Wednesday 22 July 2015

Mordhiem-style Game Design Musings #1

Whilst Frostgrave was far from revolutionary - indeed a very basic, derivative game, I predict it will scratch the Mordhiem itch more than many games before it.  Why?

It got me thinking.  Here are some factors I'd point to:

Stats. An old-school, descriptive stat line.
Gameplay.  Familiar. Unimaginative, but equally, does not try to be "different" just to be trendy. Spell-centric approach gave it a bit of "x" factor.
Background. A interesting adventuring background.  "Explore ruined city" appeals to nostalgia.
Detailed Progression System.  Injuries and levelling up.  Gain gold or new spells. Choose a base.
Lots of customization.  A good selection of gear, magic items, armour, weapons. Lots of spells.    
Attractively Packaged/Complementary miniatures line. Not a dealbreaker, but the professionally presented rulebook and "official" wizards from NorthStar don't hurt.

I'm planning on exploring some of these categories in more detail. What would my ideal Mordhiem-eque game look like?


Stats.  When should something be a stat, and when should be a special rule? 
Stats are used for things that are regularly used in the game. Common factors that need to be differentiated. Descriptive stats can remove the need for excessive special rules.

A fantasy game may have varied races, from trolls to pixies, ogres and elves.  They wield a range of weapons, and melee, missile and magic may be equally commonplace.  Thus we can conclude a larger stat line may be useful to describe the wide range of fantasy warriors.

Contrast this to modern combat where everyone is roughly equivalent physically, and shooting dominates.  The ability to use cover may be more useful than "armour" or physical bulk.  Well trained troops could use a single stat for shooting and cover - melee being so rare, that above-average melee ability could be a special rule.

Let's look at the old Mordhiem stat line:

M - WS - BS - S - T - W - I - A - Ldr

That's quite a few stats. Let's have a look at them:

Move. I never liked the tendency to make everyone move 6".  A halfling and an elf won't be the same speed, and the game should reflect this without a range of special rules.   I like a move stat. I vote - keep it.

WS/BS: How well you fight or shoot - pretty much a mandatory selection.  Unless you want to add in special rules every time they differ, I'd keep them as individual stats. It's not like they're complicated to understand.  In a modern combat game, for example, there'd be a better case to amalgamate them.

Strength.  This is one I'd ignore for a modern/WW2 game, but in a setting where most weapon damage depends on the muscles that wield it, it is a relevant trait.  A mace will make a difference if wielded by a puny goblin or a 7-ft orc chieftain.  The question: can it be figured into fighting abililty, or is this an unnecessary abstraction?  A goblin ninja may be a brilliant combatant, but his small physique may mean he cannot inflict as much damage as a clumsy troll with a warhammer.  Or could Strength be lumped in with Defence as factor of bulk? 

(Defence) = Armour/Wounds/Toughness.  These can really be lumped together.  This stat simply answer the question: how much effort does it take to put this guy down?

Inititative.  We could also call this agility/nimbleness. Mordhiem uses it for climbing and to see who strikes first.  In a game with lots of vertical terrain, an agility stat could be a sensible inclusion.  Perhaps it could also do double duty for dodging missiles or in reaction tests, if the system used it.  It could be dropped depending on your setting.

Attacks.  This one could definitely be dropped as it could be factored in depending on the gear the model is equipped with i.e. dual daggers, 2H polearm - I don't think this necessarily needs to be a stat. 

Ldr:  Let's call this "will" but often there is a single stat that is a catch all for a character's morale and his intelligence, his level of discipline/training, and his magic casting ability.  These are commonly lumped together in many rules, but should they?  Those are some rather different attributes and roles. I don't think if someone is brave he will naturally be a better magician, or that discipline and raw courage are the same thing (think Roman Legions vs Norse beserkers).  There's good arguments to subdivide this category I'd say.  Magic could certainly be a special add-on rule or stat if you only have a few mages per army.

We're left with:

M - WS - BS - S - D - I - Ldr

In go so far as to say 6-7 stats is a reasonable "sweet spot" for a fantasy game. Also quite similar to LOTR:SBG which I've always regarded as a sensible, clean game system.  Obviously, it's all relative - a modern Afghanistan game could get away with far less stats - perhaps "troop quality" and "morale."

Let's contrast this with Song of Blades and Heroes.
You have two stats:

Combat.  This is your missile, magic and melee attack, and your defence against attacks.

Quality.  This is your discipline, quality, intelligence, reactions, as well as activation chance, which impacts your combat results and even speed. It effects your spellcasting as well. Basically, this stat covers "everything else."

Can you see how this may be mixing too many disparate elements and lumping completely unconnected skills together?  The only way to differentiate then is to create lots and lots of "special rules" aka extra rules or exceptions to the base rules, to separate these elements which never belonged together anyway.  


So for the audience....  what is your ideal stat-line for a Mordhiem-esque fantasy skirmish game?  Lots, or none at all?  Why? What stats would you combine and what would you abstract?


  1. Last week I dreamed Corvus Belli makes a Fantasy Skirmish with semplified Infinity system.
    Not properly a nice/bad thing. Just dreamed. ( Carlos now you have to pay my idea.. )
    I didn't buy Frostgrave but it seems a nice product, hoèe in more supplements.

    Personally I hope in a Mordheimizated fantasy version of Lords & Servant.

    Skirmish like Mordheim are very similar to rpg, why don't use wargame's derived rpg rules like Savage Worlds Showdown? Card random activation, no real hit point etc...

    1. Savage Worlds is a very underrated set of rules largely ignored by war gamers. Ironically, it plays smoother than most skirmish war-games being (as you pointed out) derived from a war-game that handed 40K-quantities of minis (Rail Wars).

      I don't know if Infinity would translate to fantasy well at all. The reactions would tend to overpower archery and give a modern-warfare feel unless very carefully handled.

      Lords & Servants fantasy seems likely. But I don't know if it has the "differentiation" needed without lots of special rules.

  2. In my game Prawem i Lewem ( eastern european swashbuckling skirmish game) I've decided to have three main stats: reputation ( morale and training) shooting and close combat and two secondary stats - armor and panache ( luck points). For a game only with humans I think this set up serves well. It is definitely easier to balance things out with less stats, imho and makes bookkeeping alot easier.

  3. "It is definitely easier to balance things out with less stats, imho and makes bookkeeping alot easier."

    I would challenge how stats make book keeping harder. Why are you recording more things? Recording hit points makes book keeping harder.

    Neither does it make it simpler. Inevitably, if you go stats-lite you end up with a zillion special rules to compensate. Which has more rules to remember - a 7-stat game with 20 special rules, or a 3-stat game with 100 special rules?

    I also doubt removing stats makes balancing easier. What is easier to balance - a numerical value shared by all factions/races/minis, or a unique special rule which is used only rarely?

    I think the current "stats are bad" mentality arises from a reaction against certain dense 90s games. Stats were't the problem.

    1. Well, I do not consider stats as a bad thing at all. My game has 3 main stats and about 30 special rules. I still do believe that it's easier to balance minis with 3 stats than 7. First you more clearly see which has more impact on the gameplay. Second in case of human-only historical game there's no need for differentating as much as in fantasy/sci-fi games.
      However as you've stated this problem boils down to the special rules bloat like in SoBH or WarmaHordes.

    2. I agree with all your points.

      Perhaps what you are saying is its easier to balance with less stats "and" special rules overall. (It just the first comment sounded like there was less "book keeping" - i.e recording and tracking in game, which seems unrelated to stats) and triggered my usual "stats do not = complexity or slow" rant :-P

      Perhaps a generalised statement would be
      "The less RULES EXCEPTIONS, the simpler and easier to balance the game is" (I'd lump stats and special rules together as rules exceptions)

  4. For attack, I would use WS and Armor in a different fashion.
    In a previous game we developed with friends, we roll melee like: roll at the same time, count success (less than the the WS number). Every success count.Compare success. Each success from Player A cancel one success from Player B. If same number of success, it is a draw. Whoever has more success win the fight, and every additional success = +1 dice for damage roll.

    Strength = d4, d6, d8, d10, d12 and d20. Roll as many dice allowed for damage and add them. If you rolled higher than armor value = Hit.
    So a ninja goblin (d4) may kill a paladin (Armor 12?) if it can roll at least 4 more success. Then, the skill count.
    So a Troll who hit anybody (d20) would likely hurt a lot.

    To give more tactical depth, a player could do: Full Attack or Full Defense. In full defense, the model rolls twice the normal number of dice, every success cancel his opponent success but his success cannot hit. It is assumed that the model spent the whole round dodging and paring.
    Same for Full Attack, the model is like a berzeker and does not defend. A full Attack rolls twice the WS value, and all success cannot cancel an attack they are all used to hit. It gives the power of sacrifice, a berzeker action or a paladin who would totally ignore small goblins hit.

    That would free initiative more as an Agility (the WS include the initiative).

    For Leadership, I'd use WillPower that would better define the definition.

    Also, as Mordheim like game, I'd focus the game on the leader (in Frostgrave the magician) and be like THW games.
    The leader is controlled by the player and its gameplay is not limited by dice roll but decisions of the player (freeing WillPower to be the Magic value).
    All the soldiers/anonymous would use WillPower with a limited set of conditional reactions to represent their reliance on the leader, like the Grunt in THW.
    Example a lone surviving soldier without sight of his leader would have choice between fleeing or hiding when his closest teammate got gutted by a monster by saying out loud "I ain't paid for that."

    1. note: Armor Value = Endurance + Armor.
      Example for Scale (without any balance of sort):
      Goblin 4
      Human 6
      Orc 7
      Troll 10
      Golen 11
      Dragon 19
      Schwarzenegger: 21

      For wound count, there is also the 7th Sea RPG system:
      Henchmen: 1 hit, out
      Lieutnant (in Frostgrave the Apprentice) : 2 hits
      Boss: 3 hits

      Use standard gems next to the guy to follow how many hit there is.

    2. "In a previous game we developed with friends, we roll melee like: roll at the same time, count success (less than the the WS number). "

      One part went missing (rogue CTRL-X)/ should have been:

      "In a previous game we developed with friends, we rolled melee like this : Models in Melee roll at the a same time 6 dice per model, and we count success (a success is every dice lower than the the WS value)."

      In case of 2 vs 1, the "2" roll 6 dice each, and the "1" only 6. The "1" can select which attacks he is cancelling
      Example: A paladin is fighting 1 orc and 1 goblin.
      The paladin (WS 5) rolls 1,2,3,3,6,6, or 4 successes
      The Orc (WS 4) rolls 1,1,2,2,5,6, or 4 sucesses
      The Goblin (WS 3) rolls 1,2,4,4,5,6 or 2 successes.

      The paladin can cancel 4 attacks and decide to cancel the Orc because the Orc is the most dangerous, while he can likely survive the Goblin attack.

      Roll 6 dice per character, and compare to the

  5. I really like LotR. The stats all make sense and have a purpose. I like the Might/Will/Fate mechanic, both for the decisions it forces and the lift it gives to heroes without making them overpowered. For a mordheim type game it could be as simple as giving each character an additional wound, forcing some decision making when your troops take casualties. Speaking of which, I don't remember you telling us why you don't like hit points, though I'm sure you did. It's been a long road.

  6. Yes, LOTR is a game I quite like. They did a skirmish-Mordhiem version called Battle Companies, with free rules you can google and download.

    It never took off as the campaign system was a bit overly simple I think; there simply wasn't enough to level up and LoTR is a pretty bland setting.* (*I know I'm going to be pilloried by some people for saying this)

    Hitpoints Post =

    That said, my wife asked me a similar question the other day (she was looking over my shoulder at the Frostgrave rulebook) and I'll have to re-read the post, to see what is relevant in the context of these "Mordhiem Musings"

  7. Try the onering website for lotr as they did an updated version of battle companies which looks good

    1. I seldom play fan-made versions of games, as extra "add on" armies are usually broken or gimmicky. Not to say "official" ones aren't either....

  8. I like elements of war for this style of fantasy gaming system by

    Though I must say I find Frost Grave equally interesting for the same reasoning.

    1. Huh. You learn something new every day. I recall 12EoW from a KS back in 2013? but thought it had disappeared without a trace.

      Is it actually a thing? Because I've never seen any games etc online.