For a while I’ve been thinking about what Age of Sigmar could gain by taking inspiration from other rulesets – particularly regarding shooting and differentiating troop types and their roles. This post will focus on shooting, as it’s a big topic at the moment given its dominance in the meta, especially in the form of Sentinels and Longstrikes.
Rob at The Honest Wargamer recently did a great discussion about Sentinels specifically, and why 30″ range shooting (on a 60×44″ table) which ignores line of sight and can do mortal wounds on 5+ is just a little overpowered. Ignoring LoS is particularly significant because it overwrites a core part of the game (that shooting units must shoot at visible targets), but in itself that isn’t necessarily a problem. What makes Sentinels so contentious is the combination of that with huge range and enough mortal wound output from a unit of thirty to delete even monster heroes pretty reliably.
Let’s consider these factors on their own for other shooting units. Longstrike crossbows (and Warplock Jezzails, etc) have 30″ range and can do mortals. The former especially are very powerful due to allegiance abilities allowing extra shooting (something which should arguably be addressed in its own right). However, these are smaller units, with consequently lower damage output, which do not ignore LoS. We also have some units which ignore LoS at long range (24″) without doing insane amounts of mortal wounds – Stormfiends with poison wind mortars for example. You are limited there to one in three models taking them, which constrains their output. Then, we have effective mass shooting in e.g. Cities of Sigmar, which can do some serious damage output including mortal wounds on sixes, but at shorter range.
Now, I’d suggest than comparing all these, something that stands out with Sentinels is that they don’t seem ‘realistic’ enough. Slowly aimed long range shots doing 2 damage or mortals? Makes sense for a sniper/marksman-type unit like Longstrikes or Jezzails. Poison wind launchers ignoring LoS? They’re mortars, it makes sense (aim at a high trajectory with decent accuracy). Mass bow, crossbow, or gunshots at short range being very dangerous? Makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is how large numbers of arrows, even magical Aelven ones, could shoot accurately at long range, at a high trajectory, at an unseen target, and then hit that target with enough to force to do massive damage to it, more than that of artillery, powerful crossbows, and black powder weapons.
I don’t want to go down the route of saying that Age of Sigmar should reflect the reality of medieval warfare (but with accurately simulated magic, demons, etc). But I do think that good fantasy has some limits on power, magic, and the laws of physics. In the academic study of religion, there’s a theory that the most widespread religious concepts, of things like gods and ghosts, are ‘minimally counter-intuitive’. What this means is that people are more likely to buy into the existence of supernatural beings if they have one or two weird traits (like omniscience or the ability to walk through walls) but otherwise behave in ways one would intuitively expect. So God is omniscient, but you can communicate with him like you would a person. Or ghosts are ethereal, but they otherwise behave like humans would, with intentions and desires and so on. I think the same is true for fantasy worlds. The magic and dragons and so on are much more immersive and convincing if they have limits on what they can do, which make intuitive sense.
How does this relate to a game like AoS? Well, I think the best parts of the game are where you get that perfect balance between fantasy and what you’d expect from reality: like when a monster tramples infantry on the charge, or armies of undead start to crumble when the heroes controlling them are taken down, or an insane warpfire contraption destroys everything around it, including its operators. So for me, a big issue with something like Sentinels, in addition to the balance issues, is that they are too counter-intuitive.
Balance-wise though, they also represent a logical extreme of how AoS handles shooting, which starts to compromise the mixed melee and ranged balance of the game. So what are some ways of mitigating that? The conversation on this already focuses on things like points changes, battleline status, LoS, and range – what I want to add here is what could be gained from looking beyond AoS’s existing mechanics, to how other games prevent shooting from becoming overpowered.
Introducing ‘spotter’ models: This is a way of making ignore LoS more intuitive, and involves using a model as a spotter – if it has LoS to a unit, then the associated shooting unit can target it. So for Sentinels, this can be a model of the Scryhawk Lantern. It could be placed within a certain range of the shooting unit. Anything it can see can be targeted by the Sentinels, but it can also be targeted itself (and have a poor armour save) so, if it’s gone, no more LoS ignore. This system works very well in games like Bolt Action and Flames of War, where you have a lot of artillery with very long range. They can ignore LoS, but something must have LoS to the target to tell them where to point their guns.
Terrain: More terrain which blocks LoS could be useful. However, a lot of the fun of a fantasy battle is the spectacle of big armies clashing. While house-to-house fighting, Stalingrad style, can make for a great game, I wouldn’t want most AoS games to play like that. The solution here I think is to introduce more area terrain – things like scrubland, fields, marshes etc that can provide cover but not totally restrict movement
Short and Long-Range Accuracy: This would help provide balance and make shooting more intuitive. For weapons such as bows, handguns, and crossbows, shots should be less accurate at longer range. Again, something that Bolt Action and Flames of War do very well. 18″ is a sensible range for most non-artillery weapons, as it makes the enemy think twice about getting close enough to charge (which really is a key point of having ranged units as a counter to melee). It could make sense for 12″ or less to count as short range; beyond this distance, units shoot at an unmodifiable -1 to hit, and with an exception for sniper-type units (which might need their own limits), cannot inflict mortal wounds. I can’t stress enough how well this works in Bolt Action and FoW: shooting weapons retain threat and effectiveness, but you don’t get situations where units reliably shoot everything off the board in fact, this is a major reason why I barely play 40k any more. These games just do shooting (and armoured vehicles and aircraft) in a way which is hugely more fun to play.
Most Threatening Enemy: This idea is borrowed from L’Art de la Guerre, which unlike BA and FoW is mechanically a very different game from AoS and 40k. It’s based on simulating large-scale ancient and medieval battles rank-and-flank style, with rules designed to make shooting a way of whittling down enemy strength before engaging them in melee. This includes a damage cap on shooting (meaning the weakest units would need to be hit by a unit twice to break), and requiring ranged units to shoot the enemy closest in front of them – the ‘most threatening enemy’. What I think would work well for AoS would be a rule which does this within 12″ (i.e. charge range).
So what would Sentinels look like in a game with these rules changes? They could shoot at a target 30″ away providing they or their spotter model can see it, but when they did, they’d do so at an unmodifiable -1 to hit. They could use the spotter to ignore LoS, but the opponent could deny this by killing the spotter. Once an enemy came within 18″, they could shoot without penalty and deal mortal wounds. If an enemy got within 12″, they would have to shoot it (and would do so without penalty). So they’d still be very scary, and still retain their unique abilities, but there’d be scope to counter them.