Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Book of the Month: Seven Firefights in Vietnam

I'm currently reading the excellent Seven Firefights in Vietnam, by John Cash, John Albright and Allan Sandstrum, published by the US Army's historical office. It is a series of after-action reports published while the Vietnam conflict was still in progress (in 1970). It sets out to provide examples of typical battles from the conflict, partly to educate US military officers and partly the public in general, about the sorts of operations required in counter-insurgency battles.

The battles are of varying scale and the contributors to the book include officers who participated in the actual actions. Given that the accounts have been written only a few years after the engagements were fought, they include a startling amount of intelligence about the decision making process and actions of the Vietnamese commanders, many of whom would still have been on active service when this was published.

The authors start with the battle of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, which was also the subject of the book by Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once And Young, later made into a film with Mel Gibson. The Ia Drang was notable partly because it was one of the very first major battles in which the Americans made liberal use of helicopters to move infantry into the battle. The North Vietnamese were surprised by the speed at which the US Cavalry was able to deploy troops into a very limited area, under heavy fire.

The account in Seven Firefights only covers the first 48 hours of the battle at LZ X-Ray, and leaves out the more catastrophic battle that occurred subsequently to the east of LZ X-Ray, near LZ Albany. In some respects this subsequent engagement was a different battle, but was part of the bigger Ia Drang operation, so you could argue its inclusion is irrelevant to the object lesson of the original heliborne assault.

Also included is a convoy ambush on Highway 1, east of Saigon, and a smaller scale night ambush by a single squad of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade at Phuoc An. This latter engagement is of a much smaller size and is no doubt included to illustrate a typical small unit action, contrasting with the larger company-scale battles elsewhere in the book.

Chapter 4, Fight Along the Rach Ba Rai is an account of an amphibious operation in the Mekong Delta region by the 3/60th Infantry, again an example of the communist forces coming out fighting and slipping away before the Americans can close the trap on them.

At this stage I must admit that I am still reading Seven Firefights, and am now on number five, Three Companies At Dak To, about fighting in the hilly region up near the border with Laos, in Kontum province. This is of particular interest to me, as it is the setting for the Savage Worlds RPG mini-campaign I've been working on, using Tour of Darkness.

Seven Firefights is a good book to dip into, as each chapter is a stand alone account of a single engagement. It is written from a very practical perspective, as it is obviously intended partly as a text for officer cadres. At the time of publication, the war in Vietnam was still ongoing, and consequently the book spends very little time on the ethics of the conflict, seeming keener to analyse the errors made by officers and NCOs on the ground, and why they failed or succeeded at their tasks.

Also, at time of publication, the Vietnamese side of the story had still to be told, so while the authors can speculate on the decision making process of the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese, much of this is still conjecture of based upon physical evidence found when policing up the battlefield or interviewing prisoners. Still, they do an impressive job of putting the pieces together, and I'm not sure, even with the officers from the communist side actively contributing, a clearer picture could be achieved.

For the Vietname history or the Vietname wargamer with a level of interest in recreating the ground battles, this is a very intriguing book. Look out for it in the second hand market.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

13th Age - of floating rocks, demons and kobolds

We last left our heroes in the prison of High Rock, seeking to rescue the navigator Captain Morgan from the Arch Mage's maximum security prison. The party had crept out onto a ledge, only to be ambushed by flying automatons, which they managed to fight off eventually. Amras cast a colour spray to summon our flying skiff, which delivered Jordan Young, the pirate bard, to reinforce the party. Proceeding back into the rock, we entered the cell marked 666, in which was imprisoned a demon.

Ordinarily, this might have resulted in a battle, but the demon seemed to want to converse with Amras. It seems Amras is deemed a figure of importance by the denizens of the abyss, and he struck a deal with the demon on the spot, gaining its promise of service. The elf wizard seems to wield undue influence in the nether regions. Worrying.

We eventually managed to locate and spring Captain Morgan, who turned out to be a medusa and not a rum magnate. We also took time to loot the Arch Mage's study and abscond with some shiny things. This session took place some time ago now, so I'm a little vague on the details. Plus I've had a lot to drink since then.

We are starting to encounter a problem with traps, namely Sartheen's total inability to discover them. Although he is the party's rogue, trap finding in 13th Age is based off a Wisdom roll - even with his Shadow Port Thieves' Guild +4 skill package, he is still trailing behind the Tiefling barbarian's combined Wisdom and 'Lady Investigator of the Priestess' background. Hence, it was in the mage's study that we first began to realise that Sartheen's abilities as a trap finding rogue were somewhat lacking. He is still able to trigger the traps he finds with remarkable alacrity, however. Cue fire balls.

Escaping from High Rock a little toasted, we had a minor altercation at the docks with the locals, who felt we ought not to be leaving so soon. We convinced them otherwise, and sailed on towards the city of Concord, where we dropped anchor after some days of relatively peaceful sailing (apart from the odd argument with the bossy medusa, who seemed to think this was now her ship). Proceeding on foot from Concord, we returned to the court of the elf queen, which regular readers may recall can be easily be found by other elves, even through it roams around like an itinerant posse of rabid fashionistas.

The elf queen then dispatched us to a rocky island off the coast to steal some dragon's eggs, belonging to the Three. We were apprised that the political situation between the Three and the Queen was deteriorating following our strike against one of the Three's strongholds, which you can read about in a previous episode. We sailed to the island, which has steep cliffs and a ruined monastery on its summit, and is very reminiscent of another island of similar temperament...

Scouting the coast, we discovered a sea cave that led into the tunnels under the island. Here we fought with kobolds, who in 13th Age are dirty little tricksters who take advantage of characters who used Wisdom as their dump stat (most of us by the sounds of it - Rarity excepted). No longer are they the luckless sword fodder of elder editions of The Game.

Elsewhere in the tunnels we were set upon by black dragon spawn assassins (we slew them all) and ran into an undead monk (yep, slew him too). Eventually, after another run-in with tricky kobold scum and an opportunistic trio of young dragons, we came across the eggs, basking in the sunlight in the monastery's central courtyard. Except they weren't eggs at all, but an illusion. And then three of us stumbled through an invisible portal and disappeared, leaving Amras and NeOn nervously looking at each other....

NB - the final encounter in the monastery may have been with dragon spawn, in which case, my profuse apologies to kobold kind.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

How to make a Dungeons and Dragons movie

At some point I am sure Wizards of the Coast and Hollywood will decide that it is time to make another effort at bringing the world's favourite roleplaying game to the silver screen. After all, it has been such a successful formula in the past...The fact that Peter Jackson has achieved so much with the Lord of the Rings trilogy will no doubt encourage Hasbro that the DnD mythos is just ripe for commercial exploitation.

Hence, I thought Wizards of the Coast might appreciate a few tips - not that I've ever worked in the movie business, although I know people who do, and more importantly, those who sign their pay cheques.

1. Scale

The film should not be a sprawling epic like LOTR. Previous iterations of Dungeons and Dragons films have used epic quests and 'save the world' plots, the battle between good and evil, traditional all-or-nothing story tropes. Very, very few of the games I've played in at the table have been about saving Greyhawk or Eberron. The stakes have never been that high. They have been usually about a bunch of rogues who have come together to enrich themselves, usually at the expense of the denizens of the local dungeon complex or wilderness. It is a battle of survival, yes, but a very local one. Kingdoms do not rise of fall. It is more Robin Hood than King Arthur.

2. Location

Set most of the film in one location, ideally underground. Sure, there can be parts of the plot in a town, and some action in the countryside, but keep most of it in the main adventure location. They managed it with some great action movies, like the Poseidon Adventure or Alien. You don't need to take the characters from one end of the kingdom to the other. Invest a bit more in your undeground sets. Re-watch the Moria sequences from Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring. Make sure the opening scene involves the adventurers meeting up in an inn.

3. Humour

Whatever you do, don't play it straight. Make your characters the loveable rogues. Focus the film on the interaction between party members. By all means throw evil villains at them, but let's have more shades of grey and less black and white. Again, players' characters in the game are rarely pure as driven snow (apart from the occasional paladin).

4. Director

Ideally, hire one of the following to direct it - Guillermo del Toro, Peter Jackson, J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon. Don't bother spending money on big name stars, let the name of the director sell the film and recruit a bunch of talented nobodies for the main roles. After all, most Dungeons and Dragons parties are themselves talented nobodies.

So where does this leave us? Is there a template or example of what I mean, the clearly illustrates the path to success for such a film? Well, as it happens, there is, although it was filmed for a slightly different genre...

So, finally, if Wizards and whichever studio they manage to rope into this project needs a decent script writer to make this thing cook for them, now they know where to find me.