Napoleonic Army: The Decision

This is a follow-up to an article originally written for my patrons in March of last year, which I made public here yesterday. The article ran through the decisions you must make before collecting a Napoleonic army for miniatures gaming. I noted that I’d never collected one in all my years of minis play but hoped to finally do so in the future. Well, that time may be near!

My two biggest stumbling blocks were finding a ruleset I could commit to and ensuring I’d have at least one friend who would join me. Recently, Studio Tomahawk released the Shakos & Bayonets supplement for its Muskets & Tomahawks game. The first edition of M&T was strictly French and Indian War and the American War of Independence. The second edition has been reorganized along the lines of the studio’s other major game, Saga. It now has a core rulebook that covers the whole black powder period and then supplements that provide additional rules and army lists for various conflicts. Shakos & Bayonets covers the Napoleonic Wars.

I already liked Muskets & Tomahawks and played many games of its first edition. One thing that makes collecting a force for M&T more attractive is that it concentrates on small engagements. A typical force is 50 minis or so, which is more achievable for me than a big battle game requiring 300+. Obviously, you won’t be recreating Austerlitz or Waterloo with Shakos & Bayonets. Battles here are raids, reconnaissance expeditions, and other small local affairs. The sort of stuff you see in the early Sharpe’s books.

With rules chosen and the scale thus determined (28mm, my favorite), I needed to figure out which army to play. Shakos & Bayonets provided lists for the Austrians, British and their Portuguese allies, French, Prussians, Russians, and Spanish, plus a more generic one for Minor Powers (of which, there were many in the Napoleonic Wars). Since M&T is a small-scale game, I thought would provide a great opportunity to focus on such an army or sub-faction.  Here are the forces I considered.

Grand Duchy of Warsaw

After the Third Partition of Poland in 1795, Austria, Prussia, and Russia gobbled up its territory and Poland as a sovereign nation ceased to exist. After Napoleon defeated the Prussians, however, the lands Prussia had acquired were ceded to France in 1807. Now Napoleon could have granted independence to the Poles, but instead created a client state called the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Still, this was a step up for the Poles and they were a firm ally of the French until Napoleon’s ultimate defeat at Waterloo. Murawski Miniatures even makes a whole range of 28mm Polish troops, which would make collecting them easy. Honestly, I would probably have gone with the Grand Ducky of Warsaw but for one factor. My friend who is most interested in putting together a Shakos & Bayonets force has chosen the French, and the two were not historical opponents.

King’s German Legion

Another force I considered was the King’s German Legion. This was fully part of the British army but has an interesting story. King George III of the UK was also the Elector of Hanover, a small German state in this period. The French occupied Hanover in 1803 and dissolved the Electorate, so many officers and soldiers made their way to England so they could continue the fight. The KGL proved a formidable fighting force, offering excellent service in the Peninsular campaign, and providing a legendary defense of La Haye Saint (a walled farmhouse compound) in the Battle of Waterloo. I was temped by the KGL but they ended up being my second-place choice.

Black Brunswickers

The Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg was another small German state (German unification would not happen until later in the 19th century). The French occupied it as well, and incorporated it into another client state they created called the Kingdom of Westphalia. Napoleon made his brother Jerome king (ah, nepotism). Anyway, the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg did not take this well. In 1809 he formed a small army variously called Schwarze Schar, Schwarze Legion, or most commonly these days the Black Brunswickers. Our dude the duke wanted vengeance so bad he dressed most of his troops in black and they wore the Totenkopf (death’s head) badge on their caps. They fought with the Austrians in Germany, then made a fighting retreat west when things went wrong. The British fleet brough them back to England and they subsequently fought in the Peninsular and Waterloo campaigns. Pretty interesting, eh? And Perry Miniatures makes a whole 28mm line of Brunswicker minis so again they’d be easy to collect.

I decided against them for two reasons. First, the black uniforms were somewhat of a turnoff. Part of the fun of fielding Napoleonic armies is their colorful uniforms. The more important factor was that the black uniforms and Totenkopf badges were later adopted by Hitler’s SS. Obviously, the Black Brunswickers pre-dated Nasim by over 100 years, but still the association was an uncomfortable one.

Bavarians

Finally, we come to the winner: the Bavarians! At the start of the Napoleonic Wars, Bavaria was part of the relic that was the Holy Roman Empire. They ended up siding with Napoleon, and Austria invaded Bavaria in 1805. After Napoleon’s crushing victory at the Battle of Austerlitz, Bavaria and other German states that supported him were rewarded. Bavaria gained kingdom status and joined the Confederacy of the Rhine, a new alliance that basically destroyed the Holy Roman Empire. They fought with the French through the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. As a result of that debacle, the Bavarians flipped to the allies for 1813 and 1814, joining the Sixth Coalition that defeated Napoleon for the first time and sent him into exile.

The Bavarians had all the things I was looking for. They were something different than the “great powers” of that era, they had colorful uniforms that would stand out on the tabletop, Perry Miniatures and other companies had easily available figures, and crucially they fought both for and against the French. That means I could have historical matchups with a wide variety of opponents.

Decision made at last, I now need to make some sample army lists and decide exactly which figures I need and in what quantity.  

Collecting a Napoleonic Army

A battle at Chris Walton’s place with his beautifully painted miniatures.

This is an article I originally wrote for patrons of my Curated Quarantine series last year. Posting it today because I think I’ve finally worked out what I want to do. More on that later.

If you’ve been reading Curated Quarantine for any length of time, you know that Revolutionary/Napoleonic France is a topic of interest for me. I’ve covered many Napoleonic games during this series. I’ve also noted that for several decades the Napoleonic Wars were the most popular period for historical miniatures gaming. I own many more sets of Napoleonic miniatures rules than I’ve featured here, yet I’ve never collected an army for the period. My play experience has been confined to conventions or games at my buddy Chris Walton’s place, because he painted up complete French and Austrian armies and he periodically hosts battles (or did, before quarantine). So, why don’t I own such an army? Let me break down the decisions you face when you consider collecting a Napoleonic army.

Which Army?

As with any miniatures game, the most important decision to make is what army to collect. The heavyweights are France, Austria, England, Prussia, and Russia. Those are the armies that will give you the most flexibility because they fought in many different campaigns. There are many more armies to choose from though. Germany and Italy were a patchwork of states, and France created new client states as well, such as the Batavian Republic and the Duchy of Warsaw. If you want to do something a little different, you’ve got options like the Portuguese, the Bavarians, and even the Mamelukes from Napoleon’s disastrous Egyptian campaign.

The thing to bear in mind though is that the wars of Revolutionary France and Napoleonic France lasted from 1792 to 1815, from the War of the First Coalition to the War of the Seventh Coalition. This is a long period and one with great change in military affairs. That means that organization, uniforms, and equipment of the armies changed quite a bit. It’s thus not enough to say you want to collect a French army. A Revolutionary French army from 1794 is a much different beast than the Grand Armee that invaded Russian in 1812. You need to pick a period and maybe even a campaign, as troops available in one theater might not be available in another.

Which Rules?

Another key decision is what rules you plan to use for your Napoleonic gaming. There have been literally hundreds published since the 1960s, and these range from the very simple to the mind-bendingly complex. The first thing to determine is what scale of game you are looking for. Games run from the skirmish engagement to the grand tactical. You need to know what size force you are putting together and what one mini is meant to represent. Organizing a skirmish force where one mini = one soldier is different than trying to simulate a brigade where one mini = 33 soldiers. Settling on a ruleset helps make those decisions. Most games let you know what a typical unit is meant to represent and how many figures you need to model it on the table. Many also specify base sizes for various types of troops (infantry, cavalry, artillery, etc.). More modern games are looser about this, but older games often had precise rules for base sizes.

Once you know what sort of game you’re looking for, it’s still quite a job to narrow it down. There are just so many to choose from and new contenders appear regularly. This is really a topic for an entire article on its own, but popular current games include Black Powder (Warlord Games), General de Brigade (Partizan Press), LaSalle (Sam Mustafa), and Sharp Practice (Too Fat Lardies).

Which Scale?

Another important consideration is the scale of your miniatures. Some games are designed for a specific scale, so by choosing the game you are choosing your scale as well. Most games can work at several scales though, so it’s usually something you must consider. 15mm and 28mm are the most popular so they’ll provide the most flexibility. You will find Napoleonic minis at all scales though, from the miniscule 2mm to the classic 54mm toy soldier. 2mm, 6mm, and 10mm figures allow you to make more realistic looking units with many soldiers but lose something in the way of detail. 20mm, 25mm, 28mm, and 54mm model the individual soldier better but are also more expensive and take up more room on the table. While I like 15mm for World War 2 minis because it works well with tanks, I generally prefer 28mm myself.

Which Unit Organization?

The game and scale of miniatures you’ve chosen will dictate the types of units you’ll be building. When you get to the stage of buying the minis, you have to keep this in mind. Basic units of companies, regiments, or brigades will require a different mix of figures. Some companies make this easy by selling units packs. Napoleon at War, a game from 2011, has boxed sets with the correct mix of figures to form a brigade and the appropriate bases. Not all miniatures manufacturers are tied to a specific game system, so more often than not you’ll need to figure this out for yourself.

Who Will You Play With?

Something else to think about is who you hope to play with, and a little planning here can be a big help. If your friends all collect 10mm armies, you will have a problem if you go ahead with a 28mm army. You need at least one opponent interested in the same rules and scale as you, and you’ll want to make sure your forces are compatible too. It’s not helpful if everyone brings a French army to the table.

Your other option is to collect two opposing armies yourself. That way you know you have everything you need to put a game on. Just invite a friend over and you’re good to go. This is the approach Chris Walton took and he’s put on some great looking games. This is obviously a more expensive option, as you’ll be paying for two armies instead of one. More time consuming too if you plan to paint them yourself.

One Day…

As you can see, there are many considerations that go into collecting a Napoleonic army. It’s not as simple as getting into a Warhammer game, for example. It requires you to do research into history, game rules, miniatures lines, and unit organization. I’ve had this idea that I’d one day find the game that really spoke to me, that I’d have an aha moment and say, “Yes, this is the one!” That hasn’t happened, and only a few of my friends are even interested in Napoleonic minis gaming. Maybe when I’m an old man and have completed my transformation into a true grognard, I’ll finally get that army!

Ars Magica: The Lost Sourcebook

I turned up an old notebook from the 90s when I was working on organizing my office yesterday. I found the pictured outline inside. This was for an Ars Magica book that Atlas Games contracted Nicole and I to write in 1997. As you can see, the outline proposed to make most of the book an epic adventure. Atlas asked us to lean into the sourcebook aspect, focusing on a treatment of the city of Damietta and providing expanded info on elemental magic. I wrote a few thousand words, but the project fizzled because life got complicated. Nicole and I got together as a couple and I moved out to Seattle, then got a job as a game designer at Wizards of the Coast. We discussed our changed circumstances with Atlas and we agreed to shelve the project.

After finding this outline, I dug into some old files I pulled off 3.5 disks last year. To my surprise, I found the material that I’d written for the book and I’ve decided to post it here so interested folks can get a glimpse of what might have been. There are three sections. The first is a bio of Beatrix, a contemporary of the founders of the Order of Hermes who developed a Unified Elemental Theory of magic but was murdered. The adventure involves discovering her history and unearthing her lost theory. The second section involves the theory itself. You can definitely tell I was reading books about alchemy at the time! The last section is some history of the Fifth Crusade, which is the backdrop for the adventure. Enjoy!

Beatrix

Beatrix was born in the city of Marseilles in 692 CE. Scion of a patrician family that traced its lineage back to the heady days of Roman power, Beatrix received an excellent education. Her deep philosophical probing eventually led her to a noted scholar named Alexius, who in fact was a wizard of some power. Alexius took young Beatrix under his tutelage and taught her magic, as well as broadening her understanding of philosophy. Marseilles, an ancient metropolis steeped in Greek and Roman history, proved an excellent campus for the budding maga and scholar. From the beginning, she had a keen interest in the elemental structures that she perceived to be the basis of magic. Alexius focused her research and encouraged her to go beyond what he could teach her. After ten years at Alexius’ feet, Beatrix left Marseilles to study other magical traditions. She spent the next twenty years traveling across Europe and the Near East, finding mages where she could and exchanging ideas. Her travels in many ways presaged those of Trianoma and cemented her reputation as a master of elemental magic.

After two decades of travel and investigation, Beatrix returned to Marseilles in 727 and began her real life’s work. At the same time Bonisagus was working on a Unified Theory of Magic, Beatrix was working on a Unified Elemental Theory that incorporated all she had learned. Trianoma visited Beatrix in 735 and tried to recruit her into the Order of Hermes. Beatrix was interested but wanted to meet Bonisagus first. Trianoma set up a meeting between the two theorists and the weeklong visit of Beatrix quickly turned into a month. Bonisagus taught Beatrix the Parma Magica and she in turn worked with Bonisagus on translating the most basic of her elemental spells into Bonisagus’s system. These spells stand today as the basic Hermetic spells for dealing with Elementals.

Beatrix returned to Marseilles to finish her own theory and try to integrate as much as possible of it into Bonisagus’s theory. Her visit, and news of her breakthroughs in elemental magic, had caused quite a stir in magical circles and she found herself visited by a number of prominent mages of the day. The most important of these visitors was Tremere himself. Tremere, young and lacking in prestige, was even then looking for a way to enlarge his own power and reputation. Before working with Bonisagus to develop Certamen, Tremere tried to coax Beatrix’s Unified Elemental Theory out of the scholarly maga. Beatrix was unimpressed with the power-hungry young magus and refused to teach him what he wanted to know. Tremere left in anger but Beatrix quickly put him out of her mind.

Tremere was stung by her refusal to teach him, but he knew that he could not match her power. He turned therefore to Tytalus for aid. Tremere and Tytalus had shared the same master, Guorna the Fetid, and shared a certain bond despite their rivalry. Tytalus was always interested in testing himself against powerful mages, so he quickly agreed to Tremere’s scheme and the two set off for Marseilles. There the two ambushed Beatrix in the streets. The citizens of Marseilles fled as the three mighty wizards unleashed magics of unbelievable power, leveling entire blocks of the city in their great struggle. In the end, however, Beatrix could not stand against both Tremere and Tytalus and she fell, mortally wounded. Her attackers then fled the scene in the confusion and tried to despoil Beatrix’s sanctum. When they arrived, however, all of Beatrix’s books were gone. Nor was her body ever recovered. So passed from history both Beatrix and her Unified Elemental Theory. Trianoma tried to piece together what had happened to Beatrix but she never found out who it was that attacked the maga in the streets of Marseilles. In the end, the incident became a footnote in Hermetic History. Until now, that is…

The Unified Elemental Theory

Beatrix began her studies the Greek and Roman classics. Her master Alexius had a fine library, with many tomes thought lost to the West after the sack of Rome. Her first approach to the elements came from Aristotle. According to Aristotle, there was something called the prima materia (first substance), from which everything in nature was derived. Itself immaterial, prima materia represent pure potential and only when it united with a form would it produce a physical object. Furthermore, the form of all objects was determined by the four elements — earth, air, water, and fire — and the four qualities — hot, wet, cold, and dry. To change one element to another, it was only necessary to change its quality. Thus, heating water turned it into steam, a form of air.

Simple magical experiments based on Aristotle’s ideas were easy enough, but Beatrix was unsuccessful in applying these techniques to living creatures. She had heard of magicians who could summon spirits of the elements, so she determined to find some of these masters and learn from them. This led to one of her famous journeys to the north, where she stayed amongst the warlike Prussian tribes and consulted with their shamans. Here she learned to summon elementals, and also journeyed to the magic realm with her shaman guides. Unfortunately, the elementals themselves did not have the answers she sought. Although they were living embodiments of the elements, they had no deeper understanding of their place in the universe, or if they did, they could not communicate it to Beatrix.

This led her back to Marseilles, where she delved into Graeco-Egyptian Alchemy. These alchemists had tried to apply Aristotle’s theories, as well as those of the Stoics. They believed that if they could distill the prima materia, they could then turn it into any form. The Stoics posited that the universe was made up of two inseparable principles, the active principle (called pneuma, or “fiery cosmic breath”) and the passive principle (matter). All things in the world contained pneuma and the differences between them depended on the form of pneuma within. The alchemists of ancient Greece believed that if pneuma could be extracted from an object, it could be changed into a new substance. Beatrix followed the formulas of the Graeco-Egyptian alchemists and tried to apply the theories of Aristotle and the Stoics but neither was entirely satisfactory. It was one thing to posit the existence of prima materia or pneuma, but it was another thing to actually extract it.

Her research stymied, Beatrix decided another journey of discovery was in order and she determined to travel to the Middle East. It was a long and dangerous trip, but she relied on her magic to protect herself. Her first stop was the city of Harran, which had an ancient tradition of magic and may have been the birthplace of alchemy. She was somewhat disappointed with what she found there, but she did hear of a man in Kufa who was said to be a magician of some power. His name was Jabir ibn Hayyan, later known to the West as Gerber.

Jabir was a Shi’ite and a disciple of Ja’far al-Sadiq, the sixth Shi’ite Imam and a known scholar of occult sciences. Beatrix found him in Kufa and the two struck up a strange friendship. She found his ideas fascinating, and he was thrilled to have found a mind that could keep up with his own, even if it did belong to a woman and a foreigner. Jabir theorizes that all metals were made up of sulphur and mercury. He was not, however, referring to the substances known later as sulphur and mercury, but of two principles. Sulphur is the masculine principle, fiery and active, while Mercury is the feminine, liquid and passive. When they are pure and perfectly combined, they make the most perfect of metals: gold. Jabir also talked of an Elixir of Life, which could heal the sick.

What interested Beatrix about Jabir’s work was not the combinations of sulphur and mercury, but its specificity. She began to consider that perhaps she had been looking too broadly for an answer, that maybe she should try to restrict her inquiry.  Rather than trying to unlock the secret of all matter, she decided to concentrate on the four elements themselves. Her decision made, she took her leave of Jabir and returned to Europe.

Rather than going back to the laboratory, Beatrix left nearly immediately on another long journey. She had read Caesar’s commentaries on Druids and had also heard of the great maga Diedne. Thinking that perhaps Diedne had some insight on the elements and their relation, Beatrix made the trip to Britain and met with Diedne.

Beatrix found Diedne a little too spiritual for her taste, but they struck up a fruitful professional relationship. It took Beatrix some time to cut through the ritual and find the underlying principles of Druidic magic. Their approach was wrapped up in paganism and treated each element as power to beseech rather than manipulate. While this did not fit in to Beatrix’s rational form of magic, she found the nuances of Druidic magic quite informative.

This was to prove the last of Beatrix’s great journeys. She returned to Marseilles and began to work on a theory to unify all she had learned. At first, she pursued each element separately, trying to see what was unique about it. She worked out basic spells of elemental summoning and control based on these principles and found them effective, though limited in power. This, however, was not what she was after.

So, she returned once again to Aristotle, looking for answers which eluded her. She came back to a part of Aristotle’s work that she had previously dismissed: quintessence. This substance, sometimes called the fifth element, was the ethereal essence from which the celestial spheres were made. A part of the prima materia, quintessence was said to be part of each of the four elements. Perhaps this was the key to the elements that Beatrix had been looking for.

She began work again, looking at what the elements had in common rather than what made each unique. After years of research, she found it. She was able to identify the quintessence of the elements and crafted spells to manipulate it. When she met Bonisagus, she realized that he had identified quintessence as well, though he called it Vim. This was the key to her ability to meld her theory with that of Bonisagus.

The Fifth Crusade

In 1213 Pope Innocent III sent out letters to the leaders of Christendom announcing the Fourth Lateran Council, to be held in November of 1215. The stated cause of the council was the reformation of the universal church and the conquest of the Holy Land. The crusading spirit, which had swept Europe in the late 11th century and culminated in the success of the First Crusade, seemed a thing of the past. The army of the Kingdom of Jerusalem had been dealt a crushing defeat by Saladin in 1187 at the Battle of Hattin, and the Fourth Crusade had ended with the crusaders sacking Byzantium rather than liberating Jerusalem. The Pope hoped to revive the crusading zeal and win back the Holy Land before the Kingdom of Jerusalem was swept away by Muslim armies.

Innocent set to his task with a vengeance. Preachers such as Robert of Courcon and Oliver of Paderborn were sent out across Christendom to recruit a new generation of crusaders. Innocent ordered monthly processionals, in which men and women (marching separately of course) offered public prayers beseeching God to restore Jerusalem to the Christians. All were to prostate themselves during daily mass while the clergy chanted psalms, and then a special prayer provided by the Pope. Crusaders were promised freedom from tax obligations and rent and the special protection of the Pope. Innocent also suspended the privileges of other crusaders, such as those who had fought the Albigensians, to encourage them to join the new crusade. Maritime trade with Muslims was suspended for four years, and tournaments for three. The Pope also ordered a general peace for four years to keep the nobility from fighting amongst themselves. Despite his great efforts, Innocent III did not live to see his crusade become a reality. On a diplomatic mission in north Italy, the Pope died in Perugia on July 16, 1216. His successor, Honorius III, continued the plan with energy and enthusiasm of his own.

What is known as the Fifth Crusade began in July 1217, when an army led by King Andrew of Hungary, Duke Leopold of Austria, and Duke Otto of Meran set out for Spalato, and thence to Acre in the Holy Land. They were met at Acre by John of Brienne, the King of Jerusalem, and King Hugh I of Cyprus. Unfortunately, they had arrived in the midst of a terrible famine, and many of the crusaders returned as quickly as they came. However, the army that was left set about operations that November that lasted two months and achieved nothing at all. They came close to overwhelming the fortress of Mt. Tabor but were beaten off by the Muslim garrison. By January 1218, King Andrew was ready to return home and, despite threats of excommunication from the Patriarch of Jerusalem, he took his army and began a long overland journey to Hungary.

With Andrew gone, operations were suspended. At the end of April, however, the ships of the Frisian-German crusaders, who had left nearly a year before, began to arrive. With fresh troops and ships at their command, the leadership decided that conditions were now favorable to launch an attack on Damietta, an important city in Egypt. The logic was that storming Damietta would open up Egypt for conquest. Egypt was a country rich in resources and denying it to the Muslims would make the conquest of the Holy Land that much easier. With these goals in mind, the fleet departed for the Nile delta in May of 1218. When the vanguard landed on the 27th, the Fifth Crusade at last began in earnest.

Other Music and Chris the Record Hound

In the early to mid-90s, I worked for Kim’s Video in NYC and got fired on two different occasions. The second time because owner Mr. Kim got in a fist fight with a contractor and was mad I would not lie to to cops and say the other guy threw the first punch. Oh, I have stories about Kim Video. Anyway, despite the name, Kim’s also developed a music section. It was there I became friends with another clerk named Josh Madell, who also played drums in an indie rock band called Antietam. He was a music nerd, and though I was into punk in a more hardcore way, we got along really well. In 1995 Josh and some other folks from Kim’s music department opened their own store called Other Music. I remember visiting right after they opened to check it out and wish Josh well. Then in 1996 I left NYC and haven’t seen him since.

Over the weekend, I ran across a documentary called Other Music on Prime. “Wait, isn’t that Josh’s place?” I wondered. And indeed it was. Other Music had gone on to become a beloved institution for music nerds al over the world. Sadly, the store closed in 2016, another cool and unique thing in NYC destroyed by gentrification. The documentary tells the story of Other Music and its final six weeks leading up to the closing.

I must admit this documentary hit me in the feels. It was poignant to see what an old friend accomplished and then watch him have to lose it. Seeing another small business going through similar struggles to Green Ronin felt all too familiar.

Other Music also made me nostalgic for my old days as a record hound. When I lived in NYC, I pounded the pavement every week going from record shop to record shop. This was before everything was online, so if I wanted to hear rare old punk records, I had to find them. I’d go to places like Bleecker Bob’s, Some Records, Sounds, Venus Records, Subterranean, Second Coming, and Generation. I even worked at a volunteer-run punk shop called Reconstruction Records for its brief lifespan. This was a huge part of my life for a couple of decades, but things changed over time once I moved to Seattle. I could keep up when I lived on Capitol Hill and there were several cool shops in the area but most of them closed. Now I make the occasional trip to Singles Going Steady but it’s not the same.

This is a long way of saying that Other Music is a good documentary, and if you are into music, it’s definitely worth a watch. I hope Josh is faring well.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

Two months ago, I kicked off my #CuratedQuarantine series with the original white boxed set for Dungeons & Dragons. That was indeed my first RPG and my first hobby game as well. It was 1979 and I was 10 years old. I was excited by the idea of D&D and I could tell there was something cool in those three small books, but the white boxed set was in no way designed to introduce 10 years to gaming. It came out of the 60s wargaming scene and it was written for that audience. So my brother and I quickly got the Holmes Basic Set, which was a much better introduction (though we got the version that came with chits instead of dice!) and then jumped right into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. That’s what I want to talk about today.

The classic three core rulebooks for AD&D were published between 1977 and 1979, so perfect timing for me. Surprisingly, it was the Monster Manual (1977) that came first, then the Player’s Handbook (1978), and finally the Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979). When I say that D&D changed my life, it’s really AD&D that I’m talking about. This was my favorite game and by far my most played RPG from 1979 to 1985 or so (by which point I was branching out much more). Many people slightly younger than me have this same nostalgia for the red box Basic Rules (1983) but I never picked them up back then because I (at the wise age of 14) considered them “kiddie stuff.” I was a veteran of Advanced D&D, what did I need dumbed down rules for? As an adult, I would gain a healthy respect for the BECMI rules and today I would take the Rules Cyclopedia as a desert island game, but I digress.

The reason AD&D was so important to me is that, in addition to the fun of playing, it was a gateway to so many other things. I was already a Tolkien fan, but AD&D led me to Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, H.P. Lovecraft, Poul Anderson, and many other authors. It also got me reading things like Beowulf and the Song of Roland at a young age. And it only amplified my desire to read more ancient and medieval history. Naturally, I also became a Dragon Magazine subscriber (had to get the official word from Gary Gygax!), and that introduced me to the wider world of hobby games. Many of the games I have covered in my Curated Quarantine series I first learned about in the pages of Dragon. That’s how I was introduced to wargames like Squad Leader and Dawn Patrol.

AD&D also got me into my other lifelong obsession: miniatures. It started with minis to use with AD&D from Grenadier, Ral Partha, and Heritage. Then I got the AD&D Battleystem when it came out in 1985. I was going to say it was my first minis game but I that’s not quite true. I had Chainmail, the minis game that was D&D’s precursor, but never played it. We did use its jousting tables in our AD&D games though. Battlesystem is the first minis game I actually played, and that hobby has been its own long and rewarding journey.

When I was 12, I fantasized about one day writing an article for Dragon Magazine. Why, I might make a $100! This is the first time I remember thinking about game writing as a thing I might do. Many years later I would indeed write articles for Dragon. When I was hired into the TSR Product Group of Wizards of the Coast in 1998, I’d also get to write for AD&D itself. 10-year-old me surely couldn’t have imagined I’d one day get to contribute to the game I so loved. When my first book (the AD&D Guide to Hell) was published in 1999, it was pretty damn cool to see my name under the AD&D masthead. Getting to write (with Sean Reynolds) Slavers, a sequel to the Slavelords modules I had enjoyed so much as a youngster was also a highlight.

People have spilled an endless amount of ink on the warts and flaws of AD&D, the various misguided TSR policies, the way Dave Arneson was sidelined, and a host of other related topics. And I get it. I do. But AD&D is a portal I’ll always be glad I walked though.

UK 50th Birthday Trip

UK Games Expo, the first major stop on my trip.

A year ago I was recently arrived in the UK for a month long trip to celebrate my 50th birthday. Turning 50 felt a lot different than turning 40. For my 40th, Nicole threw me a great party with lots of friends. For my 50th I wanted to go somewhere remote and be alone. Times change, eh?

The being alone would come later in the trip though. After an overnight stay in London and a great dinner at Dishoom with our friend Namrata, Nicole and I took the train to Birmingham for the UK Games Expo. This is a convention we’d heard a lot about and wanted to check out, and working a con meant the flights would be a business expense. You need to work it when you’re a small business owner.

We were able to do UK Games Expo thanks to the help of friends. Dave Salisbury owns the excellent Fan Boy Three game store in Manchester, and he gave us space in his booth and helped us get product in to sell. Huge thanks to Dave, Heidi, Scott, and their whole crew for hosting us and giving us a way to try out the show without committing to a full booth. The convention was good and quite sizable, easily the biggest one I’ve been to in the UK.

John Kovalic was also over and he whisked us offsite for some terrific Indian food one night. UK Games Expo is at a convention center outside Birmingham and the food options were not great, so this was appreciated. Later in the show the three of us met up with James Wallis and Marc Gascoigne and that was a delightful reunion. We’ve all been friends since the 90s but are rarely in the same place at the same time.

I’m going to try to post more about this trip over the coming month. For one thing, I never did write about it, apart from my social media posts as it was happening. It’s also been on my mind quite a bit as my 51st birthday approaches. Travel has been a huge part of my adult life. It’s one of my favorite things to do, and I’m thankful the game industry has enabled me to go from Finland to Brazil to New Zealand and many places in between. 2019 was a particularly gonzo year for travel: 101 days on the road, traveling over 81,000 miles on 11 trips to 5 countries and 40 cities while attending 9 conventions. So it is now deeply weird to not only be home all the time, but also to have no idea when I might be able to travel again. Every convention we had planned to attend this year has been cancelled. We had hoped to go to Prague with a group of gamers this summer but that too is off. I just couldn’t have imagined when I left for my trip last year how much different the world would be in 2020.

So in between my curated quarantine posts and me screaming about America’s descent into fascism, I’m going to look back on what turned out to be a very memorable trip indeed. There’s still so much I want to see but for now I’ll just have to look back and hope in the future the world won’t be quite so on fire.

Mighty Empires

Today’s game is Mighty Empires (1990) from Games Workshop. It provides a full campaign system for Warhammer Fantasy Battle, but could also be played as a game on its own. You use hex tiles to build out a board (this is 5 years before Settlers of Catan, mind you). Each player then starts with a region under their control, with cities, armies, and so on. You play through years of time, dealing with everything from revenue and recruitment to diplomacy and espionage. There also fun stuff like equinox magic (big honking ritual spells your wizards can cast twice a year) and dragonrage (accidentally finding a nest of dragons with predictable results). If you are using it with WFB, when army banners come into conflict, you break and then play out a full Warhammer game to determine the winner. When used as a campaign system, it provides a rationale for battles and gives each one a context and importance lacking in one off affairs. 

Mighty Empires came out when I was in college. I always remember my friend Bill saying, “My biggest priority this semester is playing Mighty Empires.” School? Whatever. We did, in fact, get a campaign going. The problem for us was that you need to keep the map set up, and we were apartment dwelling New Yorkers with limited space. What we ended up doing was getting a big metal sheet and a bunch of magnets. We glued to magnets onto the tiles, then built out the playing area on the metal sheet. This allowed us to turn the whole thing sideways and lean it against the wall  when it was not in use. My friend Sandeep and I kept it in our tiny Soho apartment. (Yes, it was (barely) possible to get a Soho apartment in 1991 while working a retail job.) I don’t remember whose copy that was (Bill’s probably) but this whole thing was nothing but a memory until just a few years ago. Then I found this copy for a song at the Enfilade bring and buy. I could hardly pass up adding such a piece of my gaming history to my collection.

Note: This is part of an ongoing series called Curated Quarantine I started a couple of months back. Each day I talk about a different game from my collection. Some games are meaningful to me, others are interesting for historical reasons, and occasionally they are just bad. I’m mostly doing this on Twitter (#CuratedQuarantine will pull them up) and Facebook but this entry was long enough I decided to put it up here. My first entry was a single tweet, but as time has gone on they’ve gotten longer and longer. Frickin’ writers, I tell you what.

New 40K on the Way

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.

A Bit of Greyhawk Fun

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.

Art by Even Amundsen. https://www.artstation.com/mischeviouslittleelf

Torsten Three-Eye

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.

Rush and the 80s Nerd

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.