[WFB] “My Dark Elf Army Will Destroy You” (1/?)

I’ve been on the old White Dwarfs again. An ‘orrible manifestation of Nurgle laid me low over the New Year period and kept me at home, bundled up with even less capacity for joined up thinking than usual. Naturally, in between coughing fits I spent the time comfort reading, and after my second Kim Newman novel I wanted something familiar to batten my brain on.

So it was that I spent some time with the works of the great prophet Stihlma’an, an heretical figure from an ancient civilisation who had a great deal to say on the topic of selecting, collecting, assembling and otherwise aligning one’s toymens for battle. In particular, I wheezed my way through his articles on raising armies by the division or levy (ably supported by one Rikmaninus Priesterlijk’s dissertation on banging out regiments quick sharp), and his later chronicles of efforts toward a fully Bretonnian lifestyle. (Airbornegrove over at Give ‘Em Lead has already done the retrospective on these so I don’t feel compelled to drag you all through it, let there be much rejoicing etc.)

Old Nige’s Bretonnian army was, you see, thought out; fully enslaved to the Narrative which was to be Forged and thought about with an almost roleplayerish attitude to what would make sense and look good together. He also (and this bit’s important) had a charmingly basic approach to painting, throwing dip around years before it became fashionable. I’d forgotten how many of my techniques (layering paint straight onto metal, the rough prime and ink approach to basecoating) were derived from Stihlma’an’s blasphemous scrolls in the first place, and in this age of Contrast paints and what have you there’s every chance the same approaches will look rather better.

And all of this set me to thinking. See, I’ve basically finished my Vampire Counts, and while I remain very fond of them I would like an away-game army that doesn’t involve quite so many damn models or quite so much running repair work. I started some Tomb Kings, but painting the same bastard Skeleton forty times just to have a single viable unit isn’t an option with my wrists in the declining state they’re in. So I was left to cast around. I wanted something I’d played before and already had a rough idea how to use; something with a low model count; something tactically flexible that has a presence in unaccustomed phases of the game. And then it hit me.

See, I hate High Elves. I really hate High Elves. I’ve been on the wrong end of High Elf armies for my entire Warhammer career. You’d have to go a long way to find someone who hates High Elves as much as I do. All the way to the frozen north, where the men are men and the women are very extremely women (except for the slaves, who are getting sacrificed any day now). Here dwells an army of small, elite, hard-hitting, tactically flexible, extremely stylish absolute filthmongers who, as a plus, hate High Elves as a lifestyle choice.

I’ve played them before, at the very tail end of seventh edition and the very beginning of eighth. I wanted to collect them all the way back in fifth, as a teenager, but never really got started. And, as a bonus, I still have some Dark Elf models lying around; ten plastic Harpies and a metal Sorceress from Avatars of War, plus a Repeater Bolt Thrower from the sixth edition Citadel range and a passable Assassin (I mean, what else do you do with a Mordheim Dramatis Persona your warband can’t even hire?)

Not exactly the stuff of legends, is it?

Most of the Citadel plastics are still available and, while quite expensive, I won’t need too many of them. (After my experiences with the Tomb Kings, I intend to avoid Mantic’s mixed medium kits for the foreseeable, and I don’t know of another firm that does plastic elves). I’ll need a general, and will probably have to pay eBay gouge prices for the figure I want, but if it’s only the one model I’ll live.

I already have a notion of what I want in the army. My rough vision is a General and low level Wizard to start off, a couple of City Guard or Corsair units to form my base line, my single Bolt Thrower (I remember one of the chaps in Collecting And Painting Wargames Armies named his the Inescapable Destiny, and that’s more or less how I feel about them too), and then some Dark Riders and Cold One Knights to go out and do damage. Plus the Harpies if I can fit them in. Under fifth edition rules that’s about 1000 points and should be a good start.

I intend to work toward the Ultimate Spirit of Wargaming, as is only proper for a Stillmania project: a 2000 point army, ideally viable under Tournament Battle restrictions, to be picked and painted and varnished and never messed with again. My wizard in particular will level up as I go along (level 2 for 1500 point games, level 3 for 2000). I’m going to experiment with troops along the way, though, and give myself a chance to learn the ropes before I rush out and buy the whole force.

I also have the beginnings of a background sketched out…

After a failed bid for the throne of Hag Graef, Princess Kerithion was given a simple choice; get out, or be fed to the Cold Ones quick sharp. Being disinclined to throw herself to the lizards, the Princess rounded up what remained of her loyal followers and set off. With her Black Ark seized and impounded, Kerithion was forced to make the long and dangerous trek along the coastline of the Chaos Wastes

One midnight-sun summer day later, Kerithion and her associates stumbled down the fjord of Niðavellir and face first into the local Norse tribe. Lacking the elfpower to outright enslave the locals, Kerithion was forced to broker a tentative alliance with Jarl Bjorn Beorgson (who knew on what side his smorgasbord was spread and didn’t exactly fancy being riddled with crossbow bolts himself).

To everyone’s surprise, it’s worked out quite nicely. The Norscans are grateful for the additional firepower, skilled heavy cavalry and magical support Kerithion’s Druchii can bring to their raiding parties, while the Princess finds access to their longboats opens up new opportunities to pillage, plunder, pilfer and otherwise keep herself in the manner to which she’s accustomed. It’s not exactly Naggaroth’s second city, but she’s become rather attached to Dökkálfheim, and the carefully wrought displays of intrigue and brinkmanship between herself and the Jarl keep life interesting…

Of course, from a certain point of view this is entirely an excuse for me to paint up and field some Chaos allies or the Bearmen of Urslo; a skimpy piece of fluff with which I adorn my enormous and unkempt beard. To such nasty nimini-pimini little accusations I merely scoff. I mean, it’s true, but I’m willing to go the distance here and only enlist the appropriate troops to pursue my vision (Greater Daemons, for instance, will be few and far between), as well as making an effort to hang their appearance together and so on. My patron Stihlma’an would expect nothing less!

How hard I lean on this concept remains to be seen; I might want to go full Cult of Slaanesh, amassing the sort of forces necessary for that combined-arms sort of endeavour, or I might stick to the Bearmen and remain within the Tournament Battle guidelines. We’ll see what comes about.

[WFB] The Army of Sylvania (WD291/Storm of Chaos, 2004)

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.

I wonder…

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.

[WFB] The Narrative Approach (Paul Gayner, WD290)

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.

After all, this is what it’s all about…

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.

Who ARE you fanged dorks, for goodness’ sake?

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.

[WFB] The Inimitable Stylings of Mike Walker (with full WD article list)

The year, you see, was 1998. I had been in t’obby for almost two years and, after cutting my teeth on the Grim Darkness of the Far Future, was starting to sniff around something with swords, boards, and square bases.*

Mike Walker’s first article for White Dwarf was almost perfectly timed. To a lad who liked Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Spike Milligan, and also happened to be curious about Warhammer, this article was brain dynamite. It was funny**, it was apposite, and it was all paced and delivered in such a way that you couldn’t miss the point even if you were busy laughing at the bits about Kim Basinger and Goblins with silly names.

From brain dynamite to brain tape, Mike’s articles kept on coming out every now and then, petering out in the same month that I was off to university. Perhaps that accident of timing accounts for a lot; it’s the secondary school years that cement our sense of nostalgia out here in Middlehammer-land, and mine were, in a small way, guided by the irregular transmissions from a double garage somewhere in soggy Wiltshire. This was Warhammer the way I was playing it, on temporary boards laid over kitchen tables and double beds, and later the pub-in-the-club above the Hyde Park in Plymouth. Army lists may be quite cutthroat but characters had silly or at least referential names and it was the daft circumstantial moments rather than the brilliant tactics that made the longest impressions.

I’ve read and reread them over the years***, and a few years ago when I was writing for the now-defunct House of Paincakes Blog Network, I happened to mention Mike Walker in passing while talking up the relaunch of White Dwarf.

To my eternal delight, the man himself materialised in the comments. Not just to say thank you and gaze mournfully toward the garage door where, presumably, Dug Bugman and co. still languish in ancient toolboxes – ho no. Mike was courteous enough to provide a full list of his contributions to White Dwarf over the years, which I reproduce here (well, down there) along with some of my own hopefully-helpful notes on what’s in them****.

  • 224 (August 1998) – First Encounters of the Warhammer Kind – inc. The Battle of Newberry Pass scenario
  • 226 (October 1998) – The Battle of Iron Axe Ridge – a scenario for large armies on small tables
  • 230 (February 1999) – Thump & Grind – tactics for beating Skaven
  • 231 (March 1999) – Putting the Ploy in Deployment – a five step program for putting your models in the right place – before you fight, remember to SCRAP!
  • 232 (April 1999) – Fighting with Cold Blood – tactics for playing with and against Lizardmen
  • 233 (May 1999) – Like a Rat out of Hell – Battle Report, Mike’s Dwarfs vs. Gareth Hamilton’s tournament-tuned Skaven and some frankly dodgy rules calls. Mike wuz robbed!
  • 236 (August 1999) – Top Gear? – Chariot tactics and test drive
  • 241 (January 2000) – A Touching Dilemma – [not sure about this one, don’t have the issue any more]
  • 246 (June 2000) – The Gentle Art of Getting Fired – tactics for units that shoot things
  • 253 (January 2001) – Dicing with Magic – a walkthrough of the sixth edition WFB magic system
  • 254 (February 2001) – Unnatural Selection -approaches to army lists and setup for Mike’s league report
  • 256 (April 2001) – Dansing with Wolves – Mike’s league report, part one, and a kick in the eye for anyone who thinks Ravening Hordes was “balanced”.
  • 257 (May 2001) – It Ain’t Easy Being Green – Mike’s league report, part two, and a review of his Orc and Goblin army list
  • 258 (June 2001) – Fifteen Ways to Leave your Cover – how to ensure satisfactory terrain bunging
  • 260 (August 2001) – To Kill a Bloodthirster – if you need to be told what this is about, you are beyond help
  • 270 (June 2002) – The Strong, The Short and The Small – [Dwarf tactics, IIRC, but I don’t have a copy to check]
  • 273 (September 2002) – Pale Riders – Fast Cavalry tactics and comforting advice for Dwarf and Skaven players
  • 282 (June 2003) – The Black Art – [something about Mike’s brief dalliance with a Vampire Counts army, if anyone has this issue I want it]
  • 290 (January 2004) – Extreme Measures – on the perils and pitfalls of measuring, guessing and wrangling ranges
  • 297 (September 2004) – How to Lose at Warhammer – which I read right before I went off to university, and it might have been the same one that had the Army of Sylvania background in it, so in case you’re wondering how I turned out to be the way I am, blame this issue of WD.

So there you have it. If you’re looking for a series at least as opinionated as Stillmania, and just as influential on the minds of young hobbyists (or at least me), there it is. Dig ’em all out, there’s a fan archive that will get you started (look, they’re not available through legitimate means and I’m sure as hell not buying cranchity old mags at collector’s markup, I have some standards) and have a butchers.

I’ve got to go now. The clouds have temporarily lifted from South Wales, and since I haven’t the faintest idea how to make hay while the sun shines, I’m going to do the next best thing and paint a Liche Priest. Come back next time, when there’ll be much more late-Nineties White Dwarf nostalgia and a sudden attack of the challenges…

*Memo to self: Swords, Boards and Square Bases would be an ideal name for the other sort of Middlehammer blog, the sort where you go boss-eyed and froth every time someone even says “Age of Sigmar”.
**I think it still is, but in some key respects I have never stopped being twelve. If I stop and think about it all I am of course far too mature to find the names “Wobblebottom Rumblebelly” or “Bugman’s Ultimate Response Patrol” at all amusing, but if you start thinking like that you end up far too mature to be playing with toy soldiers at your age, so – I’d watch out for that sort of thing if I was you.
***The ones I can still find, anyway. My original White Dwarfs were practically given away at a car boot sale just before I went to university, along with my second edition 40K and fifth edition WFB stuff. I should regret this more than I do, but eighteen year old me was delighted to pass them on to a twelve year old newly-minted hobbyist and honestly, I hope he still has them somewhere.
****I took a lot of things from Mike, including my love of footnotes and deeply unhelpful titles. I know titles like WFB MIKE WALKER WARHAMMER MIDDLEHAMMER FULL ARTICLE LIST WHITE DWARF L@@K would be better for baiting the clicks and optimising the search engines, but gosh it would be so boring.