[Game Dev] Notes Toward Unlocking The Tomb Through Bunging Dice At It

Been knocking these around on Twitter, for the bants, but it’s probably a good idea to cement them on here so I have a version I can find when I eventually decide what to do with them.

What follows is an expansion of ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To Elfland’, which I originally built as a zero-conflict exploration-pillar OSR-ish kind of thing. (Gotta write dev notes for that.) The challenge there, the mechanical loop, is a pretty straightforward d20 + S, where S is a stat-representing bonus or malus, and the option of rolling 2d20 and picking the best or worst for advantage/disadvantage. (There’s a 2d10 variant for magic, but that’s not entirely germane here.) That’s compared to a target number representing how much Trouble your character is in, and failure/poor choices escalate the Trouble into the next bracket.

Now. To put conflict back in, and to give the referee the investment that comes with rolling a mathematics rock, I added a d10 to the Trouble. (Why the d10? It’s the freakish eldritch die, the non-Platonic solid, the one that works for opposition or strangeness, on an instinctive level.) A random factor representing Aggro, the contribution made by a background character opposing the PC. That gives us T + d10 vs. S + d20.

I also wanted, for reasons, to shift the core loop from single character actions to combined efforts: two specific characters putting their efforts together. Now we’re looking at T + d10 vs. (S1 + d20) + (S2 + d20), which is SUMS. That’s more SUMS than anyone should have to do every single time their characters do anything.

OK, the problem with transcribing Twitter threads is that the context is missing, so let me provide a bit of that now. What STARTED this off was Della King’s thread on D&D, target numbers, and rolling low, which interested me because I absolutely do not like “roll low” as a concept (high numbers should always be good things) but I absolutely agree that the fuzziness of D&D’s calculations – bonuses for stats and gear and circumstances and all that flimflam atop a roll – create an outcome where the average player is rolling a die and looking pleadingly at the referee for confirmation of what it even means, UNLESS it’s a 20 at which point there is a sudden certainty. The Natural 20 is the best possible roll, therefore the best possible thing should happen. Noobs, muggles and normies intuit this with the same ease that they do “high numbers are good” and that is why we have the mildly detestable “I rolled a nat 20 so verisimilitude and tone and consistency and precedent can SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP” meme. Which I don’t like. But I like why it happens. I like that certainty of knowing that you done rolled a good roll. And I like collapsing the play down to knowing that what you’ve rolled is good or bad, where the die in your hand is the most significant determiner, because it makes the tactile action of rolling feel important. And people like rolling. Rolling dice dispenses the Good Brain Chemical. So that’s context. Now, back to the mechanics.

So then I thought about putting the other Platonic Solids back into the hands of the players, corresponding to aspects or stats or traits of their characters. It works very well in Savage Worlds, and lends itself very well to the idea of hyperspecialised characters who need to team up and cover for each others’ weaknesses or combine their strengths, which, for reasons, is the territory I’m currently interested in exploring. Let’s say characters have five Elements which directly correspond to a die type. Let’s say that choosing the right combination of characters to attempt a task is the most important thing about the play at hand – not how good your equipment is, but who you team up with, who is prepared to take a risk with you. NOW the core mechanic looks like this: T + d10 vs. dX + dY.

That looks good. The players’ dice rolls are the most important thing, and high numbers are always good. The referee maintains control over difficulty through the ability to set Trouble as they choose, but still gets to make a roll and get some of that good brain chemical for themselves (and the flat d10 for antagonistic forces lets Trouble + Aggro fall within a predictable range, also good for setting difficulties). I’m not sure how swingy the rolls will be if there are regular d20 + d4 pairings falling, but avoiding those could well be part of the play, for reasons.

Reasons here being that I’ve read the first two of the Locked Tomb trilogy lately, and have been thinking about gamifying it after the nice lady who runs HyveMynd posted her idea for five stats and two characters per player. Pairs of characters joining up to overcome a challenge is a core element of the fiction being emulated there; so are unusual team-ups outside of the usual pairing, when the challenges escalate later in the narrative.

It’s not quite cooked yet – I still need to retro-engineer Muir’s counter game that separated and balanced the styles of necromancy involved (or just ask her about it, but she’s immensely busy and a bit famous, and my lane is over here), and get over this weird itch I have to depict the lyctoral megatheorem as a variant on the Tree of Life (or indulge it to the bitter end). But this works for the core, I think. It does what it needs to do.

[Off Topic] “Oh, all right. One more lifetime won’t kill anyone…”

It’s been a hell of a year.

I don’t just mean 2020, although it absolutely has been. Leaving aside Nineteen Crows and the return to form of Perfidious Albion, there have been troubles closer to home.

I didn’t let on when I was making the final posts of what I swore would be the final year, but I’d just had to pack in my writing gigs after a year of freefalling income and declining health. I’d also run into an expensive (life-shatteringly so) bureaucratic cock-up at the same time. It was all getting a bit rough and for a while I thought I’d be spending Christmas 2019 on the streets.

Instead, by lucky hap, I took a job in a bookshop and put my PhD on hold while I learned the ropes. And after three months, the town it’s in flooded and we became ground zero for cleanup and care. And THEN, while I was on what was going to be a week’s holiday in London, Nineteen Crows happened. I nearly ended up living in E and K’s spare room again, and when I came home I spent four months playing an Amount of Total Warhammer 2, making my peace with V:tM’s fifth edition by trying to run a couple of chronicles, and…

I also made a bunch of mini-RPGs. Having tried to crack the mid-tier RPG industry and realised what a crock it is, I fell in with the rabble-rousers and went indie. Most of them are system tests – attempts to make one or two mechanics work as isolated indie games about THIS or THAT. One is a hack I made because I was so very, very pissed off with Vampire: the Masquerade after a year doing research on it and saw a way to make Wolfspell into something that scratched the same itch and put some feelings to rest.

I actually quite like making games, it turns out, and the next one is – well, I’ve made a single to hear myself on the radio, and a couple more followed, and I’ve done a weird EP of cover versions, and the NEXT thing is going to be the debut album, as it were. Figuratively speaking.

There’s some other business. I tried Classic World of Warcraft and it was the push I needed to quit altogether. I tried to stream again, but that kind of workmanlike #content creation has never really been my scene. I ended up in charge of matters pertaining to board games at work: we are, step by step, figuring out how to turn a successful monthly club into a community and a customer base.

And, as the year turned and I had a bit of mad money even in the midst of furlough, I found myself turning back to Warhammer like an old, old friend. Half-assed collections of Chaos Dwarfs (event swag/trades) and Tomb Kings (a side project that took on appeal) have been rounded out with new third party figures. My new gaff is smaller, but located such that playing games is less of a giant fiddle to pull off. Which of course made me think about the website.

I thought – well, why not?

I have quite a bit to say. About what I’m playing, what I’m making, what I’m studying. Expect occasional dalliances with Warhammer, still, but also developer’s notes on the games I make, and an attempt to kick my PhD back into life by blogging my way through my research. It’s like the old GAME OVER days, but I’m not ripping off Andrew Eldritch’s branding. Much.

[WFB] Getting Schooled by Dr. Shiny

Ten years ago this month, I started teaching my arch-rival and nemesis and bestest friend ever Lawrence how to play Warmachine. I also started a blog, because I’d come home at the drop of a hat to start my teacher training and left the Warmachine scene of Greater Manchester behind and frankly, I was feeling a bit lonely. It’s been a long ten years and it hasn’t always been much fun, and a lot of things have had to be left behind in the meantime.

But not everything.

Lawrence and I go way, way back. We’ve known each other for well over twenty years. And in that time, Lawrence’s long-suffering, long-serving Skaven – the first opponents for my putative Army of Sylvania fifteen years ago last Christmas – have never managed to beat my Vampire Counts.

Until now.

Preamble

I won’t say that playing Lawrence again was the only reason I went down to the Exeter Games Gathering, but it was certainly up there. It’s only an hour’s train ride for him, so he had no excuse. By the time he arrived I was struggling to formulate a coherent thought and so we opted for a nice straightforward Pitched Battle, bo-ring as it might be.

I was testing out my new “three casters? take Death!” approach and, at the last moment, dropped both my Bound Spells in favour of a single base Spirit Host because I felt myself wanting for chaff. The resultant army looked like this:

  • Countess Carmilla: level 2 wizard, Death magic (Death Dealer, Wind of Death), Sword of Striking, Ring of the Night, Black Periapt, Aura of Dark Majesty
  • Rosenkratz: level 2 wizard, Necromancy (Invocation of Nehek, Hand of Dust)
  • Guildenstern: level 2 wizard, Necromancy (Invocation of Nehek, Gaze of Nagash)
  • Whispering Nell: Wraith with Cursed Book
  • 30 Skeletons: light armour, spears, full command
  • 20 Zombies: standard and musician
  • 10 Huntsmen
  • Spirit Host (1 base)
  • 8 Black Knights: barding, full command
  • 8 Black Knights: barding, full command
  • Banshee
  • Banshee

Lawrence, it turned out, was also testing out a new approach, which he’d never had the balls to attempt back in the day:

  • Grey Seer Makkiavelli: level 4 wizard (Skitterleap, Pestilent Breath, Vermintide, Plague): Death Globes, whatever the Skaven equivalent of the Wristbands of Black Gold are called
  • Fooko: Warlock Engineer with all the trimmings plus Storm Daemon and Dispel Scroll
  • Derridaa: Warlock Engineer with all the trimmings plus Warpscroll
  • Kirkegaad: Chieftain with shield, heavy armour, Bands of Power and Sword of Battle
  • 30 Clanrats: full command, Warpfire Thrower team
  • 30 Clanrats: full command, Ratling Gun team
  • 4 Giant Rat packs
  • 5 Rat Swarm bases
  • 10 Night Runners: slings, additional hand weapons
  • 28 Plague Monks: additional hand weapons, full command
  • Warp Lightning Cannon
  • 6 Plague Censer Bearers

This is, as you’ll appreciate, quite a toothy Skaven army. I remember Lawrence’s Skaven not being this tuned. It’s my own fault, I know perfectly well that plastic Plague Monks have happened since the day, I was there when he built the cannon, and Skaven have ALWAYS had the option of four Warp Lightnings in a turn. It’s just… a lot of that slipped my mind, lulled out of consciousness by Lawrence’s relentless whinging about how rubbish his Skaven are. And back in the day, I was being carried along by a bullshit Storm of Chaos list which could put Magic Resistance on everything worth zapping and yeet three units of Dire Wolves into the back of his army on turn two. This sort of thing annoyed and/or worried Lawrence and left me able to coast over the top of the Skaven blocks quite effectively once the Rat Swarm was out of the way.

That’s why I felt confident enough to set up like this.

The plan was to set up a picket line with the Huntsmen, fleeing when Lawrence’s troops started to close, and pull a unit of Knights over to that side as well, with the remaining units jammed up his grill to occupy the Plague Monks and Rats. And that worked fine.

But that was the entire extent of the plan. The rest of my game boiled down to “try and win a magic-missile-off with the army which has the best magic missile in the game and can cast it three times, two with better-than-average odds of Irresistible Force, every turn, and also outshoots me by a country mile.”

And the other thing I hadn’t expected was that Lawrence would Skitterleap his Grey Seer into the back of my army and proceed to chain cast Vermintide and Pestilent Breath into the back of my Skeleton unit two turns on the trot. This after he wiped half of them out with an Irresistible Plague on the very first turn.

Frankly, it was courteous of him to blow up his own Warpfire Thrower, kill a rank of Clanrats with an overenthusiastic Vermintide, fall short with all but one of his Warp Lightning Cannon shots, and have Makkiavelli drop his Death Globes on his own feet twice. That, plus panicking his Night Runners off the table and making the one good move at the start, at least kept me in the game until the fourth round. At that point, once my Knights had been shot to shit trying to get into a decent position, I opted to call it a day.

Maybe if I’d had a bigger Spirit Host, and a Book of Arkhan somewhere to guarantee me a Vanhel’s Danse to cast… maybe if I’d not decided to play a defensive game against an army that had no reason to close the distance when it could slaughter me from 18-24″ away… maybe if I’d had a better night’s sleep beforehand… maybe if I’d treated my oldest friend with something more than contempt and actually planned to give him a proper fight…

If ifs and buts were candies and nuts we’d all be diabetic, I suppose. I did consider leaving the army in a skip or something on the way home – it’s been fifteen years, and I often feel trapped by nostalgia, like I’m trying to get back to 2004 and pretend the time between then and now didn’t happen, and I can’t deny the symbolism of anniversaries and old enemies and final defeats.

It’s been ten years and in that time the whole ‘hobby blogger’ phenomenon has boomed and bust. I effectively put the blog on life support back in 2018, but resolved to give it a final year and a fair go, and this is the best note to go out on, I think. A couple of lads from Plymouth shoving some toy soldiers around, and walking to the station in the rain.

Once I built a railroad; now it’s done.

[WFB] Battle Report: Von Carsteins at Caerwysg

WFB Sixth Edition.
6000 points.
Vampire Counts vs. Bretonnians and Dogs of War.

Frankly, if that doesn’t wake you up inside, I don’t know what will. It certainly kept me going for about eight hours, even though I hadn’t actually slept for two nights on the trot and was fast succumbing to ye pestilence and, frankly, was only kept functional by a hideous cocktail of OG Relentless and cranberry juice. Lee hadn’t had the best night either, with two fire alarms going off in his hotel during the wee hours, but damn it all we’d been planning this for weeks and we weren’t going to let anything stop us now.

Doesn’t that make it all worthwhile?

Neither force was what you’d call “legal”, although the conventions regarding numbers of Lords and Heroes, as well as Core, Special and Rare troops under them, were still obeyed. The goal was for myself and Lee to plonk our entire painted collections on the board and give the other attendees of yer actual Exeter Games Gathering something to gawp at in between doing each other over. If you have a 6’x4′ table for the whole day, you might as well make use of it!

We cobbled together a makeshift scenario by mashing up the Flank Attack and Capture ones from the WFB rulebook. Flank Attack would make the most of Lee’s divided forces by not actually considering them the same thing; Capture would relieve us of the need to calculate or even consider Victory Points, with victory determined by Who Was Closest To The Shed at the end. The well-paid and foolishly courageous Dogs of War would start entrenched behind enough linear obstacles to make a Dwarf blush (to ensure I couldn’t sweep them all away by turn two), while the Bretonnians would advance from a flank of Lee’s choosing at the top of turn three (giving me a turn to at least brace for impact before the inevitable charge).

We needed something suitably high stakes to draw these mighty forces together, so I elected not to bring the Carstein Ring, and instead place it within the retirement cottage of one Felix Mann, Esq, once of Altdorf and now long deceased. Why was this important? Look at who showed up…

Vampire Counts (attacking)

  • Mannfred von Carstein
  • Lord Ruthven (Vampire Lord on Zombie Dragon; some kit which ended up being totally irrelevant)
  • Countess Carmilla (Vampire Countess on foot; Summon Bats and Spectral Attendants)
  • Sir Francis Varney (Vampire Thrall in Wolf Form)
  • Walravius (Wight Lord Battle Standard Bearer, waving the Hell Banner about)
  • Whispering Nell (Wraith with the Cursed Book)
  • Rosenkratz, Guildenstern and Haeckl (three Necromancers with a Power Stone and Dispel Scroll apiece)
  • 30 Skeleton Spearmen
  • 20 Skeleton Crossbowmen
  • 20 Zombies
  • 2 (independent) Bat Swarms
  • 10 Ghouls
  • 10 Huntsmen
  • 10 Dire Wolves
  • 20 Drakenhof Guard (with the Screaming Banner)
  • 28 Black Knights (one unit of 12 with the Drakenhof Banner, two units of 8 with nowt fancy to their name)
  • 1 very large Spirit Host
  • 2 Banshees
  • 2 Black Coaches

Dogs of War (defending)

  • Lorenzo Lupo
  • an unnamed but courageous Hireling Wizard, late of Bretonnia no doubt, brandishing the Staff of Sorcery (Lee’s spare Damsel coming out to play)
  • a foolhardy Paymaster
  • Leopold’s Leopard Company
  • the Marksmen of Miragliano
  • a Pikeman company whose resemblance to the Alcatini Fellowship is entirely coincidental
  • an off-brand Crossbowman company
  • Tichi-Huichi’s Raiders
  • Bronzino and a Galloper Gun
  • Dadallo and the Birdmen of Catrazza
  • Lumpin Croop and his Fighting Cocks
  • the Giants of Albion and Hengist

Bretonnians (flanking)

  • King Louen Leoncoeur
  • Morgiana la Fay
  • The Green Knight
  • a Paladin on a Pegasus
  • a Paladin not on a Pegasus (bearing the Battle Standard)
  • two footslogging Paladins
  • a slightly overwhelmed Damsel with the Silver Mirror
  • half a dozen Grail Knights (playing escort to the Fay and the BSB)
  • eight Knights Errant
  • two dozen Bowmen
  • a dozen Men At Arms
  • two fistfuls of Mounted Yeomen
Lee felt himself stretched pretty thin by this engagement, but had the advantage of a strong defensive position for his Pikemen and an excellent viewpoint for the Marksmen of Miragliano. His skirmishers occupied the wood on the left, while the Giants of Albion reluctantly divided their attentions, ready to counter-punch the oncoming horde.
Mannfred isn’t feeling very optimistic about his positioning, but he has the only Danse Macabre on the field, so without him the infantry will be lucky to reach the halfway line, and I’m not leaving him on his own without a cavalry unit to hide out in.
Lorenzo Lupo stares the Vampire Count down. These pikes are going nowhere!
In many ways my choice of flanking force was dictated by the terrain. My Huntsmen could only take cover behind this ruined chapel, while the Black Coaches didn’t have any other way into the lines that wouldn’t take them into a hedge and certain destruction. The Dire Wolves are over here because they’re still pretty nippy even if Mannfred can’t help them march; the Black Knights will turn into the bulk of the army and pick up speed later. The Spirit Host is just out of sight on the left; if the Bretonnians show up on that side, I’m confident that 24 Ethereal wounds will at least slow them down.
On the other flank, I planned to have these Ghouls spread out to block the Bretonnians should they show up, while Ruthven is there to deliver Terror, dragon breath and Death Magic into the heart of the Dogs’ line. Allegedly.

We both figured the Dogs of War would need a lot of luck to make it through the game, but things would doubtless turn Lee’s way when the Bretonnians arrived. Were we right? Read on…

Opening Gambits (Turns 1 and 2)

My advance was immediately checked when the Green Knight showed up on turn one! The ethereal crew don’t fancy their chances any more, and to be honest I was already thinking of this flank as a write-off. My suspicions were confirmed when the Galloper Gun smashed one coach to powder with its first damn shot, and the Green Knight spent three turns making Spirits go bye-bye. Lee’s rolls for the git’s Dolorous Blade or whatever it’s called were terrifying; six, six and five extra attacks in a row!
Mannfred drove his Knights headlong into the Pikes. Not the best idea he’s ever had, especially when I realised they didn’t actually have the “sod your obstacles I hit you on threes” standard after all, but Pikemen are only WS and S 3; I’d get to roll some hefty armour saves, and with a bit of luck I’d have Lord Ruthven joining them in that conveniently dragon-shaped hole on their flank. Sadly, Lee managed to dispel Vanhel’s Danse Macabre and cast The Bear’s Anger on his Paymaster, making him big and mean enough to hold off a whole unit of raised Zombies all by himself! What you see here is the impact of static combat resolution on Knights who’ve achieved nothing but a dead unit champion.
On the left flank, the charging Giant stumbled as my Hunstmen did a bit of baiting and fleeing. Hengist was now open to a charge from the Dire Wolves, and my Black Coach had a lane on Bologs (or is it Cachtorr?). Impact hits weren’t enough to fell the brute, however, and it proceeded to Yell and Bawl for three turns on the trot. Automatically losing combat by two each time was enough to grind both units into dust. BORING!
Something similar happened on this side. On its charge, Cachtorr (or is it Bologs?) Yelled and Bawled, denying Lord Ruthven and his faithful steed any chance to get a wound in edgeways. On his next turn, Lord Ruthven proceeded to Miscast, lobbing himself out of the combat and narrowly avoiding the hedge!

Bretonnia Rides (Turns 3 and 4)

The Knights arrived, and promptly… achieved nothing for an entire turn, as the Yeomen failed their fear test, refused to charge my Skeleton Crossbowmen, and tied up the far braver units behind them. Similar events occured in the midfield, where the Men At Arms wanted nothing to do with fighting Ghouls and the Peasant Bowmen learned that actually, Ghouls are quite dangerous in a fight.
Morgiana took exactly one swig from her magical chalice, chugging the lot and hurling a Comet of Cassandora into the middle of the undead lines! As if that wasn’t enough, Mannfred’s attempt at Hellish Vigour to improve his Knights’ odds of crossing the fence was met with the Silver Mirror, dispelling the spell and putting a wound on him to boot. Even the Zombies were unable to turn the tide, as Lorenzo Lupo generated sufficient surplus wounds from challenging the Black Knights’ champion to cancel out his unit’s loss of rank bonus and draw the combat!

Desperate Times (Turns 5 and 6)

In response, the Undead lines turned. The Huntsmen rallied and ran to intercept the Bretonnians, along with the leftmost unit of Black Knights. Their counterparts on the right charged Bologs (or Cachtorr) in an effort to save the Dragon from another round of Yelling and Bawling. Banshees and Wraiths were hurled toward the centre of the field in an effort to put the Cursed Book in play and whittle down the Dogs of War further, but a nasty surprise or two lay in wait. Firstly: Leopold’s Leopard Company are immune to psychology, and therefore to Banshee wails. Secondly…
Secondly, the Knights arrived too late. Cachtorr (or possibly Bologs) took matters in hand (or rather forehead), nutting the Zombie Dragon to death. I’d be pissed off about this, but “nutted to death by Giant” is a pretty epic way to go. The Knights didn’t quite manage to finish him off, he passed his Stubborn AF break test, and next turn King Louen charged and proceeded to go through the Knights like a woodchipper. In back, the Yeomen charged my summoned Zombies in the rear, breaking their ranks and buying Lorenzo Lupo another round…
… which he used to challenge Mannfred, taking the Count of Sylvania on mano-e-mano in the Classical style! Still hampered by the hedgerow which his Knights had yet to cross, Mannfred wasn’t quite able to strike down the mercenary general, while Lorenzo only landed two blows of his own; not enough to put Mannfred out of his misery.
On the other flank, Sir Francis Varney seized the day. An 18 inch charge and a 1+ armour save delivered him safely into the Crossbowmen, and three S7 attacks saw them broken before his onslaught.
The Drakenhof Guard produced impressive results in their charge against the Leopard Company. Although their Screaming Banner and Hell Banner power combo was wasted on the fearless pikemen, Leopold was cut down by a Killing Blow from the Guards’ Champion, and the Guard – aided by a timely cast of Death Dealer and Hellish Vigour – killed enough of the Leopard Company that they actually broke from combat on its own!
Even without Leopold, the Pikemen rallied, but this was do-or-die turn for the Vampire Counts and they didn’t let me down. Lord Ruthven charged and butchered the Mounted Yeomen, and the Drakenhof Guard were impelled into combat with an Irresistible Danse Macabre, turning both combats in favour of the Undead. Leopold’s men were run down, and while Lorenzo just about held his ground…
… the Paymaster was not so fortunate. Sir Francis was thirsty, and as the Paymaster fell beneath his blade, disaster struck the Dogs of War. Lorenzo, one of the Giants, and the Marksmen of Miragliano all failed their Panic tests and bolted, leaving the Sylvanians in control of the objective! And just to cap everything off, I managed to dispel the Comet.

There followed a chain of events which I was too tired to photograph, and I hope Lee can supply suitable imagery in good time. But here’s what happened.

Mannfred was finally able to cross the hedge and take control of the Mann residence. All he had to do was survive one last turn. To that end, he and all his Necromancers attempted to cast Invocations to restore him to full capacity of Wounds. Lee Dispelled Mannfred’s Invocation, and I failed to cast the other three. Suddenly, everything was back on the knife edge again.

In the middle ground, I was able to Summon Bats, redeploy Ghouls, and shove Skeletons forward so that Lee’s Knights had very few charge opportunities left.

The second Giant stumbled in its charge on Carmilla and her guard; about to Jump Up and Down, the drunken oaf ended up falling at Carmilla’s feet, and she took great pleasure in avenging her last outing against the Giants by cutting it down in person.

King Louen descended on the Necromancers, cutting their zombie bodyguard to ribbons but leaving the casters themselves alive.

Hope, such as it was, rested with one man…

Whirling his Delirious Blade about him, the Green Knight, immortal defender of Bretonnia, charged in and challenged the Vampire Count to single combat. Lacking any alternative, Mannfred drew his sword again and hoped against hope that he could prevail. It was not to be. The Ethereal care not for hedgerows, and so the Green Knight fought at full efficiency, liberating Mannfred from the mortal coil.

Hopefully, this epic final clash is not spoiled too much by my errant fingertip making its way into the photograph.

Defeat! Defeat at the very last round of combat on the very last turn! Honestly, I couldn’t ask for a better way to go out than that. When you’re playing a supervillain like Mannfred, hubris and trickery and defeat snatched from the jaws of victory by an immortal force of righteous fury is fitting and there’s no bones about it.

Lee was delighted at the chance to field all his forces together and for that matter so do I; one never normally gets to take things like Dragons and so many spellcasters that the Lore of Death on two of them doesn’t feel like a waste. On top of all that, it was a delightfully close game which could easily have gone either way, and if we played it again (ideally when we weren’t both half mad with sleep deprivation) I for one would do things a little differently.

I’d probably stack the cavalry on that open flank, and let the Spirits lead the charge into those pike blocks (since they don’t give a monkey’s chuff about hedges). That might leave my infantry lagging a bit, but to be honest, their job was to ferry the spellcasters and Wraith forward and then block as many charge lanes as possible. I wouldn’t change the list much, except for maybe slipping Call Winds onto Carmilla for the early turns… and of course, not leaving home without the Banner of the Barrows.

[Been Painting] Vampire Counts: This Post’s Words’ Worth Is Over Nine Thousand

In April, when I had money, I bought some reinforcements.
In May, when I had the opportunity, I seized upon a Bargain.
In June, before everything and its dog went wrong, I made some beginnings.
Four days ago, when necessity struck, I began anew.
Three days ago, things began to take shape.
Two days ago, certain losses were made good upon.
One day ago, we stood upon the brink of accomplishment.
Today?
TODAY WE RISE!

Because a picture is worth a thousand words. Geddit?

Instagram is more suited to this sort of thing. You can find me over there @propergoffic, same as the Twitter and the Twitch and almost everywhere else I care to be. But it would be churlish not to put them here, too, especially since I can actually link directly to images from here.

It’s strange. My wrists are fucked. I’m generally quite lethargic. And I don’t enjoy painting. But I can still speed paint like a trooper when I’m called upon to do so. Necessity fuels what obligation merely prolongs, and when I have a weekend of actual gaming ahead, Shit Gets Done. There are still touches that I’d like to touch: sticking some static grass on some bases, tinting some armour to at least pretend a harmony with the army (although I guess randomly different coloured Knights are an essential part of the Empire aesthetic), working out how to make the Huntsmen at all interesting (I think some browns? brown is never interesting though) – but that can come later.

Anyway, that’s what six thousand points of sixth edition Vampire Counts looks like. despite my best attempts, there are disparities in the composition of paint and the style with which one applies it and the circumstances in which particular figures have been ruined, so nothing matches quite as well as my inner perfectionist would like. But perfect is the enemy of “good enough” and “good enough” is good enough for me. It’s also good enough for Exeter Games Gathering this weekend, and since I set off for Exeter tomorrow and will be playing WFB by teatime, good enough will bloody well have to do.

The weekend’s game schedule looks like this, so far:

  • Joseph and his Dwarfs, 2000 points, nice easy teaching-feeling game for someone who hasn’t played much (any?) sixth edition
  • Lee and his Bretonnians/Dogs of War, 6000 points, yes I know but we want to bung our entire collections on the table and see what comes about.
  • Lawrence and his Skaven, 2000 points, because fate will come around at last and all endings are beginnings and I’m not travelling to within fifty miles of my longest-serving friend, arch-rival and nemesis without playing some WFB with him, it’s just not happening.

I don’t know if I’ll be up to doing “battle reports” in the full on and detailed sense – I prefer to concentrate on and enjoy the games rather than fuss around with photos and notes, and my hands are hurting just from typing up this relatively short post – but I’ll sort something out. Maybe rope Lawrence into co-writing a narrative report. We did that way back when, with our very first game. I’d post it in a heartbeat if I could actually FIND the damn thing.

I mean: there are still 20-odd Skeleton Swordsmen at the back there…

[WFB] Another Way To (Un)Die

Well, I made it. Slightly later than ideal, still just in time. 1500 points of painted Empire of Dust Tomb Kings, ready to be flung at the invading High Elves of Prince Panting this weekend and stage an incursion upon Dr. Shiny and his Bretonnians in September.

What fate awaits them after that I cannot say: I profoundly disliked painting them, probably because I had no vision for the army going in and only figured out what I shall laughingly call “the technique” on the last models, the Mummies, whom I genuinely abhor as being almost fucking impossible to rank up even with the traditional spacers. But if they’re fun to play with, they may be spared.

Do not look too closely at these Ushabti. You will see all the details I couldnae be arsed to paint proper like or mould lines I couldnae be arsed to clean up. I really didn’t care about this army. Nothing is prepped. It’s all been banged out in six months for the sake of a little variety.

These close-ups of the abominable Mummies may show the faded turquoise of their garments, which I FINALLY figured out how to do. They also show the three characters: Prince Thotmanho the Frequently Abbreviated (who actually looks quite nice, the swine), Bhakgamun the Liche Priest (whose staff is frankly not to be trusted) and an Icon Bearer who will get a name if I decide it’s worth taking an Icon Bearer again. They may also also show the Magic life counter I’m using to mark wounds, since this unit occupies a 4×5 formation even though only 2×6 of actual models are involved. They are REALLY hard to rank up. Quite characterful though.

Meat and potatoes, neither of which are involved in the daily habits of these units. Neither are bread and butter. But anyway; horrible mixed media Skeletons I haven’t filled because arseholes to that, but they look OK from four feet away when it’s cloudy out. And a Skull Chucker, cheerfully sized for fifth edition, dramatically undersized for anything else. I do quite like the rat as the extra crewman, as well as the flaming skull token I made to mark the shot.

You might be thinking I hate this army already. I don’t. It is very much built to be played, though, and the assembly and painting have been phoned in on a very big phone to that end.

The painting queue currently contains this Mausoleum terrain set, but once that’s done, I’d like to set up something a bit smaller scale and take my time on it, just to confirm that I can still paint. The Blood Bowl teams have been here the longest, but my Bad Squiddo stuff needs priming as it’s starting to discolour now some of it’s been unpainted for a year or two, and half a dozen Orc adventurers plus some Gothic horror vignettes may be just the palate cleanser I need after these big monotonous drybrush-and-ink fests. But first: GAME TIME.

[WFB] The Army of Sylvania (WD291/Storm of Chaos, 2004)

This is it, folx. This is the big one. I’ve been after this article for ages, since none of the PDFs I’ve been able to find are complete; I actually cracked and bought a copy, with my own money and everything.

This came along at exactly the right time.

I was in the process of starting out again, after the GCSE interregnum when “all that bleddy Warhammer” had been sacrificed on the altar of familial dissatisfaction. I’d just rebuilt my Chaos Space Marines for the Eye of Terror campaign and I was after a new WFB army and there, a month after the campaign results, was this none-more-goth business.

It would be a few more months before the actual rules dropped and crystallised my vague ambitions. I reproduce those too, largely to keep them in circulation and lend some context to future doings. In the event that Games Workshop puts this fifteen year old material for a no longer supported game line back into circulation through legitimate means, all they have to do is ask and I will happily take it down.

Put all of this together and you have the shape of my first army; no Ghouls or Necromancers (although I had the figure for one, hanging around from my Mordheim box), overequipped Skeletons and Zombies with every polearm the box could offer, and a veritable swarm of Wolves and Bats. One unit of Black Knights ’cause that’s all I could take. And a lot of kitbashed Skeleton Crossbowmen, which involved cutting Tomb King Archer hands off and then cutting the shafts of Empire Militia crossbows to fit on either side of them and somehow lining up the four small jittery pieces of plastic… I must have been mad.

I wonder…

Lord Ruthven’s Resumption

Lord Ruthven: Vampire Lord with extra magic level, Sword of Striking, Wristbands of Black Gold, Black Periapt and Summon Wolves
Carmilla: Vampire Thrall with Spectral Attendants and Earthbind
Sir Francis Varney: Vampire Thrall with Army Standard, Walking Death and Earthbind

Sir Francis Varney’s First of Foot: 24 Sylvanian Militia with spears and full command group
Templehof Pals: 24 Sylvanian Levy with halberds, standard bearer and musician
Bat Swarm
Bat Swarm
3 Fell Bats
10 Dire Wolves: Scouts, Doom Wolf

Black Coach
Black Coach

Order of the Black Cross: 8 Drakenhof Templars with barded Nightmares and Drakenhof Banner

I could very easily go to 3000 points, too. It’d only take adding the Spirit Host, a couple of Banshees, and either slapping a Dragon under Ruthven and promoting Carmilla to Countess, or adding Mannfred von Carstein as the second permitted Lord.

(Incidentally, if you’re wondering why the Thralls don’t have armour; they’re all the lightly-clad Mordheim figures who are blatantly not wearing any, and I am reluctant to stick shields and things on figures who might find themselves further ennobled to spellcasting and unarmoured status at the drop of a hat.)

There are a few odds and sods I’d like to replace. The Fell Bats, with some nice Reaper ones. My old foot Reiksgard, with some plastic Greatswords, who may be about to vanish from the miniature range, so I’d better get a shift on if I’m going to do that. And I’d like some Crossbowmen and Archers for doing the other Von Carstein theme force… but I’m in several minds about exactly where those should come from. We’ll talk about why next time.

[WFB] Lockjaw Does Dogcon (building for power and theme: Lachlan MacWhirter, WD264)

Partial? Me? Far from it. As we continue our trawl through the Silver Age of White Dwarf*, I turn the ship toward the competitive end of the spectrum and go off about an article I never read at the time. It’s Australian, you see, and since I live literally half a world away from the land where beer does flow and men chunder, I never had the chance. But I do know who Lachlan MacWhirter is, if only because I avidly read Alex Kin-Wilde’s battle reports before the Warhammer Forum took its final nosedive. The point is he was quite good, and that he thinks about armies in a way that I think about armies.

You will notice that this army is not a photocopy special. There is thought put into what it will be like to play with and against, and how to ensure it does well, but there is also thought put into who leads it and why the force is the way it is.

I bring this up because there’s a nasty, pernicious tendency among certain elements of the wargaming community to pretend that certain things are anathema. Opposed. Mutually irreconcilable. Like a Venn diagram where the orbs remain utterly parted, lest their touching blast a hole in our tiny minds the size of Belgium.

You often hear “having fun” and “playing to win” pitched into these false dichotomies, along with “crunch” and “fluff”, and in role playing circles you hear “rollplaying” and “roleplaying.” My favourite one one is named the Stormwind Fallacy, after a Wizards of the Coast forumite who described and debunked it beautifully**.

The Stormwind Fallacy is the claim that one who optimises his character is, de facto, a bad roleplayer. The claim is wrong, false, and otherwise incorrect because number-crunching and make-believe are quite different skill sets and they can co-exist happily in the same brain tissue and the one does not in any way detract from the other. The fact that most people are more skilled in or inclined toward one direction than the other does not mean they are automatically exclusive.

And in wargaming-land, the same applies. It is not impossible to produce an army which is powerful, efficient, effective, and also entirely on-theme and fun to play with and against. People will claim otherwise. They will claim that “competitive” is anathema to some other nebulously defined concept. Often, they are talking about their own preference for leaning in one direction or another and elevating that to the status of universal truth – which it does not deserve.

Look at that! He’s written backstory, for pity’s sake (and just enough for it not to become weary, too)! True, he’s put a lot of thought into gearing and tricking out his Vampire, and to the roles that will be performed on table by his units, but you can’t pretend that there isn’t character there.

You may, if cynical, suspect that this is done because there are bonus points to be had at the tournament in question for turning up with a themed army in which the theme is transparent and illustrated with some associated text, and I say this is no bad thing. Let game mechanics make real the ideologies of the people what it is who make them. A system that rewards the desired behaviour is a good system.

I don’t have masses to say about the army itself, except that I’d probably have gone for the Vampire Lord and damned the consequences, but I do want to hover my digit over this notion of spending half your points on Core units (that the rest of the sections put together do not outnumber them). I don’t think I’ve ever done that, outside of fifth edition Chaos armies which, er, sort of had to work like that unless you were pulling something extremely niche with the summoning rules for Greater Daemons. There are eighty Skeletons in this army and that’s about twice as many Skeletons as I could ever be arsed painting without dramatically phoning it in. I suddenly understand the appeal in the totally bollock naked Skeletons of yesteryear or Warlord Games; at least those could be bashed out with relative haste, if you didn’t go full White Dwarf 211 and lovingly highlight their bony bonces.

I wonder what would happen if I tried to put together an army like this?

Characters

Clarimonde: Vampire Countess with extra magic level, Black Periapt and Ring of the Night: 285
Romuald: Vampire Thrall with Army Standard, Walking Death and Talisman of Protection: 155

Core

30 Skeleton Warriors with spears, light armour, and full command group: 355
30 Zombies with standard and musician: 195
10 Ghouls with Ghast: 90
11 Dire Wolves with Doom Wolf: 120
2 Bat Swarm bases: 120

Special

8 Black Knights with barded Nightmares and full command group: 240
8 Black Knights with barded Nightmares and full command group: 240

Rare

Banshee: 90
Banshee: 90

This is, of course, working with the models I own and my particular proclivities. I like to have a Battle Standard Bearer in my armies and prefer to bury my characters in the infantry units, using my Knights and Wolves as a flanking force. Also, I only have about 800 points of Core: everything I have gives me one of each unit and a handful of spares for raising. But it’s good enough for jazz and close enough for jam, or something like that. 20 points of spare change which will probably go on a Sword of Might for Clarimonde or something of the ilk.

This is just the list, because I’m still… working on… the backstory for these people. Everything’s still a bit fluid in that department.

It’s all making me realise a couple of things. Firstly, as much as I detest the Citadel Fell Bats, I’d quite like more fast chaff in the collection. Secondly, I really do need to do something about my Core situation; with so many Dire Wolves having gone for a burton while the army was out of my hands, I’m dangerously low on bread and butter troops, and it’s only going to get worse if I look towards playing eighth edition.

The longer I go on with this, the more I realise that my old army is deeply beloved and quite special but also surprisingly small and bitty. Adding more models is a bit of a tall order when the odds of picking up the “right” models in ready-to-kitbash-so-they-match condition are so high. Two options present themselves. Either I align with the Von Carstein theme force in the back of the book and pick up some living auxiliaries to bolster my lacklustre Troops selection, or I bite the bullet and accept that it’s time to slowly build up…

… oh God…

… a new Vampire Counts army.

*I call it this largely to avoid nonsense from any hardcore edition warriors who will come at me if I don’t give the number one spot to Paul Sawyer/Robin Dews/Jake Thornton/Ian Livingstone/Your Mum (delete as applicable). You are welcome to argue about which White Dwarf editor was the best ever on your own time, and ideally on your own planet.

**Potentially, there’s a contrived dig here at the crowd who hang around in the Alliance capital city on any World of Warcraft RP server, filling the air with arbitrary nonsense and imaginary rules about how to play magical fund pretend time… but even by my standards, that’s reaching a bit.

[WFB] The Narrative Approach (Paul Gayner, WD290)

Here’s another of those articles that inspired my Vampire Counts – one of those things that came out at precisely the right moment to kick me into collecting, building, painting and playing with the one army that I’ve ever been able to stick with.

For those who aren’t up to squinting at tiny text (reproduced as best I can from a PDF copy of WD 290), Paul’s article basically walks you through a few baseline notions in building a themed army. To synopsisise, you have:

1: an Idea,

derived this from literally anywhere you can plunder an idea from; you’re not looking to lift complete and complex notions so don’t be afraid to nick little bits from everywhere. (I never have been.) The alternative army lists in the back of the Armies books are there but, as Mr. Gayner explains and I reiterate, you don’t need them. You don’t need to deviate from the “proper” army list at all, or sit there wringing your hands because the specific troops you like are in the Blood Dragon list but you want to do Von Carsteins. You’re looking for the reason your Von Carsteins are like they are.

I was directly building into the Storm of Chaos variant list for the Army of Sylvania, which had a core of well-equipped Skeletons and Zombies surrounded by a swarm of bats, wolves and so on and so forth. No Ghouls, and only a limited supply of Knights, which is why I only had one unit for years and years.

2. an Army List,

built around those units that establish and maintain a theme and without which your commander would not be under any circumstances whatsoever. Thinking about your army in different tactical situations (i.e. different kinds of battle) is recommended – if they’re caught on the march, if they’re raided at home, if they’re much reduced in circumstances, which units never leave? Mine are my Black Knights and Skeletons, plus at least one Vampire.

3. some Models,

which are tailored to fit the particular aesthetic that goes along with your Idea.

This is why most of my models, barring the monsters, are kitbashed from Empire stuff – and even my Winged Nightmare, back in the day, was a gnarled-up Empire Griffon rather than the skinless horrors of the core Vampire Counts range. I really wanted to emphasise Sylvania as part of the Empire, a dark mirror held up to the neighbouring provinces, with uniformed Skeleton militiamen and a ragged Zombie levy and later, ghosts swarming out of the haunted Fort Oberstyre (because plastic Flagellants put the “make a Spirit Hose out of Flagellants” option within my price range at last).

4. some Characters,

of a sort who might logically lead the kind of army you’ve created. This is the bit where I go a bit off base, as my characters have been renamed and repurposed over the years and I’ve never quite settled down and defined which of them is which. I have a lot of names, derived from nineteenth-century vampire novels because I’m a pretentious arse literature graduate, but who exactly IS Lord Ruthven and which of these vampire models is him? It’s never been entirely clear.

5. some Other Stuff.

The original article recommends:

  • a baggage train (I never did this, because General’s Compendium style scenarios with extra modelling work that I wouldn’t be using week in week out were a bit too much fiddle and fart for me)
  • writing flash fiction or background to set your army’s personality (I’ve done an Amount of this but it’s all been for non-started attempts at reviving the army for eighth edition)
  • bespoke scenery (I did this once, but my old battle board was given to a gaming club when I moved to a tiny box room in London and had to reduce my hobby down to “fits in a backpack” kind of scale)

Now. This sort of thing is well and good but I don’t quite think it goes far enough. Like a great deal of the ink that’s been spilled over the hobby over the years (bad sentence, but shush, I’m not at work), it focuses too much on the army list. That’s not a reproach to Paul Gayner, who delivered an excellent article on collecting themed armies – more a commentary on how army lists are a quiet and personal process that takes place before games and are easier to discuss in isolation from the heat of the moment. Giving your characters names and converting half your models and putting thought into the colour schemes is only the start. The next step is making it have some kind of impact on the games you’re playing.

After all, this is what it’s all about…

See, I’m not a great believer in backstory, beyond the sort of sketch level that gives characters a name and a motivation and a rough personality. People tend to go too far with backstory, presenting something as tightly plotted as a novel, with no room for other players to stake a claim and have a say and help resolve and develop things.

I like collaborative, emergent narratives; stories that are generated out of actual play and that develop as a result of the experiences players have together. This is a bit tricky if you’re playing week in week out pick-up games and you’re fighting Skaven one week and Empire the next and Lizardmen the week after that only the Empire player’s borrowing some Daemons instead. Kind of hard to sort out a coherent narrative out of all that.

Back in the day, I managed it by keeping records of games and then much later sorting them into rough chronologies. My early games during the Storm of Chaos campaign were a given, and my handful of games against the Reikland Intervention Force were obviously roughly contemporary with Sigmar’s Blood, but my few seventh edition games took place around the time Mannfred von Carstein was first coming to power and the lesser Von Carsteins were fighting back, while the Mordheim campaign I played in 2008 shortly before selling the army was actually the prologue… basically, the army’s fictitious history was nowhere near aligned with its actual one. And games against anything really odd, like – let’s say a Southlands Lizardmen army, or even High Elves – would never make the cut at all because it’d be an odd game out which didn’t fit with anything already on the slate. That was a damned, damned shame.

Nowadays, of course, I tend to play chains of games against the same people with more or less the same armies (or at least the same figures, though they might walk back and forth between editions a little). This means… in theory… that we can actually string together short campaigns, narrative chains of games which let some stories emerge and build up. The People’s Panting and I have this WIP idea about playing through an Albion campaign together, and that’d be a test run for the sort of thing I’m on about.

I don’t want to go mad with it – there are some lovely campaign rules for sixth edition WFB but they absolutely depend on having regular, frequent games, week in week out, to keep momentum. It’s the same problem we have with RPGs: committing to regular weekly sessions around kids and shifts and our respective agonies just doesn’t work. With an added layer of “this is a dead game” and “we all live just far enough apart that it’s a big deal to get together and play.” So I’m looking to do what I did with RPGs: shift from the “weekly episode in an endless picaresque” to the “occasional feature length special” mode of storytelling.

Remember that platonic ideal of Warhammer I was on about, where games are heavily curated and teased up to with some skirmishes and given a bit of context? That’s part of it. Why are these two (or three) armies fighting? What happened in the run up? Does this need to be another Pitched Battle or can we plan ahead and do an Ambush or something?

Wanking away telling stories for myself is fine but I’d love to tell some with other people and really let them build up. So far we’ve been playing tester games, taster games and tournament games – not things that hang together super well – but the opportunity is now knocking to do my favourite thing.

Who ARE you fanged dorks, for goodness’ sake?

To this end, I’m actually thinking I might have to put some definite names to some definite faces, lining up my Vampires of all shapes and sizes and once and for all saying who the hell is whom. Whether Lord Ruthven sticks around or finds himself confined to the Black Coach remains to be seen. There are still plenty of Lord Ruthven’s R-Words left to name lists and reports after, after all, and it seems fitting to stick with the first and greatest of English literary vampires as my officer in charge. Even if his actual Bloodline status becomes a bit… fluid… thanks to a possible new model I have in mind (and me wanting to bugger about with different rules).

Obviously I’ll keep Clarimonde on hand as a backup Countess (a general for when I don’t fancy taking a Lord/second Lord for small games) and the malicious Sir Francis Varney as fighting Thrall and general for small forces. Goodness knows what I’m going to do with the new Battle Standard Bearer. Is he Romauld, or is that my shiny new Necromancer of variant levels? Or shall I take advantage of that loose standard, stick it in a hole on the back of a base, and have it there for anyone who wants it to lug around?

And I have to admit that I liked “The Master and Margharita” as a title/concept for my fifth edition list, hinging as it did around a Vampire Countess and a Master Necromancer. That’s another little vampire literature homage I’d like to keep going. It may be that I end up using the literary references as titles for list archetypes. I used to do the same thing with Cradle of Filth songs, which just shows how far we’ve come since 2004… in some respects, at least.

[WFB] The Black Art (a deep dive into Necromancy by Mike Walker: WD282)

As you can see, I have (thanks to Dominik from the sixth edition Facebook group) laid my hands on a definitive piece of tactical guidance from the man/myth/legend/holy terror of the chip shop the world knows as Mike Walker. His brief detour into the finer points of Necromancy was another of those well-timed moments: it occurred around the time I was first renewing my interest in the fangéd wossnames of the night.*

Looking back, it’s interesting to see how many of my current thoughts mirror things Mike told us all a long time ago. The Vampire Lord elevated to magic level three with the Carstein Ring stapled firmly to their finger and accompanied by a workmanlike Necromancer; the importance of the Black Periapt; the necessity to dismiss Hand of Dust in favour of a spell that doesn’t rob your Vampire of attacks or rely on your Necromancer’s mediocre finger-flapping actually landing a hit.

This isn’t to say that his approach was exhaustive. Today, spurred on by the reports that my fellow neck nibblers struggled a bit at the sixth edition tournament down Upminster way, I’m going to look at a few bits and bobs about the other Bloodlines, consider a handful of useful magic items, and weigh up the alternative to Necromancy, the often-unconsidered Lore of Death.

Blood Dragons

There are two things you need to know about Blood Dragons, as far as Necromancy is concerned.

First: Hand of Dust, for all its manifold flaws, may actually be worth sticking with on a Blood Dragon; their absurdly high Weapon Skill and access to rerolls from their Bloodline powers mean the attack is much more likely to hit, and because the highest-ranking Blood Dragon in a unit is obliged to challenge, they may end up in a situation where they need a good Hand of Dust to get the matter of honour over and done with so they can return to their real job of mulching infantry.

Second: the Black Periapt moves from “nice to have” into “must-have”; fifteen points to counteract the Bloodline’s slightly embarrassing Power Dice problem will ensure that the army remains ticking over despite its general’s lifestyle choices.

Lahmians

Honestly, there’s not a lot to report here, except that the Lahmians themselves suffer from mildly reduced Weapon Skill and an inability to swing anything double-handed around their heads. They also have an inbuilt tendency to strike first, with insane Initiative and a Bloodline power to seal the deal. I mention this purely because it might be worth setting a Hellish Vigour aside with these lasses. Other than that, play them like a slightly more fragile Von Carstein and you won’t go far wrong.

Necrarchs

Here, there are a few things to bear in mind.

Nehekhara’s Noble Blood is a linchpin power. On a Vampire Lord, it gives you a level four wizard who can, for another thirty points spent on Forbidden Lore and a Spell Familiar, secure the entire Lore of Necromancy. On a Vampire Count, it gives you that crucial level three caster who can reliably bung out a Curse of Years or a top-end Invocation of Nehek, without occupying a precious hero slot. On a Vampire Thrall, it gives you a mediocre combat hero with barely-above-average WS, no armour, no magic item allowance left, and no real chance of casting anything but the most mediocre of spells (a single die Invocation or a Dark Hand of Death if you’re feeling spicy). Try as I might, wish as hard as I can, I have never found a case where those hundred and twenty-five points are not better spent on anything else that lurks in the Heroes section.

As far as the remaining powers go, the absolute standout for me is the one that extends the range of all Necromancy spells by six inches. The chief limiting factor on Necromancy is the modest distance from which it can be cast, and the need to place your extremely important single point of failure model a little closer to the action than they might otherwise like to be – a double concern when you’re the squashiest Vampire around and all the good Ward saves are juuuust expensive enough that you’d give up your last spell to secure them.

A Necrarch Count, who’ll never be cornering the market on spells, may like to consider the one that adds d3 models to your Invocation of Nehek rolls instead of Forbidden Lore and the Spell Familiar. This is a deceptively nifty little power, as it ensures even a mid-tier Invocation is guaranteed to create a new Zombie unit and takes the risk out of the low-end casting. As a bonus, it leaves you with enough points to sneak a Ring of the Night in there as well.**

Strigoi

The overgrown ghoul-wranglers are the other Vampires on whom I’d consider Hand of Dust worth a go, simply because they hate absolutely everyone and can keep that hate going a lot longer. The problem is that a Strigoi Vampire very much builds itself, and there are few scenarios in which I wouldn’t prefer to chuck out the six Strength six attacks with rerolls.

One more thing it’s worth remembering: Strigoi can’t carry magic items. This means that any crucial Black Periapt or Book of Arkhan will have to be carried by a Necromancer. No great loss, but often it means you’ll have to stop a little short of your full casting potential. Hopefully ripping the face off anything that looks at you funny will compensate. Strigoi are great.

Magic Items

From left to right: Book of Arkhan, Black Periapt, Staff of Damnation.
And some people to carry them.

The Power Stone is an underrated little trinket, capable of wringing an unexpected extra spell out of a turn or elevating a lowly Necromancer to the point where a crucial Curse of Years might actually go off. I’m not the biggest fan of one-use-only magic items, but a generic Stone-and-Scroll supporting caster might have a lot of potential if you don’t have my tendency to vacillate and save them for a better moment that never comes.

The Black Periapt, as Mr. Walker opines, is a dirt cheap way to give yourself a little polish in every Magic phase, limited only by the wily opponent’s tendency to bung all their dice out there and deny you the option of hanging on to any. I suppose that’s why it’s so gosh-darn cheap. The Power Familiar is a more reliable version of the same thing and honestly a pretty decent use of your Necromancer’s magic item allowance if you’re stuck for better ideas.

The other important items are the Bound Spells. Bring too many of these and you’ll see your opponents develop this fascinating little tic under the eye as they contemplate reviving comp scores just for you. Rely on them too much and you’ll discover that the sodding bastard things run out right when you don’t need them to.

Of the four Bound Spells available my favourites are the Book of Arkhan and Staff of Damnation. A guaranteed, if easy to Dispel, Vanhel’s Danse Macabre is a wonderful thing to have. The Staff is flat-out better than rolling Hellish Vigour simply because it affects every Undead model within range, not just a single unit. If I’m bringing two Necromancers and a Vampire Count I like to bring both of these. Even in my Sylvanian army, where the allowance of Arcane Items is drastically reduced because my Lord has better things to do with a 100 point allowance and my Thralls don’t have the choice, I like to find space for one of them.

Of the other two, the Rod of Flaming Death is an expensive novelty that might occasionally pay off. The fact that it only takes one casualty to cause a Panic test means it’s great for shooing off things like Empire detachments, Gnoblar rank bonus on legs or skirmishers of any sort that don’t have big crests on their head and a tendency to hang around in ponds. The Talon of Death is not something I’ve hitherto investigated – it seems similar to Hand of Dust but arguably more likely to get anything done.

The best thing about these items is that, being Enchanted rather than Arcane, any old character can carry them. The worst thing about these items is that any non-wizard character in my army is likely to have their hands full with either a big flappy object on a long firm object, a spooky book of non-spellcasting nature, or a suite of Bloodline powers tailored for some niche function or other. In larger games when I can afford a spare hero to carry them I might consider them worth a go on a Wraith or something but in my usual 2000-or-below endeavours there are more important things to think about.

The Lore of Death

I’m not saying I’d take a Master Necromancer and load him up with the Lore of Death just to see what happened. But I’m not saying I wouldn’t do that, either.

I think two casters with Necromancy are probably essential. This guarantees you two attempts at the vital Invocation of Nehek and a spare caster who can do the work while the other maintains the Curse of Years. But if I were blessed with the opportunity of a third spellcasting Hero, I would definitely look twice at the other suite of maledictions the Vampire Counts have available.

Dark Hand of Death is an easy cast to draw out Dispel dice, but heavily dependent on that single d6 for hits – Mike is correct in that it’s all too often a damp squib. Wind of Death is exactly like Gaze of Nagash in every way and serves exactly the same purpose. The real gems in the list, though, are the spells that aren’t magic missiles.

Drain Life and Steal Soul are significant in having a mediocre range*** and that amazing little phrase “no armour save” about their person. On casters who like to get close to the enemy – your Blood Dragons and Strigoi – these spells are excellent. Try to save Steal Soul (the one that targets a single model) for unit Champions, who have a tendency to issue challenges that inconvenience your Vampires by forcing them to kill one model instead of wiping out a front rank and protecting your vulnerable infantry from those nasty attacks that tend to equalise combats.

Of course, another way to handle those attacks is with a low-cost spell of deceptive efficiency. Death Dealer is a bit of a gem for those occasions on which you’re expecting to lose models and need to claw back a combat, especially if you have units of Ghouls or Wights in combat with things that strike before them.

The top spell, of course, is the real moneymaker, particularly for Lahmian vampires who already corrode enemy Leadership just by being near them. Doom and Darkness is an essential cast if you’re up against enemies which are for whatever reason immune to the normal effects of fear but still take Break tests; a three (or four, if you’re Lahmian) point swing in your favour is usually enough to send those pesky Ogres running or beat the rage out of those Chaos Warriors.

It would also be remiss of me not to point out that your Rare units love this spell. With Doom and Darkness on their intended target Banshees move from a nuisance to a genuine threat, while the Black Coach has a very real chance of breaking a unit with terror or running it down after a Break test.

If you happen to have opted for a smaller and squashier Vampire general, and a couple of spell-flinging miscreants to support them, the house recommends keeping your Necromancers Necromantic but experimenting with the Lore of Death at the sharp and pointy end of your army.

I’ve got to go now. The first regulation day of Welsh summer (enjoy it, only four more to come) is finally winding to a close, and it’s finally cool and dark enough for me to venture outside. Black puddings don’t buy themselves, you know, and one only gets to call on Trafnidiaeth Cymru so often on a Bank Holiday.****
I hope all this has been helpful, or at least not entirely pointless; it’s a lot of words to squander on doing a bad impression of a niche contributor to a topic that hasn’t been relevant to anyone at all for fifteen years, but it’s kept me occupied through the long dark teatime of the soul. May it do the same for you.

*I did have a Vampire Counts army in fifth edition, but the limitations of pocket money and patience meant it amounted to little more than a buck-toothed Necrarch and a box of Zombies. The one was quite well painted, the others were… not. Previous efforts at an Undead army had similarly run face first into the sheer number of the bastards one needed to obtain: the first run stopped at eight Skeletons, three Horsemen, a Chariot, a Skull Chucker, and a dismounted Arkhan the Black who wasn’t feeling too great about his prospects.

**You may be considering the Crown of the Damned. Please stop considering the Crown of the Damned. Your Vampire general is far, far too important to risk having them be taken out of play by one failed Leadership test. Sooner or later, you will fail one Leadership test and find you’ve spent four hundred and fifty odd points on a general who has decided that dominating the world with mastery of the ole black magic is less important than standing in front of those Grail Knights flicking their fangs and going “brbrbrbrbrbrbrbrbrbr”. Even if they survive contact with the enemy, the embarrassment factor is simply too much to bear.

***To which, it must be noted, the Necrarchs’ extension also applies. An eighteen inch Drain Life radius is significantly better than a twelve inch one, while thirty inches on Dark Hand of Death makes it a real threat to war machine crews and other mid-deployment-zone loiterers.

****I have yet to discover any power, no matter how dire, quaint or curious, that will make a Welsh bus turn up in anything like a timely manner, particularly when Sunday services are involved. One waits for these things with all the patience of a Bretonnian player for a new army book, and generally with the same result.