“Karl: Schieß dem Fenster…”
When ‘Die Hard’ was released in 1988, it brought about an almost total paradigm shift in how action films were presented. Until John McClane, the action heroes hidden inside the sacred, filth-encrusted VHS boxes my brother and I rented from the Tudor Wine Merchants were indestructible he-men whose steroid streams probably didn’t have any room left in them for blood. After ‘Die Hard’? The bodydonnas disappeared forever.
Pictured: That’s pretty tricky with that accent. You oughta be on f**king TV with that accent. But what do you want with the detonators, Hans?
McClane became the template for every action hero that followed, and there’s a simple reason why:
He goes through the whole film barefoot as a hillbilly.
Okay, now, hear me out.
So there’s a reason they’re called ‘movies’; it’s because they move. Comparing film to writing is like comparing football to snooker: they’re an entirely different experience, invoking entirely different emotional responses. Writing allows you to get into a character’s head in a way that no other art form permits… But only films let you see. There’s a reason Quidditch is boring to read about but amazing to watch.
This fundamental difference means that while in literature there’s a primacy given over to thoughts, feelings and internal monologues, in movies, there’s a primacy given over to visuals, aesthetics, movements.
Action defines character.
John McClane starts ‘Die Hard’ completely alone. So far, he’s no different to Arnie in ‘Commando’, that other perfect 80’s action film, and ‘Die Hard’s diametric opposite.
Where ‘Die Hard’ differs is that McClane is NOT indestructible. McClane’s power doesn’t come from a gym-chiselled physique, hewn by hours of lifting that heavy, heavy iron. If Arnie is Herakles, McClane is Odysseus – a guile hero, forced by circumstance to rely on wit and intellect to defeat an otherwise superior foe.
His bare feet are the ultimate symbol of this. We walk everywhere in shoes, and as a result, bare feet are a symbol of safety. Shoes provide protection, socks provide warmth, but bare feet? Bare feet are utterly vulnerable: McClane is never in control of the situation. The terrorists are so dominant, he’s not even got time to pull his socks on before he’s out the door. Frankly, I’m amazed they allowed him the dignity of trousers.
Later, when a Karl the German doesn’t recognise his own language and has to be told to shoot the windows in English, that’s when we really get to see McClane’s vulnerability, as well as the kind of man he is. has to run barefoot across broken glass. With bleeding feet he exterminates his enemies with the efficiency of a Dalek on a sugar rush. It’s only after the adrenaline has worn away that we see the price he’s been forced to pay, pulling jagged fangs of splintered crystal from his heels and dropping them in the bloody, bloody sink…
Pictured: my tummy still feels funny looking at this…
At no stage is McClane safe, but he never, ever quits. Ever. And it’s not because he’s got superpowers. It’s not because he’s got a ridiculous physique. It’s because someone he loves is in peril, and he’s doing what he’s got to do. Every injury leaves him hurting, but he just doesn’t give up, and it’s through that suffering that his heroism is hewn.
Through his vulnerability, we see his brilliance. Through his weakness, we see his strength. Darkness allows for light.
If ‘Commando’ is awesome because sometimes we just want to watch Herakles bash in the Nemean Lion’s head with a tree trunk, ‘Die Hard’ is awesome because sometimes we want to see a hero get through just because he’s too f**king ornery to quit. McClane’s oh-so-human fragility makes his exceptional skills stand out all the more; the fact he’s vulnerable is what makes ‘Die Hard’ one of the greatest Christmas films of all time, if not the greatest.
It’s just like wrestling.
Doing The Job.
Wrestling, as I’m sure you all know, is fake. It certainly was back when I used to do it. Of course, given the fact that if you do it for any length of time, you’re going to end up living with pain as a constant companion for the rest of your life, it’s not really ‘fake’ so much as [fixed. Our bodies write a cheque in youth that we cash in old age, and I’ve always found it ironic that you’re safer as an real MMA fighter than you ever will be as a fake wrestler (or, in wrestling’s wonderful sociolect, a ‘worker’).
Whenever I tell people I used to wrestle, the second thing they always ask is ‘did you win?’
I always answer that the same way: why does that matter?
See, they know it’s fake, but they can’t get their heads around the fact that this means it’s not a sport… So winning might not necessarily be the measure of how successful I was. Wrestling is theatre, and theatre tells a story.
The goal is to make the crowds react, to get them as passionate as they can, just like an action film, or a Greek myth. This means that when you’re a wrestler, winning might not be a good thing. What’s important is getting the right reaction from the crowds.
Did I win?
Well, I was always a heel (essentially, a villain), so my job was to make the crowd despise me. I needed to get those boos, so I went after them, hard. I first expressed surprise that so many people could afford to be here; I didn’t think the dole paid that well. Then I explained to the grandmother in the front row that her children looked not so much like they had been hit by the ugly stick as massaged with it, and asked would she mind putting a paper bag over their heads? When she got angry, I explained that it was okay: I understood she couldn’t afford them, not now her looks were gone. So I handed her a pair of paper bags with a friendly smile. When the face (the hero) ran down to the ring, I ran and hid behind the ref. When the match began, I used every dirty trick: low blows, eye gouges, slaps to the face…
Needless to say, the boos came… But why did I need those boos? Why would anyone want people to despise them?
Because that’s the job. The thrill of the match lies not just in good’s triumph but evil’s defeat. If two faces fight, it’s not terribly satisfying, because that means someone you like is going to lose. Likewise, if two heels go at it, why should I care? All that means is someone I hate is going to win. The face/heel dynamic works because it means that someone I like is going to come out on top, and someone I loathe is going to be humbled.
So, did I win?
Well, lying on my back, looking at the lights as the ref counted the 1,2,3, I got the perfect view of my mate Mark while the crowd cheered him for finally laying me spark the f**k out. He went to the old lady I’d insulted, shook her hand, and gave her grandchildren high fives. It was beautiful, and without me, none of that would have been possible.
Did I win? Wrestling’s not a sport. It’s art, and walking out past those people who, for a short while had cared so absolutely… As an artist, the only thing that matters is that your art gets a reaction. It doesn’t matter if it’s a film, or a book, or a game. The reaction is all there really is.
The key component to any wrestling match is what’s called ‘selling’. Selling is the fine art of convincing an audience that you are in pain when you’re really not. Or, as is more often the case, that only the parts of your body that are narratively consequential are in pain. For example, you’ll hide the real, crippling pain in your back you’ve had all week – the one so bad you were crying for an hour the night before. Meanwhile, you’ll be selling the fictional pain in your knee – the one the face has been working over all match long, so that when he finally hits you with the ankle lock, his victory looks credible.
Selling moves is really the cornerstone of the art, because it allows a crowd to suspend their disbelief. Wrestling fans know what’s what, and have done since 1993 and the Zahorian drug scandal. We know it’s fake. We just don’t care, for the same reasons we don’t care that Robert Downey Jr. can’t fly in his little tin suit, or we don’t care that Night Lord helmets can’t fit through doors. When the story is fun, when you care about the characters, when you’re invested in the narrative, everything else just falls away.
The Fine Art of The No-Sell.
Now, the flip side of selling is ‘no-selling’; this is (obviously) when a worker doesn’t sell a move: they give the impression that the move had no effect. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you want to see no-selling done well, have a watch of the last few minutes of this classic match. It’s Bret Hart vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin, and is a masterclass in how to use selling and no-selling to tell a story.
The goal of the match was simple: Austin was a heel, but needed to turn face. So, after a match so violent it ended up with Austin’s face pissing blood, he ends up in Hart’s deadly submission move.
Now, you watch Austin’s body language at the end of the match, and it’s clear: he’s got nothing left. His face is etched with pain. He’s battered, and his eyes are so thick with blood he can’t even see any more.
But if he taps out, then he’s surrendered. And he hates Bret Hart so much, the idea is anathema to him. He’d rather let Bret Hart break his legs than give him the satisfaction. But Hart hates him too much to do that; Hart would rather have Austin in pain forever than give him release. These are two men who f**king despise one another – an immovable object caught in an unstoppable force.
In the end, Austin passes out. He simply refuses to tap, and passes out. Hart might have won… But it’s tainted. He wanted Austin to submit to his superior skill, and he’s been denied.
Austin does a very clever sell-job in this match. He sells the excruciating pain of Hart’s attacks. This gets across two important pieces of character information: Bret Hart is a dangerous, deadly combatant, and Austin is vulnerable to him. Then, by not tapping out, he strategically no-sells Hart’s finishing move. This conveys more character information: Stone Cold Steve Austin doesn’t quit. Ever. Oh, he may pass out, he may lose the match, but he never quits.
And people love that. We love a good Determinator. By the end of the match, Austin had the crowd were firmly behind him: he was now a face. All through careful ‘ring psychology’: the deliberate application of selling and no-selling.
So no-selling isn’t automatically bad. It can create incredibly powerful narratives.
That said, there are other times when…
The Problem of The Lensman Arms Race.
When selling is the norm, no-selling looks impressive as hell, because you’re impervious to injury. Every wrestler wants to seem like a scary, credible threat in the ring, and no-selling is an easy way to do that. In the Eighties, only a few wrestlers were allowed to no-sell: The Legion of Doom, Ultimate Warrior, and (perhaps most famously) The Undertaker.
Pictured: Mark Calloway, financial investor and owner of a not-insignificant Texan property portfolio.
Since those days, there’s been an increase in no-selling, with more and more wrestlers shrugging off what should be life-ending moves in an effort to seem like bigger and more deadly badasses than anyone else.
And that’s a problem. The whole point of selling is to establish that in-ring moves are dangerous. Speaking as someone who’s been on the receiving end of more than a few, let me assure you: they are. A simple standing suplex hurts more than you would readily believe. If it looks like it hurts, believe me, it hurts.
But when everyone’s no-selling, well. The crowd becomes conditioned to believe it doesn’t hurt. Moves lose credibility, and everyone gets caught up in an ‘arms race’ as to who can pull off the craziest moves.
And I do mean ‘craziest’. Seriously, how does a human even do things like this?
Everything gets bigger, more and more absurd, more over the top, until people are literally risking their lives to pull off manoeuvres. And this is why selling is so important. Spectacle is important, but the greatest fireworks display can only ever be beautiful. It can’t be more than that. A match made up of nothing but crazy moves isn’t a match, because there’s no greater meaning to what’s happening there.
When protagonists are unable to show vulnerability – weakness – the story loses an important quality. It loses drama. Like McClane, our heroes need to be able to suffer. We don’t care about the hero because they’re unbeatable.
We care about them because they aren’t.
THE COMPLETE DESTRUCTION OF REALITY ITSELF!!!
Speculative fiction is more guilty of no-selling than any other genre. Superman can lift an island made of Kryptonite into space. Batman can fight off a thousand impoverished and starving muggers using only four million dollars of high-tech ninja gear. Tony Stark can throw nuclear missiles with his bare hands.
Sci-fi and fantasy are, for most people, escapism. They allow us to run away into a world where we have the power to execute their apprehended wishes.
Ever noticed how often there’s an apocalypse in these stories, though? I mean, it feels like the world is always ending.
That’s the consequence of no-selling. The Doctor beats some jabronis who want to kill a person, and he stops them. Great, day won. But now the stakes have to go up, because otherwise there’s no risk. So now he has to save a planet. Then comes a solar system, then a galaxy, then the universe, then all of space-time, until the Doctor has to save all of reality itself.
A constant stream of victories, an endless parade of successes, and you very quickly run out of space to manoeuvre. After the Doctor stopped reality ending, where was there to go? They started telling stories about how his greatest threat was himself, because honestly, who was left that could remotely be a threat to him?
This problem isn’t unique to ‘Doctor Who’. After Buffy defeated a god, she ended up having to fight her best friend, turned evil by an entirely-too-convenient series of plot devices. When Dean and Sam defeated Satan himself, they fought a succession of invented threats who were somehow supposed to be MORE EVIL than that, the rampant no-selling culminating in the brothers Winchester killing Death himself.
It just becomes silly, and it’s all because of no-selling. The hero has to be vulnerable. There has to be a real risk of loss, a real chance of failure, or else nothing matters.
The best example of this I can think of comes from ‘Game of Thrones’. For all its (manifold) failings, the one thing this show gets absolutely right is that you never know who’s going to make it out of a fight alive, and as a result, when a fight does come – especially when there’s someone you really care about, like, in my case, Brienne of Tarth – you’re on tenterhooks through the whole thing.
Pictured: 185 pounds of glorious f**k you.
Weakness and the potential of failure leads to drama. And that’s something that’s as critical to good game design as it is to stories.
The term hamartia derives from the Greek ἁμαρτία, from ἁμαρτάνειν hamartánein, which means “to miss the mark” or “to err”. It is most often associated with Greek tragedy, although it is also used in Christian theology. Hamartia as it pertains to dramatic literature was first used by Aristotle in his Poetics. In tragedy, hamartia is commonly understood to refer to the protagonist’s error or flaw that leads to a chain of plot actions culminating in a reversal from their good fortune to bad. What qualifies as the error or flaw can include an error resulting from ignorance, an error of judgement, a flaw in character, or sin.
The ancient Greeks understood this concrete link between personal weakness and drama. Their theatrical genre of tragedy was actually a little more complex than the more modern idea. Essentially, a tragedy wasn’t just a sad story; it was a story where the protagonist’s own weaknesses led them to their demise. No matter what they might do, their own inflexible, flawed natures meant that there was nothing to be done to solve their problems, because the problem wasn’t the world: it was them.
Now, how does this relate to game design?
You remember that first conversion you did? The one where you got that Marine/Ork/Necron, dipped them in poly cement, and then threw them in your bits box? When they came out, they looked like someone made a porcupine out of guns.
We’ve all done that conversion. Putting a silly number massive, absurdly oversized weapons onto models without any consideration of where the bullets are going to come from. Why?
Pictured: Dakka. Dakka is why.
Well, for the same reason people buy Titans. The same reason people come onto forums and brag about that Titans aren’t a threat to them because they play Eldat and can field and ungodly number of Destroyer shots. The same reason John Cena never sells a bloody thing.
Because I wanna be the guy. I wanna be indestructible. I wanna be unbeatable. Weakness is pathetic. Weakness angers me. I’m weak in real life in ways I don’t like to think about; I don’t wanna be weak in my hobby!
Are you sure, though? Be honest: if the game doesn’t have a chance we’ll lose, is it actually fun to play? If we can’t be tested, how do we know we’re as good as we think?
Think about those games? You know the ones. Not the fun ones, or the good ones. The great ones. The ones you talk about down the pub. The ones where you haven’t made a mistake and neither has she. Where the dice haven’t betrayed you, but she’s been rolling just as well as you. The game where you both did everything right, and it’s neck and neck, and it’s the last round of the last turn, and the last dice roll and everything, everything hangs on this one roll. And if you make it, all your plans will have paid off, all that hard work just to get to this single chance.
Those games aren’t possible if you’re carrying an Uzi and your opponent’s got a pot lid.
Vulnerability is a key component of good game balance. Every army needs a flaw. A gaping vulnerability. A harmartia that a canny opponent can take advantage of and use. For the most part, this has always been a fundamental core to the game’s design. Armies have chopped and changed over time, but every one of them has some kind of fundamental failing that’s critical to the drama of playing them.
The List of 40K Army Harmartia
So what are the failings of each army? Well, I’ve listed what I think they currently are below, as well as what I personally feel they should be if the current one doesn’t fit the fluff. Of course, YMMV on all of this.
- Adepta Sororitas – Their dedication to bolter, flame and melta means that they’re generally poor at range and only middling at melee. This double whammy means their weapons force you to get close, where your low Toughness means you’re vulnerable to assault.
- Astra Militarum – Puny humans just can’t succeed as individuals, so you need to spam massive amounts of everything to succeed. All the Guard’s best units are deeply susceptible to assault, and they don’t have a strong counter-assault to that beyond tarpits.
- Cult Mechanicus – They don’t have any real anti-air, and their units, while powerful, are all weird. None of them are ‘fire and forget’, meaning they need real skill to be implemented, which makes sense given the Cult’s power lies in arcane technologies that are poorly understood.
- Chaos Space Marines – For various reasons I’ve explained before, they don’t – and shouldn’t – have access to all the shiny Imperial equipment, meaning they are forced to rely on expendable cultists, melee weapons and kewl magik powarz more than their Imperial counterparts. In 40K, your army can either run on sorcery or a science, but not both.
Pictured: you either get to be the antichrist or a science princess is what I’m saying.
- Craftworld Eldar – They’re cripplingly overspecialised; without careful deployment of their specialists in exactly the right way, they fold like a house of cards. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to be. At the moment, they’ve got things that allow them to sidestep this entirely, and it’s my opinion that this is what allows them to run roughshod over everyone.
- Dark Eldar – Like their Craftworld equivalents, they’re made of paper, but they don’t have the specialists, forcing their players to use desperate speed to stay alive. There should be concomitant ‘but they hit like a brick to the face’, but that hasn’t been true for years, sadly.
- Daemons – They’re chaotic, and therefore defenceless against their own nature and the whims of the Ruinous Powers’ fickle natures.
- Grey Knights – With great power comes smaller numbers. Also, you outrange exactly nothing and no-one; if you want to shoot at people, you’re almost always going to be close enough that they can shoot back.
- Harlequins – Their harmartia is the same as the Dark Eldar: horrifyingly squishy infantry, reliant on speed and illusion to survive.
- Imperial Knights – When power is this concentrated, well. Quantity is a quality all of its own, and one you struggle to deal with. When there’s only three of you, and that’s just not enough to swat all the flies and hold objectives.
- Khorne Daemonkin – overreliance on melee leaves them at risk of getting shot in the face.
- The Inquisition – A wide variety of troops… But they’re all primarily human, and therefore sub-par compared to everyone else’s specialists.
- Militarum Tempestus – Better armour and guns doesn’t mean you can go toe to toe with a daemon prince.
- Necrons – The ability to teleport doesn’t mean you’re fast, and being dead brings limitations, chief of which is that you’re very, very slow.
- Orks – Your boyz may be numerous, but they’re basically crap.
- Skitarri – same as Militarum Tempestus; you’re good at a lot of stuff, but you’re not really tough enough to take on other army’s specialists.
- Space Marines – You’re good at literally everything… And great at very little. And the things you do have that are great? Yeah, you’re not going to have many of those.
- Space Wolves – You’re rugged individuals… Which means you like being alive more than other Astartes. Enjoy your joei de vive by running away!
- Tau – Do I even need to say this one?
Pictured: a Crisis Suit takes on a Howling Banshee.
- Tyranids – In 1st edition it was the crippling dependence on assault (because you had exactly two units that could shoot). Now, it’s a crippling dependence on both synapse and unit synergy; every Tyranid unit needs a purpose and to be working with other units, or the legs are going to fall off your army in double-quick time.
Embrace Your Weaknesses
No-one likes the idea of being weak. But the thing is, without those weaknesses, our hobby is significantly less interesting. The idea of harmartia is as critical to good game design as it is to good storytelling, because the possibility of failure creates drama, and really, isn’t that why we game?
That’s it for this month, and, as always, thank you for reading. If you’ve enjoyed this, then feel free to click this link to be taken to this month’s bonus content, a flashback to the vaults where I go through how to construct a servo-arm.