The Von Show #13 – The Very Model Of A Man Inquisitorial

Hey folks.
This week’s Von Show has run slightly longer than I anticipated. In fact it’s run so long that I can’t get it recorded and edited and posted in the time that I have available, given that I have three work deadlines to try and meet in what’s left of this weekend, and writing the Show has already taken up a whole morning. However, I didn’t want to completely deprive you of my dulcet tones, so… well. Here we go.
Anyway. When I was putting together this week’s Top X, I found some of the specialist games easier to get the skinny on than others. Some took a bit of digging – I was there for half an hour trying to find anything good for Warmaster, for instance – but one proved to be a deep and abiding mystery, with nary a peep seemingly uttered about it anywhere on our blog rolls. Inquisitor. This week’s Von Show is dedicated to working out why that happened.

Inquisitor, for those not in the know, is “a large scale narrative skirmish game using beautifully crafted 54mm models, and set in the dark world of the Imperium’s most covert and mysterious agents. It allows you to play the part of a bold hero or cruel villain in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. If character and story are more important to you than winning a battle, then this is the game for you.” (Thanks, GW!)
Although it uses miniatures and terrain and dice, and there are customarily two or more players competing to achieve mutually inclusive or exclusive objectives within a scenario framework, Inquisitor lies nearer the sort of territory I customarily explore than it does to many wargames. It doesn’t have army lists, points costs, or anything like that, and it explicitly requires a Games Master in order to run smoothly. It’s given rise to some extremely popular novels by that Abnett fellow (Eisenhorn and his associates were brought into being as sample characters for the game), and some of the models are in point of fact absolutely stonking, and yet I never actually see it played with those models and those rules in that scale and as it was written.
Before we go any further I’d like to point out that yes, I know people do actually play Inquisitor, and that like all the specialist games it has its never-say-die fans who are out there, playing and writing and having a good time. BUT, and this is the big BUT, I think it has fewer than any of the others. I have to go looking for people who like Inquisitor. That’s not the same as Blood Bowl, or Necromunda, or even Warmaster. All the blog posts I’ve ever seen about the game are asking “does anyone else remember it, has anyone else played it, isn’t it strange?” And none that I can see are about actually playing it.
Gakked from Grizzly Adams, who wrote a post on Inquisitor which I managed to miss yesterday.
The one time I tried to play Inquisitor, I was trying to play it like an ordinary wargame. Wander in with my models that I’d rolled up stats and picked equipment for, find a mate who had his Inquisitor models with him, and try to play a pick-up game with a scenario jury-rigged by an off-duty GW staffer who agreed to GM for us at the drop of a hat. It was bollocks. I’m not just saying that because my Inquisitor got shot in the head with a boltgun after about ten minutes. It was bollocks because we were fumbling our way through this weird experience where we were standing on opposite sides of a table with our collections of models and an objective which we couldn’t both achieve – competitive wargame – but we were also trying to roleplay out two Inquisitors arguing over… something that we didn’t know about… and trying to find a solution that didn’t necessarily involve anyone shooting anyone in the head – RPG. Trying to play it like an RPG failed because of that hard-wired “we’re in GW, we have models, a table, we’re on opposite sides, let’s fight!” effect, but trying to play it like a wargame failed because we needed to play out and exhaust the story elements to explain why we were fighting.
There was a White Dwarf article about Inquisitor once that said it was like the last ten minutes of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where Giles has figured out what’s going on and the gang are going off to prod some undead buttock. Trying to play Inquisitor the way we tried to play Inquisitor is like watching the last ten minutes without watching the rest of the episode. It might look good but you’ve got no idea what’s happening or why or what anyone’s trying to achieve or what, in fact, is going on. You can’t play pick-up Inquisitor like it’s a straight wargame.
You may, of course, be able to gain something from watching the last ten minutes of Buffy.
And yet, the weird thing is, it resists being played as a straight RPG as well. That you have players with multiple characters isn’t a huge sticking point. There’s nothing that actually stops you having multiple characters in an RPG – besides whether or not the system is lightweight enough to not melt your brains while you’re doing it. The sticking point is that you have players with their own distinct warbands of characters and different objectives and a scenario that pits them against each other and you’re playing it all with the trappings of a wargame. And it’s not that you can’t play an RPG like that, it’s that people usually don’t. The default setting for RPGs is players vs. environment as moderated by GM, not player vs. player. It’s not an RPG, but it’s not a wargame in the sense that we understand ‘wargame’ today.
Gav Thorpe, whose fault it is, said in this interview shortly after the game’s release:
“Both in terms of content and look, and the way we talk about the game, we’ve made sure that it isn’t for newbies. It’s a sophisticated rules system that requires a sophisticated approach, being mainly narrative rather than competitive. There were a number of buttons we wanted to press, particularly in veteran Warhammer 40,000 gamers, that reminded people of the old Rogue Trader rules.”
Okay, so what are THEY like? Tales of the Maelstrom did an excellent interview with Rick Priestley a while back, in which he remarked that:
“Rogue Trader and Warhammer both grew out of the role-playing boom of the late 70’s and early 80’s – in their original forms they were open format role-playing style games played with miniatures. I suppose our formative games were as you describe – someone would host a game and arrange a scenario, dress the table, prepare briefing notes and maps in some cases. That was all part of the fun. The most important rule was established early on – namely that the umpire is always right!”
God, if Mr. Priestley is to be believed.
I’ve had a dekko at the Rogue Trader rules, although the game itself was a few years before my time, and it’s mechanically very open. There are no army lists in the original game, just a big master list with stats for all kinds of weird goings-on, and another big list of scenario hooks, little paragraphs to give inspiration, with one all written up and ready to play. The game isn’t scaled for armies, but for individuals working in small squads, and it demands a Games Master to prepare a scenario with briefings and objectives and little surprises. It simply cannot be played in the way that current 40K can, where you roll up to the Local Games Emporium with your army list that you wrote at home and see who’s free and play a game where your armies are the same size and you both know what the objectives are and you can be fairly sure that the game will play out in the usual way according to what you know about rules and tactics and probability.
And Inquisitor is just Rogue Trader, but scaled up, occupying that same liminal space between RPG and wargame. Mr. Thorpe again: 
“For a start, it gave us a platform to generate a range of highly detailed large-scale models in metal that would be collectible in their own right outside of a games system… Secondly, if you’re going to have a detailed rules set, where you’ve got individual hit locations and are counting bullets in a magazine, you only need a few miniatures, hence the cost of a ‘force’ is comparable to an army in a different scale. Thirdly, much of Inquisitor was inspired by 54mm narrative gaming in the mould of Old West by Skirmish Wargames, and taking the ethos of that gaming style into the Warhammer 40,000 universe with heroic duels and exciting gunfights. Lastly, Inquisitor is built up on character and individuality, and this is something you simply cannot get across in a smaller scale. Being able to model a scar across your guy’s cheek from an earlier encounter, knowing he’s got three reloads for his pistols because that’s how many are on the model, these are the types of thing you can do at 54mm.”
And that’s all true. BUT it’s not just a question of scaling up the miniatures. As the miniatures grow bigger and more detailed and more characterful and more and more WYSIWYG-ish, the terrain has to come with it. If you’re selling this game on spectacle and gorgeous models, cutting corners on terrain ain’t gonna fly. The scale and style Inquisitor works in demands more detail, more things to hide behind and use and move around and throw. And while the current fan-base is right to point out that there’s a lot of 54mm stuff that can be drawn on from other sources, we’re still talking about picking up a whole new collection of stuff in a whole new scale for the sake of one game, when we already have these established 28mm games and communities and things.
Establishment is a particular bugbear when it’s GW doing the establishing. I want you to think about the Games Workshop Hobby (hawk, spit!) for a second, what that phrase represents; “you came in with us and we’ve got everything you need right here.” Branding closes gates, as I argued on the ol’ Frugal blog before it went down into the West. Inquisitor opens them. Indeed it forces them open, demands that you go beyond GW product; it’s essentially at odds with their usual approach to customer retention.
Okay, fine, so why hasn’t it been picked up and run with by the sort of people who know that it’s not “the Games Workshop Hobby” (hawk, spit!)? The sort of people who, well, write blogs that are part of the House of Paincakes network? Well, even if we know that there are resources outside GW, we still have to invest our lot of time and money and effort into scaling up to 54mm, which many of us would be doing just for Inquisitor. The game would have to be pretty good to be worth investing that kind of time, money and effort into.
Is it? Well, I asked around my loose gaming group, and one perspective that came out was this ‘un. Ben said the problem with Inquisitor, besides the decline of support common to all the Specialist Games, was… well, in his own words:
“OK, so I’m an RPG geek. And a Games Workshop geek. And I made a decision to never try a game that I am basically the poster-child of the target audience for. All the people who I would have been interested in playing it with – and had tried it – came to me with variations on the theme of ‘Don’t try it, X is utterly broken.’ There were enough variations on what X actually was that I began to see a real problem, not just one isolated mistake. (For isolated, see the AD&D 3.5 Call Lightning spell). So if I wanted to play, I was going to have to find a group who were willing to ignore all the broken rules and violations to background. And that meant I would have spent nearly every gaming session sitting there, being annoyed over broken rules and abused fluff.”
So, from the point of view of yr. average wargamer, Inquisitor may in fact be a bad game. Now, I don’t entirely agree with Ben. For starters, there’s a lot more wrong with AD&D3.5 than ‘Call Lightning’ (oh, hush my mouth). But there’s also an obvious solution to the problem of things being broken, and that’s to house-rule the buggery out of them. But that’s not really How Games Work these days, is it? I think the prevailing attitude these days is “I didn’t pay twenty quid to do the developers’ job for them”. Even people like me, who enjoy hacking systems, still have other things to do with our lives, and might conceivably balk at a system that needs too much work in order to be fun. But does Inquisitor actually need that work? Here’s a bit more from Mr. Priestley:
“For many years, there’s been a steady migration towards very rigidly presented rules and it’s all but unheard of these days for a rules set to even mention the use of a referee or Gamesmaster. I have my own theories on this (the world is becoming ever more left-brained and literal, moving away from the right-brained, intuitive approach!) and I wondered if you have any thoughts on this phenomenon? Are we ever likely to see a widespread return to rules aimed at the GM (as in Black Powder). Do you think there’s scope for this in sci-fi/fantasy gaming, or is it likely to be limited to the older crowd, who gravitate towards historical gaming?”
“The same thing happened to D and D – what was a very free form, liberating and empowering (if I may use that word) concept slowly turned into formulaic, rule-driven, prescriptive drivel. It is not the world I grew up in that’s for sure (not last time I looked anyway). Anyway – is there room for an older, gentler style of SF or fantasy game in a world where everything is points values and games balance – dunno. You can’t get back to the past. Lord knows I’ve tried.”
I think Inquisitor is that older, gentler style of game. I think it was out of its time, an effort to remake Rogue Trader for a gaming audience which had either drifted away from that sort of thing, or had never stopped doing it and didn’t need a revision of something they already had. Especially not one that introduced the demands of 54mm scale, and was arguably not terribly well designed in the first place. Some would argue that the GM has to compensate for the system’s weaknesses – I asked my mate Blackheart about the role of the GM in Inquisitor and why he liked the system so much, and he said:
“It’s less dependent on a good GM than a tabletop RPG, but the GM is still important. The GM doesn’t have to create everything in Inquisitor, whereas in a tabletop RPG, they have to do everything – setting, mood, atmosphere, action, it all comes from the GM. There’s a lot more done by the players in Inquisitor – all the imagination part comes from the player and not the GM. The GM in Inquisitor is more like a referee or an umpire and less of a dictator.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: I don’t know where he gets this idea of the dictatorial GM from. Not from me, surely?]

The main reason Inquisitor is so interesting is the way that you can do whatever you like. You want to play something prodigously strange but also cool at the same time, you can do that. The setting and the characters are very rich, as well. I don’t think there are any violations to the background, but if you’re talking about broken rules… it is incredibly easy for rules monkeys to take advantage of. You need to play it with people that you trust. If you’ve got a group of players that trust each other to be sensible, it’s an absolutely incredible game.”

And I think that’s it, at the end of the day. Inquisitor can be brilliant but it requires too many lightning bolts to strike exactly the same place; you need the right people to be interested in it without turning into something it’s not, and who have the time, energy and money to scale up to 54mm. Frankly, that’s too much effort for me. I’d rather just run some Dark Heresy.

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