Horus Heresy Introduction and Second Edition Thoughts

The 2nd edition boxed set. Not pictured: templates, measuring sticks, dice.

If you’ve gotten into Warhammer 40,000 in the last 25 years, you know that the Horus Heresy is one of most consequential events in the game’s future history. 10,000 years before the 40K era, fully half of the space marine legions rose in rebellion against the Imperium under the leadership of the Warmaster Horus. The galaxy wide civil war that followed was a brutal, shattering affair whose effects are still being felt in the 41st millennium. If you go back to Rogue Trader, the original Warhammer 40,000 game released in 1987, however, you won’t find it! The Horus Heresy, traitor legions, and Chaos Gods are nowhere to be found. There aren’t even demons, rather different Warp entities like astral hounds and enslavers. It wasn’t until the following year that the Horus Heresy was first mentioned, and that was only a single paragraph in Chapter Approved: Book of the Astronomicon. Things got more serious later in 1988. The first Realms of Chaos book, Slaves to Darkness, introduced the Chaos pantheon of Warhammer Fantasy Battle to 40K. A full overview of the war (by the late Mike Brunton IIRC) also appeared for the first time, as well as details on the traitor legions. At the end of the year, GW’s giant robot fighting game Adeptus Mechanicus was explicitly set during the Heresy, at least in part because then the same plastic Titan minis could be used for both sides, reducing production costs.  

Over the ensuing three editions of 40K, the Heresy was fleshed out in various game books and White Dwarf articles. Then, in 2003, Sabertooth Games—a GW subsidiary based in the US—published the Horus Heresy collectible card game. You can’t make a CCG without card art, so for the first time there was a pile of Heresy-related illustrations. GW published four art books called Visions of Heresy, with text by longtime GW loremaster Alan Merrett—who we worked with roundabout that time on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2E–putting all the pieces together into a complete narrative. So, job done, eh? Well, no, not at all! In 2006 GW’s fiction division, Black Library, began a new series of novels that would tell the tale of the Horus Heresy. At the time, I seriously thought this was only going to be a trilogy, but I was wildly wrong about that. The series ultimately ran until 2019, with 54 novels and anthologies! So, surely now the story is finished, right? No again! The climax of the Heresy takes places when Horus brings a huge host to our own Solar System to destroy the Emperor and Imperium. To tell this final chapter of the story, Black Library began a new series called Siege of Terra and that’s still going on today. It’s announced size is 8 novels and Warhawk, the sixth book, came out last year.

The big black books and the Horus Heresy 1st edition rulebook. Not pictured: several more red books that consolidated rules material from these books for ease of reference and to lighten your load on game days.

With all this attention on the Horus Heresy and the wild success of the novels, it was only natural that 40K players wanted to game the era, colloquially known as 30K. Lots of folks made homebrew rules and army lists, but it wasn’t until that last decade that GW turned their attention to rules. In 2012, Forge World—a studio inside Games Workshop that makes specialist resin kits and rules for hardcore fans—began releasing a series of books that made the Horus Heresy gameable with the then current 40K rules (6th edition). These were big, beautiful hardbacks that includes all kinds of new lore from the late Alan Bligh, John French, and others, plus bespoke army lists in support. These big black books, as they were known, were over $100 each. For many years, my treat to myself at GenCon was another volume in this series. It currently stands at 9 volumes, though I’m not sure what the new game means for the series.

When 7th edition came around in 2014, it was easy enough to carry on the series with those rules. 8th edition was a big departure from previous editions, however, so what was going to happen with Horus Heresy was an open question. Many fans had spent over $1,000 just on the big black books and the smaller red books that consolidated the rules and army lists. If HH made the switch to 8th, some hardcore fans would be pretty salty. Ultimately, GW decided that Horus Heresy would keep on with the 7th edition rules. Since that edition had fallen out of print, they did a new iteration of 7th edition called The Horus Heresy: Age of Darkness Rulebook (AKA Horus Heresy 1st edition). It was tweaked to focus it on the period but by and large it was the same rules. Since 2017 then, 40K and 30K have been operating under different rules. 9th edition 40K came out in 2020 but it was a pretty straight forward iteration of 8th, so the situation remained the same. Again though, people wondered if HH was going to move forward to the latest edition.

Last year GW announced they were working on a new edition of the Age of Darkness Rulebook. This was no big surprise, as you can see from just what I’ve written above that GW releases new editions regularly. What was a surprise was the new status of the Horus Heresy line. Simply put, it was promoted to become one of GW’s top tier games alongside 40K and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. No longer would it be a specialist game with a smaller but dedicated fanbase. It would be getting a big, boxed game with a new line of plastic minis and regular support. The Horus Heresy 2nd edition boxed set came out two weeks ago and that’s what I’m going to be talking about in the rest this article.

I’m sure that 1988 Chris who started this journey with Rogue Trader would choke at the idea of a $299 boxed game being reasonably priced, but in 2022 that is exactly what I’m saying. Warhammer: The Horus Heresy – Age of Darkness boxed set is absolutely stuffed. You get the full and complete rulebook (a 336-page hardback), 54 miniatures (including two vehicles), and the usual templates and dice. Two people can split the minis and each get a small starting force, or one person can use everything as the solid core of a single army. All the minis except the 10 Terminators are new. The 40 tactical marines—your basic troops—are from a brand-new kit that features the classic beakie (Mark VI) armor. The biggest deal is a plastic Spartan Assault Tank. This thing packs a big punch and can transport up to 26 space marines. It has been a major feature of Horus Heresy play, though not among my friends. The resin version was like $150 on its own, and I chose to invest in a Typhon Siege Tank instead because it fit the theme and play style of my Iron Warriors better. Anyway, a plastic Spartan is one of the things that convinced me to get the boxed set instead of the rules alone (those came out this past weekend). Overall, the boxed set as a package is top drawer. Now let’s look at the rules.

You will need both the rulebook and one of the army books at the table to play. Liber Hereticus is 352 pages and both books together weigh over 7 lbs. A joy for public transit users like me. 🙂

The 2nd edition rulebook begins with a roughly 140-page overview of the Horus Heresy and a primer on the 18 space marine legions at the center of it. You don’t, in other words, need to read 62 novels to understand the story. The remaining 200 odd pages has the rules themselves and accompanying reference material. There is one thing to understand up front though. While the boxed set includes a booklet with stats for the minis inside, the rulebook itself does not include the army lists you need to play a larger force. For that, you will need one of two $70 books: Liber Astartes – Loyalist Legiones Astartes Army Book or Liber Hereticus – Traitor Legiones Astartes Army Book. The first third of each book is the same. It has all the core space marine units that loyalists and heretics share. Following that are legion specific rules, special units, and characters. Each book covers 9 of the 18 legions. Note, however, that all legions had loyal and heretical troops. You could, for example, build a loyalist Iron Warriors army like mine or a heretical White Scars army. Your first big decision then is what legion to play. Once you figure that out, get the appropriate army book, and then you’ll have what you need to get going in earnest.

My Loyalist Iron Warriors, painted by Dylan Templar. Not pictured: Sicaran Battle Tank and Typhon Siege Tank (a Lord of War). I didn’t have them with me when I took this pic.

Now—finally—I will get down to the nitty gritty of the rules. My thoughts are based on the core rulebook and Liber Hereticus. I don’t have Liber Astartes, though I may get it later to see what those legions can do. Overall, the rules are what you’d expect: another iteration of the 7th edition. While the 1st edition Horus Heresy rules stuck pretty closely, the 2nd edition makes more substantial changes and for the most part these are for the good. Note I spent the last couple of weeks studying the rules, but I haven’t gotten it onto the table yet. To the bullet points!

• If you played 3rd to 7th edition 40K, most of the Horus Heresy rules will feel familiar. AP (Armor Piercing), for example, indicates what level of armor protection a weapon can simply ignore. An AP 3 weapon can punch right through space marine armor. The upside of this is that you are more likely to make saves against common weapons because if your armor works, you get its full protection. A bolter in 8th edition has an AP of -1 and that’s always applies. Space marine armor starts at 3+ on a d6 but against a bolter is goes to 4+. In Horus Heresy and previous editions back to third, the bolter is AP5 and that has no effect on marine armor whatsoever. Marines will always save on a 3+ against bolters. This is good because one of the core units of the game is a 20-man tactical squad all armed with bolters. AP2 weapons do make terminators cry though.

• The big new thing is what are called reactions. These take the idea of Overwatch from older editions but broaden the options. Typically speaking, you can make 1 reaction per phase during your opponent’s turn. Each legion also has a bespoke reaction to help define its fighting style. 40K has traditionally been what’s known as an “I go, you go” game, meaning that one player takes their whole turn moving and attacking and so on, and then the second player does the same. This makes things clear but there isn’t as much interactivity as other styles of rules. With reactions, you must be alert for opportunities during your opponent’s turn. When they move forward, you can withdraw. When they shoot, you can shoot back. Remember the limitations though. You can’t use more than one reaction in a phase unless you have a special rule that allows it. 

• A major change from 1st edition is that the psychic phase has been removed entirely. Now each psychic power is keyed to the most appropriate phase and used then. Aetheric Lightning, for example, happens in the shooting phase, while Pyromantic Desolation happens in the assault phase. Other good features here include trimmed down disciplines. Each one has two powers and if you have the discipline, you know them both. They also got rid of the random Perils of the Warp table, so there’s no chance of your psyker gettting sucked into the realm of chaos the first time they try to use a power. Instead, Perils simply causes d3 wounds. However, if the psyker is with a unit, those wounds can be put on troopers instead. This makes the marines meat shields that help you keep your psykers on the table longer, which I like.

• There is, of course, much that carries through from 1st edition HH but some things are missing or changed. While reading the army list, I was concerned because Reconnaissance Squads didn’t have the option for sniper rifles and that is how mine are armed. After some flipping around, I noticed that their sniping weapons were now called nemesis bolters. They are actually better than sniper rifles so yay for that, but these are the sorts of small changes existing players need to look for. In not so good news, one of my unique Iron Warriors units—Iron Havocs who specialize with missile launchers—is simply gone. This is not a huge deal, as a Legion Heavy Support Squad with missile launchers is still pretty good with the Iron Warriors’ Wrack & Ruin special rule, but I was surprised. Some of the characters from the big black books also didn’t make it, but we may seem them in supplements. UPDATE: the missing units and characters have been released in two free PDFs. As with other such legacy PDFs, I suspect they won’t be tournament legal but that is irrelevant to me. I also only rarely field special characters. As an RPG guy, I prefer to create my own.

• As with 1st edition, there are no data cards in Horus Heresy. These were an 8th edition innovation that put almost all the rules you need for a unit in its army list entry. Most special rules are right there, for example, and full weapon stats are included. This is basically impossible in Horus Heresy because the units and characters have so many weapon options. The ability to customize models with different weapons is certainly welcome (and a boon for kitbashers), but the unit presentation in Horus Heresy must needs remain in the older style. Hopefully, an online army builder will become available at some point because that would help.

• Since there are no data cards, you know what that means: a Special Rules chapter! This collects the various special rules that minis could have, so the unit entries don’t detail these special rules, just list out which apply. The Legion Destroyer Assault Squad entry, for example, simply notes its special rules: Legiones Astartes, Stubborn, Counter-attack, and Bitter Duty. I suggest you take the ribbon bookmark in the rulebook and just leave it at the start of the special rules chapter. You will be referencing it constantly. Now you’d hope that the rulebook would include all the special rules that apply to space marines because the lion’s share of Horus Heresy armies are legion based. You would be wrong! The army books have another TWELVE pages of them, which I have to say is a little annoying. I totally understand that this will be necessary in future army books like the Mechanicum and Solar Auxilia, but I think it would have made more sense to have those marine special rules incorporated in the core rulebook, so there would be one place you can find all the relevant special rules for a marine army in alphabetical order.

• In 8th edition 40K, vehicles are treated like any other model. They have Toughness, wounds, and a save and they are destroyed when they reach 0 Wounds. Vehicles can also fire all their weapons in any direction regardless of positioning. This has a nice simplicity, but it gets weird when you have an aircraft moving in one direction still able to fire its front-facing weapons at units behind them. If that bugs you, you’ll be pleased to know that Horus Heresy retains armor facings, firing arcs, glancing hits, penetrating hits, etc. A lascannon in the right sponson of a tank cannot shoot an enemy on the left side. It’s advantageous to shoot vehicles in the side and rear because they generally have weaker armor there (not Land Raiders or Spartans though!). Dreadnaughts are the exception. They work as they do in 8th now.

Rules for splitting from Warhammer 40K 2nd edition (1993)

• I had hoped some of the more sensible changes of 8th edition would be incorporated here. It always drove me batty that combi weapons fired like bolters most of the time, but only once per battle they could get off a single melta or plasma shot. Happy to see that changed for 8th, sad to see it back here. Similarly, 8th lets you split fire units, but this retains the “every model must shoot at the same enemy” rule. This is often just so dumb, because half your unit might not have line of sight to the target, so they end up sitting there doing nothing instead shooting enemies that they can see. 2nd edition 40K made allowances for this and that was in 1993!

• There is one thing from 8th I’m very happy NOT to see here: stratagems. Now I like stratagems in concept. You have a pool of command points in the battle, and you can gain various situational advantages by paying these points to use stratagems in the right circumstances. The problem with stratagems is that there are simply too many of them. They require vigilance because you must notice the right situation and remember that you can use a stratagem that applies. They make cards for these, but I can’t tell you how many times I have laid out 30+ AdMech stratagems in front of me (grouped into themes or units affected, with unplayable cards left in the box) and still forgotten half of them I could have played during the battle. My great hope for 9th edition was that they’d get stratagems under control but that didn’t happen at all. They doubled down on them, and every book adds new ones. I like so many of the changes in 8th and 9th but that’s one aspect I’ve found more and more problematic. Reactions in Horus Heresy are limited in number and easier to deal with and I’m happy about that.

• My biggest complaint about 7th edition was the way wound allocation was handled and that survived into Horus Heresy 1st edition. When you shot at an enemy unit and inflicted wounds, there was a whole process where you picked the closest enemy model and it had to make saves one by one until it failed enough to die (typically once for troopers). Then it moved onto the next model and so on. If played as written, this was extremely tedious, though there was an optional way you could speed that up with simple attacks. The wound allocation rules were commonly abused though. You could have a sergeant in artificer armor (2+ save) leading a squad of marines in power armor (3+ save). If you kept sarge out in front, the wound allocation would start with him. He could use his superior save to tank for the unit, which is a little silly when a volley of fire crashes into the unit as a whole. But he’s risking his life, right, so bad dice rolling could produce consequences? Well, no, because there was also a rule called Look Out, Sir! that let troopers take the wounds instead of a character like the sergeant. So, wound allocation not only took longer but one set of artificer armor could magically attract all incoming fire. Did not like. The new rules have tweaked wound allocation (getting rid of Look Out, Sir! for example), but they still cling to the idea of starting wound allocation with a single model for reasons I don’t understand.  

• My final note is about Mechanicum units. There are several ways to include some murder robots alongside your marines using Liber Astartes and Liber Hereticus. These are referenced as appropriate but the stats and rules for said murder robots will be in the forthcoming Mechanicum book, so you’ll need that if you want to use those options. I just wish I could use my 40K Mechanicus army in 30K but aside from tech-priests, the two forces are completely different.

I realize I went into the weeds there, so thank you if you’ve read this far. Between 40K and Horus Heresy, I have followed these rules for 11 editions over 34 years so I can’t help but compare and contrast. So, where did I land on Horus Heresy 2E? Overall, I like it and will be playing it with my friends, but to my brain’s chagrin I will also continue playing 9th edition 40K because the play experience of each game is different. I wish certain parts of 8E had been incorporated into HH, but none of those things are dealbreakers and there are always house rules to address bothersome issues. If you are interested in Horus Heresy gaming, I recommended getting the boxed set. It’s a great way to get started with a legion army. More than anything I’m pleased that Horus Heresy is finally a top tier GW game. That means it’s going to get much more support than it used to, where there might be up 2 years between books. We already know that Mechanicum and Solar Auxiliary books are up next, and it will be interesting to see how those factions are updated. There will be many more plastic kits for Heresy troops and vehicles. A brand-new heavy tank called the Kratos was released alongside boxed set and I expect there are many more plastic kits to come. This new edition is already getting friends of mine who weren’t previously interested in the Horus Heresy to start collecting armies, which means more people to play with. There’s also talk at my club of a narrative campaign later this year. All aboard the Heresy train!

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.

Blitzkrieg Commander IV: Thanks, Pendraken!

A surprise in yesterday’s mail,

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.

Princes Valiant: Stewart and Greg

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.

My Disappointment with Dunkirk

Operation Dynamo - men wait in an orderly fashion for their turn to be rescued.

Operation Dynamo – men wait in an orderly fashion for their turn to be rescued.

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.

Rogue One

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.

Horus Heresy: Choosing a Legion

Horus Heresy
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!