Armagideon Time

For a dude who was constantly short of cash, Jeremy could be pretty resourceful when it came to some glittering object he coveted. (Which might have been the cause of his cashflow problem, alongside the staggering student debt he’d racked up before dropping out of BU, now that I think of it.) A week after he begged a twenty off me for dinner and a blister of genestealer figures, he called to announce he’d acquired a copy of Necromunda.

The game was one of the many spin-off box set jobbers Games Workshop released, frantically supported, then abandoned during the Nineties. The cybergothic gangfighting concept was based off the earlier “Confrontation” rules published as stray drips and drabs in the pages of White Dwarf a few years prior. As the core Warhammer 40k game had upscaled into larger scale engagements with more models per side, Necromunda was a more modest affair in keeping with the skirmish-based spirit of the original Rogue Trader rules.

Each player took control of one of the high concept gangs which battled for loot and turf in the hazardous sub-strata of a continent-spanning megacity. Each gang consisted of a mix of rank-and-file gangers, disposable neophytes, and big gun-toting “heavies” directed by a “leader” character. Rosters totalled around eight to ten models per gang, which could be supplemented by “hired guns” — assassins, gunslingers, scouts, and the like — who possessed additional abilities and were available on a pricey per diem basis.

In keeping with the smaller scale focus, the game was less concerned with tight unit cohesion than 40k was. Sticking together was encouraged by mechanics such as “pinning” — where a targeted model would be forced to hunker down behind cover if it failed a morale check — but lone wolf sniping and flanking approaches were left to the discretion of the individual players. Necromunda also put a greater emphasis on verticality than 40k did, with the pack-in plastic ‘n’ cardstock scenery including multi-story towers and rickety gantries to ascend in search of a tactical advantage.

The biggest innovation Necromunda brought to the gaming table was its incorporation of role playing elements. Previous GW wargames had encouraged players to improvise rules for serialized campaigns, but Necromunda included those mechanics right out of the box. As a player’s gang completed engagements, it received rewards and penalties based on its performance. Individual gangers could obtain special skill or stat advances, turn up a rare bit of loot to add to their kit, or suffer from a permanently debilitating injury. Income for upkeep and basic maintenance was derived from the number and quality of places it held as its “turf,” which could change hands depending on an skirmish’s outcome.

The system was ideally arranged to be administered by a third-party “Arbitrator,” but was capable of functioning just fine between two regular players willing to be flexible and fair with it.

I never got around to playing the game with Jeremy, though I was intrigued enough to buy my own copy of the core rules and the Outlanders supplement. At first it looked like another thing I picked up out of curiosity but never got around to playing, but then something strange happened. Lil Bro got legitimately interested in it.

As part of my role as the elder sibling, I spend a good deal of my youth imposing (consciously or unconsciously) on my baby brother. This was further reinforced by our peculiar family situation, where that insularity that comes with having fucked up parents strengthened both our friendship and that parentified sibling hierarchy. It led to a lot of tension during our later teens, but mellowed out by the time we’d hit our twenties (or just plain twenty in Lil Bro’s case). It’s why I never tried to pressgang him into playing 40k with me, though I probably would’ve if we’d been ten years younger. He’d come into his own thing, I’d settled into mine, and it was healthier to embrace any overlap instead of faulting the differences.

Lil Bro getting into Necromunda without getting prodded into it was a big thing, and I was more than happy to indulge him. We spent a sizable portion of that summer pitting our gangs against each other on the floor of my grandmother’s living room. He started off with the masked zealot Cawdor faction before switching to a Dune-inspired Van Saar gang, with clan of scabrous Scavvies as an occasional alternative. I mostly stuck with an Amazonian punk Escher gang, with a hi-tech Sypre hunter group and Ratskin warband when I felt like a change.

(Dear lord, the Ratskins. They were supposed to be the underhive’s indigenous inhabitants, whose knowledge of its hazards gave them a leg up on the other upstarts. In keeping with the Old West underpinnings of the game’s theme, the faction’s aesthetics and fluff were drawn from North Americas native tribes…or a British game designer’s vague notions thereof. I’m sure they meant well and did their best to be respectful but…..woo. Hindsight is a hell of a thing.)

Most Necromunda battles could be waged in under ninety minutes and some scenarios could be completed in under half an hour. There were days when Lil Bro and I would play four in a single day in pursuit of a new stat advance or to rescue a valuable ganger captured in the previous dust-up. “One more game?” became our mantra, and our dedication was so fierce that we kept on playing even after the dude who lived across the street used a stink bomb to flush a groundhog out of his garden and flooded the ground floor of our house with the eye-watering stench of egg salad farts for most of the afternoon.

As our gangs evolved and obtained new gear, we’d convert existing models or pick up new ones to reflect the changes. I sacrificed my 40k Vindicare Assassin figure to convert a unique and distinctly badass leader for Lil Bro’s Van Saar group. Any remaining cardboard and foamcore in my stash was used to whip up increasingly complex structures for our battles. (The boxes containing that scenery were one of the things I left in my grandmother’s attic, and now I’m torn about what to do with them. I don’t really have the space to store them at my place but I’d also feel bad about plopping them into a dumpster.)

That was our summer. If we weren’t working or hanging with our friends/significant others or buying old comics in bulk (this was also the beginning of the Great Back Issue Buying Spree), we were sprawled on the industrial carpet of my grandmother’s living room, measuring ranges, rolling scatter dice, and praying for the least crappy outcome on the post-match casualty table. It was all consuming while it lasted, but faded fast once September rolled around and our college schedules became a priority. By the time the next summer rolled around, our interests had drifted elsewhere and Lil Bro was preoccupied with his transfer to UMass Amherst.

I have a difficult time playing competitive games against Lil Bro. There’s a part of me that can’t help hearing my parents say “look after your brother” no matter how desperately I want to win against him. Necromunda was the exception because it gave a sense of progress no matter who emerged victorious from a given engagement. Sure, you might take some lumps and lose your gang’s MVP to a series of unlucky rolls, but those setbacks were in service to a greater narrative. It was more about cultivating your little crew of miniature avatars over the long haul than total domination in a given match. That went a long way towards mitigating and pressure or guilt I might have felt about a lucky streak or crushing loss. We were opponents, but we were also working together towards something, and I was just as interested in his gangs’ development as I was in my own.

I haven’t played or thought much about Necromunda since then, apart from placing a few of my favorite figures in the dining room curio cabinet as a sentimental gesture. When I heard Games Workshop recently released a shiny (and expensive) new edition of the game, I did consider buying a copy for a few moments. Honestly, though, I’m past the point where I can justify dropping that amount of cash on something that’s just going to take up space in my attic within a week of it arriving. Even if Lil Bro was willing to pick up that old thread, the logistics of our present lives would make scheduling such a thing more hassle than it would be worth.

Then again, I still have all our old figures and boxes of scenery just idling in storage…

Related posts:

  1. Role-Playing with the Changes: Long revision
  2. Role-Playing with the Changes: The last geeks in town
  3. Role-Playing with the Changes: Grim future past

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