Vampire Counts: Grand Army of the Cross of Sylvania

In 1999, when Mordheim and the first Vampire Counts army book were released, I bought an Undead warband and some extra Zombies and a couple of buck-toothed Necrarch vampires, and did naff all with them for years.

At Christmas 2003, when I had my first part time job and an afternoon off school every week, I started to build an actual army. This time they were Von Carsteins, building out from that Mordheim box, because the Army of Sylvania had just had a writeup in White Dwarf, and I wanted to kitbash an Undead Empire army, and also I was a dreadful little goth.

I played about fifty games with this army during the best years of my life; had to sell them during a rough patch; got them back by a minor miracle during an even rougher patch; and slowly rehabilitated them during a rough period that had now exceeded all reasonable definitions of the word “patch”. They are now more or less finished, I have played another dozen games, and to be quite frank I hope to be buried with them.

Vlad and Isabella von Carstein, almost the last models to be painted.
Mannfred von Carstein, from his glory days when he had hair and wasn’t an imbecile.
Necromancers! Enough for a 2000 point army by themselves, but generally play supporting roles.
Lord Ruthven’s Regiment of Foot (25 Skeletons with spears, 25 with swords, 20 with crossbows). Other Vampire characters are available, but Ruthven has been my general in the vast majority of my games, even if his model has been replaced three times now. My favourite is the Imperial Noble version lurking in the back there.
The Drakenhof Templars and, in back, the Order of the Black Cross. My new, and original, Black Knight units. A third unit exists but doesn’t photograph at all well.
Emmanuelle the Wraith, Cora and Clarice the Banshees, and the Black Monks of St. Herod, my Spirit Host (added in seventh edition and never left at home since).
Black Coaches! Some variants of the list call for two, I got by with none for years. I love the idea of them, in practice they don’t do much, but it’s a way to sneak Ruthven into a 1500 point army so I keep them around.
Beatryz the Zombie Dragon, a late addition courtesy of the wonderful Jimmy Spence. Shown here with yet another Ruthven body double. That bloke gets around…

While I remain very fond of this army, it’s a constant battle to keep those old kitbashes in one piece, and I can’t handle most of the regiments without something snapping off, so they spend a lot of time in the display case these days.

Army Background: Lord Ruthven’s Recount

Our story begins in Mordheim; blighted, blackened and blasted Mordheim that spanned the River Stir and smouldered with sorcery and sin. It concerns a dying man, and who he was is of no import compared to what he would become. His name was Laibach Ruthven; he was a captain of arms and a master of hounds; by these means and that he came to serve the Count of Sylvania, and with a wound in the throat and a drop of blood his life and his allegiance were bought.

Duellist, huntsman, leader of things who were once men and men who are on the road to ruin in their turn. He served, where others schemed and bickered; he endured, where others were consumed; he rose, where others fell.

When war broke out in earnest, he fought in the vanguard of his master Vlad von Carstein, and as Vlad’s legacy crumbled a captain seized his moment and claimed his prize. It was as captain-general to the widowed Countess of Templehof that our man drew steel against the Dwarfs of Karak Cymru as they threw down the Castle walls; it was as lover of Emmanuelle von Carstein that his heart and his oaths were broken.

Though history does not record it, Laibach Ruthven fought at Hel Fenn, as equerry to Adolphus Krieger, and survived the debacle, fleeing through the Dwarf lines and into the west, out of history and into obscurity and exile.

Some say it’s to the Border Princes that he made his way, to the hills of Geistenmund, where he learned black magics at the knee of a Strigany queen. Others to Tilea, where he charmed and hunted the under- and over-classes of Verezzo for a mortal lifetime and a half, taking the Contessa Margarita di Mara as his consort in blood. Others whisper that he took to Sartosa and the sea, and as captain of the Maiden’s Downfall ravaged the coasts of Ulthuan for a hundred years, scuttling his own ship off the coast of Albion when the High Elves brought him to bay.

Vampires live long lives, and perhaps all the tales are true. It is whispered that the Countess Margarita took up with a Master Necromancer, perhaps that same one who followed Ruthven in the streets of Mordheim, and together they travelled to Albion to raise their lord and master from his watery grave.

Here is what is known. When Mannfred returned, and issued the call to protect the land of the von Carsteins, Laibach Ruthven answered him in battle, riding out against his former liege. Though Mannfred’s army was held to a standstill, Ruthven himself was forced to bend the knee. Thus, as the Storm of Chaos broke upon the Empire, Ruthven was sent forth to meet it as Lord Protector of the Grand County of Sylvania: meet it, or die trying.

Lord Ruthven and his coterie escaped the disaster at Isca Fields, in which mercenaries from Tilea and the royal court of Bretonnia united to return Mannfred von Carstein to an untimely grave. The Carstein Ring, object of Mannfred’s grand design, was never found. Perhaps, somewhere, Lord Ruthven lives still: returned to Templehof to reign, licking his wounds in the Vaults of Tilea, or taken once more to the high seas?

All of this evolved out of the games I’ve played with the army over the years. A prequel in the form of a Mordheim campaign. My early games against my schoolmates Lawrence (Skaven), Edd (Empire) and Mike (Dwarfs). The last game of the original run (a mirror match with the late Andy, RIP my dude). An interregnum, broken by experiments with fifth edition thanks to the persistence of Ben P. The revival games with Joseph (Empire), Niklas (Kislev), Ben (High Elves) and Dan (Daemons). And of course the mega-battle with Lee (Bretonnians, Dogs of War and being a stand-up guy) in 2019, and the Hel Fenn refight with Kris and Ed in 2022.

I’ve played fast and loose with the chronology but most of my battles and regular opponents are accounted for – the ones I remember, anyway.

Army List

The army is generally fielded in the same core configuration: two units of Skeletons, a Bat Swarm, Dire Wolves, at least one unit of Black Knights and the inevitable Spirit Host. There are other bits of seasoning sprinkled in depending on which version of the army list I’m using, whether Necromancers or Ghouls are permitted and how many Bat Swarms I’m allowed, things are generally pretty settled. It’s just the character block that shifts around depending on edition.

The first, “Lord Ruthven’s Retinue”, features the titular Vampire Lord at the helm, along with Walravius the Necromancer (and his Power Familiar) and Whispering Nell, a Wraith (with her Cursed Book). This is my preferred suite for sixth edition, offering as it does a reasonable amount of casting power (two spells on four dice, and six dice to dispel) without depending utterly on magic to win the day.

The second, “The Master and Margarita”, is a fifth or eighth edition build which acknowledges the need for a powerful Necromancer discrete from the Vampire in command. Margarita is a comparatively low level wizard, often favouring an off-book set of spells like Dark or Death magic, while the Master takes the bulk of the spellcasting strain. The other characters are generally Wight champions for my Skeleton units, and a Black Coach if the game has space for one, giving Lord Ruthven a little bit of presence even in his absence.