Thursday, 30 January 2014

Book of the Month: Embedded, by Dan Abnett

Dan Abnett is probably more familiar to readers for his work on the Gaunt's Ghosts and Eisenhorn series of novels in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, although he has also worked in the world of comics. Embedded is one of his first forays into science fiction under his own name, without recourse to another firm's IP. It is rather good. Indeed, it has been a long time since I've read something this compulsive. I'm currently struggling through Wolf Hall as part of my bedtime reading, and I'm finding that quite easy to put down. Embedded is an entirely different animal.

Although the wider 'state of the galaxy' background is not provided with great detail, it is fair to say that Embedded takes place roughly 200 years or more into the future, where humanity has settled roughly 300 planets. There is still a cold war of sorts, between the US (United Status) and the Central Bloc (which seems to be a coalition of Russia and China with some other affiliates). Settlement of new systems is being managed by the Settlement Office on the US side, and new planets seem to be divided up fairly peacefully between it and the Bloc.

"His guys were looking at him. Kilo One. Stabler. Preben. Bigmouse. They were ready. Their expressions were stone, unreadable, but he could taste wariness. He could see someone else's face reflected in the espresso-black of their glares."

Embedded is very much a creature of its time however - there are echoes of the war in Iraq everywhere. The first section of the book deals with the arrival of Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Lex Falk on Settlement Eighty-Six and his efforts to uncover a story. It is a familiar tale of a military organisation wanting to be seen to provide access to the press and control the news message, while at the same time denying reporters real access to the story. However, the twist in the tail here is the involvement of GEO, a mega-corp which, for interests of its own, decides to provide Falk with an edge, namely using experimental biotech to embed his consciousness in the mind of a US special forces soldier about to go on a mission, without the SO Military Directorate knowing of course.

"Falk began to panic. He tried to control that, but it was virtually impossible. It was like being stuck in a lift with an incendiary charge.  The combustion source was burning up, getting hotter and brighter and more fierce, and he couldn't get out to get away from it, and it would consume him along with itself."

The story crawls a little bit in the first 70 pages or so as Abnett busily scene sets and lets us get to know Falk and some of the other players in this drama. But once Falk is effectively embedded, the plot really begins to motor and Abnett displays his talent as a writer of sci fi military fiction. Not only is there real pace here, but the attention to detail in his descriptions of scenes and hardware is grittily realistic.

"Pika-don shook hard like she'd been rammed repeatedly by a truck. One of the hardbeam shots went by the nose cone, too fast and bright to be seen, but it left a searing idiot afterimage across his retinas. Then another one punched through the boomer's hull beside him. It had come clean through the hull, across the cabin space, and out the other side. It left a fused, super-heated hole the size of a large-denomination coin. The edges glowed. There was no light, no flash, no visible ray-gun beam like in the sit-ops, just a smeared blur of heat-haze, like petroleum jelly on glass."

Of course, with sci fi military fiction, there is going to be masses of action, and Embnedded really never stops once it rolls past page 75 or so. It begins with a gentle jog, hits a sprint, and then really never stops, right to the last page. I was completely absorbed by it and will certainly be checking out some of Abnett's Warhammer 40K titles after this.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Further thoughts on remote war games in 2014

This is my first post using the Blogger app on the iPad and my new iPad keyboard, so apologies to anyone if the formatting sucks wind. I have been ruminating this week on the lack of miniatures wargaming in 2013, and trying to come up with a solution. Part of the problem, I think, was lack of time due to being particularly busy running a business, managing the demands of a family, and simply not having four to six hours to devote to big battles on the table top.

My solution, partly inspired by one of the Oldhammer blogs I follow (Warhammer For Adults),  is to run some games remotely. I luckily have the space to keep games set up indefinitely, while I don't have the time to play them all the way through. Instead, it might be easier to run a game by email, keeping players informed of developments in the battle both via this blog and by simply emailing them photos of the table. Commanders can send orders via email, and the dice can be rolled for them on the spot.

An additional innovation is to inject an element of fog of war into proceedings, possibly by only allowing players to communicate with each other when their figures are within ear shot or if a runner is sent with instructions. A commander in chief might formulate his opening plan of battle, brief his subordinates, and then rely on them to carry out their commands, using their own initiative when required.
Shot from our TSATF game earlier this month.

Another idea is to only provide model's eye views of the battlefield rather than a helicopter view - players would then only be able to make decisions based on what they could see if they were on the battlefield themselves. This would also facilitate movement on the part of forces benefiting from hidden movement.

The pace of the game would be much slower and the rules I use might need to be modified to allow for players to all move their figures at the same time, but I believe a suitably entertaining recreation might be achieved.

My first experiment is likely to be the Zulu War of 1879, as my table is already set up for it. I will use a different scenario from the one we played earlier this month, but my aim is to have all the active players running the British units, with the Zulus run by the umpire using the Every Man A Briton variant for The Sword And The Flame. This will be less a contest between two teams, and more a contest between a live imperial team versus a pre-programmed native army. I may use this blog to keep readers abreast of developments in the ongoing engagement.

Of the rules tweaks I may make, one involves regulation of player movement and firing - I may just accept written orders from players and then have the units implement them within the constraints of the rules. In addition, I may change the spotting rules for imperial troops to one based on percentage dice, rather than the automatic 4" spot rule.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Wargames in fantasy RPG campaigns

If The Lord of the Rings was the ultimate RPG campaign, how would you run the battle of Helm's Deep? Could an epic battle on the scale be seamlessly integrated into a campaign without being pre-scripted or abstracted? Interesting questions. Many GMs of RPGs either shy away from such epic conflicts, have them happen off-stage, or cast the party as a small unit doing its best to survive as part of a bigger conflict (e.g. Starship Troopers or Weird Wars - Blood on the Rhine). Efforts have been made in the past to integrate roleplaying with wargaming on the tabletop, but can this be achieved properly without a vast amount of number crunching?

Readers of this blog have asked me for my thoughts on this topic and I'm more than happy to oblige. Many moons ago, I picked up a copy of Warhammer, the very first edition of the game. It was in a grey box with three black and white soft cover books inside. It was authored by Rick Priestley and Richard Haliwell, IIRC. It was marketed as a 'mass combat fantasy roleplaying game.'

In a subsequent article, Priestley said one of the reasons Warhammer was written in the first place was to properly represent battles between different fantasy races, something a historical rules set might not necessarily do justice to. However, it was also interesting that the third volume in the original Warhammer box presented the option to run the game as an RPG. You could create individual adventurers who could then take part in conventional fantasy adventures or alternatively fight in battles, or both.



Come the second edition of Warhammer, and this option had been put to one side. Games Workshop then trotted out the roleplaying game as a stand alone game in its own right as Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. But in a way, the two were already going their own separate ways by 1987, with GW increasingly throwing its energy behind the development of the wargame, with the RPG gradually falling into decline.

At the same time, TSR also tried to jump on the miniatures bandwagon with its Battlesystem for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I never got around to buying this when it first appeared as a boxed set, with follow up modules for high level characters. However, I did grab a copy of the second edition of the rules when they appeared in the early 1990s as part of 2e. Here we had a wargame that was published to support an RPG. It allowed players to take command of an army and lead it into battle on the tabletop. Player characters, of whatever level, could be seamlessly integrated into the military sphere without messy conversion, along with their magic items and followers.

When I was about 14 or 15 I spent a long time trying to write conversion rules that would allow high level Dungeons and Dragons characters to be integrated into a Warhammer army without unbalancing the game. I should not have wasted my time. I should have just bought Battlesystem. I also owned hardly any miniatures, which made the whole exercise somewhat academic!

Moving on two decades, and we now have Fields of Battle. These rules were published by Troll Lord Games to support Castles and Crusades, the latter is very much a halfway house, IMHO, between 2e and 3e. FoB is also sold as a stand alone battle system but don't be deceived - they are very much an extension of the RPG and you really need to understand and have played the RPG to be able to play FoB. Someone coming to the game from Pathfinder should be able to understand what they're looking at, and FoB may even be able to support a Pathfinder campaign, but Warhammer it is not. The spirit of the game is very much miniatures battles as part of an RPG campaign.

FoB is also not spectacularly clearly written, which is a bit of a disappointment. That's not to say it is unplayable, but there is much that is defined early on in most wargames that is simply left out or not made very clear in FoB. For example, FoB can be used for small or large battles by just changing the figure ratio. A band of 20 kobold miniatures on the table can be 20 kobolds, or it can be 200 kobolds, depending on the level of game you want. But the author spends the best part of two pages explaining what he could have achieved in one paragraph.

There is quite a bit on formations, but very little on basing. Again, this is not a big problem, especially if the author explains that basing is not an issue. But he doesn't. I assume it is not a factor, which is good (counters included in the game are 1" squared, which might give some indication).

Interestingly, the author does explain that on the fantasy battlefield, troops prefer keeping loose formations until just before they make contact, which makes sense given the impact of area effect spells. Warriors in a high magic environment would be silly to adopt the same battle formations as medieval troops who did not have to worry about sleep spells or fireballs.

FoB does, however, try to act as the miniatures rules for an RPG campaign, particularly an old school fantasy one. It seems to be flexible enough to be used with Labyrinth Lord or Pathfinder or any other game that uses the same class-based, d20 mechanics. For example, there are cool rules that allow specific classes embedded with a unit to benefit that unit in different ways, rather than simply give them bonuses on morale rolls. A druid can support differently from a bard.

FoB looks to have left out enough detail - see basing above - to make itself as open as possible to fiddling by GMs. This would be good. We shall see if it can successfully port player characters from an RPG onto the battlefield in a future playtest, and I shall let you know the outcome.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Milestones in gaming #4: White Dwarf 67

It is perhaps appropriate that, given Games Workshop has announced it will be ceasing hard copy publication of White Dwarf, I should be writing this post today. I had always been planning on including White Dwarf as a gaming milestone for my blog, as I stumbled upon it not long after I started playing Dungeons and Dragons in 1984.

My very first issue of White Dwarf was bought in the summer of 1985, probably at the beginning of the summer holidays. At the time we were living in Austria, where they didn't have White Dwarf OR Dungeons and Dragons, at least initially (the latter did turn up later in German), but I must have picked up a copy before I finished the summer term and got on a plane for Vienna.

White Dwarf 67 (July 1985) really opened my eyes to the other possibilities of RPGs. At the time I was running adventures from the Basic and Expert levels of Dungeons and Dragons, including B3 - The Palace of the Silver Princess and X1 - The Isle of Dread. WD opened the door on a world beyond the dungeon bash and the wilderness hex crawl.

For starters, it had a Dungeons and Dragons adventure, A Murder At Flaxton, which was an investigation into a crime in a remote fishing village. This was very unconventional, an entirely different kind of adventure that did not involve tramping down corridors and kicking down doors. I ran it after converting it from the original Advanced stats, and it went like a dream. But beyond this, there was an adventure for Golden Heroes, an RPG that was NOT Dungeons and Dragons or Fighting Fantasy. It was not about dwarves and elves, it was about superheroes. Other articles included references to RuneQuest and Traveller. This was all very different.

I probably started buying WD right in the middle of the so-called Golden Age of the magazine's history, at least as far as its RPG coverage is concerned, when Ian Livingstone was still editing it. At this point the miniatures coverage was restricted largely to the Tabletop Heroes column, and I didn't yet have the budget to go buying metal figures. What was important, I think, for me, is that it broadened my RPGing horizons. In particular, I began reading a lot about Call of Cthulhu, and while I was still playing Advanced DD at school (along with a rules-lite homebrew system we dreamed up ourselves), I did get interested in playing CoC simply from reading the articles about it.

I have run a few WD adventures over the years, and they generally were of a very high standard, and we all had a blast playing them. Frequently, they were a lot more imaginative than the modules TSR was pumping out during the same period (1985-89). I became a WD subscriber, and remained one until I started at university in 1989, by which time GW's in-house games like Rogue Trader had come to dominate the magazine, and the only RPG getting any air time at all in its pages was Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. It was obvious that GW was becoming increasingly focused on its miniatures games, and at that stage I was not interested in miniatures war gaming (and had neither the space nor the money for it), so let my subscription lapse.

Next time - I play Call of Cthulhu!

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Painting program for 2014

One of my New Year's resolutions this year is to get some painting of miniatures done. My plan is to paint a couple of units and between two and four characters or monsters every month. I have a HUGE pile of unpainted lead and plastic stored away, plus some second hand miniatures that will probably require some extra work to bring them up to my minimum required standards.

Various projects have been acquired and then left either half painted or still in their boxes. Hence, I am determined that some of these should see the light of day in 2014. Like with yoga, I feel it is a question of getting into the routine of doing something, making room for it in your day-to-day, which will eventually help you to make progress with it. I am also hoping that this focus will mean that I won't buy any new figures until I really, really need them. Indeed, I'm optimistic that I won't buy much in the way of board games, RPGs, computer games or miniatures this year, partly because I don't need them, and partly because I've simply not got the room!

On to the proposed projects then:

January

Zulus and British for my Anglo Zulu War collection, just those metal figures already primed and based, plus the last of my Wargames Factory Zulus. Build and paint a plastic Boer cabin. Fix African bungalow model and finish painting it.

February

Archers for The Sword in Africa. Askari characters and some European civilians. Build MDF wagons for Zulu War.

March

German infantry (figures already part-painted) for WW2 project. Paint my German Marder self-propelled gun (this could be interesting as I've not painted an armoured vehicle before). Lord of the Rings Barrow Wights.

April

Build and paint Soviet anti-tank guns and crews. Viet Cong infantry. Tom Bombadil, Goldberry and Strider!

May

US Vietnam War Marines. More jungle bases. Barrows and stone circle for Middle-earth.

June

Vietnam M113 APCs (x2). Mounted Nazgul and Gandalf the Grey. Try my hand at building my own Amon Sul model (could be tricky).

July

Boromir and LOTR Fellowship hobbits. Moria Goblins and leader get a face lift.

August

A deep summer month, so expect less painting to be going on. I might use this as a catch up month on anything that is overrunning. I may paint a Cave Troll.

September

Back into the swing of it, this time with the Chamber of Mazarbul for LOTR. Start on my Sikh Wars project with some Indian irregular infantry.

October

Indian irregular cavalry. British officers for the Zulu War (basically lots of guys on horses this month).

November

A second go at the Indian infantry. British 7pdr gun for the Zulu War. Pack animals.

December

A whole regiment of Zulus, from scratch. Another Boer cabin. African bearers.
 

Monday, 6 January 2014

The Sword & The Flame - Fight At De Klerk's Farm

For WinterCon this year we played The Sword and the Flame and Pathfinder. I took the opportunity to set up a multi-player game of TSATF, with three players on each side, while Ben presented a 5th level Pathfinder adventure later in the day. I adapted Larry Brom's original scenario, 'The Laager' (from the scenario portfolio published in 2000), as I've not built my Boer wagons yet, and swapped the wagon laager of the title for an abandoned Boer farmstead. To all other intents and purposes the scenario was the same, with the forces slightly scaled down.

Most of my units are between 10 and 12 figures, although the Natal Native Contingent has close to 20 figures at the moment. I used some new skirmish bases from Warbases for the Zulus, which helped to speed up movement somewhat. I thought they worked rather well, and will aim to get them properly flocked in the near future. IMHO, even in a multi-player game, players should not have to command more than, say, 60 figures maximum. This works out as a Zulu ibutho in the original rules (i.e. three iviyo).

De Klerk's farm with defenders  in place.
In this scenario, survivors of an ambushed column have sought refuge in a farm with the battalion pay wagon. We had a section of Boers and a section of British regulars hiding out there, while a colonel and a relief column sought to get to the farm, rescue the soldiers and their money, and escape with less than 50% casualties. About half the Zulu total force started the game coming onto the table, while, due to lack of figures, the rest acted as a reserve, appearing on the table as a haphazard second wave as figures became available.

Note: I used a ratio of 3:1 in favour of the Zulus in terms of determining total force numbers, which seems to work well for colonial games where the imperial troops have at least 50% of their force composed of professional regulars. If the entire Zulu force of, hypothetically, 180 figures, had entered the table in the first turn, I wonder whether the British would have been easily overwhelmed? The staggered entry process seems to give the British more of a chance of survival.

The British had problems from the off-set, with three Zulu iviyo springing an ambush on the relief column in the first turn. Luckily, none of them had muskets, and their assault was repulsed, with only three wounded on the British side. The relief column pressed on, and reached the entrance to the farm, where more Zulus pounced on them. The colonel, commanding, decided to lead the troop of light dragoons in a charge against the Zulus, which, while successful in dispersing them, led to the colonel himself being wounded.

We were playing the wounded rules for the British in this game, and the sergeants on the spot acted with alacrity, harnessing the pay wagon to a couple of ammo mules, and bundling their wounded, including their CO, into it. Meanwhile, the commander of the farm's defenders had to take a work call, and while he was away, the Zulus succeeded in driving the Boers off the ramparts. The Afrikaaners fell back on the wagon, leaving four or five wounded near the wall and in grave danger of being on the wrong end of an assegai.
Zulu ambush from the high grass!

Another Zulu attack on the gate was driven off, but two or three dragoons were slain in the fight. By this stage, however, the treasure wagon was on the move again, with the NNC and another British section moving up to provide cover.

At this stage it was getting dark, and I felt we needed time for our guests to enjoy some Pathfinder as well, so decided to call the game.

It was hard even from the umpire's perspective to see who would win. There were still no Zulus in the compound, which still had a full strength British detachment defending the west wall. The Zulu mission was to burn the farm, and with the defenders beginning to abandon it, the prospect of being able to set alight some of the buildings looked good. However, the Zulus could only burn one building per turn under the scenario rules, which might well have given the British time to get their treasure wagon off the table, as it was now travelling down a road at 4D6 inches per turn. Much would have hinged on the speed at which the British garrison was also able to high tail it.

I was a bit irritated at how long the game took, as I feel a game of this size should be completed inside four hours. IMHO anything longer than that is too long at the moment. With each player commanding, let's say, between 30 and 50 figures, it should still be possible to complete a scenario within this temporal parameter.

The dragoons get surrounded at the farm entrance.


Two areas I believe require further attention. I've been onto the forums on The Miniatures Page and have concluded that the game requires two mods:

1. Turning over of activation cards could be quicker. One suggestion is that the umpire turns over all cards until the colour is different - i.e. if there are three black cards in a row, turn them all over and give the natives three activations at once. In a multi-player environment, this would allow players to carry out moves simultaneously, and speed up play enormously.

2. Close combat, while entertaining, can also be considerably abbreviated, and I'm looking at possible alternatives, which I will play-test.

Another possibility is to allow players to choose whether they want a unit to move, shoot or melee rather than restrict them to a particular phase. This would allow a unit being charged to drop back, for example. Each unit still only gets one move action and one shoot action per turn, however.

It was only my third game of TSATF and it strikes me as one of those systems which needs tweaking before one can reach a point that both the umpire and players are completely happy with. Still, the scenario was entertaining and seemed to rattle along. I'm going to set up a new game and play with some of the above mods to see if it feels any different. I may even see if I can get players to play remotely - e.g. sending in orders by email. Thanks are due to everyone who came along to play, including four players who have not played TSATF before.

Zulu iviyo racing towards the farm.