Sunday, 15 January 2017

Reading list - 2016

In Search of the Dark Ages - Michael Wood

I think I remember seeing this criticised as being a "history of kings and queens" but I found Wood's style and subject matter to be immediately engaging. Given the period of time that Wood is seeking to cover the book is inevitably an overview, but still has a personal element that draws you into the narrative. A couple of episodes stood out to me as showing the nature of the early kings of the time, which built upon things I'd read previously but also brought them to life: firstly their need to travel constantly both to keep their personal connection to their subjects but also to consume their "taxes" (in the form of perishable goods or livestock) and secondly the uncertain nature of succession and the primary role of king as warchief. The latter is highlighted by an attempt to blind Æthelstan (and so disqualify him as king without murdering him), which has interests parallels from Sarantium to Tekumel.

Viking Age England - Julian Richards

In stark contrast to Wood, Richards' style (at least here) is as dry as can be. It contains a wealth of detail, ideal if say you're looking for resources for a game setting... But a slow read (even without my note taking) and giving very little feel for the personality of the time. One area where it does come to life is when dealing with religion and belief, as evidenced by burial practices. It seems that, if someone had been injured or mutilated in life (and hence not eligible for Valhalla), then animal parts might be substituted for the missing parts on burial, with ravens (sacred to Odin) and boars (a symbol of virility) being popular.

The Empty Throne - Bernard Cornwell

This sequel to The Pagan Lord caught my eye in my local library. Cornwell is a great writer, able to bring tension to scenes even when you know roughly how they're going to turn out - partly as he's now let slip that Uhtred will survive to be a grandfather, partly due to my growing knowledge of the period.

There's still plenty of interest though, and enough insights (or at least believable imagination thereof) into the feel of the period to make it a worthwhile, and page-turning read.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street - Natasha Pulley

Another recommendation from my wife, the Watchmaker is very put-down-able at first so I'm not sure whether it'd still be languishing on the reading pile without that recommendation. Pulley's technical ability as a writer really shines through as you get to grips with the novel, so it's a bit odd that the beginning's interesting rather than compelling. It picks up though, and by the end I was totally gripped. It's somewhat hard to review though without straying into spoiler territory, which I try not to do.

The ending is tidy, but it's hard to see any of the characters being happy in the future. It's also not at all the story I was expecting, which is no bad thing, but on the other hand it's odd to have set up the Watchmaker's precognition and extraordinary mechanical skill and then tell a completely different story. I understand a sequel is in the works so perhaps these more steampunk elements will be explored further then, on the other hand the social side of his future - in many ways equally interesting given the setting - could well be the focus.

The Wolf Sea, The White Raven - Robert Low

Picking up from the conclusion of The Whale Road, The Wolf Sea takes us from Constantinople to Jerusalem in unpleasantly hot, sweaty detail. Low strikes a good balance between getting the Oathsworn to the end of the novel and having them being fearsome without having everything (or even most things) fall before them. They're convincingly out of their depth in Constantinople and out-maneuvered at various other points along the way, although it's becoming clear that their oath is also quite a handy device to keep them moving in the direction that the author wants - without it you can't see greed being enough motivation for what they go through. A great page-turner with some nicely surprising twists and, again, a fascinating view of the historical period. But a little too heavy on the grim to be truely enjoyable.

The White Raven is the cold and starving counterpoint to The Wolf Sea, and well up to the standard of the earlier novels in the series. One point I particularly liked was the presentation of slightly out of the ordinary exploits which you can quite plausibly see as growing into the basis of myths in the re-telling. Some good RPG fodder there. The other thing that's becoming clear is that, along with the oath device, the regular refreshing of the crew is another key tool for the author. The Oathsworn are more like a Star Trek crew than any other analogy I can think of - there's a tight focus on a few key members, and a lot of the secondary characters are actually redshirts (although this fact is often well concealed until the fatal moment). Looking at the books through an RPG lens, as with Cornwell's Saxon tales a great selling point of the period is that a boat load of armed men can quite often (but not always) set their own destiny. I can't immediately see how that could translate to a typical RPG group, but perhaps I'm starting to get there.

The Prow Beast - Robert Low

I'm finding the Oathsworn books annoyingly unputdownable - I'm feeling I've read enough Vikings for now and should be reading more broadly, and have plenty of other things to be doing besides! But having seen this on the shelf in my local library I've read it as fast as real life would allow.

Low seems to want to show us as much of late 10th century Europe and the Near East as he can, which suits me down to the ground and, despite us knowing Orm is due a ripe old age, he fills the tale with tension as well as interesting but not overblown detail. They're not cheerful tales though - Low treats his protagonists about as well as Robin Hobb does (my benchmark for protagonist misery), but the Oathsworn treat those around them equally harshly so that's probably fair. It does leave me though wanting some sort of palette cleanser or two before I seek out Crowbone (currently the last in the series).

Déjà Dead - Kathy Reich

Having had enough of Vikings for a while a diversion into murders and post-mortems seemed a good idea at the time! A decent book, this doesn't really live up to its blurb. Reichs clearly knows her stuff as a forensic anthropologist but if you don't know your iliac crest from your glenoid fossa then a lot of the procedural description is just words on a page, which is a shame as this seems to be the book's main selling point. Without them it's a good enough thriller, but not really one to seek out.

A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan - Ursula le Guin

The fact that this is a classic helped me stick with it when otherwise I might not have. Le Guin's writing style is rather remote, and her main character slightly irritating at first. About a third of the way through A Wizard of Earthsea things pick up somewhat, although I would rate this book as interesting rather than great - and annoyingly it leaves some rather large questions about the world, where magic seems relatively common, unanswered.

The writing style is better suited to The Tombs of Atuan, where it matches the narrator's cold upbringing. A good tale, well told, but not really matching my expectations when I picked up the book.

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins

It's good to see this was billed as a psychological thriller - I worked out who done it 72% of the way through, so it's clearly not a whodunnit (which I never get right!). In some ways like Gone Girl in that it uses the power of the narrator's point of view to paint you one picture, and then a very different one, this book is an uncomfortable read in places but a thoroughly worthwhile one. It's slightly let down by the ending not being entirely convincing but that's a fairly minor blemish in an otherwise very good novel.

Hild - Nicola Griffith

It's clear that Griffith did an enormous amount of research for Hild, but she does a fantastic job of showing, not telling, in order to deliver a thoroughly interesting viewpoint of the early middle ages and also a great story. Hild's is an interesting perspective - constrained by her gender to have only a second-hand account of most of the battles in the book she in some ways becomes an "everyman", waiting on the uncertain outcome of events over the horizon along with the sort of folk who don't get much attention in your typical novel of the period (or most periods come to that). However she's also an extraordinary character, close enough to her king see a lot more of the world, and the events that shape it, than most.

It's a weighty book, and my passage through it was made slower by all the notes I was making, but I'm keenly looking forward to the rumoured sequels.

The Pilgrim of Hate - Ellis Peters

Pilgrim of Hate is an interesting antedote to Hild, in that it demonstrates that you can write perfectly passable historical fiction with only the thinnest veneer of history included. Definitely a whodunnit this one, so I didn't have a clue what was going on until Cadfael explained it. As with Rivers of London there's a central deception of the type I'll fall for every time (and which I really must steal for use in an RPG plot one day). A good holiday read (no notebook needed!).

The Lazarus War: Artefact - Jamie Sawyer

I picked this up as a page-turning read, more military sci-fi than high concept, so I'm being unfair to be slightly disappointed with it. It's both well written (keeping you going for one more chapter, when it's far later than you realised) while also somehow clumsy - it sometimes feels as though it's been assembled from a sci-fi kit of parts. And it touches on issues that it perhaps should be exploring: what would be the psychological impact of the contempt that Harris-as-simulant feels for the puny humans around him; how debilitating to be in the position of having his own life on the line rather than that of the disposable simulant? Sawyer opens these questions and then veers back to the main, rather pedestrian but anyhow gripping plot.

As a novel it ticked the boxes I was looking for when I picked it up, so I really should give it due credit. It's the first in a series so perhaps these questions will be addressed - but rather unfairly I'm not feeling motivated enough to seek out the others in the series.

Tigana - Guy Gavriel Kay

It's apparent enough from the story itself but the author's afterword makes it clear that this is a novel with a message, unfortunately for me this made it weaker than those of Kay's books which I've read previously. A perfectly good book, if long, and with perhaps a slightly contrived ending, spiced up by some nice twists throughout. For all my reservations, the ending still kept me gripped, in a "stay up far later than I ought" way. But still not up to the standard of say his Sarantium novels.

Fortune's Pawn - Rachel Bach

After the last few books I was looking for a slightly lighter read that I could dip into and out of, and this was exactly what I needed. Fortune's Pawn is odd in that the narration isn't quite convincing, it feels rather forced especially at the beginning as if Bach doesn't really understand her heroine. Once it gets going though the plot becomes interesting, and then intriguing - I'll definitely be seeking out the next in the series.

Flamesong - M.A.R Barker

Another interesting trip to Tekumel. As with The Man of Gold it gives a good insight into the world and how a roleplaying game might fit there, although the trial of Trinesh and his companions towards the end of the book also highlights its limitations as a game setting. Barker also does a good job of presenting lost technology, which can be a tricky challenge when the reader is more tech-savvy than the protagonist. Conversely the book definitely lacks for a map, even a very rough one - the characters' discussion of their travels, perhaps understandable to someone more familiar with the geography of Tekumel, left me completely in the dark.

For me this remains a fascinating but intimidating setting. As far as I can tell from reviews the books go rather downhill from here, so I'm not sure how much further I'll explore it.

On Basilisk Station - David Weber

No subtly here, Honor Harrington's world is not painted in shades of grey. Weber's writing is impressive, he was able to lead me around via the nose emotionally - you're rooting for Honor, and booing her enemies. Perhaps unsurprisingly given its black and white nature, it's hopefully not too much of a spoiler to reveal that the tale turns out OK in the end, although there are setbacks and loses along the way. For me though it turns out a bit too well, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the book I was left with no interest in its sequels. It has the feel of a TV show where no second series is planned, so when a sequel is decided on the first order of the day is to tear the hero back down so they can be built up. I think I can manage without.

The Wilful Princess and the Piebald Prince - Robin Hobb

It's Robin Hobb so I wasn't expecting a happy tale, but this is unexpectedly downbeat. The narrator and the other main characters are all rather unsympathetic, and the more sympathetic a character is the more remote they are in the telling. And it being Hobb there's an air of doom over the whole thing. This all adds up to make a good (but short) story rather put down-able which is a shame. For several reasons I found it well worth my time: as a chapter in the history of Buckkeep; as a demonstration of a storytelling style and for the story itself. As often with Hobb's stories I find myself wanting more - but after a bit of a break.

The Lies of Locke Lamora - Scott Lynch

This book came highly rated from various people on G+, but I found it hard to enjoy at first. Locke is an interesting but rather smug character and it wasn't until the stakes ramp up considerably with his introduction to the Grey King that it starts to become more enjoyable. From there it slowly builds, via various ups and downs, to a brilliantly executed climactic scene.

The setting of the city of Camorr is almost a character in its own right, Renaissance with a slight sprinking of clockpunk (or at least modernity), along with the "aliens did it and ran away" mystery of the Elderglass. You're left torn between hoping Lynch will explore these in more detail in future versus hoping they're left well alone as an interesting but unexplained backdrop.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Hoping that 2017 is more productive...

It's slightly odd looking back on my 2016 goals post, as the year didn't turn out anything like I expected. I played a lot less Frostgrave than I was expecting, but rather more Warhammer and a fair bit of Dragon Rampant so I'm happy on the gaming front. But I was concious for most of the way through that I wasn't painting enough - I never really got into gear with painting my SAGA vikings and it was all downhill from there. As I know I'm a slow painter it's difficult to motivate myself when I'm in the early stages of an army, which is a big part of the reason I'm not attempting to go with dwarves for Snicket's challenge.

Painting

I managed 20 figures last year, which is my worst total since I returned to the hobby in 2013 (and even then I only started painting in the spring). I'm refusing though to learn the obvious lesson from this, and since I'm aiming to have painted 33 figures by the end of July I'm hoping for a total of 45+, namely -

  • 1000 points of chaos (33 figures)
  • Finishing touches to my 1000 points of orcs (5 or 6 figures, and maybe a second stab at a few I'm not happy with)
  • As many vikings as I can manage

I'm hoping the target of BOYL and the small and varied units will see me through the first part, and the prospect of "finishing" a force the second part. But given that this year is looking rather hectic on the Real Life front then time will tell...

For the first time in a while my forum avatar is not even on the list - but probably 2018 will be the year of the dwarf.

Blogging

Looking back it seems somewhere in the 20+ articles range is about my limit for a year. This year I'm trying a different approach - rather than have a target number of posts I'm trying working to a schedule. My limiting factor will be preparation time, so I may well revert back to just "this is what I've painted", even though that's something I'd rather avoid...

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

1.3% of a Snickit challenge

30 weeks until BOYL '17, 33 figures still to paint

I was aiming to have a few more figures painted over my Christmas break but it's good to at least get my "Broo with Sword and Shield" into the completed column. Or even the needs-basing-and-varnishing column.



I'm pretty pleased with how he's turned out, or at least I was until the photographs showed up some problems. I'm a bit concerned about the amount of time I spent on him though - I seem to spend disproportionate amount of time faffing over relatively minor parts of the model and reworking areas. I'm hoping that'll improve with practise, it will need to if I'm going to get anywhere near completing the challenge.

And he certainly looks a lot better than he did the last time he had paint on, many years ago.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Stonethrowers always deviate - some further thoughts

A while back I started thinking about why having stone throwers always deviate made them so ineffective. It occurred to me that both the problem and the answer lie in the 2d6 bell curve.

Using my model (with a 20-strong unit arranged in two ranks of 10) the unit was hit only in the shaded part of the curve: always on a 2 (2d6 - 2 remember in the "always deviates" model, so no deviation) and a 3 (1" deviation of a 1" template, not covering the maximum models but still hitting some); and less likely on a 4, 5 or 6 (4 inches of deviation, so a roll of 6, only hit the unit when the deviation is along the axis of the unit, i.e. 2 times out of 12).

By increasing the modifier, and so moving the hits into the taller part of the bell curve, the stone thrower becomes progressively more effective.

And it turns out that at 2d6 - 3, it's similar in effectiveness to the 50-50 "dodge" save:

This gives a median of three casualties and a mean of four, although with the mode at zero. So fairly close to the dodge option, and to a bolt thrower.

The only down-side to this is that the maximum deviation is now 9 inches, so the likelihood of the truly comical mis-fire is reduced.

My hope though is that this gives stone throwers a distinct niche without the worry of them being over-powered. They will be highly variable, and very effective when they don't deviate by much (and hence might seem over-powered in individual games) but in the long run not reliably good. So quite good orc-y weapons, and seemingly worth trying in a game or two!

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Thinking about Rogue Trader while watching Rogue One

I find my lack of franchise loyalty disturbing...

From the opening scenes Rogue One draws you in visually and lifts you. Although it's theoretically long ago it's really a mostly aspirational future - you'd happily live on Scarif or Lah'mu and technology would help you survive on Jedha.

It struck me though that only two of the worlds shown would fit into Warhammer 40K - volcanic Mustafar and Eadu with its unlikely rock formations. Despite the long-standing utility of aquarium plants for miniatures scenery, Scarif is far too clean and functional for a 40K setting: despite being theoritically the future, Rogue Trader actually the Spanish Inquisition with lasguns and space hulks.

Thinking more about living in the Star Wars universe, superficially it doesn't seem too bad: for the majority of the population the Empire is mildly chafing at worst - although your city or planet might get destroyed from space one day; Luke didn't see anything wrong with joining the Imperial Academy before the untimely demise of his aunt and uncle. But approaching it as a gamer its black and white nature is definitely a shortcoming - stormtroopers are fantastically iconic figures but behind them are the faceless operators of the Death Star, and they themselves are mindless killers (when they can shoot at all).

It may not seem much more conscionable to take the part of the Imperium but (notwithstanding that it's all a bit of a giggle) in its own way it's at least as palatable, not least because you can chose between internal conflict and external conflict (shooting genestealers is OK). Looking at it another way, the Star Wars universe is primarily a story-telling setting and, like Middle Earth, creaks a bit when asked to be a gaming setting.

So, having enjoyed the film, what's my take out at such time as my paint queue allows me to look at 40K?
  1. Hire better location scouts
  2. Urban scenes need a lot more civilians - at least until the shooting starts

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Orctober 2 of 4... and on to my next project

I finally finished my second Orctober orc -


He's been partially undercoated for the last 20 years so it's good to have him painted!

The other two orcs that were originally in my queue for last month are going to have to wait though, as it's time I turned my attention to Snickit's challenge. I've been vacillating between dwarves and chaos but, at least at the moment, I've come down on the side of the latter - and not just because my prospective chaos force contains about 50% less figures than the dwarves...

Between Macrocosm's Kickstarter and Bood's production of some fantastic figures it seems the style of dwarves I prefer is finally available without resorting to eBay, but I can't quite bring myself to embark on a completely new army, especially with my SAGA vikings needing finishing. Instead a chaos force seems to offer more possibilities when matched up with what I have painted already, and if allied to my orcs means that I'll be able to field a reasonably large force at a point in the forseeable future.

My initial thought was to go with a variation of my Gulgan's Raiders plan, but a couple of things are holding me back from that. Having looked around a fair bit I'm still not sold on a source of currently available thugs, especially not archers. More to the point though I'm still hooked on my first sight of chaos warriors in the 2nd Edition bestiary all those years ago and, despite now appreciating rather more their tactical limitations, I want to create a force centred around them.

First up though are the beastmen, specifically this old broo that needs a lot of attention -


The sword was missing when I first acquired him from my mate Greg an awfully long time ago, but I must admit the butchery to the base (and most of a hoof) is due to my own teenage efforts. Hopefully I'll get at least him finished before BOYL '17...

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Stonethrowers are this overpowered in 3rd edition WFB

The balance, or lack there of, of stone throwers appears to be a perennial topic amongst Oldhammerers. Or at least Oldhammerers who've just played a game involving one.

I pondered some house rules a while ago specifically to tone down their ridiculously accurate indirect fire option, and to make them less of a character killer, but after my recent game which my stone thrower basically won for me I thought I'd take a more fundamental look.

I based this on the fact that a comparable stone thrower and bolt thrower (e.g. 3-man) have the same points cost, and very similar limitations (i.e. you can't move and fire, turning in place counts as a move, 90 degree firing arc) but very different effectiveness. And looking at the rules it's easy to see why this is -
  1. Bolt throwers shoot with a ballistic skill of 3, so hit normal troops at under half range 50% of the time, over half range 33% of the time. Stone throwers will hit 40% of the time (not allowing for deviations which still hit)
  2. Bolt throwers can cause a maximum number of kills equal to the depth of the unit it hits. Stone throwers can kill anything their template can cover - probably 8 or more figures
  3. Bolt throwers only cause hits up to the point they fail to wound - so if your first target survives, everyone behind him is fine too. And subsequent hits are at -1 strength cumulatively (so -2 for the third target, etc.). Stone throwers attempt to wound all their targets independently, and all at full strength
Point 2 is fairly significant, but point 3 is the real clincher.

Against this stonethrowers have two drawbacks, due to the way in which they fire:
  1. They have a minimum range
  2. They may deviate, and so may hit your own troops as a result - although realistically they're equally if not more likely to hit another enemy unit rather than your own unit
So on the face of things stone throwers are more fearsome, but how much more? I coded up a couple of simulations to find out. Both used the same basic assumptions:
  1. A 20-strong unit of humans (the "standard" WFB creature) equipped with light armour and a shield (purely for the movement factor - it won't help them if they're hit by a war machine!) march towards a war machine 30 inches away
  2. The unit is deployed in a wide (10 column) formation, about the most sensible configuration for marching against a war machine
  3. The attackers move first
I ran the simulation 1,000 times, and looked at the number of attackers still standing at the point they make contact with the war machine.

When attacking a bolt thrower, things don't look too bad -

The mean and median casualties are both 3, the mode is 2. For marching straight at a war machine you'd have to say they got away fairly lightly.

Not so against a stone thrower -

Here the mean casualties is 8 and the median 7, but the mode is zero. 17% of the time the unit makes contact unscathed, but far more likely is that it takes significant casualties or even is practically wiped out. The simulation doesn't allow for routing - in fact that's not even necessary for the bolt thrower scenario, as it simply can't do enough damage in a single round - but it's a fairly likely outcome against the stone thrower.

My grasp of statistics isn't strong enough to put a figure on how much more effective the stone thrower is than the bolt thrower, but for now let's say that the stone thrower is over twice as effective. So if they need toning down, what might be a good way to do that? I've heard a couple of suggestions -
  1. Allow all stone thrower casualties a 50-50 "dodge" save
  2. Have stone throwers always deviate (say 2d6 - 2 inches)
Allowing the dodge evens things out a lot -

The mean and median casualties are now 4, and the mode is again zero. 19% of the time the unit survives unscathed, and there's still a lot of variation but it seems to me a lot closer to the level of damage that the bolt thrower does.

Having the stone thrower always deviate seems to rather neuter it -

The mode is still to have zero casualties but the median is now to have one and the mean to have two casualties thanks to the long tail.

This makes me fairly keen on the 50-50 "dodge" save - the variability is still there, but given the comparible points value of stone and bolt throwers then this seems a lot closer to the right outcome. Personally I'd give that dodge just to those in outside ranks, but given the formation in my simulation that makes no difference. To me though if a tightly-packed unit is hit in the centre by a big stone then there's nowhere to dodge to!

In a way the "always deviate" house rule seems to make a lot of sense - the indirect fire of a stone thrower shouldn't really have a place on a skirmish-sized battlefield, it would be more suited to siege warfare or on a BOYL-style table of all the stuff. Stone throwers have a clear anti-personnel role in early versions of Warhammer though, so for me that's another reason not to go down that route.

I'll be looking to try this out in games in future, it'd be good to hear what others think!