Sunday, 19 June 2016

Game-related historical snippets

I'm reading a lot of history resources at the moment (slowly, as I need to keep a notebook on hand) and in my typical fashion this is a bit all over the place although mainly focussed on the dark ages early medieval period.

I've also at the strength of this intro at Ex Urbe started watching Borgia: Faith and Fear. That intro is fascinating in its own right (a couple of highlights: pink was for poor people, Vikings loved clown trousers), if anything after that the TV series itself is a bit of a disappointment although still worth watching. The main problem with the series is that the writing seems really clunky - characters spend an awful lot of time describing recent events to one another - but when I can overlook that it's very worthwhile for the scenery and mood.

The scenery because it's a good reminder how much more modern the Renaissance was, and hence WFRP is, than the vanilla pseudo-medieval RPG setting. Think palaces not castles - on which note, having also just watched Sam Willis' The Silk Road series, it's worth adding that the Doge's Palace in Venice is also in-period as far as WFRP is concerned.

The mood because it's great to see the cardinals being incredibly corrupt and self-serving while at the same time being devout and god-fearing (this is also a lesson I'm hoping to take on board from the Robert Low I've been reading recently, of having characters be properly influenced by their religious beliefs). Borgia is at times teaching me things I was just as happy not knowing - I'd dimly heard of the Breaking wheel in the past, I now have a much more gut-level appreciation of it thanks to the beginning of the second episode. I don't think there's anything gameable in that, but it always good to be reminded of other sorts of grim for the grim-dark.

On the early medieval side of things I'm struggling slightly to get my bearings. Thanks to Monty Python we know that in many ways the Romans were quite sophisticated, then you had the Dark Ages and then 1066 and all that. The general sweep of the period is quite easy to pick up but the day-to-day, which seems to me essential in a game setting sense, much less so.

A couple of interesting (to me, at least), and related snippets so far concern the development of agriculture. At the start of the period the two-field system was used for agriculture, but was relatively fragile leading to lower surpluses and more frequent famines. The three field system, which apparently was first used in the Loire region in the 8th century, seems to have spread slowly and erratically (both systems were in use in England in the 14th century). But the greater yields from and robustness of the latter not only reduced the likelihood of famine but in addition produced surpluses which in turn made horses more "affordable". Also the horse collar doesn't make its way to Europe until after 900AD so prior to that yoked oxen were the main source of power for ploughing and so on. Over the next few hundred years horses (being more powerful, faster, and having greater endurance) made agriculture still more efficient and made day-to-day existence less precarious.

So, oxen and famines it is!

Saturday, 11 June 2016

I covet minotaurs

A very banal piece of self-discovery, but you have to start somewhere...

When I first heard about the Diehard Kickstarter it was the undead minotaur that convinced me I had to back it. And he arrived in the post on Friday!

Diehard undead minotaur and Citadel minotaur lord
He's extremely crouched over and so a lot more imposing in person than he may seem from that picture. The detailing is lovely and I'm sure he'll be a delight to paint - I probably won't get to him this decade though... The one down side, which is purely a personal thing, is that his axe head is ridiculously large - I think I'm going to have to substitute something more in line with that held by my two minotaur lords. And I've no idea how I'm going to base him!
Citadel minotaur and minotaur lord
Speaking of minotaur lords, the original C34 lord is the figure I most coveted in my mate Ed's collection back in the day. I eventually traded with him, I don't remember on what terms, but since I got back into the hobby all I've managed to do is strip the gloopy enamel I'd started to paint over Ed's original paint job. Real life is rather interfering with hobby time at the moment, and I'm extremely behind on my Viking SAGA force, never mind getting onto anything else. One day I will get to these chaps though, and the remainder of their Marauder brethren!
All four together
The big minotaur lord on the right is another minotaur that I coveted - if in the last year I'd been putting together an eBay wish list he'd have been towards the top. Then a few months ago while sorting through a box of university-era clutter I found the Eldar scouts that I knew I had somewhere, and him (which up to that point I had no recollection of buying).
Son of Slomm with minotaur for scale
Son of Slomm was another key attraction from the Kickstarter and a properly interesting chaos something. Hints of dog and bear in there and who knows what else? And big, as you can see. The weapons again are a bit over the top for me, but I'll not be hacking this chap around.
My final non-familiar is the Eru-kin mage. I had no good reason for buying this chap, but it's an interesting figure and I've a feeling I'll end up getting some sort of sci-fi forces painted up at some point. My justification was that it's always good to have something a bit different to act as a focal point, scenario feature, contingent leader or so on. I can also see myself being tempted into putting together an Eru-kin Frostgrave warband or some such. Again, on the big side, shown above against about the biggest non-terminator marine I own (excuse the old and rather average paint job). As I don't have any other Eru-kin the scale isn't really an issue, and it's fair enough to have an alien race not be human-sized. But I'm left wondering whether it's scale creep from the last 20 years or intentional.

Monday, 25 April 2016

What does the medieval family look like?

Rick Stump's recent article about village and family demographics, and in particular the graph on there, really got me thinking about what the medieval village and family looked like.

The graph shows population before the first demographic transition which is yet another reason that, despite enjoying medieval game worlds, I really don't want to live there. In simple terms, people are dying as fast as they're being born, mainly from the old standbys - disease, famine, war and famine caused by war.

From the starting points in Rick's article I thought I'd try and visualise what the population of a village really might look like but then, deciding that particular rabbit hole was a bit too deep, thought I'd instead try to get a picture of just one family. I'm sure there's been all sorts of scholarly study on this but only a few interesting data points came to light from my initial hunting. This gives me enough to hang some ideas on to while seeming to me at least to be plausible, however wrong those ideas may in fact be!
  • Högberg et al, Maternal Deaths in Medieval Sweden: An Osteological and Life Table Analysis has all sorts of interesting information, but of most use is the life expectancy graph.
  • There's a widely quoted figure of 14.4 maternal deaths for every 1,000 births in 15th century Florence. This initially seemed a bit low to me given the gap in life expectancy for men and women in Högberg's paper, until you remember Rick's figure of 6 children per family and hence a 9% chance of dying in childbirth for the average mother...
  • The life of Lucrezia Borgia is interesting anyway, but especially so in this context, giving the stark reminder that a limiting factor in the size of a family wasn't the parents deciding not to have more children, but one of the parents dying! Again from the Högberg's paper it can be seen that the average life expectancy for a woman was around 33, for a man around 40 (although interestingly if they can reach age 50, life expectancy is actually slightly higher for women - presumably due to the risk from childbirth being removed).
From there I had enough (probably dodgy) data points to get started from -
  1. Given that 33 year life expectancy and an average family size of 6 children, in hand-waving terms I called that a 1/3 chance of a child being born per year from when the mother is age 16 until age 40
  2. Rick furnished figures for death in infancy and up to mid-teens
  3. The Högberg's paper allows me to generate life expectancy for those who make it to the advanced age of 15!
With some random number generation and the WFRP name generator I came up with the following for a family on a farm somewhere in Reikland in 2504 -

Klemens runs a farm where his recently deceased wife's grandfather still lives, her father having died just a few years before. They have four surviving young children (although the random number generator says Gustaf will be dead within the year). Brother-in-law Friebald and his wife Esmeralda are an invaluable help as is his sister-in-law Carlotta, although she'll probably be married off soon. Rigo (aged 13) and Eldred (aged 11) are both expected to do a full adult's share of the work as well.

I found generating the above an oddly poignant process, as the random number generator killed off children that various stages of infancy, or mothers with families, and that was just for entries on a page with labels like "Son A3-2"! But it did bring home those bare statistics about mortality rates in a way that will hopefully give my in-game villages a bit more soul in the future. 

There's are a few things I might give some more thought to when I get the chance, such as making couples more varied in age, especially if I ever tackle the "village" problem - the (fairly obvious) thought being that the smaller the community the more it comes to who's available, or simply not related to the suitor, rather than any thoughts of romance. Passing adventurers who show any sign of success and who have all of their limbs and some of their teeth suddenly move from "we don't like their sort" to "eligible"...!

The other thing to think about is to have the deaths cluster more - although certainly people would die from isolated incidents and accidents, such as the "minor wound becomes infected" theme that I've started to notice from certain historical and dark fantasy authors, at least some would be clustered from disease, famine or violence. It'd be interesting to know what the balance should be between the isolated and the clustered - maybe 3 of the 4 deaths across 2502 / 3 / 4 could actually have been caused by the same event? 

Meanwhile I go back to being thankful for epidemiology and all the rest of our modern wonders.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Things I'd like to be writing about

I'm hoping that at some point Real Life and the remorseless paint queue will get to the state where I've time to blog about subjects beyond my latest paint job or wargame that I've played, as I'd always planned to do. If that ever happens there are four main topics I'd like to spend more time on:

  • The early medieval period as a game setting
  • The WFRP careers system in an early medieval setting
  • Wargame campaign systems
  • A grimmer Logan's World

The early medieval period as a game setting

I've seen Warhammer's Old World critisised as unoriginal and derivative but to me it's a genius piece of world design. The design criteria appears to have been "how do we fit all of our historical miniatures in" but I enjoy digging into the real world history that it draws from, be it the Holy Roman Empire or the Spice Road. Currently a lot of my gaming is Dark Ages early medieval related so naturally I've been reading up on that, and in many ways it's as much of a breath of fresh air from the generic pseudo-medieval setting that I grew up playing D&D in as a more exotic setting such as Tékumel. For example, what happens when there are no inns (or pretty much no towns for that matter)?

The WFRP careers system in an early medieval setting

WFRP is my favourite system of the admittedly relatively few RPGs I've played, and one of its great strengths is the way the careers system embeds the character into the world. However it means that to use the game in a different setting the careers system needs to be tailored to that setting. There are a couple of settings that I'd like to try it in one day: Middle Earth (which despite the Peter Jackson films should be Anglo Saxon in flavour, or so I understand) and the "time of Sigmar" (which seems to be early medieval / Ostrogoth-ish, both according to the Brief History of WFRP Time and this fantastic concept piece by Stefan Kopinski).

Wargame campaign systems

I've rambled about this before, and I'm looking forward to any insights that Tomahawk Studios forthcoming The Age of the Wolf offers.

A grimmer Logan's World

I'm trying hard to avoid being drawn back into Warhammer 40K, not least because of the paint queue implications but also that the the setting's not very attractive - but in a certain way it's also deeply fascinating. I've various ideas milling around in my head, the most recent of which was triggered by thoughts on the Oldhammer forum about a Logan's World game at this year's BOYL. The thing I find interesting about the game universe is the technology-as-religious-dogma aspect: science has been discarded, artefacts are built via ritual, and fear and superstition are positively medieval. To my mind, if a world was cut off from the Imperium then it wouldn't spawn an 80s mirror-shades view of the future, it would result in something much grimmer (and far more interesting).

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

(Why) I still prefer Warhammer Fantasy Battle

I spent last Sunday playing the good guys for a change, in a scenario organised by Paul of "more orcs than Sauron" fame, and on the drive home was pondering not just that I prefer WFB to the more modern games that I'm generally playing at the moment, but why I prefer it. Aside from the familiarity and no doubt nostalgia value it boils down to -
  • The excessive detail (in troop characteristics, weapon bonuses, etc.) make it both easier and more prone to having a role playing game feeling
  • It still handles a breadth of scale from handful of miniatures to small hundreds
To explain what I mean a few details of the scenario are relevant. I was leading a small band of samurai whose goal was to rescue some kidnapped damsels - facing me were around 100 barbarians and half-orcs, and some people on a war mammoth (very cool model - not room for one in my paint queue at the moment though!). A good number of the samurai characters had magic weapons, which naively I thought was to balance things out a bit...

One of the weapons was a Frenzied Blade.

In Dragon Rampant, to take a counter example, things are very much abstracted. You can build a narrative using the fantastical abilities, the various troop types and the Reduced Model rule. But actually the number of levers which are available to twiddle are fairly limited. This has a lot of good things going for it - the game can be more balanced and less open to abuse - but at the end of the day units end up somewhat alike and it's harder to really feel you know a character as an individual.

Back to the scenario: the Frenzied Blade wielder saved my bacon at a crucial interval (frenzy being a bit of a monster when it comes off) and looking back he becomes one of the key narratives that emerged from the game. There were also several other narratives, actual and potential - an interesting wizard duel, and the barbarian horde being held off by some seriously unlikely dice rolling. But those two factors - the detail and the breadth of scale - are what made the scenario truly memorable.

It can so easily degenerate into Herohammer or a "win in the army design" mess, but with a good GM and scenario Warhammer Fantasy Battle still seems, in my admittedly limited experience, hard to beat.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

More Dragon Rampant - still learning

I got my second game of Dragon Rampant this week, and I think it's fair to say I still have much to learn. Not so much the game itself, as I think it could fairly claim the old "simple to learn" feature, but more fundamentally wargame tactics. Which in a way is more worrying!

This week we tried the Sacred Mole of Ukkert scenario (attacker has to get the McGuffin diagonally across the table, the defender (me) starts from one of the other corners and has to stop them / return it to its start point). We also used leader traits for the first time, and it turned out that my warlord was Wise while my co-conspirator's was the rather useful Commanding.

Interestingly after the experience of the previous game we'd both decided to forgo magic. Given the problems I encountered in the game this may have been a mistake, but on the other hand magic is very expensive and the points seemed better spent on my newly painted warlord and some goblin wolfriders (light riders with Fearful).

Grack the Wise and his bodyguards

Apropos of which I've decided that my approach to goblins is to treat them as normal troop types with Fearful, rather than as Ravenous Horde (for infantry) or Scouts (for missiles). My reasoning being that they're decently equipped, and quite happy to get stuck in when the enemy is under the cosh, but not at all keen on a fair fight.

Early disposition. The pesky elves are trying to get the Mole to the bottom right corner
Shooting in Dragon Rampant is reasonably effective against lightly armoured troops, rather less so as armour improves. I've not yet worked out how to close with a missile-heavy force, although in hindsight lack of aggression, bad positioning of my warlord and not thinking sufficiently about the troop types were all factors.

Key (and fairly obvious) lesson for next time is to keep my warlord in a central position (so enabling him to stiffen the courage of his followers), but equally obviously that slow moving infantry are not good for flank attacks. There are plenty of other things I could have done differently, but those are all fairly specific to the scenario and table set-up, so of little use for next time.

Another part of the answer is probably to bring more goblins (probably Fearful light missiles or light foot), but that has serious implications for the paint queue!

Monday, 29 February 2016

Campaigns for large skirmishes

My gaming at the moment is mostly large skirmish - SAGA principally, Dragon Rampant perhaps, and hopefully some Oldhammer next month. After our first game of Dragon Rampant our thoughts immediately turned to putting a campaign together, hampered by DR not including any campaign rules. My co-conspirator unearthed this thread on The Miniatures Page, which suggests a variation of the Warhammer Ancient Battles system but, although a nice straight-forward, low-paperwork system, for me that doesn't have the right ingredients. So I put some thought into what I think are the right ingredients -


Apart from the low figure count from a painting point of view, the thing I like about large skirmishes is the idea that each figure is an individual. So if your warband / army is somewhat more than 40 strong, but less than a couple of hundred, there's a limit to the scale of the campaign†. You're not going to be conquering swathes of territory, your objectives will be somewhat smaller (although not less interesting).

Related to that is that the personalities should be the same from battle to battle (survival permitting). And here too, if it's a large territory that's being battled over then the chances of Mandraks the Murderer running into Corma Lightmantle again at the next battle are slim.

The bad guys

I don't like the conquer-territory-and-get-related-troops (you now have a chapel, you can recruit a priest) setup as it doesn't work for the bad guys. You have fantasy armies that might settle territory, then you have those that raze it to the ground. Orcs (or Vikings for that matter) are raiding for loot, prestige or just because they enjoy it. Successful raids get them status which get them further recruits looking to get in on the action, and you need a mechanism to reflect that rather than the settler approach.


One of the great things about Dragon Rampant and SAGA is their scenario-driven gameplay. To me a campaign system needs to encompass this too, not just be a way of linking a number of line-them-up-and-knock-them-down sorts of game.

In summary

I'm almost sure what I'm looking for isn't out there - it'd be a miracle if it was, as I'm such a picky so-and-so. But I'm hoping there are elements of it in the campaign system for 2nd edition, and probably Dux Britanniarum. So I have an excuse to by the latter in the name of research! Over the next several months I'm planning to get some more concrete thoughts down on how such a system might work, but I'm rather hoping that after more research I find an existing system that roughly meets my criteria.

†One of my pet peeves (or my view of the "George, where did it all go wrong" moment for Warhammer) is the switch from WFB scenarios with forces in the 800 - 1600 points range to the 3000 point standard. From there it was only a small step to the emperor riding a griffon...