Monday, 1 March 2021

Scenes from Courtly Life

"The court ministers will be as powerful as the king is weak" - Simon Nicholson, Scenes from Courtly Life, White Dwarf 98

As I've mentioned before, one of the ways I've been encouraging myself to paint over lockdown has been The Monthly White Dwarf Painting Challenge. For February the challenge was to paint something found within - or inspired by - White Dwarf 98 from February 1988.

I've gone a bit left field this month. I'm trying to use these challenges as a reason to paint up miniatures that have been languishing in the leadpile, not an excuse to buy more - but it turns out I only own one miniature featured in this issue, and that's a dwarf. I've painted dwarfs the past 2 months so I wanted to try something different.

Reading through the issue, I really enjoyed Simon Nicholson's article "Scenes from Courtly Life - Courtly Characters for FRP", looking at struggles for power and influence around the throne. That inspired me to paint up two spare miniatures that might never have seen paint otherwise - they're part of the Lancastrian Command set from Perry miniatures (so at least they have the Perrys as a link to true Oldhammer greatness) and are meant to be Henry VI and the Lord High Treasurer Longstrother, though I plan to use them as a prince and his minister in a petty domain amidst the Border Princes... I figured I'd start with these miniatures and then see how the story unfolds!

Simon Nicholson's article gets us thinking about the intrigue that surrounds the throne - the messiness of human frailty and ambition. What happens when a king is old and weak? Or if a king is too strong? What role does his physician play? How do the ministers work for him or scheme against him? What goes on in his servant's chambers? Although all this is written with fantasy roleplay campaigns in mind, given that battle is so often an extension of drama at court, all of this gives narrative shape for our wargames.

Recently I've inspired by Phil Dutré's Chronicles of Lowenheim over at the Tiny Tin Men blog - he's been playing a whole solo campaign based on events generated by rolls on random charts, and it's been great reading. He's taken inspiration from Tony Bath's magisterial book Setting Up a Wargames Campaign, rolling on tables to generate the personalities that inhabit the town and shape its destiny. I wanted to take a leaf from the same book, but focussing on the Intrigue and Court and then seeing how that might give shape to a narrative. I decided to use the system Tony Bath devised using playing cards to develop the personalities for wargames campaigns:
Tony Bath's Personality Generator, from Setting Up a Wargames Campaign

The first card determines the individual's overarching characteristic:
Heart, Good Nature; Diamond, Love of Wealth; Spade, Ambition; Club, Love of War/Patriotism. The higher the card, the more intense this characteristic.

Then, deal 7 additional cards detailing the personality:
Ace: Spade or Club, a disloyal intriguer. Diamond, loyal intriguer. Heart, exceptional good nature. (A reversed ace signifies a hunchback or cripple)
King: Spade or Club, Energy. Heart or Diamond, Courage
Queen: Great lover
Knave: Spade/Club, Unreliability, oath-breaker, liar. Heart/Diamond, Merciless, revenge-prone
Ten: Loyality (Absolute loyalty in Diamonds, grading down through Hearts, Clubs, Spades.)
Nine: Physical beauty, except for Spade, which is Ugliness
Eight Spade/Club, Cruelty. Heart/Diamond, Generosity.
Seven: Spade/Club, Personality. Heart/Diamond, Jealous of Family Honour.
Six: Spade/Club, Lazyness. Heart/Diamond, Charm
Five: Spade/Club, Wisdom. Heart/Diamond, Cunning.
Four: Spade/Club, Stupidity. Heart/Diamond, Cowardice.
Three: Spade/Club, Bad Temper. Heart/Diamond, Good temper.
Two: Spade/Club, Arrogance, pride. Heart/Diamond, Merciful.

Resolve any inconsistencies using common sense!

I love a good random generation table, so before I started painting up my two guys, I grabbed a pack of cards:

So, first I deal the cards for the Prince. The card that determines the overarching characteristic is a heart - ok, so we have a good-natured ruler. Then, the other seven personality cards. Straight away, an ace of hearts - EXCEPTIONAL good nature! How lovely for his subjects! The rest of the cards: stupid, energetic, beautiful, cowardly, good temper.

Alright, not sure what I can do about beautiful (as you can see, I'm not a miracle worker with a paintbrush!), but the picture is clear enough: we've got a kindly but dim man, full of ambitious plans for his people but too cowardly to venture out much beyond the castle walls.

Now for his trusted minister. First card out is a diamond - so his overarching motivation is a love of wealth. Now let's see what the rest of the cards tell us: disloyal intriguer (!), wisdom, bad temper, cruel, unreliable/oath-breaker/liar.

Wow - that's almost a pantomime bad guy! Sneaky, cruel, smart but deceitful, and with a tendency to fly into a rage!

Quite a contrast between the two fellows! From here the story almost writes itself: the minister is a ruthless operator, taking advantage of a kind (but thick) prince. For his own enrichment, he has been embezzling charitable funds that had been meant for the realm's sick and poor. What terrible wickedness will the minister employ to stop his corruption from becoming public knowledge?

To be continued...

Thursday, 18 February 2021

The goblin who wanted to fly

Gimrod had ideas. That was the trouble with Gimrod.

There was the time he'd tried to make a steamtank out of two barrels and a bathtub looted from some fancy-pants Duke's castle. There was his idea that nests of bees might make good siege projectiles, which ended up with half his camp getting stung.

But Gimrod's greatest dream was to fly. To soar like a majestic bird of prey. And today, thanks to his latest idea, he was going to achieve that dream! If only the goose he'd stolen and stuffed into a bag on his back would stop biting him.

A wonderful sculpt by Michał Ziętkowski. The moment I saw this 'flying goblin' on the Oldhammer Sculpting Group I fell in love with the concept and had to get hold of one. A genius idea, and the goblin's look of steely determination is just great. Really enjoyed painting it, and thanks to Michał for sending me a cast. I'm looking forward to seeing Gimrod take flight over the battlefield in the near future!

Sunday, 7 February 2021

Liberating the Badlands

"Father! Father! I bring wonderful news! We have been liberated!"

The old blind man laughed. "Liberated, you say? Oh my dear girl, I would not be so sure."

"But father, surely anything is better than being overrun and enslaved by Orcs?"

"Before the Orcs, my girl, it was the army of the Duke. His brigands ransacked our chapel while he claimed Droit du Seigneur. And before them it was the sneering Elves. Were we anything more than slaves to them while they obsessed night and day uncovering ancient ruins? And before them, how many were driven mad by the cults of strange gods? Oh, my dear, I have seen too many liberators in my time. What is the difference between one occupying army and another?"

The door swung open. A fat soldier with a scar across the right side of his face stood in the doorway barking. "This house is now commandeered for the army of the Emperor. Woman! My men are hungry. Bring us food and bring us ale."

The old blind man sat and said nothing. He knew one thing: this would not be the last army to liberate their town.

While we're all locked away at home, one of the things that keeps us going is dreaming about the games we might play in the future. Which is why I've been getting so excited about Benjamin May's planned campaign weekend using the Warhammer 5th Edition campaign rules. 5th edition was the edition I played in my youth and some of my best gaming memories are of the Southport GW summer campaign back in 1998, so this will be a nice nostalgia trip for me as and when it happens. I wrote a couple of microstories for the campaign pack, so I thought I'd stick them up here.

We'll be campaigning in the Badlands, amidst the ruins of the Kingdom of Strygos, and in search of the legendary Doomstones!

He surveyed the barren lands that stretched out before him. Clotted rivers through fetid swamp. In the distance, twisted mountains. Who would lay claim to such a hellhole? But he knew these lands had secrets. Ancient monuments, forgotten temples.

Were the historians to be believed? If the stories were a lie, this expedition had been in vain. They had doomed themselves for nothing. But... what if the stories were true? What then? Even thinking about it made his heart race. The four stones, the four great crystals of legend. Whoever had them had the power to bend the fates to their will.

Of course, he had been sent to bring the doomstones back to his patron. But once he had them in his possession, who could stand in his way? Then he would have no need to bow and grovel before any patron. All time and space would grovel before him! For a moment he sat there, staring into the distance, lost in a kind of reverie. Then, coming to his senses, he gave the signal to his troops to advance.

In my teenage years, my only army was the High Elves, and so in returning to 5th edition, I wasn't going to miss this chance to restore my High Elves to their former glory! The only problem is that my collection is split between my childhood home in Liverpool and my current home in Orkney, and most of my old High Elf army is down in Liverpool. And of course I want to start getting ready now... So for that reason I'm going to use the minis I have here as the heart of the army, giving me a reason to finally get some paint on them: a unit of White Lions, a handful of archers (the old Melnibonean models), and a Great Owl (counts as Great Eagle).

I'll also be able to call on support from my Sea Elves if needed, but what's a new challenge without new minis to paint! And those White Lions have been waiting for paint since 1998, which is tragic in itself...

Hopefully I'll have some painted models to show you soon enough, and I can start telling the story of this army.

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.