Tuesday 16 July 2013

Enter the Citadel: Sons of Khaine - Developing the Eldar

My beloved wife and I travelled up to a hotel near Nottingham last Friday night for Enter the Citadel, a day of fun and frolics at Warhammer World. The first seminar I wanted to attend was "Sons of Khaine - Developing the Eldar", with Jes Goodwin and Phil Kelly.

Sadly, Nottingham's attempts to install a tram network meant that we were late and missed the start of the first seminar. Yes, Warhammer World have widely advertised the works are causing problems - but we hadn't realised that the location of the work had changed since our last visit, and trusted our GPS. Trust and complacency are the enemies of success!

We came in just as someone was asking why the Wraithknight had not used the four legged 'centaur' style design of one of the old epic models.

Jes Goodwin said that this had been the opinion of almost everyone but him! He was concerned that it might not look OK in 28mm rather than the epic scale. In addition, from an aesthetic standpoint, Jes wanted to go with a 2 legged model. He didn't want to go with the most bizarre of all the designs for the first one. In addition, there was a side concern that a "centauroid-thing" had been used for the demon engine design, and they didn't want it to be too similar.

It was then asked how they playtest. We were told that the first stage is an internal studio playtest. They play games with the draft rules to check for the feel of the army. Is a shooting based army sufficiently shooty? Is a fast army quick enough? They are looking for a broad fit for the feel of the army. This is where most of the army wide special rules are tested and often set - whether that is the power through pain of the Dark Eldar or the reanimation protocols of the Necrons.

They then bring in 'external' people to do a second playtest. They look to get a wide variety of people for this - managers, tournament players and hobbyists. This is for repeated tweaking before its finally sent out. The process can be very complicated and frustrating, as there are so many variables. They typically use ten to fifteen people for playtesting, who are all Games Workshop employees.

This is a change from the past, when a group of players, including some American tournament players, were used to test things. However, it was never clear how much those outside the company were discussing with their friends or posting anonymously to the internet. By using employees, Games Workshop has a recourse if someone does post something to the internet ahead of release.

The aim with the new Codex was to try and make the best version ever - including the best bits of all the previous codexes as well as new material. Phil regards the second edition Eldar codex as the "defining template" for the Eldar. White Dwarf 127 was a seminal moment for Phil, and was the motivation for him to start to collect an Eldar army. Many aspects in the army were classic and he took a "If it's not broken, don't fix it" attitude with them - and thus kept some more or less the same from the last Codex.

The Eldar Codex as a whole needed a theme. The Eldar are fast, but the Dark Eldar are supposed to be faster. Matt Ward did a lot of work on the psychic powers, and also came up with the Battle Focus rule. Phil likes the rule as it makes them "elfier". He's Phil Kelly, so he's allowed to make new words like that.

A concept becomes stronger if it is re-iterated. The Crimson Hunter aspect has had less time to become established than, say, Fire Dragons. Harkening back to earlier versions both refines a concept but also matures it - like a good cheese. It would be silly not to use existing background and mechanics where they are working.

The question was then asked, as Games Workshop don't tend to progress the timeline or story of their games, how do you fit new things in? If you can tie in with existing things, it makes it better. They deliberately leave loose ends so they can come back to them later. Many Eldar subjects haven't been touched yet - Exodites, and a lot of models from the old Epic range. Why not use the existing resources rather than something else? Codex supplements and allies gives Games Workshop much more capability to do new things.

When asked how many iterations the rules go through in development, Phil said that it can depend. Sometimes they get it right first time - others go through multiple versions.

The 12" range of the Shuriken catapult was then brought up. Is it too short? Phil said that things are defined by their weaknesses as well as their strengths. Eldar are typically strength and toughness 3, even among many of their characters - they are defined by these weaknesses.

For the Shuriken Catapult - it is a weapon for the Guardian Defenders - a weapon of last resort. It's a thing that's being fielded in Guardian Squads because they don't have enough troops - the Eldar don't want to have to use them. They are a citizen militia, and they are equipped with a short ranged weapon for use in extremis. In order to match their background, they need to be equipped with a weapon that balances within the army - you don't want Guardians to loose that flavour by having a super effective weapon that means they're gunning down people like Space Marines, who are dedicated to war.

There was then a question asking what they wish wasn't there. Phil misunderstood the question and said he wished that they had available options for all the weapon options given for the exarchs. The question was more focussed on whether or not there was something that was historically present that they wished they didn't have to include but had to.

Jes joked "Eldrad" following up with an impersonation 'Whining on . . ."We're doomed!"...' (Emphasising this was a snappy joke - don't send Jes hate-mail - I can't emphasise the jokey tone enough in the imperfect medium of the internet.)

Phil then answered that he felt that it really hadn't ever gotten to that point. As an example, he mentioned that the Autarch was now finding his place. Whereas before they were potentially seen as a conceptually weak 'Exarch plus', now they were growing into the role of a dedicated commander and leader. They're still not as strong a concept as, say a Farseer yet, but he still thinks they should be there.

Discussion then moved on to how there is sometimes a conflict between the descriptive text and feeling of an army, and the rules, and how the games designers try and resolve that.

There are definitely clashes for balance purposes. The Farseer is an ancient psyker who can predict the future, but his powers are still generated randomly - because that's how things work in 6th edition - everyone does that. This is an artefact of the game system not fitting with the background.

There's also the issue of fitting with the 'meta' of the overall game. It is very hard to make a game fair if you're fitting in with the meta perfectly. Jes interjected that if you play perfectly by the meta, then half the time, the Eldar shouldn't actually show up the battlefield. He'd just have Phil fight you instead, playing his Tyranids.

There were three or four concepts that they wanted to do that they couldn't afford to this time around. They had to make the hard choice between Wraithguard or Jetbikes. Releases are designed around the plastic. Jes commented that he has grown more patient over the years. What you want will be in the next release, or perhaps the one after that.

Phil said he realises that he's not just designing this release, he's designing in the context of that year's releases, perhaps even that decade's releases. More releases for Eldar now would penalise the next army's release.

Jes said that if you look through his sketch books, you could have an interesting exercise in matching the dates of the concept sketches to the dates of releases. A short discussion led to the realisation that Jes Goodwin has drawings that are older than Phil Kelly. (This may be a lie. But I'm not sure. I think Jes is about as old as the Eldar...)

Another audience member asked if they felt constrained by the need to include models for everything in a Codex release in the wake of the Chapterhouse Studios verdict.

For clarity - neither of them directly mentioned Chapterhouse, or commented directly on the case. They were very careful to talk about the restrictions they are under in general terms rather than anything specific.

Jes spoke clearly with some emotion, simply saying "You don't want to leave anything trailing. It's horrible, but you don't have a choice."

Phil then interjected and said that in some ways, its a blessing in disguise. Customers will be able to get everything in a new book from Games Workshop. It put him as a games designer into a tighter, more streamlined place. He doesn't have to tackle so much by focussing on the release. Deliberately putting in entries to develop models later is clearly not a good idea. The faster release cycle is useful in that it reduces the need to to do that. He also commented that it is frustrating for the customer to - you want this cool unit or that cool unit you've read about, but you can't get it in a Games Workshop store.

Will new supplemental codexes bring new models? Maybe. You could speculate. It opens up the game. You don't have to wait so long. Codexes and models are no longer tied. The flexibility is increased.

This is one of a series of posts about my experiences at enter the Citadel. Expect more entries shortly, as I have a lot of notes to write up.


  1. Great wrap up mate, thanks for taking the time.

    1. No worries. I'm a little frustrated its taking me so long to write it all up!