GW announced that a new edition is on the way, and that was not a big surprise. When a game has as aggressive a release schedule as 40K, over time the rules get bloated and spread out over more and more books. Eventually, a correction is required. Sometimes, that’s a massive rules shake up, as in 3rd and 8th edition. Other times, it’s a close iteration whose main job is to do a big cleanup that addresses the problems revealed over years of play. The latter is where 9th edition 40K is landing. All the current codexes will remain valid, which is nice. They are finally fixing the ridiculous problem of having your 100 ton tank effectively neutralized by a bunch of cheap infantry dancing around it, thank the Emperor. Overall, it sounds good and I’m on board. The only bit I wasn’t psyched about is “more command points.” To me stratagems in 40K 8E are like feats in D&D 3E: a good idea that quickly spun out of control. There are simply way too many of them, and new books keep adding more and more. I’d have liked it if 9th edition trimmed down them down substantially but I can also see why that didn’t happen. It’d be difficulty to both keep all current codexes valid and have big changes in how stratagems and command points work. I do like the sound of the new campaign system though, and it’s nice to see GW continuing its efforts at diversity. Sisters of Battle look to be in the main box alongside Space Marines and Necrons (and feature heavily in the sizzle video), and the cover of the kickoff book of the new novel series features a black Space Marine. It would be cool to see that played up even more in some new Imperial Guard regiments but they’ve been married to the Cadian look for a long time now.
For a variety of reasons, I just haven’t had a chance to play D&D in 3+ years. I think this is the longest I’ve gone since getting into RPGs at age 10. With all the sensible people now sheltering at home, online gaming is booming. Suddenly, I’ve been invited to three different D&D games. People, I think, are reaching for things that are comforting and for many gamers that means going back to their first RPG. Today I’m going to jump in a game with my old college game group, which I’m looking forward to. Spent many an hour around the table with these friends, and we’ve rarely gotten to game since I moved to Seattle.
This campaign has been going for a little bit so I had to make a 5th level character. I thought I’d play a wizard and do something a little different by making him a diviner. Bill, the GM, said I could do what I wanted with his background, as long as he ended up in Ravenloft. I decided to let my Greyhawk flag fly and came up with the following.
Torsten is a Northman from the World of the Greyhawk, one of the Cruski (known to outsiders as the Ice Barbarians). A cunning boy who seemed to be touched by magic, young Torsten was sent to learn at the feet of Halfdan Hairy-Breeches, a priest of the god Vatun. Halfdan was keeper of a mountain shrine, and there a small community lived in isolation. Vatun, formerly the great god of the northern Suloise, had been imprisoned for nearly 700 years. His priests could not commune with him or receive spells. They prayed that Vatun’s brother, Dalt (God of Portals, Doors, Enclosures, Locks, and Keys), would succeed in freeing their god but they waited in vain.
When Halfdan died, Torsten left the shrine in the hands of other initiates and struck out on his own. He had developed a talent for casting runestones and followed that path into wizardry. He spent many years wandering the lands of the Frost, Ice, and Snow Barbarians, learning magic and trying to divine the fate of Vatun. He pondered on the relationship between Vatun and Dalt. If anyone could break into the prison holding Vatun, surely it was Dalt? Why had he failed for so many centuries? Telchur the Icebrother, the god said to be Vatun’s gaoler, was powerful no doubt but was that explanation really all there was to it?
After mastering divination magic, Torsten had a realization* that Vatun was not completely silent. He could communicate, with those who would listen, through the runestones. It was indirect and imprecise, but Torsten became convinced that Vatun called out to his worshipers. His research indicated that Vatun was imprisoned on a distant demiplane, so Torsten decided to take direct action and leave Greyhawk for the planes.
With the aid of Vatun’s priesthood, Torsten found a portal to Sigil, the City of Doors. From there he began to investigate various demiplanes. After several disappointing trips, including an encounter with a mad wizard on the demiplane of Leonis**, Torsten thought he had a solid lead through a contact in Sigil. Instead he walked into a trap. His contact was an agent of Belial, Archduke of Hell and an ally of Telchur the Icebrother. When he stepped through the portal, he was swallowed up by thick mist and was quickly lost. When he emerged and got his bearings, he realized the terrible truth: he was trapped in the Demiplane of Dread, Ravenloft.
Torsten’s immediate goal is to escape from Ravenloft. From casting his runestones, however, he has come to believe that fate cast him here for a reason. Perhaps the road to Vatun leads through Raveloft.
* The Discovery feature from his Hermit background.
** A little nod to my own D&D book Vortex of Madness.
I got into punk when I was 15 years old and never looked back. I bang on about it all the time, so if you know anything about my musical taste, it’s my 35 years in the punk rock trenches. What you may not know is that before I saw D.O.A., Black Flag, Marginal Man, and a bunch of other bands that changed my life, I had a progressive rock phase. It’s weird, I know, because punk was in part a reaction to the excesses of the prog rock scene in the 70s, but back at my parents’ house you can still find my dusty King Crimson, ELP, and Yes albums. My absolute favorite band at the time, however, was Rush.
As I’m sure you’ve heard, Rush’s drummer and lyricist Neil Peart died last week, and this caused me to think about the band’s impact on my early teenage years. The first album I bought with my own money was Moving Pictures. The first arena rock concert I ever went to was Rush (December 15, 1982 at the Worcester Centrum). I remember getting into heated arguments with my classmates, who didn’t understand why Alex Lifeson was obviously the greatest guitarist in rock and roll (a very 8th grade conversation). Rush was the first band I was passionate about, full stop.
On reflection I realized it was more than music for me though. Rush was an integral part of my life at an important time. They were my favorite band from roughly ages 11-13 and what else was going on that period? Well, when I was 10 years old I first read the Lord of the Rings. That same year I started to play Dungeons & Dragons and it soon became my obsession. And to me at the time this was all part of a greater whole. One of the reasons Rush appealed to me is that their lyrics were tailor made for fans of fantasy, scifi, and roleplaying. They had a song about Rivendell on Fly by Night! The Necromancer on Caress of Steel was basically a D&D adventure, three men of Willowdale on a quest to defeat an evil sorcerer. And 2112, of course, was a science fiction tour de force. Those years were about reading Tolkien, Moorcock, and Leiber, playing D&D, and listening to Rush. This cocktail would be formative for me and lead ultimately to my career as a RPG designer and publisher. “Square for battle, let the fray begin!”
As it turns out, my experience was not uncommon for nerds of the early 80s. The thing is I had no idea this was the case at the time. This was before the internet so I had no easy way to connect with members of my tribe. The only other gamers I knew were the people in my home town. My only window into the wider world of gaming was reading Dragon Magazine, and even in the letters section there was little talk about contemporary music (more important to argue about the alignment system or rollplaying vs. roleplaying, don’t you know). I was isolated in a suburb of Boston, part of a subculture that was derided and attacked as Satanic, and nobody outside my circle of friends thought D&D was cool (and certainly nobody in Hollywood did!). The song Subdivisions, as you might guess, spoke to me when Signals came out. “Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone.”
Those heady years were important but they passed. As I was getting into punk rock, Rush was really embracing the synthesizer and that just didn’t do anything for me. I wanted guitar-driven music, harder and faster. I wanted music more in tune with my angry leftism, not Ayn Rand’s poisonous bullshit. So I said goodbye to prog rock and hello to punk and hardcore (and a subculture even more reviled than D&D!). While I would never revisit most of those bands, Rush proved the exception. Their 70s records were something I always went back to. A few years ago Rush did their final tour and I actually considered going. I hadn’t seen them since 1984 and thought it might be fun to relive those days. Unfortunately, their Seattle area show happened when I was at GenCon. Ironic, that it was gaming that kept me away.
When I was 12, I had this fantasy. There were no game conventions near me and I’d certainly never been to one. I could only read about GenCon in Dragon and dream. Well, what if I organized my own convention? And what if I got Rush as the musical guest? Surely this was something a 12 year old could pull off! Now yes, this was completely ridiculous, but it shows you what was going on in my head. Music and games and fiction were sparking dreams and creativity, and from those early beginnings I’d make a career and a life. So thank you Neil, Alex, and Geddy for getting into my brain and giving me a soundtrack for my first adventures. In the early 80s Rush was more than just music for me and I know I’m not alone in that.
We are in the process of reviving our old game group, and a few weeks ago we got together to talk about what we might want to play. I was surprised that the most popular choice was Al-Qadim, TSR’s Arabian D&D setting from the early 90s. It’s something I’ve always liked but never got to play, so I didn’t take much convincing to GM it. I decided, however, to use my own Fantasy AGE rules rather than D&D. I didn’t want to use Second Edition AD&D and if I was going to spend time converting things, I’d rather do it for Fantasy AGE than Fifth Edition.
For the most part, converting material over is easy enough. Turns out I was a little cavalier about handling the sha’ir though. As they are a key element of Al-Qadim and Nicole wanted to play one, I definitely wanted to include sha’ir in the campaign. I sat down this weekend and took a first crack at doing so and I figured I might as well toss them up on my long-neglected blog so other folks could have a look. I decided early on that I wanted to make sha’ir a mage specialization but figuring out how to best represent their various abilities in Fantasy AGE took some consideration. I ultimately decided to make a lot of their abilities spells and created a Genie Arcana to house them.
Old Al-Qadim fans may note a couple of things. First, I cut down the amount of time it takes gen to find spells for the sha’ir. This at least gives a chance for a mage to get a Novice spell during a combat encounter, though more powerful spells must be sought during narrative time. Second, since sha’ir is simply a specialization for the mage class, this means they will have regular spells to cast. Basically, I wanted to make sure they had something more than arcane blast to play with while the gen was off fetching other spells. Since the core sha’ir abilities require both an arcana and a specialization though, I don’t think they’ll overpower other kinds of mages.
The rules I designed follow. First there’s the Genie Arcana and its spells, then the sha’ir specialization and the rules for gen fetching spells. Enjoy!
You know the magic of the fabled genie. You can summon, bargain with, and sometimes command genie, though you must always keep your wits about you.
Novice: You learn the spells summon gen and summon jann.
Journeyman: You learn the spell summon genie. You gain the focus Intelligence (Genie Arcana).
Master: You learn the spell bind genie. You can also choose one spell stunt you can perform for –1 SP when casting Genie Arcana spells.
Requirements: Genie Arcana (Novice)
Spell Type: Utility
MP Cost: 2
Casting Time: Minor Action
Target Number: 9
Description: You summon and bind a small elemental familiar known as a gen. The first time you cast this spell, you choose a type of gen: daolanin (Earth), djinnling (Air), effreetkin (Fire), or maridan (Water). This first casting takes 3d6 hours and allows you to find and bind a gen, who becomes your willing servant thenceforth, and can subsequently be summoned as a minor action as indicated above. This is a specific gen, so name them! Your gen remains with you unless dismissed (a free action), banished back to its elemental plane (by having its Health reduced to 0), or sent on an errand (such as fetching a spell for a sha’ir). If dismissed or banished, you can summon your gen again by casting this spell.
Requirements: Genie Arcana (Novice)
Spell Type: Utility
MP Cost: 5
Casting Time: Major Action
Target Number: 11
Description: You cast this spell and yell for aid, and all jann within 10 miles hear the call. If there are any in the area (GM’s discretion; jann are typically found in forlorn places), a single janni will appear. They can help lost travelers and provide some basic hospitality. Beyond that, the janni must be negotiated with for any additional aid. This spell compels them in no way. Should you ever attack a summoned janni, this spell will automatically fail for you until you make restitution to the jann, which should be an adventure in itself.
Requirements: Genie Arcana (Journeyman)
Spell Type: Utility
MP Cost: 12
Casting Time: 1d6 minutes
Target Number: 15
Description: This spell allows you to summon a genie from the elemental planes. You can choose to summon a dao (Earth), djinn (Air), efreet (Fire), or marid (Water). You gain a +2 bonus to the casting roll if the genie is of the same element as your gen familiar. YIf the casting roll is successful, the genie appears in 1d6 rounds. Then it is up to you to negotiate with the genie; the spell does not compel them to help you. You may be able to convince them to aid you, though bribes are more common. Threats can also be effective, but you must tread carefully. Genies consider it rude to cast this spell more than once a week. Each attempt after the first suffers a cumulative -2 penalty on its casting roll.
Requirements: Genie Arcana (Master)
Spell Type: Utility
MP Cost: 20
Casting Time: 1d6 minutes
Target Number: 15
Test: Opposed Communication (Bargaining)
Description: You may attempt to bind a genie within 10 yards of you into service for up to 101 days. You gain a +2 bonus to the casting roll if the genie is of the same element as your gen familiar but suffer a -5 penalty instead if you’ve ever used a genie prison on this type of genie. The casting time represents a negotiation between you and the genie, during which you settle on the conditions of the genie’s service. Make an opposed Communication (Bargaining) test. If you win, the genie can set 1d6 conditions to service. If the genie wins, there are 1d6+4 conditions. See page 106 of Arabian Adventures for typical conditions. You can only have one genie bound into service at a time.
A sha’ir is a mage well-versed in the magic and customs of genies. Their elemental familiars can travel beyond the Land of Fate to recover spells for the sha’ir’s use. More powerful sha’irs can summon and even bind powerful genies.
Requirements: You must have at least the novice degree of the Genie Arcana talent and one of the elemental arcana talents (Air, Earth, Fire, or Water). You must also have the Intelligence (Genie Lore) focus.
Novice: You can send your gen to the elemental planes to find a specific spell for you. See the Gen and Spells section for details.
Journeyman: You gain protection against elemental attacks. You get a +1 bonus to resist spells from the Air, Earth, Fire, and Water arcana. Elementals of all types suffer a -1 penalty on attack rolls and a -2 on damage rolls when targeting you.
Master: You can create a genie prison. This requires 3d6 days and a successful TN 13 Intelligence (Genie Arcana) test. If successful, the genie prison can be used when you encounter a genie (whether through summoning or happenstance). If you successfully cast bind genie and they fail a Willpower (Self-Discipline) test vs. your Spellpower, the genie becomes bound in your prison. If you fail the casting roll or the genie resists the spell, they realize what you are trying to and turn hostile. Note that this use of bind genie requires no negotiation, as you are using magical means to compel them into the prison.
Gen and Spells
The defining feature of the sha’ir is the ability to send gen to the elemental planes to bring back spells that can then be cast. This takes time but has the advantage of allowing the sha’ir to cast spells they don’t know and from arcana they have not studied. Dispatching a gen to find a spell is a minor action and each attempt takes an amount of time dependent on the type of spell requested. If you make a successful Intelligence (Genie Arcana) test, the gen returns in the time indicated on the following table with the requested spell. The degree of success on the test indicates how many hours you have to cast the spell and you can only do so once. If you haven’t cast it before the time elapses, the spell is lost.
Type of Spell Test TN Time to Fetch Spell
Novice 10 1d6 rounds
Journeyman 12 1d6 minutes
Master 14 1d6 hours
A sha’ir must be at least a level 5 mage to request Journeyman spells and a level 10 mage to request Master spells. Barring this restriction, any spell from the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook and Fantasy AGE Companion can be requested. Special or unique spells outside of these arcana can only be requested if the sha’ir has witnessed them being cast.
Gen stats to follow later.
Back in 2004 my friend Rick and I started playing Blitzkrieg Commander, a WW2 miniatures game descended from Rick Priestley’s Warmaster rules. We followed it through a second edition, and through follow-ups Cold War Commander and Future War Commander. Then the games were sold to Pendraken, an English miniatures company, and a third edition was promised.
In 2017 I went to my first (and sadly only) Salute in London. This is the biggest miniatures convention in the UK and a bucket list event for lead heads. One cool thing about the show is that some vendors will let you pre-order things on their websites that you can then pick up at their booths. I took advantage of this to pre-order Blitzkrieg Commander III from Pendraken and some minis from Bad Squiddo (female Viking and Soviet sniper minis, yes please).
I stayed on in England for another ten days or so, visiting the amazing Tank Museum at Bovington among other places. I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to the internet while traveling so I missed the rising criticism of the just-released Blitzkrieg Commander III. There were problems with both the rules and the army lists and the fanbase was pretty salty about it. Pendraken decided they had to address the issues and after running a poll made a stunning announcement: they would fix the game and give everyone who bought BKCIII a free copy of the new edition.
I’m a publisher. I know how much it costs make, print, and ship books. This was a promise that would cost Pendraken $10,000 easily but they were committed to Blitzkrieg Commander having a future.
Yesterday I got an unexpected package in the mail. I thought it might be Saga: Age of Magic but found a copy of Blitzkrieg Commander IV, hot off the presses. I was surprised because I wasn’t even sure if Pendraken had my address, as I’d ordered it for pick-up at Salute. The new edition is full color (thus making the printing even more expansive) and nicely laid out.
Really, I can’t say enough good things about how Pendraken has handled this. It is above and beyond what I could have reasonably expected from a game publisher of their size. So thank you, Pendraken! I look forward to trying out Blizkrieg Commander IV. If you’re interested in checking it out, you can order it here.
A few months ago Games Workshop put out a campaign system for Warhammer 40,000 called Urban Conquest and I decided to run a campaign for Pike & Shots, the wargaming club some friends and I started a couple of years back. Urban Conquest is designed for a maximum of four players. It uses color-coded physical components so it’s not a simple matter to just add more competing factions. I thus decided to run it for teams of two so I could accommodate eight players. I will be the referee, and I’ll also be playing AdMech and Planetary Defense Forces in special scenarios so I can get some games in too (though obviously, I won’t be scoring and can’t win the campaign!).
One-off games are great and all, but what makes campaigns fun is the narrative. After finding out what armies everyone wanted to play, I sat down to write up a background. This sets up the start of the campaign and will be built on as we start playing games. The challenging aspect of this campaign is that I ended up with six players who wanted to play marines. I tried to take some inspiration from the late (and sorely missed) Alan Bligh’s terrific Badab War books from Forge World, which featured many marines chapters squaring off against each other. The resulting narrative is below. It’s thick with 40K lore. I know you’d expect no less from me! I hope to provide some updates here as the campaign goes on, since I’ve dreadfully neglected my blog the last few years.
Svarog is a mining planet in Segmentum Tempestus. When the Cicatrix Maledictum tore reality apart and cut off half the galaxy from Terra and the light of the Astronomican, the importance of Svarog to the Imperium increased greatly. A small fleet of Adeptus Mechanicus vessels, on the run since Tyranid Hive Fleet Leviathan destroyed their Forge World of Gryphonne IV, was directed to Svarog to expand its manufacturing output. Soon Svarog was not just mining raw materials but producing weapons of war for the Indomitus Crusade of Roboute Guilliman. It made important contributions to the rebuilding of the Crimson Fists on (relatively) nearby Rynn’s World.
As the Indomitus Crusade wound down, a political rift began to develop on Svarog. The Gryphonne IV contingent, led by Tech-Priest Dominus Zephyrus Omicron, had been crucial to the development of Svarog but the planetary governor, Jasper Tarrant, increasingly felt the Mechanicus was trying to take over the planet and turn it into a new Forge World. When word came to Jasper Tarrant that Mechanicus drilling machines were operating directly beneath Svarog Prime, the planet’s capital city, tensions only increased. When Jasper Tarrant confronted Zephyrus Omicron, the Tech-Priest flatly refused to explain the nature of the operation, only asserting that it was vital to the defense of the Imperium.
Jasper Tarrant was not convinced and began to make continency plans for ejecting the Mechanicus from Svarog. For this he would need a war chest, so he began to play a dangerous game. The governor started interfering in the planet’s trade contracts directly. Essentially, he was selling the same war material to multiple parties, getting paid many times over for goods he simply could not deliver. He thought he could make excuses long enough to enact his plan to get rid of the Mechanicus, and then make things right after the fact. This may have worked if he was dealing with the Imperial Guard. Unfortunately for Svarog, Jasper Tarrant was instead trying to cheat space marines like the Blood Angels, Iron Hands, and Dark Angels.
Meanwhile, the Mechanicus continued to drill beneath Svarog Prime. They had discovered Necron ruins on the planet and believed an ancient Necron weapon might be buried beneath the city. Their hope was to find something that could bring ruin to the Tyranids that had destroyed their home planet but they kept their goals to themselves. What Zephyrus Omicron had told Jasper Tarrant was true, such a weapon could indeed help defend the Imperium. The secrecy of the Mechanicus, however, was to have disastrous consequences.
From Sparks to Flame
The campaign that would turn Svarog Prime into a warzone began both above and below the city. The Crimson Fists and Raptors were about to begin a campaign together and had sent ships to Svarog to pick up supplies. Due to Svarog’s long relationship with the Crimson Fists, the governor had always played straight with the them so what they were promised was indeed ready for them. The trouble began when ships of four other space marine chapters arrived demanding the war materials that they had already paid for. One of the new Primaris chapters and the Iron Hands showed up first, followed quickly by a task force of Blood Angels and Dark Angels. Svarog could supply only one of the three space marine battle groups and the governor began to try to play them off one another. When things became heated, he called upon his longtime allies in the Crimson Fists to protect Svarog from what he described as near piracy form the other chapters. It is unclear if the shooting started by mistake or was intentional, but several of Svarog’s defense satellites did open fire and this began a confused void battle above the planet.
Meanwhile, the Mechanicus had broken into ancient Necron caverns beneath the surface. There they found the substance blackstone in abundance and began to experiment with it. This had two immediate and terrible consequences. First, their initial efforts attuned the blackstone the wrong way, so it became a warp magnifier instead of a warp dampener. A blast of warp power killed or drove insane all the astropaths on and above the planet and created inference that crippled communication. Then daemons from the Siren’s Storm (a nearby warp storm) began to pour into the caverns. Second, a Necron stasis crypt deeper in the ruins—alerted by the Mechanicus incursion—started its revivification cycle.
In between the forces above and the forces below lies the city of Svarog Prime. The marines deploy to the surface to try to seize the war material they are owed, while the daemons and Necrons swarm up to the surface. With communication nearly impossible, chaos reigns in Svarog Prime. Forces are scattered and no one understands the complete picture. Marines fight marines while a few streets away Necrons are reaping all from life hab blocks of terrified workers. The forces that might hold the Imperial factions together—the Adeptus Mechanicus and the Administratum—are suspicious of one another and uncertain who to trust in the sudden maelstrom of war. The campaign for Svarog Prime has begun.
Last week I got the new edition of the Prince Valiant RPG in the mail. I wrote a short adventure for its Episode Book on the invitation of Stewart Wieck. It was a small project but it had been cool to do something with Stewart because we’d never worked together. When I was in college, I was a regular reader of White Wolf Magazine (which he edited) and it was one of the first places I tried to get work as an aspiring freelancer. White Wolf had line reviewers at the time and I was very keen to take over the reviews for the Pendragon RPG. Someone else got the gig and I never did end up writing for White Wolf Magazine. In the ensuing decades my path and Stewart’s never crossed again professionally until the Prince Valiant project. I was pleased to get the chance to work with him after all those years. Like everyone else, I was shocked when he died suddenly last year. Getting the Prince Valiant books then was very much bitter sweet. It was good to see the game back and be a very small part of it, but it brought back to mind Stewart’s passing so the moment was tinged with sadness.
Then just scant days later the news of Greg Stafford’s death broke. Greg, of course, was the designer of Prince Valiant and so much more. His Pendragon has been my favorite RPG for decades. There’s a reason I wanted that line reviewer gig! It’s fair to say no other designer in my field has had a greater influence on my work than Greg Stafford. He and I first met at GenCon 1990. I swung by the Chaosium booth to get the new edition of Pendragon and there he was. I was a nobody at this point, just a random fan as far as he was concerned. When I ventured some opinions on the Matter of Britain though, he seemed genuinely happy to engage. We had a long talk about Mallory, the the Vulgate Cycle, and other Arthurian topics and I was thrilled. In later years I got to meet him again, this time as a colleague. We were friendly but not close. Part of me held back, I think, because getting to know your heroes doesn’t always work out so well and I wanted to maintain my admiration. This was probably a stupid thing to do. At the end of that first conversation, Greg said, “Let me sign that book for you!” I’m not an autograph seeker. They are not generally things I value, but I wasn’t about to say, “No, don’t!” to Greg Stafford. Now I’m glad I have it.
Stewart and Greg were both people who burned brightly in our industry and left behind important legacies. Through their work and their games, they will be remembered for many years to come. Princes Valiant both.
I was looking forward to the movie Dunkirk. If you know me at all, you know I’m a history nerd and World War 2 is an area of particular interest. There aren’t that many big budget WW2 movies being made these days, so of course this one had my attention. Many friends were thus surprised to see my short assessment of Dunkirk after catching a Sunday show at the IMAX theater here in Seattle.
Dunkirk hot take: if you want Churchillian propaganda writ large, you’ll like it. If you want something that resembles history, skip it.
Many of these friends also saw the movie and found it well-crafted and emotional. Some pointed out an article about a Canadian veteran of the evacuation who said, “It was just like I was there again.” If a man who was there had that reaction, what was my problem exactly?
Beware, spoilers follow!
The movie is well-shot and dramatic. It does a good job of making you feel the fear of being on the beaches, dodging bombs and hoping you can make back across the channel to safety as the German grip tightens. In that way it’s quite effective and if you haven’t read more deeply about Operation Dynamo, you can be forgiven for thinking that movie paints an accurate picture of how it played out. My problem though is that it doesn’t.
Here’s the story you will come away with from the film Dunkirk. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers are trapped on the beaches. There is something called a mole that larger ships can dock at but they can’t get close to the beaches because the water is too shallow. There aren’t that many larger ships helping with the evacuation. The Royal Navy has held them back. Those that do come are bombed or torpedoed. The RAF has sent over a few planes but not enough. Very few soldiers are being evacuated. But then, a call goes out. The little ships mobilize. Plucky civilians take their yachts and pleasure craft across the channel. They can make it to the beaches. Hurrah and huzzah, the day is saved!
Now this is a movie purportedly about the operation as a whole. It is strange then that for most of its running time you see not even one soldier get back to England. We are shown one larger ship that seems to sail away successfully. The Germans sink every other one. The Royal Navy looks completely inept. The RAF not much better. Their contribution is entirely represented by one flight of three Spitfires.
The reality of Operation Dynamo was starkly different. This was an incredibly complex and difficult operation and the Royal Navy and RAF both deserve more credit for its success than they are given here. 70% of the troops evacuated left from the harbor (most via the mole) on larger ships. 39 Royal Navy destroyers took part. Yes, 8 of the more modern destroyers were pulled back part way through, but hundreds of larger navy ships transported troops home. The little ships, most of which were crewed in full or part by Royal navy men or reservists (the Canadian veteran above was one of them), were largely used to ferry troops off the beaches to waiting destroyers and transports. The call to civilians only went out part way through the operation and the numbers of troops the little ships brought home was small, less than 10% of the total. 16 Royal Air Force squadrons flew 3500 sorties during Operation Dynamo, though much of their fighting was over the channel and thus not visible to the waiting troops. While all this was going on the French were fighting to hold the Germans back. The Belgians too for the first few days of the operation. The British lied to both nations about their intentions. With the exception of one brief scene at the beginning, none of these battles beyond the beach are shown.
Most of the myths about Dunkirk go right back to the war. Churchill himself pushed the little ships narrative and you can certainly argue that building what became known as the Dunkirk spirit was important for the morale of a nation reeling from an unexpected defeat. It isn’t 1940 anymore, however, and there’s no reason to be furthering wartime propaganda in a 2017 movie. This is my fundamental problem with Dunkirk.
We waited to go see Rogue One until Kate was home for Xmas break. I managed to avoid spoilers too. And speaking of, this post will have some, so if you haven’t seen Rogue One and care about such things, stop reading now.
Overall, I enjoyed Rogue One. It was a more successful film for me than The Force Awakens. The story was sensible and the movie felt like Star Wars. Donnie Yen stole the show with a cool character who brought some Hong Kong action to the party. And the call backs to the original Star Wars were well chosen and narratively appropriate. “Here’s why the call sign Red 5 is available for Luke,” for example.
The thing I think held Rogue One back from greatness was the character development. Jyn Erso is the heart of this story and her character arc is not convincingly portrayed (by the writing, to be clear, not he acting; I thought Felicity Jones did well with what she had). At the start of the film she is supposed to be an apolitical rogue who is uninterested in the rebellion. She then does a complete 180 in no time at all and with little exploration of why that is. She feels like the wrong character to deliver the big speech about hope at the rebels’ all hands meeting.
While I generally try to avoid trailers, I saw one of the Rogue One trailers ahead of another movie earlier this year. It had Jyn delivering this fantastic line: “This a rebellion, isn’t it? I rebel.” This is missing from the film and I think that is telling. It’s like they wanted to dial Jyn back to make her conversion more believable, but it doesn’t work. Han Solo showed his roguishness all the way through Star Wars. He helps the rebellion for money, and goes so far as to take it and fall out with Luke before having a change of heart. Jyn’s character is underdeveloped from the start and has no crisis moment. We can guess that she is willing to undertake a suicide mission to make her father’s sacrifices mean something but this isn’t dramatized in any way.
Similarly, I thought Saw Gerrera (whose name I thought was Sol for the entire movie) had a death that did not square with his character. Here’s a guy who has fought the empire for decades, who was so hardcore he broke with Mon Mothma and her crowd because they were too wishy washy. When finally presented with a chance to destroy the Empire’s secret weapon, he says, “Nah, I’m good. I’ll just stay here and die.” This makes no sense at all. I understand if they didn’t want another character hanging around in a movie with too many already but at least give Saw a death worthy of his convictions.
Ironically, the attempt to give the secondary characters worthy deaths is what leads to two other minor problems. First, the third act is too long. Second, the important message Rogue One must get through to the rebel fleet is not actually important. The fact that the shield gate must be destroyed is not news to the fleet. There are only two ways the Death Star plans are getting off that planet: in a ship or by transmission. Either way requires the shield gate to be destroyed, and indeed the fleet had already been trying to do so before getting that message.
I do give Rogue One big points for taking the story to its logical conclusion. Having all the main characters die is bold for a Star Wars movie. Hell, even Seven Samurai (a clear inspiration) had some survivors. I would totally watch a buddy flick about Chirrut and Baze (Donnie Yen and and Wen Jiang) but I consider a prequel to a prequel to be unlikely.
One test I have as to how much I liked a movie is whether I want to watch it a second time. For me The Force Awakens was one and done. It was fine but didn’t draw me back. Rogue One I can see watching more than once. That’s a pretty good result considering the smoldering wreckage that George Lucas left the franchise after the prequels.
Like many long time Warhammer 40K players, I’ve been enjoying the Horus Heresy books that Forge World is publishing and I’m glad 30K is now supported as an era of play. I have Salamanders and Word Bearers forces for 40K but I’d like to do something different for the Heresy era. I picked up the Battle of Calth game some months ago primarily for the minis (though the game was actually good too, as it turned out). Now I’m pondering what legion to choose for my 30K army.
For the last couple of years, I had been planning to do the Alpha Legion. I like their backstory and iconography, and their Rites of War gives them some cool options. I may go ahead with that but I’m doing my due diligence and looking at other options. These are the other legions I’m considering:
Imperial Fists: A surprise to me actually, but there is a big point in their favor. I really like the look and feel of the breacher squads and the Imperial Fists have a special rule called Resolve of Stone that makes breacher squads sing. The yellow armor isn’t my favorite but I think it could be reasonable if muted. Other Imperial Fist rules are also solid and they have a special knight troop type that are proto Black Templars. I’ve never had much interest in the Fists before but they have become a contender.
Iron Warriors: This legions makes a hell of a gun line with their two unique troop types, the Siege Tyrants and Iron Havocs. 30K Iron Warriors are also completely immune to morale tests caused by shooting, which is killer. And of course you can have giant robot bodyguards in the shape of the Iron Circle. So yeah, super appealing to me and I love the idea of a legion of siege masters. There are only a couple of downsides. First, the Iron Circle models are hellaciously expensive. Second, I have never liked the color scheme of the Iron Warriors. At all. The black and yellow stripes do not do it for me. Now I could just make up a chapter of the legion with a different look, so that could be worked around.
Raven Guard: I like the Raven Guard for many of the same reasons I like the Alpha Legion. They are sneaky and great at infiltrating. They have brutal snipers. They also have access to some unique equipment like the Darkwing pattern Storm Eagle Gunship. The Mor Deythan Strike Squad and Dark Fury Assault Squad models are also badass. Their advantage over the Alpha Legion is that I think they’d be easier to paint. And yes, friends, I’m likely to outsource a lot of the painting, but it’d be nice if it was a paint scheme I could handle for some units and the Alpha Legion teal is tricky. The downside of the Raven Guard is primarily cost. That Darkwing Storm Eagle alone is over $200 and I’m but a humble RPG publisher.
So that’s what I’m looking at. I really need to decide what legion is mine before I start assembling the plastic minis. How I build even basic troops will be colored by that choice.
What to choose? Loyalist or traitor? The galaxy hangs in the balance!