Saturday, November 29, 2008

On Doing Things in Parallel

My wife took the kids out of the house today. We had Thanksgiving at her brother's house this year, so in order to provide ourselves with enough turkey to make our favorite fall dishes (turkey-and-cranberry sandwiches, turkey soup and turkey casserole...yum!) I'm going all "hobbitish" and cooking a "second Thanksgiving dinner" for this evening.

In between chopping vegetables, brining, browning and turning the Great Bird, and prepping various side dishes, I managed a few minutes to work on the campaign project.

Looking back on my painting plan, I overlooked something. Each set of figures involves a few steps, some of which necessitate a long wait before the next can proceed. Gluing the figures to painting strips/bases and priming them, in particular, each require time to dry before I can take the next step. Given a half hour to work on the figures at a time, I'm left with nothing to do after the first ten minutes or so, if I keep to one set of figures at a time. This hobby time is precious and rare, so I'm bending the plan to fit.

Today I finished priming the first squad of southern auxiliaries, then washed (in detergent) a first unit of Molotonik militia and mounted them on their washer bases. I've given up on the painting sticks, by the way. The washers are plenty big enough to hold onto while painting. Left with a few more minutes, I glued about a dozen of my trees to fender washers.

Speaking of trees...I was digging around in my garage and discovered, to my surprised delight, that I'd purchased, socked away, and forgotten all about a few dozen flocked model trees at some point. These look MUCH better on the table than the plastic trees from the local craft store. And, aside from the bases, they need no paint. A major time saver.

I'll get some pictures of all this up in the next couple of days.

The writing of the first dispatches proceeds slowly. Here's the "trouble:" I used Mythic to generate a number of backstory elements for each of the main and secondary characters. The creation of some of these secondary characters was inspired by the backstory elements, as well, leading to more characters and more events. Each of their character sheets have these events written on them. From there, I wrote up a lot of notes about each character's past and present, and how they know each other, driven by these events. The first week or so of the campaign evolved out of these notes. But, as they are organized by character and not chronologically across all characters (i.e. as a campaign narrative), it's taking some effort to order them and organize them into a cohesive story.

Please bear with me...I think the story that will lead to the campaign itself is compelling and fairly interesting. It's certainly FAR richer than whatever I'd have dreamed up without the intervention of the Mythic prompts. Hopefully you'll agree once you've seen it.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Reinforcements have arrived

Thanks to speedy shipment from an eBay seller, two boxes of additional troops arrived in the mail today: 100 HaT Napoleonic Russian Militia, and 12 Orion Ukranian Cossacks.

The Russian Militia figures are nice. The details on a few of the muskets is non-existent, but the poses are all natural and very evocative of the period and people. Lots of long coats, long beards and fur hats. These figures represent a number of different Militia units, but with a little mixing I'll be able to (eventually) add four units of musket-armed militia in peaked caps, one unit of musket-armed militia with fur hats, one unit of pike-armed militia, and assorted officers and leaders. That ought to bulk out my Russian / Molotovnik forces quite nicely when I get around to painting them.

The Orion Ukranian Cossacks are just beautiful. There are twelve different riders in the set, all very cleanly sculpted, in realistic action poses. I can't wait to get painting these figures. The only downside is the presence of an odd elongated and under-detailed "musket case" (or something) along the side of a few of the horses. This was mentioned in the Plastic Soldier Review article on the set, and they're's odd. But whatever. With sufficiently bright paint jobs focusing the eye on the riders, I'll probably never notice these strange objects again. I didn't notice, when I ordered them, that these figures are for the 17th century. In practice, that makes no difference for my purposes. Yes, there are a couple of figures in breastplates and/or chain mail in the set, but I'll just chalk the use of such armor up to tradition and the desire to look fierce, and use them as is.

While I'm very excited to receive these figures, I'm going to proceed as planned with the painting. I trimmed up the first unit of southern auxiliaries last night and want to get cracking on them before I move on to my new toys. And...oh yeah!...I need to turn my pile of notes about the first events of the campaign into actual blog postings soon...stay tuned, folks. We're about to get rolling with the campaign part of this project.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Rules of Engagement

I'm going to use several sets of rules to play out this campaign. I'll use one set (Mythic) to help me generate characters, move the story along, and add randomness to the events. For small skirmish (one figure = one man) tabletop games, I'll start with "Mayhem: Warring Nations," from Two Hour Wargames. Once the collection gets large enough to play bigger games, I'll also add Don Bailey's "Pith Helmet" to the mix.

Mythic is a role playing aide, designed to allow solo role playing. There's a lot to it, but the part I use more than any other is a process for figuring out what happens next. The core of the system is something called the Fate Chart. The Fate Chart is a matrix, with the subjective odds of something happening up and down one side, and something called the Chaos Factor across the bottom. By comparing the odds of something happening (expressed in terms like "Very Likely") with the current Chaos Factor, you get the percentage chance of the event happening.

So, you ask the question "is the dungeon room I just entered empty?" You're in the lair of a tribe of Orcs, so you evaluate the odds of a "yes" answer as "Very Unlikely." The current Chaos Factor is (let's say) five. That gives you three percentile numbers: 5/25/66. You roll a pair of percentile dice. If the number is 5 or less, the answer to your question is "Extreme Yes." If the number is 6-25, the answer is "Yes." If the number is 26-66, the answer is "No." And, if the number is 67-00, the answer is "Extreme No."

"Yes" and "No" are fairly self-explanatory. "Extreme Yes" and "Extreme No" require a little more imagination to explain to yourself. Let's say the answer to the question (remember? It's "is the dungeon room I just entered empty?") is "Extreme No." So, you've not only stumbled on something. You're stumbled on something very large, very dangerous, or both. What's the next step? Ask the next question (e.g. "Have I run into Orcs?"). Figure the odds and roll again.

You can see (hopefully) where this process usually results in about what you'd expect in a given situation, but can also result in some very surprising results as well (imagine that the answer to that next question is "Extreme No." What _did_ you encounter?).

There's one more twist. If the percentile die roll is doubles, and the number on each die is less than or equal to the current Chaos Factor, a random event has occurred. Three more tables are consulted, a percentile die roll against each generating a piece of the focus (e.g. "PC positive"), action (e.g. "imitate") and subject (e.g. "pain") for the random event. So in this case, something unexpected has happened that is good for your character, having something to do with the imitation of pain. A simple explanation might be that your character realizes, just in time, that one of the "dead" Orcs he's just "slain" is playing dead, waiting for the chance to strike.

A lot has been written already about how to use Mythic for wargaming and wargames campaigns. You'll find all kinds of information about the game and ideas for how to bend it to your needs in the associated Yahoo Group.

Mayhem: Warring Nations
Mayhem: Warring Nations is an older set of rules, from Two Hour Wargames. Like all of the THWG games, the rules include a reaction system, which takes some of the control out of the hands of the player (a great thing, from the solo player's point of view). When certain things happen (e.g. a figure comes into line of sight, takes fire, wants to charge or gets charged, among others), a figure takes a test by rolling dice and comparing the result to a relevant characteristic (e.g. Willpower). The results tell the player what the figure's reaction to the situation is (e.g. running away, or standing to face a charge, ducking back or returning fire when fired upon).

Warring Nations was written for the Napoleonic period, but the mechanisms work quite well for Colonials as well. Also, it's been replaced in the THWG lineup by more recent, and more refined rules using similar reaction-based mechanisms. I own several of their rule sets, and recommend them all. As it's an older rule set, THWG has made the game available for free, here.

Pith Helmet
I should say that THWG has just released a semi-skirmish set of rules specifically for the Colonial period (Colonial Adventures: Fortunes Won and Lost). They look very interesting, but I haven't tried them. Besides, for this kind of game, in which a real-world unit is represented by a small number (usually 10-20) of figures treated as individuals, I already have a favorite set.

Many moons ago, I read a fascinating article in Historical Miniature Gamer magazine, issue #1. The article, Battle at Le Frommage, was part battle report and part rules description. Written by the author of the rules, Don Bailey, it gave a first class account of a reaction-based WWII rules system he'd written called "Sturm." I was hooked immediately, and wrote Don to inquire about a copy of the rules. He graciously sent me a copy, struck up a conversation, and introduced me to some fellow solo gamers via email. He also clued me into his Colonial rules, Pith Helmet. It is this group of gamers that spends their imaginary time in Gamdola.

Like Sturm (but using quite different mechanisms), Pith Helmet takes much of the control of the player's units out of his hands. Both are based on the reaction-based principles and experiments written about by Wally Simon in such places at The Courier. General direction is given and will usually be followed, but in stressful circumstances training and morale take over. Wonderful stuff.

Don wrote another battle report / rules description, this time for Pith Helmet. This article, "Skirmish at Utla," appears in HMG magazine issue #5. Keep your eyes on the HMG site. Issues 1-3 have been made available in PDF. Issue 5 may follow at some point. Or there's always eBay...

It you're interested in Pith Helmet, please drop Don a line.

It's Game Time
Three sets of rules, an interesting setting, and some evocative miniatures. Time to get the story rolling...

Friday, November 21, 2008

Figures - Plan of attack

I don't want to get ahead of myself. Viewing this as one LARGE project carries with it some small measure of self-intimidation. And, as readers of my other blog (Ramblings of a Distracted Wargamer) will know, I don't have a good track record of finishing projects I begin. I get distracted by the "next great project," and depressed by the amount of work remaining for the current project.

So, I plan to just paint figures a small unit at a time. I'll choose what to paint next based on how much the addition of the unit, or the piece of terrain, will add to the quality of the games I can play with them. Setting these milestones in this way will, I hope, motivate me to make progress.

"The Plan," then looks something like this:

1) Finish off my first unit of infantry. All these need are finished bases and a matte overcoat to dull the sheen and protect the paint. These guys are Gobbelani line infantry - the unit led by Our Hero, Nazim Nuri-agha.

2) A unit of southern auxiliaries. These use the same figures as the Gobbelani line infantry, but a different paint scheme. OK, these will serve in the Gobbelah army as well, but they'll stand in for the enemy in the first games. Why? Well, the choice is made for me by one fact: they're the only figures I have yet. More are coming in the mail, but won't be here in time to avoid this compromise.

That's enough figures to play my first skirmish games. I have some plastic trees from a craft store (I think they were made for decorating cakes), and with the addition of some large stones, I have enough terrain to have a few rough encounters in the mountains near the main town, Grabalotsa. Milestone 1 complete!

3) Assemble and paint one of the log house models I bought from Pegasus.

OK, now we can play games involving a little more hard cover. Milestone 2 complete! Yes, yes, these are modest milestones, but such things will keep me painting and playing, I think.

4) I have a feeling these trees of mine aren't going to stand up well. That's going to get frustrating pretty quickly. Also, they look like plastic. So, mount the trees on appropriate fender washers. Base them just like the infantry. Find a way to paint them quickly...might just spray them black and dry brush them dark green...we'll see.

5) Assemble and paint another log house. I figure I'll be able to get all this done before the next batch of figures arrives in the mail. So, largely I chose this step because I'll be running out of things to paint and add to the games at this point.

6) The first troops to arrive will be a box of HaT Russian Militia, and a box of Orion Ukranian Cossack cavalry. I'll start into these with a unit of twelve Molotovnik infantry with muskets.

Now I've got some actual opposing infantry, so I'll get a few more skirmishes in, on the Molotov frontier. Milestone 3 complete!

7) Add a unit of six Molotovnik cossack cavalry.

First games with cavalry are now possible. Milestone 4 complete!

8) Assemble and paint the last log house.

9) I have a feeling the cavalry are going to tip the balance of power in these games in favor of the Molotovniks. So, add another unit of Gobbelah line infantry.

Things get sketchy from here...a lot will depend on whether the figures I'll use for the Nerdistani forces have arrived yet, where the campaign is heading, and what I feel like painting yet. Think I'll leave well enough alone with the planning at this point :-)

Figures - Progress To Date

This project really started with a dream, and with the figures. For ages I've read accounts of solo campaigns, set in fictional lands, using figures painted in fanciful semi-historical colors. Such campaigns have been played by famous and not-so-famous wargamers for decades now, and it was time I had a go at it. So that was the dream.

To that end, I went to the hobby store, looking for figures. I wanted a campaign set in a 19th century world, favoring the latter part of the century - the Colonial period. I wanted troops in costumes not readily recognized. Even with new paint jobs, Napoleonic and Colonial figures of the major powers are easy to pick out. I think that takes away from the feel of the figures for this kind of thing, personally. It'd work for 18th century conflicts, since the uniforms were nearly identical for all nations except for the color of the coat, but not for the period I wanted to game in.

At the hobby store, I struck gold. Of a sort. I found a box of HaT 1/72 WWI Serbian Infantry. These guys are armed with rifles, and wear webbing over loose, baggy tunics. Perfect for the Colonial period. Their oddly shaped soft caps, pantaloons and pointy-toed shoes set them apart from anything else I'm familiar with. Awesome.

The downside is that the sculpts aren't very good. The details are soft, especially in the faces, hands and weapons. But hey, they'll do.

To date, I've painted a whopping twelve infantry figures - one sprue of figures, in Gobbelani regular army colors. The pics aren't great and the colors are off...the tunics are really a dark royal purple.

These need basing, then it's on to another unit of these boys, this time painted up as colonial troops from the southern provinces.

More figures are on order. Strelets Cossack infantry and cavalry for the Ethnic Nerds, HaT Russian Militia for the Molotovnik town militias across the border, and a few other assorted boxes to round out the collection.

The village of Grabalotsa - map of the local area

Below is a map of the Nerdistan-Molotov border region. The area is characterized by bleak mountain ridges, with pine forests hugging the small waterways through the valleys and clawing up into the mountain above. No cities of any size are this close to border. All of the settlements marked on the map are villages and small towns.

(Wargamers note: this map was made by searching for a likely area of the world using Google Maps. I turned on the "terrain" overlap, took a screenshot, then used an image processing tool...I prefer render it as an oil painting. This gave me a blockier style that looked good and made the manual removal of town names easier. Over that image I laid on layers including the border, roads, town icons, and text.)

Where in the world is Nerdistan?

Nerdistan! Land of high mountain passes and lowland plains, land of fierce and proud tribesmen, land of rich and ancient culture. Nerdistan is one province in the land of Gambola. A fictional land, to be sure, but one almost real to a small group of solo wargamers who campaign beside each other there.

For the purposes of this campaign, I've added a little more detail to our campaign world. The previously unnamed peninsula to the north will now house the Prenslik (Principality) of Gobellah - a client state of 19th century Turkey. To the Northeast, in the previously unmarked area west and north of Ubet lies Molotov - colony of Imperial Russia and the Tsarina during roughly the same period (yes, the Tsarina is female in our little world). Much of the conflict between Gobbelah and Molotov takes place further north, in the other Turkish and Russian holdings connected to the mother countries by their capable and numerous navies.

Nerdistan itself lies between these two more powerful colonies - astride the only land route between them. Nerdistan enjoys friendly relations with both Britain and America (Teddy Roosevelt enjoys the Nerdistani mountains particularly), but is an independent state. A buffer between Molotov and Gobbelah, and one of the few places where Russian interests border those of Britain and America, the Nerdistani frontier has been the scene of many moves in The Great Game and remains an active and tense borderland.