Friday, 14 December 2018

Outlaw / King

You could fight for God, or country, or family. I do not care, so long as you fight!

Last month I watched David Mackenzie's film Outlaw King on Netflix. I thought it was really good, especially the cinematography, though perhaps a missed opportunity to actually feature William Wallace as a living character, which could have served to undo the grotesque cultural misrepresentation that was Braveheart. However, it certainly made Robert de Bruce himself into a far more courageous, heroic and noble character than his cowardly counterpart in Mel Gibson's film.

Chris Pine as Robert de Bruce in Outlaw King

The film rekindled my interest in the Wars of Scottish Independence in the early 14th century, which is interesting timing, as it was also only last month that I learned the identity of two English Knights who fought in those wars, whose 90mm likenesses, unbeknownst to me, I've had sitting on my shelf for several years (see my posts on Sir Roger and Sir William).

It also just so happens that Papo, one of the companies whose models I collect, released a King Robert de Bruce figure earlier this year:

90mm Robert de Bruce: King of Scots, from Papo

A couple of weeks ago I made a trip to Harburn Hobbies on Leith Walk, a lovely little family-owned shop that sells model railway supplies, Scalextric kits, diecast vehicles, dolls houses and 90mm figures. I highly recommend a visit if you live in the Edinburgh area. Don't bring your children though, or you may wind up, as I did, promising to buy them a Scalextric set sometime in the future.

Anyway, I went there in the hope that they would have this figure in stock. I say hope, because, yes, I could have called ahead in advance to find out if they did or not, but I thought it would be more fun to make the trip in hope, rather than knowledge. My hope, however, was rewarded, as they did, to my delight, have a number of copies of this figure in stock. So I bought one, and I'm very glad I did.

I do have an idea for a forthcoming session of The Dolorous Stroke which will hopefully feature Robert de Bruce, but I don't want to write too much about that now, so I suppose this post will amount to a simple review of this figure. I don't normally make such a song and dance about the purchase of each and every model, but only do this now because this is the first model I've added to my collection in several years, and because my choice was inspired by the recent film.

Papo have, as expected, gone for the classic depiction of Robert de Bruce as King of Scots, in full battle gear, as featured in many an illustration of Scottish military history: a crowned bascinet, with a tabard and shield adorned with the classic Royal Arms of Scotlandthe ruddy lion ramping in his field of tressured gold (as the Scottish poet, William Edmondstoune Aytoun, once put it).

Robert de Bruce, axe in hand, riding into battle against his foes

The Papo figure is also armed with a finely-made, gold-hilted arming sword, sheathed in a beautiful scabbard hanging from his belt, as well as a mighty-looking battle-axe in his right hand. I don't know how accurate the type of plate armour worn on his lower legs and feet is for the period, but I'm not going to complain about it because I think it looks smashing! It is indeed very fine work for a Papo model (they can be a bit hit-and-miss) and the paint job is simple but bright and effective. I particularly like his chainmail coif, especially where it hangs around the shoulders; the detail there is very crisp and sharp.

The only negative thing I will say about the figure is the size. Robert de Bruce in real life was 6'1" (an imposing height even now, but especially intimidating for the period in which he lived) and sadly the Papo model does not reflect this. I don't know if there is some kind of reverse scale creep going on, but several figures in Papo's 2018 range seem shorter than those of previous years, and their Robert de Bruce is no exception. I measured the model with a ruler; he is closer to 80mm than 90mm, making him more like a young boy in comparison to the other knights in my collection. It's not just the height of the figure either; they have given him a very slight and petite build which is sure to diminish what should be a mighty presence on the tabletop.

In any case, height issues aside, I really look forward to deploying him in a forthcoming game of TDS!

Thursday, 6 December 2018

The Greatest Battle Report 2018

Zhu Bajiee, a prominent member of the Oldhammer Forum (of which I am a casual member), has pulled together, for the second year running, a competition to vote for the Greatest Battle Report of the year, over at the The Realm of Zhu.

This year, for the first time ever, I have submitted one of my own reports.

My entry, A Dream of Gold, is, I believe, my most successful battle report to date, of what might also be the most successful game session I've hosted so far. It is, unsurprisingly, the only competition entry in the 90mm scale, and possibly the only entry that uses non-Warhammer miniatures in a non-Warhammer setting, yet using Warhammer rules.

A Dream of Gold: 90mm Cowboys fight it out with Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader rules

As I very briefly alluded to this post, I found Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader to be a highly effective ruleset for achieving what I wanted to achieve with my 90mm models (at least in comparison to what I'd worked with before). It was flexible, fairly streamlined, yet offering sufficiently crunchy rules with which to conduct firefights in a small area with a small number of models.

However, four things about it frustrated me:

  • I was, obviously, forcing the rules to do something that they weren't designed for, and while I derive a certain amount of perverse pleasure from this, at the same time I don't really like it (it's also quite annoying to flip through a rulebook of which you are ignoring about 90% of the content)
  • The IGOUGO system doesn't feel right when using such a small number of individual characters, especially the rigid turn sequence (i.e. move phase, shoot phase, close-combat phase)
  • Hand-to-hand combat becomes a really odd experience when two men with pistols are fighting another man with a shovel, at point-blank range, and nobody is able to land a hit for about six turns in a row
  • The 1980s rulebook presentation is extremely cluttered and a lot harder to work with than modern systems, which generally place a greater emphasis on visual cleanliness and streamlined presentation

Rogue Trader: a flexible, crunchy, yet overly cluttered rule system

Although this particular skirmish, I felt, was a great success in itself, afterwards I did not feel comfortable (as I had previously imagined I might) using Rogue Trader as my wargaming Holy Grail: a universal ruleset which can be applied to any setting. The drawbacks mentioned above were just frustrating enough to tip me over the edge of giving up with that plan.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy my battle report, and I hope you might also feel able to vote for my entry in the competition! 

Thursday, 29 November 2018

The Other Knight's Tale

Following straight on from my previous post about Revell/BBI's wrongly-named Lord Greywolf figure, who turned out to be none other than Sir Roger de Trumpington, I want to talk about yet another 90mm knight who the Revell/BBI packaging designers seem to have similarly misidentified.

Meet the so-called Sir Gareth...

Sir Gareth: 90mm English Knight

However, much like Lord Greywolf, I'd like to suggest that this is not a depiction of anyone by that name, but somebody else entirely. To begin with, you need to see the actual heraldic design on his shield. Here is a rear-shot:

Look carefully at this shield

Now, once again, I have very little knowledge of medieval heraldry, beyond one or two significant kings or lords, so I had no idea who this was supposed to represent, if anyone historical at all. However, during my research into Sir Roger (thanks to the prompting of Arthur Machen), I discovered that medieval monumental brass plaques are a really big deal for both historians and clergy.

Apparently they give one of the best (sometimes the only) indication of what arms, armour and heraldic devices were worn by knights of the era in which they were made. Sir Roger de Trumpington's plaque is a classic example, but another of significant note is that of Sir William Fitzralph, buried inside St. John the Baptist Church in the village of Pebmarsh, Essex.

Monumental Brass Plaque: Sir William Fitzralph (1323)

As you can see from the plaque, the design on the shield, with its chevrons and fleur-de-lis, matches that of Sir Gareth's. This is further supported by the military history illustration below:

Sir William Fitzralph on the left (note the shield)

I am going to suggest, therefore, as you might have guessed already, that the Revell/BBI model called Sir Gareth is actually a representation of the historical Sir William Fitzralph!

As to the actual life of Sir William, little has been published online other than a small reference to him owning large estates in Essex and possibly taking part in the campaigns of Kings Edward I and Edward II against the Scots in the early 14th Century. In order to find out more about him, I decided to phone the Vicar of St John the Baptist, Pebmarsh, to see if they could reveal any more knowledge regarding this mysterious knight. Nick Ellis, the Lay Minister, provided me with some very interesting information and said he'd email me more in the next couple of days.

One thing that's particularly interesting to me is that Fitzralph was actually a contemporary of Sir Roger de Trumpington, and is shown next to him here in this illustration:

Sir William Fitzralph in the centre, Trumpington on the left

Despite the connection between Sir William and Sir Roger, the former seems to have made less of an impact in the miniatures market. The only one I could find, other than Revell/BBI's 90mm offering, is this 54mm one from New Century Miniatures:

54mm Sir William Fitzralph (note the heraldic design on the banner)

By contrast, in addition to all the models depicting Sir Roger that I listed in my last post, I found even more today:

54mm Trumpington, this time with a ball-and-chain flail!
54mm Trumpington, holding a banner
54mm Trumpington with a classic great helm

Finally, like Sir Roger in the village of Trumpington, Sir William also appears to have been painted onto the village sign for Pebmarsh (though the colours on the shield are not quite right):

Sir William Fitzralph, cultural icon of Pebmarsh

Now that I know who both these knights are, I feel it is only right and proper to fit them into my next game of The Dolorous Stroke! I have a feeling they're going to be heading north to Scotland for a very dangerous, but important mission...

Ready for battle: Sir William Fitzralph & Sir Roger de Trumpington

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

A Tale of Two Trumpets

Several years ago I started collecting a particular range of 90mm models which were, confusingly, released under two different brand names. In certain places they were branded as Revell products in the Epixx line. In others places they were branded as BBI (Blue Box International) products in the Warriors of the World line. By the time I'd joined the 90mm party, these models were already obsolete and it was quite a challenge finding shops that actually had them for sale. I managed, eventually, to get most of the ones I wanted, but even so, there were a small number that have so far managed to elude me.

These Revell/BBI figures were highly detailed, clearly geared toward a more realistic, historical look, as opposed to the bright, chunky, cartoony style of models released by the likes of Schleich and Papo.

Several of these models were listed for sale in an obscure Italian toy shop (where I purchased most of mine) as Medieval English Knights, each one with a unique coat of arms, though no further information was provided. To somebody with next to no knowledge of historical heraldry, this wasn't particularly helpful. One model in the range which especially stood out for me was this one:

90mm Medieval English Knight 

In particular, the design on his shield really caught my attention. At first I wasn't really sure what it was supposed to be (crosses and candlesticks? crosses and cups?). All I knew was that I had never seen it before, and assumed it had just been made up by the painter. How wrong I was!

Now, in what might at first seem like a wholly unrelated note, I recently purchased the Delphi Classics Complete Works of Arthur Machen, as it had come to my attention that, although I have long been fascinated with Arthur Machen (specifically his mystical worldview), I've never actually read anything of his other than the classic The Great God Pan (which I really enjoyed). I thought it was about time to get properly and thoroughly acquainted with the man. While looking through the contents page of the Delphi Classics collection, I noticed there was an autobiography at the back of the volume, entitled Far Off Things. What better way to start than that?

Arthur Machen, Welsh author and mystic (1863 - 1947)

In Chapter II of this work, Machen talks about some of the books he used to pore over in his father's rectory library in rural Wales, briefly citing various examples, including a tome on medieval monumental brass plaques, where he recalled one such plaque depicting a knight called Sir Roger de Trumpington, whom, Machen noted, had trumpets on the shield.

As soon as I read those words, I felt a lightbulb switch on in my brain. Trumpets on the shield? I immediately thought of that model sitting on my shelf. Could those curious objects on the shield be trumpets? A quick Google search later, and I discovered to my delight that the model on my shelf was indeed a 90mm representation of the living Sir Roger de Trumpington!

Brass of Sir Roger de Trumpington, 1289.

The brass plaque of Sir Roger de Trumpington, located in St. Mary & St. Michael's Church in the village of Trumpington, Cambridgeshire, is interesting for several reasons:

  • It is the second-oldest brass plaque of its kind in the country
  • It is the first depiction of a knight wearing ailettes (the prototype of modern epaulettes)
  • It shows de Trumpington's head resting atop his helmet: a great helm in the conical sugarloaf pattern, attached to his belt with a chain.

The Trumpington coat of arms
az. crusily and two trumpets in pale, or.

Sir Roger de Trumpington was an English knight of whom very little is known about, except that in 1270 he traveled with Prince Edward I (a.k.a. Longshanks) on the Eighth Crusade to Acre; in 1278, now back in England, he partook in a tournament at Windsor; in 1289 he died and was succeeded by his son, Giles de Trumpington, who may have fought under (now King) Edward I at the battle of Falkirk against the army of William Wallace, in 1298. And that is all that seems to be known about Sir Roger de Trumpington, aside from some details about the estates he owned in the area of Trumpington, Cambridgeshire.

1814 illustration of Sir Roger de Trumpington (British Museum)

As well as the above Victorian illustration, which brings the details of the medieval brasswork to life in classic Victorian style, including the decorative ailettes, plated kneecaps (poleyns), and sugarloaf helm on the chain, Sir Roger seems to feature prominently in several pieces of more recent artwork in what appears to be the sort one finds in Osprey military history books:

Trumpington on the left (note the shield, helm, poleyns and ailettes)

Trumpington on the left (note the shield, helm, poleyns and ailettes)

The tournament at Windsor, 1278 (Trumpington on the right with a different helm)

Trumpington also seems to be quite popular as a toy soldier. Considering the little we know about the man, he does seem to have cropped up in numerous different model ranges and scales. I was surprised by just how many there were:


54mm Trumpington on foot


54mm mounted Trumpington (Windsor Tournament style)

54mm Trumpington in... full plate armour?

120mm Trumpington! Ludus Gargantuus?

300mm Trumpington! Ludus Titanicus?!

So there you have it; a Tale of Two Trumpets. The story of a mysterious coincidence where I found the answer to a puzzling question regarding one of my interests, buried within the pages of one of my other, apparently unrelated interests. I am still puzzled as to why this specific knight has proven to be such an enduring and significant figure in model collections and military history books. Perhaps the 1289 brass plaque in St. Mary & St. Michael's, Trumpington, is far more culturally significant than I would have expected such a thing to be? I feel like I ought to make a pilgrimage to the place to find out more. If I do, it won't be hard to miss the village, the signpost is very clear:

Sir Roger, cultural icon of Trumpington, strikes again

Update (28 November): 

I just found out, bizarrely, that the 90mm model of Sir Roger de Trumpington was released under the Revell/BBI Epixx line with the name of LORD GREYWOLF! 

Lord Greywolf? I think not


Monday, 26 November 2018

The Dolorous Stroke: Second Game

Another Saturday, another nap-time for the baby, and another whipping out of the folding board game table in the living room for an impromptu session of The Dolorous Stroke.

This time, both my sons (6 & 5) were with me, so we played a Boys Vs Dad scenario. I assigned them the roles of a pair of brother-knights from the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem (better known as the Teutonic Order), during the time of the Baltic Crusades.

I took on the role of their adversary: a giant heathen barbarian who had travelled out of the distant south-east and was causing havoc in the vicinity. Attempts had been made, it was claimed, to peacefully convert this barbarian to the Catholic faith, though these attempts had allegedly been resisted with violence. There was clearly only one possible solution to deal with this new threat, and the Grand Master of the Order had chosen to send two of his most trusted knights deep into the dark and brooding forests of the untamed north to execute the mission.

I gave my sons exactly the same profiles as each other to keep things simple, but also to reflect their disciplined, uniform training as brothers of the same military order:

Speed: 4
Accuracy: 4
Prowess: 6
Strength: 5
Toughness: 5
Wits: 5
Education: 5

For Special rules I gave them both Hold the Line, which allows them to remain steady when locked in combat, instead of being forced to fight. One of the knights (my eldest son's) was equipped with an arming sword and shield. The other (my youngest son's) was equipped with an arming sword, shield AND a halberd. They both wore full chainmail and great helms (complete with the classic Teutonic ornamentation).

The barbarian, given his enormous size and obvious muscle mass, I granted the following profile:

Speed: 5
Accuracy: 5
Prowess: 7
Strength: 6
Toughness: 6
Wits: 5
Education: 3

I probably should have given him Wits: 6, given the source inspiration, but my sons were already whining enough with cries of that's not fair when they saw how much stronger, faster and better at fighting he was! I tried to explain that they outnumbered him and had better armour, but I didn't want to push it too hard. I also gave him the Brute special rule, allowing him to deliver an additional blow against a trapped foe. He was equipped with a shield, a battle-axe (actually a two-handed axe he had stripped from a butchered Templar knight, but he was able to wield it with one hand).

Initially, my sons decided to begin with their knights hidden behind trees and approach the hideout of the barbarian from two converging angles. However, at the last moment, my youngest son decided that he actually didn't want to play, and that he didn't want to start behind a tree after all. He can be a little erratic sometimes...

The game begins: the two Teutonic knights advance on the hideout of the mighty barbarian.

The barbarian moved first, running right into the middle of the board, bellowing a war cry and striking his axe against his shield in a gesture of challenge. My youngest son, in one of the brief moments when he did feel like playing, decided to approach the barbarian head-on and attack him with his halberd. This didn't work out so well for him. He received a hard blow from the barbarian's axe that smashed into his ribs and broke a few of them. He would now bleed whenever he tried to fight. My other son, meanwhile, decided the best course of action was to use his brother's foolhardiness to his advantage and sneak around a tree, with the intention of approaching the barbarian from behind:

Meanwhile, while one of the knights engages head on, the other creeps around for a rear attack.


I think this was a cooler idea in his mind than it was in reality. My younger son's knight took quite a beating while the older one did his little stealth performance. The halberd was too unwieldy against this foe at this range and my younger son paid for it dearly: this time his right arm was hacked open, forcing him to drop the halberd. By this time, my younger son had approached the barbarian and entered into combat with him:

The first knight, badly injured, stops for a breather. The other knight moves in it to take on the foe.

This didn't go so well either. The initial sneaking tactic had been a waste of time and my older son's knight was also repelled, though managed to block the impact of the blow with his shield. Meanwhile, after catching his breath, and a long, long and painful debate with my younger son who wanted his injured knight to flee the table, his brother and I managed to convince him to steel himself and step back into the fray. With his right arm now useless and unable to wield the halberd, he drew his arming sword with his LEFT HAND and charged at the heathen warrior:

The first knight charged back into the fight, wielding his arming sword with his left hand.

Miraculously, this courageous action turned the tide of the battle. Although he did not critically injure the barbarian, he wounded him and forced him backwards against the trunk of a tree. Seizing the opportunity granted by this unexpected turn of events, both knights pushed in further, pinning their enemy against the bark and attacking in unison:

The barbarian was forced back against a tree trunk. The knights move in for the kill.

Outnumbered two-to-one, and pinned against the tree, the barbarian was overcome as the two knights hacked at him with their blades. While one of them tore open his right thigh, the other decapitated him with a single blow, ending his reign of terror and completing the mission.

This last combat action did lead to an interesting rule-analysing moment, where I had to double-check how to resolve a fight with multiple combatants. It revealed a very interesting dynamic where, despite the fact that these two knights were, individually, weaker in combat than the barbarian in a one-to-one fight, if they teamed up to fight him at the same time, they were actually unstoppable. This was a valuable lesson for my sons as they learned that working together was way more effective than going alone. I hope this sinks in for the long term...

The barbarian lay decapitated at the feet of the two Teutonic knights. Mission completed.


Friday, 23 November 2018

The Great 90mm Conundrum

In my last post, where I gave my thoughts on Emmy Allen's fantastic new wargaming ruleset, The Dolorous Stroke, I mentioned that it's so good because it enables me to do exactly what I want to do with my own 90mm figures. But what is that exactly? And about those figures... why exactly do I play with those? I mean they're not even proper miniatures; they're toys!

Well, I've thought about those questions a fair amount over the years and I have in the past found it quite hard to explain. I suppose it really boils down to several factors:

  • I really like tabletop games about individual characters, rather than armies
  • I really like tabletop games that are primarily about fighting, rather than full RPGs
  • I really like games that use physical miniatures, not just pens and paper

So far, I'd forgive you for thinking: 

Sounds like you want to play a simplified, combat-orientated RPG with miniatures. Why don't you just play a dungeon-crawl board game, like HeroQuest or something like that? 

That's reasonable logic and I do enjoy those types of board games. But...

  • I like the freedom that certain wargames permit, where you decide the story, the scenery, the miniatures etc. In board games, this is usually all decided for you
  • I really like the particular ranges of figures I mentioned in my manifesto and always wanted a good excuse to collect them (other than just for its own sake)
  • I really, really dislike painting miniatures (I can't quite stress that enough)
  • I really like just doing things differently...

I've always loved collecting toys (though I will spare you the elaborate history of this) and I've loved the idea of wargaming since my early teenage years (though my absolute loathing of both painting and making things always kept me away from actually doing it).

One day, around seven years ago, I had a little spark of inspiration, where I considered playing wargames with pre-painted toys, instead of unpainted miniatures. That would allow me to avoid having to paint anything, and also provide a perfect excuse to collect those particular figures which I had my eye on for quite a number of years. Within a matter of months that little spark became an out-of-control inferno in my mind, and set me on a quest which I've been pursuing since that time: finding a good way to play tabletop wargames with a growing collection of 90mm figures from a variety of different settings and time periods (fantasy, pirates, knights, cowboys, ancients etc.). It's not been an easy process, but it's been one in which I've been determined to succeed! It also helped a lot to discover that I wasn't alone in my vision.

However, some problems I have found over the years are as follows:


Army Size

Most wargaming rulesets are designed for large armies, or at the very least, warbands of about 10 models per side. I did attempt this at first, but with the amount of table space I have available in my house, which has never been that much, this simply isn't practical. Cramming 20 x 90mm models into a 3' x 3' area, particularly with an IGOUGO turn sequence, was quite dull, as it ended up with all the models rushing into the middle in one turn and staying there in one big rugby scrum until one side had no models left standing. This created a rather flat and uninspiring experience. About 1-4 models per side is far more suitable at 90mm, and the fewer the better. Not many rulesets I've found are catered for such small numbers of characters.

Table Size

3' x 3' is about the largest amount of wargaming space I've ever been able to practically free up in my house (and even that is pushing it these days). This is perfectly fine for many skirmish rulesets geared for 28mm scale, but for 90mm it means your conflicts take place in the 1:1 equivalent of a tennis court. This limits the scope of many factors, such as the story (no epic battles, only small fights), movement (you can cross the board in one or two turns) and missile weapons (everything is always in range).

Also, as 90mm figures are roughly thrice the size of 28mm miniatures, suddenly you need a 9' x 9' table to play a ruleset designed for 28mm miniatures on a 3' x 3' table. It goes without saying that this is totally impractical. Now, in theory, the same rule mechanics that work on a 3' x 3' table should also work on a 1' x 1' table (which is the equivalent of 3' x 3' in 90mm scale), but somehow it just doesn't feel right when you do it.

Scenery

Scenery for 90mm scale might seem like a bit of an issue, but most of the companies that make the 90mm figures actually have a decent range of scenery pieces to go with them, such as trees, rock formations, rivers, castles (including things like wells, stables, siege equipment, etc.) fences, hedges, tents, carts and wagons. I've collected quite a lot of scenery over the years and I have enough to decorate a fair number of scenarios. The disadvantage is that all this giant scenery takes up quite a lot of storage space, and some of it, while impressive to look at, somehow feels impractical when it's actually on the table, such as a castle that's 2' tall! Also, not every piece of scenery you could imagine exists in this scale; what's particularly lacking is interior furniture. I've tried looking into dolls house furniture, but it's usually in the wrong scale. 90mm is the equivalent of 1:18 scale for doll houses, and the only furniture available in 1:18 (that I am aware of) is ultra-modern furniture. There's quite a lot of decent medieval style doll house furniture out there, but it's all in 1:12 scale, which is just too large for 90mm figures.

Bases

One of the challenges with these particular figures is that, unlike many wargaming miniatures, they do not come with bases, nor do they fit onto standard-sized plastic wargaming bases. Your average 90mm human figure requires a 60mm base, which aren't exactly common in wargaming stores, or certainly weren't back when I started this whole thing off.

Somehow or other, I discovered Warbases, who laser-cut almost anything you want from various materials. When I started this project, they only worked in MDF, so I super-glued literally hundreds of these figures to laser-cut MDF discs. Of course, they looked awful mounted on plain MDF, and as I said already, I had no desire to paint the bases, so I covered each of them in several layers of flocking material, including static grass as a final touch. Okay, it was better than plain MDF, but it still looked pretty terrible, and I've had static grass kicking around my house for years as a result. That was a mammoth project and it really didn't deliver a good visual result in the end; I strongly regret going down that MDF-with-flock road. 

Thankfully, I discovered not so long ago that Warbases now make clear acrylic bases! I have replaced about 35 of my figures' MDF bases with these ones. The result is much, much more satisfying. The models look cleaner, far more pleasing to the eye, and it means they're always standing on the right texture, no matter what gaming surface you place them on! I wish I'd thought of this before, but you live and learn. I've found that by leaving the existing MDF bases in a pool of water, they soak it all up, become very soft, then easily tear off the model's feet. The leftover parts can be trimmed off the base of the feet with some cutters or a scalpel. 

Rule Restrictions

Okay, so the biggest problem I've found with trying to make most rulesets work with 90mm figures is simply that most rulesets are just not designed for it! If the rules are geared for 28mm, all distances for movement and range have to be tripled. This often causes issues with table-size, as I mentioned above. For example, some rulesets are designed with particular scenarios in mind, none of which will work in the available space, and many of which require scenery that isn't available in 90mm scale. I'm really not a fan of pre-made scenarios.

As mentioned above, anything with an IGOUGO system is painfully dull in a small area with a small figure count. Trying to adapt various editions of Warhammer Fantasy Battle was an excruciating exercise in futility. Moving every single miniature in your warband into the centre of the board, then watching the opponent move every single miniature in their warband into the centre of the board, followed by a rigid melee sequence, was the most tedious thing I ever tried.

I had slightly better success with the Warhammer Historical range of rulesets, such as Legends of the High Seas for my pirates, Legends of the Old West for my cowboys, Gladiator for my... wait for it... gladiators (didn't see that one coming, eh?). All three of those were modified versions of The Lord of the Rings: Strategy Battle Game, which, to be fair, was a very decent system and I really enjoyed it for a while (I also had a copy of that to play with my generic fantasy figures). However, it still used a variation of IGOUGO which, while better than WFB, was only a little better, and still made for some exceptionally dull tabletop moments.

Also, even though those particular rulesets were quite decent, it always felt a little weird using them to play with figures they weren't designed for; there were tons of rules in the books which were not applicable at this scale and it just seemed absurd to ignore so much of a book because of my chosen scale. One thing that was especially awkward about that particular range of games was that they had fixed character profiles, so you had to buy miniatures to fit the rules, rather than a system for making the rules fit your miniatures.

Legends of the High Seas: a solid but not very flexible rule system.

Now, a major revolution happened when I tried the Song of Blades & Heroes series. The big selling point of SBH (and its several variants) was that they were fully customisable; you could have any miniature in any scale (in theory) and create a custom profile for it! Brilliant! If anything seemed like it would cater to using the wrong miniatures, this sounded like the one. There were also some other great advantages which suited my situation, such as a radically different model activation system (SBH players will know what I'm talking about). I remember the first time I played a session of 90mm orcs vs 90mm elves, feeling blown away by how dynamic and exciting it felt to switch around from one miniature to another and from one side to another, with models able to choose what actions they wanted to take on their turn, instead of following boring scripted turn sequences! 

However, SBH had its share of problems:

  • The three-sticks movement system caused me some issues, trying to work out exactly what size to make my sticks in order to scale up properly, which led to a confusing conversation with the author of the rules, who said that the measurement stick lengths were actually designed for the table size, rather than the scale of the models, which didn't make sense to me. 
  • The morale system, while seeming like a great idea (in theory), also didn't work at 90mm, as it meant your entire warband would instantly run off the table the moment somebody panicked. 
  • I really despised the abstracted character profiles (being boiled down to only Quality and Combat values), as well as the fact that different weapons played no real part in the game, and were only referred to in the vaguest sense through the Traits system. I found the combat mechanism system in general to be quite uninspired and dissatisfying.
  • The thing I found to be the most irritating element of SBH was the points system, which ideally involved logging in to a separate website to calculate your warband value. There was a funny rule about having a certain ratio between Personality models and regular troopers. I am sure some people really liked this system, but I could never get it to work for what I wanted to do. 

Song of Arthur & Merlin: a flexible, though overly abstract rule system.


Eventually, I gave up on SBH, but a friend of mine suggested I try using the combat rules from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st Edition as a tabletop skirmish game, instead of an actual RPG. I gave it a shot, read through the rules and actually thought this might work. There were several things going for it:

  • The required playing area was only 1' x 1', meaning 3' x 3' in 90mm terms (perfect)
  • There was a really relaxed approach to tabletop scenery
  • The combat and weapon system was gritty, satisfyingly detailed and extremely violent(!)
  • Models could choose their actions instead of following a turn sequence
  • There was a huge bestiary to choose from, so I could find something to fit most of my figures
  • It used multiple polyhedral dice, rather than just d6s 


I tried it out a few times and thought it was a really fun system. However, it also had some drawbacks:

  • Turn order was static, based on the order of the models' Initiative value (I didn't like this)
  • The rules were scattered across several pages of a really thick book containing hundreds of other rules I wasn't interested in; it wasn't always easy to find what you were looking for
  • Certain rules, especially relating to blood-loss, were vague
  • Overall, the rules were a little too fiddly and not streamlined enough

There was one particular game we ran involving King Arthur and his knights fighting a band of Saxons, led by a witch, amidst Roman ruins in a thick forest. We planned the story together for months, and although there were one or two cool high points in the game (such as when King Arthur chopped the leader of the Saxons in half with Excalibur) overall the game felt dry, dull and seemed like more of a chore to play than an exciting drama unfolding on the tabletop.

Warhammer Roleplay: a flexible, crunchy, yet a bit too fiddly rule system. 


After that, I gave up on WHFRP and almost gave up on the 90mm project altogether. I had some brief success using Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader with my cowboy figures (using three models a side really helped with the IGOUGO factor) but having gone back to yet another Warhammer variant, I saw myself going around in circles and thought this was never really going to work. I loaded the 90mm figures into the attic (for the third time) and thought it was all over.

But then, just when it seemed like all was lost, my friend made me aware of The Dolorous Stroke, which seems to have hit the absolute perfect note in terms of everything I am looking for in a ruleset to make my 90mm dream a reality. It's as if the author saw everything that was broken in other systems and managed to fuse together all the good parts into one perfect harmony.


The Dolorous Stroke: a flexible, crunchy and streamlined rule system.


And now my models are out of the attic once again, I've begun a mass MDF-to-acrylic-base-replacement project and I've even started a blog to talk about all this. Things are looking very hopeful indeed for my 90mm project right now!

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

The Dolorous Stroke: First Reflections

So, I played my first game of The Dolorous Stroke on Saturday, but now it's time to share some of my first (post-game) thoughts.

As I already said in my first post about this ruleset, I really like the presentation of the book. The black-and-white heraldic devices that are liberally scattered across almost every page, the ubiquitous blackletter font, and the frequent full-page inserts of classic 19th century Arthurian illustrations all give it an old-school vibe, drenched in the trappings of medieval romance. It reminds me a lot of the presentation of Song of Arthur & Merlin.

Cockatrice:
One of many heraldic designs featured in the book

In terms of the actual content, as I said before, I'm very impressed by the author's game design philosophy; there are no point values, nor a point system, because the object of the game is not to build competitive forces, but to tell a good story through tabletop play. I really like this focus. The author has not, however, left players in the dark with an anarchic, free-for-all vacuum, but has provided extremely helpful guidelines for how stats should generally be assigned to characters. Using these guidelines, and applying some common sense, is all you need to keep things properly weighted, without the need for an abstract point system. But again, weighting and balance is not the real emphasis here. You don't base your games on equal forces for competitive play, but on interesting narratives. I really, really like this approach and it is something I have desired to see appear in a ruleset for many years now.

What really stands out for me in this book is that the author has actually verbalised, in the text, most of the problems I have personally encountered when experimenting with different wargaming rulesets, and she has provided creative ideas to overcome these problems. Often I have found that I can read a ruleset and, with a bit of work, modify it to function the way I want for my own purposes, most likely in ways that the author did not originally intend. Sometimes this works, sometimes not so much. In this case, however, it seems the author has already thought of most of these possibilities and has provided helpful suggestions that enable one to actualise one's own ideas without having to twist or tweak anything.

The flexibility that the ruleset offers is certainly the best I have encountered to date. Nearly every aspect of the game (other than the core mechanics) is deliberately open to the player's preferences. This manifests in some cases by the author actually providing the options for you in the text, such as a guideline for your choice of miniature scale and the appropriate movement measurement rules for these, and in other cases by simply not prescribing any rules at all, such as what size your playing area should be. This is very refreshing to me. Theme-wise, although the book is quite obviously grounded in Arthurian romance, the rules can quite easily be applied to any pre-gunpowder setting, whether historical, fantastical or mythological. Again, that is a massive plus.

I also really like the natural restrictions that the rules place on force size. Force is really the wrong word; this isn't a game about armies, or even warbands (as you might expect from a typical skirmish sized game), but instead about individual characters. With each model on the table requiring its own complete deck of playing cards, and each deck having to be divided into the four suits laid out side-by-side, your available table-space is going to have to give way somewhere. The product page suggests it is designed for 1-5 models per side, but I would suggest that even 5 is going to be a push for practical table-space if you factor in character sheets as well. While 5 characters per side would certainly make a really interesting and dynamic fight, I see two or three being a more realistic amount for myself.

The activation system is the best I've seen to date; players roll for initiative each turn, then alternate activating their characters, one at a time. Each character gets to take only ONE action per activation. I've never seen this done before in any system, and I really like it! It keeps things dead simple, but also feels more realistic in terms of what characters could actually achieve in the midst of a fast-paced brawl.

Where the game really shines for me is the combat system. I liked it as soon as I first read the rules, but in practice it was even more fun than I expected. Although my son and I only played a one-on-one sword fight in our first session (and I am sure far more interesting things would have happened if there were a variety of characters each carrying different weapons) even the single combat we engaged in was immensely satisfying! The injury and bleeding system is so beautifully designed; I can't wait to try it again with more characters involved.


My Barbary corsair collapsed from blood-loss, having taken wounds to the gut, arm, leg and head.


Conclusion

This is my favourite tabletop miniatures system to date. It is clearly a labour of love from the author, and a lot of careful thought (conditioned by what is obviously years of experience playing both wargames and RPGs) has fed into it. I give it top marks for theme, flexibility, elegance in both visual presentation and rule design, as well as the overall concept. This system is absolutely perfect for what I want for my games with my models (and that will be the subject of a future post).

It should be noted that the game has quite an extensive magic system which I have not yet tried out. I have plenty of wizards in my collection and look forward to giving them a shot.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

The Dolorous Stroke: First Game

Today, my wife took my oldest son (6) out ice-skating in the centre of Edinburgh, leaving me to look after my younger son (5) and my daughter (1) back at home.

At my daughter's afternoon nap-time, I quickly set up my folding board-game table and told my younger son it was time to play. I figured, seeing as it was our first game, that we'd choose one character each for a quick fight to the death!

I asked him to choose his favourite model from my 90mm knights collection. He chose a Knight of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (a.k.a. Hospitallers), wearing the revised uniform pattern of A.D. 1259, requiring all knights of the Order to wear a red surcoat emblazoned with a white cross.

My son told me the knight's name was Arthur, an Englishman, and was 16 years old. He was useless with a bow, despite his father's encouragement to learn that skill, but he had trained to use a sword since he was 4, so was very good at hand-to-hand combat.

We gave him the following stats:

Speed: 4
Accuracy: 2
Prowess: 6
Strength: 5
Toughness: 5
Wits: 5
Education: 5

Arthur was a devout Catholic, so we gave him the Strength of Faith special ability. My son also said Sir Arthur carried a pocket-sized Bible with him wherever he went, so we said it counted as a Relic. Both of these factors served to boost his Nerve stat to 8. However, my son specifically stated that young Sir Arthur rejected the doctrine of Transubstantiation (perhaps he had Lollard sympathies?) I am certain he kept that particular view to himself...

The model was equipped with a helmet (a pig-faced bascinet), a shield and an arming sword, as well as a substantial amount of plate armour, boosting his overall Defense to 9.

Given the helmet style, we had to set the game no earlier than the the 1380s, when that style of helm was in vogue, and no later than 1410, when it was out again. During that period, the Knights of Saint John, having lost their HQ in Jerusalem, had relocated to the island of Rhodes, so I decided that was where our game took place.

For Sir Arthur's opponent, I chose a Barbary pirate called Abdul. I gave him similar stats, but decided that Sir Arthur's military training in the Order of the Hospital meant he should have higher weapon skill, so I restricted Abdul's Prowess to 5. Abdul carried a one-handed sword, dagger, and wore chainmail, a helmet and a shield. This set his Defense to 8. He was, therefore, neither as good a fighter, nor as well defended, as Sir Arthur. However, this I did not mind, as I wanted my son to have an edge on me, so he wasn't potentially turned off wargaming from a young age.

We set the game in a quiet (and extremely empty) courtyard in Rhodes. Sir Arthur, my son told me, was walking through the streets when he heard some cruel laughter from around the corner. Sir Arthur headed into the courtyard and found a Barbary pirate having just killed one of Sir Arthur's own brother-knights. Arthur drew his sword as Abdul the pirate ran at him.

Sir Arthur and Abdul charge one another...

The fight went back and forth across the courtyard, blades clashing hard against blade, shield and armour.

Then it happened.

Sir Arthur slipped under the pirate's guard and thrust his blade into Abdul's belly. The pirate let out a cry of pain as Arthur withdrew his sword, leaving a devastating wound.

Sir Arthur thrust his blade into Abdul's belly.

After this, Abdul slowly began to bleed out. If he remained still, he was all right, but if he fought or moved, he would bleed more. This meant he was in a race against time. If he did not deal a decisive blow to Sir Arthur soon, he wouldn't make it out alive. He fought desperately, losing more and more blood, but never once able to slip his own sword between Sir Arthur's armoured plates.

Before long, Sir Arthur, the better swordsman, had half-severed Abdul's left arm, forcing him to drop his shield. In a matter of moments, Sir Arthur had Abdul trapped against the wall of the courtyard, cutting open his right thigh. The weakened Abdul collapsed on the flagstones and died in a spreading pool of blood.

Sir Arthur finishes off the defeated pirate.
My son was delighted with this outcome. He told me that after this, Sir Arthur returned to join the other Knights of Rhodes, took off his armour, and all they had a party to celebrate his victory. Then they went to bed.

A very fun game indeed. I think I will post some further thoughts on it later...

Thursday, 15 November 2018

The Dolorous Stroke: Character Sheet

In order to play The Dolorous Stroke, I thought it would be helpful to print out some character sheets to help players keep track of their models' stats, abilities and equipment.

I was inspired by Zhu, over at The Realm of Zhu blog, who created a character record sheet last year for Warhammer Fantasy Battle (1st Edition). Based on his design, I pulled something together for TDS (using a bit of artwork from within its own pages, for a consistent aesthetic):



I am by no means a professional designer, so this was made entirely in Microsoft Paint and measured by eyeball, so if anything is misaligned, I take full responsibility!

You can download the full-size PNG file here. Hopefully this is a helpful tool for any TDS players out there!


16th November

I updated the sheet to allow for mounts and ranged weapons, which I'd forgotten before, and also added some extra personal characteristics at the top of the sheet. 

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

The Dolorous Stroke

I was recently made aware of a new Arthurian-themed wargaming ruleset called The Dolorous Stroke (by the marvelously named Dying Stylishly Games), which is available here at Wargame Vault.

Great cover art : The Slaying of Sir Lamorak by N.C. Wyeth (1922)

I won't repeat the description on the product page, but suffice to say I believe this ruleset is designed for exactly the sort of games I want to play with my 90mm figures: narrative-driven fights between a very small number of models in a very small area. It's suitably appropriate for the type of encounters often found in Arthurian tales, where knights of Camelot travel alone or in small groups on various quests and encounter either single or small groups of enemies along the way.

I've read through the rules (several times) and I'm particularly impressed with the free-form game design philosophy (the author, Emmy Allen, seems to have thought of everything here, including the critically important provision to play in any miniature scale). I am also very pleased with the activation system and the especially satisfying combat rules, which promise a similar level of excessive brutality to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, including disembowelment, decapitation, and mangled limbs, but with a more robust system for monitoring bleeding.

Overall, the rules are very well designed and the presentation of the book itself is wonderful. Regarding components required for play, other than scenery, appropriate miniatures and a measuring device, you will need a set of polyhedral dice (d4 - d12) and an entire deck of playing cards for each character in play. This obviously limits the amount of characters, lest things become impractical. For this purpose, I purchased a pack of six mini decks from Amazon here, for only £2.

I intend to try out my first game this coming weekend, using the 90mm figures.

Manifesto

The purpose of this blog is very simple: to record my attempted (mis)adventures in tabletop gaming* with miniatures**.


* By tabletop gaming I specifically mean: narrative-driven fights (not battles, not even skirmishes) between a very small number of characters in a small area, such as a dungeon chamber, gladiatorial arena, palace courtyard or forest clearing; a bit like an encounter in an RPG.

**When I say miniatures, I don't mean 15mm, 28mm or even 54mm metal models like that which wargamers usually use; I am talking about 90mm pre-painted plastic toys! Not articulated action figures like G.I Joe, but high-quality static figures from companies such as Papo, Schleich, Bullyland, Mojo Fun, Revell, CollectA, Plastoy and Safari Ltd.

90mm Medieval Foot Soldier by Schleich

I absolutely love these figures and I've been collecting them for several years now. It's been one of my adult life's central quests to find a way to play wargames with them. I've experimented with several systems so far (such as Warhammer or Song of Blades & Heroes) but have found them all dissatisfying in different ways. I believe I may have finally found a solution, however, and that will be the topic of the next post...