I've noticed a trend in skirmish games to attempt to cater to the Necromunda/Mordhiem crowd by tacking a token "campaign-lite" section of 2-3 pages on the end. I don't think anyone has hit the mark yet. I think the Holy Grail is a skirmish game with engaging modern mechanics and tactics, while having the depth, detail, character and background of GW's offerings. Something like the mechanics of Infinity, stripped down and bolted to Necromunda.
I find these low effort, tacked-on campaign rules a bit insulting. It's usually just a bunch of tables I could house rule myself in 5min. It's an afterthought, yet advertised it as a key feature.
Perhaps they genuinely think their 3 pages of "Coke Zero" campaign rules are the tits, but I regard them as a tease. They may as well not have bothered.
The problems are, for me there is no rules that meets all my criteria, which I'd say are:
#1. A deep, detailed complex campaign with lots of crunch and heaps to do "between games"
#2. Engaging "modern" gameplay (i.e. we don't actually want to play 1995 Necromunda in 2021)
#3. Engaging "background" or fluff (why play this game over 101 similar rulesets?)
#4. Ability to be played semicompetitively in a club league (it's not merely a RPG/story generator).
Frostgrave has come close - it's got appealing fluff, plenty of supplements, and leans nostalgically on the "hunt magical
warpstone artifacts" but to be frank the gameplay itself is not that good; and campaign-wise only the wizard is interesting and his second in command is just a clone.
The wargamesvault indie pdf rulesets often fall down on #3 and #4 - they are often a quasi-RPG with zillions of "off table" charts and busyness but it is more a story generator rather than a set of rules you could play as a Bloodbowl-style league - and the usual attempt to include any and all minis and settings means their setting is often bland and generic.
I'd like to discuss a few common issues:
#1. Overly Simplistic Campaigns
This is probably my #1 gripe. Most campaigns are cursorily tacked on with minimal effort. The trend is to toss 2-3 pages on the end with:
(a) random mission generator with 6 missions
(b) injury table with 6 injuries
(c) 3-4 advances/skill gain tables (which is usually terribly unbalanced)
(d) a super simple money making system (which is just "roll 3d6 x $$$")
(e) a (very limited) list of gear and/or weapons you can buy (about a dozen of each)
(f) a way to recruit new gang members (usually just a $ price and a max limit)
It's kinda like the old GW systems, but the trend is to make them as simple and short as possible. They do in 3 pages what the old school rules did in 30.
But we don't necessarily WANT campaigns to be simplistic and "lite". I don't want to be constantly consulting a rulebook when I'm playing on the table, but I'm fine with poring over it between games, given I'll be consulting tables and charts anyway.
Let's look at what Necromunda and Mordheim campaigns did:
Each character class within a warband got a unique range of (general) skills to choose from; some factions had unique mutations/skills. It usually also got a special skill or rule. Each faction got a faction-specific skill or two; and sometimes special mutations/skills/weapons/gear if relevant. XP and $$$ gains favoured weaker warbands. Each band was very unique.
(a) 9 random missions but provision for weaker warband to occasionally chose (range of ways to make $$$/win); weaker gangs getting more $$ to fight stronger ones (some missions allow you to win or lose territory off other gangs)
(b) injury table with 24 possible injuries
(c) 5-7 skill trees of 6 each; but combination of trees specific to factions and characters; mix of random and chosen skills & stats
(d) exploration table with 30 flavourful results for earning out-of-game cash or even rare gear; or a list of 19 territories you can conquer; bigger gangs earn less $$$
(e) buy about 100 pieces of gear/weapons, with some of limited rarity
(f) hire new crew and rent heroes/specialists; but bigger gangs mean more upkeep/less $$$
While I'm on this topic, FFS please balance campaign skills
A common problem I notice is wildly unbalanced skills, with skills being either must-have or worthless. It's a glaring sign the campaign system is an afterthought and can be spotted at a glance with even a smidgen of common sense.
Many skills are obviously comparatively worthless. I.e. a 1" increase to 24"+ weapon range vs an extra wound. Even a basic glance will tell you a ~5% increase in weapon range is not as remotely useful as the massive bonus of doubling your staying power on the battlefield.
Many skills are obviously extremely situational. I.e. "Re-roll for falling damage" - how often will a model have a chance to fall off a ledge in a game? This skill will probably never be used in most games.
Whether random or chosen, skills should neither be worthless or essential. A suggestion is skills are used as an "extra option" or "sidegrade" which works as a trade-off, rather than a straight buff.
Example: The "Sharpshooter" skill means a model may have +1 shooting IF they forfeit their movement; and they are restricted to 1 RoF. So you can sit and snipe better, but you forfeit something (RoF + movement) to gain the extra accuracy. It isn't a straight upgrade in every situation, like a simple +1 flat accuracy stat buff would be.
#2. Lack of engaging "Modern" Gameplay
This probably means IGOUGO won't cut it. Perhaps some nifty card activation or dice pool. Usually a range of D&D-ish dice (d8, d10, d12) or handfuls of d6 scoring "successes." A move away from d6 "to hit" "to wound" "to save" and a drift towards few stats and many special rules (the last due to flawed logic). Maybe some sort of resource management. It probably has elements borrowed from boardgames - heck, even GW realises it can't copy 1987 Rogue Trader anymore. (Admittedly they did rereleased Necromunda in 2019 nearly identical to the 1995 version).
Gameplay should be slick, streamlined yet still offer lots of interesting tactical decisions. There's a difference between simple and simplistic. On the rare occasions the campaign is the focus of the rules, the gameplay can tend to be rather uninspired and old school. There's a lot of "40K but replacing the d6s with d10s."
You should want to play the game on its own merits. It should be a good game, with a good campaign. While no one would claim Necromunda was peak gaming, it was of a par with its contemporaries. A modern skirmish game needs modern mechanics - not nostalgic 5th Ed 40K or Stargrunt reskins. This is especially pertinent to historical themed games where the core tactics will naturally be somewhat similar from similar rulesets.
I'd have played the crap out of a simplified d10 Infinity with a Necromunda-crunchy campaign. (Actually I did start to make my own, perhaps I should dig out the file again)
#3. Lack of an engaging theme/background (see Game Design #83)
In an attempt to allow people to use any minis or game every setting (good), indie designers often create a generic, completely uninteresting background that copies common tropes, or no background at all. The few that do this well stand out. Frostgrave is one of the most successful of the recent skirmish-campaign genre and it certainly isn't for its scintillating or deep gameplay mechanics - it's because it's background and fluff of dueling wizard warbands is compellingly presented (and leans hard into Mordhiem nostalgia).
Having a strong theme does not automatically mean locking players into specific models. For example, my demon-possessed 15mm cultist stormtroopers can use any 15mm sci fi minis (thanks to the wonders of bioengineering) and my psychic-knights-on-dinosaurs can use any mounted medieval/fantasy mini + any $2 dino. There is a strong theme to each, but I can use a wide range of minis. Sometimes it does mean you have to concede you can't replicate every sci fi show with your rules - but should a single set of rules be expected to do everything well?
Having an interesting, unique background theme/setting can also inform your game design choices and help make your game unique to play, differentiating it from the 101 other generic skirmish campaign games.
It's a surprisingly crowded market. Even in something as niche as Weird Wild West, there are many competing products.
#4. Ability to be played semi-competitively in a club "league"
Now Mordhiem/Necromunda was never balanced, but people being who they are, "narrative" games can quickly become "competitive." Many indie devs are refugees scarred from competitive 40K or Warmachine, or RPG tragics - so they are often all about the narrative. However, the baby has been tossed out with the bathwater. Just because we know wargames can never be balanced, and campaigns (by their very nature) tend to snowball an early winning warband into an unstoppable juggernaut - doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Bloodbowl isn't perfectly balanced but it's still fun to play a league.
The campaign rules should have a range of clear victory conditions for winning (i.e. if you can't outkill them, maybe other objectives that allow VP; a bit like in Bloodbowl where you can just cause casualties if you can't score TDs). Also the inclusion of "handicaps" that allow losing teams some edge to allow them back in the game - both in the campaign and the tabletop - after some early setbacks.
Basically, it's all well and good to throw RPG narrative tables in, but designers need to be aware that despite their own prejudices, their rules may be played as a semi-competitive "league" game, and build their campaign rules with some accordingly with some safeguards and balancing mechanisms built in.
Everyone who makes a skirmish game nowdays advertises a "campaign" - usually a token 2-3 page job with a few charts that look like they were thrown together in a half hour with little thought and certainly no testing. It's always such a let down I'd rather they hadn't bothered (or at least bothered advertising it as a "feature" of note).
While games themselves should be easy to play without consulting a rulebook constantly; I think there is a market for gloriously crunchy and complex campaigns that give you a lot to do when off the table.
This needs to be supported by a compelling background that makes players want to invest in unique warbands for the game world; but balanced with the knowledge players will be competitive despite the authors love of friendly narrative play, and the natural tendency of warbands to "snowball." Finally, it needs modern gameplay so it is actually fun rather than leaning nostalgically in game design from the 90s.
Found the perfect Necromunda/Mordheim replacement?
Drop me a line in the comments - because I (obviously) haven't.