Over the years I’ve played many an RPG, and a goodly collection of tabletop miniatures games. I’ve played fantasy, I’ve played sci-fi. I’ve even played some homebrew rules for a game using scale WWII models, back in my university days. I’ve played card games from the earliest editions of Magic: The Gathering to, most recently, Age of Sigmar: Champions (VS System is still the bestestest. Fight me!). As I think back on my favourite games, it occurs that the ones that I enjoyed the most, almost universally, are the ones that had the deepest backgrounds, the strongest fluff.
After Wednesday’s post where I talked about the upcoming Brush Wielders Union and made a point of acknowledging how some people just aren’t into painting and that’s okay, it occurred that often when I’m introducing new players to RPGs I give them a disclaimer about how there’s the roleplaying scale. On one end, there’s people who want to roleplay in-depth interactions, political machinations, speak in character at all possible times. On the other, there’s murder hobos – the players who want to roll into town, kill the bad guy, get the loot, and move on to the next adventure. Every player (and DM) lands somewhere on the spectrum, and there’s nothing wrong with either extreme. It can just be a challenge if everyone – the DM and all the players – aren’t roughly in the same zone.
Extrapolating on that, I come to tabletop miniatures gaming as a hobby. Some people are all about the creative aspect, painting and making terrain and creating a visual tableau. Other people are all about the game mechanics, the mental chess game as they work out optimal synergies and calculate odds to ensure their victory. And then there’s the people who just get sucked right in by the setting, the fluff, and it’s the unfolding story that captures their interest. I’m picturing it in my head as a sort of triangle of extremes, three factors that make up the whole of a player’s desired experience, with little dots spattered all over it marking where various players fall.
I’ve always identified as a fluff enthusiast, but as I consider further the games I enjoy most, I think I lean much further toward that point of the triangle than I’d previously realized.
For over a decade – literally a quarter of my existence – Warmachine has ranked highly with the Iron Kingdoms being one of the deepest and best setting I’ve known. Kingdoms at war, internecine struggles, politics and drama, individuals developing as the story advances, the very state of the world as we know it changing. Caine assassinates a king, and starts the chain of events that lead to the Llaelese invasion. Cygnar’s civil war results in the Protectorate, but even after the civil war ostensibly ends the bastard son of Vinter’s very existence undercuts the stability of Leto’s throne. Over time we see Ayn Vanar shrewdly counter the potential threat to her dominion posed by the Horselords by becoming engaged to Vlad. Asphyxious’ machinations galvanize the Iron Kingdoms and results in the escalation of Warjack technology to bring about the return of the Colossals.
Hordes is no less steeped in evolving story and lore. Everblight’s constant machinations and hunger for the athancs of his brethren literally brings forth the Dragonfather. The Circle Orboros – both servants of and guardians against the Devourer – struggle to disrupt the plans of Barnabas, and ultimate Mordikaar is sucked into the void as Barnabas achieves a measure of godhood. The Kriels struggle for their very existence as Madrak and Hoarluk conflict over their methods and just what horrors they’re willing to commit in the name of defending their people.
The beauty of the Iron Kingdoms as a setting is that it isn’t static. It’s evolving, it’s changing, and events in the fluff have direct impact in new model releases. Xerxis gets crippled in a fight with the Circle, and his next version is riding an enormous rhinoceros. It’s a hell of a wheelchair. Nemo gets older and older with each incarnation. Baldur finds himself turning to stone. It’s the dynamic growth in the setting that brings it to life.
On another front? I used to play Warhammer Fantasy Battles back in the day, before I immigrated to Canada. Over a decade after I’d moved halfway around the world, and the setting was still the same. Meh. Age of Sigmar dropped, and GW ripped apart their setting and created the Mortal Realms, which I freely admit I still having a challenge wrapping my head around as a mutliversal setting. I was… casually interested, but the only driver for my interest was that I had friends playing. Then the Malign Portents event happened.
Something major happened in the setting and it had an actual impact – The Nighthaunt, a whole new faction of (frankly gorgeous) models was introduced as a result of a major fluff development. All of a sudden I’m interested, and I’ll freely admit I have a bunch of Nighthaunt models that I fully intend to paint once I’m done with my Flesh Eater Courts.
The interest is partially driven by the models – the Hobbyist corner of our triangle – but I’m not even what I’d call competent with Age of Sigmar’s rules so I can’t say it’s about the gameplay. The real interest driver is the developing story.
I’ve long argued that the reason GW’s smaller games – Blood Bowl, Necromunda, Mordheim – have such a strong nostalgic pull is that what happens in-game matters. Your models have names, individuality. If they do well, they develop new skills and functionality. If they’re wounded it can result in long-lasting, game-impacting injuries. Each model has their own personal, evolving story, and from there so does your entire gang, team, warband.
Similarly, having a fluff-rich, evolving setting is a way to breathe into a game that reaches so much further than a statline or a sweet aesthetic on your models.
This has been a long, rambly post, but… We write stories together, as gamers. We play in the sandboxes that game developers give us. It’s these stories that last in our minds. Think about where you land on that triangle of interest, betwixt rules, models and fluff. Find some friends and write some good tales together.
Ramble ramble something something fluffy ramble ramble…