Ten years ago this month, I started teaching my arch-rival and nemesis and bestest friend ever Lawrence how to play Warmachine. I also started a blog, because I’d come home at the drop of a hat to start my teacher training and left the Warmachine scene of Greater Manchester behind and frankly, I was feeling a bit lonely. It’s been a long ten years and it hasn’t always been much fun, and a lot of things have had to be left behind in the meantime.
But not everything.
Lawrence and I go way, way back. We’ve known each other for well over twenty years. And in that time, Lawrence’s long-suffering, long-serving Skaven – the first opponents for my putative Army of Sylvania fifteen years ago last Christmas – have never managed to beat my Vampire Counts.
I won’t say that playing Lawrence again was the only reason I went down to the Exeter Games Gathering, but it was certainly up there. It’s only an hour’s train ride for him, so he had no excuse. By the time he arrived I was struggling to formulate a coherent thought and so we opted for a nice straightforward Pitched Battle, bo-ring as it might be.
I was testing out my new “three casters? take Death!” approach and, at the last moment, dropped both my Bound Spells in favour of a single base Spirit Host because I felt myself wanting for chaff. The resultant army looked like this:
Countess Carmilla: level 2 wizard, Death magic (Death Dealer, Wind of Death), Sword of Striking, Ring of the Night, Black Periapt, Aura of Dark Majesty
Rosenkratz: level 2 wizard, Necromancy (Invocation of Nehek, Hand of Dust)
Guildenstern: level 2 wizard, Necromancy (Invocation of Nehek, Gaze of Nagash)
Whispering Nell: Wraith with Cursed Book
30 Skeletons: light armour, spears, full command
20 Zombies: standard and musician
Spirit Host (1 base)
8 Black Knights: barding, full command
8 Black Knights: barding, full command
Lawrence, it turned out, was also testing out a new approach, which he’d never had the balls to attempt back in the day:
Grey Seer Makkiavelli: level 4 wizard (Skitterleap, Pestilent Breath, Vermintide, Plague): Death Globes, whatever the Skaven equivalent of the Wristbands of Black Gold are called
Fooko: Warlock Engineer with all the trimmings plus Storm Daemon and Dispel Scroll
Derridaa: Warlock Engineer with all the trimmings plus Warpscroll
Kirkegaad: Chieftain with shield, heavy armour, Bands of Power and Sword of Battle
30 Clanrats: full command, Warpfire Thrower team
30 Clanrats: full command, Ratling Gun team
4 Giant Rat packs
5 Rat Swarm bases
10 Night Runners: slings, additional hand weapons
28 Plague Monks: additional hand weapons, full command
Warp Lightning Cannon
6 Plague Censer Bearers
This is, as you’ll appreciate, quite a toothy Skaven army. I remember Lawrence’s Skaven not being this tuned. It’s my own fault, I know perfectly well that plastic Plague Monks have happened since the day, I was there when he built the cannon, and Skaven have ALWAYS had the option of four Warp Lightnings in a turn. It’s just… a lot of that slipped my mind, lulled out of consciousness by Lawrence’s relentless whinging about how rubbish his Skaven are. And back in the day, I was being carried along by a bullshit Storm of Chaos list which could put Magic Resistance on everything worth zapping and yeet three units of Dire Wolves into the back of his army on turn two. This sort of thing annoyed and/or worried Lawrence and left me able to coast over the top of the Skaven blocks quite effectively once the Rat Swarm was out of the way.
That’s why I felt confident enough to set up like this.
The plan was to set up a picket line with the Huntsmen, fleeing when Lawrence’s troops started to close, and pull a unit of Knights over to that side as well, with the remaining units jammed up his grill to occupy the Plague Monks and Rats. And that worked fine.
But that was the entire extent of the plan. The rest of my game boiled down to “try and win a magic-missile-off with the army which has the best magic missile in the game and can cast it three times, two with better-than-average odds of Irresistible Force, every turn, and also outshoots me by a country mile.”
And the other thing I hadn’t expected was that Lawrence would Skitterleap his Grey Seer into the back of my army and proceed to chain cast Vermintide and Pestilent Breath into the back of my Skeleton unit two turns on the trot. This after he wiped half of them out with an Irresistible Plague on the very first turn.
Frankly, it was courteous of him to blow up his own Warpfire Thrower, kill a rank of Clanrats with an overenthusiastic Vermintide, fall short with all but one of his Warp Lightning Cannon shots, and have Makkiavelli drop his Death Globes on his own feet twice. That, plus panicking his Night Runners off the table and making the one good move at the start, at least kept me in the game until the fourth round. At that point, once my Knights had been shot to shit trying to get into a decent position, I opted to call it a day.
Maybe if I’d had a bigger Spirit Host, and a Book of Arkhan somewhere to guarantee me a Vanhel’s Danse to cast… maybe if I’d not decided to play a defensive game against an army that had no reason to close the distance when it could slaughter me from 18-24″ away… maybe if I’d had a better night’s sleep beforehand… maybe if I’d treated my oldest friend with something more than contempt and actually planned to give him a proper fight…
If ifs and buts were candies and nuts we’d all be diabetic, I suppose. I did consider leaving the army in a skip or something on the way home – it’s been fifteen years, and I often feel trapped by nostalgia, like I’m trying to get back to 2004 and pretend the time between then and now didn’t happen, and I can’t deny the symbolism of anniversaries and old enemies and final defeats. I didn’t. But I’m not ruling out burning it all before Christmas.
WFB Sixth Edition. 6000 points. Vampire Counts vs. Bretonnians and Dogs of War.
Frankly, if that doesn’t wake you up inside, I don’t know what will. It certainly kept me going for about eight hours, even though I hadn’t actually slept for two nights on the trot and was fast succumbing to ye pestilence and, frankly, was only kept functional by a hideous cocktail of OG Relentless and cranberry juice. Lee hadn’t had the best night either, with two fire alarms going off in his hotel during the wee hours, but damn it all we’d been planning this for weeks and we weren’t going to let anything stop us now.
Neither force was what you’d call “legal”, although the conventions regarding numbers of Lords and Heroes, as well as Core, Special and Rare troops under them, were still obeyed. The goal was for myself and Lee to plonk our entire painted collections on the board and give the other attendees of yer actual Exeter Games Gathering something to gawp at in between doing each other over. If you have a 6’x4′ table for the whole day, you might as well make use of it!
We cobbled together a makeshift scenario by mashing up the Flank Attack and Capture ones from the WFB rulebook. Flank Attack would make the most of Lee’s divided forces by not actually considering them the same thing; Capture would relieve us of the need to calculate or even consider Victory Points, with victory determined by Who Was Closest To The Shed at the end. The well-paid and foolishly courageous Dogs of War would start entrenched behind enough linear obstacles to make a Dwarf blush (to ensure I couldn’t sweep them all away by turn two), while the Bretonnians would advance from a flank of Lee’s choosing at the top of turn three (giving me a turn to at least brace for impact before the inevitable charge).
We needed something suitably high stakes to draw these mighty forces together, so I elected not to bring the Carstein Ring, and instead place it within the retirement cottage of one Felix Mann, Esq, once of Altdorf and now long deceased. Why was this important? Look at who showed up…
Vampire Counts (attacking)
Mannfred von Carstein
Lord Ruthven (Vampire Lord on Zombie Dragon; some kit which ended up being totally irrelevant)
Countess Carmilla (Vampire Countess on foot; Summon Bats and Spectral Attendants)
Sir Francis Varney (Vampire Thrall in Wolf Form)
Walravius (Wight Lord Battle Standard Bearer, waving the Hell Banner about)
Whispering Nell (Wraith with the Cursed Book)
Rosenkratz, Guildenstern and Haeckl (three Necromancers with a Power Stone and Dispel Scroll apiece)
30 Skeleton Spearmen
20 Skeleton Crossbowmen
2 (independent) Bat Swarms
10 Dire Wolves
20 Drakenhof Guard (with the Screaming Banner)
28 Black Knights (one unit of 12 with the Drakenhof Banner, two units of 8 with nowt fancy to their name)
1 very large Spirit Host
2 Black Coaches
Dogs of War (defending)
an unnamed but courageous Hireling Wizard, late of Bretonnia no doubt, brandishing the Staff of Sorcery (Lee’s spare Damsel coming out to play)
a foolhardy Paymaster
Leopold’s Leopard Company
the Marksmen of Miragliano
a Pikeman company whose resemblance to the Alcatini Fellowship is entirely coincidental
an off-brand Crossbowman company
Bronzino and a Galloper Gun
Dadallo and the Birdmen of Catrazza
Lumpin Croop and his Fighting Cocks
the Giants of Albion and Hengist
King Louen Leoncoeur
Morgiana la Fay
The Green Knight
a Paladin on a Pegasus
a Paladin not on a Pegasus (bearing the Battle Standard)
two footslogging Paladins
a slightly overwhelmed Damsel with the Silver Mirror
half a dozen Grail Knights (playing escort to the Fay and the BSB)
eight Knights Errant
two dozen Bowmen
a dozen Men At Arms
two fistfuls of Mounted Yeomen
We both figured the Dogs of War would need a lot of luck to make it through the game, but things would doubtless turn Lee’s way when the Bretonnians arrived. Were we right? Read on…
Opening Gambits (Turns 1 and 2)
Bretonnia Rides (Turns 3 and 4)
Desperate Times (Turns 5 and 6)
There followed a chain of events which I was too tired to photograph, and I hope Lee can supply suitable imagery in good time. But here’s what happened.
Mannfred was finally able to cross the hedge and take control of the Mann residence. All he had to do was survive one last turn. To that end, he and all his Necromancers attempted to cast Invocations to restore him to full capacity of Wounds. Lee Dispelled Mannfred’s Invocation, and I failed to cast the other three. Suddenly, everything was back on the knife edge again.
In the middle ground, I was able to Summon Bats, redeploy Ghouls, and shove Skeletons forward so that Lee’s Knights had very few charge opportunities left.
The second Giant stumbled in its charge on Carmilla and her guard; about to Jump Up and Down, the drunken oaf ended up falling at Carmilla’s feet, and she took great pleasure in avenging her last outing against the Giants by cutting it down in person.
King Louen descended on the Necromancers, cutting their zombie bodyguard to ribbons but leaving the casters themselves alive.
Hope, such as it was, rested with one man…
Whirling his Delirious Blade about him, the Green Knight, immortal defender of Bretonnia, charged in and challenged the Vampire Count to single combat. Lacking any alternative, Mannfred drew his sword again and hoped against hope that he could prevail. It was not to be. The Ethereal care not for hedgerows, and so the Green Knight fought at full efficiency, liberating Mannfred from the mortal coil.
Defeat! Defeat at the very last round of combat on the very last turn! Honestly, I couldn’t ask for a better way to go out than that. When you’re playing a supervillain like Mannfred, hubris and trickery and defeat snatched from the jaws of victory by an immortal force of righteous fury is fitting and there’s no bones about it.
Lee was delighted at the chance to field all his forces together and for that matter so do I; one never normally gets to take things like Dragons and so many spellcasters that the Lore of Death on two of them doesn’t feel like a waste. On top of all that, it was a delightfully close game which could easily have gone either way, and if we played it again (ideally when we weren’t both half mad with sleep deprivation) I for one would do things a little differently.
I’d probably stack the cavalry on that open flank, and let the Spirits lead the charge into those pike blocks (since they don’t give a monkey’s chuff about hedges). That might leave my infantry lagging a bit, but to be honest, their job was to ferry the spellcasters and Wraith forward and then block as many charge lanes as possible. I wouldn’t change the list much, except for maybe slipping Call Winds onto Carmilla for the early turns… and of course, not leaving home without the Banner of the Barrows.
Because a picture is worth a thousand words. Geddit?
Instagram is more suited to this sort of thing. You can find me over there @propergoffic, same as the Twitter and the Twitch and almost everywhere else I care to be. But it would be churlish not to put them here, too, especially since I can actually link directly to images from here.
It’s strange. My wrists are fucked. I’m generally quite lethargic. And I don’t enjoy painting. But I can still speed paint like a trooper when I’m called upon to do so. Necessity fuels what obligation merely prolongs, and when I have a weekend of actual gaming ahead, Shit Gets Done. There are still touches that I’d like to touch: sticking some static grass on some bases, tinting some armour to at least pretend a harmony with the army (although I guess randomly different coloured Knights are an essential part of the Empire aesthetic), working out how to make the Huntsmen at all interesting (I think some browns? brown is never interesting though) – but that can come later.
Anyway, that’s what six thousand points of sixth edition Vampire Counts looks like. despite my best attempts, there are disparities in the composition of paint and the style with which one applies it and the circumstances in which particular figures have been ruined, so nothing matches quite as well as my inner perfectionist would like. But perfect is the enemy of “good enough” and “good enough” is good enough for me. It’s also good enough for Exeter Games Gathering this weekend, and since I set off for Exeter tomorrow and will be playing WFB by teatime, good enough will bloody well have to do.
The weekend’s game schedule looks like this, so far:
Joseph and his Dwarfs, 2000 points, nice easy teaching-feeling game for someone who hasn’t played much (any?) sixth edition
Lee and his Bretonnians/Dogs of War, 6000 points, yes I know but we want to bung our entire collections on the table and see what comes about.
Lawrence and his Skaven, 2000 points, because fate will come around at last and all endings are beginnings and I’m not travelling to within fifty miles of my longest-serving friend, arch-rival and nemesis without playing some WFB with him, it’s just not happening.
I don’t know if I’ll be up to doing “battle reports” in the full on and detailed sense – I prefer to concentrate on and enjoy the games rather than fuss around with photos and notes, and my hands are hurting just from typing up this relatively short post – but I’ll sort something out. Maybe rope Lawrence into co-writing a narrative report. We did that way back when, with our very first game. I’d post it in a heartbeat if I could actually FIND the damn thing.
Two things before we begin. Firstly, this is another of those posts where I arguably read too much into mediocre pulp tie-in novels and I’m aware some of you find that irksome. Secondly and not so trivially, it’s difficult if not impossible to discuss this book without using the word “gypsies” at some point, and I’m aware that many if not most actual Romani consider that word a slur. I use the word here when engaging with the context and origins of a fictional construct; if I need to talk about actual people who really exist I’m going to say Romani. And just to defer the inevitable: no, I’m not offended on anyone’s behalf, this is just a courtesy note to people who might be offended on their own behalf, and that’s only fair and polite.That said: let’s get on.
Ancient Blood passed me by originally, coming out in the same sort of timeframe as Steven Savile’s fascinatingly execrable vampire trilogy and somewhat overshadowed by it. Which is a shame, because it’s a quieter, better, arguably more thoughtful book, despite making a few of the same missteps and turning over some awkward ground in the process. I bought it on a whim over the weekend and it’s… intrigued me.
I won’t give much of a plot summary because honestly it’s not that important. There’s a racist nobleman, he’s taken against a minority group for distinctly Freudian reasons because there’s nothing quite like Freud for easy villain motivations, and this book follows what happens to the people he’s persecuting, as well as the kinds of nasty bastards who can be relies upon to deliver racism by proxy. And since the minority group in question are the Strigany, there are vampires. (It’s not a spoiler, you muppet, there’s one on the front of the book.)
Who the balls are the Strigany? (Even casual Warhammer fans may be scratching their heads at this one.) We’ll get back to them in a minute, once we’ve established something important about this book.
There’s a weird atemporality to Ancient Blood, in that the battle depicted resembles a scenario from White Dwarf that came out around this time in which Marius Leitdorf, the Mad Count of Averland, takes offence to the existence of Halflings and hires mercenaries to invade the Moot. They’re similar in terms of location and plotting, and in terms of the mercenary units involved, whose presence sites the book in the Warhammer world’s present day. But the framing device anonymises the Elector Counts involved; they’re just “Stirland” and “Averland”, which Kim Newman used to do for Electors who we weren’t expected to give a toss about but never for an actual character. More than that: the prologue explicitly locates the story in the Time of Three Emperors some two to eight hundred in-universe years earlier. I can’t work out if this is editorial meddling designed to separate a fan favourite special character who actually had a model available from Freudian Fantasy Racism, or if it’s sheer coincidence and nobody bothered about the dates. The Time of the Three Emperors is peak Vampire Counts lore time after all, and Earl’s contemporary Savile quite happily moved Detlef Sierck five hundred years back in time to locate him in the period, so it’s not as if the Black Library was paying its continuity editor a Christmas bonus that year anyway.
I don’t mean to get all frothy about this; guess what, freelance writers hacking out some pulp fantasy don’t attend to the details of the setting like semi-professional fanboys do, i.e. with terminal intensity. That’s fine. I mention it because it may indicate something about the publisher’s and author’s priorities. The Black Library wants the book out and not actively poisoning sales, and Robert Earl is far more interested in the Strigany than their oppressors. (He’s a WFRP writer, not a WFB writer, and I wonder how much of a factor that is here.) He has some fun with some Dogs of War units who’ve clearly caught his eye, but he’s fundamentally on the side of their victims here.
So. Let’s talk about the Strigany. They have their origins in the sixth edition Vampire Counts Army book from 2001-ish, where they appear in the theme list for the Strigoi vampires; a token unit of rank-and-flank living troops among the Ghouls and Skeletons. A throwaway gesture. They represent the last survivors of the ancient kingdom of Strigos, which itself represents the last living outpost of old Nehekhara; driven from their home by the final war against Nagash, they settled down under the guidance of the vampire Ushoran and the Crown of Sorcery. Then they got their bonches punched in by orcs, the chief priest was killed, the Crown taken, and the survivors fled north again, becoming a nomadic race of…
Oh, for fuck’s sake, they’re gypsies. All right? Because Dracula had gyspsy minions so Strahd had gypsy minions so Warhammer vampires have to have them too, because Warhammer is a trope hoover and doesn’t have the best record with regards to ethnosensitivity. BUT:
You have the real-world misnomer – “gypsy” being derived from “Egyptian” because that’s where pig-ignorant Europeans decided the Romani came from– and then you have this fantasy version which takes that misapplied belief and runs it to ground and builds on THAT rather than the real Roma. The Strigany came from Fantasy Expy Egypt but it’s the first nation they built in exile that defines them and there’s something poetic about that.
I don’t know how much of this was intended (bearing in mind that the architects of Warhammer were trained archaeologists, but also let shit like the Pygmies slide) but I also know a thing or two about the intentional fallacy and whether it was intended or not, there’s room here for a sympathetic retelling of that past and the present it leads to.
Robert Earl makes a credible attempt at taking that sympathetic point of view. I’m not Romani, so I don’t want to stick my neck out and say it’s acceptable or not on the Fantasy Racism front, but the really obvious exoticising and hate is sited in the antagonists, while Earl is much more matter of fact in depicting the Strigany and their life in renewed exile. There is a certain amount of “Strigany sorcery” involved but it’s all things the Strigany do to even the odds against them, and plenty of what they get up to is commonplace tactics and good sense. We do meet three of our characters while they’re thieving, but it’s clear that they do it because they’re young, bored and greedy, not because they’re Strigany. The Strigany do travel from town to town and play to stereotypes to bring the locals in, but it’s made clear this is a performative act in which they’re making a living (and there’s another caravan who do essential battlefield and plague cleanup that the Empire can’t be arsed with, so there’s at least a squint at something broader). Maybe you can’t ever do this sort of thing well enough but I thought it was a fat sight better than, say, the WoD’s Ravnos clan or Ravenloft, which just had… evil tricksy fantasy gypsies who serve vampires because that’s what they do.
Ah, yes. The vampires. The other half of the Strigany diaspora. The ancient and terrible living ancestors who have watched over the Strigany in exile, and who are approached to avenge wrongs like, well, the pogrom in this book. Flick through the Goodreads page for this book and you’ll see reviewers vocally disappointed that this book isn’t about the Strigoi bloodline. The thing is, the Strigoi aren’t that interesting. They’re feral killing machines who’ve forgotten almost everything except their eternal status as whipping boys to the other bloodlines. Everything that makes them interesting in a novelistic sense is also true of the Strigany, and the Strigany are functioning characters who can have conversations and differences of opinion and fall in love and so on.
The one Strigoi we meet here becomes interesting as he regains his sense of self and past, his appreciation for the finer things, and there’s a particularly effective bit where he commissions a macabre memento mori that relates the story of the bloodline without any tedious “as you know, your father the king” fantasy expospeak. In fact, the whole book is pretty light on that; the Strigany and the mercenaries and the vampire do what they do and Earl trusts we’re clever enough to get the gist of it.
Anyway, Earl is also clever enough to pull off the “understanding vampires through the eyes of others” thing Savile was going for, showing us the Strigoi as yes, terrifying monsters, but also inheritors of a shattered kingdom who have never lost their sense of obligation to their people. It’s only boring when his Strigoi turns around, sees a beautiful woman, and comes over all my-bride-in-darkness, and Earl seems to decide that’s a misstep quite quickly and end up abruptly having it not go anywhere.
Personally, I’d have preferred it if the Strigoi had entered into the love triangle subplot, especially since it first appears in the novel as part of the setup to that plot. There’s another weird misstep around that; it’s not teed up very well and later in the book one character refers to another’s vampire-blood-fixed-it-for-you facial scars like they’re still there. I’m not sure how well this one was edited or even redrafted; there are a lot of little elisions and flat character beats, especially with the generically nasty mercenary general, which feel like nobody passed over this thing to tighten it up, and that’s a shame.
I’ve brushed up against this now so let’s have it out: I don’t think this book was finished. Besides the occasional stumble on craft or pacing level, it’s too damn short. The premise is built up, the battle is established and resolved, the Strigoi calls his people home and they look pretty set on going, surrounded by omens, the love triangle is “resolved” in a way that could still turn out fascinatingly adulterous and the mercenaries are still out there and not the kind to give up…
All the pieces are in place for a nice long haul story that shows a side to the Warhammer World we don’t get to see very often, marginalised people and vampire sympathisers and the Dogs of War and going back to Strigos, something which can afford to happen without wrecking the status quo –
And then it just stops. Turns out this was a two act story, even though the tail suggests it could go to four or five. Checking the reviews for his other books suggests Earl does this a lot; clocks off when he hits a page count and the first thing that feels like a finale. Or maybe he was commissioned to write something about a battle, and with the battle done so was the book, and he was just leaving room for another trilogy set in the Border Princes and then down into Strigos. (Earl also seems to be responsible for relocating the ruins of Mourkain further south; I wondered, when they turned up in Total Warhammer II, whose idea that had been.)
Either way, it’s unfortunate. But maybe the whole premise of “Warhammer gypsies and their vampire god” is unfortunate to begin with? I don’t get to say, but I’m sad Earl didn’t get to take this one further; I for one quite like these people, and I want to see where they end up. Although I really don’t need another huge fanfiction idea taking up my brain space right now. But I have one. Thanks, Robert Earl. You swine.
Well, I made it. Slightly later than ideal, still just in time. 1500 points of painted Empire of Dust Tomb Kings, ready to be flung at the invading High Elves of Prince Panting this weekend and stage an incursion upon Dr. Shiny and his Bretonnians in September.
What fate awaits them after that I cannot say: I profoundly disliked painting them, probably because I had no vision for the army going in and only figured out what I shall laughingly call “the technique” on the last models, the Mummies, whom I genuinely abhor as being almost fucking impossible to rank up even with the traditional spacers. But if they’re fun to play with, they may be spared.
Do not look too closely at these Ushabti. You will see all the details I couldnae be arsed to paint proper like or mould lines I couldnae be arsed to clean up. I really didn’t care about this army. Nothing is prepped. It’s all been banged out in six months for the sake of a little variety.
These close-ups of the abominable Mummies may show the faded turquoise of their garments, which I FINALLY figured out how to do. They also show the three characters: Prince Thotmanho the Frequently Abbreviated (who actually looks quite nice, the swine), Bhakgamun the Liche Priest (whose staff is frankly not to be trusted) and an Icon Bearer who will get a name if I decide it’s worth taking an Icon Bearer again. They may also also show the Magic life counter I’m using to mark wounds, since this unit occupies a 4×5 formation even though only 2×6 of actual models are involved. They are REALLY hard to rank up. Quite characterful though.
Meat and potatoes, neither of which are involved in the daily habits of these units. Neither are bread and butter. But anyway; horrible mixed media Skeletons I haven’t filled because arseholes to that, but they look OK from four feet away when it’s cloudy out. And a Skull Chucker, cheerfully sized for fifth edition, dramatically undersized for anything else. I do quite like the rat as the extra crewman, as well as the flaming skull token I made to mark the shot.
You might be thinking I hate this army already. I don’t. It is very much built to be played, though, and the assembly and painting have been phoned in on a very big phone to that end.
The painting queue currently contains this Mausoleum terrain set, but once that’s done, I’d like to set up something a bit smaller scale and take my time on it, just to confirm that I can still paint. The Blood Bowl teams have been here the longest, but my Bad Squiddo stuff needs priming as it’s starting to discolour now some of it’s been unpainted for a year or two, and half a dozen Orc adventurers plus some Gothic horror vignettes may be just the palate cleanser I need after these big monotonous drybrush-and-ink fests. But first: GAME TIME.
Obviously, he’s an homage: the first modern and recognisable vampire in English literature, the brooding Byronic antagonist of John Polidori’s The Vampyre, published two hundred years ago last month. “Byronic” is no accident; Polidori was Lord Byron’s physician, and a fellow traveller on that infamous summer jaunt to Lake Geneva that produced, among other things, Frankenstein, and he consciously modelled his character on his employer.
So that gives us a kind of ur-vampire, the originator of the tradition that gave rise to Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, and James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney, and thence the big lad himself, your actual Count Dracula, and thence the twentieth century vampire tradition in which the Von Carsteins are sited. So obviously, when I was after a name for my Von Carstein general, Lord Ruthven sprang to mind.
The Lord Original
The first Lord Ruthven; a Mordheim vampire with enthusiastically swooshy cloak. My original figure went AWOL roundabout the time I graduated, and goodness knows where he ended up. Thanks to Michael Churchill from the Middlehammer Trading Outpost, and to the last bit of a broken General of the Empire kit who provided his new sword, though; he’s back!
This version was a bugger and a half to fit in a unit. My original solution was to mount him at the very front of his base and the command group in his unit at the very back of theirs, creating a sort of frame for that enormous cloak. These days, I’d stick him on the corner with a gravestone next to him (probably that one I have that’s leaning at an extreme angle of its own), or even have him running around on his own, relying on the Wristbands of Black Gold to keep him going.
In any case, as the general of an Army of Sylvania he was invariably a third level wizard (I only had the one to play with most of the time, might as well make it a good ‘un). His equipment has come and gone, but I’ve eventually settled on this as fairly representative:
Sword of Striking, Black Periapt, Ring of the Night
Aura of Dark Majesty
Five attacks, hitting most things on twos, is pretty reasonable for a non-Strigoi. That sixth Power die, or eighth if the army also includes a Necromancer, is pretty reasonable for a non-Necrarch. The 5+ Ward Save is less than I’d like but I learned not to touch the Crown of the Damned very early on, and obviously he has the “keep the army marching forward” power because why would he not?
What sketchy background existed suggested that he was an illegitimate scion of the Von Carstein lineage – a lowly captain who distinguished himself on the streets of Mordheim, proving tough as old boots and an accomplished duellist to boot, rising in the estimation of his seniors until, by the time the Wars of the Vampire Counts turned and the Sylvanian heartland was under siege, he was a Count in his own right, and a proudly independent Lord by the time Mannfred returned and staked his renewed claim to authority. He entered exile rather than bend the knee, abandoning his old holdings in Templehof and setting forth in search of a new domain to call his own… and that’s where we find him in this run of revival games.
The Lord Subsequent
This figure is better known, these days, as Sir Francis Varney. In the first instance, however, he was a deliberate replacement for the missing original, and a deliberate choice for seventh edition WFB, which allowed the great man to slip into something more comfortable; a suit of heavy armour and shield that didn’t interfere with casting spells!
(There was also a mounted version – a Rutgar, General of the Empire figure with a badly sculpted wig, mounted on a grunged-up Deathclaw figure with a rather nice exposed ribcage conversion. Goodness knows where that’s got to; it didn’t come back with the rest of the army, but may have been sold separately.)
Dark Acolyte, Infinite Hatred, Summon Creatures of the Night
Sword of Battle, Armour of Night, Wristbands of Black Gold
Once again, he’s built to run around on his own near but not in units. A level 3 wizard with the capacity to raise fresh Dire Wolves and Fell Bats into units and no slouch in combat with a bonus attack and rerolls to hit. I’m not sure I’d build him exactly like that now, but I’m also not sure how I’d build a seventh edition army – perusal of my forum activity suggests I was vocally and persistently wrong in my approach to that army book!
Nightshroud, Talisman of Endurance, Potion of Strength
Aura of Dark Majesty, Beguile, Dread Knight
This was an acknowledged failure at the time and history has not vindicated it. After careful perusal of the army book for the period, I’m actually thinking I’d rather… not build a conventional Vampire Lord at all. I’m rather fond of the Ghoul King, and it calls back to the Strigoi of yore, a Bloodline for whom I wish I’d had more time. That has me thinking about… some possibilities.
The Lord Alternative
A while ago, I bought into Bad Squiddo’s Dracula Kicsktarter. This includes a rather dynamic figure in the same mould as the classically Gothic Lord Ruthven, but noticeably without weapons; appropriate, perhaps, for a better-dressed-than-average Strigoi Ghoul King? The characters around him – well, there’s a suggestion of a Necromancer in there, and a couple of Vampire Thralls, and three Banshees (the erstwhile Brides). That’s a reasonable suite of characters for an eighth edition army.
I’d considered, briefly, the idea of buying into the Fireforge plastic undead Kickstarter, dolling up my Gripping Beast Revenants and investing in some Iron Wind Skeletons to fight alongside them (that’d squint back to the Army of Sylvania and beyond to fourth edition Undead), and sticking the Avatars of War plastic harpies I have onto some 40mm square bases, and maybe picking up some Vargheists… but how likely was that considering how much of my Warhammer experience is about using the models – the very same models – that I’ve had for so long? And do I really want to paint that many new Zombies? Honestly? When I already have a reasonable amount of square based lads lying around the place?
How about… instead…
The Lord Definitive
This will, one hopes, be the final incarnation of Lord Ruthven. He’s the less rubbish looking of the Middlehammer von Carstein figures (the other pack has been rejected many times over owing to the footslogging version’s giant comedy hand), selected partly because he looks like the one in the Mordheim PC game but mainly because he comes with matching mounted and dismounted models, which make him ideal for slapping on the back of big monsters.
Of course, he doesn’t actually fit on the back of his Zombie Dragon (I must have assembled dear Beaky in a less than perfect manner, humhum, can’t imagine how that happened), but I’ve managed to scare up a wingless Winged Nightmare and a spare pair of Daemon Prince wings which, with enough pins and putty and pokery-jiggery, should look halfway decent when it’s done. If it doesn’t I shall pray to Nagash himself for forgiveness, repose Beaky’s neck, and hope it doesn’t ruin her paint job along the way.
This one is the most straightforward yet in terms of his equipment; as far as his native sixth edition is concerned, he sports the Carstein Ring, the best saving throw around for a Vampire of the period, and the obligatory third magic level. If the silly bleeder’s going to strap himself to the back of a Large Target there’s no point mucking about with anything but Keeping Him Alive technology, and if I want a general on foot then that’s what Carmilla is for. Add an additional hand weapon for stabbing things up (it’s on the model, if you look closely at the version on foot, and it’s what he had in the Mordheim warband too) and he comes in at a none-too-trivial 739 points and three character slots. Definitely one for the Big Games.
This is it, folx. This is the big one. I’ve been after this article for ages, since none of the PDFs I’ve been able to find are complete; I actually cracked and bought a copy, with my own money and everything.
This came along at exactly the right time.
I was in the process of starting out again, after the GCSE interregnum when “all that bleddy Warhammer” had been sacrificed on the altar of familial dissatisfaction. I’d just rebuilt my Chaos Space Marines for the Eye of Terror campaign and I was after a new WFB army and there, a month after the campaign results, was this none-more-goth business.
It would be a few more months before the actual rules dropped and crystallised my vague ambitions. I reproduce those too, largely to keep them in circulation and lend some context to future doings. In the event that Games Workshop puts this fifteen year old material for a no longer supported game line back into circulation through legitimate means, all they have to do is ask and I will happily take it down.
Put all of this together and you have the shape of my first army; no Ghouls or Necromancers (although I had the figure for one, hanging around from my Mordheim box), overequipped Skeletons and Zombies with every polearm the box could offer, and a veritable swarm of Wolves and Bats. One unit of Black Knights ’cause that’s all I could take. And a lot of kitbashed Skeleton Crossbowmen, which involved cutting Tomb King Archer hands off and then cutting the shafts of Empire Militia crossbows to fit on either side of them and somehow lining up the four small jittery pieces of plastic… I must have been mad.
Lord Ruthven’s Resumption
Lord Ruthven: Vampire Lord with extra magic level, Sword of Striking, Wristbands of Black Gold, Black Periapt and Summon Wolves Carmilla: Vampire Thrall with Spectral Attendants and Earthbind Sir Francis Varney: Vampire Thrall with Army Standard, Walking Death and Earthbind
Sir Francis Varney’s First of Foot: 24 Sylvanian Militia with spears and full command group Templehof Pals: 24 Sylvanian Levy with halberds, standard bearer and musician Bat Swarm Bat Swarm 3 Fell Bats 10 Dire Wolves: Scouts, Doom Wolf
Black Coach Black Coach
Order of the Black Cross: 8 Drakenhof Templars with barded Nightmares and Drakenhof Banner
I could very easily go to 3000 points, too. It’d only take adding the Spirit Host, a couple of Banshees, and either slapping a Dragon under Ruthven and promoting Carmilla to Countess, or adding Mannfred von Carstein as the second permitted Lord.
(Incidentally, if you’re wondering why the Thralls don’t have armour; they’re all the lightly-clad Mordheim figures who are blatantly not wearing any, and I am reluctant to stick shields and things on figures who might find themselves further ennobled to spellcasting and unarmoured status at the drop of a hat.)
There are a few odds and sods I’d like to replace. The Fell Bats, with some nice Reaper ones. My old foot Reiksgard, with some plastic Greatswords, who may be about to vanish from the miniature range, so I’d better get a shift on if I’m going to do that. And I’d like some Crossbowmen and Archers for doing the other Von Carstein theme force… but I’m in several minds about exactly where those should come from. We’ll talk about why next time.
Partial? Me? Far from it. As we continue our trawl through the Silver Age of White Dwarf*, I turn the ship toward the competitive end of the spectrum and go off about an article I never read at the time. It’s Australian, you see, and since I live literally half a world away from the land where beer does flow and men chunder, I never had the chance. But I do know who Lachlan MacWhirter is, if only because I avidly read Alex Kin-Wilde’s battle reports before the Warhammer Forum took its final nosedive. The point is he was quite good, and that he thinks about armies in a way that I think about armies.
You will notice that this army is not a photocopy special. There is thought put into what it will be like to play with and against, and how to ensure it does well, but there is also thought put into who leads it and why the force is the way it is.
I bring this up because there’s a nasty, pernicious tendency among certain elements of the wargaming community to pretend that certain things are anathema. Opposed. Mutually irreconcilable. Like a Venn diagram where the orbs remain utterly parted, lest their touching blast a hole in our tiny minds the size of Belgium.
You often hear “having fun” and “playing to win” pitched into these false dichotomies, along with “crunch” and “fluff”, and in role playing circles you hear “rollplaying” and “roleplaying.” My favourite one one is named the Stormwind Fallacy, after a Wizards of the Coast forumite who described and debunked it beautifully**.
The Stormwind Fallacy is the claim that one who optimises his character is, de facto, a bad roleplayer. The claim is wrong, false, and otherwise incorrect because number-crunching and make-believe are quite different skill sets and they can co-exist happily in the same brain tissue and the one does not in any way detract from the other. The fact that most people are more skilled in or inclined toward one direction than the other does not mean they are automatically exclusive.
And in wargaming-land, the same applies. It is not impossible to produce an army which is powerful, efficient, effective, and also entirely on-theme and fun to play with and against. People will claim otherwise. They will claim that “competitive” is anathema to some other nebulously defined concept. Often, they are talking about their own preference for leaning in one direction or another and elevating that to the status of universal truth – which it does not deserve.
Look at that! He’s written backstory, for pity’s sake (and just enough for it not to become weary, too)! True, he’s put a lot of thought into gearing and tricking out his Vampire, and to the roles that will be performed on table by his units, but you can’t pretend that there isn’t character there.
You may, if cynical, suspect that this is done because there are bonus points to be had at the tournament in question for turning up with a themed army in which the theme is transparent and illustrated with some associated text, and I say this is no bad thing. Let game mechanics make real the ideologies of the people what it is who make them. A system that rewards the desired behaviour is a good system.
I don’t have masses to say about the army itself, except that I’d probably have gone for the Vampire Lord and damned the consequences, but I do want to hover my digit over this notion of spending half your points on Core units (that the rest of the sections put together do not outnumber them). I don’t think I’ve ever done that, outside of fifth edition Chaos armies which, er, sort of had to work like that unless you were pulling something extremely niche with the summoning rules for Greater Daemons. There are eighty Skeletons in this army and that’s about twice as many Skeletons as I could ever be arsed painting without dramatically phoning it in. I suddenly understand the appeal in the totally bollock naked Skeletons of yesteryear or Warlord Games; at least those could be bashed out with relative haste, if you didn’t go full White Dwarf 211 and lovingly highlight their bony bonces.
I wonder what would happen if I tried to put together an army like this?
Clarimonde: Vampire Countess with extra magic level, Black Periapt and Ring of the Night: 285 Romuald: Vampire Thrall with Army Standard, Walking Death and Talisman of Protection: 155
30 Skeleton Warriors with spears, light armour, and full command group: 355 30 Zombies with standard and musician: 195 10 Ghouls with Ghast: 90 11 Dire Wolves with Doom Wolf: 120 2 Bat Swarm bases: 120
8 Black Knights with barded Nightmares and full command group: 240 8 Black Knights with barded Nightmares and full command group: 240
Banshee: 90 Banshee: 90
This is, of course, working with the models I own and my particular proclivities. I like to have a Battle Standard Bearer in my armies and prefer to bury my characters in the infantry units, using my Knights and Wolves as a flanking force. Also, I only have about 800 points of Core: everything I have gives me one of each unit and a handful of spares for raising. But it’s good enough for jazz and close enough for jam, or something like that. 20 points of spare change which will probably go on a Sword of Might for Clarimonde or something of the ilk.
This is just the list, because I’m still… working on… the backstory for these people. Everything’s still a bit fluid in that department.
It’s all making me realise a couple of things. Firstly, as much as I detest the Citadel Fell Bats, I’d quite like more fast chaff in the collection. Secondly, I really do need to do something about my Core situation; with so many Dire Wolves having gone for a burton while the army was out of my hands, I’m dangerously low on bread and butter troops, and it’s only going to get worse if I look towards playing eighth edition.
The longer I go on with this, the more I realise that my old army is deeply beloved and quite special but also surprisingly small and bitty. Adding more models is a bit of a tall order when the odds of picking up the “right” models in ready-to-kitbash-so-they-match condition are so high. Two options present themselves. Either I align with the Von Carstein theme force in the back of the book and pick up some living auxiliaries to bolster my lacklustre Troops selection, or I bite the bullet and accept that it’s time to slowly build up…
… oh God…
… a new Vampire Counts army.
*I call it this largely to avoid nonsense from any hardcore edition warriors who will come at me if I don’t give the number one spot to Paul Sawyer/Robin Dews/Jake Thornton/Ian Livingstone/Your Mum (delete as applicable). You are welcome to argue about which White Dwarf editor was the best ever on your own time, and ideally on your own planet.
**Potentially, there’s a contrived dig here at the crowd who hang around in the Alliance capital city on any World of Warcraft RP server, filling the air with arbitrary nonsense and imaginary rules about how to play magical fund pretend time… but even by my standards, that’s reaching a bit.
Here’s another of those articles that inspired my Vampire Counts – one of those things that came out at precisely the right moment to kick me into collecting, building, painting and playing with the one army that I’ve ever been able to stick with.
For those who aren’t up to squinting at tiny text (reproduced as best I can from a PDF copy of WD 290), Paul’s article basically walks you through a few baseline notions in building a themed army. To synopsisise, you have:
1: an Idea,
derived this from literally anywhere you can plunder an idea from; you’re not looking to lift complete and complex notions so don’t be afraid to nick little bits from everywhere. (I never have been.) The alternative army lists in the back of the Armies books are there but, as Mr. Gayner explains and I reiterate, you don’t need them. You don’t need to deviate from the “proper” army list at all, or sit there wringing your hands because the specific troops you like are in the Blood Dragon list but you want to do Von Carsteins. You’re looking for the reason your Von Carsteins are like they are.
I was directly building into the Storm of Chaos variant list for the Army of Sylvania, which had a core of well-equipped Skeletons and Zombies surrounded by a swarm of bats, wolves and so on and so forth. No Ghouls, and only a limited supply of Knights, which is why I only had one unit for years and years.
2. an Army List,
built around those units that establish and maintain a theme and without which your commander would not be under any circumstances whatsoever. Thinking about your army in different tactical situations (i.e. different kinds of battle) is recommended – if they’re caught on the march, if they’re raided at home, if they’re much reduced in circumstances, which units never leave? Mine are my Black Knights and Skeletons, plus at least one Vampire.
3. some Models,
which are tailored to fit the particular aesthetic that goes along with your Idea.
This is why most of my models, barring the monsters, are kitbashed from Empire stuff – and even my Winged Nightmare, back in the day, was a gnarled-up Empire Griffon rather than the skinless horrors of the core Vampire Counts range. I really wanted to emphasise Sylvania as part of the Empire, a dark mirror held up to the neighbouring provinces, with uniformed Skeleton militiamen and a ragged Zombie levy and later, ghosts swarming out of the haunted Fort Oberstyre (because plastic Flagellants put the “make a Spirit Hose out of Flagellants” option within my price range at last).
4. some Characters,
of a sort who might logically lead the kind of army you’ve created. This is the bit where I go a bit off base, as my characters have been renamed and repurposed over the years and I’ve never quite settled down and defined which of them is which. I have a lot of names, derived from nineteenth-century vampire novels because I’m a pretentious arse literature graduate, but who exactly IS Lord Ruthven and which of these vampire models is him? It’s never been entirely clear.
5. some Other Stuff.
The original article recommends:
a baggage train (I never did this, because General’s Compendium style scenarios with extra modelling work that I wouldn’t be using week in week out were a bit too much fiddle and fart for me)
writing flash fiction or background to set your army’s personality (I’ve done an Amount of this but it’s all been for non-started attempts at reviving the army for eighth edition)
bespoke scenery (I did this once, but my old battle board was given to a gaming club when I moved to a tiny box room in London and had to reduce my hobby down to “fits in a backpack” kind of scale)
Now. This sort of thing is well and good but I don’t quite think it goes far enough. Like a great deal of the ink that’s been spilled over the hobby over the years (bad sentence, but shush, I’m not at work), it focuses too much on the army list. That’s not a reproach to Paul Gayner, who delivered an excellent article on collecting themed armies – more a commentary on how army lists are a quiet and personal process that takes place before games and are easier to discuss in isolation from the heat of the moment. Giving your characters names and converting half your models and putting thought into the colour schemes is only the start. The next step is making it have some kind of impact on the games you’re playing.
See, I’m not a great believer in backstory, beyond the sort of sketch level that gives characters a name and a motivation and a rough personality. People tend to go too far with backstory, presenting something as tightly plotted as a novel, with no room for other players to stake a claim and have a say and help resolve and develop things.
I like collaborative, emergent narratives; stories that are generated out of actual play and that develop as a result of the experiences players have together. This is a bit tricky if you’re playing week in week out pick-up games and you’re fighting Skaven one week and Empire the next and Lizardmen the week after that only the Empire player’s borrowing some Daemons instead. Kind of hard to sort out a coherent narrative out of all that.
Back in the day, I managed it by keeping records of games and then much later sorting them into rough chronologies. My early games during the Storm of Chaos campaign were a given, and my handful of games against the Reikland Intervention Force were obviously roughly contemporary with Sigmar’s Blood, but my few seventh edition games took place around the time Mannfred von Carstein was first coming to power and the lesser Von Carsteins were fighting back, while the Mordheim campaign I played in 2008 shortly before selling the army was actually the prologue… basically, the army’s fictitious history was nowhere near aligned with its actual one. And games against anything really odd, like – let’s say a Southlands Lizardmen army, or even High Elves – would never make the cut at all because it’d be an odd game out which didn’t fit with anything already on the slate. That was a damned, damned shame.
Nowadays, of course, I tend to play chains of games against the same people with more or less the same armies (or at least the same figures, though they might walk back and forth between editions a little). This means… in theory… that we can actually string together short campaigns, narrative chains of games which let some stories emerge and build up. The People’s Panting and I have this WIP idea about playing through an Albion campaign together, and that’d be a test run for the sort of thing I’m on about.
I don’t want to go mad with it – there are some lovely campaign rules for sixth edition WFB but they absolutely depend on having regular, frequent games, week in week out, to keep momentum. It’s the same problem we have with RPGs: committing to regular weekly sessions around kids and shifts and our respective agonies just doesn’t work. With an added layer of “this is a dead game” and “we all live just far enough apart that it’s a big deal to get together and play.” So I’m looking to do what I did with RPGs: shift from the “weekly episode in an endless picaresque” to the “occasional feature length special” mode of storytelling.
Remember that platonic ideal of Warhammer I was on about, where games are heavily curated and teased up to with some skirmishes and given a bit of context? That’s part of it. Why are these two (or three) armies fighting? What happened in the run up? Does this need to be another Pitched Battle or can we plan ahead and do an Ambush or something?
Wanking away telling stories for myself is fine but I’d love to tell some with other people and really let them build up. So far we’ve been playing tester games, taster games and tournament games – not things that hang together super well – but the opportunity is now knocking to do my favourite thing.
To this end, I’m actually thinking I might have to put some definite names to some definite faces, lining up my Vampires of all shapes and sizes and once and for all saying who the hell is whom. Whether Lord Ruthven sticks around or finds himself confined to the Black Coach remains to be seen. There are still plenty of Lord Ruthven’s R-Words left to name lists and reports after, after all, and it seems fitting to stick with the first and greatest of English literary vampires as my officer in charge. Even if his actual Bloodline status becomes a bit… fluid… thanks to a possible new model I have in mind (and me wanting to bugger about with different rules).
Obviously I’ll keep Clarimonde on hand as a backup Countess (a general for when I don’t fancy taking a Lord/second Lord for small games) and the malicious Sir Francis Varney as fighting Thrall and general for small forces. Goodness knows what I’m going to do with the new Battle Standard Bearer. Is he Romauld, or is that my shiny new Necromancer of variant levels? Or shall I take advantage of that loose standard, stick it in a hole on the back of a base, and have it there for anyone who wants it to lug around?
And I have to admit that I liked “The Master and Margharita” as a title/concept for my fifth edition list, hinging as it did around a Vampire Countess and a Master Necromancer. That’s another little vampire literature homage I’d like to keep going. It may be that I end up using the literary references as titles for list archetypes. I used to do the same thing with Cradle of Filth songs, which just shows how far we’ve come since 2004… in some respects, at least.
As you can see, I have (thanks to Dominik from the sixth edition Facebook group) laid my hands on a definitive piece of tactical guidance from the man/myth/legend/holy terror of the chip shop the world knows as Mike Walker. His brief detour into the finer points of Necromancy was another of those well-timed moments: it occurred around the time I was first renewing my interest in the fangéd wossnames of the night.*
Looking back, it’s interesting to see how many of my current thoughts mirror things Mike told us all a long time ago. The Vampire Lord elevated to magic level three with the Carstein Ring stapled firmly to their finger and accompanied by a workmanlike Necromancer; the importance of the Black Periapt; the necessity to dismiss Hand of Dust in favour of a spell that doesn’t rob your Vampire of attacks or rely on your Necromancer’s mediocre finger-flapping actually landing a hit.
This isn’t to say that his approach was exhaustive. Today, spurred on by the reports that my fellow neck nibblers struggled a bit at the sixth edition tournament down Upminster way, I’m going to look at a few bits and bobs about the other Bloodlines, consider a handful of useful magic items, and weigh up the alternative to Necromancy, the often-unconsidered Lore of Death.
There are two things you need to know about Blood Dragons, as far as Necromancy is concerned.
First: Hand of Dust, for all its manifold flaws, may actually be worth sticking with on a Blood Dragon; their absurdly high Weapon Skill and access to rerolls from their Bloodline powers mean the attack is much more likely to hit, and because the highest-ranking Blood Dragon in a unit is obliged to challenge, they may end up in a situation where they need a good Hand of Dust to get the matter of honour over and done with so they can return to their real job of mulching infantry.
Second: the Black Periapt moves from “nice to have” into “must-have”; fifteen points to counteract the Bloodline’s slightly embarrassing Power Dice problem will ensure that the army remains ticking over despite its general’s lifestyle choices.
Honestly, there’s not a lot to report here, except that the Lahmians themselves suffer from mildly reduced Weapon Skill and an inability to swing anything double-handed around their heads. They also have an inbuilt tendency to strike first, with insane Initiative and a Bloodline power to seal the deal. I mention this purely because it might be worth setting a Hellish Vigour aside with these lasses. Other than that, play them like a slightly more fragile Von Carstein and you won’t go far wrong.
Here, there are a few things to bear in mind.
Nehekhara’s Noble Blood is a linchpin power. On a Vampire Lord, it gives you a level four wizard who can, for another thirty points spent on Forbidden Lore and a Spell Familiar, secure the entire Lore of Necromancy. On a Vampire Count, it gives you that crucial level three caster who can reliably bung out a Curse of Years or a top-end Invocation of Nehek, without occupying a precious hero slot. On a Vampire Thrall, it gives you a mediocre combat hero with barely-above-average WS, no armour, no magic item allowance left, and no real chance of casting anything but the most mediocre of spells (a single die Invocation or a Dark Hand of Death if you’re feeling spicy). Try as I might, wish as hard as I can, I have never found a case where those hundred and twenty-five points are not better spent on anything else that lurks in the Heroes section.
As far as the remaining powers go, the absolute standout for me is the one that extends the range of all Necromancy spells by six inches. The chief limiting factor on Necromancy is the modest distance from which it can be cast, and the need to place your extremely important single point of failure model a little closer to the action than they might otherwise like to be – a double concern when you’re the squashiest Vampire around and all the good Ward saves are juuuust expensive enough that you’d give up your last spell to secure them.
A Necrarch Count, who’ll never be cornering the market on spells, may like to consider the one that adds d3 models to your Invocation of Nehek rolls instead of Forbidden Lore and the Spell Familiar. This is a deceptively nifty little power, as it ensures even a mid-tier Invocation is guaranteed to create a new Zombie unit and takes the risk out of the low-end casting. As a bonus, it leaves you with enough points to sneak a Ring of the Night in there as well.**
The overgrown ghoul-wranglers are the other Vampires on whom I’d consider Hand of Dust worth a go, simply because they hate absolutely everyone and can keep that hate going a lot longer. The problem is that a Strigoi Vampire very much builds itself, and there are few scenarios in which I wouldn’t prefer to chuck out the six Strength six attacks with rerolls.
One more thing it’s worth remembering: Strigoi can’t carry magic items. This means that any crucial Black Periapt or Book of Arkhan will have to be carried by a Necromancer. No great loss, but often it means you’ll have to stop a little short of your full casting potential. Hopefully ripping the face off anything that looks at you funny will compensate. Strigoi are great.
The Power Stone is an underrated little trinket, capable of wringing an unexpected extra spell out of a turn or elevating a lowly Necromancer to the point where a crucial Curse of Years might actually go off. I’m not the biggest fan of one-use-only magic items, but a generic Stone-and-Scroll supporting caster might have a lot of potential if you don’t have my tendency to vacillate and save them for a better moment that never comes.
The Black Periapt, as Mr. Walker opines, is a dirt cheap way to give yourself a little polish in every Magic phase, limited only by the wily opponent’s tendency to bung all their dice out there and deny you the option of hanging on to any. I suppose that’s why it’s so gosh-darn cheap. The Power Familiar is a more reliable version of the same thing and honestly a pretty decent use of your Necromancer’s magic item allowance if you’re stuck for better ideas.
The other important items are the Bound Spells. Bring too many of these and you’ll see your opponents develop this fascinating little tic under the eye as they contemplate reviving comp scores just for you. Rely on them too much and you’ll discover that the sodding bastard things run out right when you don’t need them to.
Of the four Bound Spells available my favourites are the Book of Arkhan and Staff of Damnation. A guaranteed, if easy to Dispel, Vanhel’s Danse Macabre is a wonderful thing to have. The Staff is flat-out better than rolling Hellish Vigour simply because it affects every Undead model within range, not just a single unit. If I’m bringing two Necromancers and a Vampire Count I like to bring both of these. Even in my Sylvanian army, where the allowance of Arcane Items is drastically reduced because my Lord has better things to do with a 100 point allowance and my Thralls don’t have the choice, I like to find space for one of them.
Of the other two, the Rod of Flaming Death is an expensive novelty that might occasionally pay off. The fact that it only takes one casualty to cause a Panic test means it’s great for shooing off things like Empire detachments, Gnoblar rank bonus on legs or skirmishers of any sort that don’t have big crests on their head and a tendency to hang around in ponds. The Talon of Death is not something I’ve hitherto investigated – it seems similar to Hand of Dust but arguably more likely to get anything done.
The best thing about these items is that, being Enchanted rather than Arcane, any old character can carry them. The worst thing about these items is that any non-wizard character in my army is likely to have their hands full with either a big flappy object on a long firm object, a spooky book of non-spellcasting nature, or a suite of Bloodline powers tailored for some niche function or other. In larger games when I can afford a spare hero to carry them I might consider them worth a go on a Wraith or something but in my usual 2000-or-below endeavours there are more important things to think about.
The Lore of Death
I think two casters with Necromancy are probably essential. This guarantees you two attempts at the vital Invocation of Nehek and a spare caster who can do the work while the other maintains the Curse of Years. But if I were blessed with the opportunity of a third spellcasting Hero, I would definitely look twice at the other suite of maledictions the Vampire Counts have available.
Dark Hand of Death is an easy cast to draw out Dispel dice, but heavily dependent on that single d6 for hits – Mike is correct in that it’s all too often a damp squib. Wind of Death is exactly like Gaze of Nagash in every way and serves exactly the same purpose. The real gems in the list, though, are the spells that aren’t magic missiles.
Drain Life and Steal Soul are significant in having a mediocre range*** and that amazing little phrase “no armour save” about their person. On casters who like to get close to the enemy – your Blood Dragons and Strigoi – these spells are excellent. Try to save Steal Soul (the one that targets a single model) for unit Champions, who have a tendency to issue challenges that inconvenience your Vampires by forcing them to kill one model instead of wiping out a front rank and protecting your vulnerable infantry from those nasty attacks that tend to equalise combats.
Of course, another way to handle those attacks is with a low-cost spell of deceptive efficiency. Death Dealer is a bit of a gem for those occasions on which you’re expecting to lose models and need to claw back a combat, especially if you have units of Ghouls or Wights in combat with things that strike before them.
The top spell, of course, is the real moneymaker, particularly for Lahmian vampires who already corrode enemy Leadership just by being near them. Doom and Darkness is an essential cast if you’re up against enemies which are for whatever reason immune to the normal effects of fear but still take Break tests; a three (or four, if you’re Lahmian) point swing in your favour is usually enough to send those pesky Ogres running or beat the rage out of those Chaos Warriors.
It would also be remiss of me not to point out that your Rare units love this spell. With Doom and Darkness on their intended target Banshees move from a nuisance to a genuine threat, while the Black Coach has a very real chance of breaking a unit with terror or running it down after a Break test.
If you happen to have opted for a smaller and squashier Vampire general, and a couple of spell-flinging miscreants to support them, the house recommends keeping your Necromancers Necromantic but experimenting with the Lore of Death at the sharp and pointy end of your army.
I’ve got to go now. The first regulation day of Welsh summer (enjoy it, only four more to come) is finally winding to a close, and it’s finally cool and dark enough for me to venture outside. Black puddings don’t buy themselves, you know, and one only gets to call on Trafnidiaeth Cymru so often on a Bank Holiday.**** I hope all this has been helpful, or at least not entirely pointless; it’s a lot of words to squander on doing a bad impression of a niche contributor to a topic that hasn’t been relevant to anyone at all for fifteen years, but it’s kept me occupied through the long dark teatime of the soul. May it do the same for you.
*I did have a Vampire Counts army in fifth edition, but the limitations of pocket money and patience meant it amounted to little more than a buck-toothed Necrarch and a box of Zombies. The one was quite well painted, the others were… not. Previous efforts at an Undead army had similarly run face first into the sheer number of the bastards one needed to obtain: the first run stopped at eight Skeletons, three Horsemen, a Chariot, a Skull Chucker, and a dismounted Arkhan the Black who wasn’t feeling too great about his prospects.
**You may be considering the Crown of the Damned. Please stop considering the Crown of the Damned. Your Vampire general is far, far too important to risk having them be taken out of play by one failed Leadership test. Sooner or later, you will fail one Leadership test and find you’ve spent four hundred and fifty odd points on a general who has decided that dominating the world with mastery of the ole black magic is less important than standing in front of those Grail Knights flicking their fangs and going “brbrbrbrbrbrbrbrbrbr”. Even if they survive contact with the enemy, the embarrassment factor is simply too much to bear.
***To which, it must be noted, the Necrarchs’ extension also applies. An eighteen inch Drain Life radius is significantly better than a twelve inch one, while thirty inches on Dark Hand of Death makes it a real threat to war machine crews and other mid-deployment-zone loiterers.
****I have yet to discover any power, no matter how dire, quaint or curious, that will make a Welsh bus turn up in anything like a timely manner, particularly when Sunday services are involved. One waits for these things with all the patience of a Bretonnian player for a new army book, and generally with the same result.