[Review Thing] White Dwarf – September 2016 – It’s A New Dawn, It’s a New Day, It’s A New Life…
Ah, White Dwarf. Once, GW’s in-house monthly magazine was a must-buy: a vital source of developer insights, new rules, battle reports, hobby tips, cardstock accessories and Mike Walker. Then, things changed. The battle reports didn’t illuminate aspects of the rules or the tactical choices of the players. The developers’ notes became hype by another name. The cardstock accessories vanished over the horizon. In-house magazines walk a fine line between “provide useful and valuable content that builds loyalty” and “lovingly felches the new releases until the editor’s tongue falls off.”
White Dwarf crossed that line some years ago and I stopped buying.
We don’t need White Dwarf any more, I said. We have blogs. Blogs do most of what White Dwarf used to do. Blogs are free, and they’re not (usually) glorified adverts. The errata are all downloadable PDFs now. White Dwarf just isn’t necessary any more. GW know this, which is presumably why they’ve returned to the big fat monthly format full of raw stuff.
I bought this one out of a temporarily renewed interest in the Grim Darkness of the Far Future. Also, it had a model on the front. Even if the magazine turned out to be trash, £5.99 for a plastic Citadel miniature ain’t bad going. (Yes, yes, I know it’s a marketing ploy, I fell for it, wake up sheeple etc. etc. You’re terribly clever. I quite like my Slaughterpriest though, so jog on with you.) It also gave me a chance to take GW’s pulse. Relaunching White Dwarf is an attempt to define What The Hobby Is About. Is the Hobby About something interesting yet?
Observation I: “Blimey, GW make a lot of board games these days.”
Leaving aside my personal horror at seeing Chris ‘Ninjabread’ Webb gurning up at me from the team photo page, there’s a shocker in this issue. Old grogs have banged on about ‘gateway games’ and ‘lower buy-in’ since The Great Points Value Theft Of ’98. GW seems to have listened.
I was tangentially aware of things like Deathwatch Overkill, but there are going on a dozen of these things now. Most of them contain the seeds of or a useful addition to at least one Proper Army. Most of them look like self-contained, enjoyable board games, i.e. games closer to the experiences and expectations of the non-hobbyist. Gorechosen might lead to the assemblage of a Khorne army for Age of Sigmar. The Chaos lads from Assassinorum: Execution Force might be the core squads of a Chaos Space Marine army. You might split a Stormcloud Attack box with a mate so you have a flier each and a side game to muck around with.
GW makes a lot of gateway products now. This big fat magazine has some extra rules or missions or something for all of them. All of them surreptitiously offer an ‘expansion’ purchase that leads one toward collecting a proper army. That’s what White Dwarf should be doing. Yes, it’s a sales tool, but it encourages sales through providing content and building experiences. That’s better than blathering on about how great the new toys are.
Observation II: “GW aren’t half riding the nostalgia train.”
The White Dwarf makes an appearance: new model, new Age of Sigmar rules. Guy Haley shows up to lend the new magazine his blessing. (I’m sure they use the phrase “in all their glory” on every other page as an in-joke for Haley-era readers. At least, that’s what I want to believe.) There’s a fresh iteration of the Tale of Four
Gamers Warlords and a flashback to White Dwarf 202 (1996, if you’re counting). Even the layout is oddly reminiscent of those older White Dwarfs, with the little shout-outs to third party products like the computer games.
It’s almost like someone noticed that Oldhammer was popular, and that someone decided to acknowledge the past instead of flinging it down the memory hole. This is a token gesture, but it soothes my ruffled feathers a bit.
Observation III: “Those High Fantasy Proper Nouns get everywhere.”
In many respects, I applaud Age of Sigmar. It’s a brave attempt to reinvigorate a dying game line. Free, minimalistic rules and no points costs? That almost counts as an innovation after years of industry-defining “points match, fat rulebook” development. I can’t take it seriously, though. Nobody can have “two hand weapons” or even “a sword and a flail” any more. They have to have a “Hackblade and Wrath-hammer”.
This sort of thing is the enemy of immersion. When everything has an ominous and discrete name there’s no shared vocabulary, no sense that actual people in the world talk to each other about these things. Using all the High Fantasy Proper Nouns creates a forced and almost unreadable text. If you want proof, look at the Age of Sigmar battle report in this White Dwarf. Even the staff writers don’t bother using the ‘proper’ Age of Sigmar names for everything.
This makes for a much more readable report, although it’s still some way from the Platonic ideal of good battle reportage. Unless they’re showing you how the new releases work on the tabletop, illustrating some change to the core rules, or illuminating something about styles of play, battle reports are a print equivalent of Telling Me About Your Character, i.e. either a sign of autism or probable cause for protective manslaughter. This one is the bad kind. It tells you, in almost tautological detail, about a game that a couple of Studio lads played. That’s it. It’s only there because battle reports are part of “the complete White Dwarf experience.”
Observation IV: “This is either Index Astartes or blatant filler.”
In the good old days, White Dwarf often filled pages with material reprinted from a Codex. In the slightly-less-old White Dwarf often stuffed itself with additional background material to compensate for the lack of space in the elegant, allusive, stripped-down, god I miss them third edition Codices. Yet another example of how White Dwarf, at its best, made itself essential by offering something that you couldn’t get anywhere else.
‘The Ultimate Guide to Imperial Knights’ could be either of these things. In the Age of Ten Thousand Codices, though, flat-out reprinting material isn’t the insult it used to be. Not everyone’s going to buy/borrow/blatantly pirate every last book. Therefore, these overviews of factions are a welcome opportunity to catch up on the bits you just don’t want to spend £30 on. The article’s pretty detailed. It offers a mix of background, historical details, breakdowns of the Knight miniatures and colour-scheme inspirations. This is good stuff. This is the sort of stuff that made me start whole armies back in the day. I’m particularly grateful for the spotter’s guide to Knight guns: they’re new, and I don’t know them all by sight yet. Background articles which provide a covert handhold for gameplay are double-plus-useful.
Observation V: “This advice section is almost helpful.”
It’s nice to have a look at some of the fancy-dancy extremely busy tables/dioramas made by the Warhammer World lads. However, if the text is talking about the creators taking photos of real life things and using them as inspiration, I’d like to see the photos. I don’t need to see a whole column pimping Warhammer World.
It’s nice to know exactly which bits John Blanche used to build his Kill Team, but I’d rather know how the great man decides on themes, characters and poses, and how he decides when ‘enough’ is ‘too much’ in the detail department. Sticking bits onto other bits is basic kitbashing. Blanchitsu is artistry and it’s the artistic process that I want to know about. This is doubly aggravating since it manages to have less content in it than another article about kitbashing in the same issue.
Well, I don’t know if it’s really ‘kitbashing’ if you’re using sprues which were from different kits but are now being packaged and sold together… Cheap shots aside, though, the walk through the Tau Kill Team is genuinely useful. I particularly like the breakdown of the bare heads in the range, organised by the kits in which they can be found. More ‘sprue anatomy’ pieces, so we can see what’s in a kit when we’re planning our conversions, would be really helpful.
I’m not going to sass Paint Splatter either. Every so often one needs to print a Hobby 101 article. The first issue of the relaunch is as good a time as any to do it. I am going to sass the Designers’ Notes for the Deathwatch, but I’ll sass every Designers’ Notes that doesn’t explore the kits and rules in depth and justify damn near every decision. These things are never deep enough for me. At the very least, a starter list or some advice on how to begin putting a playable force together would be nice. Between Formations, Allies, Detachments and supplements, it’s not easy to plan a manageable project. Some insight from the people that write the rules might lend a machete to a few intellectual thickets.
Shoot for the moon, hit the Hubble Telescope
What little I’ve seen of GW’s current operating procedure, viewed through the lenses of my orbiting space station as I prepare for the final chemical bombardment that will scour this world of pestilential Life, suggests that GW is trying to do things differently. They’re not entirely sure how they should be doing things, so they’re doing lots of things and seeing what works.
Therefore, the White Dwarf revamp does a lot of things. It volleys forth Something For Everyone, except those benighted sods still playing the Hobbit SBG. (Frankly, there’s no helping anyone who’s still associated with that creative trainwreck.) This leaves it unable to push a few features quite as far as they can go. If the mag cut away some dead wood – if, for instance, it only did battle reports when battle reports offered more value than the chatter of the local counter monkey – it could give features like Blanchitsu and developers’ notes the breathing room they need.
Most of White Dwarf’s content is still competing with the thousand blathering voices of the Internet. Any fool can offer advice on kitbashing a Tau Kill Team or show you pictures of their Khorne Daemonkin. White Dwarf has unfettered access to the people who actually write the rules, create the models, and set the creative vision of the Warhammer universes. It can afford to ask these people to justify their decisions and show their working, and give them space for considered, developed answers. It should not fear losing or alienating the readership. If readers can understand the rules of Warhammer 40,000, they can understand a conversation about why Space Marines look the way they do.
Likewise, when White Dwarf gives advice, it should be braver than “hey, did you know that one Space Marine shoulder pad will fit on any Space Marine’s shoulder”. If you have access to any Citadel part you like, you can and should go nuts with conversions. Build things that span the ranges. Ram together bits that have no business being together. Pitch the whole lot toward real gamers, who have budgetary limitations and who have to actually carry their models around.
I would pay cash money for a monthly article which busts open a kit, walks through the sprues part by part, and showcases a bunch of conversions across the whole Citadel range that use more or less every component in the box. I’d pay even more for a regular army building feature which takes two ranges – say Dark Eldar and Malignants – and shows a project of extensive cross-range building/painting/playing from planning to perfection. Hell, I’d write that if someone bought me the miniatures. That’s a fat sight more useful than “Dan won a game of AoS because he rolled a 5 just before he was tabled.”