Mordheim Design Notes -15 Years Later

Mordheim Design Notes -15 Years Later

Postby Darkson (Simon) » Sun Jul 12, 2015 10:31 pm

For those that don't follow our Facebook page, Tuomas Pirinen, the Mordheim designer, posted this to Facebook, which I then re-posted to our page (and he replied to!). Just thought it was an interesting insight into what is still one of my favourite games.

He's wrong on the Skaven though, it had nothing to do with the slings, just my brilliant genrealship. ;)

Ask and you shall be given: over the years I've received so much feedback and fan mail for Mordheim that I've been meaning to write my own reflections on the game. The people have been really curious about the birth of the game and what led to creation of a product that was quite unusual for the GW product line-up at that time.

Mordhem was started with a model of a burned-out, ruined city, made of Mighty Empire pieces and custom houses the Perry twins when brainstorming the history of the Old World. Rick Priestley (whose help in getting the game published was vital) and I had just had a good laugh at all the year 2000 religious cults that were prophesying the end of the world and we thought it would be really funny that in the Warhammer world the same thing happened -except all the portents of doom were real and something apocalyptic DID happen.

We looked at the history of the Old World and realized that year 2000 was perfect for a setting of the game: the Empire was fragmented, magic was illegal, and Chaos was ascendant. Thus the setting of Mordheim was born, and the twin-taled comet, the traditional symbol of Sigmar the patron god of the Empire became once again one of the prominent symbols of the Warhammer World, restored to its rightful place in the iconograhy of games industry.

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Mordheim is how it sparked off the creativity at the HQ. The whole Studio was energized, especially the artists who (led by mighty John Blanche) really let it rip with Mordheim Art, blending the old Realms of Chaos spirit with the modern Warhammer look and feel.

People literally worked late hours against the wishes of the management: Gav Thorpe crafted some excellent stories that also became the basis of the Ulli and Marquand comics. Rick Priestley wrote absolutely cracking background to the Witch Hunters which still makes me chuckle when I read it today. Me and Alessio played countless matches and discussed how to blend skirmish wargaming with narrative. I worked with Alan Merret and others designing a way to create affordable and extremely flexible plastic sprues for the Warbands. We poured over dozens of history books detailing the end of the world prophecies and the times when the black plague devastated much of the Europe, to create the atmosphere for the game and its art.

We put enormous effort into the symbolism of the art and the writing -the fish that you see everywhere was not just a unifying visual element, but they also represented the souls of the people of Mordheim where the powers of Chaos and Sigmar vied for them.

I think most Warhammer fans remember me mainly for my efforts to balance the 6th edition of Warhammer and to bring back the importance of troops. This is because normally when I design game rules I start with the mechanics and establish the maximum and minimum values for all game parameters and then try to break them through external playtesting, writing some simple excel calculations and keep tweaking them so that the core rules are as balanced as possible. I also always enrolled the best tournament players I could find to read the rules like the Devil reads the Bible to find any loopholes and exploits.

But I did make a decision early on that Mordheim would be a fiction-driven game where the flavour and creativity would be given priority over strict game balance. I do not mean that I would throw away the game balance for nothing -but for example in the fiction of Mordhem armor was expensive, so I made it expensive in the game as well. This was intentional, and became more of a bragging right to the players rather than a common occurrence. At the Studio campaign a suit of armor became a bragging right and a source of many model conversions.

So instead of making the core rules first, in Mordheim I created the Warbands and their background first, and fleshed out the overarching history of Mordheim. Then we worked on the rules to bring those Warbands and their world alive on the tabletop, and create a rules framework from which the stories of those Warbands could arise.

Mordheim was never meant to be tournament game (though I've had an honor to judge several Mordheim tournaments and I thoroughly enjoyed them). I've gotten some criticism for that over the years, which is fine -players are entitled to decide which aspects of the game they appreciate, and I am a big boy, I can take constructive critcism. People have made their own versions of the game (such as Coreheim) to mould the game to their tastes, and I am fine with that: in fact I've always encouraged players to do so.

Mordheim was in many ways my attempt to blend tabletop RPGs with miniature gaming as seamlessly as I could. I've taken a plenty of flack for this approach over the years, but I do think that a designer has to stay true to his or her vision in order to create something memorable: you cannot serve two masters. Ultimately it is up to the players to decide if I succeeded, but I remain proud of Mordheim to this day: I believe I could write the rules better today, but I do think that by and large we managed to create what we set out to do.

In many ways, the large number of random tables throughout the game became my greatest ally. I wanted everything in the game to be risky -that's why so many items, choices and weapons in Mordheim carry a large risk factor with them. I wanted the game to create epic, memorable stories for the players to recall fondly years later. In games where the game is very rigidly controlled by players with very little randomness, you can control the balance and create a very competitive and even game akin to chess. But maximizing randomness creates situations and choices for the player to react to which he never even dreamed of encountering, and the one to marshall all their resources and imagination to deal with the unforeseen situation. An a magician Warband leader suffering from Stupidity is a situation Mordheim can throw your way, or a Vampire who has immense strength but no Toughness to deal with incoming blows. Only a game with high random factor can create these challenges and allow player to rise to the occasion -and perhaps more importantly remember it for years to come.

In many ways Mordheim was meant to be playing the dice with the gods of Chaos: they would bend the rules, make your Warband leader lose both his eyes and legs, and then laugh at your face -or even better with you, as you did your best to salvage the situation the best you can.

I think that because the playtesting and campaign I ran at the Design Studio was very story-driven, I missed some of the things such as Skaven being equipped with endless number of slings, and did not write some things like the rules for the Steel Whips as clearly as I could have. This would have never turned Mordheim into a primarily tournament game, but would have lessened some of frustrations of players: game can have a highly narrative drive, but in my opinion rules should always be as clear and easy to use as possible.

If there is one major addition to the game I think would enhance Mordheim it is a separate section and rules for a role of the game master who pushes the campaign forward and creates scenariors and long-term goals for the players. As I did this role myself during the initial Mordheim campaign, I honestly did not see how much a Games Master who creates special scenarios enhances the game. I think I should have taken all my special scenarios, notes on running the campaign and long-term aims and goals, and I would have spent a few months to make them something anyone can use to create their own campaigns for Mordheim.

To my delight despite all the challenges more niche games face today Mordheim lives on today on the tabletops of die-hard fans, on the bookshelves of the collectors, on PC thanks to computer games, and I'd like to think in the hearts and minds of the game fanatics like me.

I am very impressed with the work that Rogue Factory are doing with the PC version of Mordheim. I think they are true inheritors of the the spirit of Mordheim, and it is good to see its popularity on Steam. Many of the Old Guard fans or Mordheim are enjoying it which warms my heart.

But most of all, I still see daily how enthusiasts and fans create their own Warbands, terrain, conversions, rules and background. It was this passion I had had for old wrinkled Dragon magazines, Rolemaster RPG critical hit tables and long sessions of Warhammer that led into my own pursuit of games as a career, and I kind of hope that perhaps my efforts in their own small way have sparked an imagination of some young designer somewhere who will continue to carry the torch of the industry far into the future.
Never tell me the odds!
It makes me feel worse when it inevitably fails...
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Darkson (Simon)
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Re: Mordheim Design Notes -15 Years Later

Postby Mike » Mon Jul 13, 2015 12:44 am

Even the master knows he got it wrong with skaven slings but with the skaven inability to leap off a curb he has balanced them. :lol:
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