What Is Middlehammer?

Right! That’s it! I’ve had enough! Everyone sit down, pin back your earholes and listen. I’m laying down the law and anyone who still disagrees after this is wrong.

(You are, of course, entitled by the Great Powers of Subjective Experience, Relativism, Bullheadedness and Free Speech to be wrong, but you’re still wrong.)

Oldhammer: That which predates the coming of the Great Beast called Tom Kirby

Which means the first, second and third editions of Warhammer Fantasy Battles, the first edition of Warhammer Fantasy Role Play, and the legendary Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader.

Everything produced before 1992 is fair game here and I’m grudgingly going to concede that includes Talisman, Heroquest and Space Crusade because they had an air of the anything-goes, not aggressively factionalised and brand protected pre-Kirby vibe about them. Maybe the original Adeptus Titanicus too. Blood Bowl is Oldhammer in spirit even if it’s survived, thrived, and taken on the aspect of each later period: it transcends all else and endures, magnificent, as quite possibly the best thing GW have ever done.

This period is characterised by big hardback rulebooks, a vaguely interwoven background in which it’s just possible the WFB and 40K universes coexist, by terrible puns and pop culture references, by outsider art, and by a random table for literally everything on God’s clean Earth.

People who like Oldhammer can be aggressively puritan and I for one have not forgotten being one of those Kids for whose Pocket Money GW is Ruining the Hobby, back in the day, but I do like their battle reports and their general sense of humour.

Middlehammer: That which hails from the reign of the Great Beast called Tom Kirby

Which means the fourth to eighth editions of Warhammer Fantasy Battle, the second to seventh editions of Warhammer 40,000, the Black Industries edition of Warhammer Fantasy Role Play and Dark Heresy et al from Fantasy Flight. Also all Specialist Games except Blood Bowl. Anything from 1991 to about 2015, especially if it came in a big cardboard box with rulebooks and swarms of near-identical single-pose plastic models in it.

I’m ruling out Hogshead’s WFRP because it’s a republication of the original and quintessentially Oldhammer game, a wrap-up of a legacy product that’s extremely off brand for the Kirby period and would be replaced before the Great Beast gave up his throne.

This period is characterised by big boxed games, and an attempt to get a big boxed game under the bed of every adolescent lad in the country. At first, things are bright and idiotic; later they’re dark and even more idiotic, once GW figures out that teenage boys like edgy shit. Compartmentalised ‘Army Books’ or ‘Codex Books’ deliver the rules for models in convenient faction-sized chunks.

The period subdivides further into three categories:

Herohammer

Second edition 40K, fourth and fifth edition WFB, Warhammer Quest, Space Hulk, Necromunda, Gorkamorka, Mordheim, Space Marine, Titan Legions etc.

Overpowered characters with a plantation’s worth of Wargear cards, cardboard counters, cardboard datasheets for their vehicles, cardboard vehicles in some places, and cardboard buildings. Game balance for competitive play is an emerging concern but they’re not getting it right yet.

Tends to be the most popular among Middlehammerers, especially the ones who drifted away roundabout the time they discovered Women and Beer. (I never found it that hard to have Gaming, Women and Beer in my life, but then I’ve never held down a Real Man’s Job for more than nine months, so that probably explains a few things about me.)

Borehammer

Third, fourth and fifth edition 40K, sixth and seventh edition WFB. Warmaster, Battlefleet Gothic, Epic 40,000. Black Industries’ WFRP.

A backlash against the dominance of overpowered characters and the overproduction of cardboard gaming accessories. Tournament players are hired to write and contribute to rules and the games enter their most streamlined, balanced state to date.

The core experience is admittedly a bit bland compared to the excesses on either side, but more variants are built into that experience than ever. This is the age of worldwide campaigns that work, Cityfight, Combat Patrol, Kill Team, Warhammer Skirmish, the General’s Compendium, and all that stuff. The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game is not Warhammer but has a distinctively Borehammer feel to it and came out at the right time, so in it goes.

Lorehammer

Sixth and seventh edition 40K, eighth edition WFB. Tournament types are out, Forging the Narrative (or having it forced on you by GW, if you’re a WFB player) is in. Balance goes out the window in favour of Herohammer nostalgia. Armies, models, rulebooks and destructive potential are all embiggened and while things look better than ever, the play experience is best described as an exercise in riding the randomisation waves.

Fantasy Flight’s WFRP and Dreadfleet are the quintessential Lorehammer period gaming experience; they look fantastic but basically play themselves and you’re along for the ride. On the plus side, the Horus Heresy starts to take off and get the rivet counter crowd into 40K. On the downside, GW is still locked into Kirby’s suicide pact with Peter Jackson’s dignity and we get saddled with The Hobbit as an ill conceived ‘battle’ game.

Newhammer: that which emerges blinking into the harsh light of dawn as the Great Beast called Tom Kirby cedes control

Warhammer: Age of Sigmar, Warhammer Underworlds, eighth edition Warhammer 40,000 and revived Necromunda and Adeptus Titanicus. I don’t count the PC games here because they’re all self-consciously tied to Middlehammer intellectual properties that might otherwise fall out of copyright. Nor do I include the technically new Warhammer Fantasy Role Play because it’s set in the Old World and is self-consciously modelled on the Black Industries one from 2003. The AOS RPG will be definitively Newhammer though. Fans of Newhammer cannot be blamed. They like something that’s not really to my taste and that’s all there is to be said on the matter.

 

Obviously my tongue is firmly in my cheek throughout all of this and I don’t actually think my pronouncements are world-defining as the Plan of the Old Ones (although I am fat, somnolent, and possessed of a wart, so I have something in common with their chosen people the Slann).

I do genuinely, sincerely think that the rise and fall of Tom Kirby mark a sea change in how GW did business and developed games, and thus serve as useful parentheses around the ‘Middlehammer’ period.

Let me know if I’ve left anything out and I will either steadfastly ignore you or command the Skinks to double-check the ancient tablets and possibly even make… a change… to the ancient scriptures.

Here endeth the lesson.

[V:tM] Readthrough Review: Secrets of the Masquerades’ Guide to Storytelling

Disclaimer: This review was requested by Mme. Secrets after I won a copy of her Guide to Storytelling book in a giveaway she ran. I’m not sure we’ll be friends after she’s read this, but I do actually sort-of-know and like her, even if I disagree profoundly with elements of her approach to vampire fun pretend time.

Preface

Mme. Secrets attempts to draw a (soft, permeable) line between propaganda and education. The backlash, natch, is that any attempt to ‘use RPGs as a tool to educate myself and my fellow players about given specific themes and subjects’ is a form of propaganda, a contamination of the true and politically neutral escapist elfgaming with political nonsense.

Personally I think that’s hot garbage and that nothing is politically neutral, especially not anything mobilising the powerful symbolism of the vampire (and later in the preface, Mme. Secrets agrees). BUT: I think it’s pretty ballsy to open your meisterwerk with “I play RPGs to teach myself and others” – it suggests a kind of always-on pedagogy that I find deeply tiring to engage with, even professionally, let alone in my recreational hours – are we really going to stop and have a debate about castle architecture and class relationships and the Other in the middle of a goddamn game session? BUT: I have to applaud Mme. Secrets for being up front about the kind of gamer she is and where she’s coming from. That’s important. It lets us know where we all stand.

And I can’t argue that we have to understand what our games are saying to our groups, our friends, our communities etc. Do we look like the kind of scuzzchuds from whom we actually want distance, and if we do, how can we prove we’re better than them?

Chapter I – Set up to tell a story

Thank GOD someone else gets right in there and says “this isn’t like writing a novel, a fiction, a script or any other form of authored narrative”. People don’t get this, and they pass around writer’s advice without thinking about form and purpose at all.

Presenting ‘Storyteller’s Benevolence’ (asking your ST about the relevance and consequences of your actions) as a Merit to be bought with points seems a bit weird to me, because… well, for one thing there are mechanics in the core game that specifically rely on this kind of conversation (degeneration in particular) and for another, it’s turning “reasonable and mature discussion about the game and its direction” into a resource to be husbanded rather than a policy decision. It’s a good description of a sensible game style, I’m just not sure why the hell you’d make it a Merit.

Good stuff on defining how your WoD operates. I wouldn’t have said ‘looks like’ – that’s an aesthetic point, and what the section’s actually about is basically how night to night existence works, what the social mores are, how difficult characters’ lives should be. Which is an important conversation to have, and I’d have liked some more on implementing those difficulties into an actual session of play.

The idea that you should treat your RPG group with the same “we’re not friends” mentality that most people fail to implement in their workplace is, to my eye, unworkable. The idea that you “make sure everyone is ignorant of each others’ views in all subjects” and somehow have The Conversation about problematic stuff up front likewise.

Mme. Secrets, I have considered your “chaotic neutral approach: depict and show everything as terrible… everything is corrupted, all is shit, and there is no hope“, and I reject it. It’s not a world in which I want to spend my time, it comes from a failure to appreciate the conventional mores to which the Gothic returns and the opposition to systemic awfulness at the heart of the Punk, and it’s ultimately banal and vacuous, lacking a moral centre that makes any of it mean anything. I prefer to spend my recreational time in a world where people try to do the right thing and sometimes succeed – in small ways, and always at a cost.

No objection to the X card. I’ve been using a ‘time out’ hand signal since 2002, before we even had these ridiculous conversations about whether or not people should be able to tap out of fantasy situations they don’t want to handle. It’s never stopped my groups having a good time or made me feel like my almighty vision is being compromised in some way.

Chapter II – Campaign Preparations

Solid up-front caution against having a linear plot that you’ve planned. I think it’s fine to have an ending in mind – Constantinople was always going to be reclaimed, the Latin Empire was always going to fall – provided you don’t overmap the details on how you get there, but that’s a particular problem of historical games, I think.

Once again; thank GOD someone else gets it. Find your themes, find your players, then pick the city – or pick the players to suit the city and the themes. I like the point about different contexts – “a strike in 1968 Paris does not carry the same ambience, connotations, meanings and weight as a strike in 1940s Chicago” – and the scathing handwave away of ‘the canon material published by White Wolf’ in favour of doing the goddamn research? Nice.

The caution against fancy Bloodlines, Paths and Disciplines is solid – the best games leverage the core stereotypes of the game in interesting ways instead of relying on your visiting Archon who has ties to the True Black Hand. The suggestion to lean into mortals, ghouls and Backgrounds is spot on (and it’s something I’ve fucked up in previous stories, to be quite fair). Creating coteries and agendas to tie your SPCs together is best practice, as is creating a volatile environment that the players can change (it’s one thing to have them start off feeling oppressed by the weight of millennia, quite another to have them do, say, achieve and obtain nothing for session after session because everything’s locked down).

I do think Mme. Secrets is making work for herself and us here, though. Five months doing pre-research that spans over a thousand years and amounts to an MRes dissertation’s worth of labour, rewriting a short novel’s worth of plot from the perspective of each major SPC, all for a game endeavour which might fall apart in a week if the players don’t click or the schedules collapse? Bite me. The basic principle – do the diligence or stay in your lane – is one I salute, but it seems detached from the realities in which the game session exists.

I reject entirely the “do not create a tutor character” approach. Some of my best games have revolved around broods with a shared sire – an SPC who can hold the fledglings’ hands and give new players an opportunity to learn and discover and be mentored within the game. But I do make a point of having those characters die a few sessions in. If I’ve done my job right a PC will be the one to kill them.

The section about preludes and sires is bangin’ good stuff, including the give and take aspect of building a sire (the player’s agency has to form the reason for the Embrace, but the sire is not the player’s character or even necessarily their friend. There’s a good long list of reasons why one vampire might Embrace another and then we’re on to a new chapter.

Chapter III – Pace and Continuity

This is meaty stuff, and clearly articulates the practical differences between short chronicles with a planned length and the default week-in-week-out that V:tM’s core books always seem to assume. The advice to lead with plot hooks and ensure PCs have something in common should frankly be adhered to in every game, and – ah, right, here Mme. Secrets admits that you don’t need to do five months’ work for a game that might last two. That’s reasonable. And she’s properly teeing up her examples in this chapter too, and explaining exactly how much work needs to be done around the ‘tentpoles’ of the shorter game. I certainly like the strict “no prequels, no sequels, no bigger giants, encourage players to think of these characters as Done When This Story Is Done” approach.

It may well be that I’m simply used to thinking in terms of chronicles that have to be over in two months before people lose interest or go back to Big School or whatever, and so I naturally design in this way anyway, but this chapter is basically vindicating the way I do things. There’s one oddity around style that I want to call out, though:

If you don’t describe there’s something that can be searched, they won’t know there’s something to search

Well, that’s certainly one way of doing it, but I’ve found players tend to ask “is there this? is there that?” unless they’ve been fattened and made sluggish on the old-school “this room is twenty metres long and a hundred metres wide and contains the following” mechanisms of the dungeon delving brigade. It’s something else you have to brief people on up front – how much detail will you give them and how much are they expected to ask for?

There follows a long section on Humanity rolls. I think everyone who has run V:tM for a while has their take on Humanity and how often you should roll for it and what kind of world the World of Darkness is and so on. I will not deny that degeneration is a major theme of the game, if not the major theme, and I will endorse that automatic humanity loss is often the right call. However, Mme. Secrets is often vague about who’s rolling and who’s losing – if they try to justify their actions then you don’t need to roll – and this whole section would benefit from exquisite care that builds up from the mechanics rather than down from Mme. Secret’s perspective. By and large, I agree with her conclusions: to succeed in the Conscience roll is to fail at protective rationalisation and realise you’ve done wrong and must make amends and live with it. I don’t think that’s a particularly well designed mechanic – “succeed to fail and roll to see how you have to pretend you feel” – and I’d prefer a practical guide to dealing with that inside-out design at table. But I guess that’s when I break out the template and write Uncle Gio’s Guide to Degeneration…

The mission-to-sandbox pathway is exactly how a longer term chronicle should develop, and how the gears can change between short and long term if you’re just trying things out and decide to keep going, as is the idea about asymmetrical information. I wish Mme. Secrets had deconstructed her lengthy example some more – clearly differentiating what happens in the example from the thought process about why it happens – but I get the gist. Character relationships as further layers of information – that’s all good. I’m amused that an author who was warning us about local context in the Preface is now making sweeping generalisations about people over the age of twenty-five or seventy, by the way: the point is sound, but Mme. fails to take her own advice and applies the French context on a universal scale.

The final piece of advice here is the one thing I want everyone to wrap their head around. Use the players’ sheets. Mme. Secrets uses this as a way to manage character knowledge – “you have enough dots to know this or that”, “you don’t have the dots to use this or that”. I would go further, talking about how PCs’ Backgrounds are the currency of the dynamic and engaging chronicle and how you, the mighty Storyteller, should ground yourself in them at every turn. I might even suggest a corollary to the effect that actually, I do expect players to match their own traits to what’s on the sheet in certain circumstances. There are people out there who I can’t buy as playing a character with one dot in Intelligence, same as there are people out there who I’ll insist take the Encyclopaedic Knowledge Merit because I don’t expect them to pretend they haven’t been playing this game for twenty goddamn years and are past the stage where their performance of ignorance does anything other than slow down the game experience. It’s a good section – I’d have liked a page count closer to Humanity or the Embrace on this one, because I do think interacting with your PCs’ sheets is that important.

Chapter IV – A Practical Game

“Mme. Secrets, are you dunking on yourself in the pretentious quote box for this chapter?”
– 
A presumptuous British oaf

It seems odd to tuck the “no, let’s go back to ‘what is an RPG’ for a minute” section in at the very end. I might have led with this. Anyway, there’s some good stuff in here about how the game mustn’t feel like a job for players (only for the ST, right?). I’d have liked a bit more on the practical use of the Storyteller Screen (there’s a worthwhile debate over what these are for and what they say about the kind of game we’re running) and the thesaurus (I’m sorry if this sounds patronising, but some people do not understand how synonyms work and think it’s as simple as slotting one word out and another into its place).

The section on music is about the right length for such a debatable point (although I question Mme’s taste in recommendations – personally, I would never use anything from a major film, TV or game property, because I don’t want people going off about Tempest Keep while I’m trying to put them in downtown St. Petersburg).

Mme. Secrets’ system for knocking together SPC die pools in a hurry is good – a nice balance between template and bespoke approaches. It needs grounding in the “two dots is average, three dots is trained, four dots is professional” paradigm, which people don’t always remember from the core book, but its a useful abstract way of putting together pools for characters from particular backgrounds and with particular personal drives. Wins the “most likely to see actual use at my table” award.

Sadly, the following section for Disciplines falls flat on its ass. It’s really, really obvious which Disciplines Mme. is not interested in and which aren’t usually germane to her own table, and the advanced powers (while interesting) really should be provided with a proper system writeup (you did it for a janky “mechanising the ST’s playstyle” Merit, but not these?). They’re good ways to think about the implementation of Disciplines, but they’re not so much powers as moods.

As for the offhanded “summarise the unique Disciplines in a sentence”, follow-up, I wouldn’t have bothered, Mme. This adds no value. Instead of discussing themes, applications, capabilities they afford the SPC, or telling the putative ST anything they can’t get from the core book, it wastes space on a list for pure completionism’s sake. You said you wouldn’t include them – and then you paid them the lippiest of lip service. Shallow and pointless and leaves the chapter as a whole feeling like you ran out of steam.

Points for being a Tremere player who recognises that the Path of Blood is all you need, though.

Appendix

I like both the “about the author” bit and the justification for it – one does have to explain where one’s coming from and what circumstances and contexts have formed the book.

I would never label Mme. Secrets as a critic-troll-whiny-ass. I might label her as a committed sociologist who occasionally fails to practice what she preaches, and as insufficiently interested in game mechanics to really offer the definitive guide to running a game, or crystallise her insights to the point where they’re concrete and applicable.

The recommendations list is good but leans in the wrong direction. Having built herself up as a working academic, Mme. Secrets stops short of providing accessible recommendations for academic readings that would contextualise and extend her perspective – instead, she goes on about anime and Yann Tiersen (who is, admittedly, quite good: I’m listening to the Black Session as I write this). It’s a perfectly adequate list but it could have been so much more.

Assorted petty gripes about the text as a whole

Proofreading’s wonky. There are dozens of odd Restaurant Capitalisations, pluralisations and so on. (Mme., I’ll pro-proofread the next one at mates’ rates if you’re still speaking to me after this hatchet job.)

I get that two columns with strict justification are White Wolf house style but the barrage of hyphenated words will never sit easily with me. This isn’t Mme. Secrets’ fault so much as the Storyteller’s Vault at large’s, though.

Some of the hyperlinks are broken and frankly, if you’re going to discuss cutting Acts 1 and 5 of a tragedy within your text, your text needs to actually present the five act structure within its own body, not rely on a Wiki link. (If nothing else, you know how it is with Wikipedia: don’t send your readers down the hole!)

The slightly embiggened and italicised sections where Mme. Secrets discusses examples of how this stuff works in play are a decent touch, but they’re not properly offset from the rest of the text and we’re not always primed to expect them, so it takes a while to work out what these strange blocks of differently formatted text are for. She gets better about this later on but it’s a bit weird at first.

The Bottom Line

This is an odd book. Elements of it are very good and practical. Others are gatekeepery, suggesting that if you’re not capable of doing postgraduate level research on your setting you need to sit on your hands.

At the end of the day it’s exactly what it says on the tin: Secrets of the Masquerade presents a guide to running games like she does. Self-limiting and sometimes disagreeable, but a fat sight more interesting than most of the Storyteller’s Vault because it’s focused on praxis instead of shovelling out More Content like that’s all we need.

I endorse half of it, disagree with two fifths of it, and wish she’d cut some in favour of more depth for what she actually gives a toss about. Split down the middle, err in the author’s favour for trying to do something different and worthwhile. 3 angst dice out of 5.

[WFB] Mantic Empire Of Dust Actual Build Review

My previous contact with Mantic miniatures has been limited and sweary. After putting together a bunch of their early Ghouls (which, honestly, I wasn’t really enthusiastic about to begin with) and having a miserable time of it, I wrote them off as pound shop Citadel and sacked off a whole edition of WFB rather than have to deal with them again.

Having put together an Empire of Dust army box, two sets of Enslaved Guardians, and the Revenant Champion (in “waving a flag about” configuration), I have… not exactly and completely made my peace with Mantic, but I’ve found them no worse than others in a lot of ways.

I’ll work my way through the contents in order of assembly and have a good gripe about the bits that weren’t good. I’m a French-dictation kind of reviewer: everything starts off a 5/5 and for everything that pisses me off I deduct a point.

Skeleton Archers: These were quite fun to do once I’d worked out that specific plastic legs off the sprue needed to go with specific metal bodies (some have a locating lug for the upper body and a slightly chunker back than the skinny ones that slot right into the upper body, no lug required). While I was slightly worried about some of the lunging sideways shooting legs they look neat now they’re done. 4/5.

Skeleton Warriors: Oh no, metal accessories on plastic bodies! These always used to annoy me back in the day and I had to take a little salt break after putting the standard bearer together (still not sure he’s gonna stand up on his own, and I’m starting to think I should have used a metal body).

It took me a while to realise I was slightly short of heads (only eighteen, which means picking some fun options from the plastic sprue) and, as with the Archers, some of the bodies are fussy about which legs they fit onto. These felt like rougher casts too, as I had to shave off some metal and plastic to get them to go together; perhaps putting all the Skeleton legs on bases and then testing all the bodies for fit in turn might have been a better way to go about this, or perhaps Mantic could have stretched a point and put in some instructions?

I do like that their hands are open, and allow for the choice of spear or sword, and I also like the plethora of spears and swords on the sprue, which suits me a lot more than the grab-bag of assorted ‘hand weapons’ GW’s original Skeleton Warriors ended up with. I like my Grave Monarchs to look a bit more orderly and have matching weapons, that’s all. I’m slightly less keen on the historical-style open hands into which the swords have to slot. The plastic ones were OK, but some of the metal ones were a bit tight or crooked, and the arms are so spindly that trying to bend the fingers open exerts too much pressure on the lower arm. I cheated on a few of them and chopped the hilts off the swords, aligning them with the top of the hands. I’ll go back and fill those gaps later on, or eventually. 3/5.

Balefire Catapult: This is where the lack of instructions made me gnash my teeth a couple of times. It wasn’t hard to work out how it should fit together, based on the box image, but the angle of photography on the box images isn’t very clear as an assembly guide. Also, some of the parts on the plastic sprue are a bit… nondescript, and I was very glad that one of my crew could just have a metal body stuck on his legs and call it a day. Also, for a small model it doesn’t half have a lot of bits that overhang bases; I’ve bunged it on a Mantic unit filler that’s about 40mm by 60mm and it’s still poking off in a couple of places. At least they did ship it with a base though, and it was infinitely easier to assemble than the original metal Skull Chucker (at least all the pieces had lugs and sockets), so it’s not too bad. 4/5. 

Pharoah: He was fine. Took me a minute to sit his arms naturally but I’m used to that. My only complaint was not having a proper solid base for him – I fixed it by gluing a flat one from my stash over the socket, but I could easily have filled it with some jank off the Skeleton sprue instead. 4/5.

Cursed High Priest: Take a good look at that whisper-thin white metal staff which has no points of contact with the rest of the miniature and ask yourself how long that’ll last in a figure case. Also, the head doesn’t fit at all snugly on the body; I’m still not sure if it’s cast properly or if I should have cut something off or what. 3/5.

Revenant Champion: It’s 2018. I thought we, as a hobby, were past bullshit like this spindly little shite with his separate arms, hands on flagpole and body. That’s four points of contact, on a metal model so requiring superglue, and all of them have to be aligned perfectly for the pose to look right. One of the worst cases of Privateer Elbow I’ve ever seen, managing to come off with it in both arms. Some liquid green stuff in the one joint I couldn’t quite be arsed with and he’ll look fine, but I’m not happy about this one. I get that they wanted to make a multi part kit but I’d have thrown that idea out and gone for a nice solid two piece job – body and banner. 2/5. 

Enslaved Soldiers: Small gripe: I know Mantic probably uses generic packaging for all its regiments, and the boxes have to be big enough to fit plastic sprues, but every time someone ships me a huge cardboard box full of inflatable fillers and a tiny bag of metal bits at the bottom, I roll my eyes.

Wooden bases? OK, I can live with that, although it does low-key annoy me that not everyone’s at the same basic height. They have tiny feet which don’t sit flush with the sheer, toothless surface of the base, so I had to assemble them upside down and let gravity do a lot of the work for me.

They also have a mild case of Privateer Elbow, but at least it’s only one arm that has to line up with a hand and a shoulder, and at least the shoulders are nice chunky ball and socket jobs with some flexibility to them. Once again, I think I’ve been spoiled by GW plastic sprues where there’d be clearly labelled pairs of limbs that went together; I had to do a bit too much guessing and squinting at lugs, and coupled with their unstable relationship with bases, Teddy ended up leaving the pram a couple of times.

They look weirdly small on their bases – I think because they’re compact and sit fully within the 40mm rather than being all lanky and overhangy like the GW Ushabti. It’s a better design, but it looks slightly off and I’ll have to busy up those bases with something later on. 2/5 for assembly but 4/5 when they’re done, because they do look boss.

Overall: A resoundingly average hobby experience. I want to mess around with these kits some more and see if I can’t kitbash some Skeleton Horsemen, but it’ll depend on what the joints are like on Mantic cavalry kits (whether they have the same peg and lug arrangement as the infantry, and whether or not the heads are separate). I’d really like it if I could order more Guardian bodies and put the spare arms to use.

I’m not sure how well they’ll fare when they’re put in a case – there’s a lot of brittle joins in here – but at least an effort’s been made to keep poses within their base area for the most part, and they annoyed me much less than the Ghouls did, so either Mantic have improved their casting/cutting or I’ve mellowed over the last six years. Either way. 3/5.

 

[WFB] An Ancient Scroll Has Been Unearthed…

With the B.I.G. Bash out of the way, my next target is the imaginatively named Bringing Back Sixth Edition in Upminster: a 1500 point event for the King of Editions, the Edition of Kings!

(I’m mentally referring to the event as ‘Bringing Sixthy Back’. Let’s see if that catches on…)

I’d originally planned to roll up with the original Sylvanian Nightmare (Black Knights with the Drakenhof Banner, three Vampire Thralls with Summon Wolves, two Black Coaches, two single base Bat Swarms, chaff to fill and all the Skeleton Crossbowmen I can raise), but two things put me off. One: I don’t have enough Wolves or Crossbowmen any more. Two: I’d quite like to have some friends at the end of the event.

If I’m going to be buying a bunch of new models anyway, why not pick something a bit less… fun-hostile… and a lot more affordable? (I like Iron Wind’s Skeleton Crossbowmen and $30 for 12 isn’t bad money, but in the quantities I’ll be needing them…)

And the thing is, I’ve always wanted a Tomb Kings army. I just never quite got around to it back in the day. But B.I.G. had a Mantic ‘Totally Not Tomb Kings’ box deal and I like to pay where I play and circumstances dictated and here we are.

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Here’s some rationale and rhyme and reason.

The Crook and Flail on the Prince are a bargain. Always Strikes First and extra attacks? Give it ‘ere. He doesn’t get defensive kit because at T5 and W3 he’s already one of the beefiest Heroes around, and anything which can put the hurt on him will probably not blink at a paltry 6+ armour save.

The Staff of Ravening is a bit of a choice. I’m sticking to my guns here and leaning into more aggressive spellcasting rather than Dispel Scrolls and bunkering up: it may turn out not to be a great decision and I may resort to the traditional and boring Golden Ankhra if my Liche proves too hard to protect. As it is he’s going to chill near but not in the Tomb Guard and try to stay out of trouble.

The Skeleton Archers are what they are: they fill Core slots, give a presence in the shooting phase, and don’t give up too many Victory Points if sent to their death. I am very much looking forward to actually doing something in the shooting phase, by the way, thanks for asking.

Ushabti may not be the best choice around but I don’t care. I’ve always wanted some, Mantic’s substitute models are nice enough, and they fulfil the role that the classic line of six heavy cavalry does in most 6e armies – corralling the opponent, threatening double charges, and guiding the battle to where I want it. Because I’m going Construct-heavy I also want a Battle Standard Bearer and because the Icon Bearer profile is comparatively squishy I’ll forgo magic banners and give him an extra wound and an actual saving throw that’s worth a whole fart in a tin cup.

The Tomb Guard are there to protect my characters, by offering a Look Out Sir and a 5+ Ward from their standard, and to deny some Victory Points. VP denial armies were very common down our way in 6e: between a third and a half of the army’s total value would be concentrated in one unit which was quite hard to kill and if the enemy wanted to win big they’d have to concentrate on wiping that out, meaning that the rest of your forces had free reign. Or they could deal with the other stuff but know that a Major Victory was out of reach because they hadn’t touched the big box o’ points at the army’s heart.

Tomb Guard are pretty good for this, and certainly the best melee infantry the Kings have to offer. Toughness 4, reasonable saves (not as good as Grave Guard but they do have the Ward banner), and crucially, they come back. Being able to spring d6 models back into this unit at the drop of an Invocation could be massive, and it puts them just ahead of their Old World cousins in my estimation.

Finally, there’s the Screaming Skull Catapult. It’s a cheap Rare choice and honestly, one of these might not be the best pick I could make. I’m sure a Bone Giant would be more aggressive, or a Casket of Souls better at keeping my Liche alive. But the Skull Chucker, as I continue to know it, is dirt cheap, and it’s more of that novel ‘shooting’ stuff to play with, and… I’ve just realised it doesn’t have the Skulls of the Foe upgrade, so I might drop a couple of Tomb Guard to make room for that.

I have most of this stuff in hand now – merely need to decide if it’s worth chasing another Mantic box deal to expand the army or whether picking up the individual units will please me more. I’ve already had recommendations for Bone Giants (there’s a nice pair of sculpts from Reaper that should do the trick) and part of me’s getting thirsty for an eighth edition build-up.

Of course, Necrosphinxes and the like currently go for mad money on Fleabay, so I might have to resort to… desperate measures.

Bit excessive, maybe?

[WFB] Fantasy Fifth B.I.G. Bash

“Hello, my friends! Yes, yes, hello!

“I see from your frowns that you do not recognise me – truth be told I would not recognise myself, tied upside down to a tree in this gloomy wilderness so far from my humble home. Yet I assure you, it is I – honest Akbar! Yes, yes, that Akbar! Honest Akbar of Honest Akbar’s Discount Machineries and Magics! You have heard of me perhaps? You have heard my claim of over one thousand generals satisfied with the performance of Akbar produce?

“No doubt you are wondering how your old friend and comrade Akbar ended up in this mess, mm? Do not worry. I remember it all. Well, bits of it. The violent bits.

“It all started the day I sold the Wand of Jet. I knew the customer was not to be trusted. The foul texture of his skin – the crack and grumble of his bones – that wild, unkempt beard – I knew him for a student of the dark arts the moment I laid eyes on him. But his gold was good, you see, and Akbar, Honest Akbar… he does not discriminate.

“Yes, yes. Perhaps I should explain.

“As I say, it started the day I sold the Wand of Jet…”

Continue reading “[WFB] Fantasy Fifth B.I.G. Bash”

[Off Topic] Feels Like A Hundred Years

I’ve been at this for a while now. My first gaming blog launched in 2009, which was apparently peak time for new blogs to start – before the glut of everyone and their dog doing it brought on a state of content shock. The volume of free content positively exploded over the next five years, leaving us all feeling glutted, sated, bloated and positively flatulent with free stuff to read and argue about.

By 2014 I was also extremely depressed and, consequently, started churning money through the hobby, buying things to cheer myself up and selling them off again every time I needed to move house, which was too damn often. This rootlessness is a hallmark of my generation (for my sins, I’m just about young enough to qualify as one of those millennials who are killing all the industries everywhere) and, as a consequence, it means I don’t really have the usual Middlehammer experience.

You know the one I mean. “Oh, I played that a lot when I was at school, then I went to uni/got a girlfriend/sorted my life out, but when I bought a house my mum went through the attic and sent my old stuff over…”

Not round ‘ere, mate. Anything that’s not been played with in a couple of years is a calcified asset, money waiting to be freed up; any project that’s ceased to move and live and satisfy will go the same way before long. It’s the only way I could free up space and funding for the next thing and, often, the only way the rent would be paid next month.

I haven’t been able to keep stuff, ever, and to be honest, the wheeling and dealing and bargain hunting was always part of the fun for me. (Obviously, in this day and age it’s all eBay scalpers and mass-produced skeletons going for £25 a pop or take your business elsewhere, a seller’s market if ever there was one – but that’s another story.)

But I was lucky enough to get one of my Middlehammer armies back, and even luckier to stumble into a nice bunch of lads who are still playing proper Warhammer on square bases like we did when I was a wee ‘un. And truth be told, it’s been a lot more fun than all the years of slogging through the fashionable what’s-meta-this-year of competitive Warmachine and the can-I-really-be-arsed-learning-a-whole-new-game of 40K’s edition cycle and the rise of Age of Sigmar.

Whenever I stop and think about this sort of thing I become terribly maudlin, and maudlin’s not a good frame of mind for me. Last time it went out of control and I deleted my entire web presence – all the social media, the blog and its archives, everything went in one night.

Let it burn is what I say. I don’t want to drag everything I said or did over the last nine years behind me like a forty thousand word dingleberry. My most popular post by far was me getting my knackers in a knot over Heinrich Kemmler’s name, which is so utterly trivial now that the gaming kultur war has boiled over into something that distorts lives, careers, the fates of nations…

But I can’t let it all go. I still play, and even more occasionally paint, and sometimes it’s fun to talk about what I’ve been up to. So here we all are, in the looming shadow of Nagashizzar where all fates come to dust. Nine years down the line from registering the original GAME OVER, with a lot of mistakes made and lessons learned along the way. One hundred posts (well, ninety-nine) survived the cull.

Glad to have you back.

Shall we, then?

[Actual Play Review] A Study In Emerald; Gormenghast; Dark Deeds

It was tempting to put these out under the ‘Exegesis of Terrible Fiction’ heading. Two out of three of the games we played last weekend in London (either at Erin and Katy’s, or at the inexplicable but pleasing Ludoquist in Croydon) have a bit of a pedigree, y’see…

A Study in Emerald (Treefrog Games)

Based on the award-winning (and cynically award-grubbing) Cthulhu Mythos / Sherlock Holmes crossover fic by Neil Gaiman, A Study In Emerald is another of those literary games by Martin Wallace, aka The Bloke What Did Discworld: Ankh-Morpork – which I’ve also played, and liked despite not being good at it. Unlike Discworld, this one is a deck builder, with area control being a more abstract ‘influence’ mechanic that determines where on the board you can pull your cards from. Like Discworld, I like it despite not being good at it. (It’s a deck builder, so of course I tunnelled in on deck manipulation mechanics instead of actually paying attention to the scores and the dynamics of play.)

Essentially, there are two teams of players – Loyalists, who serve the Great Old Ones that rule over Europe and beyond, and Restorationists, of whom Sherlock Holmes is one, who want the Great Old Ones banished whence they came. However, you don’t actually know who’s a Loyalist and who’s a Restorationist until the game ends, which means it’s one of those “look at what people are doing and try to guess their agenda and hope you’re not screwing with someone who’s actually on your side” jobbies.

Players assign Influence to places and also dispatch Agents, who can be used to assassinate other players’ agents and attempt to blow up the local Great Old One in spectacular self-sacrificing Dynamiter Knight style. Surprisingly few Great Old Ones were blown up on our watch and I think it’s because the game ended rather earlier than we’d expected. There are multiple game over conditions, and it seems pretty easy to trigger one before a satisfying ‘endgame’ state has actually been reached.

For all that I don’t like the short story much, it feels like a safer bet for ‘gamifying’ than the actual Lovecraft, which (as I’m hopefully going to go on about in print before too long) are generally fictions of defeat, where the ‘right’ outcome for the story is a ‘loss’ in game terms. The more dynamic faction vs. faction premise of ‘A Study in Emerald’ makes for something competitive and objective-driven – if the Restorationists drive off the Great Old Ones, they win, and if they don’t, the Loyalists win, and that setup creates a nice bit of ludonarrative harmony rather than the “noodle around and try to avoid becoming a Lovecraft protagonist” affairs I’ve seen elsewhere.

I don’t remember enough to say that this was good or bad. I think I’d rather play Rising Sun, if I wanted to take over the world with giant monsters – the openness of the team allegiance in that game is more pleasing to me – but if we had an odd number of players this would do. And it’s better than Chaos in the Old World, but then so’s colonic irrigation.

Gormenghast: the Board Game (Sophisticated Games)

You might think that a procedurally generated competitive fetch quest game set in the crabb’d, ill-lit and most damnably long corridors of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast is right up my particular alley, and you would be spot the fuck on there, mate.

Like the previous title in the pile, Gormenghast: the Board Game involves influence and control – specifically, influencing characters from the novel to go a-wandering around the castle, accumulating items and delivering them to specific locations to fulfil Plot Cards. Get the right person to the right place and it’s worth one victory point; have the right object in the room with them, by fair means or foul, and it’s worth three.

Influencing and moving characters is governed by Action Cards, and those Action Cards will have a “place this much influence” and/or “move a character you control this many rooms” and a “do something else” effect on them.

To complicate matters further, there’s Ritual. Of course there is. Some cards cause a Ritual to trigger; fulfilling a Plot Card always does. When that happens, you roll a d30 (a d30! I haven’t seen those outside Dungeon Crawl Classics!) and consult the Book of Ritual, at which point something weird happens. A room is blocked. A new room is discovered immediately. Everyone draws or loses cards. Some form of embuggerance occurs.

Gormenghast is not, apparently, very popular among serious board gamers, which just goes to show that serious board gamers don’t have the sense of fun the good Lord gave them. Anyone who likes Brass more than they like this needs their soul examined, assuming it can even be found.

Even ruling out my obvious biases, though, this game is heavy enough to demand a mental effort, but light enough that I can play it without fatigue, and I appreciate that.

It’s not perfect – the choices of quotations from the book are often eccentric, both quotations and rules needed a staunch proofread.

The mechanics are prone to both sudden death (“aww, I was about to…” came up in both our trial runs) and control wankery (“so I play this, interrupting that, move him here, then pick that up, fulfil a plot card, roll a ritual which I ignore by playing this, then play this to draw three more, then move him back over there,” and five minutes later when I’m done playing with myself I’m up four Victory Points but everyone else has lost interest.)

Also, the game is very dependent on flavour to make the simple mechanics really enjoyable. First time around we read from the Book of Ritual and did the voices and took the piss out of the characters and it was great. Second time around we were just describing the mechanics as they came up, and the experience was a lot flatter. I’ve noticed this with a lot of literary-adaptation games – if they’re treated as games first and foremost, by people who don’t roleplay or at least chat shit while they’re playing, they tend to become slightly tedious.

So. Gormenghast. Better than it has any right to be, better than its reputation suggests, but absolutely not one that you can play with mechanics-first people who aren’t going to have a Groan at its expense – and that might be where its reputation comes from.

Dark Deeds (Games and Gears)

Andy Chambers co-wrote it, Mark Gibbons illustrated it, and since I grew up on mid-Nineties Warhammer, Dark Deeds already has an easy way to my heart.

It helps that Dark Deeds is actually pretty good. Players are minions of some dark and sinister power that’s trying to take over a vaguely Mitteleuropean Renaissance city in a grim world of perilous adventure. (Sound familiar?) Meeting in the dank corners of the taverns, their dark master has bestowed various and somewhat counter-intuitive instructions on them, and they have to go out into the streets and sneak past (or fight) guards, pick the pockets of ordinary civilians who they’ve heard might be carrying good loot, and assassinate various prominent members of the citizenry.

All of this is executed through a deck of Street cards, which designate who’s out and about tonight, and a deck of Tavern cards, which set the resources and rumours available concerning them. Combat and stealth are both d12 rolls, modified by the loot a player has accumulated, with the key targets – Nemeses – obviously being harder to scrobble, requiring nines or tens or twelves. Successful minion activity accumulates both Victory Points and Suspicion Points, the latter evaporating when the Most Suspicious Minion (the bearer of that large silver coin, which attaches to the largest stack of Suspicion Points on the table) is invariably detained.

Now, it may just be that I seem to be good at Dark Deeds, or that it’s refreshingly uncomplicated, but I like it. It works smoothly, barring a couple of “wait, what are my options here?” moments that anyone who’s played a Chambers-designed game will recognise. It’s not a game you’d get together specifically to play. It’s a brilliant warm up or cool down game for a longer session, I’d imagine, and it’s a jolly little time filler for a couple of dead hours on a too-damn-hot-to-think Sunday evening. I also really like the way the wooden and metal tokens and the little burlap sack feel in the hand, for what that’s worth.

However, it does… play itself, to an extent. As citizens, guards and priority targets move along the Street, what happens to them is governed by the Suspicion points – sure, you can do things to raise or lower Suspicion, or transfer it to other players, but that’s very much governed by what cards you have in hand and what objectives are in play. Especially with two players, Dark Deeds seems to generate foregone conclusions, especially if one player’s had a good run of objectives and hasn’t ended up with a pile of Nemeses sat in front of them, no weaponry worth a damn, and nothing to do but roll a d12 every turn and hopefully get high numbers.

It’s fun, but in the way a one-armed bandit or roulette is fun – put your money down, take your chances, and let the dice fall where they may. Deep it ain’t, but deep ain’t always what I’m looking for.