Sunday 14 December 2014

Alpha Terminus Part 1 (or Confessions of a Fluff Bunny)

I hate Warhammer 40K as a game. My reasons are pretty typical for WH40K decriers: rapid edition turnover, seemingly planned model obsolescence, exorbitant model cost, etcetera. For those reasons I don't play the game...but I love the WH40K universe.

The fluff behind the WH40K universe is incredibly well developed. Each faction has a rich history that evolves as it is continuously expanded. The Imperium is constantly on the precipice of destruction and is kept from tipping over only by the strength of the Imperial Guard and Space Marines. The enigmatic Eldar travel through the galaxy fighting to prevent, or bring to fruition, the visions of their Farseers. Orks go faster when their trukks are painted red. WH40K fiction may be excessively grimdark, but it also informs how armies are designed by the game developers and provides context that can make the game more than just chess with fancy plastic soldiers.

These days I play 15mm sci fi war games. In my experience the community is better, models are more reasonably priced than in other scales and there are dozens of rule sets available. Unfortunately the scale is somewhat lacking in fluff. That isn't to say that there aren't rule sets or miniatures that are accompanied by interesting back story; games like Hammer's Slammers, Tomorrow's War, Critical Mass, and Gruntz do include a fictional world to fight over. Furthermore a great many 15mm miniatures manufactures write little blurbs of fiction for their offerings. The problem I find is that much of the 'official' available fluff is written in such a way as to support a very specific style of game or, alternatively, is very disjointed. Let me be clear: the 'official' fluff that is available in the 15mm 'verse is good, but it isn't exactly what I am looking for.

So whats a fluff bunny like me supposed to do? Write my own fluff of course! I've already got a name for the setting: Alpha Terminus. In order to get the ball rolling we need to take look at what my game setting should bring to the table:

I like chess, but the experience of playing chess is not something that I want to recreate on my 4x6 battlefield. Fluff provides context that makes the little bits of metal, plastic and resin more than just a handful of models. They are tiny soldiers fighting for their governments and for their very lives. Every battle should be a story that unfolds with each roll of the dice. I want to play battles that feel like they matter:
  • A garrison of Khazalid militia digs in to repel the single minded might of a Lyscorcid Battlehive. If they hold the swarm back long enough the colonist-miners might just survive until the Iron Legion arrives.
  • A rag-tag cell of Omega Protocol operatives leads a mercenary strike force into a stronghold of the Universal Soldality. The must prevent the cultists from bringing their extra-dimensional god forth into our reality.
  • A drop-mobile force of power armor and grav tanks from the Martian Consortium is forced into a emergency deployment when their troopship is ambushed. Scattered on a fog-shrouded world, they must link up with each other in order to form an effective defense against the Lost Colony body-snatchers that destroyed their transport. 
Internal Consistency
The 15mm Sci Fi war gaming hobby is full of generic rules that make designing a new army a breeze. The problem is that easy army building all to often results in armies made up of random models thrown together without much thought given to how they work together. It's not uncommon to see folks using armies that have tracked vehicles alongside grav vehicles, heavy mechs alongside heavy tanks, robotic soldiers alongside flesh and blood troops and other combinations. This makes sense as there are loads of awesome, scale-appropriate, models available; besides, who want's to buy a new model and not use it right?

I don't necessarily have a problem with armies made up of seemingly random model selections, but my preference is to have some kind reason for it beyond "those are the models I had". Establishing those reasons is what I mean by internal consistency. It guides how a particular force is designed and what kind of models I purchase for it in the future.
  • The Lyscorid breed their soldiers and war machines with singular purpose. A grunt will be equipped with a rifle or a hand to hand weapon, but not both. An anti-armor bio-tank is designed to stalk and kill heavily armored targets, but lacks any kind of defense against infantry. The swarm is an army of mono-taskers.
  •  The Omega Protocol is a secret conspiracy that combats extra-dimensional threats. It organizes it's highly skilled agents into autonomous cells. The organization utilizes mercenaries when it needs troops for larger engagements. Their army list will always have a core of 'hero' units to represent the cell in charge but the rest could be just about anything.
  • The Martian Consortium has a technological edge on most of the other Human factions, but they have a much smaller population. Consequently they rely heavily on robotic drones and equip their precious Human soldiers with advanced power armor. Their army list will primarily consist of drone grav vehicles, robotic troopers, and powered infantry.
As I've mentioned previously there are loads of generic rules available for 15mm Sci Fi war games. Most of them present a method for designing your troops. The problem is that it is all to easy to exploit the rules to avoid sub-optimal options, or worse find exploits in the rules to build super-armies that have no weaknesses. The end result is a game in which one player completely steamrolls the other, or where both players show up with armies that are built exactly the same but sing different models A decent backstory is one tool that can be used to avoid meta-gaming, build realistic deficiencies into an army, and ensure that every army presents a unique play experience.

  • Lyscorcid units are mono-taskers. Their grunts will be good at either shooting or hand-to-hand combat, but not both. Additionally, their skill as doing anything else for objectives (enter a self-destruct code, plant explosives, hack a computer terminal) will be minimal. Anti-tank vehicles will only have anti-armor weapons and will be ill-equipped to combat infantry. This design theme will be represented throughout every element in the army.
  •  The Omega Protocol will always have a core of 'hero' specialist units that are good at whatever they need to do, but these will always be single-model units. Other units are mercenaries that follow their own unit commanders. Consequently Omega Protocol armies will have no central commander model. Instead each group of mercenary units with have their own sub-commander.
  • The Martian Consortium will primarily consist of robotic troopers and grav vehicles. The robotic troopers will be of average skill, but won't have to worry about morale. They will, however, be vulnerable to electronic warfare. The grav vehicles are very advanced compared to the vehicles of other human factions, but will be expensive to field so there won't be many of them on the battlefield. Since the Consortium has few human troops, there will never be more than one squad of human power armor troopers to every 2 or 3 squads of robots.
Those are the rules that I will live by in designing my universe. Next time I'll present some actual Alpha Terminus fluff...


  1. Looking forward to seeing more of this.

  2. Good write up here. I am also interested in seeing more development on this topic.

  3. Same here i have to mention this is the only reason i still play Battletech the game is 25 years old but it steeped in history, culture, religions, governmental politics, huge banking corporations, business cartels, planetary military and explorer corps, mercenaries and outer rim world pirates all within a vast universe that still needs to be explored......

  4. Curious what rules you have in mind?

    1. I'll primarily be using Gruntz, but am thinking about doing an article about getting your army to 'feel' the same across multiple rule sets.

    2. That sounds like it'd be super interesting actually.

  5. I like the sound of your background so far. Lots of interesting hooks built in.

  6. "...seemingly planned obsolescence..."

    Seemingly? I think you give the Dark Masters of the Evil Empire too little credit. :)

  7. I like it! For my own Colony 13 project, I decided that for my background I did want everything so that I could do cross-genre battles. So my last battle had Aliens, Predators, Cylons and Star Trek military advisers. Colony 13 is the exact spot in the Universe where all the fictional worlds collide. Totally agree about 40K fluff -- if you can get the original Rogue Trader book the scenario ideas in the back are awesome and have little resemblance to the 40k of today. Much grittier and IMO more interesting. Looking forward to the rest of the articles.

    1. One of my goals is to create something that will allow for just about anything. I want to be able to make use of whatever goodies the community of 15mm manufacturers make available!

  8. A superb article. We have recently discussed exactly this. Our group have been playing with Gruntz and Fireteam Andromeda. I can't imagine the games would be much fun without some immersive background to inform the narrative. Although most of our games are story driven, even those with fewer story elements have been enhanced by our shared ideas.

    The forces we have devised are quite diverse. Their back stories and our willingness to engage with each other's creations are what allow all the quips, banter and irrational in-game actions that make what is happening on the table more worthwhile.

    For anyone interested, our shared setting is here:

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I love that the Kkree have re-purposed Tau Stealth-suits as walkers! Awesome use of a model with 'hooves'!