[PhD] Talking About Our Research (an informal presentation from 2019)

I don’t want to just stand here and read out my statement of research, not when I’ve spent three months working on it and am now sick of the sight of the thing. Nor do I want to stand here and deliver a conference-style presentation, because the thing about conference style presentations in game studies is…

Well. You’re either inside the whale, in which case as an early career researcher you’re probably there to listen and not talk because you’re surrounded by people who’ve played everything, read everything, and had this exact argument going on since 2004; or you’re outside, and you’re having to bring a lay audience up to speed by introducing them to the kind of game you’re talking about and the discourse around it and how it relates to their field… and I do enjoy doing that, but I’ve done it enough times over the last two and a half years to want a break.

So I thought that instead of talking about my research as research, I’d tell you a story. I’d try to explain where the project comes from and why I’m doing it and what the point of it all is. And here we are. I’m going to talk about death a lot, and I’m going to be flippant about it: content warning.

I’ve always been a morbid little sod. I can’t tell you why. I remember reading Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man at an impressionable age and going on about hourglasses and harvest metaphors for a month, but I was already pretty susceptible by that stage. The aesthetic of it all – the look and the feel of the text’s world, the cover, even the play with fonts within it – really pressed my buttons. (When I say “aesthetic”, by the way, I’m talking in a sort of Kantian sense that I took from Graeme Kirkpatrick’s book on aesthetic theory and video games. That’s going to be important later.)

Anyway: Reaper Man. It’s also a diamond of a book – it’s about maturity and care and justice and facing the end with the right kind of dignity and defiance, and it’s about cities and villages and what makes them live, and – anyway, it’s formative. Especially if you’re the kind of kid who has emergent suicidal tendencies and is comforted by the idea that you’ll be dead one day.

I do think it’s comforting. Death is the thing that’s guaranteed to happen to all of us, sooner or later. It’s a truth that can’t be deconstructed, or elided, or denied. And, speaking as the kind of empirical agnostic type who doesn’t like to make firm statements about whether or not anything happens afterwards, that puts life into a particular perspective as well. We’re all going to die. Existence is a series of momentary diversions on the way to the grave. This might well be all we get. Better make the most of it, and not make things worse for anyone else along the way.

That, essentially, is death positivity. I was death positive before I knew being death positive was a thing. What even is “being death positive?” The person to ask there is Caitlin Daughty, who founded the Order of the Good Death back in 2011, and wrote some lovely eye-opening books about the death professions, and runs a really good, really funny YouTube channel called Ask A Mortician. I can also recommend a couple of academic collections – Death, Dying and Mysticism is one, The Matter of Death is another, they’re both Palgrave Macmillan. And that’s death positivity. That’s one of the big, defining Things in my life.

The other one is gaming. I’ve been playing games all my life, and all that’s changed is that they’ve become more (and then less) complex ones as I grow older. I’m not just a computer game person – to be honest, I’m not even mainly a computer game person, I’ve never owned a console in my life and there’s a huge chunk of the medium I just missed out on because my cheap PCs weren’t up to the job. I’m a tabletop game person. I started out with choose-your-own-adventure books in the early Nineties, drifted into Warhammer and its ilk, drifted into roleplaying games from there: I’d say “like Dungeons and Dragons“, but I’ve barely played any Dungeons and Dragons. Except the computer game versions.

The point is, I took kind of a weird path into game studies, which only really broke through as a discipline in its own right when video games became enough of a mass medium to be worth looking into seriously. This was starting to happen when I was doing my BA in creative writing – the big entrenched debate between ludologists (people who read games as systems and mechanisms of rules and think that’s most important) and narratologists (people who read games as storytelling tools and cultural artefacts like films or novels and think that’s most important) was really kicking into high gear while I was learning about writing for games and writing for the Internet, and I made a mental note to keep an eye on that.

Then I got distracted by doing an MA in English and catching up on all the Marxist literary theory I’d managed to dodge on the way up, and presenting my first ever conference paper. It was about the semantics of ‘necromancy’ in early modern Catholicism and the ecumenically useful distinction from witchcraft – because of course it was. I did mention I was a bit obsessed, right?

The other big thing that was happening at the time was the turn to affect in the humanities – I remember going to a symposium just down the road at the University of Manchester, of which that was the title, and being intrigued and a bit peeved that we all had to learn neuroscience now because it meant we could point to something that was measurable with instruments and thus really real and so gave us all a reason to keep existing. And I meant to start a PhD the year after that. Really I did. But there was no funding and I needed to keep living indoors, so I became a teacher instead, and that was a mistake that took about seven years to finish happening and another two or three to come back from.

I was applying for PhDs, all through this time, like they were jobs – “ok you’ve got funding for ‘the long eighteenth century’, here’s something about magic in the eighteenth century, interested?” – and a lot of my friends were doing PhDs, so I had this second-hand contact with the academic world. I also spent a lot of that time moonlighting, working for an essay mill, but after about five or six years of doing that I had a bit of a moment. I realised I’d written hundreds of thousands of perfectly good academic words, on dozens of topics, including this paper I had right in front of me on Anne Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, and their running argument about terror and horror in the Gothic, and I didn’t get to keep any of them. And this Gothic paper was really quite good.

And so the next paper I wrote was a total passion project, a response to something I’d come across in my research – it was about Gothic co-ordinates in World of Warcraft, and it was a video essay, which is still up on YouTube and I’d really like if it could crack a hundred views one of these years. I took that to Sheffield’s Reimagining Gothic conference – to the creative showcase, because I didn’t think I was a Proper Academic at this point – and that’s where I met Stephen Curtis, who coined the wonderful, awful word “deathsetics” and used it to talk about games. Curtis is another of those people who uses “aesthetic” in the usual shorthand “what this media object looks and sounds like” sense and in a deeper “what it feels like to engage with this media object” sense, and he’s interested in how virtual death makes us feel and where that feeling comes from, culturally speaking.

The thing about games, see – the thing about roleplaying games and wargames, which I’ve spent something like twenty years playing – is that they’re all about death. Characters die a lot, and there’s this running conversation in wargames about how there needs to be an objective that isn’t just “kill all they dudes” because that results in a lot of boring games, and another in roleplaying games about how there needs to be a risk that your character will die or there’s nothing at stake, and yet another in videogames about how repeated character death is a sign that the game is difficult and challenging and thus a ‘proper’ game. And there’s pushback against those ideas – that you don’t need to kill everyone all the time or die every two minutes to have a ‘good’ or a ‘proper’ game. And there’s a whole history to these ideas, rooted in everything from the roots of the hobby in a strategic simulator for young members of the officer class to the earliest arcade games needing to regularly get more money out of you. And that’s… the two big things in my life, coming together.

I sat on that for another couple of years, because I’d come in with Gothic Studies and I was still finding my feet and treating academia as a sort of hobby, an excuse to go away for a few days and have a break from rural Wales and work-from-home content writing (both of which are quite soul-destroying if you’re stuck with them day in day out). But at the next Reimagining Gothic I went to, I met Dale Townshend from MMU, and – as I remember it – he asked if I was doing a PhD, and why not, and why I wasn’t doing it with him. And then a scholarship was announced, and at last I had a project that I actually wanted to do, that I’d be willing to do even if I didn’t get a stipend for the trouble. I didn’t, and I’m quite glad I didn’t because this isn’t actually a Gothic Studies project – it’s very gothy, it’s definitely Gothic-adjacent, but it’s not directly talking to or entirely within the Gothic as a genre – and I think what I’ve ended up doing is better for having stepped outside and taken a different perspective.

And here I am. That’s the story. Any questions?

[WFB] List Maintenance: Lord Ruthven Restored

Because I’m a whocking great nerd, I keep a battlefield journal. Not exhaustive “and then I rolled a three and a two and he rolled a four and a six” level stuff because life is much too short, but a “no more than one A5 spread per thing” record of the games I’ve played and the army lists I’ve used (or considered using).

Despite my respect for the Stillmanic principle in some regards (I am still using the same army I started on my eighteenth birthday and have barely touched some of it with a paintbrush since), I’m an inveterate tinkerer and fine tuner and consider this a pleasure I shall not forgo just because ol’ Nigel doesn’t think it proper.

Here are the post mortem notes on the list I took to that London back in March, straight from the Book.

Rod of Flaming Death works – it worries people just enough that they always Dispel it.

Pretty clear there, past me. I used to look down on the Rod and not bother with it, now I understand that opponents don’t want to risk an automatic Panic test for having one model get fried. The Rod is one of those items which can subtly turn a game even if it never actually works – and, as a bonus, it doesn’t run out of juice!

Use the Stone early to draw out scrolls – don’t save it!

The more spells I can push through in the early game the more Dispel Scrolls I can dummy out, giving me more freedom to cast in the middling turns where it matters more. Necromancy spells turn the game by tipping combats in my favour and that makes them most impactful when the battle-lines are either about to hit or have just done so. The Stone also allows me to slam five dice down on a key spell from Rosenkratz the Necromancer, cutting through the three-dice casting cap he normally has to labour under. I find this sort of thing far more decisive than bringing a single Dispel Scroll and fretting about what’s important enough to use it on.

Swap in the Aura.

Aura of Dark Majesty has returned to must-take status now that I’ve started playing on 6′ x 4′ boards more. I’d hoped that I could wean myself off it and get used to a mere 12″ bubble but the stage of the game where my fast units need to turn around and get stuck back in really needs them to keep marching, and sometimes the tide of battle draws my Lord away from them in the horizontal plane.

Stick to a Wight Lord BSB for Leadership 9.

What it says on the tin. I love Vampire Thralls, don’t get me wrong: mine is a cheap source of fast-moving chariot-wrecking arrow-scoffing extra hits right where they’re needed, and I’ve gained a new respect for the Necrarch and Strigoi variants as I help out putting tactical together for the Online. But a Thrall does not take hits well, nor lead units, and the high Leadership is excellent for keeping a combat unit where it should be after my General bites it, or when pursuit needs to be deterred in favour of good positioning.

Skeleton spears. In both games they got charged and having spears paid off. I CURSE THE VULGAR FASHION!

For years and years I misplayed the hand weapon and shield rule in sixth edition and never understood why the hardcore said sword and board was better than spear. Now I finally have a unit of Skeleton Swordsmen and am using them with a vigour, so I think my past self wants talking to here. As I go forward I find myself bringing two Skeleton units: spearmen to take point and get charged, swordsmen to deliver a flanking hit. My Zombies are reserved for filling a spare Core slot with the most minimal of caster bunkers, or raising.

Consider a steady list with swappable Counts?

I worked out a range of similarly-coster Vampire Counts a while back and considered trading them in and out of the army to see what difference it made. The drawback to this plan? My aesthetic is very much a Von Carstein army: I can get away with a Lahmian or Blood Dragon as I have appropriate Generals on foot for that, but Strigoi or Necrarchs, the most different and powerful Bloodlines, are closed to me because the rest of the army doesn’t match. (If I ever did a second Vampire Counts army, it would be mostly Ghouls and more bronze age style Skeletons, deliberately geared toward playing with these two Bloodlines.)

What do you need: Wraith or Wight? Both games had the BSB pay off but also Terror made a big impact.

This is a recurring problem for me. Both these heroes have been excellent additions to my collection and I’m a tad flummoxed about which one to leave at home when slots are at a premium. Since the Wight Lord doesn’t have quite such an established character or set of kit (he was swapped into the army at the last moment) I’m going to stick with the Wraith for the time being.

Periapt ain’t always so hot: consider another Stone.

Don’t get me wrong, the Black Periapt is fine; it’s just a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul every other turn because this phase often has to get by on seven dice so I can have nine later, and there’s a level of cognitive load involved in planning around the dice-storage gimmick that can slow me down and stop me playing decisively. I’m still umming and ahhing about the Periapt, which I think is only essential in 2000 point games where a fella only has three level 2 wizards to play with. Up here I can probably get away without it by ensuring I have enough dice in the first place, and enough powerful wizards to make good use of them.

 

To these vestiges I’d add a few more observations that came out of the report-writing process. I really like Death Magic on my Vampires and am close to considering it the default as I go forward, outside the Army of Sylvania of course (there I don’t have the luxury of faffing about without Necromancy).

The big unit of Knights is a necessary evil in a Sylvanian list but otherwise I think I need the flexibility of two units operating on opposite flanks or sweeping one together.

Finally there’s the small matter of casting power. At present the 3000 point army is too dependent on the Master and once he’s copped it, I am knocked back to 2000 point levels of casting power: not good enough. This “Master and Margarita” list archetype is therefore reserved for fifth edition from here on out, and Lord Ruthven will be making a return to wrangle the army. I also plan to shout FIE to the high heavens, bust the shield off my Imperial Noble model, and simply use the figure who matches the army’s aesthetic as Lord Ruthven. If anyone gives me grief about his breastplate I shall say it’s got warpstone in it or something. Life’s too short.

A few additional cuts have been made in terms of magic banners, unit champions and so on and so forth. Magic banners may yet be restored to the Knight units at the cost of some Dire Wolves.

 

Lord Ruthven: Von Carstein Vampire Lord: extra magic level (Lore of Death), Biting Blade, Ring of the Night, Walking Death, Aura of Dark Majesty435 points

Walravius: Master Necromancer: extra magic level (Necromancy), Cloak of Mists and Shadows, Power Stone: 290 points

Rosenkratz: Necromancer: extra magic level (Necromancy), Book of Arkhan, Power Stone: 150 points

Guildenstern: Necromancer: extra magic level (Necromancy), Rod of Flaming Death: 150 points

Whispering Nell: Wraith: Cursed Book: 140 points

Lord Ruthven’s First of Foot: 20 Skeletons: spears, light armour, champion, musician and standard bearer: 245 points

Lord Ruthven’s Second of Foot: 20 Skeletons: light armour, champion, musician and standard bearer: 225 points

Templehof Pals: 10 Zombies: musician and standard bearer: 75 points

Verhungernhund Claw: 5 Dire Wolves: 50 points

Verhungernhund Fang: 5 Dire Wolves: 50 points

Order of the Black Cross: 8 Black Knights: barding, champion, musician and standard bearer: 240 points

Order of the Crimson Wing: 8 Black Knights: barding, champion, musician and standard bearer: 240 points

Black Monks of St. Herod: 5 Spirit Hosts: 325 points

Cora: Banshee: 90 points

Clarice: Banshee: 90 points

Emmanuelle’s Hearse: Black Coach: 200 points

TOTAL: 2995 points
Tower of Power: 13 dice
Pile of Denial: 8 dice

[WFB] Battle Report: Lord Ruthven’s Reanimation

My second engagement on the eve of Nineteen Crows was something equally eccentric, and this time I have slightly more adequate notes. Joseph Bain of tournament fame had suggested Reclaim the Stones, a scenario from the Albion campaign: always keen to skip out the Borehammer, I’d accepted his vulgar challenge. Although I was going in with 3000 points to his 2000 I would be doing so with a split-up Vampire Counts army (never a good idea) and Joseph had tricked out his list to give me a run for my money in the magic department.

He had:

Wizard Lord of the Celestial College: level 4 wizard (Lore of the Heavens: Second Sign of Amul, Storm of Kronos, Comet of Cassandora and… something else), Hex Staff
Warrior-Priest of Sigmar: heavy armour, shield, barded warhorse, Sword of Might, Van Horstman’s Speculum
Warrior-Priest of Sigmar: great weapon, Armour of Meteoric Iron
Master Engineer: repeater pistol

8 Knights of the Inner Circle: full cavalry kit, champion, musician, and standard bearer (War Banner)
10 Handgunners
10 Handgunners
5 Pistoliers: champion

18 Greatswords: champion, musician, and standard bearer (Griffon Standard)
Mortar
Great Cannon

Helblaster Volley Gun
Giant

I was rocking:

Margarita: Vampire Countess; level 2 wizard (Lore of Death: Dark Hand, Steal Soul, Doom and Darkness), Sword of Striking, Ring of the Night, Spell Familiar and Summon Wolves.
The Master: Master Necromancer: level 4 wizard (Necromancy: Invocation of Nehek, Hand of Dust, Gaze of Nagash, Vanhel’s Danse Macabre), Wristbands of Black Gold, Black Periapt
Rosenkratz: Necromancer: level 2 wizard (Necromancy: Invocation of Nehek, Vanhel’s Danse Macabre), Book of Arkhan, Power Stone
Guildenstern: Necromancer: level 2 wizard (Necromancy: Invocation of Nehek, Vanhel’s Danse Macabre), Rod of Flaming Death
Whispering Nell: Wraith: Cursed Book
Walravius: Wight Lord: Army Standard, Flayed Hauberk

Templehof Militia: 30 Skeletons with light armour, spears, champion, standard and musician
Templehof Levy: 25 Zombies with standard and musician
Hounds of Verhungern: 10 Dire Wolves with champion
The Local People: 10 Ghouls with champion

Drakenhof Templars: 12 Black Knights with barding, champion, standard (Banner of the Barrows) and musician
Black Monks of St. Herod: 5 Spirit Hosts

Cora: Banshee
Clarice: Banshee
Lord Ruthven’s Repose: Black Coach

The scenario forced me to split my army down the middle and with only one General to go around that made the choice of what to slap where pretty straightforward.

The A Team, consisting of everything that either can’t march (the Black Coach), can march regardless of proximity to the General (Ghouls), or is fast enough to reach combat even if it doesn’t march (Black Knights, Dire Wolves), plus the Master to give everything a bit of a Necromantic fillip. I wasn’t particularly optimistic about this flank’s chances but if they could corral Joseph’s army to an extent until the infantry showed up to win the game for me I’d be happy.

The B team, consisting of everything which needed proximity to the General (that’s Spirit Hosts, Skeletons and Zombies) plus everything that would want to hide in a Skeleton or Zombie unit (that’s all the characters except the Master). I also deployed the Banshees on this side on the grounds that they are supposed to stick close by the Battle Standard Bearer to help them survive the odd round of combat.

I was deeply worried about Joseph’s Greatsword unit led by the Warrior Priest as, even with closed lists, I had a reasonable idea what they’d be packing (it’s always the Griffon Standard, show me an Empire player who doesn’t). My plan with those was to pin them down with Spirits for as long as physically possible, while my Banshees whittled away at them and I dealt with the elements of Joseph’s army I felt I could kill, which was basically all the war machines and possibly the Knights if I got lucky.

It started well as I realised I could potentially tie up the Helblaster crew and the Greatswords with one charge, and had enough Vanhel’s Danses to pull it off. Sadly Joseph’s heap of Dispel dice for having all his casters within the Circle proved more than up to the challenge and I was left feeling a bit overexposed.

I did have a chance to turn things on their head very early as Joseph’s wizard had decided not to chill with the Greatswords and, as a unit all by himself, was an eligible target for Banshee screams. A Leadership 8 target. Sadly he managed to survive with one wound left and promptly buried himself in the Greatswords next turn, while their attendant Priest worked on restoring those Wounds (but at least he wasn’t casting Soulfire). My second Banshee didn’t have the range to finish the job but did manage to shoo Joseph’s Pistoliers straight off the board with their first Panic test of the day.

The fast flank started going to bits as soon as Joseph’s turn began: my Ghouls were vapourised by a Mortar shot and his Giant lumbered out to engage my Dire Wolves quick sharp, while Joseph’s Knights (“are they Inner Circle, mate?” “no, they’re in a line!”) marched up to point blank range of mine so their Priest could let rip with Soulfire. I didn’t manage to Dispel it and the odds between the units tipped rather dramatically as a whole five Black Knights went to the bad place in one go.

At the top of turn two, I would have to get spicy.

Fortunately, the Master was out of the Knights’ charge arc, and so I formulated a plan. My Knights would charge Joseph’s Knights and sink as many attacks as they could into the Warrior Priest (finishing him off with a Killing Blow as it happens). The Master would sneak around their flank and cast a Danse on the Black Coach, bringing it close to the circle; close enough that one of my three other Danses would surely go off and propel the overpriced paperweight into the middle of Joseph’s army. Even if it flubbed its charge it would hopefully last long enough to spread some tasty Terror around and knock off a few war machine crews…

The plan went off, although it took every single Power die I had, my Power Stone and the Book of Arkhan (ran out first time, as usual) to get the chain of Danses through. By the time the charges, tests, redirections and post-combat panickings were done, Joseph’s artillery crew were all dead or engaged (the Spirit Host having also ploughed in to do its job on the Helblaster), half his Handgunners had been run down and the others were fleeing, and I’d even discovered that the Banshees can scream freely into a combat they are not personally engaged in (although if they are personally engaged, they have to scream at what they’re fighting).

The only fly in my ointment was that loose Giant roaming around the back of my fast flank. I hate Giants. I hate them so much. There’s no way of predicting what they’ll do, but their Stubbornness plus Terror-causing tendencies plus the heinous “automatically win by two” Yell and Bawl habit means it generally amounts to “not bloody go anywhere whilst being too tough to shift.” In theory a good Hand of Dust will sort them out but somehow I never quite want to risk a Necromancer in picking fights with them.

Joseph renewed hostilities by bringing down a Comet of Cassandora into the big combat in the centre. Once the dust from that had settled, one of my Banshees was wounded, half my Spirit Host were frazzled, and a whole rank of his own Greatswords had also gone to meet Morr in the great beyond. Storm of Cronos took yet more wounds off the ghosts, but not enough to open my charge lane.

I forget who charged who here: I think it must have been Joseph going for me, after I moved my Necromancers into the stone circle to take advantage of those extra dice for myself, and I know for a fact I wheeled the Coach around to get away from the Giant as best it could. I would surely have charged my Skeletons into what was left of those Greatswords if I could, so I’m forced to assume the Spirit Host died on my turn somehow after blocking my lane for the duration?

In any case, the combats went as well as might be expected. Depleted Knights couldn’t finish off many Zombies, what remained of the Greatswords didn’t have the mustard to fight off a Vampire Countess (who overran into the Master Engineer before he got any ideas about priming the Helblaster for one last volley) and the Giant didn’t quite finish off my Black Coach but undoubtedly would have done given another turn. Joseph had managed to call down another Comet of Cassandora before his Wizard Lord bought it, but sadly it didn’t land before the game formally ended. Sad face.

A Vampire Countess, Battle Standard Bearer, two Necromancers and two Banshees within the Circle is more than enough to overcome the opposition of some leaderless Knights and the dead weight of those Zombies: plenty of points, enough for a Victory to the Vampire Counts!

Hots and Nots

Warrior Priests are softer than I remember them being. I think I fixate too much on the damage potential of Soulfire and overlook that they’re really not that much harder than a regular Wizard. The Banshees remain excellent and become more so the more I become familiar with their targeting rules; there are all sorts of cheeky things they can do through not being a conventional shooting attack. This time, the Lore of Death was a mixed bag: I didn’t regret taking it but I do think Steal Soul is a spell you need to cast every turn or kind of forget about even trying (although it’s hard to calculate magical potential in a scenario as asymmetric as this one).

Necromancy continues to have an embarrassingly short range – even the 24″ is not that far when your caster is on foot and the board is six feet across, and the really important spells cap out at 18″. Also, as I predicted, the split deployment was a mare. Vampire Counts really need to stick together in a clump around the General and everything I left out on the other flank, including the Master, was basically a goner. The Coach only made it through because I had enough Danses to save the damn thing and while it did actually get to grow its scythes in this game, it only killed useless chaffy Handgunners and war machine crew it would normally (probably) never have got near. I’m still not convinced.

One thing I’ll add in conclusion is that this game really hammered home how great the sixth edition magic system is, as long as nobody’s boring and brings four Dispel Scrolls and decides to try and take it out of the match altogether. The dice fencing aspect brought a lot of laughs, especially with the sheer number of dice Joseph’s army was generating within the circle, and yet my superior starting pool kept me in the running right the way through. An unusual game against a heavily tailored list, but one of the most fun I’ve had since this whole sixth edition revival thing really got going. Kudos to Joseph for being such a sport about it all.

Next up: teardown and rebuild of the Vampire Counts list, then it’s back to homebrew: Bloodspell Extended Edition is coming along nicely and I intend to have developer’s notes ready alongside the book itself for a December launch. Be seeing you!

[WFB] Battle Report: A Wrong Turn on the Road to Zavastra

Just before all this malarkey with Nineteen Crows kicked into high gear, I was in London. The London Book Fair had been cancelled but I was there anyway, and had a spare day to play some socially-distanced no-handshakes Warhammer at the new Dark Sphere ‘megastore’ in Shepherd’s Bush. Also risking life and limb for some last jollity before the end were Niklaus Meurke (known for The Old World Lives podcast) and Joseph Bain (known for organising a bunch of London and Midlands sixth ed meetups while we in the West and Wales have sat on our asses since EGG).

We agreed on 3000 points and no Pitched Battles. I took a lot of photos but not a lot of notes (something has to suffer if I’m to concentrate on actually playing the game) and it’s now been long enough that I don’t remember enough for a blow by blow recap.

First up for the motley was Niklaus, with something pretty unusual.

Deployment: KISLEV.

Niklaus brought the Tzarina Katarina, a unit of Kossars with a Boyar, three units of Winged Lancers with Boyars, three units of Ungol Horse Archers (one quite large), the Gryphon Legion (packing War Banner) and Bronzino’s Galloper Guns. I no longer recall which Boyars had which kit (one definitely had an Enchanted Shield) or exactly what the Kislev spells are called (but Katarina had a breath weapon, a wall effect, a self-enhancement that made her fly and improved her combat stats, and a basic magic missile).

Given the sheer haste of his forces we opted for the Breakthrough scenario with him attacking.

Deployment: Sylvania..

I would be using the same list for both games: fortunately, I have written that down at least.

Margarita: Vampire Countess; level 2 wizard (Lore of Death: Dark Hand, Death Dealer, Doom and Darkness), Sword of Striking, Ring of the Night, Spell Familiar and Summon Wolves.
The Master: Master Necromancer: level 4 wizard (Necromancy: Invocation of Nehek, Hellish Vigour, Gaze of Nagash, Curse of Years), Wristbands of Black Gold, Black Periapt
Rosenkratz: Necromancer: level 2 wizard (Necromancy: Invocation of Nehek, Curse of Years), Book of Arkhan, Power Stone
Guildenstern: Necromancer: level 2 wizard (Necromancy: Invocation of Nehek, Vanhel’s Danse Macabre), Rod of Flaming Death
Whispering Nell: Wraith: Cursed Book
Walravius: Wight Lord: Army Standard, Flayed Hauberk

Templehof Militia: 30 Skeletons with light armour, spears, champion, standard and musician
Templehof Levy: 25 Zombies with standard and musician
Hounds of Verhungern: 10 Dire Wolves with champion
The Local People: 10 Ghouls with champion

Drakenhof Templars: 12 Black Knights with barding, champion, standard (Banner of the Barrows) and musician
Black Monks of St. Herod: 5 Spirit Hosts

Cora: Banshee
Clarice: Banshee
Lord Ruthven’s Repose: Black Coach

Opening gambits! As you can see, Niklaus didn’t go hell for leather or anything, opting for a sedate advance that kept his options (and his cannons’ fire lanes) open. For my part I raised a nice big blob of Zombies in the path of the central Lancers, shoved my Banshees up to begin the business of screaming a few rank bonuses away and standing in charge lanes, and made my usual ponderous forays forward. Sadly I made one quite major boo-boo with my early movement! The Spirit Host didn’t quite have the pace to get through that house in front of them, we didn’t think a Unit Strength 15 swarm should be able to pile into a small cottage, so I had to wheel them around it instead and leave a flank pointing at the Gryphon Legion, who took full advantage (as one might expect). Although they didn’t have a magic weapon to their name they did have a rank, a flank, a standard, a War Banner and superior Unit Strength, ensuring they’d win the round by at least two. Just to vex me even further, the Spirits’ formation wouldn’t allow me to move any extra models into combat and out of the Knights’ way, as there were no rear ranks for the models to be moved from!

I would have to do something decisive, and so I did something decisive. Here’s what the board looked like when I was done pushing my luck.

 

Predictably, the Black Coach had eaten a cannonball despite my best efforts, and Niklaus had swept away its attendant Ghouls with a Lancer charge and gone careening on into the Master, who was suddenly regretting being so stingy with his defence budget. “I don’t need the Cloak of Mists and Shadows,” I’d said, “he’ll never end up in combat anyway”.

In the centre, I’d been more successful. I Summoned some Wolves to threaten Niklaus’ cannons. He was forced to overinvest somewhat in destroying them, with two Horse Archer units and Bronzino himself turning around to finish off three mouldy lupines. I also pressed forward with my Wraith: she abandoned her post and joined up with the Zombies I’d just raised instead, preparing to deter the Lancers’ charge. BUT…

Her proximity to the Kislveite lines meant a number of Terror tests had to be taken. Niklaus passed most of them, except the test for the Gryphon Legion, who suddenly turned and pelted it out of combat! Suddenly, his left flank was looking a lot less secure, with the Black Knights and Spirits poised to charge across each other and potentially mess up two of his large Lancer blocks in one go…

Sadly, the Black Knights didn’t quite make it, but the Spirits chased down the fleeing Gryphon Legion, while on my other flank, Margarita and her associates absolutely flattened Niklaus’ Kossars in combat. I wasn’t terribly worried about the Knights having to eat a charge from Winged Lancers: with Toughness 4 and a 2+ save they were better equipped to laugh it off than most of my troops! The Master had also managed to hold out, somehow, and was still lending his formidable bucket o’ dice to my spellcasting efforts. This will become significant shortly.

 

What you see here is the impact of a successfully cast Doom and Darkness on the Tzarina and her big unit of Horse Archers, followed up by a double-six Banshee scream right into them. The Tzarina was left on one wound, although her “turn me into a frosty phoenix” spell ensured she made short work of Clarice in the fightin’ phase.

A “top of the midgame to ya” kind of image. My wall o’ summoned Zombies were now long gone, but a new block had joined them to protect the flank of the Skeleton unit and deter those surviving Lancers from trying anything.

After beating back the Lancers’ charge for a modest four casualties, my Knights (and Spirits) were now hopelessly out of position. Unable to march, they played no further part in the hostilities, while Niklaus’ Horse Archers finished off my Dire Wolves.

Not wanting to risk a rear charge from the Horse Archers on my Skeletons, I opted to try and block their lanes with the Wight Lord, whose 1+ save was enough to eat their attacks and, thanks to his Battle Standard, not that fussed about being outnumbered either. If the Tzarina tried anything he was done for but that would leave her in range of all my magic missiles.

Finally freed of Zombies, the central Lancer unit ploughed on into my Necromancers’ bunker, while the rest of Niklaus’ units ran hell for leather into my deployment zone, trying to salvage as many warm bodies (and necessary points total Broken Through) as they could.

The Tzarina elected to try something quite bold at this point, moving in to try and pin the Zombies down and save her cavalry. Sadly, even her frosty fun bird spell and breath weapon (dispelled) didn’t avail her and she ended up fleeing back into the tightening noose of Undead infantry, leaving a ragged handful of survivors to trickle past as the Zombies focused their attentions on her, the greater prize. The middle block of Lancers legged it too: Niklaus just couldn’t catch a break.

Victory to the Vampire Counts!

To Niklaus’ credit this was going to be a hard one for him to win on the victory condition. His individual units were so cheap and comparatively fragile that he’d struggle to get 1000 points’ worth through my lines unscathed without detouring at least one Lancer block around me, and with this much stuff on this size table there wasn’t really room for him to do that. My conservative approach to Vampire Generals meant he wasn’t likely to get the sudden death win from killing Margarita and polishing off crumbling units, either. In the early turns my poor movement and his speed advantage might have freed up some space for him, but that fortunate Terror test brought the game back to me.

Hots and Nots

The Lore of Death absolutely proved its worth here. I’m pretty sure Death Dealer was instrumental in seeing off those Lancers at the end, and of course the Banshee scream + Doom and Darkness power move came off about as perfectly as it could. Taking a Spell Familiar on Margarita was a sound choice as well, ensuring that I had a Death spell worth casting even though I only had a single caster.

However: the army really started to struggle magically when the Master dropped off. I wasn’t particularly threatened by a single level 4 caster, but I was also struggling to get any spells past her with only level 2s throwing a handful of dice around the place. Also, the sheer width of table involved here and the breadth on which I had to engage Niklaus’ forces meant my most expensive and powerful units were stranded once they’d broken through. Granted I should have set Margarita up a little more centrally and I probably could have saved the Master’s flank from collapsing, but I still found myself wanting for Aura of Dark Majesty towards the end of this one.

[Meta Gaming] Of Free Kriegspiel Roleplaying

Brought to you by a reflection on the Revenant’s Quill.

I sometimes feel very out of synch with the world, and the rest of the time I am asleep.

Half a lifetime ago, when D&D 3.0 was young and rules were in the ascension, I was running WFRP by throwing out everything but percentage odds based on character stats, and Victorian Age Vampire (a good half inch of book with two pages of actual rules in) on a single die hack.

When the OSR rolled around I was saying “yes yes, but people seem to like consistency in their fiction, so let us cleave a little closer to the rules”, a tendency which reached its height with the declaration that Fluff Ain’t Rules and what does not exist in system is not true.

But let’s look at the games I make, hmm? They are all, ultimately, a single activity to prompt and shape emergent fiction. Draw and arrange cards, or roll dice in particular combinations, to decide what happens: then tell us about it. (Or they are Bloodspell, which is as ever weird and ass-backwards: decide what you want to happen, then roll dice to see if you betray your own intent.)

In these circumstances there is no Referee, except in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to Elfland, as a legacy gesture to people who want there to be someone whose job it is to say “you succeed” or “you fail”.

There is a Host. An originating player who had the idea for the game, who brings the others together and welcomes them into their mind for a while. Those others need a spur to want things – sheer curiosity about the world does it sometimes, but sometimes people need a drive that compels them into the world, something which comes from the fiction but has mechanical teeth behind to lead into that “core gameplay loop.”

You know the one. To rise in society you need to gain levels; you gain levels by spending currency; you gaim currency from your adventures. Or: you awaken each night with a rising Hunger that must be quieted, whether you wish it or not, and the longer you leave it the lese control you will have.

And sometimes people sit there and say “well, what am I allowed to do?” – and my first instinctive answer was to highlight things in the fictive world with which they can interact, but at some point the journey brought me to a doorway beyond which were Moves, and Plays, and specific things you were allowed to do as your means of interacting with world.

I know why. I’ve heard the stories of players traumatised by bad hosts who don’t care if they’re having a good time. I’ve been numbed by the finite possibilities of a prepared and purchased experience. Those things lead to a refuge in rules as protection and aid.

Yet now: people are talking about playing the way I used to play. Which is, in the terms of the indie circles I now inhabit, rather old-fashioned. We are supposed to attack and dethrone the Master, and invite full co-operation in the play according to the intent of the absent designer.

Whisper it, but that ain’t how I roll, and it never has been. Designer Whomst? I get tired when I have to act as the spur to inert players, or when the calculation of fairness becomes too heavy, and those elements of Mastery I shun out of pure distaste. But as a foil to active players? Even if it makes me an authority, a monster in indie terms: how could I ever, ever tire of that?

Absolutely years and years ago I wrote a semi-sensate drunken ramble about how great my last Mage session had been, and it was run in exactly that spirit. I don’t think that post is still extant, but it was basically an excuse to quote this:

Sitting behind the screen, my notes heaped high with treasure for the virtuous few, it became clear that what I actually liked was telling stories in more or less real time: snaring bits of player conversation in order to make them flesh, confounding people, embroidering every act in an effort to simulate their worthy band at the highest possible resolution.

I’d been so terrified of the responsibility for another person’s enjoyment that I’d forgotten what happens when it works: you are inviting other people to inhabit your mind. What a strange use of oneself that is; strange, and rare.

Tycho: problematique, but he can’t half write.

What scares me, deters me, bars me, is a standing down from the sense of myself as designing something other people can run, of presenting a Game first and foremost. How long did Tekumel exist before it could be published and consumed? EXACTLY. That is what I need to remember.

Anyway, FKR feels like coming home.

[Game Dev] On Getting Knocked Down, and Getting Up Again

This post is brought to you by two things.

The first is the ongoing drip-drip-drip of “where are the rules for X in V5”, where X is dual-wielding or grappling or exactly how many Arms of Ahriman you can summon in a turn – granular, realism-concerned, justice-model stuff that V5 as a system doesn’t care about and (I thought) was pretty explicit about not caring about. But I guess gamers gonna game, and bring their assumptions about what a game needs with them.

The second is Olivia Hill being, as per, annoyingly smart and insightful about vocabulary. 

I am pretty hardline on having a clear, readable-at-a-glance indication of how a systemic element works – a flowchart, a boxout, an IF-AND-THEN sort of statement with very clear operators/decision points – because when I’m in the middle of playing I don’t want to allocate cognitive effort to parsing rules text. Gotta see it, it’s gotta make sense, I’ve gotta make the call. So I do like a pure-crunch summary of how something works.

But I also like and grok what Olivia is on about. The vocabulary a game uses states what it’s about, and that statement needs to carry forward into how it works. A separation between the authorial claim and the played experience is a failure of design. And that got me thinking. How would I write and describe some simple bits of RPG system, and what would that say about how the system worked and what it was for and what it was about?

So I’ve had a go at some atomic stuff – time measurement and conflict resolution. It was going to go into Bloodspell, but that ended up being a game that didn’t need conflict resolution of this sort (it’s much less about What Happens than it is How You Feel About It And Why It Happened That Way).

What do these systems say about what kind of game this might be?

TIME

Time is measured like this.

You have the Moment – that’s what’s happening right now. You live in the Moment. Life is a series of Moments. You can be given a Moment, you can take a Moment, you can have a Moment.

Then you have the Sesh. It’s what’s happening to you and your characters today. You’re playing this game, and something decisive should happen while you’re doing it so that your characters accomplish something while you’re playing.

Then you have the Mish. It’s what your characters are currently working toward; the long-term point of things. A Mish usually takes more than one Sesh to sort out. Think about organising a game: that’s a Mish. It takes a Sesh of planning and prepping, a Sesh (or at least a Moment) of furious instant messaging while you try to work out what day everyone’s free, and then a Sesh of actually playing.

AGGRO

Aggro can mean physical combat, intellectual debate, social strife – it’s anything where someone’s acting directly in opposition to someone else. Aggro is always a Moment in its own right.

Aggro is all about Knocks. You take your Knocks and you either keep going or you don’t. 

Take one Knock? That’s fine. You can keep going. You can come back from that.

Take two Knocks? That’s a problem. You’re Down. Whatever you’re trying to do will be harder, because you’re on a loser here.

Take three Knocks? That’s it. You’re Out. Out of action, out of commission, out of play until the Moment of Aggro is over.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU’RE DOWN

You’ve two choices.

Powering Through: If you Power Through, you can ignore the difficulty that comes from being Down. You’ll still be Out if you take another Knock, but you’re doing your best to look and act un-Knockable, and it might work.  BUT: Powering Through takes a lot out of you. You’re borrowing from tomorrow to handle today. If you Power Through a Moment of Aggro, you’ll start your next Moment of Aggro with one Knock to your name already. You can Power Through that one too, but the cost stacks, and you’ll enter your next Moment of Aggro already Down. Power Through that one, and you’re automatically Out next time a Moment of Aggro comes your way.

Calling For Backup: If you Call For Backup, you ask another player to take your Knock instead of you, and they can say yes or no. And you can keep on Calling For Backup, but they can always say no – especially if they’re already Down from taking your Knocks for you. If you Call For Backup too often, you might find all your mates are Out – or just not interested in dealing with your Aggro any more.

GETTING UP AGAIN

If you’re Down, you get back up again once the Moment of Aggro is over. It’s only temporary.

If you’re Out, you’ll need a bit more time. You start your next Moment of Aggro with two Knocks – so you’re already Down, and one Knock from going Out again – and you can’t Power Through that Moment either. If you make it through that Moment of Aggro, you start your next Moment with one Knock. If you make it through that one, you’re fine again.

[Game Dev] Hacking the WFB Magic System for Party Pools in Roleplaying

Blame Andrew (who runs Halfling Caravan, they make Beta Maxx, it’s pretty neat) for this one. He and I were chatting about Warhammer and its bucket-o-d6 appeal and I mentioned how utterly perfect the sixth edition WFB magic system is, and then I realised it could hack really nicely.

Let me explain why it’s perfect first. Firstly: the dice are the most important thing, not chains of hidden modifiers. There’s the occasional bonus or malus of 1 or 2 from a magic item or special rule but mostly it’s all about showing the target number, which you know going in. Secondly: the impact of character level is managed really well, because higher level characters can throw more dice at a problem, which means they’re more likely to cast the big spells and less likely to fail the little ones (i.e. to meet high and low target numbers). Thirdly: there’s a cap on the number of dice involved, which puts a stop to the weird probability loops you get in dice pool systems where throwing more dice makes you more likely to botch than succeed. Fourthly: players choose how many dice to bung at a particular spell, which also helps to manage that problem and also emphasises agency and resource management in a really elegant, direct way. Fifthly: Irresistible Force and Miscasts, on a double 6 and double 1 respectively, provide that same hit of raw fun chemical as the natural 20 and natural 1, but exist at either end of a bell curve in which the median result comes up far more often, and thus exist as the outliers they should be.

I joked that I should just hack that system for absolutely everything, but then I thought about it and realised it might actually work for party-based play. Let’s express it in terms of combat, since this is very much post-wargame design, but I’m pretty sure this hacks to any kind of collective activity pass/fail situation.

The party generates a pool of dice equal to 2 plus 1 per character level involved.

The referee generates a pool of dice equal to 2 plus 1 per character involved.

The encounter has a number attached to it, let’s call it Challenge Rating because I haven’t had enough coffee to think of anything more fun right now. (Gloss: different approaches may have different Challenge Ratings associated with them, in the same way that the spells you attempt to cast in a WFB turn have different casting values.)

The party can choose how many dice to throw at the encounter, up to a limit of the highest character level in the party plus 1. (Gloss: this can be finessed into particular approaches taken, as the highest level character is presumably leading the attack, so if it’s a wizard they’re casting a big spell while others run interference.)

If they beat the Challenge Rating, they win the encounter, unless the referee can match or exceed their roll with ref dice.

If they fail, they can try another approach, with a different character leading. (This character’s level will determine the maximum number of dice to be rolled, as well as setting the tone for the descriptions and so on.)

A double 6 is an automatic victory, ref dice be damned. A double 1 is an automatic failure which knocks a character out of action and leads to a roll on a Nasty Things Happen To You table.

It may help veterans of the RPG form to imagine that the party’s dice are divided between the characters in play, representing the characters lending each other assistance in the pursuit of a deathblow. An example may also be of value here.

aN exAmPlE

Khairan (level 4 wizard), Nivienne (level 2 monk) and Myra (level 1 priest) are fighting a terrible bosom monster or something.

They generate nine dice between them (two for turning up, plus one for each character level involved). Their ref has five dice (two for turning up, plus one for each character).

The terrible bosom monster has a Challenge Rating of 11.

Khairan can bung up to five dice at a problem, so he represents the nuclear option. Nivienne can bung up to three dice at a problem, so she has an average chance here. Myra can only bung two dice, so it’s highly unlikely that she’ll beat any bosoms by herself.

The party elects to let Nivienne take the first swing, in an attempt to dummy out some ref dice. Sadly, Nivienne’s player just misses, with a total of 10. Oh no! A +1 against bosom monsters would make all the difference here.

Khairan’s player throws four dice, because they might just need that third attempt after all, and scores a total of 12. The referee giggles inanely and flings all five of their dice, because they don’t expect Myra to achieve much of anything. The ref’s dice show a pair of sixes and that’s enough all by itself.

It’s all on Myra. And because we’re rolling this example out live, there isn’t one of those contrived endings where the babiest character gets a double six and wins the day. It’s a four and a two and the round is a wash.

No bosoms are punched, immolated or… what does a baby priestess even do to a bosom? The tempo for the description is set, though: Nivienne can’t land a decisive blow, Khairan’s efforts are met by some quivering defence, Myra is clearly overcome by the whole business.

Further Observations on Challenge Ratings

Another great thing about the WFB magic system is how setting the right casting value for a spell makes it seem more or less routine. Take Invocation of Nehek, the baseline spell of the Necromancy lore. Its casting value of 3 means that for a level 2 Necromancer, only a Miscast will result in failure. On literally any other outcome of a three dice roll, this extremely routine act of sorcery will succeed. At the other end, the Curse of Years, a devastating bit of offensive wizardry, requires an 11. Our level 2 Necromancer can take a shot at it with their three dice, but the law of averages is doing a lot of heavy lifting in the attempt. Such is entirely befitting of a spell which will probably wipe out a whole regiment if it’s allowed to go through. By careful consideration of the minimum and maximum values required, ‘brackets’ of Challenge Rating can emerge in which characters of a given level are more or less likely to succeed. A 5-11 range was normal for WFB spells: only the most necessary of incantations or spectacular of maledictions fell outside this scale range.

Equipment should provide small bonuses and maluses, or allow for the generation or banking of dice. Such things make all the difference, as with this party who are one die shy of everyone being able to work at full efficiency. Character type could allow for an additional ‘free’ die in particular situations, such as combat or stealth or acquisition of lore.

[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.