Orcs, and Hordes of the things

Although the dictionary definition of orc is merely “monster,” modern authors universally follow the lead of Tolkien in using the term as a synonym for a large goblin.  These have not had a fair press. They are fanatically brave in spite of being weaker and less practiced than most other humanoids, and must be kind to animals, since they train them so well.  It is interesting that Tolkien’s characters describe them in terms very similar to those used by medieval chroniclers to describe Mongols, who in our day are considered a nice friendly people of slightly eccentric lifestyle.  We might instead think of such goblins as a fantasy counterpart of the apocryphal northerner: clannish, rough spoken, given to imbibing of strong but peculiar liquor, keeping analogues of whippets and pidgeons, prone to mob violence at away fixtures and perhaps too easily influenced by radical politicians of other races. –Phil Barker, Sue Laflin Barker & Richard Bodley Scott, Hordes of the things

The paragraph above is the caption for the orc & goblin army list in Hordes of the things (or HOTT).  I love this “defense” of orcs.  The write-ups in the army lists are not all as good, but here’s my other favorite, for the “Generic barbarians” list:

Humans lacking in non-oral culture and fond of old fashioned sports like head-hunting, cattle raiding, or world conquest.

What else do you really need to know? HOTT is a fantasy wargame that was first released in 1991 and which uses fairly simple principles found in De Bellis Antiquitatus (DBA).  It uses the same standard unit size (an ‘element’ or base of several miniatures, usually three or four but as many as 8 or as few as one miniature might be used, depending on the troop type), but whereas DBA uses 12 elements for every army, HOTT has a ‘points’ system allowing armies of varying sizes depending on the troops bought.  The rule book includes a large number of army lists, although in principle there are relatively few restrictions on what kind of army you could field.  The list of armies is helpful because it gives examples of what the authors intend by some of the very generic troop types, and also as sort of bibliography for some classic sources for fantasy gaming. The “generics” are elf or fairy, dwarf, goblin or orc, gnome, undead, reptillian, ratmen, medieval, barbarian, nomad, pirate, evil humans, chaos, good kung-fu, and evil kung-fu (the last two based on 70’s and 80’s movies). Here’s the rest, the parenthetical entries being separate lists:

  • Summerian myth (human, good demonic, evil demonic, hosts of the dead, Asag and the stone allies)
  • Homeric myth (Greek, Trojan)
  • Greek myth
  • Amazon
  • Arthurian epic
  • Carolingian epic
  • Irish epic (Ulster, Irish)
  • Norse myth (Aesir, giants)
  • Arabian myth
  • Persian epic
  • Japanese myth (Imperial descent, Kumaso)
  • Indian myth (Rama, Lanka)

Those were the armies of myth & legend; there are also some semi-historical types that would incorporate mostly historical forces, but which are highly speculative and include fantasy elements.  These are inspired by films, period legends, and popular culture.

  • Semi-historical Egyptian
  • Kyropaedia (Persians, Lydians) [after Xenophon]
  • Arthurian semi-historical (Arthur, Saxons)
  • Chinese semi-historical
  • Da Vinci Italian [renaissance Italy + Da Vinci’s drawings of war marchines!)
  • Japanese epic [including legends as well as Kurosawa films]
  • Aztec semi-historical
  • Conquistador semi-historical
  • Munchausen 18th century (Russians, Ottoman Turks)
  • Napoleonic semi-historical
  • Victorian science ficiton
  • Boxer Rebellion (Boxer, Foreign devils)
  • Alien invasion (Aliens, Humans)

Various fantasy books and stories:

  • Hyborian (Northern barbarians, Picts, medieval states, Shem, Stygia, Black nations, near eastern nations, Vendhya, Khitai) [R.E. Howard and later pastiches]
  • Barsoom (Red men, green men) [E.R. Burroughs]
  • Fairie queen (Gloriana’s knights, League of enchanters) [Edmund Spencer]
  • De Camp Novarian (Othomae, Shvenite, Fedirun, Mulvanian, Paaluan) [L. Sprague DeCamp]
  • Well of the Unicorn (Vulking, Salmonessan, Dalarnan) [Fletcher Pratt]
  • Kregen (Pre-Prescott Vallia, Imperial Vallia, Loh, Clansmen, Radvakkas, Pandahem, Hamal, Moorcrim, Shanks) [the Scorpio/Kregen/Antares series by Alan Burt Akers/Dray Prescot]
  • Deryni (Army of ex-queen Ariella, army of grand-master Jebediah, amry of King Nelson, army of Archbishop Loris) [Katherine Kurtz]
  • Tekumel (this one does not list separate nations but just gives a list of possible troops) [M.A.R. Barker]
  • Dragaeran (Dragaeran, Easterners) [Steven Brust]
  • Black Company (Plain of Fear army, army of The Lady, army of The Limper, Shadowmaster’s army) [Glen Cook]
  • Dracula (Dracula, Dracula’s foes) [Bram Stoker]
  • Discworld (Ahnk-Morpork, Seriphate of Klatch, D’regs, Agatean Empire, Agatean insurgents, Lancre) [Terry Pratchett]
  • Atlantis [H.Rider Haggard and others]

and lastly pure fun

  • Christmas wars (Santa Claus, The anti-claus)
  • Garden wars (Garden gnomes, Ants, Wasps)

The army lists are NOT in the free pdf that HOTT’s publishers have kindly provided while HOTT remains out of print. (N.B. this pdf is for personal use only!) <update: as the newest version is finally in print, the pdf link is dead>  However using the rules and some imagination, you should be able to make up whatever army you want.  HOTT is designed with large scale battles in mind, but as you might have inferred from the inclusion of lists like “Dracula’s foes,” scale really doesn’t matter.   A wild range of armies were on display on the Stronghold, a web site that for years provided resources for HOTT players including house rules, variant armies, galleries of armies, and so on.  The site has been down for a few years but you can still see the front page and many of the pages archived here. <update: the Stronghold is now a blog here> The mythological and literary lists are generally well-researched (as you might expect a community of wargamers to do; after all considerable number of ancients wargamers have learned ancient Greek and Latin just to research the armies and battles of the period). One of my favorite variants was called “D20 HOTT,” which attempts to create a point of conversion for D&D games to HOTT, so that your character can participate in mass battles.  The only problem with such a scheme though is that players who expect the battle to ‘feel’ like a D&D combat will certainly be disappointed, and this might go even more so for spell-casters who will find their powers reduced to artillery or counterspells (if mages or clerics, respectively).

Published in: on June 18, 2013 at 8:59 pm  Comments (4)  
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The worm Ouroboros (review)

Lately I’ve been trying to read as much ‘classic’ fantasy as I can.  My main criteria for counting a work as a classic has been (1) the work or author is prominent in Gygax’s Appendix N; or (2) it was written before the resurgence of epic fantasy in the early 1980s (which I, rightly or wrongly, attribute largely to the success of D&D and the renewed interest in the Lord of the Rings due to the film, television specials, and general fantasy revival of the period), or (3) it is mentioned in the wargame Hordes of the Things.

The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison certainly meets criteria (2), and for some reason I thought I’d seen it listed in BOTH the Dungeon Masters Guide and Hordes Of The Things, but somehow neither mention it.  I must have just run into repeated references to it in other sources…otherwise I’m not sure why I held it in such esteem, sight unseen.  I suppose I’ve seen it mentioned positively in various blogs and surveys of fantasy literature, but however I first heard of it,  I’m glad I did.  It is magnificent.  I agree with a lot of other readers who comment that the ‘induction,’ which introduces the story as taking place on the planet Mercury, visited by an Earthling after a dream-like journey, is very odd; the more so because the Earthling disappears from the story around chapter two, without ever being of any import to the plot.  Odd but not a fatal flaw by any means.

You can download a reading of it here, or get a text version here (it is out of copyright).  I read the Dover reprint, but will have to check out the reading some time.

There are reviews and synopses aplenty all around the internet, so there is not much for me to add, except to say I found it much, much better than I expected.  I had read some criticism of the goofy names and place-names (apparently Eddison had created the characters and story as a child, and returned to it as an adult to actually write it, but did not have the stomach to change the names), and I was a little put off at first by the extremely antiquated prose, although as I read on, I grew to like it more and more, and savored it.  The Elizabethan prose is really beautiful, even when the narration describes death and dismemberment.  It is not a book you can tear through in one night, but why would you want to?  The story line is interesting, the characters are vivid (although you may want to keep notes to keep some of the names straight), and world draws you in.

The world of the book is called “Mercury” although really it is an alternate Earth; in fact the Greek gods are invoked by the characters and the world is inhabited predominantly by humans though they call themselves Demons, Witches, Ghouls, Imps, Pixies, Foliots, and Goblins.  An early chapter mentions that the Demons are horned, but this is never mentioned again and it may be a reference to their helmets.

The story tells of a war between the Demons and Witches, which involves several pitched battles, and an expedition to recover a Demon lord who is magically kidnapped to a surreal ‘underworld’ (which is actually atop a mountain).  His brother eventually reaches the mountain-prison, after battling a manticore and taming a hippogriff.  Part of his journey is obstructed by various hellish visions, including one of his trapped brother:

Darker grew the mist, and heavier the brooding dread which seemed elemental of the airs about that mountain. Pausing well nigh exhausted on a small stance of snow Juss beheld the appearance of a man armed who rolled prostrate in the way, tearing with his nails at the hard rock and frozen snow, and the snow was all one gore of blood beneath the man; and the man besought him in a stifled voice to go no further but raise him up and bring him down the mountain. And when Juss, after an instant’s doubt betwixt pity and his resolve, would have passed by, the man cried and said, “Hold, for I am thy very brother thou seekest, albeit the King hath by his art framed me to another likeness, hoping so to delude thee. For thy love sake be not deluded!” Now the voice was like to the voice of his brother Goldry, howbeit weak.

But the Lord Juss bethought him again of the words of Sophonisba the Queen, that he should see his brother in his own shape and nought else must he trust; and he thought, “It is an illusion, this also.” So he said, “If that thou be truly my dear brother, take thy shape.” But the man cried as with the voice of the Lord Goldry Bluszco, “I may not, till that I be brought down from the mountain. Bring me down, or my curse be upon thee for ever.”

The Lord Juss was torn with pity and doubt and wonder, to hear that voice again of his dear brother so beseeching him. Yet he answered and said, “Brother, if that it be thou indeed, then bide till I have won to this mountain top and the citadel of brass which in a dream I saw, that I may know truly thou art not there, but here. Then will I turn again and succour thee. But until I see thee in thine own shape I will mistrust all. For hither I came from the ends of the earth to deliver thee, and I will set my good on no doubtful cast, having spent so much and put so much in danger for thy dear sake.”

So with a heavy heart he set hand again to those black rocks, iced and slippery to the touch. Therewith up rose an eldritch cry, “Rejoice, for this earth-born is mad! Rejoice, for that was not perfect friend, that relinquished his brother at his need!” But Juss climbed on, and by and by looking back beheld how in that seeming man’s place writhed a grisful serpent. And he was glad, so much as gladness might be in that mountain of affliction and despair.

Eddison clearly has read his Arthurian romances, Norse sagas, and Greek myths, and the heroes of his story tend to be much more like Nietzschean ‘blond beasts’ than the sort of characters that populate modern fantasy novels.  In fact there is another scene on the mountain where Lord Juss is ‘tempted’ by a vision of despair at the ‘meaninglessness’ of his struggle, but he eventually overcomes it by sheer force of will.  I understand Tolkien disliked this work’s ‘morality’ (and terrible names) while praising the world-invention and writing.  Like Tolkien and many other readers, I found Lord Gro — the Goblin traitor — to be the most likeable character, and probably this is because he is the one character least at home in the book’s world.

I wish I’d found this map and printed it out while I was reading this book, but as usual I did most of my research after finishing it.

One of the most interesting aspects of the invented world to me is the number of proverbs and sayings Eddison has his characters recite. I think that on my next reading* I might even try to extract all the “Mercurial proverbs” into a future post.  They are very colorful and would help bring alive an alien, archaic world for a RPG.  I am guessing that some or most are actually drawn from literature, just as the songs and poems in the story are (Eddison even provides a list of sources for these in an appendix, as well as a chronology, including many ‘off-screen’ events).

Another clever stylistic device is the use of even more archaic English when letters or books are read. Here is an example from a letter:

Unto the right high mighti and doubtid Prynsace the Quen of Implande, one that was your Servaunt but now beinge both a Traitor and a manifiald parjured Traitor, which Heaven above doth abhorre, the erth below detest, the sun moone and starres be eschamed of, and all Creatures doo curse and ajudge unworthy of breth and life, do wish onelie to die your Penytent. In hevye sorrowe doo send you these advisoes which I requyre your Mageste in umblest manner to pondur wel, seeinge ells your manyfest Overthrowe and Rwyn att hand. And albeit in Carcee you reste in securitie, it is serten you are there as saife as he that hingeth by the Leves of a Tree in the end of Autumpne when as the Leves begin to fall. For in this late Battaile in Mellicafhaz Sea hath the whole powre of Wychlande on the sea been beat downe and ruwyned, and the highe Admirall of our whole Navie loste and ded and the names of the great men of accownte that were slayen at the battaile I may not numbre nor the common sorte much lesse by reaisoun that the more part were dround in the sea which came not to Syght. But of Daemounlande not ij schips companies were lossit, but with great puissaunce they doo buske them for Carsee. Havinge with them this Gowldri Bleusco, strangely reskewed from his preassoun-house beyond the toombe, and a great Armey of the moste strangg and fell folke that ever I saw or herd speke of. Such is the Die of Warre.

Even some of Eddison’s characters stumble over written documents, and while it does add another level of difficulty to an already difficult book, it certainly increases the feeling that you  are observing a real, if strange, world.

I was tempted to look for a ‘meaning’ to the story, despite Eddison’s straightforward rejection of such in his dedication:

It is neither allegory nor fable but a Story to be read for its own sake.

This reminded me immediately of Tolkien’s statement that LotR is not an allegory either, not that anyone believes him.  Taking Eddison at his word, The worm Ouroboros is a great story, capturing a strange but believable world inhabited by the kinds of heroes we find in Viking or Celtic legend: a world at war, and with heroes who live for war.  It is not surprising that Tolkien would find the unabashedly pagan heroes and their love of battle distasteful, but taken as a story, and not a morality play, there is much to enjoy in the doings and sayings of these barbaric nobles.



*Yes, this ranks with The well of the unicorn, Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, and Lord of the rings as something I’ll be re-reading.

Published in: on December 16, 2011 at 3:13 pm  Comments (4)  
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Miniatures and D&D, and wargames and D&D

Squidman, over at Elves ate my homework, recently wondered if people really use miniatures much in D&D, and The Fighting Fantasist rather shockingly argues that minis detract from the game. (A pox upon his house!)

Seriously though, I can see his point. I’ve played in many a RPG session where the specific figures, and terrain pieces, did not jibe with what the DM was describing, and as players we occasionally tried to use this to our advantage (“But how can they see me behind that rock?” “It’s only two feet high.” “But it’s an inch tall — that’s at least 5 scale feet!”) Oi.  In fact, it seems that a lot of people never got into minis for the RPGs. (more…)

Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 3:00 am  Comments (10)  
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Army of the orcs

Man, I loves me some orcs.  The army below takes up  two tackle boxes, and I have about three more tackle boxes of loose orcs based for RPGs, including cavalry (but not counting goblins and half-orcs!)

This army can field everything in the Mordor and Misty Mountains lists for DBA, with many extras (Shooters, chariots, etc.).  About half the pictures didn’t come out so well, so there are not a lot of closeups, but you can always click to embiggen.  See the army of Robilar for some pics of the orc infantry. (more…)

Published in: on March 5, 2010 at 10:50 am  Comments (2)  
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Army of the dwarfs

My brother has always loved dwarves, and built up quite an army. He was never as patient at painting as I am, and ultimately I finished a lot of these, or painted them start to finish in some cases, although back when we were building Warhammer armies there was a certain rivalry and I hated to waste time when I could be painting my own orcs…anyway since then I’ve rebased his dwarves for HOTT/DBx/etc. (more…)

Published in: on March 3, 2010 at 1:41 pm  Comments (6)  
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The army of Robilar

The “Lord of the Green Dragons” blog has a series of posts going which detail the armies of certain Greyhawk notables, including Rob Kuntz’s character Robilar.

In case you’re wondering what his army might look like (if I fielded it anyway), I think something like this (as always, click to embiggen.  Sorry for the blurry images, I didn’t want to spend too much time on this and rushed through):


Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 3:00 am  Comments (6)  
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The army of darkness

Got a little tripod for my camera — can you tell? All images can be clicked to embiggen.

So here is the Army of Darkness, an undead army for HOTT. Most of the figures were painted long ago, when I used a black wash on everything and some are among my first figures ever (the general on the litter and his bodyguard are about 28 years old). In fact they were originally intended (and based) for Warhammer 2nd ed, but I’m fairly disenchanted with single-figure basing and mechanics. HOTT is quicker, simpler, and a lot more fun IMO. The core is blocks of Hordes:

Mostly Citadel Plastic skeletons (I got two of their original Skeleton Horde sets back in the late 1980s). One stand is some Ral Partha skeletons (rear left). I decided to base my most fragile figures, like the RP skeletons, on wargaming stands to reduce the chance of them being damaged, and because I have more skeletons than I’ll ever need for RPGs (unless we run Death Frost Doom, I guess).

Cavalry support from some Grenadier undead and two Ral Parthas (converted to hold spears from the Citadel set rather than their original scimitars).The guy with the red hood is a liche and could be the Wizard general.

The alternate general is Napoleon Boneyparts, a Blade or Hero (or a Litter if you incorporate DBA rules).

More old Grenadier. All that yellow? I didn’t have gold metallic paint back when I painted the guys on this stand. And I had a tendency to put blood on EVERY weapon in sight.

The gimmicks of the army are two classic Grenadier figures, the chariot (Knight) and war mammoth (Behemoth):

The whole army arrayed (with both general options):

Published in: on March 1, 2010 at 1:41 pm  Comments (7)  
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DBD&D continued

OK, at the request of my DM I did look over Battlesystem 2e again and decided it is basically Advanced Chainmail.  I can get over the fact that you need all the polyhedrals, not just normal six-sided dice.  I can get over the fact that you need to keep track of a large number of morale triggers, and hits per figure (I’d imagined the standard trooper would take one hit yo kill but no, mostly two plus).  And I really like the fast movement (18″ for cavalry, 9″ for infantry, on a standard 8’x4′ board).  What I really don’t like is that it is not really like AD&D or any version of D&D, so all the players would need to learn a new system of rolling to hit and so on.  Granted HOTT would also be a new system for everyone but at least it is VERY short and simple. Roll one die for attacker, one for defender, apply modifiers, compare totals.   Short and sweet.  I shouldn’t let it bother me too much but Battlesystem also uses different basing conventions, and I will not rebase.  HOTT will let me put figures on standard sabot bases; Battlesystem needs to keep track of how many figures on each side are in contact with each other and that just leads to arguments or screwy sliding of units to get one more dude in contact than your opponent, or so my Warhammer 3rd ed. experiences taught me.  The other big benefit of Battlesystem was supposed to be that it covers AD&D spells…but the list of spells is very short and only covers Clerical and Magic-User spells.  Our C&C party has an illusionist and a druid (altohugh the druid player seems to have dropped out).  So I’m back to HOTT.

Happily, someone has already done most of the hard part regarding how to work PCs.  Q.v. Hordes of the Things for D20.


Published in: on February 5, 2010 at 7:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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This will probably be my longest post to date; I am sort of thinking out loud here!

I’m always hoping to use a wargame to resolve a mass battle in D&D. The problem is our campaigns tend to be low-level and fizzle out before we ever get to the point we’re commanding troops or whole armies. Sigh. Things may go differently now, though, as the C&C game we’re playing has been going pretty solid for several months and we aim to play once a week rather than every other week, and the DM is very happy with the rules and scenario and PCs for a change, and the setting does lend itself to epic confrontations, because there are many evil wizards with hordes of minions on the island, as well as goblin king, and we haven’t even explored more than a tiny corner so far. So the problem will be, what rules to use?


Published in: on February 2, 2010 at 2:25 am  Comments (5)  
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Armies page

Back when I had a web site through a previous ISP, I posted a number of armies I made for the game DBA, in 1/72 scale plastics, mainly because they were largely conversions of other figures.  You could probably build the same armies in plastics without conversions nowadays, because there has been a major proliferation of 1/72 figures in the past five years or so.   But at the time, building anything other than Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and medievals was all but impossible without conversions.  Anyway, because I noticed a few sites are still tryingto link to those pages, I thought I’d repost them here in a new page.

Published in: on September 17, 2009 at 12:18 am  Leave a Comment  
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