Why D&D should be more like Warhammer 40,000
Now there’s a contentious blog title if there ever was one, but hear me out. You just might like my line of thinking.
For those (few) of you that don’t know, Warhammer 40,000 is Games Workshop’s expensive-but-brilliant tabletop wargame set 40,000 years in the future where Imperial Guards and Space Marines battle Orks, Eldar and worse for control of little plastic buildings and mutual annihilation.
Aside from the fantasy elements transitioned into the scifi, there’s little similarity between the two. One is a game where you push little plastic miniatures around a battlemat and the other is……
Oh, wait. Maybe there’s a lot of similarity after all.
Let’s take a look at what Warty’thou does well, and how the nice people at Wizards of the Coast could learn a thing or two.
But…. whoa there, Greywulf! Doesn’t Games Workshop also make a Fantasy wargame? Not to mention a role-playing game or two? Why not compare D&D with those, if you’re going to compare anything?
I would argue Warhammer 40,000 is where Games Workshop does it best, and this is about what WoTC could do to make D&D better, so it pays to compare with the best. ‘Kay?
On with the show.
One of W40k’s huge selling points is that there’s this incredibly detailed and rich game universe full of vast Empires, a multi-millennia of history, legendary heroes (and villains) and set-piece events. The players feel like they’re a part of that whole, commanding armies in name of the Emperor while other guys across the world are doing exactly the same thing.
The pull of the shared game setting is a compulsive one. Players will talk for hours about such-and-such Chapter of Space Marines, or the best tactic to defeat the Tau Empire. They’ll pour over historical battle reports and recreate them to see if they can turn back the Chaos Space Marines where others failed.
That one vast Warhammer 40,000 universe gives the games a sense of place, and that gives the players a feeling of community like no other.As soon as you pick up your first set of Space Marines, you’re a part of something huge.
In comparison, D&D’s various game world are half-baked, by design. That’s intentional so that DMs can tweak and customize the worlds to their own liking and needs. The current “Empire of Nerath” faux setting only contains the barest minimum setting information to kick start the imagination, and nothing more.
But what if it wasn’t. What if the game setting was so rich, and so vast, that it sets the imagination on fire? Let’s call such a mythical D&D setting….. oh, I dunno….. Forgotten Realms….. but it’s unlike any Forgotten Realms setting you’ve seen before. Firstly, the emphasis is on the plural. This isn’t just one Realm (populated with Dark Elf Rangers of whirling death, Elminster-dust, etc), but a whole multitude of them all linked by arcane portals and the like. One of them takes you to a cellar underneath a tavern in the city of Greyhawk. Another dumps you near an oasis in Athas, etc. The portals may indeed be forgotten and awaiting discovery, be savagely contested or open for use by all. The whole of D&D’s history is laid bare as a shared setting with your PCs able to move from one game world to another with relative ease. The Feywild and realm of Shadow may be other Realms, or something entirely different, almost portals in themselves.
Picture a hardback tome called The Forgotten Realms which maps all this out complete with shared histories, accounts of the Portal Wars, major characters, monsters from between the void, key events, set-piece scenarios and more. Add in portals to game worlds of the DM’s own devising, and game mechanics for creating those worlds, and you’ve got something truly wonderful.
You want that, right?
Big up the races
Warhammer 40k isn’t presented in the same way as D&D. There’s no PHB, MM and DMG (not that there’s is right now in 4e D&D neither, but still). Instead we have the Core Rulebook (either in hardback or scaled-down form with the Assault on Black Reach boxed set) and a set of Army Lists. There’s one Codex (as they’re called) for each faction and they’re chock full of game stats, history, flavour text and more. You choose a faction, and pick up the Codex of choice. Between the Rulebook and that Codex, it’s all the books you’ll ever need. Opposing players will have their own Codices for their own factions.
In D&D, the different races merit barely a couple of pages each, and that’s a crying shame.
Why can’t we have a Really Important Book of Elves (ok, the title needs some work) that contains history, unique classes and race-specific rules just for the pointy-eared ones. Or a Short and Grumpy Book of Dwarves which maps out several dwarven settlements, rules for setting up a mining economy, pick-themed Prestige Classes, new rules for Clerics of Moradin and details about what being a dwarf really means. WoTC kinda-nearly started doing this with short booklets about Tieflings and Dragonborn, but they didn’t go anywhere near close enough. I want huge hardback tomes of knowledge with glorious artwork and flavour text that jumps off the page.
Just like the Warhammer Codices, but for D&D. Is that too much to ask for?
If a player likes elves, he gets the PHB and the Elf book. If they want Humans, it’s the PHB and Human book for him. And if it’s Gnomes, he gets locked in the cupboard for an hour. It’s only fair.
Wargames are traditionally pretty turgid affairs, style-wise. They’re full of charts and tables and bone-dry paragraphs about distance markers, turn ratios, RoF and the like. They’re certainly not bedtime reading material, unless you’re really into that kind of thing.
W40k isn’t like that. There’s a chattiness and dark humour to the books that make them a real pleasure to read. The conversational tone manages to convey the rules and explain their rationale all at the same time, meaning there’s little room for false interpretation.
Here’s a quick example, about Cover:
When are models in Cover?
When any part of the target model’s body is obscured from the point of view of the firer, the target model is in cover. This is intentionally generous, and it represents the fact that the warrior, unlike the model, will be actively trying to take cover (as well as the smoke, explosions and flying debris that are mercifully absent from our tabletop battlefields).
“If all else fails, duck. As a defensive stratagem it’s unreliable, but incredibly reassuring for a moment or two.” – Lord Corvis of Petrax
In comparison, here’s what 4e D&D has to say about cover:
Determining Cover: To determine if a target has cover, choose a corner of a square you occupy (or a corner of your attack’s origin square) and trace imaginary lines from that corner to every corner of any one square the target occupies. If one or two of those lines are blocked by an obstacle or an enemy, the target has cover. (A line isn’t blocked if it runs along the edge of an obstacle’s or an enemy’s square.) If three or four of those lines are blocked but you have line of effect, the target has superior cover.
Zzzzzzzzzz. Wake me up when it’s over, will you? Of the two, the first is easier to interpret, understand and play. The latter just adds to the complexity and potential for misinterpretation with every additional word.
A recent post by Monte Cook (I could provide the link but see below re: Wizard’s gawd-awful website when it comes to finding anything) asked about writing styles, and how the rules should be best presented. Warhammer 40,000’s writing style is a huge step in the right direction.
Get thy website in order, pronto
I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it until it’s fixed: Wizard’s website is an ungodly mess. Sure it’s better than it was before (hey, logging in works now) but navigation is still all over the place and they love putting those annoying as fuck popups on the start page (which have not and never will encourage me to buy anything, ever). If you want to find something actually useful such as the price of a book, a scenario (of which there’s loads on the site for all editions of D&D, but they’re hidden better than a Middle East dictator) or some preview content from a recent (but not upcoming) release, good luck. You’re on your own.
Here’s an idea. Why not make the site user-friendly? And by user, I mean “user of all editions of D&D, whether they have a D&D Insider subscription or not”. The website is Wizards of the Coast’s primary (indeed, only) marketing and sales medium, so having it be… well, crap…. is just telling people you don’t want any sales. Incidentally, I’m talking about the layout and interface and whole site experience as being crap. The content itself is rather good. If you can find what you want.
What’s more, 80-90% of the site is behind a paywall so you’re asking people who might buy your game to spend cash on something which might tell them why they should buy your game. That just plain dumb.
The Warhammer 40,000 site, in comparison, is brilliantly laid out, open to all and has direct links to all the products from the articles about them. I can easily spend hours on the W40k website reading articles, soaking up the history of the game and learning new tactics. Even with a D&D Insider subscription I can’t spend more than 15 minutes on WoTC’s site without gaining a free migraine (special offer!).
Why not put a menu containing each edition at the top of the site with specific content, free downloads and articles? That would pull in the old school crowd as well as show newcomers to the game that D&D has a long and valuable history. Each edition of the game suits slightly different styles of play. By embracing them all, they would be showing that D&D (as a brand) is all-inclusive. Goodbye, sloppy divisive mess we have now.
While we’re on the subject of D&D Insider, I predict that in the future this will be identified as being the one thing that killed off the D&D brand. For the hobby to survive another ten years it must appeal to the teen audience, right now. It cannot do that without real magazines on the rack and freely available content online. D&D Insider’s basic requirement of having to own a credit card puts it out of the running for the future generation. I can see parents buying a book or two for their kids, but paying $10/month for subscription? Nah. Not going to happen unless the parents are gamers themselves.
Warhammer 40,000 has a subscription model too. It’s called White Dwarf and it still (in this day and age – shocking!) a real paper magazine that draws in new players to the game each and every month right from the newsstand. Subs are £40/year (about $63) with back-issue articles available for free to all.
WoTC turning to an MMORPG-style subscriber model at the same time as MMORPGs themselves are moving to free-to-play – that’s a serious miss-step.
While we’re on the topic of money, there’s no doubting that W40k is an expensive game to play. The old joke was that the 40,000 referred to the amount of cash you had to spend to make a decent sized army. There’s more than a grain of truth in that too; I’ve seen armies that have cost a few thousand pounds on the table, and then some. A handful of Space Marines costs more than a pair of shoes, and a battle tank can easily cost more than I pay for food in a week.
And that’s just for things which are, basically, moulded bits of unpainted plastic.
What’s amazing is that people can, and do, pay these prices with a smile on their face. I know one 13 year old kid who buys something new every month and is gradually building up an army to be proud of. Head into a Games Workshop store and you’ll see cash changing hands with stunning regularity. Games Workshop reported profits last year of over £15 million, whereas WoTC keep their own profit figures suspiciously close to their chest (Hasbro’s profits were about $500 million, so it’s fair to say WoTC contributed to some of that. Quite how much though, few people know, and they ain’t sayin’).
As with any expensive hobby though, there’s always a way to do it cheaper. The second-hand market for figures (via ebay and elsewhere) is extremely healthy, and prices through Amazon are substantially lower than at Games Workshop’s own webstore. I’m considering building a 15mm Space Marine army using figures from 15mm.co.uk – I can build a whole army for less than the price of 10 Space Marines – and scratch-building a Tryannid army to oppose them. Good times.
How does this apply to Wizards of the Coast? Am I seriously saying that D&D should be more expensive?
Well… yes. And no. WoTC should offer huge boxes of unpainted minis. Give me a pack of 30 kobolds, a battlemat and a scenario booklet for $25. Give me 15 unpainted orcs still on their sprues for $20, and a pack of plastic 3d dungeon tiles (some assembly required) for $40 that lets me scratch-build and paint my own dungeon, or a frickin’ huge (I’m talking “size of a small dog” huge) unpainted dragon for $150. You might balk at the price, but by gods you’ll want it too. Other companies do this already, but with the might of Habsro behind them, surely WoTC can do this under the D&D brand, and do it to a scale comparable to Games Workshop. Make these minis entirely optional (but damned tempting and compulsive to buy) and you open up a whole new market potential for D&D. It’s a no-lose, no brainer proposition.
I could go on. I could mention the brilliance of Warhammer 40,000-themed computer games (I’m re-playing the original Dawn of War right now, and loving it) and how D&D should be right at the forefront of this market instead of playing also-ran to World of Warcraft. I could write about how Games Workshop engage their regular gamers and treat them like a part of the establishment. But you get the idea.
Wizards of the Coast has much to learn, and every opportunity to be everything we want them (and they need) to be.
I live in hope.
Standard disclaimer: I’m not knocking 4e D&D with all this. Well ok I am, but for the same reason a blacksmith hammers a lump of molten iron to turn it into a sword. 4e D&D is, imho, the best incarnation of D&D to date. The rules are superb and the game engine is rock solid. I just wish is was…. what’s the words?… More exciting, more open, more imaginative, more…. better.