Thursday, April 27, 2017

More Painted Vikings for Saga

Here's the second half of my Viking warband for the skirmish game, Saga. Last week we looked at the rank-and-file warriors ("Bondi"), and today features their warlord, Gaukur Trandilsson, with his inner circle of elite warriors: four hearthguard ("Hirdmen") and four raving, inadequately-clothed berserkers. 

Gaukur is the only miniature in my warband that wasn't made by Gripping Beast. I wanted a very special miniature for my leader, and eventually I found just the right lump of lead over at Wargames Foundry: "Big Lud Headsplitter" from their Viking range. He is a giant among 28mm miniatures, with a shaggy head of hair that merges into two overlapping bearskins. He immediately reminded me of the prodigiously large and strong Egil Skallagrimsson from Egil's Saga. But what I loved most of all is his phlegmatic countenance (something I tried to highlight by giving him a heavy-lidded and almost weary expression).

Gaukur Trandilsson, Viking Hersir

I've named him "Gaukur Trandilsson" because Gaukur's Saga was an important Icelandic Saga, but it has been lost to history. We know almost nothing about the real Gaukur, so it gives me a broad canvas to recreate his history. As I see it, Gaukur  grew up in Norway around 1000 ce, the son of a wealthy "hersir" (or war-leader). Despite his great size and strength, Gaukur was considered an "ash lad" -- that is, a drowsy loner who seemed more interested in stirring the ashes in the hearth than helping around the estate or playing at ball-sports. 

However, when his father was exiled for resisting the Kings of a unified Norway, Gaukur finally roused himself, slew some of the King's men, and led his father's old retainers on a series of profitable raids around the Channel Isles. My games of Saga will chart Gaukur's progress on these expeditions.

So let's meet some of these retainers! They may be older, but they are also violent and crafty.

Halfdan the Black, Viking Hirdman

Tosti the Deep-Minded, Viking Hirdman

Ottar Far-Travelled, Viking Hirdman

Asbjorn Alfsson, Viking Hirdman

As Gaukur's inner circle of lieutenants, I wanted to convey experience, wealth and status with these miniatures -- hence the bright colours, trimmed fur and thoughtful expressions. 

At the other end of the spectrum, however, we have the four berserkers. These are also elite hearthguard in the game, but true to their mythical descriptions, they fight in their negligee. As Snorri Sturluson writes in the Ynglinga Saga, such men "rushed forwards without armour,were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild bulls, and killed people at a blow..".

Hrok, Hrolf, Ulf and Vog, the Viking Berserkers

Now we just have to find Gaukur and his boys some opponents... hmm, I wonder what they will find waiting for them when they go to raid the Channel Isles?

Thanks for not looking too closely!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Painted Vikings for Saga

Behold the warband of Gaukur Trandilsson! This is a 4-point Viking army that I painted for Saga, the Dark Age skirmish war game. These are 25 mean, nasty, ugly-looking people on the bench there. Mother rapers. Father stabbers. Father rapers! This week I want to introduce you to the rank-and-file warriors (or Bondi) in Gaukur's force, and next week we'll meet Gaukur himself and his elite hearthguard.

I've fallen pretty hard for Saga over the last few weeks. What makes it so good? In my view, there are two things. First, it is an extremely violent and deadly game. Once opposing units crash, they mutually annihilate each other like subatomic particles. Both sides are constantly rolling handfuls of dice and flicking figures into Valhalla. When you combine this with a simple but realistic mechanic for fatigue, the results are brutal. Soon you are left with a few survivors who fight out the climax in an agony of limping exhaustion. It's glorious!

A Saga battle board
The second thing that distinguishes Saga is it's use of "battle boards". In conjunction with special six-sided Saga dice, you use the boards to activate your units and trigger special abilities unique to your faction. The Viking's board usually makes melee even more bloody, whereas (for example) the Welsh board makes that faction more adept at hit-and-run raids. And so, these boards add a lot of faction-specific flavour to the game, and ensure that the way you play your army fits in with its historical model. 

But besides the flavour, there's another element to the battle boards that I enjoy. Many historical war games boil down to "advance to meet the enemy and then fight until one side breaks". Such games can be fun (especially when the lead is well painted) but there's not a lot of meaningful choice. And in my view, meaningful choice is the key to making any game truly interesting.

That's where Saga excels. The battle boards add lots of options, by giving your units access to special bonuses and devastating attacks. The game hinges on how each player exploits these advantages at the crucial moment. At the same time, the battle boards limit your choices -- if you roll poorly with your Saga dice, you may not be able to activate all your units. And thus, the player is always presented with fun but difficult choices that go well beyond "how far up will I move my troops". 

Not that Saga is a perfect game. The rules for moving into combat are unnecessarily fiddly. Cavalry is not handled well. And the battle boards add a level of complexity to the game that make it hard for newcomers. But once all those Vikings start fighting and dying, it's all worth it.

Well, enough talk... here are the Bondi of Gaukur's warband...

All my Viking Bondi are metal miniatures from Gripping Beast. These are superb sculpts -- they contain lots of personality and interesting details. The most realistic touch is that many of the warriors wear hesitant expressions or carry their weapons in oddly tentative poses. They hide behind their shields and otherwise convey the idea that they don't relish the idea of having their limbs hacked off.

All my shields feature transfers from Little Big Men Studios, who have a line customized for Saga. I've never used transfers before (and I guess there's a part of me that thinks that they're cheating), but I couldn't be happier with the gorgeous patterns. I added some battle damage and cracks to the wood to give them a less pristine appearance.

My goal was to paint these Viking warriors in a historically accurate way. They favoured bright or embroidered clothes, and were concerned with cleanliness and personal appearance. Apparently, combs are frequently found in archaeological sites. So even if they're Dark Age warriors, there's no call to make them "grimdark".

Above we see that standard of Gaukur Trandilsson, the "Bölverkr" (or 'Bale-Worker', one of the epithets of Odin). From the Channel Isles to Iceland, so war-banner is more feared. Stay tuned next week when we'll take a closer look at Gaukur himself...

Thanks for looking!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Nucleus of a Vacuum: the Investigators for Signs of Carcosa

Welcome to another batch of Cthulhu investigators! These are heroes for Signs of Carcosa, a small expansion for Fantasy Flight Games' excellent Lovecraftian adventure game, Eldritch Horror. Chronic readers will recall that one of my long-term projects is to find metal miniatures for each of the investigators in this game.

Carcosa is a white rabbit that runs through the past 130 years of horror fiction. This fictional city originated in Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" (1886). To my knowledge, this is the first literary work to portray a haunted and amnesiac main character who discovers to his horror that he is a ghost, and that the flitting shades around him are actually live people (for another example, see the 2001 feature film The Others). For Bierce, Carcosa was a bricks-and-mortar place, perhaps the French city Carcassonne or some Middle-Eastern town. The details are not important because Carcosa was just an incidental element with an exotic name.

Robert Chambers made Carcosa immortal when he borrowed the name for his book of short stories The King in Yellow (1895). Chambers reimagined Carcosa as the dreamy setting of a play  -- also called "The King in Yellow" -- which drives insane anyone who reads its script or sees it performed. Lovecraft incorporated passing references to Chamber's work in The Whisperer in Darkness (1931) and the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927), but it took August Derleth to firmly instantiate Carcosa into the Cthulhu mythos in The Return of Hastur (1958). And in 2014, the HBO series True Detective gave new notoriety to Carcosa and the King in Yellow.

Carcosa and the King in Yellow have a haunting power. Isn't it scary to think that merely watching a play can drive you insane? It's not unlike the cursed video in The Ring (2002) or "the Entertainment" in Infinite Jest (1996). All of a sudden, a work of art is a lethal virus, and there's no way to protect yourself.

For my part, I think the seed of Robert Chamber's perilous concept for Carcosa is the idea (prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) that works of art could wreak permanent moral or psychological harm on the public. This was the age that saw puritanical condemnation of Aubrey Beardsley's periodical The Yellow Book (1894-1897), violence at the premier of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (1913), and outrage at Oscar Wilde's play Salome (1891), which was banned from the English stage for 40 years. Indeed, with its dream-like poetry and decadent plates by Beardsley (see right), Salome has always seemed to me to overlap with Chamber's play The King in Yellow. 

It's also worth noting the importance of the colour yellow -- it's not accidental that the King in Chambers' play wears rags of that shade. Authors like Dickens or Charlotte Bronte had long used yellow to suggest decay. But in the 1890's, yellow came to stand for a particular kind of decay -- the spiritual decay of modern ideas. During the late Victorian era, French fiction (often racy French fiction) was imported into England in distinctive yellow covers. Yellow became associated with decadence and avant-garde arts -- so much so that the 1890's garnered the name "The Yellow Nineties". Such associations were exactly why Aubrey Beardsley named his anti-establishment magazine "The Yellow Book". Such a name perfectly captured the idea of decadence, freedom and artistic extremism.

Most importantly, five years before Chambers published The King in Yellow, another writer was imagining a fictional book with hallucinatory powers. In A Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Oscar Wilde writes about a "poisonous book" in "yellow covers" that induces corrupting dreams in anyone who reads it. Indeed, it's difficult to read Wilde's description of the book and not see it as the direct inspiration for Chambers' King in Yellow:
The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain. The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows.
Speaking of creeping shadows, let's get on to the miniatures for Signs of Carcosa!

Above we have Dexter Drake, the magician. His miniature is "the Ripper" from Citadel's CC1 Gothic Horror range (1986). To make him slightly less homicidal, I removed the dagger concealed beneath his cape. I also inserted a rabbit under his hat. Can you see it?

This is Jenny Barnes, the dilettante. The Call of Cthulhu role-playing game (1981) introduced the "dilettante" as a class of investigator, and I'm glad that Fantasy Flight Games carries on this tradition. I have had a soft spot for this career ever since my brother introduced a new character into our long-running Call of Cthulhu campaign as "Belmont Labante-Delmonte, who's a bit of a dilettante."

Jenny's miniature is "the Young Girl" from Citadel's CC1 Gothic Horror line (1986). I tried to leaven her air of innocence by painting a creepy eye-shaped amulet on her neck.

Here's Michael McGlen, the gangster, one of the dozen or so gun-wielding Irishmen to grace Eldritch Horror. His miniature is "the Hood" from the CC1 Gothic Horror line (1986). 

Observant readers may note that I cannibalized the head and hand from a duplicate Hood miniature to create my likeness of Hunter S. Thompson a few weeks ago.

Finally, here's Wendy Adams, the urchin. There are no children in Citadel's Gothic Horror line (and few in the entire range of Citadel miniatures), so I turned to Hasslefree Miniatures, who produce some excellent youth for the modern era. This miniature is HFA030 "Alyx", a wonderful multi-part kit that lets you customize the girl with a wand, teddy bear, pistol etc. 

Well, I started with Ambrose Bierce, so let's give him the final word. Here's his proto-Lovecraftian definition of 'reality' from The Devil's Dictionary (1911): "REALITY, n. The dream of a mad philosopher. That which would remain in the cupel if one should assay a phantom. The nucleus of a vacuum."

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Investigators for Under the Pyramids

The strangest episode in H.P. Lovecraft's real life literary career was when he ghost-wrote a story for Harry Houdini. "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" (1924) was an allegedly true account told in the first-person about how Houdini got lost in caverns beneath the Great Pyramid of Giza and witnessed certain monstrous rites in praise of a dark god. This story is revived and brought to the gaming world with Under the Pyramids, an expansion for Eldritch Horror. As usual, I've painted up metal miniatures for each of the 8 characters in this set.

"Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" is a neglected gem -- it is rarely ranked among Lovecraft's top stories and is often omitted from his anthologies. And yet, it features some of his best writing. The descriptions of Cairo are filled with lively detail that convince the reader that the writer was really there. The worst (best?) of HPL's baroque language is saved for the very end, and truly lends force to the climax. Most importantly, in assuming the voice of Houdini, Lovecraft created a fully-fleshed narrator with a sense of personality that far outstrips his customary wan, hapless and bookish heroes.   

Even if it's not read as often as it deserves, "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" had a lasting influence on the gaming world. It was a primary influence on The Fungi from Yuggoth (1984) by Keith Herber, which is (in my view) the best adventure ever written for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. So I'm happy to see Fantasy Flight Games carry on this tradition with Under the Pyramids (which was, by the way, Lovecraft's first name for "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs"). 

Well, on to the characters!

Above we have Hank Samson, the farmhand. FARMHAND? I guess Fantasy Flight Games is running out of ideas for characters. After all, there is only so often that you can re-use the idea of an Irish gangster.

In any case, Hank's miniature is the Citadel's CC1 Gothic Horror "Peasant" (1986).

Professor Harvey Walters is, well, a professor. At least that's a proper Lovecraftian career -- an expert in the field of crypto-antiquitarianologicalism. His miniature is the CC1 Gothic Horror "Sir Charles" (1987). He's been slightly modified by yrs. truly -- I added the impressive side-whiskers. I have a soft spot for Harvey Walters because he predates Fantasy Flight Games by many years and originates with the the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, where he was the sample character in the rulebook:

Notice how his player's name is given as "Sandy" -- presumably, this is Sandy Petersen, the author of the game.

Above is Joe Diamond the private eye. His miniature is the CC1 Gothic Horror "Professor" (1986). With his studious crouch, this miniature looks less like a professor and more like Sherlock Holmes -- after all, we know from stories like A Study in Scarlett that Holmes would crawl around the floor with his magnifying glass. I'm not sure, however, where Holmes would have found the scroll for summoning a Star Vampire.

Above is Mandy Thompson, the researcher. I really love this miniature -- she's Citadel's CC1 Gothic Horror "Rancher's Lady". She's got a great stance and lovely details like her sweater vest. But when it came to paint her face, I realized that her mouth is formed into a very circular scream. It makes her look like she's "smiling like a donut".

Above is Minh Thi Phan, the secretary. Never trust a secretary who reads The King in Yellow -- she's apt to jam straightened paper clips into her eyes at inconvenient times. Well, in any case, Minh's miniature is the Gothic Horror's "Betty" (1987). 

Above is the infelicitously named "Monterey Jack"  -- the archaeologist. God I hate that name. Well, he gets a cool miniature -- the CC1 Gothic Horror "Rancher" (1986).

Above is Rex Murphy, the journalist. Coincidentally, here in Toronto there is a real life journalist named Rex Murphy, who's always looked to me like he's seen his fair share of cosmic horrors:

Citadel has not produced any sufficiently writerly miniature for Rex, so his miniature is "The Reporter" from Foundry's City Slicker's range. 

Finally, above is Sister Mary, the nun. Non-sexy, non-gun-wielding nuns are hard to come by in 28mm, but I finally tracked down a suitable figure from RAFM -- an excellent producer of Lovecraftian miniatures (and other delights) based here in Ontario. Sister Mary is the RAF02908 "Holy Sister" from the Cthulhu range.

"If only I had not read so much Egyptology before coming
to this land which is the fountain of all darkness and terror!"

Stay tuned for next week when I'll be looking at Carcosa and the King in Yellow...