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

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

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

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

Blood Dragons

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

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

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

Lahmians

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

Necrarchs

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

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

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

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

Strigoi

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

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

Magic Items

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lore of Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[WFB] The Inimitable Stylings of Mike Walker (with full WD article list)

The year, you see, was 1998. I had been in t’obby for almost two years and, after cutting my teeth on the Grim Darkness of the Far Future, was starting to sniff around something with swords, boards, and square bases.*

Mike Walker’s first article for White Dwarf was almost perfectly timed. To a lad who liked Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Spike Milligan, and also happened to be curious about Warhammer, this article was brain dynamite. It was funny**, it was apposite, and it was all paced and delivered in such a way that you couldn’t miss the point even if you were busy laughing at the bits about Kim Basinger and Goblins with silly names.

From brain dynamite to brain tape, Mike’s articles kept on coming out every now and then, petering out in the same month that I was off to university. Perhaps that accident of timing accounts for a lot; it’s the secondary school years that cement our sense of nostalgia out here in Middlehammer-land, and mine were, in a small way, guided by the irregular transmissions from a double garage somewhere in soggy Wiltshire. This was Warhammer the way I was playing it, on temporary boards laid over kitchen tables and double beds, and later the pub-in-the-club above the Hyde Park in Plymouth. Army lists may be quite cutthroat but characters had silly or at least referential names and it was the daft circumstantial moments rather than the brilliant tactics that made the longest impressions.

I’ve read and reread them over the years***, and a few years ago when I was writing for the now-defunct House of Paincakes Blog Network, I happened to mention Mike Walker in passing while talking up the relaunch of White Dwarf.

To my eternal delight, the man himself materialised in the comments. Not just to say thank you and gaze mournfully toward the garage door where, presumably, Dug Bugman and co. still languish in ancient toolboxes – ho no. Mike was courteous enough to provide a full list of his contributions to White Dwarf over the years, which I reproduce here (well, down there) along with some of my own hopefully-helpful notes on what’s in them****.

  • 224 (August 1998) – First Encounters of the Warhammer Kind – inc. The Battle of Newberry Pass scenario
  • 226 (October 1998) – The Battle of Iron Axe Ridge – a scenario for large armies on small tables
  • 230 (February 1999) – Thump & Grind – tactics for beating Skaven
  • 231 (March 1999) – Putting the Ploy in Deployment – a five step program for putting your models in the right place – before you fight, remember to SCRAP!
  • 232 (April 1999) – Fighting with Cold Blood – tactics for playing with and against Lizardmen
  • 233 (May 1999) – Like a Rat out of Hell – Battle Report, Mike’s Dwarfs vs. Gareth Hamilton’s tournament-tuned Skaven and some frankly dodgy rules calls. Mike wuz robbed!
  • 236 (August 1999) – Top Gear? – Chariot tactics and test drive
  • 241 (January 2000) – A Touching Dilemma – [not sure about this one, don’t have the issue any more]
  • 246 (June 2000) – The Gentle Art of Getting Fired – tactics for units that shoot things
  • 253 (January 2001) – Dicing with Magic – a walkthrough of the sixth edition WFB magic system
  • 254 (February 2001) – Unnatural Selection -approaches to army lists and setup for Mike’s league report
  • 256 (April 2001) – Dansing with Wolves – Mike’s league report, part one, and a kick in the eye for anyone who thinks Ravening Hordes was “balanced”.
  • 257 (May 2001) – It Ain’t Easy Being Green – Mike’s league report, part two, and a review of his Orc and Goblin army list
  • 258 (June 2001) – Fifteen Ways to Leave your Cover – how to ensure satisfactory terrain bunging
  • 260 (August 2001) – To Kill a Bloodthirster – if you need to be told what this is about, you are beyond help
  • 270 (June 2002) – The Strong, The Short and The Small – [Dwarf tactics, IIRC, but I don’t have a copy to check]
  • 273 (September 2002) – Pale Riders – Fast Cavalry tactics and comforting advice for Dwarf and Skaven players
  • 282 (June 2003) – The Black Art – [something about Mike’s brief dalliance with a Vampire Counts army, if anyone has this issue I want it]
  • 290 (January 2004) – Extreme Measures – on the perils and pitfalls of measuring, guessing and wrangling ranges
  • 297 (September 2004) – How to Lose at Warhammer – which I read right before I went off to university, and it might have been the same one that had the Army of Sylvania background in it, so in case you’re wondering how I turned out to be the way I am, blame this issue of WD.

So there you have it. If you’re looking for a series at least as opinionated as Stillmania, and just as influential on the minds of young hobbyists (or at least me), there it is. Dig ’em all out, there’s a fan archive that will get you started (look, they’re not available through legitimate means and I’m sure as hell not buying cranchity old mags at collector’s markup, I have some standards) and have a butchers.

I’ve got to go now. The clouds have temporarily lifted from South Wales, and since I haven’t the faintest idea how to make hay while the sun shines, I’m going to do the next best thing and paint a Liche Priest. Come back next time, when there’ll be much more late-Nineties White Dwarf nostalgia and a sudden attack of the challenges…

*Memo to self: Swords, Boards and Square Bases would be an ideal name for the other sort of Middlehammer blog, the sort where you go boss-eyed and froth every time someone even says “Age of Sigmar”.
**I think it still is, but in some key respects I have never stopped being twelve. If I stop and think about it all I am of course far too mature to find the names “Wobblebottom Rumblebelly” or “Bugman’s Ultimate Response Patrol” at all amusing, but if you start thinking like that you end up far too mature to be playing with toy soldiers at your age, so – I’d watch out for that sort of thing if I was you.
***The ones I can still find, anyway. My original White Dwarfs were practically given away at a car boot sale just before I went to university, along with my second edition 40K and fifth edition WFB stuff. I should regret this more than I do, but eighteen year old me was delighted to pass them on to a twelve year old newly-minted hobbyist and honestly, I hope he still has them somewhere.
****I took a lot of things from Mike, including my love of footnotes and deeply unhelpful titles. I know titles like WFB MIKE WALKER WARHAMMER MIDDLEHAMMER FULL ARTICLE LIST WHITE DWARF L@@K would be better for baiting the clicks and optimising the search engines, but gosh it would be so boring.