Men of bronze

When I first saw a copy of Men of bronze I was tickled by the blurb on the back cover: “This is the new hoplite book everyone has been waiting for–” it begins.  Yes, everyone!  But the blurb continues: “punchy, stimulating, up-to-date, and full of excitement and contention, like a hoplite scrum.”  And this blurb is actually slyly funnier than you might think, as one of the points of contention that the papers in the book debate is the nature of hoplite warfare, and whether it was really, as many historians have held for the past 100 to 150 years, a gigantic shoving match very much like a rugby scrum.

Men of bronze is actually a collection of papers presented at a conference, and so some are fairly technical.  I have seen several of the authors’ books, as some also write more “popular” works of history, while others are names I have only seen in journals and footnotes (not that I read a lot them, though I had an intense period of interest in that during the late 1990s/early 2000s).  Anyway the battle lines are drawn between the received view — the “hoplite narrative” — which holds that hoplite warfare consisted of tightly organized, tightly packed lines of heavily armed citizen-soldiers who fought in ranks with shields overlapping, and mainly thrusting with spears.  (There is disagreement about whether the spear was held overhand, underhand, or a combination, but otherwise the narrative is pretty much monolithic.)  These masses would clash, supposedly having come at each other at a run or at least a steady march, and literally shove back forth, leaning into their shields, or the ranks in front of them, while stabbing with spears until one side or other gave way and broke, at which time their would be some slaughter, but not necessarily a massacre.  This is the basic framework upon which is built the modern “hoplite narrative”.  The “hoplite narrative” as presented in this book adds some additional details about how political change informed the development of these tactics, and also some ideas about the “rules of engagement” embodied in this form of warfare, all popularized by Victor Davis Hanson (hereafter “VD”) who presented this narrative in a now classic book.  His contribution, I think, is the idea that the Greeks of the seventh to fifth century BCE developed a method of warfare that was uniquely tied to the rise of democracy, and almost a “moral” form of warfare as it imposed rules which limited the carnage of battle to the combatants, with few civilian casualties.  If you are astute, you have probably already noticed how politically charged this sort of claim is, and will not be surprised that VD has a secondary career, apart from Classics, writing cranky political columns everywhere from National Review to the Washington Times.  (Yes, the whole spectrum from arrogant right wing to batshit crazy right wing!)  His columns often use analogies from ancient Greek history to illustrate the rightness of neoconservative policies and the Satanism of anyone to the left of the political center (assuming, as VD appears to, that the center is exactly where it was in the 1950s).  But drawing the wrong lessons from history when discussing modern issues does not mean he also draws incorrect conclusions about ancient history! In fact, back in my academic days, I delivered a paper for a philosophy symposium that took VD’s ideas about hoplite warfare for granted, and having not really followed the academic debates for the last ten or fifteen years, I began reading this book with the assumption that the establishment view of hoplite warfare (the “hoplite narrative”) was basically correct.

Painting by G. Rava, also used as box art for wargaming minis. This looks like a very traditional idea of the hoplites in action, just before coming into contact with enemy.

However, reading these papers (ok, reading some and skimming others that got a little too technical with archaeological data or etymology) has made me think the traditional “hoplite narrative” is a gross and misleading simplification.  The alternative presented in most of the papers seemed too extreme (to wit, that hoplites fought in a loose formation, even skirmishing), but these “revisionists” raised many interesting points that VD — in the final paper which was presumably supposed to be offered as a “rebuttal’ — largely ignores or distorts.  I am not sure if VD did not have access to their papers when preparing his comments, or if he just prefers not to address the arguments on their merits.

It is truly fascinating to read the experts spin the very fragmentary bits of information really have about hoplite warfare (and especially about its rise) into competing narratives.  For one thing, VD and the traditionalists put a lot of stock in the use of the term “othismos” to describe battles.  The word apparently means “pushing” or “shoving,” and if taken literally it sure sounds like the two lines of troops are shoving back and forth.  The only problems with extrapolating from the this term to the actual battlefield practice are: (1) the term is not really used that frequently — I think one critic mentions three uses in the 300 year period, (2) by all accounts, Greek battles were not uniform at all anyway, so one battle account hardly can be applied to many others, and (3) the term might be used more figuratively, as when we say tanks “clashed” in WWII — we don’t mean they literally crashed into each other.  It is perfectly comprehensible as a figurative term, if it means one side “pushes” the other from the battlefield in the sense that they are routed, defeated, etc.  The written accounts of battle in Greek sources are somewhat ambiguous, as they don’t describe things in the detail historians (or wargamers) would like, so this sort of debate will no doubt continue.

Another issue the critics point to is the archaeological evidence.  The physical remains of Greek arms and armor suggest that the traditional claims that the hoplites carried 60-70 pounds of equipment is simply wrong.  Their shields were NOT the solid bronze discs you see in movies like The 300 — they were of very light wood like willow and had a very thin (but still quite strong) plate of bronze on the front and perhaps leather on the back.  Overall, the best estimates seems to be that the shields were in the range of 6 to 8 kg, which is certainly very heavy but many hoplites carried no more than the shield, a helmet, a short sword, and a spear or two.  The full panoply of helm, shield, cuirass and greaves, plus weapons, was probably in the 50 pound range, but that would be the maximum and rather uncommon.  Now if the lighter hoplites carried something like 30 pounds of equipment (many cuirasses were linen or leather rather than bronze, if worn at all), that is still pretty heavy, especially for a smallish man of 120 to 140 pounds as many ancient Greeks would be, but it is a far cry from the crushing weight the traditionalists have assumed.

This detail from the “Chigis vase” is one of the better iconographic “supports” for the traditionalist viewpoint. But if we panned back we’d see it gets less clear that the central image is a “othismos”. Also, as the hoplites all carry two spears, it seems likely that spear-throwing could be part of the battle plan…

The iconographical remains are more important, if only because they are much more common than the scanty remains of arms, but also because they depict the arms in use.  Unfortunately, much like later artists, there is reason to suspect the Greek artists tended to use some anachronisms — putting “modern” 6th century arms on heroes and scenes of greater antiquity.  The traditionalists and critics both seem to take advantage of the anachronisms to filter out some details of the depictions on vases, reliefs, and mosaics, while accepting the other parts that fit their pet theories.  Again, not being an expert myself, I can’t say who is correct here, if either.

Another view of the Chigi vase.

In fact Men of bronze has mainly convinced me that both takes — the traditional “hoplite narrative” and the revisionists who think hoplites skirmished — are partly wrong.   The crazy thing is that even the ancient sources speak of open order and close order formations, with intervals of 6 feet and 3 feet per man, and these were pretty clearly used according to the situation.  So to some extent the debate is pointless — it’s as if the scholars are just so focused on their part of the debate, and their theories, that they are missing the larger picture.  (Revised title: Men of bronze, feet of clay?)  That of course is nothing new in academia, but it is still eye-opening to see these issues brought to light, and a fascinating read.

Published in: on March 4, 2014 at 11:42 am  Comments (4)  
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The feifs keep droppin’…

Burghs & Bailiffs : Warfare too! is now available for download as a fee pdf, or as a print-on-demand, priced-at-cost hard copy!  Get it here.

I contributed only two articles this time around: a very simple way to handle army-sized battles in your RPG session, and a humorous chart for determining the fate of those who are lost in battle. The chart is illustrated with details from the illuminations in the famous “Maciejowski Bible.

The other contributions include: a second, more detailed mass combat system for skirmishes; a new Basic D&D class, the warlord; another article by someone else for abstracting large-scale battles into an RPG session;  the logistics of castle-building; and a short piece on two often-overlooked medieval weapons.  Thoroughly schooled by their great work, I’m setting the bar higher for myself next time out.

I’m glad we had enough interest and material to develop a “themed” issue and the next one, if all goes as planned, will be far, far more awesome if I do say so myself.  My contribution to that should give you enough information and random charts to set your adventurers loose in the catacombs of Rome, seeking relics to steal, sell, or rescue from obscurity, as well as providing general information of medieval funeral customs, the use & abuse of holy relics for prophet & profit, and more.

Published in: on August 21, 2013 at 9:16 am  Comments (3)  
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The history of wargaming project

John Curry is the “editor” in an effort to document the history of wargaming.  As he puts it on the blog of the project: The Project aims to research and publish key works in the development of professional, hobby and educational use of wargaming. It currently includes work from Donald Featherstone, Fletcher Pratt, Peter Perla, Phil Barker, Fred Jane, Charles Grant, Stuart Asquith and Terry Wise…

I’ve got one of the books he’s published, Tony Bath’s Ancient Wargaming, which of course has some connections to RPGs in that Tony’s “Hyboria” campaign is often cited as an early fantasy wargame with role-playing elements.   A book collecting old editions of DBA (still my favorite non-fantasy wargame) was also put together recently, and the project has been steadily releasing out-of-print classics and previously unpublished materials.  As far as I know no similar project for role-playing games has ever been attempted, and I assume a lot of that has to do with the fact that the rights to the materials are mostly owned by defunct companies rather the original authors or their estates, and perhaps also there is a reluctance to hand over publishing rights.  The original rights holders are probably a lot harder to track down in some cases, too, as wargaming is a more “social” hobby with competitions, tournaments, and conventions while RPGs tend to be played more by isolated groups.  I suppose the typical wargame writer got to know many more players than your typical RPG writer, especially once you get beyond the circle of a few dozen prominent writers working for the biggish companies like TSR, Judges Guild, Flying Buffalo, and such.

Anyway the Wargaming History Project blog is worth checking out.  It has some updates on Curry’s current work, some occasional posts about RPG history (which is inextricably linked with wargaming, at least in the early days), and more.  He really needs to add a search tool, and maybe link the blog more visibly to his publications, but you can tell from the lack of marketing that this is more a labor of love than a commercial venture!

Published in: on August 7, 2013 at 10:20 am  Comments (4)  
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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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Ships ‘n’ Ships

A year or two ago I had my nieces & nephews over (I think it was a birthday party) and at one point the kids all went downstairs to play with my figures.  If you told me ten years ago that I’d let any kids handle my figures, I’d have laughed myself apoplectic, but I guess I’ve mellowed.  The oldest came up with some rules for playing a ships & sea monsters game, and wrote down some notes titled Ships ‘n’ ships, but it was nothing I could quite figure out.

Out of the blue a couple of months ago, my daughter wanted to break out the ships again, and seemed to suddenly have a lot of recall about what the rules were (much more than she remembered the morning after the original game; go figure).  From her memories and my interpolations, we came up with a workable if somewhat simple game that engaged all my Man-o-War ships (well, the less breakable ones, and a bunch of card ships I’d been hoarding) as well as the sea monsters.  The goal of the game was to land on an island with a lighthouse, that was guarded by two vampires; defeat the vampires and you win.  Along the way you might be attacked by sea monsters and sunk and/or capture additional ships.

The original game had most of the players running ships and one player serving as the adversary (” the Merpeople”) who controls the sea monsters, but for two players I suggested we just take turns  moving the sea monsters, so that it played a bit like Zombies!!!

We used a large blue battle mat one of my players brought over for D&D, and that was the board; wargame hills served as the starting island and goal island; the lighthouse is from a decoration; a few small islands were marked with flat cards.

shipsnships

The mouse was not part of the game. I didn’t even realize it was there when I took the picture.

We set up with the two player ships touching the ‘start’ island, and all the ghost ships and sea monsters were off-board until placed.

The turn sequence was:

  1. Move your ship (or 1 of your ships if you have more than one)
  2. Place or move a ghost ship
  3. place or move a sea monster

If your ship comes in contact with a small island, it can beach there and be safe from sea monsters.  If it comes in contact with the lighthouse island, you have to fight the two vampires in succession (one per turn) to win.  If your ship contacts a ghost ship, you claim it for your fleet.  If a sea monster contacts your ship, you have to fight it.  If you contact another player’s ship, you can fight it as well.

Sea monsters and ghost ships may be taken from the ‘reserve’ pile and placed anywhere on the board, but they must be at least 9 squares away from any player’s ship(s).  If there are none left in the reserve piles, you can only move ships or monsters already in play.

All movement is d6 squares, except that the sea monsters that take up more than one square can always move at least their base’s length.

Combat is just a roll-off of d6’s (high roll wins; re-roll ties).  Defeated player ships are returned to the start island or to the stock of ghost ships; defeated monsters go to the sea monster pile; defeated vampires are just removed from play.

A game took 15-20 minutes, and was actually pretty fun in a simplistic way.  Maybe some day we’ll add event cards to spice things up.

For want of other entertainment, I uploaded the above picture to Google Drive and inserted the rules in some text boxes and voila, a one-page minis game.  I’d LOVE to see more games like that which

  • fit on one sheet of paper
  • are suitable for playing with young kids
  • use a picture of a set up game to provide examples/diagrams/explain the rules

I don’t know if there would be enough interest to do this properly but what I’d like to see is a one page game contest or something. Any takers?  Surely you can do a better job than this: Ships’n’ships (link is to pdf file).

Published in: on May 13, 2013 at 10:08 pm  Comments (3)  
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The OTHER Fantasy Wargaming — not an Obscure FRPG Appreciation Day post

This was going to be saved for the May 30th “Obscure FRPG Appreciation Day” suggested at the blog Mesmerized by sirens.  But the cutoff for that blog circus is games from 1989 or earlier, and this is bit too new.

A good while back I wrote a series of posts on Bruce Galloway’s Fantasy Wargaming.  (A compilation is in my “Pages” area but lacking the comments that you have to search the blog posts for!)  That was published in 1981 by Patrick Stephens Limited (PSL), a publisher that also published a number of wargaming books by Bruce Quarrie (one of the contributors to the first FW and an editor at PSL before the firm was bought by Rupert Murdoch and dissolved).

In 1990 they published a new book with the title Fantasy Wargaming; this time by Martin Hackett.  The credits indicate he mainly thanks his parents for helping with photography and typing, and his gaming buddies for playtesting etc.  I’m not familiar with anything else he’s written apart from the revision/sequel, Fantasy Gaming, which came out in 2007.

But Fantasy Wargaming is an awesome mess.  There are copious illustrations, both line drawings (sketches of figures — a real joy to identify) and photographs of figures and set-ups.  There is also a set of maps.  There is a plain “outline” map, a copy of it overlaid with hexes (“players map”) and a second hex map with a simple key indicated the dominant terrain of a hex (for setting up battles, etc.).  Very cool.

The photos of figures show a nice overview of the state of the art of fantasy miniatures.  I think the golden age of fantasy miniatures ended in the early 1990’s, when the lead scare, changes in the RPG and gaming industry, etc. changed the field immensely.  A lot of companies went under or floundered about.   Styles and fashions changed.  New sculptors entered the field.  Execution and mold-making evolved enough to attain a new look, and the use of more tin and even zinc alloys increased the strength of the castings, making more delicate poses and features possible.  The stuff that followed was not necessarily bad, but it was different and more standardized and more conscious of belonging to ‘product line’ with a uniform look.

But Fantasy Wargaming shows a great survey of everything from the golden age:  early Minifigs (who have character but must be admitted to be very crude in same cases) to Citadel slotta-based minis, as well as scratch-builds and a few conversions, and even plastic toys suitable for use in wargames.  There is a lot of terrain pictured.  And even period RPG books.  It’s quite a visual feast.  The only thing I complain about is the poor quality of the black and white photos, and small size of all images.  I wish this were a folio rather than an octavo.  The later book has better photography and better reproductions in the book, but far fewer and not many are old figures.  It really documents the changes in the state of fantasy minis — not something the author necessarily intended, but fascinating.  You can see some more details about the book (and images) here.  The reviewer there is not as enthusiastic as I am!

As to the game, the rules are spread across a number of chapters that also provide some background information on the hobby.  It suffers the same problems of presentation that the first FW had, although the two books are hard to compare really.  In all honesty I have not tried the rules out.  Hackett says that the later book presents an improved version of the game and I’d be inclined to try that first. But FW has some interesting ideas for inspiration.

There is d100 table of ‘campaign events’ for a fantasy wargame campaign.  Things like:

  • 5 trolls from the nearest hill attack each hex until killed.
  • Horses struck by mystery illness. No movement for this move.
  • New mine discovered, produces 50 credits for three years.

Sure they are kind of generic but there are 100 of them.  Likewise there are brief guidelines and tables for creating regions, filling a hex map with terrain types, settlements, and monsters, and generating the rulers of areas.  There are simple army lists for various cultures and monstrous races.  There is also a gazetteer for a fantasy land, with random encounter tables and so forth for hex-crawling with an army.  That sounds like a hoot. He has a bestiary of traditional and original monsters, but their descriptions, game stats, and other factors like move rates are dispersed through the book.  Some of the new creatures are interesting, for example the “Lubin” (a wolf-goblin were-creature); but all are very loosely defined.  There are 100 magic items (some apparently cursed) that are mostly original (e.g. the Staff of the earth that lets you talk to plants, a magical talking wolf, and similar) and many are clearly designed to be of use in a wargame rather than RPG campaign (for example a magic mirror that reveals enemies in neighboring hexes).  There are some simple economics guidelines with costs for supplies, construction, and recruitment in “credits”.     

The RPG part of FW looks very simple and appealing.  There are five primary abilities (Power, Fitness, Agility, Luck, and Learning) and three secondary abilities (F.A., M.A., and Stealth).  There are three “Fighting Ability” categories: Piercing, Staff, and Missile.  Then there are six skills: Craft, Fauna, Flora, Languages, Literacy, and Perception.  The sample character is an elf and has a list of ten spells (there are many later in the rules) and two languages (elven not included; presumably you don’t need to list your PC’s native tongue).  The primary abilities and skills look like they are 1-100; the others are mostly single digits, and all under 20.  But the actual rules are not given; we are left to infer the game from the character sheet.  (The “sequel” does indeed provide the missing rules, and we learn that “F.A.” is fighting ability and M.A. is “magic ability,” as well as being treated to details on the races, classes, and even level, er, rank titles.  I love that the various different races have different titles for the same rank in a class.)

There is a concise review of Fantasy Gaming over here for the interested.  It made me rather interested in trying the RPG rules out.

As an RPG, you really need the second book to flesh out the game, and the wargaming rules are much more coherently presented in the second book as well.  I suppose the first volume is obsolete as a game manual, but it is certainly the more interesting of the two to skim for ideas and pictures of old miniatures.

The first book reminds me of a number of old RPG books — Arneson’s First fantasy campaign (because it is disorganized but filled with wonderful little ideas here and there); Bruce Galloway’s Fantasy Wargaming (because it attempts to survey the hobby and then offers disorganized rules); Dicing with dragons and Holme’s Fantasy Roleplaying Games (because of the glimpses of one man’s journey in the hobby, and the discussion of moral and educational aspects of gaming).  Like all of these, it is clearly a labor of love. And like the first two, despite it’s obscurity it has some detractors.  Still, as an artifact of a bygone era in gaming, and a reminder of what might have been had the industry not consolidated so much in the 1990’s, it is a joy to read.  For a miniatures lover like me, it is worth owning just for the pictures; for a role-player, it is possibly less useful now unless you plan to run a ‘domain management and war’ endgame.  It also makes me think of the original Warhammer rules — the first edition battle rules that were also a simple RPG.  But what I know of WFB 1st edition is mostly just gleaned from the Citadel Compedium and a few White Dwarf ads; I’ve never seen the original.  I discovered Warhammer when the second edition came out, and although it provided a bit for skirmishes the RPG side was gone.

Copies of both of Hackett’s books turn up fairly regularly in the used book market, and both are for sale on Amazon through ‘Amazon partners,’ so you can find them pretty cheaply if your curiosity is piqued!

Published in: on May 6, 2013 at 10:00 pm  Comments (3)  
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The battle of Took’s Farm

I’ve been following the ‘Old school wargaming’ Yahoo group for a while and although they mostly stick to more traditional wargaming fare — Napoleonics and WWII and that sort of thing — once in a while I see some interesting ancient, medieval, and fantasy stuff.  Recently someone posted a link to their blog, with photos and some details of a game run using 1976 Mythical Earth minis (a line of Middle Earth style figures produced by Minifigs that just barely avoided blatant use of words that would incite the Tolkien estate).  Check out the vintage fantasy goodness here. (The rules mentioned, also circa 1976, are presumably unpublished house rules from the period.)

Published in: on December 31, 2012 at 3:43 pm  Comments (1)  
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Confirmation

Here’s a little nugget I stumbled across in a book on wargames. Georg Leopold von Reiswitz, the man who made the original wargame table for Friedrich Wilhelm III, and who also developed the rules in concert with other military staff.  He committed suicide for professional reasons* and his son later developed the rules further.  Anyway the interesting thing is:

A year after his death [i.e., 1828], a supplement** appeared that built on Reiswitz’s war game instruction manual without a single mention of it or him. Among the innovations of the supplement were the exceptional roll of the dice and an emergency die. If an improbable exceptional roll succeeded, the emergency die decided whether the exception took effect.  Because if the point was “not to exclude any case that is possible in war, even so improbable a case, the game must also permit exceptions to the rule that must, however, have their own rules in turn.”–War games : a history of war on paper / Philipp von Hilgers; translated by Ross Benjamin.  MIT Press, c2012.

So as early as 1828 game designers had the idea of ‘confirming’ improbable events.  This reminded me of ‘confirming’ criticals in WotC D&D.  I had no idea this rule had such a long pedigree.

Actually, the talk of “exceptions to the rule” “hav[ing] their own rules in turn” is pretty much a thumbnail sketch of 3rd edition as I understand it.  I’m beginning to wonder: is the divide between ‘old school’ and ‘new school’ D&D really a divide between which of the roots of D&D is more important (old school perhaps preferring the free-form Braunstein and new school hearkening back more towards the Prussian Kriegspiel)?  Maybe the influence of MMOs and collectible card games that old school edition warriors bemoan is less essnetial to WotC D&D than the echoes of Kriegspielers…

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*That is, not over the game, but because his superiors passed him for promotion and gave him crummy assignments.  I will try to use the phrase “committed suicide for professional reasons” more though, it makes me smile.

**The anonymous supplement mentioned is cited as: “Supplement zu den bisherigen Kriegspiel-Regeln.” Zeitschrift für Kunst, Wissenschaft, und Geschichte des Krieges 13(4): 68-105. 1828.

Published in: on December 22, 2012 at 2:16 pm  Comments (5)  
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Heritage games: Wizards & Heroes

Back in about 1980 or ’81, Heritage Models USA was releasing a lot of rules to go with their miniatures.  The “Paint ‘n’ Play” sets (Crypt of the sorcerer, Cavern of Doom) even made it into Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs*.

They also released a much more ambitious system, Knights & Magick, which I’ve only seen in bits — getting a used copy of the boxed rules booklets will cost you something between treasure type G and H.  My brother got one of the “Paint ‘n’ Play” sets associated with it (Knights of King Arthur, which pitted Arthur and some knights vs. Mordred and his) so we probably saw a brief explanation of the rules there, but for some reason never tried them out — come to think of it, I think we had an incomplete set, lacking the rules, based on some stuff that I’ve seen online.  There was also a Merlin game with some simple magic rules for a game dueling wizards: Morgana La Fey and Merlin could cast spells at each other, and summon various servitors, to duke it out.  The rules of both of these have been scanned here or there online, and I guess you could reconstruct the core mechanics from those two samples (authored by Arnold Hendricks and Greg Sanford) although apparently the Knights & Magick  boxed set was stuffed full of awesome, and sounds like exactly the sort of game I’d like to run some time.  But those rules are are in a sort of limbo; no-one seems to know who owns the rights to them any more.

A pair of knights from the Knights & Magick line; the axeman's axe is a replacement. I love the simple but dramatic poses of the figures in this line.

They also released a series of mini-games,  some of which included plastic miniatures (!).  These included Woman Warrior and Cleric’s Quest; I’m not sure if there were others. The rules for these may have been based on their Swordbearer RPG.  The rules were credited to B. Dennis Sustare.

Another set of rules Heritage released was much less ambitious — Wizards & Heroes.  Coming in at just four pages, I was able to find the complete rules at a Yahoo group.  They are numbered “8210” and priced 25 cents … I am pretty sure they either came with a catalog, or could be ordered for $.25 and a SASE.  The rules are extremely simple and designed to run fast skirmish-sized battles — perhaps a dozen minis to a side, although in principle you could also rune mass battles with the rules, if you come up with some rules for units moving in groups.

Each figure has three stats — fighting, armor, and missiles.  These are rated 1-5, and you hit (or save in the case of armor) by rolling equal to or under the stat’s number.  The turn has four phases:

  1. player one moves, player two shoots;
  2. both sides melee;
  3. player two moves, player one shoots;
  4. both sides melee

You roll at at the start of the game for who will be player one and two (high roll is player one).  Some figures might be Heroes or Wizards, and these have some extra powers — Heroes get two attacks in melee, and wizards can cast spells instead of taking another action in any phase.  Wizards can be level 1-4, and can cast one spell per level per turn (a level 4 wizard would have to forgo moving, missiles, and both both melee phases to cast four spells).  A neat idea in the rules is that wizards gain levels only by surviving battles, and start as level one, so you have to keep your wizard alive three battles in a row to make it to fourth level!  The spell list is very similar to the ones in the Paint ‘n’ Play games. There is also a rudimentary points system to buy troops, and optional rules for morale, parrying & wounds (so a hero might take more than one hit) and monsters (which basically use spell-like powers and are statted out like regular troops).  The rules, like most of the miniatures rules from Heritage, were designed by Arnold Hendrick, and they certainly resemble the presentation and ideas of the other sets. They were published in 1980, and remind me of the ‘free’ simple rules you’d find in Prince August catalogs and the Ral Partha “Rules According to Ral” — there is no question the rules exist mainly to sell miniatures, but they are so rules-light that I am tempted to use them the next time my gaming group gets together but for whatever reason we don’t play D&D.  The only problem is that the version I found is a pretty poor scan and in jpeg format to I’d really need to retype them for reference.

Given their simplicity, and expandability, they might be a good basis for the Dark Tower game I’ve been thinking about — begin with a hero, who builds up a band of followers, searches tombs and ruins for gold and relics, and eventually besiege the Dark Tower, ideally all on one table with maybe a side table for the dungeon crawls, Crypt of the Sorcerer style.  That could a day or two of epic gaming…

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*I am not sure if the “Famous Monsters“** and Superhero sets made it into the catalogs too but I think they must have, since they were an even more mainstream theme.  Unfortunately neither of those sets is very well documented online.  The two fantasy sets are available as scans at the Heritage Reference Yahoo group (my “Dungeon Delvers” rules are based on them too) — and of course Scottsz is still hard at work creating what I think of as an “Advanced” version, Sorcerers of Doom, which from what I’ve seen is a really awesome sort of combination of the original rules, plus a well thought out system to keep it DM-less while running more complex adventures than the random-table-driven originals…one could even run an old TSR module solo using these rules with a few tweaks.

**Apparently there was once an effort to re-publish this game, with Reaper minis back when they were recasting some Heritage minis, but the announcement page (link goes to Wayback machine capture) seems to have come & gone in a flash. Copyright/trademark issues?

Published in: on January 11, 2012 at 12:30 pm  Comments (8)  
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Man o War

This week the DM has some parenting duties so we played an old GW game: Man o War!

It came out in the early 1990s and like many GW games, went out of print after a few years. (It still has a strong cult following, with at least three Yahoo groups, and earlier this year GW released a new game very similar to MOW, called Dreadfleet, which had a slightly bigger scale and a deluxe set of components…but I don’t think it sold too well, priced at $115.  It looks gorgeous but…there will never be any additional models or expansions for it.)

The ship models for MOW were very nice looking but expensive, so I only bought a few ships beyond the basic galleys that came with the rules, but then I made a bunch of home-made models in the same scale because we used the game along for ship to ship fights in a long-running GURPS swashbucklers/fantasy campaign (and also because it was fun to build the ship models and sea monsters!).

This week’s game pitted the Empire against Bretonnia.  The forces were:

Imperials: three Greatships and three squads of War Galleys, three MOW cards (975 points)

Bretonnia: two Galleons, two squads of Buccaneers, one squad of Corsairs,  two Shore forts, and two MOW cards (1000 points)

The Imperials would have three players versus Bretonnia’s two, offsetting the slight points advantage.

In the end, only three players were able to make it, so I scrapped the initial scenario and instead had everyone choose 300 points of ships and we had a free-for-all.  We had to tweak a few things to make it a four-player game, since the rules are really set up for a one on one battle.

Richard & Matt each chose a Great Ship and a squad of Wargalleys; John chose a squad of Corsairs; and I took a Galleon and two squads of Buccaneers.

Back when I first played M-o-W in the 1990s, I thought the Empire ships were a lot better than the Bretonnians, and I’d still affirm that view. 

The ‘one squad or one big ship activation per turn’ gave a slight edge to smaller fleets, because with three units, I found that I could not really keep up with more than one foe; meanwhile John with just one unit could zip pretty quickly despite having the wind against him.  I had the wind at my back in the beginning which did not make my fleet any faster, but really slowed down Matt and John; Richard could sail with the wind abeam most of the time so the wind had little impact on him.

I was kind of expecting my little Buccaneer squads to be fragile, but hoped they would do some damage; in the end they were spread far too thin (I sent one squad after Richard and one after Matt, and in both cases their galleys had every advantage, being able to sink or disable my squads with very little loss.  Meanwhile with my Galleon I hoped to rake Richard’s Greatship, but he was able to take a broadside without effect and board, taking the galleon practically without a shot!  My bad for getting close.  Looking objectively at the Galleon versus the Greatship in Man-o-War, the Galleon has an edge in speed (sailing 9″ with wind abeam or astern while the Greatship sails 6″ abeam and 9″ astern) and broadsides (4 versus 3 dice) but the Greatship’s large crew, fore and aft batteries of 2 dice, and slightly better saves were telling.  Both Greatships took an immense amount of firepower and time to be destroyed.  The Wargalleys were an excellent buy at 150 points too, being able to ram, row, and fire.  One squad of them would probably have been a better choice than my two squads of Buccaneers.  If I hadn’t lost my Galleon so early in the game, I might have a different opinion, but it seems terribly vulnerable to boarding, which is not really what you expect with one of them. 

Richard took a pretty heavy beating, having to fight some of my ships and all of John’s in succession; he complained bitterly about that for a while, somehow taking small solace in the fact that he tore through most of my fleet in the first three turns. But we all had a lot of fun.

I think that if I run this again, I’d like to see how shore forts and sea monsters affect the game.  I think a ‘destroy all monsters’ game would be fun, and have gotten a few other ideas from some helpful members of the Yahoo group.

Published in: on December 8, 2011 at 12:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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