Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Pigfaced Tom from Pantheon of Chaos

19 weeks until BOYL '17, 27 figures still to paint

My miniatures from the Pantheon of Chaos Kickstarter arrived last week and since I have a couple of them in mind for my BOYL warband I thought I'd get to work on the first of them.

Tom is a bit on the short side compared to the others, and compared to the other beastmen I've painted recently, but still fits in nicely with the group. There's some lovely detail on him as well, perhaps too much and it amused me that my interpretation of his various lumps and bumps differed slightly from the painted version over on the Knightmare Games website.

In fact those images helped me make sense of the miniature, although once undercoated the detail made a lot more sense.

He's clearly intended to be carrying a shield but I didn't want to hide the figure away behind a board, so instead I see him as ready to take his axe in both hands and start hewing.

I really must tackle my basing scheme at some point, I'm putting that off for now and so storing up a big job for later...

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Ulfhdhnar, you shall go to the BOYL

21 weeks until BOYL '17, 29 figures still to paint

Having first undercoated this chap aiming to take him to BOYL '13, and then having him queued up to be the last figure I painted in January I'm sort of pleased to have him as the first figure completed for March. But a bit concerned about that lost month and the way my schedule is stacking up!

I'm also only sort of pleased with how he turned out: overall happy with him and I think the limited colour palette worked quite well, but the colours aren't quite what I had planned. The gloves were intended to be paler and the armour brighter - I still need to get the hang of the visual outcome of shading. But good enough for the table, and almost certainly better than if I'd painted him four years ago.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The ox with a rocks in a box - some GMing lessons learnt

On Friday we had another Oldhammer get-together which I was privileged to GM. Rather than do a report I wanted to make a note of the lessons I learnt in the process but fear not, there's a report from the half-orc point of view on the Oldhammer forum.

My main conclusions are perhaps obvious in hindsight -
  1. The players only know what's in their briefing, and have fairly blunt tools with which to learn more
  2. They also don't know what not to worry about
  3. The players will do the completely unexpected
  4. Prepare for what-ifs (as far as you can)
  5. Preview (and if necessary mildly tweak) player-selected forces

My starting point was that I had three forces to cater for: some half-orc mercenaries (who were more interested in the looting than the fighting side of their profession), undead and beastmen. We were aiming for 750 points each roughly from the 3rd edition Warhammer Armies allies or mercenaries lists, although these were more of a starting point than a hard and fast rule.

Three-way conflicts are tricky to set up, with the main solutions being that everyone wants the same thing (the Vengeance of the Lichemaster approach) or a triangular affair. The latter seems slightly less forced to me - although it's very handy that everyone turns up to sort out their differences at just the same time! I feel though that I came up with a good-enough justification for this...

So my basic premise was this:
  • The half-orcs have been hired to guard a sorceror who's on his way to a tor where magic is particularly strong, carrying some heavy artefact (with the help of an ox)
  • The beastmen want to kill the sorceror
  • The necromancer is near the tor for his own reasons, and decides to get involved
And on a slightly more detailed level:
  • The half-orcs' primary objective is to survive, ideally getting some loot in the process and without completely destroying whatever reputation their mercenary company has. They know that the sorceror they're guarding seems weakened (but in hindsight should have known more)
  • The necromancer knows that magic is strong near the tor and also that there's some sort of spirit tied to the tor. He believes that enough bloodshed near the tor will enable him to release or summon the spirit
Or at least that's what I thought would happen...

The initial setup has the sorceror, ox and half-orcs approaching the tor (from the top of the photo) as the undead arrive from their right. The table edge on the right hand side of the shot is marshy and impassable.

Lesson one: the players don't know what the GM knows (which after all, is kind of the point!). But unlike with an RPG, where you get the chance to drop increasingly unsubtle clues, anything which isn't made explicit to the players will probably remain unknown: they're too busy focusing on the tactical situation as they see it, and a wargame doesn't really provide the tools for investigation. "Me and my warband are going to go and talk to that other warband" doesn't often happen (although perversely it did in this battle!).

Lesson two: players don't know what not to worry about (also pointless GM backstories are largely pointless).

I have a mild loathing of GM PCs, in RPGs and wargames. They're especially troublesome in the latter where they call into serious question the GM's impartiality. Nevertheless I'd included Peelbone the sorceror in the scenario and was running him myself, as having the half-orcs control him would have unbalanced things too much. He was a powerful-ish sorceror (in order to give him enough wounds to keep things interesting), but with a fairly weak and situational selection of spells. In addition he starts the game with only 6 magic points.

To go more into the backstory (as it's the only chance I get!) also unbeknownst to the players Peelbone doesn't really know what the McGuffin is or what it does, having acquired it from his former mentor as the latter slipped into insanity (being betrayed and murdered by your protégé practically counts as natural causes amongst chaos sorcerors, surely?). He believes that if he energises it near the tor (via the demonology Summon Energy spell) it will summon a powerful demon which he'll be able to control.

The first turn saw Peelbone's familiar (who's reduced to ox-handling duty) take the ox towards the tor and unload its burden, with Peelbone seeming unfazed by the approach of the undead. The undead shamble forward at which point the beastmen arrive -

Peelbone is somewhat more concerned about the beastmen (I'm assuming he recognises them and knows they're out to kill him - he must have good eyesight!), and orders the half-orcs to deal with them. At this point I'm starting to refer to Peelbone and the half-orcs as "us", which causes the odd raised eyebrow from the other players. I know I can trust me, but they don't...

On his next turn Peelbone calmly casts Summon Energy, and all the factions see a swirling mist appear which is drawn partly into Peelbone, and partly into the McGuffin. On the one hand hopefully this worries them slightly, but on the other hand it probably also has them muttering to themselves about GM PCs... The undead and beastmen continue to advance, with the half-orcs turning to deal with the beastmen.

Lesson three: no scenario survives contact with the players. Given the half-orc backstory and the stacked odds against them, at this point they were meant to start worrying primarily about their own skin. But instead they got all professional...! Also the necromancer wants stuff to die near the tor so should have been backing off and letting the beastmen approach, but fascinated by the two-headed ox he was instead determined to take possession of the bundle it was carrying and so raced forward (or at least as fast as his force could shamble).

Peelbone now works out that the McGuffin doesn't do what he thinks, or at least something has gone wrong, so starts trying to save his own skin while keeping possession of the ox and the McGuffin (which his familiar now loads back onto the ox). He casts Cause Panic on the centaurs (as the fastest and hence most immediate threat) - they fail their willpower test but pass the panic test with flying colours.

Lesson four: think through what might happen. The necromancer, moving rapidly forward, casts Fire Ball at Peelbone. And is close enough to the tor for it to be twice as powerful as normal - Peelbone is toast. I was quite glad to see this on the one hand any concerns about GM PCs evaporate, but on the other hand it's part way through turn 3 and the beastmen's objective has gone up in smoke...

Fortunately the beastman general decides there's killing to be done so carries on regardless and from here we got into a fun little game. The necromancer was determined to take possession of the McGuffin (and is delighted to find out that it's a rock in a box carried by an ox, but somewhat unsure what to do with a large, heavy, rune-inscribed rock), while the half-orcs try a mixture of delaying, fighting and negotiating with the beastmen, hoping for reinforcements to help avenge their former employer.

I had plenty to do as a GM as in this sort of open game situations crop up which aren't covered by the rules, or which the rules don't allow but which seem reasonable under some circumstances. For example the half-orcs beat back a charge from the beastmen and then wanted to push them back without following up - for a second chance at negotiation, hopefully this time with a bit of stick to go with the carrot. By the book this isn't an option, but I allowed it on condition of a leadership check (to keep the victorious side in check).

Lesson five: balance player's freedom to chose their force with a bit of oversight (and know in advance what they're going to bring). This didn't have any real impact on the game but I now remember this tripping me up once in the past, and it also left a couple of oddities this time around. The first oddity was that the half-orcs had a shaman, and so should have known a bit about the McGuffin and one of its effects, but I didn't know this in advance and wasn't prepared for it. The second oddity was that the beastman leader had the attributes of Cowardice (fear) and Manic Fighter (hatred) - it made for some fun situations in the game, but probably isn't a sensible combination for the leader to have. In future I think I'll generate attributes ahead of the game.

My other, slightly depressing conclusion is that as well as all of the forces I need to be painting (chaos, orcs, vikings, dwarves) I also need a few oddities and objective markers to add flavour to scenarios. My two-headed ox from BOYL '15 added immeasurably to this game, and there were several other bits and bobs I could have done with for this time around, or will need if we take this story forward. There's never enough painting time...

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Thinking about Warhammers while reading Wolf Hall

I recently read Wolf Hall, partly because it's well regarded and I needed something to read but mostly because it's mainly set from 1520 to 1535, or about the time that a bunch of ne'er-do-wells are getting caught up in goings-on at the Schaffenfest in Bögenhafen. It seems well-researched but, even if not, it's plausible enough to be taken at face value, especially as my primary interest is for insights for an RPG set in a fictional, historical-ish world.

I'm not sure what themes Mantel was hoping to bring to the fore when she was writing the novel but to me a number stand out -
  • The functioning of power
  • The role of religion (clearly a major theme of the book, and of the time)
  • Status, class and wealth
  • The emergence of modernity
  • The medieval family 


 The functioning of power

This is central to the book, given the viewpoint is that of Thomas Cromwell who rises to become Henry VIII's chief minister. But the key point is that all power comes either from the King, or the Pope (although some claim to be servants of God) with nothing by way of checks or balances other than "what will other kings think" (e.g. if you de-throne their niece) or "what does God think". Being human that source of power is rather arbitrary, especially when (depending on how charitably you look at things) they're a man in their late 30s / early 40s with a roving eye or a king with no heir whose father siezed the crown on the battlefield (or both!).

First Cardinal Wolsey and then Thomas Cromwell gain tremendous power and wealth by gaining the ear of a king who's prepared to delegate, but having gained that ear he still needs to be treated with kid gloves. Both are clearly very able men, one being the son of a butcher who's risen to become the preeminent churchman in the realm, the other the son of a blacksmith who's become a successful lawyer and investor. Being close to even a fickle source of power they almost can't help but enormously enrich themselves, with all sorts of people just wanting to shower them with gifts for some reason, while the king is also awarding them propery, incomes and titles.

I'm not quite sure how to take stock of this in game terms, and am not at all comfortable with the idea of a game with the players functioning at these sorts of levels. Nightmare GM pretty much describes both how the game would need to be played and how it would seem - not a fun prospect.

So I think the take-home needs to be not to even think of the term "power" without the modifier of "fickle".

The role of religion

There are two connected religious developments which are highly significant for Cromwell and his peers - firstly Henry's desire to break from Rome and hence grant his own divorce (and handily also get hold of those taxes which would otherwise go to the Pope) and also the stirrings of Protestant reform and in particular the forbidden tome that was Tyndale's Bible.

There are two aspects to this which I struck me as eminently gameable -
  1. The absolute belief in God
  2. Heresy
On the first point you have a king who's trying to divorce his queen, and nobles who are trying to dispose of a cardinal who's displaced and undermined them, and in both cases one of their major concerns is "what will God think?".

From a secular modern perspective this absolute belief has always been the hardest part of a game for me to "get", and in most game settings it's even more important than it was historically given that, in the words of the great Terry Pratchett, the gods have "a habit of going round to atheists' houses and smashing their windows". Why do players very rarely seem to give as much weight to the gods as their historical or fictional counterparts would?

This leaves me wondering whether some sort of mechanical impact of divine disfavour is needed, not just for cleric types but for anyone. Perhaps (for minor disfavour) once per day a successful roll is converted to a fumble (the player gets to chose which roll). For severe disfavour, who knows?

On the heresy front it seems to me that the Warhammer world is missing several tricks. After all, what could be more WFRP than this Wolf Hall quote - "They have their old bones, their glass saints in windows, their candles and shrines, but God has given us the printing press"? In Warhammer of course you have witch hunters and rumours of forbidden gods, and more openly the rivalry between Ulric and Sigmar, or the displacement of the Old Faith by newer gods. But what's entirely lacking (as far as I've seen) are struggles within the following of a particular god, which is both far more interesting than the chaos / not chaos choice but probably also rather vicious.

The two heresies we see in Wolf Hall are Lollardy and Tyndale's Bible - heretical primarily because they undermined the authority of the Catholic church but also in the case of Lollardy being seen as a threat to the establishment more generally. Given how close it is to the establishment in The Empire I think some heretical beliefs about Sigmar are called for...

Status, class and wealth

Part of what makes the Renaissance interesting as a setting is the emergence of the merchant class and how this plays upon the gulf between the nobility and the commoner. But the gulf is still very much there.

Henry VIII is notable for advancing people based on merit, but both Cromwell and Wolsey are commoners in a courtiers' world. Cromwell and his merchant friends are in many cases significantly more wealthy than the nobles they interact with, with at least one noble being heavily in debt to them. But the nobility have status and, equally importantly, heritage. The word of the son of a blacksmith is worth very little, but even physical evidence doesn't stand up particularly well to the friendships that the nobles have nurtured from a young age, or the fact that their grandfathers fought together on some battlefield long ago.

Couple this with the gentry being concious of their relative loss of status and these elevated commoners are on oncomfortable ground.

The emergence of modernity

Another aspect which makes the Renaissance a refreshing change from the pseudo-medieval setting of most RPGs is the emergence of recognisably more modern elements of architecture and culture. The elite are now building palaces rather than castles (Mantel suggests that one reason Henry was keen to reduce Wolsey in status is so that he can claim Hampton Court Palace for Anne Boleyn) and gentlemen are laying out impressive gardens and worrying about the cultivation of strawberries. As a GM you can mix in a dash of costume drama into the grim dark.

The medieval family

The family though is still thoroughly medieval - there's a high mortality rate and a lot of interdependence. Cromwell's wife and daughters die of sweating sickness when he's in his mid-forties, while his nephew Richard Williams adopts the Cromwell surname and prospers as much as Cromwell's own son thanks to Cromwell's favour from the king.

Cromwell also gains a wide variety of hangers-on, running a large household and having minor gentry "apprentice" their sons to him in the hope of them learning his knack for making incredible amounts of money, while Mantel also speculates at various wardships. Certainly his household is exceptional in some ways, considering both his humble beginnings and the high status to which he arises, but the complex, fascinating and slightly melancholy picture which emerges is hopefully one that will stay with me and enhance my game worlds.

And finally...

Most of the way through the book WFRP was at the front of my mind but it belatedly occured to me that it was also saying something about Warhammer 40K, and probably other sci-fi settings as well. In a dystopian future the messages about the fickleness of how power is gained and exercised, as well as in the importance of status and how it influences or limits people's rise and hastens their fall are well worth bearing in mind.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Beastmen across the eras

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

I tried quite hard to resist eBay as a source of beastmen, and have hopefully found enough currently-available models from a variety of manufacturers to make up over half my unit. But I had to conclude that my tastes have been heavily influenced by Games Workshop beastmen, and that even some of their more modern ones are actually rather good.

With my broo from the beginning of the month I'm covering quite a range of years, from Citadel's very earliest up to a plastic(!) figure which I understand kids these days would call an ungor. One of the challenges I face with assembling this group is scale creep over the years balanced against a very valid question of just how uniform should a bunch of mutants be? In the end it comes down to a matter of my probably odd and definitely arbitrary taste, but for me the larger contemporaries of the ungor (gors?) are too bulky whereas the pestigor in the middle is a wonderfully mutated model and, while big, in keeping generally with his companions.

I might have to revisit all of this when I get the remaining models I'm currently planning on using in my hands, and see how they sit together in practice.

I'm going for a generic chaos warband rather than this new-fangled Realm of Chaos notion of power-specific forces and so far am enjoying mixing and matching the colour scheme. I don't really have a theme other than "drab with highlights" - for the cow-beastman I was going for a two-tone look and am happy with how he turned out, except for the design on his shield which I feel is a bit clumsy. The pox-ridden chap I deliberately gave an un-Nurgle highlight colour, and the ungor (whose scheme is lifted from one of the beastmen in Bryan Ansell's Warhammer Armies force) I again wanted to give a suitably contrasting shield. I'm quite please with how that came out as well - I'm just hoping this plan keeps working as the unit gets larger.

I need to speed up a bit as well...!

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

One cold day for the Empire

Enough celestial bodies had aligned to get three other Oldhammerers to my local club - Nick, Gaj and Paul "More orcs than Sauron" D. Although the first rule of Oldhammer is you have a GM we wanted to try and get all four of us playing, so the plan was to set up a scenario of sorts using some 40K objectives cards that Gaj had to hand.

The games that Nick and I have been playing at 1000 points a side seemed to be doing OK for time, so expanding slightly we decided to go for two sides of 600 points apiece, each player having their own objective plus a shared objective per side.

Digging through the club's scenery collection we found a nice selection of buildings and the all-important road, giving us a small settlement around a crossroads tavern. A bit too close to the mountains perhaps to be a nice place to live... A band of orcs (me) and a dark elf contingent (Paul D) have turned up to case the place, the imperial defenders (Gaj) have managed to call on some dwarves (Nick) for some much-needed assistance. Potential objectives are marked with the blue glass beads - one in the centre and two near each deployment zone (more than we need, to prevent any unravelling of the fog of war).

From bottom right we have Morglum leading his warriors, Broglodd's boar riders, dark elves on cold ones(!), Ratrak's Arrers and the elf commander (a level 10 wizard, also on a cold one).

The imperials have mustered some locals with longbows as skirmishers (top left and next to the tavern) and two units of the Emporer's finest (near top left and astride the road), the dwarves fortunately had an organ gun to hand (tucked in next to the barn), and have also brought a unit of crossbows (astride the road) and a chunky unit of dwarves led by their general on their right flank.

The imperials move first, with the skirmishers heading for the tavern ("for cover"), while the dwarves move their warriors forward and work out where best to aim their organ gun.

The orcs move enthusiastically towards the dwarf warriors, the archers rather less so towards the dwarf crossbows, while the cold ones take care to keep a building between them and the organ gun as they advance. Their general is too busy goading his mount into action to do anything (stupidity).

The dwarf warriors decide they're a bit too far out on the flank and move closer (to the tavern), while the skirmishers pepper the boar riders with arrows - the boyz are too tough and well armoured to be affected though. The cold one riders aren't so lucky, and lose one of their number to a crossbow bolt.

The orc warriors again surge forward while the elves lurk behind a house. Their commander has got his cold one under control though and moves forward, flattening the organ gun crew with a Wind Blast.

Photographs were forgotten for a while, the game being too much of a distraction. So there's no pictures of the dwarf warriors' fancy manoeuvers as they move away from the orcs. The imperials move their halberdiers staunchly towards the dark elves, while the skirmishers score a hit on the boar riders.

The cold ones have declared their charge (for the following turn) while Ratrak's boys score a kill and the boar riders move rather too close to Morglum's lads for comfort.

The dwarf warriors charge, and their crossbows move relentlessly forward. The imperials prepare as best they can for the cold one charge, helped by the organ gun which finally has line of sight and a functional crew and fires, reducing the cold ones to nearly half strength.

The dwarves roll poorly in combat though (at the risk of sounding like Rimmer, they rolled three 1s), and Morglum's lads are able to halt them.

The boar boys complete their flanking manoeuver (or are they going for the objective behind the dwarven line?). Meanwhile Morglum enters single combat with the White Dwarf (slaying him thanks to his trusty Banebladeclub) and the cold ones chew through the halberdiers and put them to flight. The organ gun crew fail the resulting panic test but the rest of the line holds.

Another lapse in photography while the events on the elven flank got interesting (and bloody). The halberdiers line up against the nicely warmed-up cold ones, passing their fear test but unable to charge home through a new Wind Blast. Their general has left his unit and is in a Lustrian stand-off with the elven commander.

By this point the game had got far too interesting so I'm afraid this is the last picture. The dwarf crossbows had got across to the orcish lines - with Ratrak's Arrers carefully remembering that they were shooters, not fighters. After much line dressing the boar riders eventually charged the dwarves in the flank, with the stunties resolutely fighting down to the last few dwarves. The cold ones again made short work of the (other) Emperor's finest, and as the curtain came down on the battle the imperial general was locked in combat with the elven commander.

When the dust settled we got around to toting up objectives. It turned out the elves had a "reduce all units" objective, which they failed due to the skirmishers still safely in the tavern, while the imperials had an objective of killing the elf general (also not going so well). The dwarf objective was to scout into the enemy deployment zone (hence the march of the crossbows), while mine was to hold the objective in the centre of the board (failed due to... err... lack of focus?). The "bad guys" shared objective was to hold an objective in the enemy's deployment zone, which fortunately the cold ones overran towards the end of the game - there was also one available on the dwarf flank but charging the stunties proved just too tempting... I forget what the "good guys" shared objective was, but something tricky.

We haven't quite worked out how winning works but arguably it was the dwarves (for achieving their sole objective) or everyone but the imperials (for achieving an objective). But with a game this good surely the conclusion is that everyone wins...? And we had a good chat in the bar afterwards.

So chaps - next time?

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.


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.


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.