[40K] Been Painting: Middlehammer Chaos Space Marine squad

I aten’t dead.

I’ve felt like it, particularly during mid-October when literary festival week caught me by the cobblers and dragged me round the back for a good seeing-to, but I have neither died nor abandoned the hobby. Even if I did have to cash out of Resurrection 2, to my chagrin and also that of my Wild Riders, who were quite looking forward to the outing.

After several fallow months I finally mustered the gusto to paint some moon men and, well, here are the results.

Four years to prime. Four months between batches. Four days to finish. They’re going to be Fourth Claw, and that’s an end on it. They are the 2002-ish plastic Chaos Space Marines I retrieved from Jess’ stash and rehabilitated with bits from all over the 40K range. While I have a lot to say in favour of solid single piece miniatures these days, I do appreciate the sheer range of interchangeable parts offered during this range. Their poses are not as infinite as all that – there’s not a great range of things you can do with them before they start looking a bit gormless, and we’ve all seen miniatures assembled with more enthusiasm than anatomical know-how in our time – but the variety of components I was able to use on these with minimal fine motor control involved makes those poses pop. Perhaps a close up or two to illustrate the point.

The relatively plain front and centre plasma gunner has parts from, let’s see now: Khorne Berserker legs, Iron Hands and Mark III arms, Mark III plasma gun, Possessed shoulderpads, Forge World head and vanilla Chaos Space Marine backpack. Not sure about the chest plate, it’s quite possibly off the Vehicle sprue. Not an outlandishly posed or painted figure but has a lot going on, in a quiet sort of way.

The Aspiring Champions, of course, are a bit more extravagant.

I personally subscribe to a “they may not believe in Chaos, but Chaos believes in them” approach to the Night Lords, which permits me to use some of the more grobbly nobbly daemon bits off the sprues and not feel like I’ve somehow betrayed my Legion. I try to walk back the more extreme “full Chaos” units like Possessed, blending in some more mundane bits to ground them a little more.

This squad, I think, have been around the block a few times. Marooned, perhaps, in some backwater warzone or derelict spaceship; the survivors have been reduced to augmetics to replace missing limbs, endured mutation over amputation, and generally done the best they can with a bad lot. They are probably travelling companions to Hexander, my Sorcerer from the aesthetically compatible 2008 plastic kit; I like to associate kits in my mind like this as it groups together models that don’t quite match up in scale or style and makes something productive out of the visual discord.

With these done I am free to assemble a few more at the front end of the queue. A reasonable person might start putting together plastic infantry from the contemporary range, which were purchased earlier this year. A person like me, with a birthday on the horizon, might instead acquire some new Raptors to round out their squads with the appropriate members of the Ablative Brotherhood (the previous owner of my squads went large on special weapons, apparently deciding that the Codex was for suckers). In any case, the Possessed are also primed and have been waiting longest, so it’s them next.

When, I cannot say. This will definitely be the last army I paint – with both arthritis and tendonitis working against me, I am simply no longer capable of painting in volume or at speed. Five models in two leisurely days is an accomplishment in the circumstances, but to someone who normally sits down after breakfast, paints till teatime, and gets the project done come what may, it’s a bit of a comedown. I am no longer the man who can crank out twenty Skeletons in a day and I just have to accept that.

All the more reason to take my time with these and make sure they look as good as I can manage. They don’t quite meet the heights of my best Warmachine-era paint jobs, but they are head and shoulders above the quick and dirty Wood Elves and experimental, “maybe not like this” Orks I did earlier this year, and that’ll do.

[V5] On Thinbloods

I’ve used a Thinblood as a guest star in an ongoing chronicle. I have a player who doesn’t really do long-haul stories (she’s very good, but she doesn’t like games that turn into homework: short, committed arcs are her thing). Her character is a chaotic Gen Z gremlin, connected to the PCs’ Mawla figure (as far as they’re aware IC, she’s his biological daughter and also his childe, only one of which is actually true), and we unleash her on the story whenever we need a session’s breathing room from the Revised-style machinations that take up much of our attention, or need to be dragged down to Planet V5 for some street level problems on the Rack.

It works because a) the Thinblood is connected to something the players have put coterie dots into: they’re invested in Sorcha’s da, so they’re invested in her, and b) because it gives the players someone who’s even more baby than their characters and needs looking after. It helps that c) she has Resources, Looks and a Discipline Affinity: at the start of our chronicle the PCs had two dots in Resources between the three of them and no in-house Oblivion. There’s a strong Hecata presence in the city and none of my original players were playing one, so having a friend who can clue them in to Spooky Goings On is really handy.

I think if you have a similar situation – a player who wants to commit something different to the game and doesn’t necessarily care about the long haul – this kind of occasional guest character works well, and that’s probably the best way to integrate a lone Thinblood (unless you’ve decided to pick a Merit package that lets them act like a less sycophantic ghoul, with capacity to operate in daylight: that can also be fun, but the player still needs to like doing solo scenes and the group dynamic needs to be comfortable with that).

When I was building this chronicle I also seeded a few other thinblood characters (four, plus this one who became a guest PC) and a thinblood-focused plot hook or two, in case the players wanted to give an all-thinblood chronicle a try. The specific story hooks I went for were the Bahari cult (for reasons that don’t necessarily summarise well – how long are you here for conversations about the Last Daughter of Eve, Lilith bullshit, and creative interpretations of the Gehenna canon?) and the Ashe conspiracy introduced through Chicago by Night (making drugs out of vampires, which resonates with both Thin-Blood Alchemy’s use of the body as crucible and the idea of thin-bloods as disposable citizens, tolerated but not valued, nobody caring if they live or die as long as they don’t bring the hammer down on any real Kindred).

I think to make them work you need to either go into Alchemy or a Discipline Affinity. Not both, but certainly one or the other. This isn’t so much a mechanical problem as a thematic one. Justin Achilli once told me that the supernatural powers in the players’ hands are a key element: without it, Vampire is just Mad Men, horrible people doing horrible things to each other for boring reasons. It’s feeding and the blood bond and Disciplines that introduce those lurid, monstrous, capital-G Gothic elements and elevate the game into passion play, and characters without those elements feel a bit… off-message, for Vampire.

One might argue that the thinblood “daywalker” who can fulfil the ghoul niche is a kind of double-negative version of this, rich and strange by their sheer contrast to other vampires, and I think if your table focuses heavily on vampires and vampire society then the thinblood can be a ray of light in the midst of all that. A touchstone with a little t – although now I want to make a Thinblood the focus of a Coterie Type, in the same way that locations or slumbering elders might be. Time to break out that Last Daughter of Eve concept again…

I’d also say it helps to “theory craft” every character in the context of a Session Zero in which you establish what the chronicle’s going to be like, roughly where the arcs are going to go, what dramatic (or tactical) role everyone’s going to take on. Vampire is in my opinion a writer’s room, not a guessing game – it works best when everyone playing is contributing to the makeup of the story, when information is fairly open at the table, and when “what’s going to happen” is less important than “how we’re going to feel about it and deal with it.” Every element of a character from Discipline spreads to Merits and Flaws to Predator Type is a potential contribution to that emergent drama. Thinbloods are no different.

In particular you want to look at what the Thinblood Merits and Flaws enable and complicate, whether they play along the same sectarian lines (good for fitting a Thinblood into a group of full Kindred) or whether they’re all pulling in different ways (good for fostering conflict within a Thinblood group).

You’ll also need to think about feeding. Thinbloods don’t have a Predator Type, and so they don’t have the raw dots in Merits, Abilities and specialities that enable easy feeding. It’s harder for them to just tamp down on the Hunger, which means they’re going to need help, or they’re going to need their consequences managed. In either case, expect feeding to be even more significant than normal, and accidents to be more common.

Bottom line: I think a Thinblood or two can play a role in your proper Kindred chronicle if the players’ interests and preferences create the right space for them. I think an all-Thinblood chronicle is interesting if you want to back away from what classical Vampire is about and really focus on Your Little Guys and how they make it night to night, with both the proper Kindred and the threat of the Second Inquisition as these looming threats they don’t really understand. It would also be fun, maybe, to experiment with different paradigms for vampirism by not having any ‘true’ Kindred around at all – that’d be a neat way to run a lore-agnostic or post-Gehenna chronicle, although by that stage you’re not so much playing Vampire: the Masquerade as using its rules to do your own thing.

[WFB] The Theory and Practice of Asymmetric Warhammer

Did the treacherous Wood Elves ambush the noble reptilian defenders of the Great Plan, as the sacred plaques reveal? Or did the savage Lizardmen betray their great purpose and set about their would-be elven saviours with claw and tooth and approximately a hundred and twenty little blowpipe darts?

We had a bit of a Koom Valley situation on this week as Ben S and I took the Ambush scenario out for a spin. 1000 points of attackers against 1500 of defenders and then we’d swap sides and do it again from t’tother side of the ratio.

This doesn’t have much to do with anything, but it’s the first time Ben’s Stegadon has lived to do its job.

The games themselves weren’t massively notable, one all with very one-sided Victory Point scores to be had, and so a conventional report isn’t really worth the bother. What did come out from the post mortem, though, is how we both felt the scenario was a really rough one for the attackers to pull off.

I’ve played enough of these asymmetric encounters now – these two, the Woodland Ambush earlier this year and Reclaim The Stones the year before – that I’m starting to get a feel for them, but this one really got away from us and I want to spend some time thinking about why.

Partly, this was down to the points values. I wanted to avoid having a 2000+ points army on the defence, as that Lord choice and second Rare were clearly going to tip things, but went too far down the scale. 1000 points isn’t really enough to get anything too expensive in, and both of us found that on the attack, it was Core units with a high yield of Attacks that did the business.

Ben’s Saurus were his last surviving unit on his attack, and would have ripped the core out of my army if not for some subpar pursuit rolls stranding them in point blank range of my Glade Guard (two units of ten, on a hill).

One inch makes all the difference. Especially to those ten Lizardmen who used to be in the back.

On mine, the Dryads and Glade Guard were the only things left of my army by the top of turn three after a dud overrun-and-clip brought the Wild Riders into intimate contact with Mr. Scar-Veteran and twenty of his best mates.

My Unicorn had decent odds of squashing Ben’s Scar-Veteran,
but even that wouldn’t have tipped the static combat res. tally anywhere good.

Both lists had something in them that was eating up a good third of the available points by itself – my Wild Riders and Spellweaver, Ben’s Saurus and Scar-Veteran – and if that unit underperformed it was basically game over, boys. Small WFB games can be pretty swingy if there’s a point sink on the table and when you factor in how heavily the attacker is outnumbered that swing can be impossible to come back from (the odds already being against them).

Underneath that, there’s a layer of difficulty with the scenario itself. Warhammer armies aren’t generally built to split up across the entire width of the battlefield, and the Ambush forces the attacker to place at least a third of their army in each available deployment zone. The game is entirely decided by Victory Points for killing stuff – no table quarters, no standards, no dead generals – and runs for a comparatively conservative five turns, so the attacker really has to go in hard and establish an early lead before the defender’s superior numbers kick in.

This is what I tried to do on my attack, and I ended up with my usual Wood Elf weakness of units blocking each other out or not being able to support each other (although in my defence, I did set up some decent supporting charges that just ended up blocked by an uncooperative Unicorn – I think I still hate Ridden Monsters).

Shown here is the consequence of being blocked out of an otherwise well-placed backup charge.

Some asymmetric scenarios are meant to be skewed, of course. The Last Stand and Holding the Tide are the way they are because the defender is meant to sell their lives dearly – if they score their own cost in Victory Points they have done a sterling job. The Battle of Newberry Pass (ask your dad) is strongly rigged in favour of the smaller force by giving them depth of field against an inefficient attacking army with a bottleneck to move through. It’s meant to do that as the smaller force is meant to be forgiving, effective, and easy for a new player to pick up how moving, shooting and fighting work. The Battle of Ironaxe Ridge (same again, buy him a pint) gives the huge attacking army no room to mess up its deployment or movement so the defender has a fighting chance.

Ambush doesn’t have any of that built in – it’s a much more open affair that might need co-operation and curation between both players at the list building stage (which should be the case with all wargames, especially at our age, but old habits die hard).

The Wood Elves look like they’re in a good place here, but one hasty move later it’s the Lizardmen’s game to lose.

Neither Ben nor myself really tailored into the scenario beyond building lists of the appropriate size. His defending force was probably better equipped, with a Stegadon to terror-bomb and impact-hits-bully its way through the Wood Elf line and two units of Skinks to bubblewrap his most important and expensive stuff; my attacking force didn’t really have an answer to the Stegadon’s Terror and I threw the Wild Riders away on a badly aligned “gotta start scoring instead of getting shot at by 22 blowpipe darts again” charge.

Now, my lack of experience and patience with the Wood Elves is definitely showing here (wait, you say, for the opportune moment, because my troops can’t reliably stick and grind until reinforcements arrive? sounds fake) but when we swapped sides I similarly beansed up my early moves, giving away two early charges and yet – this is the crucial point – still managed to table Ben. The same player can make the same mistakes but as defender has a whole lot more breathing room to recover from them.

Three-way charges lead to a bit of a pile-up in the old “flee and pursue” stage of play too…

So. If you’re going to approach an asymmetric scenario like Ambush, there are a few things to bear in mind. You’ll have to consider:

  • Context of play. What are the victory conditions and what do they represent? Does the outnumbered force have a reasonable chance of achieving them or is it too easy for points to sit in places that make the outcome a foregone conclusion? Consider a Woodland Ambush against any Undead or Daemon army, where the scenario’s balancing factor (failed Panic tests yield bonus VPs) evaporates and the Wood Elves must more or less play to table with half the points on hand.
  • Points balance. I think 1200 vs. 1800 is about right for Ambush. Nobody has extra power choices available on the defence and the attack has enough points for a couple of hard units and decisive plays. By contrast, Reclaim the Stones plays much better as a 2000 vs 3000 point endeavour because the bucket of extra magic dice the defenders get really helps to close the power gap. You’ve got to look at what the armies can do with those scenario rules, which brings me on to…
  • List balance. The attacker needs bang for their buck – a high yield of attacks from cheap, reliable troops, and nothing even passing for a death star) and space to answer game-skewing questions from the defender (i.e. is there a really high Toughness unit, something that’s Unbreakable or causes Terror, or really brutal short range shooting that will force the attacker to circle instead of striking?)
  • Player skill – running the smaller force is often not for the faint of heart nor the weak of mind and if there was ever a handicap option for the veteran against the newcomer, this is probably a good candidate.

Have I missed anything?

[V:tM] A Vampire: the Masquerade Watch List

THE UR–EXAMPLES

The Hunger is about as close to the ideal of Vampire: the Masquerade as you can get. Nightclubs! Gratuitous Bauhaus! Lesbian kiss! The aesthetic is spot on: it looks and feels like early Vampire art, or rather early Vampire art looks and feels like this film. V:tM may have come out in 1991 but it’s rooted firmly in the 1980s and the vampire chic this film defined. The Hunger will dump the vibe of the game right between the eyes and it’s as close as I dare come to “must-watch.”

V:tM’s Gehenna concept is heavily mirrored/inspired by the novel Queen of the Damned, which was adapted for film around the time Gehenna was actually happening and the line was coming to a close – so watch that too. The Hunger defines where V:tM came from, all Eighties post-punk writhing – this chuggy post-industrial apocalypse-glam perfectly sums up where it’s going.

THE META TAKE

Shadow of the Vampire is about a vampire playing a vampire in the first vampire movie. In a weird way I think that’s perfect for the sense of the Masquerade, hiding in plain sight, preying on the worst instincts of humanity and encouraging them to let you get away with all the awful things you want to do. In microcosm, it’s the perfect analogy for the “vampires secretly run society” vibe.

(It may help if you’ve seen Nosferatu too – either the 1922 original or the 1979 remake. I personally like the 1979 – it’s beautifully composed and, well, Isabelle Adjani. My God.)

GATHERING DATA ON VARIOUS OF BASTARDS

Depending on what type of vampire you want to be (and I’m going with V5’s categories here), I recommend at least one of the following:

Thinbloods lend themselves well to the What We Do In The Shadows conceit of vampire flatmates (or The Carmilla Movie, I suspect, but I haven’t seen that one). They’re millennial and Gen Z vampires; all the power and resources are concentrated in the hands of previous generations, so they pretty much have to bind together and find something else to enjoy in life, ’cause they’re never going to be powerful in the conventional sense. Thinblood games are low power, a bit domestic, and often the closest to “normal life but we happen to be vampires and bigger vampires try to kick our heads in occasionally.”

Neonates are your classic Gen X eighties/nineties vampire movie – The Lost Boys. Still weak enough that they’re better off standing together, strong enough that they can afford to be a bit cocky around humans. Probably share a sire, mentor, authority figure of some sort and should probably be working on his agenda once they’ve finished prowling the boardwalks and clubland at night. They’re a step further removed from society, but they can pretend to be human for an hour or two if they really try. Also, this is the other one that was in the air and influential when V:tM first came to be – along with The Hunger, I’d recommend it as the closest to a must-watch.

Ancillae (the upper reaches of age and power offered by the V5 corebook) are more your Interview With The Vampire kind of deal. You’ve lived a long life, your adventuring days are behind you, and now you’re something of a mover and a shaker – you’re probably permitted or at least not prevented from siring and you’re looking to give someone the choice you never had. Modernity gives you a headache but at least you can work a smartphone four times out of five. Ancillae games are a nice balance between “you’re powerful” and “you still have to answer to someone”.

SECTS MANIACS

If you’re extending into Inconnu territory, settle down with a small glass of something and enjoy one of my favourite films ever, Only Lovers Left Alive. It’s a slow story, and not a lot happens, but that’s elders for you. They become introverted. They fall into a groove. They keep to each others’ company. It’s beautiful and haunting until some clueless childe comes along and screws it all up for them and they have to admit what they really are.

Want to figure out the Sabbat? Watch (or read) 30 Days of Night and thank me later. The vampires there are getting away with something horrible because they’ve fallen through the cracks in the world. They act alpha-predator but they still live on the fringe or civilisation, the little savages.

REFLEXIVE ACTION

It would be deeply remiss of me not to talk about Underworld, the film series transparently inspired by V:tM,.to the point where lawyers were involved. Underworld reflects V:tM at its most “gamery”, its most superheroes-with-fangs – all custom weapons, trenchcoats and corsets, fighting werewolves in the dark, flashing back to the Middle Dark Ages and preoccupied with impenetrable why-does-this-matter world-building.

It sits at the end of that tendency toward Desert Eagles, katanas, Dragonsbreath rounds and C4 appearing on every character sheet that found its way into V:tM’s DNA from Shadowrun, along with the penchant for dice pool mechanics and wearing sunglasses indoors. I dislike that sort of game and I’m not mad keen on Underworld either (although Bill Nighy is a delight in any role where he gets to fight things, bless him) but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this sort of thing is also peak V:tM.

WAIT, THIS ISN’T VAMPIRES!

V:tM is synonymous with politics and backstabbing, and there isn’t in my opinion a vampire movie that really hits that. Thing is, Mark Rein-Hagen apparently loves Mafia movies, and the sense of the Mafioso as outlaw “protector” and power broker from the shadows, bound by a tradition of secrecy and self-regulation, goes right down into the roots of V:tM. Hence: The Godfather. (I’m open for other recommendations along these lines, if anyone has any: classic Mafia films are not my strong point.)

YOUR OWN PERSONAL JESUS TASTE

What are your top three non-vampire films? Why? That’s as good a way to start finding your feet as Storyteller as any – interrogate your own taste, know yourself, and discover from that what kinds of stories you enjoy. Now grab some friends and ask them the same question. Wherever you find an overlap in your tastes, that’s something that’s worth focusing on in your game.

Why “no vampire films” rule? Because “being a vampire” in and of itself doesn’t make a story (unless it’s a quiet, short one like Only Lovers Left Alive, but in RPG terms, that’s a one-off and definitely not a chronicle). V:tM works because it fuses vampires-as-protagonists with something else, be it cyberpunk style action thriller or gloomy crime drama or whatever it is you like.

Mine, discounting the one I’ve already gushed about up the line, are Rocknrolla, Franklyn, and In The Loop. My games run on generally have a couple of seemingly indestructible SPCs nobody likes and a dark secret that can absolutely take them down, someone WILL have an impenetrable regional accent, there will be convoluted political scrambling that nobody entirely understands (but someone who moves fast enough can come out on top through sheer bastardry)…

… but there’s also a layer of exaggerated Gothickry over everything, neuratypical characters will perceive the world very differently, vengeance and trauma will drive the major players and love may conquer all but you’ll have to lose a lot to get there.

None of this is essential to V:tM but it’s what makes my V:tM different from A. N. Other Storyteller’s, and it’s important to figure out your own taste. People often expect an RPG to come ready-made and ready-to-go (“We’re playing the Lost Mines of Phandelver”) and Vampire, at its best, is a bit more bespoke. Asking players about their taste in media is one way to start that tailoring process, making your V:tM something a bit different from everyone else’s and getting into that transformative stuff that makes RPGs so gosh-darn amazing.

[WFB] Homebrew: The Silver Host

Allow me to explain.

What with one thing and another, I’ve spent some time looking at the Desert of the Dead range from TTCombat again. Basically, I want to fuss my Tomb Kings army, losing the brittle and frustrating Mantic figures and replacing them with TTCombat’s single piece resin jobs. I already own and like a bunch of their elite figures, so it just seems to make sense.

But that range also includes a lot of things that aren’t from the sixth edition Tomb Kings range. Some of them are newfangled eighth edition units, various sphinxes and so on, but some of them are… well, very Vampire Countsy. Like the Sphinx Hounds, and the Slaves, and that Jackal and Ox Cart that could have wandered out of seventh ed. Vampire Counts.

And that got me thinking. I own a Neferata model. I also own a Vampire Counts army which I love playing, but it doesn’t travel well. And I started wondering if the same collection could, with a bit of clever expansion, be a Tomb Kings army and a new Vampire Counts army. And that started me thinking about the Lahmian army list for sixth edition, which I want to like much more than I do.

So here’s an army list I knocked together for the Silver Host, the guardians of the Pinnacle, formatted after the Army of Sylvania and taking the opportunity to tidy up the old GW website rules for Neferata a little.

Let me know what you think?