 5+ saves once.
8th edition got back to AP being a modifier on the armor roll. Invulnerables still ignore them, but cover is also a modifier now. I feel that works swimmingly and is more fun to the players. This would be even better in Horus Heresy, since it would make the battles more grueling, as Marines would get all that tougher. Unless a mortal wound befell them.
6. No mortal wounds
Age of Sigmar introduced mortal wounds as a very blunt way to cut through deathstars: unit combos that, due to stacking modifiers, would become functionally immortal. Mortal wounds ignore your saves or toughness and just happen. Many spells, units and abilities now deal mortal wounds. It also creeped into 40K, where it remains the most loathsome thing of the new edition.
Look, “just removing miniatures” is the worst experience in 40K, and mortal wounds make it institutional. And it's not like they're a permanent fix to deathstars! Just like you have abilities that cause them, you also have abilities that save from them. They're not a law of physics, and bad rule writing can soon lead to units that ignore them. Whatever FW does, I hope they never add mortal wounds to Age of Darkness.
7. Leave blasts alone
8th edition has a convoluted scheme of making heroes safer from shooting. Unfortunately, this also removed blast templates, since they could be scattered on a hero. Instead, former blast weapons now deal a random number of hits.
Well, that is a very unsatisfactory and un-cinematic turn of events. Leave blasts alone, just add more failure states to the scatter, sometimes removing the shot altogether (a dud!) and in general draw inspiration from blast rules in the new Necromunda.
Are these all the suggestions that I have? No, not at all. But this would be a great start to make the most expensive way to play Warhammer that much cooler.