[WFB] Never Start A Land War In Sylvania (Part 1)

“Hel Fenn?” the Lord Ruthven said to me. “My dear boy, everyone who’s anyone says they were at Hel Fenn. There are scions of our line barely out of their grave who’ll tell you they remember it like it was yesterday.”
“Do you?” I asked.
“History will tell you,” said the Lord Ruthven, “that I was nowhere near the place; that it was Adolphus Krieger who stood with Mannfred at the last, while I was derelict in my duties to my lord and still mourning my fair Emmanuelle.”
History, I reflected, is written by the winners; and history is very clear that at Hel Fenn, the house of von Carstein came off the worse…
But history, I also reflected, is frequently a lot of old cobblers.


Remember when I said I’d be retiring my Vampire Counts, “except for maybe the odd big exhibition game or something?”

The moment long awaited has come. Mr Joseph B, esquire of any parish he happens to be in, has arranged a day of fun and frolics at Warhammer World in two weeks’ time, with some big scenario-type fantasy-historical refight games afoot. One of which is a Hel Fenn game, basically adapted from the Hoodling’s Hole battle report but scaled down to four players and a modest 6000-ish points a side. One Thomas Æ, admin of the VC Facebook group and thus my online liege-lord, was to command the Vampire Counts tag team against a force of Empire, Dwarfs and one token High Elf Archmage, after the works of the revisionist Savile. But what’s this? Oh no and crikey, the other Vampire Counts player has had to drop out. What’s needed is someone with a Von Carstein or Sylvanian army ready to go and a drive to play big narrative driven games of Warhammer at the drop of a hat.

Oh hey. Whaddup. It’s your boy.

So Thomas has called dibs on Mannfred, which is actually fine by me as it frees me up to take the other big centrepiece figure I never get to use, i.e. my Zombie Dragon, and with Mannfred as overall General and the only figure whose death will induce army-wide Lancashire cheese behaviour, I can actually throw my Zombie Dragon into battle and not worry about the consequences if its rider gets shot off the back. Bonus.

I offered Thomas the choice of two army archetypes to support his fairly balanced 3000 point force (Mannfred costs no points in this scenario, but still occupies his normal triple helping of character slots). It was either going to be a cabal of dark wizards (Necromancer Lord, three Necromancers, Wight Lord BSB and the Dragon, plus a giant Spirit Host and Banshees to go) or the Army of Sylvania rising to defend their home (two Vampire Lords, one on a Dragon and one anchoring the defensive line of crossbowmen, spearmen, ghosts and Drakenhof Guard).

Thomas opted for the Sylvanians and so here’s me writing a list I never thought I’d actually get to field. Time to put some The Vision Bleak on the ol’ stereo and have at it.

In my heart, the year is ALWAYS two-thousand-five.

By the end of track three, this is what I had together.

LORD GLENARVON & AUGUSTA
Lord + Hero + Hero: Vampire Lord: magic level 3; great weapon; Zombie Dragon: 639
LORD RUTHVEN
Lord + Hero: Vampire Lord: magic level 3: 335
MEDORA VON CARSTEIN
Hero: Vampire Thrall; Army Standard: 105
LORD RUTHVEN’S REDOUBTABLE REGIMENT OF FOOT
Core: 30 Sylvanian Militia: spears, shields and light armour; Champion, musician and standard bearer: 325
Core: 20 Sylvanian Militia: crossbows and light armour; Champion, musician and standard bearer: 225
CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT
Core: 5 Dire Wolves: Scouts: 55
Core: 6 Dire Wolves: Doom Wolf: 60
Core: Bat Swarm: 60
Core: Bat Swarm: 60
GRAND ORDER OF THE CROSS OF SYLVANIA
Special: 20 Drakenhof Guard: Champion, musician and standard bearer: 340
Rare: 12 Drakenhof Templars: barding: Champion, musician and standard bearer: 340
THE WOE OF THE HOUSE OF RUTHVEN
Rare: Cora, a Banshee: 90
Rare: Clarice, another Banshee: 90

Magic items have yet to be selected, and will round the army out to the full 3000 points. I usually like to keep it simple in large games, but with access to the unusual Sylvanian bloodline powers I might have to go for some moving parts on the Lords. With only three characters to administrate things won’t be too complicated (he hopes).

It’s a little different from my normal Vampire Counts outing. Being Sylvanians, I can’t take two units of Knights, so I’m going to break out my massive unit with the actual Von Carstein shields and Drakenhof Templar colours for the occasion. Being Sylvanians, I can take my Drakenhof Guard and Crossbowmen, so they’re in without a second thought. And the nature of the scenario allows me to bring the Dragon, so there’s no way in hell she’s not coming out for a ride.

To cover all of this one significant cut has had to be made; I am not fielding my usual giant Spirit Host (which would normally get billing over any kind of Grave Guard). I also turned down the opportunity to take two Black Coaches as I know the scenario will have some big boggy areas and I don’t think the chariots are the best choice in those circumstances.

I won’t divulge the plan ahead of time, as I’m sure my canny opposition will be reading the blog (this is also why I’ve no intention of revealing my magic item collection). I do have one, albeit a very crude one, but it’s going to depend on exactly what Joseph does with the table on the day.

Of course, all this is assuming Thomas doesn’t veto me back into the Stone Age and demand I bring the Necromancers instead when he sees what I’ve done here.

[Game Dev] On Mörk Borg, and Free Kriegspiel Vampire, and Bloodspell

Last week, I bought MÖRK BORG.

I did this a) to see what all the fuss was about, b) because since Prince reviewed it I suspected the Dying Earth game of my heart’s desire might be buried in it somewhere, but mostly c) since I needed to round up a distributor order or pay for postage and packaging.

Here is a brief opinion on Mörk Borg: I love an A5-ish rulebook that fits in the same sort of space as my tablet, i.e. in a bag I can actually carry without throwing my back out; the system seems functional with just enough clacky clacky number stones to satisfy people who don’t think they’re playing a game if they don’t roll dice every few minutes; I like the atmosphere but the aesthetic choices throw me in a lot of ways, in particular the typeface changes mid paragraph get on my nerves (Chris Onstad would like a word). Seems fast, random, lethal and kvlt.

Having read it I immediately scurried back to my notes for Black Sand / Red Sun (the OSR-ish skull-and-planet campaign setting I will use the moment I have a face to face group who might be into it) and realised a) I’d written a lot more than I thought I had and b) the system I’d written was extremely close to Mörk Borg. Parallel evolution, really.

And this made me think about systems, and what they’re for, and why so many of us think we have to start with a bespoke system. I rejoined the FKR Discords I used to lurk on and this is something that’s percolated out of those conversations. It’s to do with my weird pathway into RPGs and why I always end up with just enough rules for me, which always feels like not quite enough rules for a “proper game.”

I came in with Fighting Fantasy, which showed very well that 2d6 roll low or 2d6 + X roll high opposed was enough for muscular heroics, railroading your way through a pretend shlocky sword and sorcery film, and things like magic worked as direct hacks to an encounter or challenge. Costs came off your Stamina. Saves came off ever-depleting Luck. People like to sneer at FF and AFF because they were made for an audience of bright children but you know what, the thing works. It was classical fantasy roleplay without the layers of alienating cruft.

When I got into 200+ page rulebook, genre-emulating, grown-up trad RPGs they always ended up hacked down to that basic level of operation. Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer FRP were percentage chance to resolve task and a tracker for wounds or sanity. Vampire in all its forms was compare stat pools, roll a d10 each for a random factor, with four trackers to which costs and consequences might be applied.

By the time I started to engage with the rules as written, I was already a man – and crucially playing with people I didn’t see and speak to every day. In those circumstances I think a heftier rule set compensates for the lack of organically developed trust. And, as with wargaming, when strangers do not place trust in one another they must turn to the rules, and the rules become more elaborate as they have to govern more and more possible interactions…

I could lament this, but to do so is to lament human nature. Of course we are wary around people while we get to know them. And some people like the theatre of rules play, the point of the “game” enterprise for them is assembling known factors to eliminate randomness and overcome challenges. Personally I like board games for that sort of thing, to each hole the peg best fitted and so on, but I understand the desire to blend outcomes.

This, I suppose, is the point of using something recognisably D&D-shaped for a creative endeavour like Black Sand / Red Sun; that a natural “rules are for arbitration and play-shaping, not core gameplay in themselves” roleplayer like me can run it in something like Mörk Borg or the Black Hack and it shouldn’t take that much to scale it up to your dad’s D&D if you have the time and patience to grapple with it.

In the meantime, here’s something else that’s been living in my head rent free while I think about all this. I know I’m not the first person to consider this (Cavegirl’s version is in a similar lane) but again, parallel evolution is the name of the game here. Most people who have fun with V:tM end up boiling away at least some of its convolutions.

It’s Not Quite Free Kriegspiel Vampire, But…

PENELOPE GERMAINE ARMITAGE-STONELEIGH
Cryptographer ; Priestess
Marechal: Status, Domain; Adversaries
Blood Leech: Protean; Against Other Kindred; No Eating Mortals
Lasombra: Dominate, Potence, Obtenebration; No Reflection
Hunger _ _ _ _ _
Humanity _ _ _ _ _
Willpower _ _ _ _ _
Health _ _ _ _ _

Breaking that down, that’s:

CHARACTER NAME
Pre-mortem occupation / Post-mortem occupation (bonus to anything derived from these)
Coterie Type: a couple of advantages and a disadvantage afforded to the whole group
Predator Type: a Discipline (general area of magic powers), a personal advantage and prohibition
Clan: three Disciplines and a disadvantage shared among all members of the clan
And the rest is all trackers. 1-5 because the “three rounds and you’re done” style of contemporary Vampire doesn’t need to go longer.

Rather than each Discipline being a tower of little subsystems and mechanics, they work as general areas; Dominate is anything to do with hypnosis and direct mind control, Potence is anything to do with raw, superhuman strength; Obtenebration is anything to do with weaponising shadows; Protean is anything to do with shapeshifting.

Dice rolls are five d10 plus one for each relevant advantage plus one for teamwork minus one for each relevant disadvantage. The Beast may be Roused to add two more dice but increase Hunger by one.

Dice results are per V5 with Hunger swapping in as I really like the critical/messy critical/bestial failure outcome there. (They’re easier to show than tell, so if you’re not a V5 player, trust me.) Only players roll, against a static target number of successes required (per the back of the V5 ST screen, very useful), and players only roll when Hunger would be interesting. Failures accumulate damage to Willpower, Health or Humanity. Damage loops around from Superficial (/) to Aggravated (X) and if you fill up on Aggravated you’re stuffed.

Keep the core rules this light and I might actually be able to find space in my head for Resonance, Dyscracia and all the other stuff V5 introduces on top of its core loop. More situational advantages and disadvantages, essentially.

Bloodspell

Remember that?

I bring it up because a little while ago, someone said the nicest damn thing to me: they told me that they had bought my game, played my game, enjoyed playing my game, engaged with basically everything in it and it had worked, and would I like to see a drawing of the characters they made with it? And did I want to know that it was my fault they were into other RPGs now?

That’s all I wanted. To know someone bought it not just to “support me” but because they thought it would be good, and that they were proved right. To know that it had been played.

I suspect that’s what’s tilted me back around to roleplaying and making things for it again. I really want to get some sort of face to face group together so I can figure out how to tackle BS/RS without the additional load of Discord gaming. It’s fine for what it is, but it’s not a natural fit for me, and the work of adapting to the medium is going to detract from the learning-how-to-OSR.

[Battlefield] In Gryphon Wood

I’ve always wanted to do that “welcome to Sylvania!” thing, where people come round yours for a game of the Warhams (or whatever) and you show them a battlefield that actually looks and feels like where your signature army is from.

I tried to do this with my swamp terrain from waaay back when this blog first started (more photos lost to my ragequit, tears in rain etc.) but never quite made it beyond the “trees, hills, removable section reveals river to scale dominating board” level – fine for generic engagements but not really evoking a specific territory.

Of course, these times are not those times. I am now more or less exclusively a Warhammer Fantasy Battle wargamer, I have two armies that are actually painted and an area of the TWW-“canonical” world in which they are compatible: the Gryphon Wood in the eastern Empire, on the border with Sylvania, in which Drycha is put into direct conflict with Mannfred von Carstein and friends. Not to mention the Kislevites and Ostermark…ians… that a couple of the London lads play. Mordheim, where it all began, is the first location one occupies in this campaign. It’s basically perfect.

I had to start a new Drycha campaign to take this shot and, er, ninety minutes later remembered I was doing a blog.

We have established that I generally do my own thing with regards to places and backstories, existing so deep in the cracks of the “canonical” world that I may as well be somewhere else, but it’s nice to be able to point at something that satisfies the amygdala-dwelling nerd instinct in oneself and others. That said, whatever terrain I concoct must also depict

I also have those GameIn5D cube boards that I’ve been meaning to do something with this side of forever – and those could each house one large terrain feature of up to maybe ten inches by ten, as long as it was seated on the right face of the cube and could be handled with care. That’s two large features per army. Some scatter bits between them and I might actually be able to conjure an evocative battlefield. It might even store reasonably well; I’d only need to find four cubic feet or so of space.

And this is where things get really mad, because I also have a Night Lords army, on similar snowy bases but with something different underneath – cracked black ice rather than the mixture of leafmould and grit that adorns my fantasy forces. And in the backstory I came up with for that army they’re literally intruding on the reality of whatever planet they invade, overwriting its substance with one of their own design. (I actually wrote this for my Necrons way way way back in the before time, but whatever, it’s a good trope.) Which means, maybe, that one 40K building – perhaps a Chaos portal of some sort with appropriate blending of ground styles underneath and around it – could actually represent the warp intruding on some forest terrain on a backwater feudal world…

The mind is now racing and the project spec running wild, so it’s time to rein in that initial enthusiasm and talk practicalities. I have a fair amount of hoarded resources – plaster bricks (and maybe some barrels and other bits, although I might have given those away at some point), a load of foamboard and card from work that could make good Mordheim-style buildings if I wanted to do a Sylvanian village, some foam polystyrene and a surface sealant Hark got me for Christmas a few years ago, and an absolute button of oldschool flock and model railway dust and black ballast that I’ve used for basing over the years. I’m pretty sure I have most of what I’d need to make four large set piece buildings to define battlefields. Maybe three, with the last cube kept open for storage of scatter pieces and creating space on a battlefield where it’s called for. That space could get me out of Sylvania when called upon, such as when occupying the fields of High Tiernmas of old.

There’s a side issue though: bases, and the standardisation thereof. The Night Lords have an excuse that the Sylvanians lack – over the long years of developing the Grand Army of Sylvania I have had to adopt different basing styles and the army isn’t coherent with itself, never mind anything else. Rebasing over a hundred rather brittle plastic undead doesn’t entirely spark joy but I think it should be done – the army would look the better for it. I’d like to standardise all the fantasy figures onto brown leafmould/static grass/snow… maybe I could cheat and daub snow scatter over the gravelly bits of the undead bases, so they were just snow with grass peeking through? I worry that would end up making the bases the brightest part of the figures, though. But there’s no saving my Sylvanian paint jobs anyway. I’m sure I’ll live with it.

I want to avoid hills. I have real issues with scale hills in wargames terrain; no matter how much you tell me that the hill is a proxy for something a lot taller I look at it and it’s lower than all the other bits that are in scale – look, a wargames hill should be humungous, it should be a slope that extends over an entire battlefield, the farty little hummocks we adorn our tables with are mere earthworks by comparison to the sweeping craggen moors of my homeland and I am not letting this go.

Rivers also throw me because I can’t get them to look right without building up the battlefield (with, say, sheets of foam poly) and then cutting back down to get the sides suitably steep and “below” the surface. Rivers that lay down on top of the playing surface just look wrong. I’d like to do a marshy area though, partly because I want to be able to cast Mistress of the Marsh on my own goddamn home table if nowhere else and partly because the old Perilous Quest campaign book had one in the finale. Plus I think I can fudge the visuals better if it’s just a different colour and texture of material around the flock, with no need for physical depth to represent what’s being represented.

I’m not necessarily saying I Will Do This. I need to move a lot of furniture and books around to make the space in which this stuff can be stored, and this isn’t a project to be embarked on without storage space in mind. When I talk about a project on the Internet it’s not an announcement as such – over the years I’ve learned that I use spaces like this blog to think aloud, to get a big exciting idea out of my head and into a theory post so that I’m not fizzing about the possibilities any more, and can devote my brain cell to the practicalities. The project needs to be out there, and described, so that it’s external to my mind and I can whittle it down somewhat.

Wouldn’t it be awfully exciting, though?

[WFB] An Imperial March?

I can’t get that Empire army concept out of my head.

Discussion on the sixth ed. Facebook group, regarding Knights of the White Wolf and their eminent superiority over other, lance-toting members of the cavalry fraternity, has given me a renewed enthusiasm for the Black Bears (look, they both have alliterative, animal-focused nomenclature, they are both renowned for boisterousness and bruiserhood, I think I can sleep easy giving the Black Bears cavalry hammers if I want to).

I’d already totted up the possibilities for Knights, State Troops of a static character (spears and handguns or crossbows; crossbows would mirror my Sylvanians very nicely, handguns would make the point that this is the modern Empire we’re working with) and Kislevites (either a couple of Ungol Horse Archer units or a bigger Gryphon Legion line) out of the Perry range, but there’s a lot more out there.

Poking around Wargames Atlantic’s website (I forget why) has revealed a large box of plastic Halflings; of course, Averland borders the Moot, and thus it is not beyond possibility that a regiment of Halfling Halberdiers (Halfberdiers?) and associated Archers and Huntsmen might be amassed to join the rabble.

I’ve been playing around with the Ogre Mercenaries in TWW2, and of course Ogres are an age-old feature of the Imperial armies; somewhere deep in the pits of my festering mind lurks the long-ago concept for Phat Tum Pot and his Legion of Lard (early-twenties Jonathan was a classy bloke when it came to naming armies). I don’t think I’m going to go all the way in on that name, but I’ve always liked that one Ogre Maneater done up in Empire clobber, and I’d forgotten how much I liked some of the others, especially the Paymaster. Being Citadel they run a bit pricey but one big stubborn oaf won’t kill me.

And of course, there’s something I forgot about the whole affair the last time I mentioned it: the Frostgrave Wizards, whose master/apprentice blister packs lend themselves ideally to a Lord and Hero level caster, or the same caster at different stages in their career. I’m very fond of very many of these models and if I’d gone all in on Fadgrave I’d probably be up to my neck in them by now.

I’ve been rereading the Woffboot Wizards’ Cup posts this week, and thanks to that I have wizards on the brain, so many of the Frostgrave figures have implied narrative potential coming out of their ears. I’m especially fond of the Sonomancer musical magicians, the original Beastcaster pair whose master-figure has turned into a cat fella, the carnivalesque Fatecasters and the sinister, overdressed Spiritualists.

But I think for Warhammer purposes the smart money is on the Astromancers (Heavens magic being the go-to for the Empire), the second generation Thaumaturgists (who’d do very nicely as a pair of level 2s from different, competing colleges) or either variant of the Sigilists, who are suitably bedecked in Scrolls to serve the true purpose of wizzos in an Empire army.

The whole is in grave peril of becoming a right old mess, but I wonder if the shabby black and old gold colourscheme would hold things together where the model ranges fell apart. There’d be some variance, of course, the Halflings in a more rustic brown-and-tawny version with more variety of colours under the surcoats and the Knights all glossied up to proper lacquer, with the State Troops falling somewhere in the middle. It occurs to me now that the wizzos could very well be variants on a theme, in white (well, off-white) and gold. Light wizards, to combat the gathering darkness. I’ve never played Light wizards before.

In battle I see the force advancing in oblique line, detachment by detachment almost; spears, handguns and artillery holding the centre, halfling halberds and bows advancing into the field, ogres taking point a little ahead of them and the knights out in front, racing for first blood.

If I had the capacity to rush out a new army just for Resurrection, this would undoubtedly be it: a muster at Grenzstadt, with the County of Averland, the Order of the Black Bear, the Elders of the Moot, the White College and a passing Ogre who thought “the hell with it” all contributing forces to a ramshackle errand of war; its duty to cross the Black Fire Pass and hold the way out of the Badlands against whatever nonsense the emerging conflict sent its way.

The background is writing itself at the moment, living in my head rent free; bereft of electoral guidance after the Storm of Chaos, a captain of Averland takes matters into his own hands, touring the province and meeting one eccentric character after another: drunken and boisterous knights who could probably command the whole fiasco, enigmatic lady-wizards with whom he shares a Past (TM), a Kislevite boyar who will probably kill him in the morning and, of course, the malodorous runts of the Mootland and their big smelly associate.

I have the Wood Elves to finish. I have over three thousand points of Tomb Kings who have been in the queue for four years. I have chronic pain conditions and can barely hold a brush for ten minutes at a time. I do not have time for this.

… I wonder if I can convince Shiny to paint them for me?

[WFB] If I Played…

It must be something about January. This time last year I was starting the Wood Elves, and this year the brain is gonging along with thoughts and feelings about… basically every Warhammer army under the sun. Not being made of money, nor time, nor the capacity to paint without my thumbs going weird like I’m in the middle of a bloody overdose, I am extremely unlikely to act on any of these impulses, so I share my ideas in the hope of inspiring someone else to do some new hobby this winter.

I don’t think I’d be very good at Bretonnians, but I do have a shaky kind of vision for an army. I’ve always had a soft spot for the scheming, man-eating sorceresses of Arthurian lore – your T. H. White’s Morgause or Camelot Morgana type – and such a high level wizard lady would probably be in charge of affairs. Leaning into Morgause as inspiration I’d probably load up on Paladin Heroes to represent her sons, one with the Virtue of Empathy because there’s always one good hearted friend to the peasantry (your Sir Gareth sort of figure). I see this army as being fairly indifferent to affairs of the Grail, with mostly worldly Knights of the Realm, second sons of petty nobility paying court to my sorceress.

I was very impressed by the Chaos soup armies I faced at Resurrection, and Chaos are always fascinating to play around with thanks to the sheer range of options there. I never really got my teeth into the Beastmen, and it’s the sheer flexibility of aggressive Tzeentch casters combined with game-changing mobility spells from Shadows and Beasts magic that get me here. Lots of dice and lots to do with them! It’s that or the Slaanesh army I posited late in 2019.

I don’t know why I don’t play Dwarfs. They’re infantry focused, they’re reliable, they have a conservative playstyle that generally aims for a draw in their favour as the best possible outcome, and they have no time for Orc mischief or Skaven shenanigans. They give me an excuse to affect my best faux-Lancastrian accent and chomp on an imaginary pipe while complaining about everything that’s happened since the last time I had fun (the late summer of 2006, if anyone’s counting). I have spent some time staring at Mantic (before remembering that I can’t stand them), Avatars of War (before realising they don’t do war engines) and MOM Miniatures (before… actually, I’m still staring at them). Bolt Throwers at either end of the line, Organ Gun in the middle, flanked by solid blocks of hammer and shield Clansmen and some good honest Thunderers (Dwarf handguns have always rather impressed me in the rules). Proper job.

I have, of late, been giving a lot of thought to the south-eastern corner of the Empire once again, largely because of TWW2 placing Drycha and Mannfred in direct conflict down that way and it all being set right across the mountains from the Forest of Gloom where the Resurrection is. If I had the capacity to buy and rush out an army just for this year’s campaign season, the current heart’s desire is a set of Perry historicals repurposed into the Order of the Black Bear (based in Averland, with rules and background in WD310, fractious but intrepid) and their supporting exchange garrison of State Troops from the House of Leitdorf.

I went so far as to work out what I could do with the various boxes (two small Knight units, a huge Greatsword unit, a spear block with Crossbowman or Handgunner detachments, a Halberdier block and a lot of Archers, and two Winged Lancer lines) and consider leaders (the Grand Master Genschler obviously, Father Iovanus the chapter house priest, and Otto von Grenzstadt, the senior sergeant of the state troops who carries the Order’s banner, both as a mark of respect to the County and to show the rabble who they’re really fighting for). I blame Phil A for this as he was the one asking if an army of Knights and Warrior Priests was viable. I also really like the Black Bears’ / Averlanders black and gold colourscheme (you can’t live over the road from the Molineux for three years and not develop an affection there, it’s hi-ho Wolverhampton and all that).

The odds of me buying and painting all that are slim to none with half a Wood Elf army and over 3000 points of Tomb Kings still in the queue, but it’s nice to dream – and that’s what these occasional pipe dream posts are about.

I can’t be the only one, right? Surely some of you have a favourite fantasy Fantasy army that you imagine yourself doing, one day, but never quite get around to…