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!

Monday, 31 October 2016


Early October, it all seems so easy. I actually have orcs in my paint queue for Orctober, and one of them is based already. I can finish one a week which will not only complete my elite warrior unit but will also get me in sight of my goal for the first half of the year!

A manic month of real life later and, well, at least one painted orc is something...

Monday, 12 September 2016

Two weeks' productive painting

BOYL was good for enthusiasm but it was the deadline imposed by last Friday's game that got me actually painting. Figuring I needed six more orcs for my 1000 point force I eventually scaled my ambition back to these four chaps, and made do with a few more that really are due for the stripping jar.

It's hard to know what different people rate as productive output, but this is about my limit for two weeks, and with the motivation of a proper deadline and a bank holiday weekend in there as well. As a result some of the spinning plates of my life are left looking distinctly wobbly, so in conclusion a figure a week is probably my best-case steady output. It's a useful corrective to bear in mind when contemplating Snickit's recent painting challenge.

That said what I'd really like to do is some dwarves for that (about 50 figures) plus finish off my orcs (2 or 3) plus 1000 points of chaos (about another 20 figures) and still make progress on my SAGA vikings. Maybe not going to happen...

Still, at least in the meantime I now have a more respectably sized unit of savage orcs than I had previously. Need work on the bases and tattoos yet though.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Stone thrower wot won it

At BOYL I was introduced to a fellow Oldhammerer called Nick and we got together yesterday for a game of 3rd edition - 1000 points of orcs versus beastmen. Scenarios being important we raided Dragon Rampant for inspiration and opted for the Crystal Gale: 10 crystals placed around the table to add a treasure hunting element to the fighting.

The somewhat blurry photo above shows the initial setup - centaurs, beastmen, more beastmen, a troll with its shaman minder (or is that the other way around?) and a pack of chaos hounds facing (also left to right) some archers, warriors (in mid-move), savage orcs, shaman, elite orcs (also in mid-move), a stone thrower and some boar riders.

As Nick had observed he was fairly outnumbered, but I wasn't feeling too sympathetic at that point as his beastman general had 6 personal attributes - all beneficial ones at that - and I was feeling a bit concerned about facing him. To balance things out his shaman had an attribute of Stupidity, hence his delegation to troll duty.

The game left me with four main impressions: a good evening was had rolling dice, which is certainly the most important thing; those dice are probably more significant to the outcome of the battle than any generalship short of horrendous errors; 1000 points is about right for a short game (somewhat over two hours plus the table setup, attribute generation and so on) and war machines are still overpowered in 3rd ed.

Speaking of dice, Nick's centaurs swept into my archers fairly early on - and after a shocking initial round spent most of the game battling them. By contrast the chaos hounds, with very similar stats, made short work of the boar riders on my right flank and in the picture above are about to kill off my stone thrower crew.

The crew by that point had more than earned their keep. Their three shots of the evening (when they weren't busy animositying) had hit the shaman and troll (killing both, although the troll regenerated) and the general's unit twice - sending him routing off the table with a couple of his surviving beastmen. I was fortunate that due to the long minimum range of the stone thrower their failed animosity rolls couldn't inflict similar damage on my own units!

Definitely the dice were on my side, so I'm no doubt due the opposite result one evening soon. I was however left with the feeling that I should do a version of my 1000 point force with no war machines.

My final blurry picture of the evening shows the dispositions when time ran out. Nick was 4-3 ahead on the crystal collection front but depleted in terms of forces.

Which brings my to my final impression of 3rd ed - you can quite quickly get to the point where the result seems clear, but actually getting from there to a definitive end can take a long time. So it's quite handy sometimes to be stopped by the clock.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Going all modern (briefly)

I was tempted into playing a game of Force on Force this week at my local club - modern wargaming really isn't my cup of tea but this had all the right ingredients: a GM-lead scenario with mis-matched sides, hidden movement and complex objectives.

It turned out I was leading a force of rebels somewhere in the South Caucasus who were buying "a package" from a shady dealer who'd arrived by light aircraft. The authorities had got wind of our location and arrived just as we were concluding the transaction.

The above picture is from early in the game - the authorities have a big chunk of their forces in the wood on the top right and a few more behind the buildings at the top of the picture. One of my teams has started up the leader's Mercedes to help him get away, but it's all about to get very bloody.

The shooting emphasises troop quality as much as their equipment and the rules seem well set up handle opposed actions (such as when a unit comes into the line of fire of an enemy on overwatch - will the overwatch unit open fire before their targets can act, or not?), morale and the impact of wounded on the remainder of the team, suppressive fire and all that. 

As I said, modern isn't really my cup of tea as it's all a bit close to home, but I suddenly feel the need to paint up some gangers for Logans World or some such...

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Very belated BOYL report

I only managed a single day of BOYL this year, but it was as inspirational as always.

I spent the day playing Norse and Harry's and Siege of Dumezil Hold scenario from the First Edition Redwake River Valley campaign (although actually a lot of the day was spent wandering around chatting and admiring other people's models).

Harry has created a lovely set of dungeon tiles to go with his Frostgrave winter terrain, which allowed for the exterior and interior of the siege / assault.

My lads were leaving the messy fighting around the gate to some other fools (who did have the help of a couple of giants!) while we attacked a couple of sally ports. Our objective was to kill the dwarf king and destroy an artefact of theirs, leaving them too demoralised to help in the war against Psammon.

An interesting aspect of First Edition is that a character's attributes are rolled and adjusted for their species. I ended up having my hero Gublub (formerly Grack the Wise) with a very low intelligence and subject to stupidity, while my shaman Gruk the Loon was subject to frenzy. The latter came in handy as he also rolled up a mostly useless selection of spells.

As with the system of traits in Dragon Rampant I do think these random attributes really add to the game. Although sometimes you're going to end up with something a bit duff it does make you think of the leaders more in terms of personality than just as a generic champion, and also embrace the possibility that they're not actually very heroic.

I'm not sure whether it was Gublub's stupidity or my own tactical ineptitude that enabled the dwarf king and the dwarves' sacred artefact to escape, but in my defense dwarves are no easier to dislodge from tunnels in first edition than they are in later versions. We did decide though that the surviving orcs wouldn't be too unhappy - with the dwarves having fled and their commander felled by the devestatingly effective elven bows they were now in possession of a rather comfortable dwarven hold. Given his size Gublub seems favourite to become the new leader but I'm not so sure - Gruk is just as good in a fight and being subject to frenzy might tip the balance! If nothing else if should make for some interesting leadership debates...

The Rise of Morcar

There were several other impressive games on the day but for sheer weight of models on the table a mention has to be given to the Rise of Morcar game.

This scale of battle isn't really my cup of tea, but it's good to see someone doing it, and not only to see some of the models that had been produced for the occasion. Though having said that, somewhere in amongst that lot for example are some of the most interesting chaos spawn (or other gribblies in that vein) that I've seen. But equally when you focus in on what looks like a "normal" unit, and it turns out that actually it's a unit of trolls, then that's not my Warhammer.

But if this is your cup of tea then Snickit's write up contains lots of pictures, if you've not seen them already.

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...

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Belated goals post

I intended to write this in January - not a good omen...


My main motivation for this post is to keep me focussed. Having fallen very short of my target last year I'm hoping that a regular diet of gaming this year will keep me painting, so on pure numbers I should do OK. However I have a tendancy to be distracted by fascinating new projects and so waste time planning rather than executing and also not getting far down any one road (as my "goals" posts for the last few years will attest). There's loads of things I'd love to spend some time on but they'll have to wait for another year...

  • Complete my SAGA Viking warband (25 further figures)
  • An apprentice to go with my chaos sorcerer to enable me to field a starter "evil" Frostgrave warband
  • My Oldhammer forum avatar (still!)
  • An orc warlord, 7 orcs with crossbows, an archer, a warrior and 3 wolves to field up to 36 Dragon Rampant points (or a bit of variety in my 24 point warbands)
  • A wizard and apprentice, 3 dwarves and a Norse "thug" to allow me to field a dwarf / Norse Frostgrave warband

And depressingly, that's all I'll likely get finished this year - and that's assuming I paint twice as much as last year!

Rab's rather impressive Geekstarter tracking also inspired me to add a couple of stretch goals -

  1. A spare Viking warlord - even now he's painted my existing one is bound to get killed eventually, so for narrative purposes it'd be good to have some options. And as SAGA likes the warlord based differently I can't really substitute one of my other troops
  2. An orc apprentice and some lesser armoured orcs for a third Frostgrave warband. My challenge here is that Frostgrave is geared towards a number of lightly armed and armoured soldiers bulking out the warband, and pretty much all my orcs would be at the more expensive end of the scale. I could always do "counts as" but I don't really like doing that at the warband scale, which means seeking out appropriate figures or doing conversions, both of which are time consuming


I'm going to try again at my "more than weekly" target. My other main goal is to have at least ⅓ of my posts not be either "here's something I painted" or battle reports. Not only are there other things I want to write about, but also posts in the former category tend to get delayed while the painting is finished, so scuppering my goals.

Speaking of which, the reason this post is finally seeing the light of day is that I've painted the orc champion given to me by Erny over two years ago

And with some of his minions -

And that's about it for goals. My gaming is ticking along nicely at the moment, with plenty of dark ages and fantasy stuff going on at my club, and hopefully some Oldhammering lined up for March. And I daren't collect much at the moment, given how slow my painting is going...

Monday, 1 February 2016

Dragon Rampant - first impressions

Dragon Rampant seems to be a reaction to a certain overly rigid, win-the-game-in-the-army-selection style of wargaming, and from the first page comes across as a breath of fresh air. Throughout it emphasises keeping things simple, and using your imagination to field whatever models you have in your collection.

That simplicity can be strangly intimidating at first - "what if I want to give these guys two-handed weapons?" - until you start to get it. And then the freedom becomes a whole different sort of intimidating.

To illustrate the point, there are a grand total of 13 different types of troops, of which there are 5 non-missile infantry types (Elite Foot, Heavy Foot, Light Foot, Bellicose Foot, Ravenous Horde (e.g. peasants, zombies, etc.)). Each have a few specific options available, for example Heavy and Light Foot can have the Offensive option, which makes them better at attacking but means they can no longer form a shield wall. And then there's 12 "Fantastical" options (some of which aren't available to some troop types) and the concept of Single or Reduced Model Units - for example you might want to represent a unit of ogres as 4 Bellicose Foot - they hit just as hard and can take just as much damage as the standard unit of 12 orcs or humans, they're just represented differently on the table.

But how then do you represent say goblins (assuming you're going for the archetype that they're cowardly, not much good in a fight but not to the point you can turn your back on them)? As I see it, there are at least 3 ways -
  1. Light Foot with the Fearful option
  2. Ravenous Horde
  3. Light Foot, but with 24 models rather than 12
Not exactly the worst dilemma to have, but the freedom with which you can draw up your warband is a bit of an adjustment for me, where I usually have to just field everything that I have painted!

I eventually settled on a warband as seen in my second impressions, needing only to paint up these two (who were selected for their ease of painting) to fill out my heavy foot -

The other challenge presented by this openness is to (ideally) agree on what sort of theme you're going for with your fellow gamers. Personally my preference is to emphasise the grunts, with the odd fantastic element thrown in. But conversely I was shown the campaign list of a friend of a friend which initially seemed a bit cheesy to me (everything was in some way "special") until I realised that it could just be that their reference point is much higher fantasy than mine. Of course you can just pitch your low fantasy grunts against their high fantasy whatevers, but it might be a bit hard sustaining the narrative.

I've now got all sorts of ideas I want to experiment with one day - I'm trying my hardest to push them to the back of the queue rather than gather up even more unpainted stuff...

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Dragon Rampant - second impressions

I realise that conventionally I should write about my first impressions first. But I was far too busy painting a couple of extra orcs for this game, so I'll have to get to that post later.

Having now played a game I have to say I'm really impressed. It's very quick to pick up and get the hang of, but under that simplicity there are enough subtleties that troop types seem to work as they should (although it's impossible to really tell from just one game), and tactical choices count. The dice do have a big impact, maybe slightly too much but again it's too early to really say.

Ahead of the game I'd read through the rules a couple of times, and drawn up a couple of warband options. All my co-conspirator (I won't call him an opponent, as it wasn't that sort of game!) had to go on was a brief flick through the book at the club the previous week and a few emails.

Arriving, selecting his warband, rolling for a scenario and dropping in some scenery took about an hour (bear in mind, this is from a standing start for him) and we were good to go. The first good point to mention here is how central the personality of the warband and the scenarios are for the game. Skirmish games (SAGA, Dux Britanniarum, and hopefully Dragon Rampant!) are popular at the club and all seem have the expectation of a scenario, so hopefully "line them up and knock them down" is on the wane... Anyway, the scenario was Death Chase - my orcs had been ambushed by some pesky elves.

From left to right I had some boar riders (heavy riders), orc warriors (light foot with Short Range Missiles), a shaman (heavy foot with Spellcaster), more orc warriors (heavy foot) and some archers (light missiles). Ambushing me were (top of picture) some mounted elves (light riders), elf archers (light missiles with Sharpshooter), an elf prince with his hangers-on, including a wizard (elite foot with Spellcaster) and some dryads (heavy foot).

We were a bit low on scenery, having skim-read the relevant section - the recommendation is for at least one piece per quarter of the table. One thing I would say about the rules is that they're a strange mixture of chatty and dense. On a first go through it's quite easy to miss fairly important points but it does set a much better tone than a more rules-centric approach might.

In the interests of simplicity we'd not used either Leader Traits or quests (boasts that you make prior to the game and which if met give extra glory points when deciding the winner). I'm looking forward to adding these in another time, as it seems they would really add to the personality of the warband as well as enhancing the game in terms of replayability.

About here is the point where I lost the game - my first turn -

For reasons I'm struggling to explain I decided to escape this ambush by getting the rough terrain (which doesn't block line of sight) between me and the archers while attacking the strong infantry elements head-on. As you'll see that didn't quite work out, but it is good to see that bad tactics are suitably punished.

A key mechanism in Dragon Rampant is the activation test - the player attempts to activate each of their units in turn, and when an activation fails that's the end of their go. Unit types have different activation scores for different actions - attacking, moving or shooting - which are often a measure of their quality or temperament. For example it's easier to activate Light Riders (mounted skirmishers) to move than it is for them to shoot, and more difficult again for them to attack.

This gives a slightly strange air to the game - the elves first turn stopped immediately when needing to roll 6+ on 2d6 the archers' activation failed, and it was then my turn. In fact, despite having a 70%+ chance of passing this roll it would be turn 4 or so before they fired (although by this stage they were always being activated last!). This seemed to slightly promote a devil-may-care attitude, as you know that any moment your plans may stop dead in their tracks, but it impacts both sides and turns come around quickly so it wasn't frustrating. I do enjoy games where command and control has an element of chance to it, I'm wondering though if it's dialled up slightly too high in Dragon Rampant.

This activation score is used quite broadly, for example heavy missiles (crossbows or muskets) have a high activation score for shooting to represent that they may still be reloading, and wizards a reasonably high activation score for spells. So where for example in Warhammer (at least in the editions I've played) magicians start out fairly likely to cast successfully but towards the end run out of juice, in Dragon Rampant they're a bit of a 50:50 bet all the way through. The sensible thing to do of course is to activate them last, but sometimes tactically you want them to go first (e.g. buff a unit and then have it attack, or blast an enemy unit then charge the battered remnants), but this doesn't always work out -

Snake eyes - my attempted Power Bolt! at the dryads fizzles
The good thing though is that it means there are very few mechanics in the game, which makes it very easy to pick up. After a first turn and a couple of combats we were relying on the A4 rules reference sheet almost exclusively, and the game ticked along nicely.

The other key mechanic is the Battered status and the Courage test. Here my boar riders had become Battered after a bruising charge into the buffed dryads -

Once a unit is Battered it must always take a rally test before anything else happens, and even if it passes can then take no further activation that turn. I was lucky here - the riders passed their test, and my wizard was able to heal them back up to full strength before the dryads were able to attack. My one success of the night was to severely wound that unit (with my riders reduced to 1/3 strength in the process), the dryads then repeatedly failed their own rally test and fell further and further back for the remainder of the game. The courage / rally test becomes progressively harder as a unit is damaged, and failed tests result in a further loss of a strength point as demoralised troops slip away from the battle. At some point the test is failed entirely and the unit routs from the table (as happened to my own archers early on in the game, and my heavy foot after taking sustained missile fire for most of the battle).

A few last points that seem worth a mention -

Units are sized in the game by strength points - cavalry having 6 and most infantry having 12. A key facet of this is the concept of the reduced or single model unit - my wizard being one such, the idea being that his magic gives him enough strength and protection in combat that he fights like 12 men. As well as powerful characters this can also be used to field trolls and so on, where you might have a unit of 3 each representing 4 of those strength points. However strength is a bit of a misnomer (at least to me) - whether having 6 or 12 strength points units roll 12 dice when shooting or attacking if over half strength, and 6 if at half strength or fewer. Strength points more accurately are hit points - cavalry and the low strength infantry units hit hard, but are rather more fragile than the standard infantry units.

Armour makes a big difference in the amount of damage a unit takes when being shot or attacked. My heavy infantry lasted a fair while when taking punishment from two missile units - but was eventually whittled down (good Courage also helping with this).

With both players having been "brought up" on Warhammer it seemed slightly odd (though not necessarily bad) that the orcs and elves essentially fought as equals. If you want to model say elf light infantry being better in a fight than orc light infantry there are plenty of ways to do so. What there's not however is a way of saying that some species are better disciplined and more likely to be well led. You can see how this might be done - for example elite riders have a special rule of "Wild Charge" (if they can attack a unit they probably will), with an option available (Level Headed) to negate this rule and also make them easier to activate for a move. You could add in a house rule of "Well Led" for a blanket improvement in activation scores, but it's hard to know what to cost this at for a given improvement. Also, given the low costs of units (e.g. heavy infantry are 4 points) any upgrade will by definition be a big percentage of that cost and so need to be significant to justify it.

In summary my first game of Dragon Rampant was thoroughly enjoyable, seemed to do a good and simple job of running a fantasy skirmish, and (once we got started) played through in about 1½ hours. I prefer the paperback but the PDF is less than £10. Highly recommended!

Saturday, 23 January 2016

First finished figure of the year

Arguably one of my first truly finished figures since I took up this hobby again - he's properly based, varnished and everything...!

It might seem from that that I'm on for an even worse "painted" count than last year, but I've been putting bits and pieces of colour on several of his warband as well, so things are progressing.

In last night's game of SAGA for the first time ever my warlord didn't die, so maybe I'm slightly getting my head around how to play - although the winning warlord is now feasting in Valhalla along with his entire warband, so maybe not!

Next week it looks like I'm going to get a chance to try out Dragon Rampant, so the focus might switch back to orcs for a bit.

Friday, 1 January 2016

My 2015 - hobby review

The second half of 2015 didn't go quite as hoped for me from a hobby perspective, but fortunately looking at the year overall is a somewhat rosier picture.


The highlight of the year for me was BOYL, and within that (amongst lots of other good stuff) the Fallout / Rogue Trader game.

So I thought I should review that aspect first, and actually things were pretty good -

  • The aforementioned BOYL, and especially my caravanners' outing there, was about the perfect gaming experience
  • Back in May I had a great day chaos warband-ing with a fine bunch of Oldhammerers
  • As hoped I spent a bit more time at my local club and got drawn into SAGA amongst other things
  • And in October I got to visit Tékumel courtesy of Barry Blatt

There's always room for improvement, especially in the quantity of gaming, but on the quality front it was spot on. 8/10


Actually things aren't so bad here, if I take the long view -

  • Inspired by the guide over on Lead Plague I finally made myself a wet palette, and they really are as game-changing as I'd read repeatedly that they were.
  • As a result my blending has greatly improved - the wet palatte making the mechanical aspect almost trivial, and my technique is getting better with practice. Still no where near some of the beautiful work I see out on various blogs, but maybe 10 years from now...
  • On the volume front the year was a bit of a failure though. Depending on how I count my progress with the Vikings I've done about 24 models for the year, or 4/10 of my target

Purely on the quantity front I was going to give myself a much lower score, but allowing for the first two points that would seem a bit harsh. But the second half of the year was seriously unproductive, and my colour mixing often doesn't result in what I had in my mind's eye (although that too is improving). 5/10


I'm thinking I should drop the collecting category - in a way I now think of it as "increasing my list of things still to paint"! But for the sake of the review -

  • The hobgoblin thing didn't get very far. I basically want to create a force of Fantasy Tribe hobgoblins, without paying through the nose on eBay. And unfortunately FT hobgoblins don't really look like anything else. My current conclusion is that it'll require a fair bit of converting (and hence time), and between the time factor and the draw of the Fallout game I shelved my plan to get these ready for BOYL, since which they've been firmly on the back burner. File as a project for some day...
  • I've also not yet had the One Ring come to the top of my acquisition list

Score: 1/10


I was no where near my target here - a bit more variety early on, but decidely thin on the ground throughout. I have plans here for the coming year, but the limiting factor will always be time / priorities. I am finding it really useful though to look back and see the journey. 3/10

Reading list - 2015

The Weird of the White Wolf - Michael Moorcock

The Elric novels are really quite short (this one being three novellas plus a prologue in 155 pages), so I really should be making my way through them faster than I am. Individually they're all very readable but they're just not gripping me in a way that reflects their importance in both fantasy writing and gaming circles.

I'm slowly getting a sense of Elric's world, which is very much one of uninhibited imagination, and not something that unfortunately seems to happen much in modern fantasy. Tolkein's ascendancy, and perhaps the introduction and influence of RPGs, seems to have made careful worldbuilding the norm, and perhaps something has been lost as a result. In many ways in a world (or universe) sense these books are more in tune with space opera than mainstream fantasy, and that's no bad thing.

The Vanishing Tower, The Bane of the Black Sword, Stormbringer - Michael Moorcock

It could be said that I'm getting lazy in my reviewing, or I could argue that the books are better viewed as a whole! Either way, I'll try and wrap up the last three books in the core of the Elric saga in one.

The saga to me only really finds its place when Theleb K'aarna takes centre stage as the main villain. It might be that Yyrkoon isn't really up to the job, or it might be that with Yyrkoon as the villain then it's still all about Elric, and hence rather too introspective. For a while this brings us a fairly rarified view of the Young Kingdoms, as two of the most powerful sorcerors of the age clash across various realms - for a while this was a setting I could really see myself enjoying.

Eventually K'aarna is defeated and Jagreen Lern sort of becomes the villain, though really at this point Moorcock switches from epic saga to a very wide-angle cosmic struggle as Chaos tries to assert itself completely on Elric's plane. For me the story became too distant to enjoy, or even get much out of. Armies are destroyed and countries revert to the raw stuff of chaos, and the books become an idea rather than a story. Fortunately for me I live on a plane where 50 years of games and books have been written on these foundations, however I've come to the original after the event rather than before and so a lot of the value is lost to me.

So, for the story and ideas in the first two thirds of the saga, well worth a read (the story itself perhaps 3/5, but scope and breadth of ideas a clear 5). Overall I'm glad to have read it, in a way as a box-ticking exercise although that does it a massive injustice, but mostly I'm glad that it was written for everything that has come after.

Moon over Soho - Ben Aaronovitch

Good, but not really up to the standard of the first. To be expected in a way, the first was opening up a whole new fiction, while this is filling in some gaps and adding some depth the ground has already been broken. The plot is interesting enough, but seems to have more of an eye on the next in the series than really trying to deliver a punch - after the first I spent the whole book looking for the twist in the tale and was still left wanting at the end.

A good read happily consumed, that it seems a bit of a letdown is more to do with the strength of the first in the series rather than any weakness with this.

When Gravity Fails - George Alec Effinger

I bought this many years ago, I assume because of its place in Cyperpunk 2020's "appendix N" but didn't get very far with it at the time. 20+ years later and with rather broader horizons I enjoyed it, but equally due to the passage of time it's lost some of the ground-breaking quality which made it so highly regarded.

It's fascinating to see aspects of cyberpunk translated to an un-named Middle Eastern city with an Algerian hustler as the protagonist rather the high-tech US and Far Eastern cities we're used to seeing. The plot is satisfying enough, although without quite the tension I imagine was meant to be generated towards the end.

To me one of the most impressive aspects was how true the protagonist was to himself rather than beng a vehicle for the plot, and how well such an unfamiliar setting is conveyed. If it has a weakness it's that the impact on society of moddies and daddies - personality-altering technology - is never fully explored.

The Last Light of the Sun - Guy Gavriel Kay

I really enjoy what I've read of Kay's history-inspired fantasies. This one combines Celts, Vikings, sidhe and King Alfred to good effect, not only giving an emotive, deep and believable viewpoint of three cultures but importantly set into a good story with some great twists. The only downside being that I felt the need to make notes while reading it for further research later, so slowing me down, which can't really be blamed on the author!

Thoroughly recommended.

The Whale Road - Robert Low

Really very good - I'd add this to the "read this, then run a Viking campaign" list. A very convincing view into the world of the Vikings - you get the feeling that Robert Low has done his research, which he shows off with his narrative without force-feeding it to the reader. The protaganist, Orm, starts off wide-eyed and naive, and so is a great conduit for this early on. One of my few critisisms of the book is that he seems to grow in compentance rather too quickly, which makes the ending a bit less believable, but this doesn't really detract from the book. And it also sets us up nicely for the next in the series, which I'll be buying in the near future.

One other minor critisism is that there's clearly a point towards the end of the book where Orm is protected by nothing other than plot armour, but I'm prepared to let this go with just a raised eyebrow. And my last quibble is how far-sighted Orm is at times. The book is told as a memoir, so it's fair that it can be narrated with a wisdom beyond what he probably had as a raw youth, however you sometimes feel the advantage of the author's extra thousand years of perspective more than you probably should.

Back onto the good stuff - as well as a sense of the physical place and time that the Vikings lived and fought through, there's a real sense of the spiritual place. The characters emphatically believe in their gods and portents, and so fit into their world absolutely. Definitely some lessons in there for roleplayers from a more cynical (or wiser?) age. And in the interests of keeping this short one last highlight that I'll mention is how it makes you realise what an interesting (and overlooked, at least when I was at school) period of history this is. There's the conflict between Christianity and older religions, the sheer size and importance of Byzantium, and eastern Europe isn't just a series of invaders from further east (although equally those were significant factors in their history).

To end with my favourite quote, from Orm's first voyage (with the crew carefully avoiding the coast of Wessex) - "... we kept to the solitary inlets and lit fires only when we were sure there was no one for miles. Nowhere was safe for a boatload of armed men from the Norway viks". Who wouldn't want to play in that campaign?!

The Man of Gold - M.A.R. Barker

I sort of see what all the fuss is about - Tekumel is a breath of interesting and alien air. It has that same feeling of somewhere you'd like to find out more about that Middle Earth exudes, but can be hard to grasp at times as well. In a strange way this is a credit to Barker as a novelist - he introduces people, creatures and gods by showing rather than explaining, but with the sheer volume of these, and their unfamiliar names, its rather hard to keep track of.

A few quibbles - because that's the sort of reader that I am...

Given that most of the reason Harsan's the centre of the plot is the ancient knowledge imparted to him early in the story, it's rather unsatisfying that in the end he is reliant on a massive coincidence / plot device.

Also given the prestige and enormous riches that tomb raiding can bring it's rather hard to accept that the slum-dwellers who live practically on top of such a resource could be prevented mostly by social mores (even in such a hidebound society) from making an industry of it. Instead they just dabble enough to help the plot along.

With iron being rare and valuable - as in Kelewan (which was apparently modelled on Tekumel) - why aren't weapons made primarily of bronze, or why haven't alternatives such as stone impact weapons found a niche? Instead they make swords out of leather... I get that swords are cool, especially if, as with Feist and Wurts, you're writing about pseudo-Samurai, but this really jars with me (maybe it's that degree in Materials Science). According to Jeff Dee's Béthorm cured Chlén hide "has the hardness almost of aircraft plastic". That just doesn't cut it (pun intended, sorry!). I'm not having a go at Jeff here, this is the source material he's working with, it's just I happen to have his very comprehensive work as a reference point.

A good and horizon-expanding novel, and I'll be seeking out the follow-up Flamesong at some point fairly soon. But it'd have been better still with some footnotes.

Plague Daemon - Brian Craig

Prompted by Orlygg's book club plan I picked up a copy of Plague Daemon - it's OK, but not a patch on its predecessor. It has its moments, and there are some good smatterings of grim - Humbold's fate being one such - but the Border Princes aren't really somewhere you'd live by choice and Harmis is a far less engaging protagonist than Orfeo was in the first book.

It's also a bit clumsy in places - having established that Harmis isn't the chatty type he then launches into some lengthy dialogues early on for the sake of exposition, and having further established that users of magic are not trusted his companion Averil then rides past crowds of terrified refugees while waving around a magic glowing stick without any apparent negative reaction...

Overall though it does a good job of conveying the setting, and is an readable if not compelling journey through what was (at the time) an interesting but fairly neglected area of the Old World (meriting a bare half page in the WFRP rulebook) and gives a new slant on Nurgle and the followers of chaos more generally (spoiler - there's a plague deamon in the story!).

I'm left hoping the third in the trilogy is better.

The Pagan Lord - Bernard Cornwell

I picked this up on a whim at my local library and was glad I did. I wouldn't rate it quite as highly as The Last Light of the Sun or The Whale Road, but it may just be that I need a break from Saxons and Danes. The sense of place doesn't come across quite as well as in those two novels, but Cornwell can really write. Halfway through the book the narrator attacks Bebbanburg (his ancestoral home, from which he's been dispossessed). You know he's not going to die, there being half a book to go, but I could barely turn the pages for the tension.

Some useful gameable themes come through - the wildness (emptiness) of even a fairly populated corner of Europe, meaning that a few boatloads of armed men can set them selves up somewhere out of the way and be fairly safe. Equally a hundred or so armed men can ride through fairly heavily populated country and as long as they keep moving aren't going to be bothered.

And also (again) the themes of reputation, and the ability to say "fight me, or do what I say". But conversely the difficulty of getting a modern, worldly gamer to really react in the character of the time. Will they know the culture enough to challenge to Holmgang on the spur of the moment, or go to their certain death with only one care - to not lose grip on their sword?

It's also interesting to read the actual history of the time after reading the book (fairly superficially, Wikipedia in this case). The official accounts go "the king did ..." but actually it's quite plausible that, as in the book, a thegn with a reputation and agenda of their own did a thing, if it works then the history books give credit where the scribe feels is politic, if they fail then it's on their own head.

As I was reading I gathered the impression that it was a part of a series, due to the frequent references to backstory. It turns out to be the seventh of the Saxon Stories. I'm glad to have picked this one up rather than an earlier one, as it deals with the much less well-trodden story of the time after Alfred. I can't see myself going back to read the first six, but may well look out for the next.

The Gift of Rain - Tan Twan Eng

Humm, what to say about this one? Perhaps to start with that for the second half at least I found it hard to put down, which has to be a recommendation. Also that I clearly need to read more from non-Western authors (especially with my ongoing interest in Tekumel - on the subject of which it was interesting to note that clan houses make a passing appearance here), a lot of what I've read recently has been rather too far inside my comfort zone, this was in many places a fascinating breath of fresh air.

The story can be viewed on a couple of levels, the first as a memoir of the Japanese occupation of Malaysia during WWII from the point of view of a privileged (but compromised) civilian. As such it's educational from a cultural point of view, less so from a historical point of view and not too grim reading (on my personal scale where Stalingrad is an 11 this is probably a 4). It is very downbeat though, Philip's view back on his life is not exactly happy, although longer and less miserable than it might have been!

On a further level the book delves into the spiritual side of martial arts and the past lives of Philip and Endo-san. I found this oddly jarring - while I felt that a similar presenting-as-fact the mystical side of Guy Gavriel Kay's version of Byzantium added to those novels, here it seemed out of place, I think because The Gift of Rain is set so much closer to the present. But the same justification exists in both instances: people did (and still do) believe in the world as presented here so it's really my own issue as a reader than any problem with the novel.

There were a few other places where my suspension of disbelief was challenged. Firstly the question of whether Philip really could have lived 50+ years on Penang after the war (although this contradiction is presented front-and-centre a few times in the book, so I really should go along with its version of things). Secondly, the youth of the narrator during the main events of the book - Philip's in his mid-to-late teens as the book begins and so his early 20s as the war ends. However other than the earliest scenes there is no real sense of his age, despite the fact that it must be relevant to his actions and how he is viewed. This again may be my comfortable 21st Century point of view - as Philip himself points out he's older than a lot of the Allied troops who eventually liberate Penang. Or equally it may be that, with the memoir narrated by Philip in his 70s, that sense of youth is blurred or forgotten.

Anyway, well worth a read, and to me a reminder to broaden my horizons.