Wargaming: Xenos Rampant

Wargaming: Xenos Rampant

Hey, wait, what, you can insert documents into basic WordPress blogs?

Awesome. In that case, here’s Xenos Rampant – futuristic wargaming in Dragon Rampant v1 (opens as .pdf).

Xenos Rampant is an unofficial supplement to Daniel Mersey’s Dragon Rampant, published by Osprey Games. It is designed to allow platoon-level skirmishes in a more advanced historical setting than the official Rampant games. You could probably also play historical 20th-century games (the World Wars, for example) using these rules, or even in the present day, although they are intended for battles waged in a science fiction setting.

It should also be noted that the existence or involvement of aliens is not a required component in such a game; Xenos Rampant is just the coolest title I could think of, and certainly more evocative than my working title of Future Rampant. Also, Lasers Rampant was already taken…

As this is a supplement, rather than as a standalone game, assume that all rules in the Dragon Rampant rulebook apply to games of Xenos Rampant, except for where specifically tweaked in this document.

As a further note, like Dragon RampantXenos Rampant is setting-neutral. You can use models from any manufacturer or setting, in any scale. Personally, I’ve messed around with models from Warhammer 40,000, Warpath, Afterlife, Necromunda, Gorkamorka and various game-neutral ranges.

Obviously, as an unofficial fan supplement, this is a completely non-profit project. Furthermore, any feedback from players is more than welcome, and will be incorporated into the next version.

 

(The header image is a bunch of science fiction cultists – probably Light Infantry or Militia Rabble in Xenos Rampant – painted by myself. The models are Frostgrave soldier bodies, Frostgrave cultist heads and arms and guns from Victoria Miniatures.)

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Film Review: Wonder Woman

Film Review: Wonder Woman

My partner and I went to see Wonder Woman last night. Short review: I thought it was great and I look forward to seeing more of Diana.

As with my previous ‘review’ of Rogue One, this’ll be presented more as a bullet-pointed list of thoughts than a coherent essay or article about the film.

This list will contain spoilers, but I’ve tried to keep them mild.

 

The Setting

  • A superhero popcorn movie in something as emotive as World War One is always going to be a tough sell. World War Two has been simplified into straightforward good versus evil of Allies & Axis, which had to be fought and was a resounding victory for the good guys. (And our favourite Uncle Joe Stalin, but we’ll gloss over that…) This bowdlerisation is such that Captain America and the Red Skull can exchange punches without it feeling… off. The First World War though is characterised in the popular consciousness as being a morally-neutral disaster – see the concerns over the video game Battlefield 1 being set in 1914-18, when dozens of first-person shooters, including Battlefield, but also the Call of Duty and Medal of Honor (remember them?) have done 1939-45 without more than a mumble of discontent. However, Wonder Woman pulls it off; it gets close, because she spends the entire film blaming Ares for corrupting the Germans into starting the war (the ‘Hitler Was A Vampire’ trope), but the reveal that actually, humans are just fond of killing each other keeps the blame for the war pinned firmly on real world politics. That the film is set during the dying days of the war, when both sides are trying to negotiate the Armistice, probably helps. Wonder Woman’s not going to be leading the Americans into Berlin here
  • Misogyny. Lots of casual misogyny, particularly in the London sequence. However, Diana being Diana, she just looks confused and carries on doing whatever it was she was doing. Also, no one gets protective or dismissive of Diana by the end of the film. Being an actual demi-goddess helps, I suppose. The horrendously sexist attitudes of, for example, the British commanders and politicians, although appearing ridiculously overdone, weren’t that implausible for the era. A female police constable appears in a crowd scene in the film, stood beside her male colleague/bodyguard. Thousands of women served as volunteer constables during the war, to allow male officers to fight at the front, but a Metropolitan Police official was asked in 1916 if he ever saw women being taken on permanently. His reply was: “No, not even if the war lasts fifty years.”
  • There was a recent episode of Doctor Who in which Bill (who is black) was cautious about leaving the TARDIS in 1814 London (“Slavery is totally still a thing,”) and is pleasantly surprised when she does look around the streets: “Regency England, a bit more black than they show in the movies.” The Doctor’s reply is, “So was Jesus. History is a whitewash.” Aside from several non-white civilians, the London crowd scenes in Wonder Woman make a point of showing the ethnic diversity of the war effort. We see non-white troops from multiple nations. I’m not hot enough on the uniforms to identify the nations, but I presume one of the groups of Asian soldiers were the Indian Army, some others appeared to be from a Sikh regiment, and there was a black soldier at the docks that looked to be wearing British Army uniform (black British soldiers served alongside white comrades in the First World War, although non-whites were barred from becoming officers – there were several exceptions though). Of course, he may have been from the Caribbean or African colonies, but he appeared to be on his own rather than a part of a group.
  • The ethnic diversity continues into Steve’s team, who are all (or mostly anyway) existing characters from the Wonder Woman comic canon. Sameer is Moroccan (and makes a point of highlighting his skin colour as a reason why his acting career has never taken off), Chief is a native American (who mentions to Diana that it was Steve’s people who took everything from his during their last war), and, well, okay, you don’t get much whiter than the Scottish Ewen Bremner.
  • Visually, the film portrays its era very well. A historian might pick holes in some bits and pieces, but it feels right.
  • The action scenes don’t fetishise automatic weapons in a way that some First World War portrayals I’ve seen have done. Even World War Two films and games fall prey to that urge, when rifles were still the most common armament for infantry soldiers. Dakka might look and sound good on screen, but it detracts from the feel of the era.
  • Interestingly, the two German tanks seen towards the end of the film are not historically inaccurate. Yes, they’re clearly British tanks painted up in German colours (possibly the same props seen in British colours in earlier scenes), but the Germans actually fielded more captured British tanks than they built of their own. (For comparison, the Germans fielded fifty tanks during the war, only twenty of which were of German design, while Britain and France fielded literally thousands of tanks between them.)
  • Finally, how often do you get a superhero film set in Belgium?

 

Diana / Wonder Woman

  • Wonder Woman doesn’t get referred to as such during this film. I haven’t seen Batman v Superman: Dawn of Unnecessary Subtitles, but apparently it was the media in that film that gave Diana that name.
  • Gal Gadot is excellently cast. She looks the part and plays it well too. I’m not sure what more I can say about her than that I definitely want to see more Wonder Woman.
  • Born Sexy Yesterday is a trope (explained in more detail behind the link) in which a science fiction character, almost always female, is portrayed in a sexualised way, despite being either naive to the ways of the world (a mermaid come ashore, for example) or literally being born yesterday (Leeloo in The Fifth Element comes to mind, but it’s also the central conceit of Weird Science and its sub-genre of nerdy wish-fulfilment movies). Diana brushes against that trope, in that she’s an outsider to the world beyond Themyscira, but her naivety is emphasised as idealism, rather than foolish cluelessness. There are also a few moments where that same naivety is used to highlight the hypocrisy or prudishness of the mortal world, such as her continuous criticisms of women’s dress in 1918. It helps that the scene in Selfridges was also very funny.
  • However, my partner was rubbed up the wrong way by an early conversation between Steve and Diana, prompted by Steve’s awkwardness over their sleeping arrangements on the small boat they take from Themyscira. Diana appears ignorant of the idea of marriage and relationships, yet in the comics she’s mentioned having relationships on Themyscira. (A quote from the comics: ‘So, let me get this straight, you’re from a paradise island of science fiction lesbians, with a side of bondage?’) The conversation is explicitly about marriage before sleeping with someone in the literal, as well as euphemistic, sense, and that marriage was part of the natural sequence of then having children, growing old together and being happy with one other person forever. As Steve readily admits, it doesn’t always work out like that. At the time, I read the conversation as saying that Themyscira simply didn’t have the same rigid family structures as the mortal world; they were more communal, egalitarian or whatever, but there’s also the reading that the film was saying same-sex couplings can’t have proper relationships or families. It was explicitly stated earlier in the film that Diana was the only child on the island, moulded from clay by her mother and given life by Zeus, so that’d suggest family and relationships are treated very differently there than in our world (or at least, our world in 1918). I think I’d have to watch this scene again, but since I’ll probably pick up Wonder Woman on Blu-Ray when it comes out, no problem with that.
  • Oh yeah, the bondage comment above? The creator of Wonder Woman was bigly into that sort of thing. Why do you think Diana’s lasso makes people tell the truth? It was also a common feature of the early comics that Diana would end up getting tied up and taunted by villains. The film avoids all that, but I do think that a moment in the climactic fight scene was a nod towards the character’s history: Ares pins Diana to the ground with a length of telekinetically-hurled tank track and villain-monologues at her. However, the scene is not played for eroticism, but as an obstacle for Diana to overcome.
  • Speaking of the lasso, and of the Wonder Woman get-up itself, the bright colours worked marvellously in the otherwise muted and muddy scenes in Belgium, particularly during the incredible moment where she climbs that ladder into No Man’s Land. (As a side note, they weren’t explicit with it, but when characters described it as ‘No Man’s Land’, the audience knew full well what was going to happen next.)
  • The No Man’s Land scene is what happened next. You know those bits in superhero films where the film manages to sell precisely who or what the hero is? When Spiderman loses his mask during the train sequence and the New Yorkers just give it him back, promise not to tell anyone what they saw, and then try and protect him from Doc Ock? Or when Superman lands a crashing plane safely onto a baseball pitch and the crowd go wild, and then he mentions to the passengers that flying is still statistically the safest way to travel? No Man’s Land was that scene for Wonder Woman (and Patti Jenkins had to fight to keep it in the film!). It’s the scene where she ceases to just be a naive idealist with a few nifty superpowers, and becomes a goddess who inspires all who witness her. From the moment she sets foot on that ladder, the air in the cinema got very dusty. The aftermath sequence in the liberated village was a wonderful respite from the war and showed the human side of the conflict.
  • And what happens later is just cruel, but a necessary part of Diana’s journey to discovering that not everything evil in the world is the fault of Ares.

 

Steve Trevor

  • Chris Pine put in a solid performance of what, in any other film, would have been a two-fisted pulp hero. Wonder Woman manages to still give him time in the spotlight to do his dashing spy stuff, without detracting from Diana’s own plot and character arc. In fact, strip out the superhero stuff on both the good guys’ and the bad guys’ sides, and you’re left with a perfectly serviceable pulp spy/action movie about Steve Trevor and his buddies shooting and punching their way across Belgium.
  • He even manages to be the love interest who inspires the protagonist. Holy gender-flip, Batman!
  • Hell, since this film is set in 1918, if it weren’t for the fact that this film forms an end-point for his character arc, you could probably get some mileage out of a Steve Trevor spin-off. Think of it as Biggles for an American audience.
  • Oh, wait, that godawful idea already exists, thanks to the 1980’s.

 

Erich Ludendorff

  • Using a real-world historical figure as the main villain was another bit that could have turned out badly. For a start, Danny Huston looks absolutely nothing like Ludendorff. Furthermore, the historical Ludendorff (alongside Hindenberg) pushed the Kaiser to seek peace, unlike the version presented in the film, who was convinced that Germany could still win in late 1918. Again though, the film made it work.
  • It helps that Ludendorff is one of history’s bad guys anyway – he was a leading proponent of the ‘stabbed in the back’ myth about Germany’s 1918 defeat and took part in the Munich Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. Film-Ludendorff believed that war was the foundation of human civilisation (thus placing him firmly into worship of Ares, even if he didn’t realise it). Interestingly, this aligns fairly closely with real-Ludendorff’s beliefs. He was a social Darwinist who venerated war as a driver of societal advancement. Ironically, he did allegedly convert to the worship a pagan god, specifically the Norse Odin/Wotan, after the war. He also believed that Jews had conspired to undermine the German war effort by seeking profit ahead of patriotism, and condemned Christians as weak. So, yeah, he was pretty much a perfect fit for the Nazi party.
  • When I see Danny Huston though, I will always see him as the jazz musician/axe murderer from American Horror Story: Coven. Maybe the film-makers tried giving him real-Ludendorff’s little kaiser-moustache, but decided it didn’t suit him.
  • Ludendorff turns on his own government, to the extent of murdering the rest of High Command when they try to negotiate the German surrender on behalf of the Kaiser. Sure, it’s a way of making clear that the film isn’t trying to tar the entire other side with the crimes of its supervillain, but the Red Skull also turned on the Third Reich in Captain America: The First Avenger. At least there it set up Hydra as being a separate organisation that could succeed the Third Reich, but it just didn’t feel necessary in Wonder Woman.
  • The jovial way in which he and Dr Poison laughed as they killed his colleagues also felt a bit out of character – at no other point during the film did Ludendorff express any positive emotions.
  • Hang on, fridge logic kicking in… It can’t possibly have escaped anyone’s notice that a dozen senior German officers had died in a horrible poison gas attack, and yet dozens of equally senior German officers bring their wives along to Ludendorff’s gala later in the film. Really? Even if Ludendorff had covered up his murders as a freak accident, surely they’d have been a bit more circumspect in accepting his invitation.
  • Ludendorff shoots one of his junior officers dead fairly early in the film as punishment for not preventing Steve Trevor from stealing Dr Poison’s notebook and blowing up her lab. As noted, Ludendorff is a rogue element within the Imperial German Army, but at this stage he was still overtly loyal to the government. The German Army executed very few soldiers during the First World War (150 death sentences, of which only 48 were carried out) and although summary executions on the battlefield probably occurred and aren’t properly counted, this was in Turkey, at the heart of friendly territory. Sure, executing underlings for failure has a long tradition in arch-villainy, but it felt unnecessary here. Sure, it could be said to set up his willingness to murder more senior German officers later in the film, but his motives were very different: here it was anger and stock villainy, but there it was patriotism and lust for war.
  • It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that Ludendorff wasn’t Ares, despite Diana believing he had to be. It’s obvious from the outset that Diana’s simplistic view of The War To End All Wars is a mistake. Still, he made for a very good decoy antagonist, particularly with his ahistorical(!) use of weird blue gas ampoules to give himself super powers.
  • Okay, I did not realise that. Danny Huston also played Theo’s cousin Nigel, the government art collector, in Children of Men. That’s two things I’ve seen him in before Wonder Woman.

 

Dr Isabel Maru / Dr Poison

  • A somewhat underused character, to be honest, but also an example of the ‘Scarred Villain’ trope. Come on… in such an otherwise wonderfully progressive film, the disabled character is a villain.
  • That said, it was nice to see the period-accurate mask she wore over the hole in her face. Trench warfare led to a lot of facial wounds, and survivors often wore masks like that to get by in daily life. (Also, in the UK, there were special park benches, painted blue if I recall, reserved for disfigured war veterans, partly to give them privacy from people staring, but partly perhaps to avoid the social awkwardness of realising you’ve just sat down next to a gentleman with only half a face.)
  • During her first appearance, Steve describes her as a ‘psychopath’. He must be really into his study of psychology to be using a word like that in 1918. I guess Diana just understood the Greek translation of ‘suffering mind’ and figured, ‘Yeah, evil weapons designer, makes sense’.

 

Etta Candy

  • Good grief, that’s what her surname was? Comic books have a lot to answer for.
  • I’ve managed to go through all the trailers and articles about Wonder Woman without ever once placing Lucy Davis. Derp. She’s Dawn, the receptionist from The Office. Also, it’s 16 years next month since the first episode of that particular show was broadcast. I feel old.
  • Etta was awesome, and (like Dr Poison) felt slightly underused. Of course, this being 1918, and with most of the rest of the film being set in or beyond No Man’s Land, there’s not much scope for her to be directly involved. She certainly made the most of the London scenes though.

 

Ares SPOILER WARNING SPOILER WARNING SPOILER WARNING

  • As effective as it was for Ludendorff to turn out not to be Ares, I think the film would have worked better if Ares had been played by Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Movie. I suppose killing Ares in the origin film gives her the breathing space to do sod all for the next hundred years before she turns up in Batman Versus Superman. I do hope though that we get to see Diana in other eras in her standalone films, possibly still tying in Ares’ influence after his death, rather than how the Captain America films started in World War Two and then became modern day Avengers films.
  • I liked the bit earlier on where Ludendorff dismisses the idea of armistice with the (allegedly) Thucydides quote, “Peace is only an armistice in an endless war.” Diana takes that as proof positive that he is Ares, but it also fits in with Ludendorff’s socially Darwinist warrior mindset and, on a meta-level, is a clue for the audience.
  • Also, the presence of Ares in the film also slightly dilutes the film’s message that war is a human failing, not one by the gods. That said, there is something to be said for Ares’ argument that all he was doing was guiding humans towards an extinction that they’re determined to inflict on themselves anyway (complete with a meta-comment about how the Treaty of Versailles was a major cause of the even-more devastating Second World War).
  • That flashback sequence definitely included some Rogue One-style CG face-transplants. (CG faceplants?) There’s no way [censored] is that buff.

 

Other Thoughts

  • So… Steve flies a plane from the Ottoman Empire to crash it on Themyscira. This is presumably somewhere in the Mediterranean, assuming it works by normal geography. A light bomber plane of that era couldn’t get much further than that. He and Diana sail away from Themyscira, apparently spend one night asleep on the boat, and by the time Diana wakes up they’re being pulled up the Thames by a tugboat? Themiscyra can’t operate using normal physics, clearly.
  • After all, the fastest route from the eastern Mediterranean to London is to land on the south coast of friendly Italy, take the train through Italy and France, up to the English Channel at Calais, get a boat across to Dover and then another train up to London. You don’t sail all the way around the Iberian peninsula.
  • What happened to the Germans who landed in Themyscira? The Amazons only took one prisoner from the battle, and that was Steve, and then only because Diana protected him. There were several dozen of them in the landing party pursuing Steve, as well as a fairly hefty warship. Now, we saw the warship run aground when it unexpectedly found itself on an island where previously there’d been only sea, but is it seriously plausible that not a single man aboard survived that? Also, as badass as the Amazons are, a lot of the casualties they caused on the Germans during the beach battle were from arrows. Did not one of those soldiers survive those single puncture wounds? Maybe the Amazons are old-fashioned and they all developed sepsis and died.
  • Or maybe the Amazons murdered every last wounded or half-drowned man who wasn’t directly protected by Diana. Well, I guess they do model their society around the classical era, where that sort of thing was allowed. (Or am I overthinking this?)
  • The German mooks (and other soldiers, actually) were cast well as extras. They looked like just ordinary blokes conscripted to fight a war that was far bigger than they were. (This makes the apparent off-screen mass executions on Themyscira feel a bit more off.) Their innocence and youth are explicitly emphasised after Ares dies and his influence fades.
  • Frankly, I think that scene needed a bit of explanation, since everyone stopping fighting because Ares was dead shifted the film back towards the ‘Hitler is a Vampire’ trope, rather than the war being a thing started by humans. Sure, the classic ‘Britisher, the war is over, we are now friends,’ as seen in everything from Biggles: Pioneer Air Fighter and Sebastian Faulkes’ Birdsong, is a World War One trope, but they didn’t even do that. I dunno, maybe Ares’ death led to brief feelings of pacifism, rather than a universal rejection of conflict, and that was reflected by the Armistice being signed shortly afterwards.
  • As great as the No Man’s Land scene was, were there really that many Belgian villages left near the front line that still had people living in them in 1918? I guess this was post-Spring Offensive, so possibly these guys had been living behind German lines for four years after being largely ignored by the German occupiers.
  • I don’t know if the modern-day book-ends to the film were really necessary. It was nice to see that photo (the one they’re posing for in the header image) on a glass plate, but the Wayne Industries logo plastered everywhere, plus the final ‘somewhere a crime is happening’ moment just screamed of DC waving its arms and shouting, “Hey, remember that we’ve got a shared superhero universe franchise as well!”
  • You have Themyscira, and then you have the world of men. Not humans, or humanity, but men. The terminology was specific throughout the film. Partly, I guess that’s because ‘humans’ is a very science fiction term, and this is a fantasy film, but it also emphasises the contrast between the island and the rest of the world.
  • Speaking of Themyscira, it was lovely. The architecture, the landscapes, the sea, the Amazons themselves, all perfectly designed.
  • The Amazons had an interesting mix of ages as well, despite being a whole bunch of immortals.
  • As has been noted elsewhere, Robin Wright has gone the Leia route and grown up from being Princess Buttercup to becoming General Antiope. Meta.
  • David Thewlis is always worth watching.

Fiction – Sausage Fingers

Fiction – Sausage Fingers

In late 2015, The Guardian and Hodder & Stoughton held a horror fiction competition judged by Stephen King. I didn’t win, but here’s my entry, Sausage Fingers.

 


 

 

‘Hey, don’t hang up on me, bitch.’

‘John?’ she says, staring at the cellphone and wondering how he’d managed to get her new number so quickly.

‘Uh…’

‘Detective Cole, is that you?’ She’s not sure now. John Cole doesn’t normally sound so… agitated. It’s one of the things she respects about him. That calm, unflappable manner.

‘I’m sorry, I think I mistyped the number,’ the stranger says. She relaxes. ‘Look, I’m really sorry. I thought I was ringing, well, it doesn’t matter who I was ringing, but, yeah, I just, sort of…’

‘Got a digit wrong?’ she suggests.

He laughs. ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s it. I’m really, really sorry. I hope I didn’t come across as, you know, a bit of a, well…’

‘Jerk?’

‘I was going to say something harsher, but thanks for being charitable. Look, I’m really sorry.’

‘So you’ve said.’ She smiles and wanders back over to the hob to check how the saucepan is doing. Not bad. ‘It was a woman you were arguing with, am I right?’

‘How… yeah, yeah it was. My ex-wife. You won’t believe the stuff she’s been doing with child access, you know?’

‘Oh, that’s awful,’ she says, stirring the broth. ‘You aren’t getting on then?’

‘Ha, no. She’s had her lawyer pull it back to just one afternoon a month. And she’s the one citing unreasonable behaviour. Can you believe that?’

She laughs, not unsympathetically. She has her own issues with the legal system.

‘Uh, while I’m on,’ he adds, ‘sorry about calling you a bitch earlier.’

She’d forgotten about it, actually. ‘No, that’s fine.’

He laughs nervously. ‘Well, this is awkward.’

It is, somewhat. She doesn’t talk to people much. Particularly not men. Not for long anyway. Conversation never seems to last as long as she’d like it to. She blames her shyness. ‘No, it’s not awkward,’ she says, mentally apologising to the memory of her parents for lying. ‘It’s funny,’ she insists. ‘It’s like something out of a sitcom.’

‘Yeah, yeah, I guess it is. I’m not catching you in the middle of anything, am I?’

‘No, nothing major,’ she says. ‘I’m just boiling up some stock.’

‘Oh, so you’re a whizz in the kitchen?’

She blushes. ‘Well, I try.’

‘Good enough to feed the family, right?’

She catches the expression of the man sat at the kitchen table. He seems to be glaring at her. She turns away. ‘I actually live alone,’ she says.

‘Oh, I’m sorry. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I mean, I’ve been by myself for nearly a year now.’

‘She got all the kids then?’

‘Both of them, yeah. Jack and Albie.’ He says the names mournfully, as if that’s all he feels he has left of them.

‘Jack and Albie,’ she repeats. ‘Boys, then?’

‘Oh yes, and…’ He pauses and laughs again. ‘Here’s me, rattling off my life story to some complete stranger I dialled with my sausage fingers. Hell, it’s not like I’m even likely to meet you in the flesh, is it? You’re a cellphone. You could be anywhere in the States.’

She grins. ‘Actually, you’re ringing from an Ellington County number, am I right? I’m just over the river in Burton.’

‘No kidding? Burton, Massachussetts?’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh my god! Talk about a coincidence! I’m in Bradford, and I ring a cellphone and I get talking to a gal just down the street.’

‘Bradford’s a nice little town. I’ve visited a few times. I was there last Christmas, in fact.’

‘Yeah? You go on that ice rink they set up in the square?’

‘That’s the place.’

‘Me too. I was with the boys. And her.’ There’s a pause. ‘Oh god, you weren’t there Christmas Eve were you? You know, when they found that guy…’ He coughs and tails off.

‘In the tree? No,’ she says. ‘I was there the night before, on a date.’

‘Ah,’ the man at the other end of the line says. ‘Good date?’

‘To begin with, but it didn’t last.’

‘I’m sorry.’

She giggles. ‘I’ve been chatting with you for, like, ages, and I still don’t know your name.’

‘No. No, you don’t. It’s Calvin.’

‘Kelvin? Like the temperature?’

‘No, Calvin, with a ‘c’.’

‘Ah,’ she says. ‘Like the church.’

‘Hmm? Oh, yes. I get you. Most people say ‘like the pants’.’

She giggles again.

‘What’s your name?’ Calvin asks.

She purses her lips. Should she tell him the truth? She does. ‘Abigail.’ No need to apologise to her parents this time.

‘Abigail,’ he repeats, as if trying it on his tongue. ‘I like it.’

‘Thank you,’ she says. ‘We should…’ She can’t say it.

‘Meet up?’ he guesses.

She can feel her face turning pink and fans herself. She tries to say ‘yes’, but has to settle for a positive-sounding murmur.

‘I’d like that,’ he says. ‘You sound really nice, Abigail.’

‘So do you, Calvin.’ She can’t stop herself smiling. She puts a palm to her cheek and is amazed at how warm it is.

‘When are you free?’ he asks. ‘I know a great restaurant in Burton. Enrique’s, just off Harmon Street, under the colonial museum. Latin place. Fantastic food, but somehow you can always get a table.’

‘Sounds good.’ She looks at the man in her kitchen. He’s still glaring at her. ‘How about tonight?’ she says, defiantly holding his gaze. The man’s expression seems to convey his disgust in her.

‘Tonight? Wow. Uh, yeah. I’ll give them a call, just to be sure, but yes, I can meet you there. Is seven good for you?’

She glances at the kitchen clock, and then at the hob. She could leave those bones simmering while she’s out. ‘That would be marvellous.’

‘Okay, right, well… how will I recognise you?’

‘I’m the petite blonde with the red jacket.’ The man at the table seems to scowl. She covers the phone mouthpiece and hisses at him: ‘I am petite!’

‘Fantastic,’ Calvin says. ‘I mean… Yes, well, I’ll see you this evening.’

‘And I’ll see you.’

‘So, uh, bye then, Abigail.’

‘Bye, Calvin.’

There’s a pause, and then his handset clicks down.

She sits down at the kitchen table and breathes out. Her hands are shaking, she’s that excited. ‘I know it’s soon,’ she says to the man opposite.

He doesn’t say anything. That’s typical of him though. It was the lack of conversation that made it not work out between them.

‘Calvin sounds nice. I think this might be The One.’ She’s still grinning and feels embarrassed at such a display of emotion in front of the man from last night. He stares back at her. ‘Well,’ she adds, ‘there is the whole divorce, I guess. But, you know, it can happen a second time, right? You know, L-O-V-E?’ She scowls at his surliness. ‘I believe in love, even if you don’t.’

After a few minutes of crazed silence, she decides she has to talk to someone about all of this. Someone who will actually listen and engage with her. She goes through to the utility room and removes another pre-paid cellphone from the bag behind the dryer.

She knows the number by heart. No chance of misdialling.

‘Hello, Detective Cole, it’s me again. You won’t believe what just happened.’

Poem – The Privilege of Fools

Poem – The Privilege of Fools

I don’t often write poetry; I just don’t have a poetic mind. This, however, is basically a story with regular rhyme and meter. Like most of my shorter-than-novel-length work, it’s from a prompt. A friend gave me ‘Winter is coming’, expecting a rude joke about Game of Thrones. Instead, this (somewhat foul-mouthed) cautionary tale emerged.

If I wanted to make this poem meaningful, I could say it’s about the importance of a free press in a functioning society.

This poem is about the importance of a free press in a functioning society. Ahem.

—–

“Winter is coming,” so the proud lord spoke,

Upon the frost-bitten heath of his realm.

Around him, pyres and columns of smoke,

A field of rent shields and cleft helms.

 

“Winter is coming,” he announced once more.

Upon his lips clung the taste of blood red;

His throat still ached from his victory roar,

Most of the men he had battled were dead.

 

“Of course winter’s coming, you utter twat,”

Muttered the fool, ever stood at his flank.

“It’s December. I’m certain you know that,”

He said, “So why do you spurt out such wank?”

 

“I’m being portentous,” the king did say,

“Tis a necessary part of my role.”

The jester scoffed in an obnoxious way,

“More like pretentious, you pompous arsehole.”

 

“Hang on,” cried the king, “you speak to the crown,

“Curb thy foul tongue or I’ll have it cut out!”

“My lord,” laughed the fool, “Are my trousers brown?”

“No. You ignore what a jester’s about.”

 

“The gods have decreed that you be the king,

“But that I am also blessed with this gob.

“For when my lord says ridiculous things,

“So will this jester’s lips brand thee a knob.”

 

The boil of the king’s pomposity lanced,

The jester took his leave of the field.

Returned to the camp, the little man danced:

His master’s humility was healed.

 

The king considered the dark clouds above,

It was time to leave another clown dead.

Though the fool had acted only from love,

Much too far: “Winter is coming,” he said.

—–

 

The header image is Knight and Jester, by Charles M. Russell, 1896.

Wargaming -Retirement and the Imperium

Wargaming -Retirement and the Imperium

Yes, it’s another semi-speculative article about the Warhammer 40,000 setting. Skip it if that makes your brain bleed.

A commonly-cited Imperial axiom is: ‘Only in death does duty end.’

This is often taken to mean that Imperial service is like the Mafia: once you’re in, you’re in for life. I feel it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Someone on the 40k For Grown Ups Facebook group asked if anyone retired in the Imperium and I started typing:

Commissar Yarrick retired once. It didn’t stick.

But yes, some parts of the Imperium almost certainly do allow retirement, if you live long enough to enter it.

After all, it’s a waste of valuable materiel to put a lasgun into the hands of a half-blind, arthritic, Dad’s Army soldier, when there are a new generation of Imperial Guardsmen just waiting to replace him. The Munitorum knows better than that. According to the Rogue Trader RPG, when discussing the immense level of redundancy amongst the crew of Imperial Navy ships, people are the biggest resource advantage that the Imperium has over pretty much every xenos species out there. As such, it is possible to discharge soldiers who are no longer combat-effective.

Also, the promise of retirement is a great incentive to do an awful job for awful pay. The Imperium’s had ten millennia to realise that faith in the Emperor might be fine and dandy for the fanatics, but the average Guardsman’s going to need something more tangible to look forward to.

Even when circumstances, casualty rates or poor resource management prevent the rank and file from ever retiring, officers almost certainly have that to look forward to. They’re often Imperial nobility, so they’ve got a place in society to go back to, as well as access to the funds to pay for their own passage there.

The same probably applies to officers in the Navy. The lower naval ranks probably informally retire into less strenuous roles than the labour-intensive duties most common on human voidships, or possibly even actual retirement within the bowels of the ship they call home, after training up their sons and daughters, and maybe later grandchildren, into the position in which they spent their life.

From a civilian angle, retirement almost certainly exists, although what sort of pension scheme awaits the unproductive elderly is more questionable. It should be noted though that workplace health and safety is horrifically poor in the Imperium: one of the Abnett novels makes mention of Administratum scribes having all sorts of face and neck tumours due to spending too long staring at unsafe cogitator screens. Life expectancy in the Imperium probably varies massively, and on some worlds or in some employment sectors, retirement might be nothing more than a dream.

There’s often mention in background (particularly in hive world societies) of semi-tribal work-crews where they’re as much family as they are colleagues. If that’s the case, they’d look after their elderly and infirm (unless the elderly go full-Eskimo Days and wander off into the ash wastes to avoid becoming a burden), and in return the elderly and infirm will look after the young and helpless, thus strengthening their society.

‘Only in death does duty end’ probably shouldn’t be taken too literally. A retired Guardsman can serve by growing crops to feed the next generation of Guardsmen, or by looking after the children of those who work in factories supporting the Imperium’s eternal war effort. A retired Inquisitor can serve by writing his or her memoirs, for the information and education of future Inquisitors and other Imperial servants (for example, Ravenor’s works are renowned by the characters in any stories written by Dan Abnett in the past decade).

That said, there are probably societies that execute those that can no longer serve, because the Imperium sucks as a society.

Finally, no, Space Marines don’t retire. Astartes don’t age at anything like the rate that humans do. Usually, Space Marines die in battle. Those that avoid dying are either still in tip-top working order and thus continue to serve on the front lines, or are so belaboured by old battle wounds that they become instructors for future generations of aspirants.

Board Game Review – Gorechosen

Board Game Review – Gorechosen

In early January, I broke my New Year’s Resolution to refrain from buying any new models for the first six months of 2017. I picked up Games Workshop’s Gorechosen board game on a whim.

Gorechosen is an arena combat game, where each player controls a single Chaos Champion of Khorne (think psychopathic killer with more muscles than self-control) in a last man standing melee.

The box contains everything you need for the game, chiefly four gorgeous plastic Chaos Champion models from GW’s Age of Sigmar wargame range. These things normally retail for a terrifying £18 each, or £72 in total. It says something about GW’s profit margins that they can put four of them, plus numerous high-quality bits of card, in a box and sell the lot for £35. (Also, it says something about me that I bought the game solely for the models.) Each champion gets their own character card containing all the rules unique to that fighter, and a Wrath Track to monitor exactly how angry each of the mad bastards is. In a nice touch, the board is double-sided, with a slightly different arena on each side. One arena has four pillars blocking movement, while the other has a pillar and three lava pits (if a fighter gets pushed into one of the latter hexes, there’s a 50% chance of falling in to instant death). And then there are lots of counters and cards.

This game uses a lot of counters and cards.

The rulebook is a floppy 14 page pamphlet. The first two pages set the scene – in short, the most powerful warriors in a tribe that worships the Blood God, Khorne, climb into a pit and kill each other for their patron’s favour. Pretty straightforward. The next couple of pages give biographies of the four champions included in the box, and the page afterwards describing each champion’s unique attacks from the point of view of the poor sucker on the receiving end. There is a lot of purple prose here, as well as some medically dubious and extremely graphic descriptions of murder. Six pages of rules follow, and then, as a bonus and to add replay value, reference cards for four more champions not included in the box. I’d scan these in and print them out, rather than either cutting up your rules or trying to run them from the book (reference cards get covered in counters during the game).

The rules are simple, with certain key concepts being described in box-out diagrams in the margins. I found them a little unclear when reading the rulebook in isolation. Gorechosen‘s strength is in the interplay between different rules, most of which are presented on action cards or the individual fighters’ reference cards. Because of this, you don’t get a full view of the game simply by reading it; you need to play it to ‘get’ the rules.

The Wrath Track consists of four columns of eight squares, upon which each player places a token bearing their character’s sigil. (These sigils aren’t particularly linked to the champions presented in the box, allowing for use of other characters, but is reflected on their reference card and Initiative cards.) Actions and events in the game will reduce or increase a fighter’s position on the Wrath Track. This matters because how enraged your fighter is will determine how many actions he gets during a turn.

(As a sidenote, all the fighters in the box are male. I’ve been critical in the past about GW’s failure to incorporate a more gender-balanced society in with its modern Age of Sigmar game. It’s not like they’re adhering to a loosely historical setting since the Old World went pop. A female champion or two would have been more than welcome – although Valkia the Bloody did get a reference card in an issue of White Dwarf, along with other tabletop characters.)

At the start of each turn, each player adds a number of cards, based on their fighter’s current Wrath, to the Initiative deck. The order of play is determined by drawing an Initiative card; the fighter whose sigil has been drawn takes an action before the next Initiative card is drawn.

In a turn, fighters plays one of a hand of Action cards, each of which contains a Move, Attack or Special action. Some actions increase or lower your Wrath; cautious movement or particularly tiring or, er, cathartic attacks reduce it, while the frustration of a Desperate Swing or the piety of praising Khorne increases it.

Move is straightforward, with fighters moving between one and three hexes on the board, although many cards will place restrictions on your fighter’s facing at the end of the move. For example, a Disengage move allows you to withdraw two hexes, but you must face the last hex you left. (In other words, you’re backing away from the enemy – incidentally, you lose Wrath for that act of cowardice.)

Attack options mostly dictate the number of dice you roll to attack, along with a special effect, where appropriate. (Backstab, for example, normally grants you two dice, but this increases to four if you’re in your opponent’s rear arc when the card is played.)

Special actions vary from allowing your fighter to activate their unique action, through combat manoeuvres like ducking past an opponent, to various forms of block or parry. The Most of these are activated like any other action, but the latter category are a reaction to being hit, with various forms of effectiveness, either reducing or negating damage entirely.

Getting hit by your opponent’s axe, mace or whatever is rather neat in implementation. Each dice that hits causes a number of points of damage (and the chance of hitting and amount of damage are both affected by certain Critical Injury effects). You begin with eight boxes on your fighter’s reference card, down which you move a counter as you take damage. When you hit the bottom of a track, an Injury marker is placed over the topmost space, preventing it from being used again. Each time an Injury marker is placed, you draw a Critical Injury card and apply that result. (Incidentally, many of those Critical Injuries make you, and possibly your opponent, angrier, increasing Wrath. Very characterful.) Barring the misfortune of a decapitating Head Shot Critical Injury or being punted into a lava pit, death occurs when you finally run out of damage boxes. In effect, this gives each fighter 36 hit points, but the placement of Injury markers creates a vicious death spiral, where you draw a Critical Injury card after seven points of damage, then six, then five, and so on.

At the end of a turn (i.e. when no Initiative cards are left to be drawn), the Initiative deck is rebuilt and a new turn begins.

Last man standing wins, although the rulebook does provide some variants.

 

Playtest

I ran through a solo four-fighter game of Gorechosen to see if the rules actually work. It turns out that each fighter has a distinct fighting style, strengths and weaknesses.

Vexnar the Reaper: Armed with an axe and hammer, he’s got a small kill zone, limited to the three hexes in front of him, and each of his hits cause very little damage, but he hits on dice rolls of 2+ and gets bonus dice if his opponent’s in the hex directly ahead. In other words, he attacks with flurries of hits from each of his dual-wielded weapons.

Redarg Bloodfane (yes, the names are all that Khorney and cliched): Redarg has a large axe that only hits on 4+ and has an even more restricted kill zone than Vexnar, but causes lots of damage. He also has a hooked buckler-type thing strapped to one arm, allowing him to retaliate when hit.

Heldrax Goretouched: He has a massive two-handed axe, not quite as vicious as Redarg’s, but which allows him to attack opponents two hexes in front of him in a nasty overarm strike and has the chance of causing an automatic Injury marker (and associated Critical Injury) on a particularly good roll of the dice.

Kore Hammerskull: Apparently, this guy’s a blacksmith, but since his primary attack is to swing his anvil around his head on a long piece of chain, his actual unique selling point is that he’s better at attacking people two hexes away than he is those adjacent to him. This, for Khornate champions, is what passes for subtlety.

The playtest went pretty swiftly, with several standout moments.

Firstly, poor positioning by Heldrax led to him being mobbed by all three of his opponents and hacked and bludgeoned to death by early in turn two. Fortunately, death isn’t quite the end in Gorechosen; a dead fighter still puts Initiative cards in, but instead of taking an action on their go, they roll a dice on a Fate of the Slain chart on the reverse of their reference card. This has various effects, most of which cause harm to the surviving fighters. Sadly, each fighter has an identical Fate of the Slain chart; personalised charts would have been a great opportunity to emphasise the different styles of the characters.

It was Vexnar that got the killing flurry of blows in on Heldrax. Vexnar was then softened up and distracted by his surviving two opponents, only for Heldrax’s post-death chart resulted in him staggering back to his feet for a single angry attack before collapsing again. Still bearing a grudge, the mortally wounded axeman smacked Vexnar for a Head Shot Critical Injury and decapitated him.

Kore and Redarg duelled for a while, with Kore backing away to optimise the distance of his swinging anvil, while Kore closed in to make the most of his shorter-ranged attack. Then Heldrax again rolled to stand up for another last swing of his axe and killed Redarg.

The winner of the match was Kore Hammerskull, but only because he was the last man standing. Kore was probably more annoyed that Heldrax had stolen two kills from him, despite being the first of the three dead combatants to fall.

Overall, Gorechosen‘s a fun little game that I’ll be taking along to my weekly wargaming sessions for when there’s time after my usual Dragon Rampant game concludes. Quite how much replay value a game as simple as this has is perhaps questionable, but ultimately, once the game’s gathering dust on the shelf, you’ve got four lovely champions to paint and use in other games…

Fiction – Breaking News

Fiction – Breaking News

Here’s a quick story that I threw together in an hour or so the other day. It was my entry into an informal Valentine’s Day-themed prompt night held by Lancaster University Writers’ Society. It’s a little first drafty, but here goes:

 

Live Reactions

   I saw it on the news. In the age of smartphones, dashboard cams and 24-hour rolling news channels, it was inevitable. It was a fireball that caught my attention. Something exploded and the flash of orange drew my eyes up from my monitor screen to the TV on the wall of the office.

We all gathered around the screen, horribly aware that this was all happening just a short subway journey across the city. It wasn’t so close though that we could hear anything through the windows. That felt wrong. We were in the same city, but we couldn’t hear the terrible things happening to our neighbours.

   The ticker scrolled across the bottom of the screen: ‘on standby for launch – Pentagon chiefs meeting with president – Eyewitness reports of mass casualties – Sightings of parahuman intervention unconfirmed – NYC Mayor says’ but our eyes were just fixed on the jerky, blurred, repeatedly looped images. That explosion kept happening. Third time around, I realised that it was a bus.

‘Which way is it going?’ Mitchell from Sales kept asking. ‘Is it coming this way?’ Again and again, he said it, just in case someone, somehow had any new information other than what he was watching with the rest of us.

‘It’s superscience,’ Jeff explained with false authority, when Mina muttered something about the end of the world. ‘It’s some embittered, unhinged professor who’s just lashing out because the government cancelled his defence contract or something.’

‘Where are the Protectors?’ asked Vicky as we watched a terrified cop waving people into the safety of a subway station. The gun in his hand seemed pointless.

‘It says they’re intervening,’ the new girl said.

‘No,’ Jeff said. ‘It said that’s unconfirmed. That means it’s just rumour. Anyway, the president has to officially request the Protectors from the UN. More likely it’d be the Patriots, but I think they’re still cleaning up in Atlanta.’

‘Could be someone else,’ the new girl muttered, and I gave her a supportive nod. I need to learn her name at some point.

‘There’ll be someone out there somewhere,’ I said. ‘This city’s full of independents. There’ll be at least one of them involved.’

Jeff just snorted.

I couldn’t let on to my colleagues that I could feel ice creeping towards my heart. I had to pretend that I was afraid for the same reason they were.

Brian, my team leader, probably understood my true feelings the best. He broke down in tears when the newscaster said something about ‘extensive damage to the Alpha Insurance building’, where his wife works. Vicky and Joanne led him out to the corridor, away from the TV.

A spokeswoman for St Stan’s Hospital was up next, talking over a crackly phone line to the studio about how their ER was overwhelmed, and warning citizens not to come into hospital unless it was for something that absolutely could not wait. She was talking about crush injuries, broken bones, traumatic amputations. When asked about fatalities, she paused. She said she couldn’t confirm numbers, but at St Stan’s alone, it was into double digits.

The newscaster licked his dry lips before continuing, commentating on new camera-phone footage of fighter jets – the air force, he suggested unnecessarily – sweeping across the Hudson River, firing rockets at something unseen off-camera before arcing away.  The unnamed citizen-journalist refocused his camera just in time to see one of the planes torn apart by something black and tentacular.

I whimpered. I couldn’t help it. The new girl put an arm around my shoulder. She was trembling.

‘Did he eject? Did he eject?’ Mitchell was almost weeping.

He hadn’t ejected. The cockpit had been crushed and the plane sheared in two. That had been obvious on screen.

‘They eject. They’ve got ejector seats,’ Mitchell said, his voice hollow. He rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger.

‘There!’ exclaimed the newscaster. ‘Is that…? It is!’

A few of us cheered. In the background of another new sequence, apparently from a documentary-maker who’d been shadowing the New York Fire Department, was the distinct shape of a human silhouette in the sky.

I burst into tears.

‘What are they waiting for?’ someone asked.

‘Who is it?’ someone else said.

‘It’s just a bird,’ Jeff said. ‘Or a plane.’

‘No, it’s not,’ I said, struggling to get the words out.

‘Oh my god,’ the new girl said. ‘Oh my god! It’s Lightning!’

There was a distinctive flash of light and a sonic boom as the flying figure suddenly accelerated from stationary, zipping as a blur into the smoking city.

‘It’s alright,’ the new girl whispered to me, hugging me closer. ‘It’s all going to be alright now. Lightning’s here.’

I forced a smile, tried to look relieved. She was laughing through her own tears.

‘I’m just being informed we’ve got some live… uh, some live images from the ground, from our reporter Amy Callaghan, if we can run those images? We can? Okay. Obviously, this footage may be… may be very upsetting to some viewers. Amy, tell us what you can see…’

There was Lightning, swooping back and forth across Times Square, using electromagnetic repulsion to hurl abandoned vehicles at the rampaging creature. Terrified, dust-plastered civilians ran shrieking from the creature’s flailing tentacles, protected by a wall of EM force projected by the parahuman.

People were cheering around the office. I was silent. I couldn’t even sob any more. I just stood, staring helplessly at the screen as Lightning shot towards the creature.

‘I think we can get closer,’ Amy Callaghan was saying, ‘and get a better view, a close-up, of the climax of this incredible battle.’

She and her cameraman moved quickly, the image bouncing as they dashed from the cover of a burned out taxi cab to an overturned hot dog stand. We all just watched, aghast. Ramon left the room. Shortly afterwards, so did Yvette. I wished I had as well, but I couldn’t.

‘There! There they are. Lightning is going in for the kill on the beast that’s attacked Manhattan today. Zoom in! Zoom in!’

There was a fault with the broadcast. The digital image became pixelated, jerky.

It froze on a shot of Lightning, surrounded by shredded tentacles. There was no mistaking though that the bright white energy crackling around Lightning’s head was enough to destroy anything.

You knew it as well. You loomed over the parahuman. Above your fanged maw, I recognised your all-too-human eyes. You were afraid, I think. I don’t believe you wanted to do what you were doing. It was your curse.

The broadcast cut, obliterated by the electromagnetic blast, just as you were.

I’ll always love you.

 


And the prompt? It was E.L. Hubbard’s quote: “A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.”

Featured image by Vanessa Mannee.