Battle Bros Season Four, Chapter II: We Never Learned How to Read

Battle Bros is an ongoing bi-weekly column where Drew (PantsOptional) taught his brother Chris (head58) how to play Warhammer 40,000 and now is being hoisted by his own petard as he learns Necromunda. Catch up on their past adventures here.

Meet the Battle Bros


The older of the two brothers, and for once the more experienced in what is to come.


The younger brother, slowly realizing the horrors he has unleashed upon himself.

CHRIS: I’m not entirely sure why you’re here – or why I am frankly – but we’re glad you are, brickpigs. If you skipped last week, this season we’re exploring Necromunda. Just as our first season started due to me accidentally winning some 40K stuff, Drew was “gifted” a box of Eschers and now he has to suffer with me in the deep sump. We all float down here!

We started out with general kvetching about the game last time. This week I turn the Torment up three more triangles and give him a swirly in the morass of game rules.

DREW: Because the rules for this game are scattered across dozens of books, you were kind enough to send me a fan-made compilation of the rules (which we will not be naming nor linking). Well, maybe not “kind.” This thing is dense and it’s huge. We’re talking 400+ pages of “all killer no filler” rules text with no illustrations outside of explanatory diagrams – real engrossing stuff. For the first few weeks every time I tried to sit down and read through it I had to save versus paralyzation, poison, and death magic. It trapped me in a loop of opening the file, glazing over within moments, and then quickly alt-tabbing to go watch Doctor Who episodes from before you were born in an attempt to travel to a world where you could not hurt me like this.

Granted, that may be unfair because it seems to include all the unit profiles and missions and a similar volume for 40k would have to include all the codexes, indexes, rules commentary, Crusade supplements, matched play season packets, and all the missions for every mode of play. As a conservative estimate that theoretical volume would be roughly a million terabytes and still be marginally more readable than Infinite Jest.

The Marine for scale attempts to escape the dense gravitational pull, but nothing can escape an event horizon.

CHRIS: I only realized later that the compilation is a much better reference tool than a way to learn the game. I honestly can’t even imagine jumping into this game using this – the official rule books are a masterwork of organization comparatively. So you’re welcome.

The good news is that the rules (well, most of them) got compiled and revised into a single book thick enough to be used as home insulation. Seriously, the rules scatter used to be so much worse. Now you only need the new core book, your gang’s “House of” book, maybe one of the Cinderak campaign books that has your house’s special vehicle rules in it, the Book of Outlands so you can build and customize vehicles, and the new Apocrypha book because oops after we made that one giant new “complete” rulebook we found a couple of things under the sofa, but not all of the things went into that book, some are only still on Warhammer Community or in a landfill under all those copies of the Atari “ET” game.

It used to be worse. Really. At least the core has an index, and presents the basic concepts in a pretty straightforward manner.

DREW: To be fair, I also did get the book a little later and…. it’s fine? It still raises a lot of editorial questions for me – the fact that there is no information in the post-battle section about how an injured ganger gets out of Recovery, not even a “see page XX”, feels very much like someone just expected me to know where it was and saw no point in directing readers to information they already should have had. Every professional computer toucher out there knows this kind of pain.

CHRIS: Oh and there’s the Tactics cards. How could I forget the joy of cards that are only ever in stock for a window briefer than that of an avocado’s ripeness? There are approximately four billion Tactics but you’ll only ever pick the same four or so. And you’ll forget to use them during the game. They’re like 9th edition Strats if someone was being paid per card and was elbow deep in debt to Whitey Bulger’s boys.

DREW: Luckily, most of the core of the rules are pretty old hat to anyone who’s played 40k for long enough. For example, it’s not too hard to look at a statline and deduce that “S” refers to Strength or that you go through a series of phases starting with the larger game-level phase and then progressing through an action phase where you move, shoot, and punch. Likewise, there seem to be about a million conditions and terrain features, but I have a handy mnemonic trick for that called “asking the other player what the hell that does every single time” which I’m sure will never get old.

CHRIS: This game was why God created reference cheat sheets. Of course, they’re in 4 point type and six pages long. But everything you need should be in there!

DREW: I do have one question, though. You see, the game has three specific characteristics that caught my eye. There’s Leadership, which measures how well the unit can follow orders in the heat of battle; there’s Cool, which measures how well the unit can keep calm in the heat of battle; and finally there’s Willpower, which measures the unit’s ability to remain mentally strong… in the heat of battle. My question is: did you write these rules? Follow-up question, am I getting Punk’d?

CHRIS: Look, as someone whose favorite role playing game is Rolemaster I am so inured to the effects of multiple repetitious stats so I barely noticed these. In fact I barely look at them. I’m no professional Necromunda player but I can’t recall any time I used Willpower or Leadership. Maybe when a model takes Drugs? But not the Good Drugs, the Bad ones? (Goonhammer’s legal team is telling me I have to say all drugs are bad, stay in school kids.)

Of course the only photo in the Goonhammer media library for “drugs” is Necromunda. Credit: Kevin Genson

Cool is important because I play Goliaths and that’s their only really good non-physical stat, so it must be important. It keeps you from freaking out and running off the battlefield, which some people consider “bad.”

DREW: For those of you that aren’t familiar with Necromunda, here’s a quick breakdown of the rules. You build your gang using a pool of credits to buy gang members and sweet gear, then set them out on a mission that ostensibly has rules but is in fact more about how many times your gangers can get lit on fire and fall off of walkways while Wilhelm Screaming.

The game itself is broken down into turns which are further divided into phases. You start with the Priority Phase, in which you roll off to determine which player has Priority for the rest of the turn. Then comes the Action Phase where you take turns activating your gangers and having them do things like move, shoot, or slap the hell out of each other. Then there’s the End Phase which is when the broken and beaten get a chance to either pull their shit together or get the fuck outta Dodge.

CHRIS: The Action Phase is an alternating activation thing, you activate one model then your opponent does, etc. Apparently the original edition of the game was a full “I go you go” thing and that is terrifying. I could very easily see that going very badly and nearly getting tabled on the top of turn 1. Which, as bad as I am at pretty much every game, is an achievement I have yet to unlock.

I shouldn’t need to say this but just in case this is somebody’s first Battle Bros column: do not expect this column to teach the rules to this game, or really get anything about those rules right at all. In fact if we say something you’re probably better off doing the opposite. We’re like Bizarro, but stupider.

Becoming Bizarros would be the only way that we could get any whiter.

The thing with Necromunda is that the core rules are a little bloaty and maybe outdated, but they’re not that tricky. But then you get into the weapon traits and skills and pile options upon options, 80 percent of which you won’t use in any given game. I think playing this game must be like being an 18th century doctor, where things are kind of sort of written down somewhere but if you just go in intending to play by vibes you’ll have more fun and everything will work out okay, probably, at least for you.

DREW: Cocaine surely played a large part in both 18th century medicine and 20th century Necromunda design.

To put aside the cheap laughs for a moment, one thing that struck me about this ruleset is that while it clearly has updated rules from the ‘90s version, it feels like those updates are not philosophically different from its predecessors. Take a look at 40k 10th edition. Everything is modular and relatively trimmed down, with keywords playing a large part and a comprehensive rules reference document. That’s a very modern design approach.

In contrast, Necromunda feels like a chassis of modernity set on a frame that’s very much still of the nineties and resistant to change due to its fixation on detail. Both games are very much restrictive games (meaning that anything that is not explicitly allowed by the rules is disallowed) but where 10th edition bakes most of those exceptions into your army, detachment, and unit rules, Necromunda has so many conditions, traits, and abilities laid out in a mostly-universal fashion that any further exceptions have to be added to the pile. I keep visualizing a pair of Lego builds where one person uses detachable pieces that can be swapped out while the other one just keeps supergluing everything into a massive tower.

Artist’s interpretation, again with Samuel L. Jackson Beez in the Trap Marine for scale.

With a new rulebook just last year it seems unlikely that there will be any real revisions any time soon, at least not in the sense of 7th to 8th edition or 9th to 10th edition of 40k. I also wonder how resistant the player base would be to a radical upheaval of the rules. After all, GW tabletop gamers are a notoriously stable bunch who have never done anything rash like light their entire armies on fire just because something changed.

CHRIS: Ash Wastes already juiced up the game a lot, but that was adding a whole new dimension rather than changing out any of the infrastructure. I agree that I don’t think they would ever make Necromunda a sleek, modern skirmish game (which of course means they’ll announce a new edition about a week after this goes to press). The cruft and clunkiness are part of the charm. Hell, all those mental stats you were kvetching about – Cool, Will, Intelligence – were actually added in the 2017 version. They reached back and grabbed the stat block from Rogue Trader, I believe as a conscious fuck you to modernity.

One way that Necromunda is a modern style skirmish game though is that it uses special dice. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Atomic Mass Games.) I get easily frustrated by games that use dice covered in symbols that I have to go look up every time, because I’m incredibly dim. And they never really give you enough in any starter box to play the actual game. Fortunately Necromunda doesn’t go overboard on this.

There’s an Ammo die (I will not use dice as a singular – we fought a war against you people to get away from exactly that kind of thing) which you use to determine that your expensive boltgun has run out of ammo on its first firing and is just an affectation for the rest of the game. There’s a scatter die so when you miss with a Blast weapon it can scatter into the one spot on the board with no models on it (or better, your own). And there’s the Injury die, which you roll when you’re out of wounds to see if you’re proper fucked, only mostly fucked, or certain to be fucked by the end of the round. Ash Wastes added a bunch of extra special dice for when car things go badly but we’ll deal with them later when I trick you into buying vehicles.

DREW: You’ll never take me alive!

CHRIS: I’m okay with that.

Next Time: It’s All About the Aesthetic

Drew suffers the truest agony of all as he’s forced to assemble and paint models that aren’t Space Marines.

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