Thursday, January 8, 2015

Randomness in 40k. There isn't any!

"Ok, roll to see if the game ends" 

"I seize on a 5 or 6.... Let's roll!!" 

"OK, here is my D weapon, a 6 and you're all dead..." 

"Aw <expletive>, one more inch and I would have made the charge..." 

  How many times have we heard the above statements in a game?  How many times have you been the victim / beneficiary of a great roll? How often do you CURSE GW for the stupid number of random elements in 40k?  I'll bet the words "crap ton" come up a lot. So, is it a bad thing?   I hear a lot of talk about the game needs to be less random, randomness is killing the game, random charge is lame etc.  Well, if you really think that, then I'm here to tell ya today that yer all messed up in the head! (in theory) 

  Now, I am not a student of game design theory, nor do I have advanced degrees in probability theory.  What I know, I know from the school of hard knocks, taught at the universities of Bosnia, Desert Storm, Panama, Afghanistan and other various shit-holes around the globe.   I'm just going to talk about the real world and how it applies to our little plastic army men in a science fiction setting 38 THOUSAND years from now (a time when swords are making a wicked comeback :) 

Strategy versus tactics

   I will start of by saying this. 40k has almost no randomness in it at all. Yep, I said it and I will argue with you over a fair number of beers any day!  Here is why... 

  We know that with a D6, the possible solution set is minimal.   We know, and can predict, the outcomes of any given "random roll" with a fair degree of statistical certainty.  Take charge length for instance. We KNOW that the result will certainly be between 2 and 12.  With minimal effort we can calculate that the statistical average will be 7.  We can therefore plan on that with a decent degree of certainty.  Yes, you will roll 2 through 5 occasionally, but that is where probability comes in.  If everything was foreseeable, if charge length was set for units at 8", then there would be no 'fun'.  It would not be a game where good tactics mattered. Playing like a slug (me) would be just as beneficial as playing a very good, well planned tactical game of 40k.

  In contemporary military planning, if you have a degree of certainty for a plan that approaches 70%, you are either a god of planning, or you're lying to the bosses to make yourself look good. General Colin Powell had a rule that he called "30 percent to 70 percent". If you were between 30 and 70 percent sure of the outcome, go with your gut and do it.  Anything over 70 is a 'relative certainty' and below 30% you do not know enough information to make a decision.  Apply this to our game and I think you'll see that the 'random' factor is pretty minimal, actually.  Also, don't confuse the sheer volume of dice rolls in our game with uncertainty or randomness.  If you are BS4, you know generally what you can expect on a given roll of ten dice. 

  So, what exactly do strategy and tactics mean in this discussion? Here are the "book" definitions; 

Strategy is a high level plan to achieve one or more goals under conditions of uncertainty. Strategy is important because the resources available to achieve these goals are usually limited

Tactic(s) may refer to a plan, procedure, or expedient for promoting a desired end or result.

  Sounds boring, right? Simply put, your strategic thinking is done when you have chosen your army list and made sure it is legal for the scenario you're playing, regardless of if it is a friendly game or the final game at Adepticon. The key portion of the strategy definition is "under conditions of uncertainty". When you make your list, decide on the force orgs etc, you do not always know what you are facing. Will your opponent bring anti-air, will he be all MCs? What you are trying to do here is MINIMIZE the amount of random factors in your game, by having a force that is suited to achieve the scenario goals while smashing your opponent to dust. Your strategic decisions end pretty much after the roll to seize initiative. Once you have deployed, it's all tactics from then on. 

  That means that tactics are how we move our little plastic men around and shoot with them. This is where the dice come in. Too many people think that this is where the dice start to ruin everything. After all, it is the 40th millennium, I am an Astartes super-soldier. I should be able to hit what I aim at, right? Bullturds. That only works if your opponent is from the 2nd Millennium and has no ability of his own. "Well, I should still know how fast I can move and exactly how far!" - Again, Bullturds. You have no idea how quickly the average soldier will move. He may stop and pick a flower, he might look at what you told him to charge and decide it's not in his daily planner to die today. Tons of things could happen on our plastic and cardboard tables. Random charge length is used to reflect the things that you cannot, and should not, be omniscient about.  Rolling to hit and to wound represent the same thing.  Armour saves, cover saves and invulnerable saves are all the same theory.  Random things happen even in the best planned events.  But think about how GREAT we have it that our randomness factor is a D6!!!!

  The first night of the air war in Desert Storm we expected to lose 30%-40% of the aircraft assigned to missions. We actually lost less than 1%.  Nobody dared to even predict that that could happen in our wildly best case predictions.  The first night was not all American aircraft with our super-high-tech advantages.  We had a huge percentage of coalition forces involved, some of which that were inferior to the OpFor.  This was randomness in action!

  Another area that gets hit with the "too much randomness" bat all the time is the new mission cards in 7th edition.  People scream that they make the games too random.  I would counter that you have made a list that is too concentrated on doing one thing.  If you have tactical flexibility in your list, you can handle a change in mission on the fly.  If you think a real commander in the field of real battle does not get his priorities changed on the fly, I would recommend you go read  "The Heights of Courage: A Tank Leader's War On the Golan" by Avigdor Kahalani.  You'll see how the strategy of the politicos had a small effect on their tactics, but more often than not, the field commanders changed their missions (i.e. tactics) on the spur of the moment to react to their enemies.  This is how the Israeli's won that battle with far inferior forces.  (Yes, 4 tanks held off a Syrian division (albeit reduced to frontal brigade strength). FOUR tanks!!!)  It is also a fantastic book to just read if you think you're a tactical brain.   

  Back to gaming though, can you imagine the outcry if we went to a D20 for resolving things? Yes, some would say you can get more 'realistic and granular' results with a higher base, but I would counter that with a d6, you can minimize the solution set and get far more predictable outcomes (i.e. less randomness). Or, put a different way, with D6s, I know the range of values I need to roll, and I can predict, on average, how many hits a given squad will produce and what results I can expect. So, again, I say to you, 40k is not very random at all. 

  There are hundreds of scholarly papers on game theory, dice theory and all that jazz.   Even a quick read of some of them will leave your head swimming if you're not a math wizard.  IMHO, they also go too far in depth for our purposes. Suffice to say, we are in a D6 game system, and we have a ton of rolls in an average game.  That means random results are going to come up, and the curve won't always swing your way.  But I will say this, your job, as the tactical leader on the field (or FAT mat), is to minimize the effect that random events can have on you.  Make sure you move in ways that mean you can reasonably expect to achieve the average 7" charge length.  Fire from positions where your gun line can get reasonable amounts of hits.

  So, where the heck am I going with all this? Simple... Use tactics to minimize the effect of randomness in your games.  Good tactics will not erase bad rolling, but you need to put yourself into a position where the only problem you will have will be the potential for bad dice.  If you are constantly losing games to "bad rolling", maybe you need to look at your tactical movement and employment and improve that? 

  I'm not saying this as some superior 40k tournament winner, because I'm not. I'm not even very good.  I do know that whenever I start to moan about my dice rolling though, I tend to stop and think.   Did I move well?  Did I shoot the right unit at the right target?   Do I have my unit set up correctly on the table?  Did I employ sufficient tactical skill to overcome the obstacle that my opponent presented to me? 

  Then I start to curse the stupid fracking dice again... I am human...