Wargaming Blends Old & New School Gaming aka a Response to Ben Gerber’s “Thinking in the old school”

Photo courtesy of Jonathan J. Reinhart

When I first read Ben’s article, “Thinking in the old school – a philosophy of role playing” my initial reaction was “who wants to play games where the rules can change without notice?” Then I spent time digesting his words and I came to a realization. It is possible to blend new and old school styles of gaming.

Who doesn’t want to spend quality time with people they like? Who doesn’t want to have fun? Who doesn’t want to have an adventure? It is possible to answer Y-E-S to each of these questions without firmly pigeonholing oneself into the new, or the old school styles. The undercurrent running throughout his post seems to be the importance of having a fun and exciting time while gaming without being limited by a system of rules.
That appears to be good. The problem remains that shifting landscapes, even one that is only potentially shifting, means that players could be unaware of their footing. Certainty is needed. It is possible to go with too much certainty and also with too little.

In wargaming there is a rule set put out by Warlord Games. The set of rules is titled Black Powder. I actually hate to call it rules because, in part, the rules go out of their way to alert the players that the rules are in fact not rules but guidelines. I tend to call the item “Guidelines for Gentlemanly Wargaming.” The authors explain that the rules, I’ll call them rules here on out, were created to allow the authors to play games with the models they own. The authors enjoy games that allow them to have common ground but are also adaptable. The emphasis is placed on the players using the base rules, modifying them beforehand as they see fit, to play games and conclude the festivities with a glass of port.

Virtually everything written in the rulebook can be altered, edited, modified, changed, swapped, tailored, personalized, or adapted. The big question that remains is “should such and such be changed?” Only the players can answer that question.

The Black Powder book leans more into the old school style than new school but manages to retain new school philosophies such as pre-created army lists. The stat lines are there for cavalry, artillery, etc. They can be changed but my indication is that many players will not because they are in the book. The areas that are more likely to be altered are how some rules are handled. Players will form a consensus, before they play, on how to respond to certain situations. Should this wooden fence block line of sight? How many models should be on a base? What special abilities define unit such and such? In fact, players have altered the distances given in the game to allow gamers to play this game on much smaller, or larger, playing surfaces using much smaller, or larger, scale models.

I’m clearly advocating for a middle ground position when it comes to new and old school gaming. This doesn’t mean that I am right or that this is the only way to play. It is, as Ben said in his article, what works for me.

I’m not, and never have been, a tournament gamer. Those who enjoy tournament play crave strict adherence to rules and clearly defined wording and interpretation. That allows them to build army lists that maximize their chance for winning when combined with their innate leadership abilities. Serious tournament players are unlikely to craft a force that is statistically inferior than the powerhouse lists. If mechanized Tau are the best list to use, then the serious tourney players are more likely to use that list.

Keeping this information in mind makes it easy to discern whether a gamer belongs to the new or old school. Do they constantly visit Librarium Online seeking answers to “what’s the best item for my Vampire Counts army?” or maybe they look for the most broken Warmachine/Hordes caster. Then again, they may playtest numerous Flames of War lists in the hope of tweaking it to perfection.

This sort of behavior isn’t limited to tabletop gaming. Those who play World of Warcraft, of which I am one, have likely found debates as to which talent build is the best. Is it better to be an arcane mage? How about Frost/Fire combo? Which trinkets help you crit more often and how about finding the answer to the best tanking gear/DPS build/fastest leveling route?

Hopefully you can see that new school gaming includes a strong use of numbers. Each of the new school systems I have mentioned utilize points systems that attach numerical value, and in the case of Games Workshop products it also attach a fiscal value, to units and models.

This debate is strongly represented in those Black Powder rules I mentioned paragraphs ago. Near the back of the book is Appendix 4 – A suggested system of points. The issue of points, or the lack thereof, caused significant confusion and consternation when I dived head first into Black Powder. Except for Appendix 4 there is no mention of points anywhere else in the book. After reading the rules, but skipping the advanced rules and the appendices, I was as lost as the Robinson family but without the wacky robotic sidekick.

How the heck was I supposed to play a game using rules that not only don’t come with their own line of models but also doesn’t give points so that gamers can build their armies? I could not wrap my head around the issue no matter how hard I tried. It made less than zero sense to me because in my, then, worldview it was impossible. The conflict I experienced was one of new versus old school. I come from a background playing new school games like Warhammer Fantasy, 40k, Warmachine, Flames of War etc. Black Powder, however, was something different. It merges the new and the old.

In an attempt to gain some understanding I took a crash course by e-mailing Henry Hyde. Do you remember Henry from my previous article titled Let’s Talk Wargaming? Henry is just about as old school as they come and not just because he’s in a different decade than me. He is an author, rules designer, and imagi-nation creator. He’s been running campaigns, using his knowledge, and making appropriate, but perhaps not rules legal, game decisions for a long time. My e-mail was the equivalent of asking a bunch of white mice asking Deep Thought for the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. Thankfully Henry didn’t tell me 42.

It is interesting to note that the Black Powder book states:

“This appendix attempts to suggest how a system of points values might be constructed for those who feel a deep-seated emotional attachment to such things. We shall not pretend that he suggested methodology has been extensively tested or that armies chosen using these principles will be perfectly balanced…Players who wish to refine the system to their own satisfaction are encouraged to do so.” (Priestley and Johnson, Appendix 4 – A Suggested System of Points 2009).

Seeing as how I’ve gone on for over 1,200 words I thought I’d leave you with a quote from the introduction to the Black Powder book. “And finally, let us remember the the ideal accompaniment to the journey may be found in good brandy, fine cigars, and the companionship of like-minded enthusiasts.” (Priestley and Johnson, Foreword 2009)

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