Monday, 18 January 2021

I am a dwarf and I'm digging a hole...

...diggy diggy hole
diggy diggy hole

(thanks Erny for getting that song stuck in my head when I played a game in his years back)

I take part in the Monthly White Dwarf Painting Challenge over on facebook. Every month Jamie Loft picks a classic issue of White Dwarf from the oldhammer era, and our challenge is to paint a model featured within it or inspired by it. January's challenge has been WD #109 from January 1989 and I've kept it simple, choosing to paint one of the minis lurking in the back page diorama: a Citadel dwarf sapper sculpted by the Perry brothers.

A humble offering... but a significant one for me, as this is the 10th and final member of Arka Zargul's Dwarf Miners for when I finally get around to playing McDeath! Here's the whole Militant Tendency in their splendour:

At this stage I've now painted 24 miniatures for McDeath: the miners; the Greevant clan at the Battle of Winwood Harbour; the Monster at Loch Lorm; and Raybees the halfling. I have a handful of the character models, but given that the campaign requires 202 miniatures (I think) and it's taken me since 2014 to reach this stage, at this rate it will take me another 50 and a half years to complete the project.

So may I take this opportunity to cordially invite you all to my 89th birthday party, where we will FINALLY PLAY MCDEATH! If the lead rot hasn't got to us first...

Monday, 11 January 2021

Straw Bear and Molly Dancing Boggarts - Happy Plough Monday!

Throughout Little Albion, the plague leaves humans cowering in their houses. Meanwhile, the boggarts come out to dance and play. In their wake lumbers the Straw Bear, the spirit of new growth...

Pains within and pains without
If the devil's in, I'll fetch him out
Rise up and fight again...

- Plough Monday mummers play, as remembered in Sybil Marshall's Fenland Chronicle

Back when I lived in East Anglia, this was my favourite time of the year. In parts of the fens, the celebration of Plough Monday - a last gasp of mischief and drunken high spirits before the start of the new agricultural year - lives on, or at least has been revived. And the boldest expression of Plough Monday's spirit of misrule is the Straw Bear who roamed the streets of Whittlesey and Ramsey.

The venerable bear even makes an appearance in Frazer's tour de force of anthropology The Golden Bough: he writes that "we may confidently assume that the Straw-bear who makes his appearance at Whittlesey... represents indeed the corn-spirit. What could be more appropriate than for that beneficent being to manifest himself from house to house... after a magical ceremony had been performed to quicken the growth of the corn?"

This was always the time of year when we'd set out to follow the bear... At Ramsey in recent years the local schoolchildren danced through the streets with a Straw Bear in their midst

while at Whittlesey the Straw Bear made his appearance in a riotous festival of folk dancing and pub crawling the following weekend.

This year, sadly, I'm too far away to be caught up in the path of the bear. And besides, the bear itself will have to hibernate through COVID-19. But when I saw that Crooked Dice made a mummer's procession complete with Straw Bear I was compelled to purchase this great lumbering beast and bring him to life in Little Albion. But what's a Straw Bear without the surrounding chaos? Who will follow the Straw Bear through the streets spreading mischief? Once again, Geoff Solomon-Sims comes to the rescue, with his OOP Oakbound Miniatures Boggarts, dressed in suitable Molly Dancing Attire.

Happy Plough Monday! Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Lieutenant by Jim Webster - taking inspiration from a tiny forgotten gamebook

With the arrival of a hospital bed, my mother has now moved into the room I've been using as an office. In the course of moving various books and papers out of the room, I found this tiny little gamebook that came free when I bought a copy of Miniature Wargames in (I believe) 2002. I can't remember the issue it came with and no amount of google searching has revealed anything more about it. I wonder if anyone else can shed any light on it - mine can't be the only extant copy, surely?

I don't remember ever playing it at the time, so to try and get into a more relaxed mood for Christmas I played it through a few times today.

It's set, broadly speaking, in the Napoleonic era, and you're a Lieutenant of Horse in an unspecified regiment of the English army. You allocate points to a range of abilities, spanning the range of what an "Officer and Gentleman" should do: Dancing, Horsemanship, German Language, French Language, Leadership, Long firearm, Pistol shooting, Polite Conversation, and Swordsmanship. The game mechanic is pretty simple; at certain points in the game you're asked to roll a d6 against a particular ability in order to perform tasks.

The introduction states: "Your regiment is stationed in the Low Countries, the army is besieging a town of some note and the cavalry are of course providing a screen to cover the army and detect any relieving force. Somewhere to the North there are allied forces which are supposed to be marching to your aid. Your regiment is thrust out some distance from the army and is supposed to be covering a probably axis of the enemy advance. Understrength, as always, the troop is down to a bare 50 men commanded by the Captain, able seconded (or so you like to think) by your good self. The Captain is somewhat indisposed, nothing worse than a stinking head cold, but enough to ensure that when he wants a patrol to head out on a miserable afternoon, it is your good self that will lead it. He wants you to take a Corporal of Horse and nine troopers and head South East to check that there is still no sign of enemy forces in that direction." You make a number of choices that determine the success (or not) of your mission.

Weighing in at only 16 pages and 40 paragraphs (42 if you count the introduction and end, which are properly speaking part of the game), it's a tiny gamebook. Considering this, it has remarkable replay value, as depending on the choices made, it's quite possible to have discovered very different things, to have returned to camp completely misunderstanding the situation, or ideally have achieved one or more distinct strategic objectives (or blundered through and failed miserably). It's written in such a way that you can think you've done something truly heroic - until you return to camp and discover the extent of your cock-up. Which is quite an achievement for Jim Webster to have squeezed all that into such a micro-adventure.

I actually played it 4 times through. Using the simple skill allocation system, each time I generated a distinct personality of officer to try and adopt a different mindset when making decisions.
Stephen the Scholar: a young man with the benefit of a classical education, and who had been on the path towards Holy Orders until circumstances took a very different turn. A talented linguist, but cautious in the face of the enemy and even more cautious in the presence of the ladies. His caution meant that he didn't blunder and completely misunderstand the situation, but neither did he see much action.

Sebastian the Seducer: living on charisma and not much else, he tries to talk himself into, around, or out of any concievable situation. And he managed to talk himself into his Captain's good books, just about.

Samson the Sportsman: brash, rides like he's with the boxing day hunt. Rode straight into danger and damn near got himself killed.

Samuel the Sharpshooter: a master of the pistol and rifle, but solitary, finding it easier to commune with his weaponry than communicate with his men. This was to be his undoing.

At the end of the 4 playthroughs I had pretty much exhausted the available pathways through. Looking at the final page which gives you the information to evaluate how well you've done, I found myself wondering whether something's broken because it seems impossible to achieve the best combination of outcomes (unless I'm very mistaken - which is quite possible - the pathway to one strategic success seems to preclude the other). But even so, there are a range of outcomes and it's an interesting opportunity to walk in the boots of a Napoleonic-era junior officer.

As somebody who enjoys the narrative and roleplaying aspect of wargames, it really got me thinking about how little I reflect on the personalities of junior officers in the games I play. It's all very well being the big general and taking a omniscient overview of the battlefield, but will the cavalry really press home their charge under the leadership of the bookish Stephen? Will Samson forget that he's not on the playing fields anymore and unwisely decide to throw caution to the wind? So this little adventure has definitely offered me some inspiration. I look forward to experimenting a bit more with unit leader's personalities in the next big game I play.

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Undead Centaur

Where the rivers run dry, where there is only drought and despair and the bones of our livestock... There it is said that on the driest days, the days without hope, the parched lands cough up their secrets and cough up their dead. Mysterious creatures - creatures who had been noble, wise even, in some long past life - rise stripped of flesh, rendered hideous and viscious by their restless sleep. It is a terrible place.

In Oldhammer's calendar, December is traditionally "Deadcember" and is a month for painting your undead. (Some might think I've quite enough of death in the last month, but anyway...) Now, I don't know if I'll get around to anything else specifically Undead related this month, so this is technically cheating, as it wasn't a project for Deadcember, but my November entry for Jamie Loft's Monthly White Dwarf Painting Challenge. Every month a WD is selected and the challenge is to paint a model that appears in it or is inspired by it. November's selection was WD119. I took inspiration from the Undead Centaur conversion by Andy Warwick on page 56 and went about creating my own skeleton centaur.

The human torso comes from a Reaper Warlord skeleton archer, the horse is a plastic 4th/5th ed skeleton steed. It's hard trying to work out how to make a mythological skeleton appear realistically dynamic. After extensive google image and ebay searching, the Reaper skelly seemed the best option, reaching for his quiver, although it involved a lot of cutting away.

Centaur anatomy is troubling at the best of times. What are they doing with both human and horse ribcages? How can they have so many limbs? Stripping the centaur back to the skeleton makes these questions of anatomy all the more baffling. But as long as you don't look too close, I think the unity of the conversion works. Just about. A fun project, although the posing and sticking together was nowhere near as simple as I thought it would be.

Saturday, 28 November 2020

Wee Beeb lives on

A bit of a follow up to my previous post on the death of my father. All the condolences from people I know through Oldhammer have been very touching indeed, and it's deeply moving to see what a kind community it can be.

Geoff Solomon-Sims, after reading the news on facebook, was kind enough to cheer me up by sending a card and a dwarf wizard to paint. Such a fun mini! My dad had left his paints and brushes on the table, so I went to work with them, and this is the result.

What Geoff hadn't realised was that my dad, on account of his round face and beardedness (often leaving him mistaken for Father Christmas at this time of year) had a long time affinity with dwarves. And when I showed the Dwarf Wizard to my mum, she decided there and then that he would definitely have to be named "Wee Beeb".

Wee Beeb was a dwarf character from a D&D campaign at the tail end of the 1970s. My dad had been at an archaeological dig in Falkirk, excavating a shell midden - there seems to be big overlap between archaeologists and wargamers (in fact, he dug alongside Nigel Stillman for a couple of summers at the training dig in Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire). The diggers, when not in a hole or down the pub, would play D&D, and this was when Wee Beeb came to life. One of my treasured possessions is his "Wee Beeb" badge from this time (Photographed here on a Liverpool University Wargames Club cloth, from his days as a mature student).

My dad developed such an attachment to the character, in fact, that he apparently moped around for a week after it met an untimely end. But good dwarves never really die; and Wee Beeb would pop up in many games throughout the years, for example as the name of his character on The Bards Tale on the Atari ST, and Baldur's Gate later on. For each new challenge, a new manifestation of the spirit of Wee Beeb. So it seems only appropriate that the spirit of Wee Beeb would live on.

Saturday, 21 November 2020

RIP Jim Irvine

My father died on 7 November. He deteriorated quickly after contracting COVID. The blow has been enormous and I don't think we've fully come to terms with it. I am now back at my childhood home looking after my mother as she recovers from COVID.

One of the things that lays me low when I go around the house is seeing projects that he'd started but won't finish, various things in different stages of planning, preparation, or anticipation. This is a silly thing to get upset about in a way: what's life without something to look forward to? I'm glad he had things he was looking forward to and planning right until the end. But every day I go past the table where he had been re-basing some of his old airfix napoleonics just days before he got sick, unable to pack up the stuff, unable to process it.

Gaming was a hobby my dad and I had in parallel. We had other interests in common that we enjoyed together - in particular, we shared a love of music, and I have many happy memories of traditional music sessions together, time spent in his company drinking a few pints and singing away. But funnily enough, though we both were interested in gaming, that wasn't really something that we ever did together. We would chat about it on the phone, check in on one another's projects and work in progress. He had a long running Friday RPG session that had become almost a religious obligation. He had had a Napoleonic army (British) since long before I was born and every now and again would open up the box files where it was kept, make some additions and update his records. Just a month or so ago he had painted up some Scots Greys. He had got out some of the many reference books he owned and was planning on painting more in the months ahead.

The army itself had lived in box files for many years, but he had only recently set most of it up on shelves. It's a magnificent enough sight.

One of the peculiarities of our never having played wargames together all that much is that he actually had a Warhammer Fantasy Battle army he'd painted up around the time I first got into the hobby - a rather striking Brettonian army based on the figures in the 5th edition box. (My mate Paul had used the Lizardmen and sold him the Brets)

I especially like the spearmen that he converted by giving some of the monopose plastic archers toothpicks.

He enjoyed collecting the army and encouraging me in my hobby - even painting up Prince Imrik on a Dragon as a birthday present for me.

But he was content to just share the interest with me, very rarely taking up invitations to join in battles. I think he would have loved some of the oldhammer stuff - in fact, it was him who stumbled on some of the oldhammer stuff on the internet and pointed me towards it - but he was happy enough for us to game in separate worlds. This might strike some as obtuse, but as I say, we had other things we did together, and I guess the games were his own place of retreat.

The one exception to this was a wonderful year when I was in 6th form, and his RPG group decided to have a Necromunda campaign. Peering through the crowded underhive to try and pick out one of his House Cawdor gang - the heavy MacDuff, or Wee Eck who rose up through the ranks from a juve to a hardened ganger - will long live in my memory.

Going through his collection of books and his leadpile (much of which he inherited from friends who had passed away), I can't help but think of the games that won't be played now. Perhaps I should focus on what gave him pleasure: look forward to the next game, role up the next character, enjoy planning future projects. But what can I say? I miss him terribly.

Monday, 10 August 2020

Games Day 1999

Matthew Street's photos of Games Day & Golden Demon 1989 came up on my facebook feed today - why not check out his pics from the day over on his blog because, to give fair warning, it's going to be more interesting and nostalgic than this post! But if, like me, you're triggered by accounts of a certain Michael Thomas in a certain Liverpool game against Arsenal, you might want to give it a miss.

Anyway, it nudged me into thinking about the one time I attended Games Day & Golden Demon, back in 1999, 10 years after young Street's adventure. Memory is a fragile beast, and what's kind of disturbing is that I remember very little about the day. I went with GW Southport, who hired a coach down to take us down to the NIA in Birmingham, and I remember people passing copies of FHM and Loaded around the coach, this being still the era of the lads mag. I also have a very vivid recollection of arriving back home bursting for a pee, trying to subtly relieve myself behind Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs offices, only for a movement-triggered light to turn on and expose me to the world.

But of the event itself, I have very little recollection. Luckily, I have a few artefacts of the day. Apparently I got the programme signed by everybody, including by the looks of it the staff of the National Indoor Arena itself.

The mega display for that year was "The Vengence of the Vampire", of which I have absolutely no recollection. (No photos in the programme to jog my memory.)

One thing I do recall is that they'd brought one of plastic injection moulding machines, and were churning out Mordheim accessories sprues, Mordheim being GW's forthcoming release.

I think I queued to go around 4 or 5 times so as to pick up multiple sprues, and they've proved extremely useful for conversions over the years. (The above is a photo of the complete sprue from the Lost Miniatures wiki, the sprues I picked up at Games Day are mostly gaps now.)

Freebies were, I guess, one of the best things about the day (after the ticket I wouldn't have had enough cash to actually buy anything at Games Day) and have the benefit that they give me some clue of actually being there. I think on entrance they gave out these pretty cool Gorkamorka "teef" to wear around your neck

(also Ork-themed, GW Southport gave us t-shirts of an Ork shouting out "NORF NORF NORF!" to indicate our regional affiliation and no doubt to help their security to profile potential shoplifters, but I no longer have that, it was neat but I don't think the printing survived more than a couple of washes)

And one final memento of the day: just dug this out of my pile of gaming stuff and I'm really glad I still have it - I queued up for the Black Library desk where the artists were doing speed drawings, and Kev Walker sketched me this skeleton with an extraordinarily big gun for an "Undead in Necromunda" project as I working on.

It's things like that that make it worth getting caught exposing yourself outside the tax office.