On Portability and Rules Tinkering

The Eldar Codex Review is still being written, but in the meantime, a brief rant, inspired by the ITC Mid Season Update Poll released today be Reece and the good people at Frontline Gaming.

It’s on portability, and why I really, really dislike the temptation to “tinker” with the rules.

I’m essentially a nomad. The way I normally talk about this is to refer to myself as an Itinerant-Academic. I have, since college, moved across the country a half-dozen times, without any real choice in the matter. Just one day, depending on how twenty different applications turned out, you’re moving to a new city.

This almost killed gaming as a hobby for me. I’d have trouble committing to RPG groups, and each place I moved, the wargame of choice was different. Warmachine, then Flames of War, then Warmachine again, then something else. I’d spend a few hundred dollars getting a starter army set up, then move and it would be rendered irrelevant again. Through all of that, 40K has remained something I can play, essentially the lone stable part of the hobby, because it is ubiquitous. Whatever people play, odds are at least some of them also play 40K. It is a portable game, one where I can show up at basically any game store in the world, play a game, and know the rules.

But the temptation to try and house-rule various aspects of the game, especially to the point of reaching into a codex, or the main rulebook, and actively changing how things work, destroys this portability. It creates a handful of “quasi-40Ks”, all of which are subtly different. Consider some of the questions from this year’s ITC:

  • One suggesting modifying the ranged Strength D table to 1: Nothing, 2-5: D2 Wounds/Hull Points + a penetrating hit, 6: 2 Wounds/Hull Points + a penetrating hit, no saves of any kind allowed, does not cause instant death regardless of target model’s toughness.
  • One suggesting limiting Eldar Windrider jetbikes to one heavy weapon per three models.
  • One modifying the way Stomp attacks work to allow Look Out Sir! rolls on results of 6.

All of these change something fundamental about the rules, and one of them changes how you make your army. A legal army, bought by someone just getting into the game or army, assembled the way Games Workshop has told you to assemble the army, suddenly isn’t allowed in certain tournaments (and anywhere the ITC rules have been adopted as the ‘house rules’). Not only do you need to rewrite your army list, but for a WYSIWYG army, you need to buy new models. And paint them – a non-trivial task for some people, myself included.

Then there will be other tournaments that have different versions. D-scythes don’t roll on a modified table, they have a -2 penalty. Invulnerable saves are allowed vs. Strength D. You introduce a situation where you now need to check which 40K you’re playing, and hope your army is still legal.

I don’t support that kind of fragmentation. It’s annoying, it adds book keeping, and it slows things down as you try to remember whats Book Rules and what’s ITC FAQ Rules, and which apply.

Beyond that, the polls aren’t unbiased. I’ll give Reece credit, he keeps the questions fairly neutral, and tries to do right by the community. But for any question, the vast majority of players have no incentive not to vote for a nerf, and every reason to vote for them. Why? Because the probability of any particular question applying to your army is pretty slim. I don’t have any models with Stomp, so why wouldn’t I want it weaker? I don’t field many ghost troops, so why not nerf ranged D? In a previous survey, I don’t normally try to get Invisibility as a psychic power, so of course I’d want it powered down. It also puts the power in the hands of the people who have played the game the least – especially when you remember that, thanks to cognitive science, we remember bad experiences (“That unit is bullshit!”) far more than we remember good experiences (“Then his Exorcist rolled a 1 for shots and missed…”).

Even the Eldar, who are arguably overrepresented on the tournament scene, made up only 14.4% of the armies at the LVO 40K Championships. Which means 85.6% of that group has every incentive to vote for thing that will weaken that army. Space Marines (as a primary detachment) are almost exactly as outnumbered. There’s no codex where the rational, self-interested “voice of the people” won’t end up voting to make their potential opponents weaker before the game even begins.

So…this kind of tinkering renders the game less portable, and pushes everyone’s incentive toward nerfing their opponents whether its a good idea or not, because there’s no cost to them, and this is about competitive events. We expect tournament players to game the rules – which means we have to expect them to be gaming the ability to change the rules for their own benefit.

How is this a good idea?

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  1. Your premise “If you don’t play Eldar you will vote to nerf it” is flawed. There is a long track record of ITC polls asking questions about nerfing specific units or game mechanics and failing. It isn’t because a majority of people use those units or game mechanics, it is because a majority of people see a poll as “How can I improve the experience for everyone” rather than “How can I make my own army stronger”.

    In the last poll there was a question about not allowing a CAD and a CAD-like codex specific detachment in the same army. The vast majority of players that exploit this are 5 Flyrant Tyranid players, with a few Flesh Tearers and possibly some Dark Eldar players also affected. At LVO there were fewer players using a CAD + a CAD like detachment (9 including the final 2) than there were who took Eldar.

    It is by the decency of men to vote in the interest of the greater good rather than their own personal interest that has allowed us to achieve what we have achieved. It is this decency that will limit the fracturing of the game that GW has been trying to instigate.

    I’ve yet to hear of a single event that isn’t considering nerfing the new Eldar Codex. Because Frontline Gaming represents the largest group of 40K events, smaller events like the ones I run will generally follow their lead, and by asking the question to their audience, and being open about the process we will see a much more united community than if they hadn’t asked the question and moved forward with their own ideas for balancing the game.


    1. Frontline may have led the way, but for the record, I’ve opposed it generally – I just don’t think that ranting about my local store wanting to tinker with the rules is particularly of interest to, well, anyone.

      I’d like to think that the “decency of men (and women)” will mean people make decisions for the good of the game, rather than the good of their future results, but to be honest, it relies heavily on people sticking to principle when their rational self-interest points pretty heavily in the other direction and in large number. There’s just too many biases stacked in one direction for me to have a whole lot of faith in the system. Though, to be fair, putting my money (or vote) where my mouth is, I did vote a straight “As the rulebook says” vote for the last poll.

      Thanks for reading though! Half the point of rants is for people to tell me they think I’m wrong 🙂


      1. Voting against a nerf to someone else’s codex is your own self interest because you run the risk that when your codex is updated the guy who had his Codexed nerfed last time will now want “revenge.”


    2. The fact that such votes have failed in the past doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t disprove the influence of the bias. If a vote fails 40% to 60%, who’s not to say that it wouldn’t have been 20% to 80% without the bias of “nerfing my enemies”? Who’s to say that the vote that passed 51% to 49% shouldn’t have failed miserably?

      I think it’s naive to think that this bias doesn’t exist, and that it doesn’t have an enormous impact on the votes. A few failed votes doesn’t discredit the idea sufficiently to discard it as a notion.


      1. That’s an excellent point. It’s basically impossible to know if the results are biased or not purely from their outcome. One thing I think would have been interesting, that’s been suggested, is a poll asking which army you play primarily when you vote. Of course, that won’t stop people from lying about it, but there are some statistical ways to try to control for bias in results.

        I also think it’s important to note that even those previous initiatives were talking about general rules that only applied to a specific army. Giving the go-ahead for the kind of army construction that allowed the multiple Flyrant lists is a little different than what’s happening now, because it’s not a huge stretch to imagine that one day you might need to mess with army composition. That’s leagues away from asking about changing the rules for a specific unit.


    3. Simply put, people are voting on an issue that hasn’t been adequately tested. This is the problem with democratic governments in general, and while I do believe it is still the best system we have for government it has no place in a ruleset. How do you know what is for the “greater good” until it has been played and REAL numbers have been recorded? Instead, you have people freaking out before the Eldar have truly been fielded. In my experience as an Eldar player, they are scary. But so is every army I have faced. Any smart player can still remove my 12″ ranged D before I get to them. Eldar die easily, but I guess it is just easier to “vote” for rules (who voted, anyway? What qualified those opinions, besides fear?) than to actually think about the consequences.

      I am not even saying that I would disagree with an eventual nerf, but I stand by the author in this case… modified rules are not 40k. The fact that you can go to the store the next town over and not know what game you are playing is ridiculous. It is sloppy and making for a weaker game. At least when I play Warmachine, no matter where I go I know the rules. I could play against a foreign player who can’t speak English and we could play a game. 40k? Not in this environment. While this is mostly GW’s fault for making vague, shaky rules, it is also the fault of TO’s, FLG, and anyone else who thinks they can do better; because no matter how good they may be, it still fractures the community and will cause player erosion to the point where 40k will no longer be top dog.


      1. “Any smart player can still remove my 12″ ranged D before I get to them”

        See, that’s the point. It’s false. You can transport them or you can pay a 95 pts tax to stick an Archon with a Portal to the unit.
        In this way you can DS them exactly where you want and there’s nothing your opponent can do to dodge it.
        Changing the rules is the only option to avoid domination from a certain army (GK in 2012 anybody?) which is something that kills tournaments and enjoyment of the game
        I think you miss the point of polls in this case: they don’t give you the best result. They give you something better than GW’s rules and, above all, legitimacy.


        1. While the Archon is a nasty trick, it’s at best one, perhaps two units doing that. While it’s definitely going to kill a unit, it’s only going to kill a unit before your opponent has the option to deal with it.

          Frankly, there’s no evidence that it’s going to dominate the game, and given that the ITC and NOVA Open have essentially gone after mutually exclusive sets of ranged D weaponry (NOVA Open doesn’t like D over 12″, ITC hit D-scythe weapons the hardest), I’m not sure it adds “legitimacy”.


  2. As a frequent player of itc rules I could not disagree more with this article. First of all it smells of trolling but let’s just say that it wasn’t. Games workshop clearly has no desire to balance the game which is evident by the eldar and necron codices. Frontline gaming is doing what gw should be doing. Their rules they are in no way unfair and they are extremely reasonable. For instance I frequently use the spell invisibility because it’s a fantastic spell but under itc rules it gets nerfed a bit. I am totally fine with the because it brings the spell back into line. Even with the nerf I love it! I appreciate that frontline gaming wants to make the game equal and fun.

    P.S. They also have fantastic tournament rules which are fair and fun.


    1. It’s definitely not trolling – you’ll note I’ve said extremely nice things about Frontline previously, and generally am a fan. Also, I have better things to do with my day than rile up the internet if I didn’t actually believe what I was saying.

      I’m just extremely skeptical of rules very much targeted at a single codex, and not in hypothetical ways but in actual “Should we change how this particular unit works” ways. I appreciate that Frontline is trying. I just don’t think this is the way to go about it.


      1. What would you do to balance the game?


        1. An excellent question, but one that I think is more complicated than you’re suggesting. I’m working on a blog post about this, but the first question I have in response to that is: What do you mean by balance? Within a particular game, or across all games? They’re different things to try to optimize for.


          1. Balance means exactly what it says. In 40k balance is when I put x army against your y army the 2000 points I take has just as much of a shot as your 2000. the way the game is currently structured that is not possible.

          2. The problem, and the reason I asked that question, is that balance in 40K doesn’t necessarily mean that. For that to be true, you have to ignore both the entire concept of army composition, and the fact that the game is both random, and doesn’t necessarily involve enough die rolls for the Law of Large Numbers to take effect. “I have a 50% chance of beating you” and “There is no faction in the game with a disproportionate number of victories when played over many games” are not the same thing.

            For example, Maelstrom missions have a high likelihood of screwing a single person in a single game, but are likely balancing in the long term (more on this in a couple weeks, once I finish the Eldar codex review).

            So how would I make 40K a game where you could show up with two contextless 2000 pt. armies and each have a roughly equal chance of winning? I’d hand you a Go board.

    2. “Trolling” means “Saying things I do not agree with.” these days I guess?


      1. I am the worst troll ever, if I took ads off the site right before I posted this.


  3. I understand the skittishness about using whiteout in rulebooks, but something had to be done about this book. People keep overlooking that if they did nothing, the eldar would not be allowed to run wraiths, hemlocks, shooty wraithknights, or d-cannons AT ALL. (It’s almost like someone at GW follows the tourney scene and delibrately tries to screw with it.)

    At the end of the day, they say all the time that they have no more authority on the rules than anyone else. If you want to play in an event without these concessions (and also allowing the ranged D units,) contact a nearby TO and talk to them about it.

    I find it amazing that some people put up such a fight against experienced tournament hardened players fixing rules, but will take whatever the GW rules design team vomits up with a smile.

    I would rather an auto-mechanic fix my car than have the car salesman do it.


    1. The problem as I see it is that everyone is complaining about the situation, but we dont have a lot of games to see how it plays out. Everyone *thinks* they know how bad the changes to the new Codex are going to be — but even with the release behind us, the actual impact on the game is still very muddy.

      40k players tend to theorycraft A LOT and the zeitgeist often gets it wrong.

      I say play it out. Give it time. See what happens with the meta… THEN decide if ITC needs to take steps. But right now it is still way too early in the process to decide about how these things play out and modifying RAW simply plays into the general hemming and hawing of the most vocal opponents.


  4. well I am an eldar player I have played one game with the new codex and me and my two opponents wanted to see how a full cheese eldar army would stand against others. What I don’t like to see is the nerf bat come out because of irrational fear. Now before saying wk are overpowered it should be tested against the big boys of the other armies not just one offs like seen in wd but 100 times against each and then see the results then if the results stayed the same. For a player like me who has above average luck on the die a d weapon is devestating, but my necron friend who is poor with die rolling on average d weapons would have less of an impact . This game and here is where I think everyone forgets is at the mercy of the die you can fail a 2+ save just as much as you are likely to roll a 6 on a d table. I think by nerfing the rules you take away a players ability to overcome by tactics. If I lost to a player because he had 3 d-weapons I would play him until I found a way of overcoming him even if it took a hundred times. I think in life as well as gaming we try and eradicate the things that will cause us hardship but that’s how we learn through being tested some will keep trying to they overcome some will disappear and others will just plod on. The funny thing is d weapons were around before eldar had them yet the nerfing of the table has never come up before, yet as soon as eldar get them there is a lets nerf the d table reaction. I have no issue with across the board restrictions but why were thes restrictions not brought up before eldar got d weapons the table and weapons were available before we had them but no one had issue with them before. So are the current rules a way of making the game fair for every member of the community or for those that want what’s best for them. Now in war gaming napoleonic wars the game is relatively even across the armies so the winners are the best tactic sand best die rolls over course of a game. Now in 40k there are disparities between armies yet that’s as it should be different races develop at different rates and are more or less advanced than others. By asking those questions your wanting to change the things your asking about so your answers are going to reflect that.


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