Saturday, March 10, 2012

Interview for HOP- Lantz McDonald

I wrote a series of articles about designing better games for House of Paincakes over the past 2 months or so. While I was working on the process and developing material for the series, I conducted a good number of interviews with various people across the internet, as well as some real life folks.

This time around, I am featuring Lantz of Twin-Linked Awesome . Lantz was incredibly kind and generous, and really surprised me with great observations about what it really takes to design a Codex-type project. Listen in as we talk all things AdMech!

Lo: Would you mind telling me a little about your project? What inspired you to take the project on?

Lantz: My project, a Fan-made Codex for Warhammer 40,000 that can be found at, has been a ruleset I created for the Adeptus Mechanicus. About 2 years ago, after reading the book Titanicus by Dan Abnett, I wanted to find a fandex that mirrored Dan Abnett's take on the AdMech. After a lot of digging I found a few AdMech fandexes, but they were all out-dated, unfinished and/or imbalanced. And none of them really captured the same feel I wanted.

After reading through a few of these fandexes it seemed like it was something I could do myself, and better. Not to sound obtuse, I just have some OCD left in my blood and so I have attention to detail pouring out of me. So I began work, in what was early 2010, on a respectable fandex for the AdMech. Since then I've put out 3 versions, accumulated works from all over the community including four amazing authors for a lot of the fluff and we're now at a full 100 pages of content. It's coming along nicely if I do say so myself.

Lo: I'm a big fan of mechanical adepts in systems other than Warhammer 40,000. Are you familiar with any other versions of this concept? If so, did the "other takes" on the faction influence you in any way?

Lantz: Not terribly; the Mechanicus were my first real exposure to dudes replacing their organs and limbs with bionics and servo-arms. At least with any depth anyway. I've always been a fan of robots of any kind, though. There's definitely some inspiration from my years of robot fondness within the book.

Lo: I notice that your project still isn't listed over at BigJim/GalaxyInFlames' Codex Project. A while ago, you said it was because you wanted a really quality result before you published or shared elsewhere. Do you feel that you still "need more work" before your fandex is ready to go on a page like that?

Lantz: You are correct. In version 2 of the fandex I didn't think it was TCP-worthy, so I didn't even bother looking into posting it. Now that version 3 is out, and things are a little more cleaned up and defined, TCP was one of the places I looked to promote the project. Unfortunately for me it looks like they've made some changes and now focus on promoting fandex projects that are being worked on within their forums/website. It looks like TCP will set you up a blog and forum section as well as get others involved in your project to work on it. They also suggest setting up a Google Docs for your team.

It sounds really great, what they're doing over there and all they're willing to do for start-up fandexes, but my project already has a blog and website, I have a fluff-writing team and I have no need for Google Docs as I do all editing/formatting and rules-refining myself. Two years in, my fandex isn't a start-up by any means. When I started this project TCP was a goal to work towards, but it looks like I'll have to set that one aside, sadly.

Lo: How do you handle the concept that your goals will change? Has input from your collaborators made any affect on your process along the way? How did/do you handle comments of "hey, this is terrible" when your material is reviewed by others?

       Lantz: Goals come and go with this project if I were being truly honest with myself. The whole single objective thing doesn't truly exist and the subject of goals is fleeting. There are ideas you start out with and things you look forward to completing that end up just not working out due to this or that.

Lo: That's a really enlightened attitude. A lot of people get stuck on goals and don't know how to move on.

Lantz: I think when you have a project it's an important trait to be able to adapt to anything, especially your goals changing. There are ones you can hold on to and there are some you can't. If you grip on to something that just doesn't work due to your own selfish wants, the project suffers.

A small example; I wanted a Troop choice with a 2+ armour save in this fandex. For months I tried to make it work, and I did for the most part. The glaring issue was points cost; and that issue didn't blink. Unless you're Grey Knights, you either get an interesting Troop or a tough-as-nails Troop; never both without paying more than 30pts per model. You look around at other codices and a 2+ save on a Troop choice just doesn't happen, which is why I wanted it. (Coming full circle;) A goal for this project was to stretch the limits of the 40k ruleset: look at the current rules and say "No, GW's wrong. I can do it better." Whether this happened as often as I'd like is another story, but that's just more of the fleeting goals talk.

2) Someone said it was terrible? I kid; negative feedback was plentiful and often with this project. The ratio of "This is awesome!" to "This is awful!" is probably a 1:7. It's not discouraging, though. If anything it's inspiring. I aspired for every version of this project to be a flawless masterpiece that was fair, balanced and loved by all. Obviously, if you've seen version 1, you know this was an unrealistic expectation. The negative feedback is what makes the fandex, though. As much as I enjoy the inspirational commentary and knowing how much people love the fandex, the negative feedback is infinitely more helpful than the positive.

One of the people I worked with closely when this project was first getting off the ground, Derek Reihe, is a blunt individual. When something was just plain bad, he was sure to inform me. No beating around the bush, just, "This is bad. This is why it's bad. This is how to make it better." And that's essentially what I'm looking for in all feedback: Tell me what you don't like, tell me why and tell me how you would fix it. It may not seem like it at times, but I do read each and every email I get for feedback on this project. Just because someone doesn't like something doesn't mean it's going to change or even change how they want it to, but everything is taken into consideration. I'll spend hours debating, calculating and deciding on a 5pt change in a unit's cost or a 1pt change in their Leadership stat. I don't take anything lightly when it comes to the rules of this fandex.

Lo: Tell me a little about the point costing process, please. You mentioned earlier that a balanced 'dex was very important to you. How did you decide whether something was overcosted or incredibly cheap?  How often did you compare your result to other existing Codexes?

Lantz: Point costing is an ever-changing process. Essentially I'll create algorithms based off of units that already exist in 5th Edition (and if I absolutely have to, older editions.) I'll take a unit and "reverse engineer" it by comparing it to another unit with similar traits as an anchor. If there isn't two or more units similar to what I'm making I have to wing it by using previously made algorithms based on type (walker, MC, IC, etc.) As an example, a Walker's Strength value is not equal to Infantry's Strength value in points cost, not by a long shot. The same goes for Armour Value between transports and tanks, the AP on a blast weapon compared to a single-shot weapon and so on. For the most part I've gotten everything down to the decimals for stats, wargear and special rules. Whether this is how GW does it or not, I have no idea, but it has worked for me and with this last edition I'm proud to say not a single person has complained about the cost of a unit in the fandex.

Lo: Again with the balanced comment. Something I've noticed about GW Codexes is a strong ratio of bloat to balance, but the newer codexes do seem to be getting better. Do you feel you've avoided the bloat (or better described as "filler")? If yes, how did you accomplish that?

Lantz: Necrons are my favorite race in the 40k universe and I'm very pleased with the new rulebook. I've shared my opinions on it in excruciating detail on my blog, so I'll just leave it at, I feel this is the first great thing GW has done in a long time. Filler doesn't exist in the Necron codex, save maybe Flayed Ones in other's opinions, but I feel they still have a place. I previously thought there were some "bad" units in it, but the Necron codex is a complex puzzle to be unlocked. Those who can unlock its potential like the book, those that can't will call it a horrible codex.

As far as my fandex goes I have no idea if I've solved the filler-issue. I do have a lot of units, but they're also based around roles I wanted to fill, so my hope is nothing feels like filler. The Necron codex has certainly opened my eyes wider to the ways of rules design (even though the AdMech had the controlling-enemy-vehicles rule months before the Necrons =P) and I hope I can modify the fandex further to get the kind of combo/Warmachine feel to list building that the Necron codex has. It's a very inspiring book, though it hurts a little to speak in high regard to Matt Ward.

Lo: How have you playtested this? Do you have a process that allows you to know if a game was "good" or "bad" for testing your army?

Lantz: Playtest it? Pfft, I didn't playtest any of it!.. It's just pure luck the codex works!

Kidding, of course. Playtesting is a huge portion of the fandex; maybe the most important element. You can write rules all day long, at the end of the day, though, you truly don't know what does and doesn't work on the table until you try it out. Playtesting involved me making a different list every week for the AdMech and playing it at my friend Eric's house with all of our tabletop friends. Sometimes it's team games, sometimes it's one on one, but the goal in every game is for me to bring a list that will further progress what still needs to be tested and/or try and "break" my own rules.

"Good" and "Bad" really depends on what I'm wanting out of a game or unit. An example being my first game ever with the AdMech, way back when. I attempted point costing things without any math put in it; just basic judgement calls. I won that game and I won hard. My expectation was a loss, a lot of losses as I got things off the ground and this didn't happen. This was important, though, as it forced me to realize points cost was going to take a hell of a lot more time than I had been giving it.

Another example is the Caminus-Priests unit. I playtested these guys I think five times without them doing anything. I'd either mishap when Deep Striking or their transport would get blown up and/or they'd get picked off while foot-slogging it. Those first five sessions trying to playtest them were rough, but because of that I kept making small changes to make them more powerful: tougher, so they could survive and I could get propper playtesting out of them...I shouldn't have done that. In a previous work six of these guys dropped in on a unit of ten Khorne Berzerkers and their HQ and killed them all via one round of shooting. It's not that they were weak in their original state, it was just bad luck getting them to perform. Once they did perform, though, I realized that I needed to dial them back to their original state and things are far more balanced now.

As for playtesting outside of my area, I have numerous playtesters online to thank for that.

Lo: Has your local group been supportive of your endeavors? Have you been able to play your AdMech in friendly games? Have you dealt with any stigma or negative opinion regarding your project (ie labeled as wanting your cake and eating it too, etc)? If so, how do you overcome it?

Lantz: Words can't explain my local group's support. There was a point a few months into the project where I was debating throwing in the towel on the AdMech. The more I delved in the more I saw the work that would be required stack up. What I expected only taking 6 months looked like it would take years. A week after telling this to my group they bought me a 40k terrain piece with AdMech symbols in it I had mentioned wanting earlier in the year. This helped keep me going; it was the first real plastic that I had for the AdMech and whether they realize it or not, it meant a lot to me.

LoThis is the most touching story, and encompasses what community means to me. Being part of a group that cares about each other is truly empowering and encourages greatness from every member.

Do you have any thoughts on how to foster community like yours?

Lantz: As I type this, I'm using the voice of Dr. John Dorian in my head, but sometimes it just takes one person to bring everyone together. For our group, Eric is that person. It started with him and our friend Aaron. Then I joined, then Sterling, then Tad, then Darrel, then Trent, then Keith and others come and go to play WMH and WHFB. His basement is dedicated to 40k every Sunday and over the years he has added and added to his setup for our enjoyment. There wouldn't be a group without him and his dedication. As a general rule, we don't enjoy playing with people that are there only to win/stroke their ego. If that's your bag, neato beans, have fun with that. But on our game time it's about having fun, kicking back with friends and playing with little plastic dudes. Having a shared understanding like that is really what keeps the fun going, even after four or so years. Other than that it's as simple as hanging around people with the same sick sense of humor as you. Being against table-flipping is an important characteristic in gaming buddies as well.

Playing with the AdMech has mostly stuck to friendly games; I know most people are uneasy about fan-made rules (and rightfully so, there is no shortage over overpowered fandexes out there.) My fandex is a very balanced book, but you can't just spend two minutes looking at it and know this. With the size of the rulebook it takes hours of digesting all of the information to make an opinion on its balance, and most people just want a quick game.

In my own games with the AdMech I haven't dealt with much backlash. The people I play with are solid thinkers and if something is overpowered they don't throw a fit about it, they simply punch me in the gut (not really,) and tell me how they would fix it without losing the unit, rule or weapon's original purpose.

Outside of my own games I have received plenty of harsh accusations that I'm "cheesing it out" or what have you, especially the first version of the fandex, which is fair. Point costs were severely reduced in version 1 to let people get more units into a list so more units could get playtested per game. This process definitely worked in speeding things along, but not everyone understood that is what was going on and the emails flooded in. I take solace in the fact that the negativity I receive lessens significantly from version to version, so I know I'm moving in the right direction.

Lo: It's obvious you're a critical thinker that likes to analyze mechanics, gameplay, units and weapons. Is 40K the only system you apply this kind of thinking to? You talk about the Necron Codex and how you view it as a puzzle to unlock; and specifically mention the 'quick thinker'. How do you approach a new codex? What processes do you use to evaluate units, cohesion, power level and so on?

Lantz: I guess it's a process. I have a horrible memory in general, so writing things out really helps it stick for me. The review I did of the Necron codex over at Miniature Wargame Conversions was not only helpful to the community, but helpful for me as well. After that I start making lists...lots and lots of lists... All in MS Excel and I include stats and wargear to help train my brain on what's what. From there it's playtesting things out. I normally go for the weird and gimmicky lists first to test limits, then pull back/dial it down into something that's actually competitive.

I'm very much a numbers guy. Armies like Space Marines or Eldar are easy to make lists for as what you have on paper will work itself out on the table more often than not. With the Necron codex it just doesn't work like that. Synergy and parts-of-a-whole are what make this codex great. I can make lists all I want; it's worked for the other armies I've played, but the Necrons? You have to play to get a true feel for their power. The complexity of list building for the Necrons is an intricate process as well, unlike anything we've seen before, but you can't understand the codex until you've spent some hefty time with it on the table.

Lo: What strengths do you see in your FanDex? What weaknesses do you see? Were there tools you wish you had while you were working on the project?

Lantz: I think uniqueness is a strength. There are a lot of units and rules that just don't exist anywhere else, yet are simple enough to not require a novel's explanation. I'd say another strength is the ease of the read. I've set up a format similar to official GW codices in order to help people discover the rules in a faster and more simplified manner. A lot of the fandexes I've read before have formatting that is just confusing. While some aren't necessarily set up poorly, they're just set up unlike anything GW would do, and that's a mistake in my book. Know your audience and where they come from. If you want people to read your fandex, you have to make it an easy and enjoyable format and the best way to go about that is following a format they've already seen 16 times.

On the flipside the glaring weakness is still clutter, to me. It's not clutter the average individual would notice, but there's a lot of what I consider clutter in the book. I have some OCD left over from my childhood, so organization is important to me, especially in projects like this. Every version gets cleaner and cleaner as I hope people can tell, the problem is the organization of everything is a beast. If I add a page in the middle of the fandex, then every page # changes from what it previously was past that page. So rules that reference "See page XX for blah blah" now need to be found and edited along with the page # references in the Contents and the stat pages at the back of the book as well as the FOC section. Eventually I'll have everything organized the way I want it, but it will be a long while...

Right now, I'm using the same tools I've been using since day one. MS Word, Adobe, MS Excel, MS Paint, Gimp and good 'ol Notepad. Gimp is somewhat new with all of the photos I've added in, but everything's pretty much the same. I'm pretty set in my ways on how I develop this project which is why I prefer to do all of the editing myself.


  1. Also of MWC ;P but you knew that. Great interview Lo.

  2. Anyone that wants to design game rules should read this article. This is extremely insightful.

  3. @ IceStation Lemon - I agree - 'insightful' is the right word.

    When the run comes to an end, an overall index page might be a useful thing to post too, to help interested gamers find them all again, maybe with links to the individual instalments of the ID series and the materials discussed, like Killzone and the AdMech FanDex. It could even be a kind of master resource for the designer / homebrewer.