Friday, November 27, 2015

Fiction Friday: John Corn

This is a Robart of Hazelby story. Past tales from Fiction Friday (including the previous Robart of Hazelby tales), can now be found here

Sister Soera tended to Robart as though he were a cripple. Day after day, he wasted away in the Temple Tower. Day after day, they waited for news of Highlord Marten and the forces of Oldcastel. But the Highlord did not return. The eyes of sentries were fixed upon the Tombway and the Seapoint Road. But no troupe in mail, nor brightly colored riders were seen coming from the north. Rumors of battles stole by quiet footfall into the city. Oldcastel bristled and waited. Mornings and nights Robart heard the cries of watchmen upon the mighty walls. The portcullises were shut and drawn, and all business with the castle was done through the postern gates alone.

"Who's in charge of the castle, then?" Robart asked the sister one morning.

She lifted her hands from the brazier. "Sire Orawn, for now." The cannoness went to the laver and withdrew a cotton rag to dab at Robart's brow. His fevers were going down and soon the plaster would be off his ribs. He had healed, it seemed, saved by the Divinity. Why, he wondered but did not ask, did the godhead preserve him when all that he cared for was taken away time and again? He knew the answer as surely as knew his catechism: the daimoni and the vicissitudes of the mortal realm, the World of Sorrow.

The following day he actually rose from the bed and, with Sister Soera's help, went to the window. From the Temple Tower you could make out the entire network of Oldcastel and the little city beyond. He marveled that he'd never come before, but the markets in Seapoint were visited by the wider world. There he'd met Ambermen, Caragfolk, Vaerasans, and people from out of the great desert. Oldcastel was a carbuncle frozen in time, a remnant of a grander age.

As he thought of the great Sea Market, with the finger of Seatower looming over all, it hit him that he was a man without a lord. His sire was dead. His lord was dead. His highlord may very well be dead. Who did he owe his fealty to? Why had the Divinity allowed this to happen? The world, he knew, was one of sign and portent. Nothing happened without a reason. The daimoni were moving against Yewland, and against him. His own soul was in the balance.

He said as much to Sister Soera, and she shook her head. "This, I cannot say. Certainly there is a great war moving behind the world, as a fire burns beneath a veil of smoke. But it's not for me to say who controls what sallies and attacks. Is it the doing of a daimon? Is it the doing of the Divinity?" She shrugged. "The wise put those thoughts out of mind, for they will trouble you until you perish."

But Robart could not put those thoughts out of mind. Why had his Heloise died? And his little boy, Robart? Was it to tempt him into darkness by the hand of a malignant daimon, or was it to punish him for dark deeds already, the outstretching chastisement of the Divine? He buried his head in his hands.

The plaster came off. He went down now into the courtyard of the inner bailey and did light labors during the day. Sister Soera still came to tend him at night, and he was thankful for her presence. At first he thought the idiot Clyde and his cronies had gone off with Highlord Marten and he thanked the Divine for that small favor, but soon enough he realized that the man had stayed behind to ward the castle walls. Robart did his best to avoid him.

At first, this was easy. He went to the temple and saw Sister Soera in the mornings. She checked his ribs to make sure they were healing well. The pain was much reduced, and the livid stripes of royal purple were now merely streaks of pink. In the afternoons he spent his time helping in the stables or the kitchens. There was always work to be done there, mucking out the stalls and baking the bread on alternate days. Sometimes he helped to replace rushlights or fill lamps.

Eventually, though, Clyde found him. He was tasked by one of Sire Orawn's household men to mend gambesons that needed stitching. Most of his clothes he'd made by hand, like the rest of the common folk, so mending was well within his reach. He sat with a pile of the quilted tunics out by the Great Tower, overlooking the inner moat. There, beneath the arch of the gatehouse, he was warmed by three large braziers. He listened to the men-at-arms chat idly about the city folk. In particular, they seemed fixated on Oldcastel's women and recounting their various conquests.

Robart was two-thirds of the way through the repairs when Clyde appeared from the Great Tower. He must have come down the wallwalk, for he emerged through the narrow oaken door facing the scummy water of the moat. Robart caught sight of him and slowed his work. The little iron needle between his fingers felt an inadequate weapon.

Clyde sneered at him as he approached. The man-at-arms wore a quilted gambeson like the ones Robart was mending. Tucked into his belt, he carried a truncheon and a horn for sounding the warning. There was a long-hafted axe on his hip. "Well, if it isn't Robart Crackrib."

"Goodman Clyde," Robart muttered. He had no desire to fight again. Who knew how many of Clyde's friends and allies were lurking just out of reach? Besides, the piebald watchman was armed. Like as not, Robart would wind up in the chill water rather than laying Clyde out. Still... yeomen sometimes underestimated serfs. Robart was strong, if unskilled in battle.

But Clyde didn't seem to be after a fight. He gave Robart a guileless smile. "Goodman. Goodman Robart Crackrib. I admire your balls, my friend." Robart raised his eyebrows. "To rise and stand at attention for Lady Sorrel? I mean, I knew you were haughty, but that's a high opinion of yourself." He laughed.

"I have no designs on the Lady Sorrel—nor could I," Robart replied. He felt a wave of anger trouble his spirit, washing from the first prickling of his forehead all the way to the soles of his feet. "There's no need for us to get in each other's way, Goodman Clyde—" he began.

"OH, but there is, friend Robart!" Clyde said gleefully. "For your prick hardens at the Lady Sorrel and Sister Soera. You're a naughty lad, aren't you? A lady and a nun? By the Divinity, that's bold. Why not the Queen, Hazelby?"

"Enough," Robart said. He cast his eyes down to his mending. He felt Clyde's presence for the next few moments. The man did not move, merely watched him with folded arms and lecherous grin. Eventually, though, Clyde let out a short bark of a laugh and walked on about his business. Robart exhaled a breath he hadn't known he was holding.

Of course, that night he wondered, as sleep failed to take him, if Clyde Piebald wasn't right. Had he been lusting after women beyond his station, the chosen of the Divine and the Lady Sorrel both? He walked backwards through the days and weeks in his mind, wondering at his expressions of friendliness. Were they motivated by a baser desire? He was, after all, alone. Heloise was dead now many years, and there was a certain darkness that might infest a man's soul. Everyone knew that women were the baser creature, that it was they would first give in to lust... but had not Robart done the same? When dreams took him that night, they were uneasy indeed.

He saw Clyde again in the following days when Ahmura ended and Urem began. It was the day of the Harvest Feast, still celebrated in Oldcastel even though the war had torn Southhold apart. The city was bedecked with garlands of autumn leaves. The prelates sang in choir and chapel, their voices mingling with those of the child oblates and young men striving to become canons. And of course, the harvest had already been brought in the months prior, throughout Eskam and Ahmura.

Even Robart's own harvest wasn't completely lost—though bad weather had pushed much of the Eskam harvest to the middle of Ahmura... he shuddered to think of how much waste there was, how many fields were now untended at Hazelby. But Sire Gaumont wouldn't care, nor would Lord Seatower. Both were dead.

The Harvest Feast began early that morning, before Robart was even risen. Bonfires were lit throughout Oldcastel. Each of the great crossroads was a surging pillar of flame. Tabors beat through the city, and pipe music made haunting melody. Robart woke to the music of the serpent pipe and the lizard, echoing up through the Temple Tower. They were soon drowned out by the chanting of the castle prelate and his teachers, reverberating up through the temple below and into the chambers were Robart slept.

The yards of the castle burned just as brightly as the roads of the city: great bonfires had been stacked in the night and now they blazed forth. Trestle tables beneath the steel-gray sky were laden with food for the asking. Robart, still half asleep, stumbled through the festivities as through a daze. He'd never missed the Harvest Festival in Hazelby. Even now, he could see Aethelwyn emerging from her father's house, hair modestly covered, laughing with her brothers as they raced to the manor for Sire Gaumont's celebration.

He wondered if Hazelby was celebrating today, or if the bonfires were thatched roofs and turf huts.

He staggered into the court priest, Haelig, a vibrant man with a wild eye. The prelate was dressed in fine red and orange satin this day in honor of the autumn. "Pagan holiday, you know," Haelig muttered to Robart. The priest somehow took Robart's position in the highlord's chamber, above the temple, to mean that he and Robart were comrades-in-arms. Robart didn't know how the thing had begun, but he was not one to shun friendship, particularly with a man as well placed as the prelate.

Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he asked, "What mean you, divine?"

"I mean what I say!" Haelig replied with jolly solemnity. "The Harvest Festival used to be a pagan feast day, before the Faith came. Look at 'em roasting John Corn there by the fire." He pointed to a trio of young boys who were reverently taking coffin-shaped buns from the girls of the bakery and placing them in the hot ash of the great bonfire. "You think our Prophet ever heard of that? Boys and girls were roasting John Corn and playing apple-skins before the Dominion ever came here."

Robart remembered the apple-skin game: peeling the fruit, and saying a prayer over it so it might tell you the name of your betrothed. As far as he was concerned, it was a way for a lad to get a girl to give him a kiss. He'd never thought of it as pagan before.

"Ha! Don't look so stricken man, there's no harm in it!" Haelig gave Robart a clap on the back and sent him on to get some spiced ale or ypocras from the oak barrels stacked outside the great hall. Robart took the priests advice, grabbed a leather jack, and started to drink. He watched the castle children play John Corn, and the girls pair off with the boys one by one to clamber up the walls, leap over little fires, and do the myriad other little rituals of the Harvest Festival.

They seemed hollow to him. He could almost feel the deadly presence of the Skraels just north of the city. A short journey of but a few days would transport him from the peace of Oldcastel into the hell of Seapoint, where the Highlord desperately strove against the madman Sarkus Wolfsblood and his daimon-possessed berserkers.

The day slipped hazily by as Robart sank deeper and deeper into drink. The wine was unwatered and especially potent. It tasted of misrule and chaos, of the darkness lurking at the edges of the World of Sorrow and threatening to pour in. It was in this half-drunken state that he bumped into Clyde Piebald.

A shadow descended over Robart's vision. Oldcastel was a place of haunted ruin. The jesting laughter and drunken games seemed less a celebration than a pale imitation of life. Robart saw hollow faces all around him, split wide by rictus grins, as even now in these moments of false joy the Skraels swept south and west, burning the provinces of mighty Southold and putting her warriors to shame. How many knights lay dying on the field? How many yeomen? Leveemen? Farmers like Robart? While these ghosts danced amongst the shattered stones of old Dominion glory?

Robart swilled more wine. He could barely see for the black mire swamping his spirit. He hove away from the celebrations and found himself staggering down the stair to the kitchen-yard. The stones were slick, the walls closed in, and his foot missed a step. Down he went, an ungainly pile of limbs. As he fell he had time to lament the burden he'd be to Sister Soera in the morning. Just nursed back to health to go and break his arms and legs in a fool's fall.

Instead of landing in a broken heap at the base of the kitchen stair, he found Clyde Piebald. The man-at-arms was clad in a quilted tunic which was half-unlaced. His hands were all about a castle cook, kneading her flesh everywhere. Into this amorous embrace tumbled Robart of Hazelby. He struck them bodily, sending everyone sprawling. The cook was up first, stuffing herself back into her dress. By the time Clyde had hauled Robart from the ground and gotten a good look at him, she had vanished into the kitchens.

Clyde shook him so hard, Robart's teeth clacked together. "You!" he hissed. His tunic was still unlaced, flapping in the breeze. Robart groaned. Before he could stop himself, he was vomiting up the last day's meals. Clyde yelped and threw him back. "Divinity!" he hissed. "You're looking for someone to do you hurt, aren't you, Hazelby?"

"My... 'pologies, m'lord," Robart mumbled. He knew, vaguely, somewhere, that this was the very man who'd nearly killed him weeks before. It mattered little. He wasn't in control of himself any longer. His body moved on its own, as though a daimon possessed him. He struggled away from Clyde and slumped across the grassy yard. Over at the far end, by the Low Stables, there were squires playing dice and horse-shoes.

The man-at-arms grabbed him and spun him about with surprising force. Robart could smell the stink of his own mess. "Not your lord, goodman," Clyde said. "And I can tell you aren't sorry for what we gave you. Learn your place, villein." He shoved Robart, who, unable to control his feet, went plunging back to the ground.

"This is the Harvest Feast, not All Fool's Day, you great lout. Did you think you were King of the Fools?" Clyde advanced on him. Robart, on his back now, edged away. His sight swam sickeningly, the vision of Clyde Piebald lurching unevenly left and right as though the parched brown grass were the deck of a trader's cog. "Divinity above, if I had been set for hanging and given reprieve, I'd be wary and careful as a hunting hound who's shat in the lord's bed. But no! Here you are, bold as brass dressed up for gold. Burn me!" He shook his head, laughed unkindly, and leveled a finger. "Mark me, Serf of Hazelby, you've made a bad enemy in Clyde o' the Wall."

Thus was Robart left lying in the grass amidst the creeping gromwell that crept along the cistern gate there in the kitchen-yard. So he lay, closed his eyes, and let his nightmares swallow him.

Robart woke again some time in the late afternoon. The festival was in full swing now, the red glow of the sun suffusing the sky as it sank toward the horizon. He shivered: the ghosts were closing in around the ancient keep.

When he checked himself, he found that he wasn't badly hurt. There were spatters of vomit on his clothes and his lips, but those he scrubbed off with handfuls of grass pulled from the yard. He wandered through the laughter of the rambling castle grounds, aware that he was drawing looks. He wanted to climb up to the highlord's chambers in the Temple Tower and hide there, but he forced himself to remain at large amongst the yards and baileys.

He was finally stopped at the Dominion Gate. It was the easternmost of the castle's four gates, and the oldest. It rose like a giant from the hummocked earth, all frowning heavy stone and squat wide-set archways. It was part of the ancient Old Dominion structure, and its glowering frame looked out in the direction of the landings used in ages past by phalanxes eager to secure the strange wild lands of Wyranth.

Three men in mail shirts approached him. They were led by Sire Orawn himself, lordly in a fine brocaded tunic and golden belt, a heavy woolen cloak thrown over his shoulders. He was a blunt-faced man. He wore a sandy beard and short-cropped hair that bobbed beneath his ears. Robart's mind was full of fuzz and spiderwebs, and it took him a long time to grapple with the meaning of what he saw.

Clyde Piebald was there, as were his friends, just behind the knight. "Robart of Hazelby," Sire Orawn intoned. "You are charged with murder. The highlord may have let you wait for the supposed appearance of Sire Hugo, but I have no such intention. Not knowing what I know now. Saran, Alren, lay him under arrest. And thank you," said he, turning to Clyde, "and your wallwatchers for raising the cry. Best you let us handle this from here."

Robart was struck dumb. The knights grabbed him by the crooks of his arms and dragged him toward the great hall. He didn't resist. The cellar was their destination. Like many halls in Wyranth, the central building of Oldcastel had a ground floor cellar, with its second story given over to his lordship. The low vault of the cellar was stacked with barrels of butter, apples, and grain. Now, it was stocked with Robart of Hazelby as well.

Sire Orawn growled at him. "You'll wait your trial here, villein," he said. "And pray there is no further crime charged against you." They left him there with the door barred, the light of the Harvest Feast's bonfires painting a single line beneath the frame of the door. Robart abandoned himself to sorrow and illusion.

His mind took strange flights. He thought of Sister Soera. He thought, too, of Aethelwyn, and of Lady Sorrel. "All the world is sorrow," said he to himself through cracked lips.

Haelig brought him food and drink each day that he spent imprisoned. His beard grew long and shaggy. His clothes took on a sour reek. He wasn't permitted to leave, but at least he was given a chamberpot that some poor lad had to empty twice a day. Thus, he was left to think on the fate of Hazelby and with not even the meanest of chores to draw his mind away from it.

Prester Haelig told him, "Sister Soera and the prelate of the temple in the city both work tirelessly for your release. They say you're innocent of any charge, and will stand with you on it as your oath-swearers. It makes Sire Orawn uneasy. To think both that there are churchfolk who are with you, and that the highlord released you... it makes his judgment shaky."

It wasn't the prayers of the Temple that got him out. It was the coming of plague.

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Review: The Man in the High Castle

I knew two new shows were available on November 20th. One of them was streaming on Netflix and was based on some kind of Marvel property. The other was on Amazon prime and was based on a Philip K. Dick novel. You know which one I chose.

I haven't heard much on the internet about The Man in the High Castle, save for a single bad review that I read and that I completely disagree with. The AV Club rated the pilot episode either a B or a C, which I guess is fair, because the pilot feels somewhat clunky—but pilots often do.


From the two things I've seen, most people have divided the discussion between the story and the worldbuilding. Why is this? Well, probably because the worldbuilding is phenomenal. The Greater Nazi Reich is an interesting (and horrifying) place. I don't believe I heard a single song written before 1945 in the show. There are a lot of post-1945 songs... but they're all in German, or new songs. There's no Dragnet or Car 54, but there is American Reich on TV. As in the novel, the Nazis have considerably more advanced technology than the world of our own 1962—rocket jets, for one, and lots of public transportation.

Watching Obergruppenführer Smith run New York is enthralling. The ash-fall in episode one is horrific and beautiful. What's more, the show reveals, through the alienness of the societies depicted, the deep flaws within our own. Seeing former Americans treated as second class citizens (asked to use the tradesman's door, the subject of ethnic art collecting) is a shocking and powerful statement indeed. The wedding of the already very fascist American dream of the 50s with actual fascism is a potent and heady brew. Watching a cookout on VA day in Long Island is a terrifying experience.

I don't want to say too more, except to characterize the way in which the world of the Pacific States and the Reich is built is meticulous.


Every frame is carefully designed. Every frame is beautiful. The mise-en-scene is gorgeous, the props and the design of various Nazi and Japanese architecture reflects the character of those nations perfectly (at least as they appear in the show). This sort of goes to the worldbuilding as well—San Fransisco truly looks like an Asian city. New York is a dystopian Nazi-American nightmare.


I don't want to say much about the plot because its too fun to watch it unfold. In the end, it reminded me of something by Borges—the prevalence of the I Ching and how the philosophy of the Book of Changes interacts with the story itself is very Borgesian.

Should You Watch It?

Yes. Watch it now. Watch it always. Watch the whole thing. Amazon absolutely better pick this up for a second season.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Frostgrave Friday: New Bases, new resources

I'm still working on the next Robart of Hazelby story, never fear! However, we've been playing Frostgrave... a LOT. So here are some new bases and new resources that the group and I have home brewed. I believe today is also the day that Thaw of the Lich Lord comes out, so we may be pre-empted by the expansion on some of these base mechanics, but that's the risk that you take. Thanks to Tux and Alt for coming up with some of these.

Frozen Caverns. These deep caves are filled with supplies from warbands long dead. There is plenty here to keep your band full and draw more men on. All hires cost 10gc less. Between games, roll 1d20. On a 20, you attract a new thug to your warband. If you already have a thug in your warband, you attract a thief. If you already have a thief, you attract a treasure hunter. If you have no more room, you must expel someone to take advantage of this new follower.

Scriptorium. These rooms were once used by the scribes of Felstad to write out magical spells. The supplies are still here... For every human member of your warband, scrolls and grimoires now cost 10gc less.

Alchemist's Workshop. This vast rambling structure was once home to a powerful wizard and alchemist in Felstad's heyday. Piles of broken glass and smashed pottery litter every room, and even after centuries there are new things to be discovered. After each game the warband may roll one die. On a 17-19 they find one random potion. On a 20 they find three.

Infirmary. This building still has supplies from from the cities' glory days. Warband members get +1 to their survival rolls as the others use the ancient medications on them. If the wizard is incapacitated, the player can instead choose to give him +3 to his roll only, forgoing the bonus to the rest of the warband. 

Planar Portal. This ruin was once home to a strange and powerful portal, the use of which is no longer clear. Though the degraded magics of the modern age cannot give the portal new life, the remnants of its power still suffuse the stone. Any summon spells cast by your warband have a +1 bonus. Any elemental spells cast by your warband have a +1 bonus. After each game, roll a die. If it is an 18-20, the portal sparks to life and belches forth toxic magical energy. A warband member of the player's choice is incapacitated and must make a survival check.

Assassin's Lair. This secretive enclave is home to a guild of assassins that uses the danger of the ruins to protect it from the vengeance of local law. Before a game you may pay 500gc to put out a contract on any member of an opposing warband other than the wizard or apprentice. You may pay 1000gc to place a contract on an opposing wizard or apprentice. If you do, roll a die. On a 18-20, that member of the warband may not participate while they recover from the injury of the assassin's attack.

Bandit Camp. These bandits know everything about the ruins. They know where the treasure is, and where folk go, and the fastest routes to get there. When rolling to deploy, gain a +2 bonus. When rolling the first turn's initiative in each match, gain a +4 bonus. However, between games you must pay the bandits 50gc or be kicked out of their camp.

Ancient Armory. While most of the equipment here has gone to rust or rot, a few samples of exceptional craftsmanship survive. Before the game, choose one member of your warband. This member gains +1 Fight or Armor for the next battle. 

Deep Mine. This old silver mine has been drilled by some magical force straight into the depths of a mountain. There are still chambers and chambers of silver ingots hidden behind stout doors. Gain 100gc between every game. However, the trek to the surface is a difficult one. You always deploy last.

Iron Tomb. At the height of the city's power, hundreds of vampiric creatures were bound up and sealed in iron tombs. These were never meant to be opened... but the seeping ice has melted away from their doors. Many are long since opened, leaving you with dire prognostications... but occasionally there are vampires in their depths. You may add one vampire to your warband for 600gc or you may attempt to add one by casting control undead. However, if you fail to do so, the vampire attacks your warband and kills (permanently) a character of your choice.

Lordly Hall. This vast mansion has space enough for more than your meager warband. Its ancient feasting halls and secluded bowers provide you with the feel of an ancient Felstad lord or Councilman. Your warband may now contain up to 20 models; however, you still may not bring more than 10 models with you to any given game.

Healing Well. This hidden well shaft opens onto an aquifer of water imbued with healing properties. Unfortunately, local monsters also know of the secrets of the well. +1 bonus to all survival checks made by your warband. Start each game with 1 free healing potion. However, between each game, roll a die. If it's 18-20, then the next match begins with a random encounter placed 10" away from your warband.

Renovation: 1200gc. Pick another base type. Add its advantages to your base. (E.g., build an inn on your vault or open the sealed vault beneath your inn).

Well-stocked Larders: 500gc. All members of your warband have +1 health. It costs 200gc between every game in order to keep your larders well-stocked. If you fail to pay this cost, they become empty larders, which give a -1 will penalty to every member of your warband. They can be refilled to well-stocked larders for 150gc.

Peddler's Post: 350gc. Maintaining this post for merchants and peddlers ensures they will travel to your doorstep. All items cost 5gc less.

Planetary Orrery: 400gc. This complex magical device mimics the retrograde motions of the planets and was assembled from various parts around Felstad. Your spellcasters gain a +1 bonus to awareness and combat awareness spells.

Scribe's Desk: 500gc. This expensive workman's desk allows for the drafting of scrolls. Whenever a spellcaster successfully uses write scroll for the first time between games, you may cast it a second time.

Faniman's Quill: 800gc. This powerful magical device duplicates the writings of a wizard. Whenever a spellcaster successfully uses a write grimoire spell, he creates two grimoires instead of one. They must both be of the same spell.

The Limper's Statue: 600gc. The first time a wizard dies, he may be interred and play as a Large Construct. His movement is reduced to 4 and may not be improved. He gains +4 Armor and +2 Health. 

Cauldron of Life and Death: 400gc. If a member of your warband fails a survival check and dies, you may choose to immerse him in the cauldron of life and death. Roll a die. On a 20, he returns to life but must sit out the next two games. On any other number, he is transformed into an angry wraith. You may immediately cast control undead on him; if you fail, he slays a second member of your warband (of your choice). If you succeed, you may bring him to battle for the next game only.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Guest Review: Frostgrave, Round Two

So, after playing Frostgrave the one time in person, yesterday I managed to play again with Jason and Frank in the afternoon, making a totally new wizard (a summoner). I love this class.

That begin said when, at 9pm, the IRC folks wanted to play on maptool, I was going to use a summoner list... until I discovered that two of them were already playing summoners. So, I created an elementalist and played a very slow (but rewarding) game on maptool. One of the players, Tux, wrote this review to supplement the first.

Frostgrave, a Review in Two Acts, By Tux

Following the consideration of this review you will agree that Frostgrave is the best fantasy skirmish game. The combination of high impact combat, alternate activations and advancing your wizard offers an unparalleled experience in playing with toy soldiers which enriches your life, makes you happier and balances your cheque book. Ok, maybe not the last part, but everything preceding the cheque book stands.

What Is Frostgrave?

Frostgrave is two things, frostgrave is a ruleset to maneuver miniature toys modelled in the likeness of fantasy creatures and secondly, Frostgrave is a setting.

The setting, Frostgrave, presents  a frozen city of ancient magic having only recently begun to thaw out it has attracted treasure hunters, thieves, and aspiring mages to delve into the lost city, for better or worse. As far as interesting hooks go this is a standard fantasy trope, explore the ancient place which has treasure, ancient magic and no true ruler or owner (at least as far as this first book presents, more on that later), this looting of “abandoned” cities of course stemming from a romantic view of British Colonialism (and no surprise that this book comes from Osprey, a UK based company), however it is quaint to pretend that an invasion couldn’t directly harm someone, especially in this age of inter-connected world dominance where it is unlikely that you personally will ever discover something new, or forgotten (I do note the irony that just this year several new dinosaurs were discovered).

Frostgrave, the ruleset, is a book produced by Osprey written by Joseph A. McCullough. The rules detail creating a Wizard and his (or her, however male pronouns are used for convenience) warband to do battle with opposing warbands, how to activate and maneuver your figures, resolve spells and of course, resolve combat and looting. I had no troubles with reading comprehension, however I’ve forgotten how to play more board games and war games than most people ever play in their life. In honesty if you’re coming into this without a background in miniature wargaming you will probably find the rules a bit obtuse and awkward, perhaps requiring a few reads to understand things and their intentions (most notably activation, group activation and multi-figure combat). All in all I don’t believe they could have done a better job laying out the rules and the book’s production is great. Dmitry Burmak is the illustrator and his work really illuminates the pages and sets an excellent tone for Frostgrave, both the setting and the book.

What are Toy Soldiers?

Toy soldiers are miniature representations of soldiers, they come in all shapes and sizes from roman centurions and carthage chariots, to napoleon’s grenadiers or even modern american ground infantry. Previously (a very long time ago) they were made of lead, then pewter, these days they’re often white metal, resin or hard plastic. The most common scale is 28mm where a human (standing about 6 feet) is 28mm tall, and in this particular case we are concerned with the “Fantasy” range of toy soldier. Fantasy essentially means Tolkien, we’ll be looking at romanticized Medieval era technology, so knights, crossbows, bows, and thanks to a fantasy tilt, demons, golems, yetis, zombies, and skeleton warriors. Not truly historical toy soldiers, but still toys meant to be collected, painted, and loved.

Frostgrave The Book and More on Toy Soldiers

I mentioned that Frostgrave was two things, a settings and a set of rules, however it is also a book, a physical object which you can hold in your hand (or as a virtual book, you can hold it in your kindle, smartphone or laptop). As far as gaming books go the price is fantastic, $30 Cad for a hardback, 136 pages tome of fantasy. It’s wonderful and I got mine of Amazon off $22 mostly because I don’t currently have a local store to pop down to and remark, “Hey Mike, allow me to give you money to pay your bills and feed your children in exchange for Frostgrave by Osprey publishing.” So instead my money went to evil amazon and their evil ceo.

The Illustrations (previously mentioned that they’re done by Dmitry Burmak) are great if a bit bland, if you like wizards and fantasy you’ve no doubt seen similar images, mages with great spell effects locked in an “epic” struggle to determine who will reign supreme. While these images are fantastically done, and look stunning, they’re nothing new if you’ve opened a book about playing with toy soldiers in a fantasy setting. Often times there isn’t even an illustration, but instead a photograph of a carefully arranged diorama of North Star Military Figure’s Frostgrave line. North Star has a long running partnership with osprey and this Frostgrave line is some of the best. For twenty pounds (remember, Britain loves toy soldiers more than anyone else) you can get a box of twenty guys, believe me when I say this is the best price for the level of quality the sculpts have, these aren’t your childhood’s plastic green army men, these are exquisite renditions of men only an inch or so high. Sadly I’m already drowning in a pile of hundreds of unpainted toy soldiers so I won’t be purchasing any of North Star’s work in the immediate future. Without my pile of unpainted guys I would definitely order some from across the pond because I really like these and I’ve been rambling. In summary, physical book, illustrations, photos of well-painted miniatures (which come unpainted so you have to paint them yourself) and rambling.

The Turn (Where the Review Discusses Actually Playing the Game)

Ok, so Frostgrave does something brilliant in how it structures the turn. Traditionally, games play out with one side activating all their pieces before the other goes. I do not mind this, however in some cases it can lead to long periods of time where you do nothing but watch your guys get attacked and they cannot do anything immediately to remedy the situation. They have to wait until it’s your turn to dish out their fury, their retribution. However, Frostgrave does something brilliant, which ties your Wizard’s leadership of the warband into tangible gameplay altering mechanisms, which are extremely tactical and as I mentioned, I dare to call it brilliant.

The turn is divided into phases, and during a phase each player takes turn resolving their entire phase, the phases are Wizard, Apprentice, Soldier and Creature. During the Wizard phase you can activate your wizard and up to three Soldiers within 3 inches. Go back, read that again. You activate 4 of your 10 guys, then the other player (or players) activate 4 of their 10 guys. The caveat naturally follows that a figure can only be activated once per turn, however go back and read what I said about the wizard phase and what you do in it. Now, your wizard, who actively leads and guides his group of treasure hunters and underlings, actively guides them and leads them on the table, allowing them to move first, to claim defensive positions, to charge archers before they have a chance to react, to climb to safety, to skirt pits and ensure they can’t be pushed down to their doom. It’s fantastic and it’s a great take on alternative activation (like chess or checkers, where players take turns moving one piece at a time), it avoids the long drawn out engagements of each playing moving their whole army before the other side acts, but most importantly, it’s not free. That command range of 3 inches, is easier said than done, you will have to split up, you won’t get to activate all your soldiers quickly, some of them will have to wait and possibly get shot before they do anything. It takes a lot of planning and careful tactical decisions to truly do well in frostgrave, and even then the dice could forsake you, leaving your plucky treasure gathering fodder beneath the unforgiving heel of an enemy.

The apprentice phase, is as per the wizard phase, however your apprentice activates and up to three soldiers within three inches activate, so all the brilliance I mentioned above can be mentioned again here. Instead of rehashing it here, I invite you to return to the previous paragraph and read it again, it’s ok, I’ll be here waiting, I’ll just put on some coffee, take your time.

Now that you’re back, the soldier phase has been called the residual phase by my good friend Josh, any soldier who hasn’t been activated may be activated.

The creature phase which wraps up the turn rarely comes up, it’s the end of the turn where monsters (anything not player controller) act as per a simple algorithm discussed in the book. Monsters try and fight things, or they wander aimlessly. It’s simple and it works very well, it keeps the game bouncing along while adding in an element I adore in fantasy games. Monsters, non-player controlled obstacles (inevitably someone feels bad about turning another player’s character into a pincushion with their archers) which are still threatening and enjoyable to defeat.

Moving Your Toy Soldiers

It might seem odd to you that I’m discussing the movement, but in these games with glorified miniature Barbie dolls, tape measures are (often) used to determine how far something can move and precision and the exact whereabouts of creatures is very important. Frostgrave does an excellent job laying down simple rules to govern important movement functions, climbing, running, jumping, moving through rough terrain, moving while carrying treasure. All of these are excellently done and easy to remember. Climbing, rough terrain and encumbered with treasure is half movement. Jumping is a straight line equal in distance to how far you ran before jumping with a maximum of four inches, jumping from standing still is one inch. Ironclad, simple, effective, very tactical.

The only thing I could ask for more regarding these rules is how does jumping interact with your movement allowance? If you jump at the end of your move you could move an extra 4 inches, does your guy stumble if you try to do this? What if you count the 4 inches in his total move? There’s a lot here that I’m picking at, but these kind of corner case scenarios are important to a wargamer, and I have some excellent ideas on house rules to expand this jumping section. Not that it needs expansion, the rules are fantastic as is, I’m just worried about Todd who jumps all his guys to get extra distance when he moves his prancing, leaping, warband of thieves about the ruins.

Battle With Your Toy Soldiers (Dice Rolls in Frostgrave)

In these games of dungeons and dragons and swords and sorcery battle can be a dreary thing, with tables and charts and thingamajigs to determine who stabs the hobbit where and how much blood has he lost, frostgrave does another elegant solution, where hitting and damage is resolved with one die roll, cutting combat time down to the absolute minimum (of course deterministic combat could reduce this, but I’m personally not a fan of deterministic combat, I like the thrill of lady luck fucking me, leaving my best soldier dead at the hands of a two foot tall imp).

Furthermore since combat is an opposed roll it’s very thrilling as both players dice off against one another, seeing who lady luck wishes to fuck over the most, who she hates with the entirety of her cold dead bitch-heart (that’s a correctly hyphenated word “bitch-heart” the demonic heart within the chest of a bitch). Did I mention that I love dice? I’ve got over 100 of the cock-sucking egg-shaped rigged-to-fail pieces of garbage that always roll fucking ones.

That said, while I love dice, I love rolling them less because it makes the game faster, rolling dice is fun, and exhilarating, anything can happen, but since combat is ONE ROLL it’s very fast, very explosive, and the dice that Frostgrave uses are twenty sided, they’re numbered 1 to 20 and each side has a 5% chance of coming up. You’re as likely to succeed brilliantly as you are to utterly fail. It’s extremely swingy, very brutal. It feels like Conan trying to kill Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yeah they’re the same person and they’re going to smash each other’s face in, maybe.

You can stack everything in your favor, wall off his reinforcements, pile in your soldiers, but when the dice get thrown I’ve seen them go any way and every way. Frostgrave presents the results to you immediately and with minimal simple arithmetic your face will drain as you watch a warhound tear the throat out of your apprentice. It’s a blood soaked battered melee and I can’t get enough of it. Even if lady luck is a two-bit truckstop diving whore soaked in the seed of a thousand sutors. I still love her and couldn’t leave here even if I wanted to.

Casting Spells

As above, with combat, casting a spell is one d20 roll, and then the spell happens, typically you’re trying to roll above 8-12 but more difficult spells, or types of spells your wizard struggle with will be harder to cast. As above the nature of the twenty sided die is pure unbridled excitement, casting a spell is never guaranteed, and multiple times I’ve been scorned with my soldiers left in the open at the mercy of enemy arrows as my shit-bag-wizard cocks up the wall spell meant to mask their approach. It’s just as swingy as combat and just as exciting. I wouldn’t change it for the world.


As I mentioned before, I love it, a kind of neutral party which is immediately hostile to everyone. Players will form alliances, they will move to engage different targets and ignore certain people, however the monsters might always be there, they could show up based on scenario rules, or optional random encounter rules. I love them, my only complaint is there isn’t enough wandering monsters, I want to be drowned in them such that deciding to cripple an opposing soldier might leave me helpless as an extra monster rushes down my warband, overrunning me because I betrayed a temporarily ally against the mutual threat of zombie-demon-ghost-bears, or whatever, technically there aren’t any zombie-demon-ghost-bears, but you can definitely make zombie-demon-bears with the spells in the base game.

The Campaign

One of the most alluring features of any game, be it video, board, card or war, is a persistent character who you improve. Some of the most popular games center around improving your character and evolving them into exactly what you want (or in the case of injuries, exactly what you don’t want).

Frostgrave plays brilliantly on the table, but how it handles itself off the table is what makes it the best Skirmish game for Fantasy battles.

Your wizard will level up by casting spells and personally solving problems (like enemy soldiers, or monsters, or enemy soldiers). You also get experience from any member of your warband capturing treasure, but the rewards for getting your hands dirty and pretend-murdering the toy soldiers of other players poses a much greater risk and a much greater reward.

With your spoils you also setup a base which you can furnish with some gameplay boosting items, powerful effects at steep prices, definitely worth it and definitely well balanced. While players pull ahead they may spend a bunch of gold to get a measly +1 to a die roll (5% improvement) so they won’t outpace lesser wizards truly.

Treasure recovered takes the form in many ways, mostly gold (to buy items and soldiers) however potions, scrolls, magic swords, spell books, all of these crop up and feel appropriately strong in comparison to one another, nothing is obviously better than everything else, however the magical weapons with damage modifiers are notably weaker than their fight bonus cousins. You could house rule this quite simply but it doesn’t seem like much of a problem to me.

Injury in the Campaign

When a Soldier, or Apprentice, or Wizard, is “killed” on the tabletop, they’re not truly dead, and more often than not they manage to crawl, drag, or be carried to safety and make full recoveries, however just as you improve, those less fortunate may degrade.

Injury is checked with a, GASP, SHOCK, AMAZEMENT, d20 roll, with soldiers dying on 1-4, missing one game on a 5-8 and on a 9+ they make a full recover.

Wizards and apprentices die on a 1-2 and again on the 9+ they make a full recovery, with multiple different hindrances between 3 and 8, including two tables for dismemberment and crippling injuries.

There’s a good amount of depth and penalties which are all different and suitably flavoured. Losing toes makes you move slower for example, losing an eye makes you rubbish at ranged attacks and parallel parking (ok so there’s no parallel parking in frostgrave) and while unpleasant, it’s very rare for a wizard to be downed and require a roll on the table, even then the table is mostly harmless. Again, with careful playing and defensive planning you’ll never roll on these tables, but they’re perfect at what they do. A sword of damocles hanging over your warband, silently reminding you of the threat of each combat, and of course, since each combat is one die roll, anything can happen.

Closing Thoughts

I love it, it’s got more meat than the Songs series over at Ganesh Games, I still love the Songs games, and I’ll run them for quick battles, I’ll still run songs campaigns, I feel that Songs does simple bash-dudes-in-the-face-and-push-them-around while Frostgrave does high lethality fantasy combat. It reminds me a lot of Knights & Knaves over at HisEntCo where combat will be brutal and exacting, and you need to carefully pick your battles as your soldiers strength is whittled down.

The coolest upside I’ve found for frostgrave is how well it handles multiplayer games, due to the structure of the turn and activations it’s fairly fast moving (assuming no one player is overly slow) and players are well engaged. I know Josh’s dream is to play huge six player games on huge terrain filled tables, but that will have to wait for a little bit. The mini cottage needs another coat and the stone tower needs to be textured. A grove of small trees needs to have their leaves put on and I need to make some larger trees, spackle a guard wall, paint a guard's shelter. Truly the life of a terrain builder is never boring.

I hope I’ve convinced you to at the very least check Frostgrave out, it’s very fresh and very distinctly skirmish based. In a world of Wargaming where companies try and sell you as many toys as possible it’s rare for a game to tell you that you can only use ten figures (sometimes eleven, twelve, thirteen and I think with extreme prejudice 14 is the hard-cap-max after base building and manipulating your warband sheet).

It’s earned a spot on the book shelf, but it won’t spend much time there, I’ll be taking this one out frequently in a couple different campaigns, and probably writing scenarios for warbands to battle it out.

Cheers, happy painting, happy gaming, and tell lady luck she can go fuck herself.


Monday, November 16, 2015

The Game Behind That Game

Fallout 4 is out now. But Fallout 4 draws on a long history of Fallouts... and games before Fallout. Indeed, there is a long line of post-apocalyptic games that marches back into the ancient prehistory of video games all the way to... That's right. I'm talking about Blackmoor, the first D&D setting.

This ancient lineage is as old as roleplaying games itself. But there is a more direct ancestor to the Fallout universe, and that is none other than the bulky, difficult, and weird table favorite, Aftermath!

What did Fallout inherit from Aftermath?
The real question is, perhaps, what are the essential elements that define Aftermath! as a system? I think by listing these, it will clearly demonstrate that there's a direct lineal descent from one to the next.

  • Hit locations: Aftermath! was one of the early games that included hit locations. Each section of the body is marked and numbered. Being hit in one of these locations may determine the severity of the wound and whether or not the hit can even kill the target. For example, no hit can automatically kill the target if it hits area 27 (the forearm). You can die from blood loss, but not from the wound itself. Smells like VATS to me.
  • Piecemeal Armor: This is linked to the previous point. Armor does not cover the entire body by assumption. Like Hârn, armor is piecemeal and only applies to a number of hit locations. Types of armor stack: a leather smock with a garbage can lid over it has two different stacking armor values. The smock probably covers areas 3-14. The garbage can lid covers 6-9. Thus, 6-9 has extra protection from the lid. This looks like something I hear Fallout 4 has implemented.
  • Strange Settings: The end of the world is up for debate in Aftermath! You don't have to have it end in one specific way. There are a number of suggestions on how to construct campaigns, about how long after the bomb makes sense, etc. One of the suggestions is, you guessed it, 200 years later (like the new Fallout series). However, the suggested 200 years later scenario in Aftermath! is much more realistic than the one in FO (no wooden buildings survive, very little technology, etc).
  • Bullet Repacking: This one has started to crop up in the Fallout series as well. Bullet repacking has its own mechanics and is part of the system of modifying ancient (or simply pre-Cataclysm) firearms.
  • Rules for Robots and Future Weapons: Part of the potential setting rules are rules for near-future pre-Cataclysm societies that have robots and future weapons much in the same way that Blackmoor has robots and future weapons buried within it. There's some of this going on in the Fallout universe as well.
  • Drinking, sickness, and survival: Well, this ain't in FO, but there's a lot of people who wish it was. So much so that there've been a number of mods created to add it in. Aftermath! is very concerned with scavenging for items, food, and water, and has a complicated (and deadly) system to represent it.
  • Notability and tracking of status: Depending on how tall or short you are, how fat or skinny, how beautiful or ugly, away from the norm you have a different likelihood of being recognized. Shoot a bunch of merchants, and people will probably recognize you if you're a giant fat man or a tiny little wisp. This reputation system is very complex and cool. The Fallout system is much less complex, but still, you can see where I'm going here.

"But Josh!," you shout, "these are just common factors in any roleplaying game set in the post-apocalyptic future!" Well, maybe. But people who play one type of post-apocalyptic roleplaying game are likely to play another. I'm just pointing out common genes. Get off my back!

Maybe they did it on purpose, maybe they didn't. But those seeds are certainly there.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Fiction Friday: Sorrow's Harvest

This follows the events of The Hoard and the Harrow and The Hammer of the Skraels.

Robart wandered through the streets of Oldcastel in the early morning mist. It was a cold autumn fog that came in from the sea, traveling along the rivers until it found its way into Oldcastel's squares. Highlord Marten was at service in the castle temple. Robart had been invited, but he told Elsawyn, Lady Castelar's chief domestic, that he would rather pray at one of the simpler temples in the city. There was nothing simple about Oldcastel, though. Robart was used to riverstone, unmortared, stacked one atop the other or, at most, wattle-and-daub. He'd been to Oakenport once in his life, and the city was a reeking mess of wooden halls with moss roofs, half-timbered houses, and crumbling ruin. Oldcastel was something else altogether. He felt as though he'd stumbled into some ancient myth.

The streets of Oldcastel were plumb and level, paved with flagstone rather than grass. The buildings were set back, each of carefully worked Southhold granite, and bore tile roofs instead of sod or thatch. The temple nearest the castle had three courses of mighty stone and the teacher at the gate told Robart that the lords of the province used the upper balconies on feast days.

There were few enough folk within when Robart ducked his head beneath the doorway. The earthen floor was mostly unoccupied: a few men were shooting dice in a corner, their dice clinking along the flagstones of a paved side-chapel and a pair of oxen tied to one of the piers, but mostly it was abandoned. The early morning service, he realized, was long over. The farmers had already gone to their fields. So he stood against an ornate stone pillar and waited for the second service to begin.

A few teachers swept through the temple, breaking up the dice and demanding attention to the high altar. A ragged line of canons emerged to fill the choirbox and sing the sacred strains of some temple song. Farmers and townsfolk came in to stand among the pillars, the oxen, and the choirbox. Robart was pushed forward by sour-smelling men in their torn tunics of worn roughspun or wool. He allowed the jostling to carry him forward toward the high altar and its platform of raised stone.

Murmuring filled the vaults of the temple. Robart heard the voices of men and women both, speaking on the vicissitudes of Oldcastel's life. He overheard the complaints of farmers who had not hands enough to work the fields around the city. "The more men they call up from the town, the fewer there are to bring in the corn," said one.

Robart rocked on his heels and waited for the prelates to emerge from the high door by the altar. They came in black and gold, heads lowered, and led by their high prelate to surround the gold-fringed stone of the high altar. The sound of the choir swelled to a thunderous music, haunting the archways and walks. Robart bowed his head. The others continued muttering as the service progressed.

When the ceremony ended, Robart pushed through the crowd to street. His soul was no lighter than when the service began. He sighed. Things were simpler in Hazelby, before he found the gold out in that lonesome field. But now the town had no knight, and... It dawned on him with slow and awful power that Hazelby stood in the path of the invaders. Betwixt Seatower and Oldcastel, there were half a hundred trails and a single great Dominion highway. If they strayed but a little from the shortest way they would come upon the town of Hazelby. Aran, Feln, Holman, Rolant... and Aethelwyn—they were all along the route of the Skraels. His chest was hollow. His legs were filled with water, his arms weak. A woman in a wimple pushed by him from within the temple. The force sent him spinning. He clasped the cold granite to keep from falling to the earth. Rough, it was, and chill as the grave. He closed his eyes as a sudden wracking sob rose through his frame.

"My child, are you unwell?" There was a touch upon his shoulder-blade and a warmth to that touch. He turned, wiped his eyes, and found that one of the canon clerics stood just behind. But, no—not a cleric, a woman in a canon's garb. Her corn-blond hair was cropped short like a boy's but she was clearly a woman beneath that black cassock.

Robart let out a wracking sigh that scraped his insides and ran along his ribs before he came forth from his lips. "The war," he said glumly, unable to convey the content of his distress in any words more descriptive.

"The war," she repeated, and clutched his hand. Her long fingers were warm. "Well, where do you live, goodman?"

"Hazelby," Robart said. When the woman cocked her head he gestured north. "Away seaward. But I'm in the household of Highlord Marten, now. My sire was murdered in Shieldcross and I'm to be witness and juror against the man who did it."

"How awful," the woman said. "Come then, goodman..."

"Robart, but I can't. I must return to the service of his lordship, else I'll be missed. He wanted me to worship in the castle chapel this morning, but I... felt it were not proper. Being that I'm but a serf of Lord Seatower." The fear began to gnaw again at the edges. "Though his lordship of Seatower is... dead as well, I suppose. And Seatower fallen like a child's toy into the waters." Was nothing stable or safe?

The woman nodded, her pert lips pursed. "The World of Sorrows," she said huskily, "holds misery enough for us all. Well, goodman Robart, it was fair to meet you. I am Sister Soera and you may call on me at the temple here whenever you may." Before he could ask her, she raised her free hand to still his question. "Prioress and canoness of a hermitage just without. I'm permitted my own cell in the temple dormer, and to use their library as I will. The Archprelate values my advice." She smiled, and Robart could see it was a satisfied smile, like a fat castle cat who just found the jug of fresh cream.

"Sister Soera," he repeated. It was a strange name, with more than a flavor of Vaerasa in it. He thanked her and she, unexpectedly, embraced him. Blinking back tears, he made his way toward the castle.

To Robart, Oldcastel seemed to be a fantasy of stone. It's ruinous bulk was half-hidden by curtains of witchmoss and ivy. Quickwood trees grew up out of the pavements and the baileys were all overgrown with tall grass. Yet, for all that, the place was well kept. There were no draughts in its many buildings, no leaks in its slate-and-lead roofs, and even the stairs to the wallwalk were in good repair: no worn or sagging stone where thousands of feet had tramped in bygone age.

The whole city bore the mark of Oldcastel. There were fields of clover hidden within the walls, and liveries for the horses of merchant and nobleman alike. There were clear fields for markets, half a handful of temples, large and small, and the First Temple where he had seen service even had a library. Rare it was to hear a lord or a knight speak of books, let alone to be near at hand on a place where they were stored and made. To lose all this to the pagan threat... it made Robart's skin chill. Gooseflesh stood out on his forearms at the thought.

When he returned to the great hall at the castle's heart, Highlord Marten was already deeply engaged in discussion of strategy with his lords and knights. A sprightly lord with mouse-brown hair and a deep frown stood by the great stone chair while Marten gave him a stern harangue. Robart ducked his head and crouched to stand behind the highlord's seat even as the Lord Castelar layed into this man.

"Lord Avan," said Marten Castelar, Highlord of the Southhold, "you have kin in Woodmarch, and kin too amongst Lord Andrau's people. Yet here you are, alone, with no help from Highlord Edgewood and no excuse as to where Andrau of Longspear is, though I sent the ban to him no less than a month ago." Robart noticed that when Highlord Marten was angry he did not raise his voice. He didn't shout, as Robart's father often had. His face didn't turn red. His eyes simply lit up, and his brows climbed up his forehead. For all that, he was a terrifying man when he was angry.

The lord, whom Robart presumed must be Lord Avan of Welling, folded his hands behind his back and bowed deeply. It was strange that Marten Castelar, one of the most powerful Highlords in the kingdom, wore simple roughspun and a woolen cloak and yet was perched upon a mighty seat of stone, while his chastised lord was dressed in fine crushed velvet lined with golden thread, a silver fountain sewn upon his breast. Yet it was Lord Avan Welling who did homage and whose face had turned beet-red.

"My lord, I cannot speak for my kindred, though I know they've often spoken for me." Lord Avan chewed his lip. "I've brought with me as many men as I dared take. Others, I've lent Lord Andrau to help him protect Kingsbrook Temple."

Marten's anger abated as quickly as it came. "Wise," said he. "And it may yet prove wisdom that Lord Andrau has not come. Kingsbrook is wealthier than all the rest of the Southhold, and there are no castles on the road from Seatower to the High Prelate's seat." He stroked his chin and noticed Robart in the same gesture. "You needn't be here for this, Robart of Hazelby," he said. "Go and take order from my wife, if you will."

Robart bowed at the waist. "I am yours to command, highlord."

This was the way of it for near on a week. Robart stayed near at hand to the Lady Halia and Lord Marten. He slept in the Temple Tower, in the highlord's very own chambers. He swept the floors, lit rushlights, refilled the long-wicked silver lamps with oil, beat the dust from the lord's sheets, fed the castle cats, and carried messages for the Highlord. This was the life of a servant: helping out in the boiling heat of the kitchen, hauling water for the baths. So this, then, was what it was to live in a lord's household. Better than toiling in the fields... but there was something strange about being so cheek-to-jowl with the gentry. Robart always felt uncomfortable when the Highlord spoke to him—and it was often. He balked and shivered when Marten gave him orders, though he learned not to look shocked or surprised. These were folk of a different world, and one he'd had no thought to interact with nor no desire, either.

One afternoon, while walking across the great bailey, Robart stumbled and dropped the wooden tray of hot bread he was carrying. The bread scattered amongst the flagstones. Dirt and moss stuck to the crisp crust. He grunted and got to his feet. Bolsom, the castle's baker, was certain to give him an earful when he came back for more. Worse, Highlord Marten and his knights would be late in getting their repast.

Robart bent to pick the bread from the ground. He pulled the hem of his tunic and made a pouch, placing each piece into it. It was then that he heard the laughter. It came from a lounging gaggle of men at arms who were sprawled upon the steps of the inner wallwalk. They were all dressed in leather tunics with leggings of the same, and they were spread upon the stone like cats lounging in the sunlight.

He ignored them. Often, it was, that in the market at Shieldcross he'd been forced to bear his silence while a knight or lord's man made some saucy joke at the expense of a farmer's daughter. Who was there to chastise them? A prelate, perhaps, if one was near to hand, but that was rare enough. A monk was even better, or a nun: Sister Soera might do. But there was no call for Robart of Hazelby to scold a man of the highlord; he never had, and like as not he never would. So he was silent as he crossed the yard. He ducked his head, so they might see his submission.

Trust them to take it as an invitation. No submission was enough for some men, and it was certainly not enough for these. As he made his way toward the baking ovens, an apple caught him on the side of the head. He went sprawling, the bread spilling from his tunic. His hands skidded against the cold flagstones, bouncing and scraping on the rough sandstone. Pain shot through his palms and knees. "Damnation," he muttered. He reached for the fallen loaves, gathering them up before he regained his feet.

"What was that, goodman?" a snide voice asked him. He turned to see it's source—one of the men-at-arms who was now standing. He held a peeled onion in his left hand, a bite taken from it. His eyes were piggy and narrow, his face covered by a patchy brown beard. "I heard you damn me to the hells."

Robart shook his head. "No offense meant, goodman soldier," he said. It galled him to back down, but not as much as a hiding or flogging would. This man was no nobleman, but he was in the employ of the highlord. It would be a fool's errand to cross him.

"No, villein, I reckoned not." The man smiled an unpleasant smile that did not quite reach his too-close eyes. Robart ducked his head and turned to go.

He heard them laughing again as he reached the narrow stair to the ovens. It lead through a crevice in the inner wall, down around a sharp bend in the hill, and to a courtyard all its own, complete with a barracks, a blacksmith, the kitchens, and the big brick ovens where the castle baking was done. Before he reached the third step, he heard the jingle of mail behind.

A woman's voice came to him. "Did you just throw that at one of the highlord's house servants, Clyde Piebald?" it asked. He paused. Who was this, now?

He crept on soft feet back up to the head of the stair and peered through the narrow archway. There in the yard stood a slender woman in a shirt of mail. Her legs were clad in leather-and-mail chausses, and she wore a golden knight's belt complete with sword about her hips. On either side of her there stood men in peaked caps, one with a nose-guard the other with a broken nose, both in quilted cotton.

The man-at-arms stood up straight as a spear and dropped the half-eaten onion. The woman gently toed the apple, in the yard's heart, that had struck Robart. "It was just a lark, lady."

"My lady," corrected the man with the broken nose. "She's the highlord's niece. Surely you knew that, patchbeard."

Clyde, the man-at-arms, bowed from the waist. "MY lady," he corrected, "It were only a lark. I didn't mean no harm."

"Well, you're lucky the man you struck has departed, else I would—"

Robart stepped forward. "He meant no harm, ladyship, I'm sure of't." He was intrigued; who was this woman knight?

When she turned to look at him, brows raised, he saw she could be no more than sixteen. "Truly? Well, then, no harm done. You can leave that," she pointed to the bread in his lap, "on the ground here. Clyde will go for you. Won't you Clyde?"

The man-at-arms swallowed slowly. "Yes, m'lady," he offered. When the woman turned away, Clyde gave Robart an evil glare.

"Good," said she. "You, goodman," and she gestured at Robart, "will accompany me to see my uncle. I assume he is in the hall?"

"Aye, ladyship, seeing to his council of war and planning his attack." Robart kept his eyes down, though the sight of a woman in armor begged them to rise. As they walked toward the great hall of Oldcastel, Robart murmured, "May I ask you, ladyship, who you are?"

"Lady Sorrel Oldcastel," the girl replied.

The Lady Sorrel had come with twelve knights of her own, and fifty leveemen. Highlord Marten was overjoyed to see his niece. That night, Prince Edwerd came to join the highlord at dinner. The highlord gave Robart pride of place and named him cupbearer to Lady Sorrel for the eve. This meant hours of helping prepare the food, shuttling goose and pork to the great hall, setting up the trestle tables on the open floor and the lord's table upon the dais, and doing the thousand other things reserved for domestics.

The prince of Yewland was a tall, dark-haired man with a sense of humor. Robart found himself laughing at the prince's jests even as he rushed back and forth to fill Lady Sorrel's wine. Sword-Captain Oro was at the high table as well, and Robart spent a few moments hovering around the Amerbman, hoping to hear of the mercenaries' search for Sire Hugo. Robart couldn't go home until Sire Hugo was brought to justice. But there was no talk of the missing knight—Prince Edwerd turned the conversation toward the war as the night went on.

"We must drive the Skraels off before the winter snows. My people are getting anxious, and I'm sure yours are as well, Marten."

Lady Sorrel gulped her wine. "They must return to their lands, soon," she said. "The harvest is coming. If the farmers are kept from their work, we'll none of us have anything to eat this winter. Skrael or Yewl."

"That's why we should strike now," Edwerd agreed. He was a handsome man, Robart supposed, and when he turned in profile he could almost see the king's face as it was stamped upon silver coins. The prince smiled at Lady Sorrel and they both turned to see Highlord Marten's response.

The highlord sighed and hung his head. "I was hoping for some better strategy than this," he complained. "But if we must attack Seatower... we must."

Lady Sorrel raised her empty cup and waved it in Robart's direction. "Goodman Robart!" she cried, "I am dry!"

"Well," Edwerd mused, "say that not in the earshot of a minstrel. Sounds a challenge, to me."

The girl shoved the prince bodily from her chair, laughing. Robart bowed and hurried off with his ewer to refill it at the buttery. As he passed through the candle-strewn chaos of the lower tables, someone struck him in the shin. He stumbled. The silver pitcher rolled beneath a bench. "Ohhhh," a slurred voice, faintly familiar, groaned. "My apologies goodman Robart... how clumsy."

Clyde Piebald, the patchbeard. It was he who struck out at Robart's shin. Robart stopped, his heart hammering in his chest. There was something iron in him that refused to bend. He turned to look at the patchbeard eye to eye. The man was seated, swaying in place, a cup of wine in his hand. His friends and the other men-at-arms were near, but they payed him no mind. They were laughing and telling tales to one another.

Robart imagined running this Clyde through. He had his knife, the man was drunk... but no. This was a free man. He was a serf of the highlord. To assault a free man in the highlord's service? It would be madness. So instead he bowed and said, "Thank you, goodman. I shall give your greetings to the Lady Sorrel."

"Aye! I see you serve the uptight bitch! What she needs is a good ramming, m'lad. Then she'd lay down that sword and serve as she ought."

The words fell like a bell's peals. Robart glanced at the platform where the young Lady Sorrel was eating with gusto and laughing with the prince. "Who d'ye think you are," he asked the drunken Clyde, "to say such things about a high and noble lady?"

"High and noble! And what're ye, her knight? Come now, goodman, go and bring her my greetings! Tell her I'm the man to storm her castle, and my cat-and-ram's as good as that black-haired princeling. At least I'd not have sat idle by why the Eastern whore took the crown. Eh?"

Black words against the Queen and Lady Sorrel both in one breath. Robart shook his head. He was by nature a peaceable man. But this beggared belief. "Goodman Clyde," he said, and his blood was racing fire as he put word to word and knew he invited trouble, "your cat-and-ram ain't got the hardwood needed for the task. Nor, do I think, the Queen or Lady Sorrel would enjoy the tickle of your child's beard."

Clyde's face flushed, then turned red. "Ye bastard villein, I shall teach ye humbleness. Why, because a lady saved ye this 'noon ye think ye've some right to be treated a man? Yer a worm, villein! A worm!"

The man-at-arms rose, shouting. His companions fell silent and turned to watch. The candlelit faces of half the hall were watching them now. Clyde balled his fist and swung. Robart took a step back. Clyde stumbled forward. Before wisdom could take hold, while his blood still beat like bellows-pumped fire, Roger made a fist of his own. He cuffed Clyde upon the brow, and the man went down like a felled tree.

"Think twice afore you insult a high-born lady, or a farmer," he said. The hall watched. Before the highlord forbade them, Clyde's friends jumped from their bench. One shoved Robart to the ground, another delivered a swift kick in the ribs. Robart groaned, covered himself, tried to roll away, but they were all around him. Blows fell like autumn rain. He fought back, struggling, but they had ironshod boots, and someone struck him with a truncheon.

"Enough!" Marten called. "Cease, or yield to the penalty!" There was a pause in the violence. Robart felt, rather than saw, the men draw back. Much of the damage was already done. Robart's body throbbed with pain.

He was escorted from the hall by Lady Sorrel's men and taken to the Temple Tower. A makeshift bed was given him, and a prelate to tend his wounds. He slept fitfully and woke all through the night. Sometimes when he opened his eyes the braziers were lit, other times the candles, and still others it was merely a starlit darkness. He was alternately hot and freezing.

When he woke, he saw it was Sister Soera tending him. She smiled sadly. "Harvestide is upon us," she told him, mopping the sweat from his brow. "You've broken a few bones. If the Divine is kind, they'll mend well." He grunted or gurgled—unable to make any other sound. His throat was parched.

"Harvest," he muttered. "Urem's over?"

"Long over," said Soera. "Did you lose track of time while you mended?"

He sat up. "It's not tomorrow?"

Sister Soera laughed. "It is, but it seems your yesterday is not the same as all else's. If you mean the day you were struck... it was a week or more ago."

Robart rubbed his head. "How...? The farm, sister. I must get back to the farm."

"As for how," the canonness said, "balm of meadowsweet mixed with nectars and milk of the Eastern flower. And as far for going back to your farm..." She shook her head. A lock of hair escaped from beneath her wimple. It snaked across her face, falling to rest on the bridge of her nose. "The Highlord moved against the Skraels, Robart. There's no road to Hazelby not littered with the dead."

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Frostgrave, Round One

Last Friday when the board game group got together (haven't been able to get them all to play one of the roleplaying games of choice yet, they're all over the map and I refuse to run Pathfinder, 3e, 4e, or 5e of D&D), we played Frostgrave. We didn't invest in the Osprey minis or any terrain because we had no idea if the game was good or not. Instead, we had a mishmash of Battle for Skull Pass, 7th Edition Warhammer Dwarfs, and Warmachine miniatures. It was a nightmare of styles. For terrain we used gourds, boxes, and other such trash, so the ruined city of Felstad wasn't in top form.

NEVERTHELESS, it was pretty fun.

The concept of Frostgrave is similar to Games Workshops' now-discontinued Mordheim. In fact, the two games could be siblings. The ruins of Frostgrave are littered with treasure. Each player creates a wizard to be their "character" and hires up a warband to hunt that treasure. There are excellent campaign rules for running games with multiple encounters, giving levels to your wizard, and recovering magical items of various potency.

This took the longest time. We only had one copy of the book, I was the only one who had read it before, and I sprang the game on everyone as they appeared at my house. Therefore, there was a lot of needless rules explaining, re-reading, and list-making. However, Frostgrave contemplates very small "armies" (warbands of no more than 10 models, 11 if certain optional rules are used) and therefore it didn't take too long at all to get three lists made. I, of course, made the list for myself and my wife ahead of time.

The most time-intensive element is making your wizard.
Not including painting, obviously
There are a number of classes based on the available schools of magic (Chronomancy, Elementalism, Enchanting, Illusion, Necromancy, Sigilism, Divination, Conjuration, Thaumaturgy, and Nature) with each getting access to the spells of most others. However, casting spells from outside of your home school is more difficult. Wizards get 3 spells from their home school, 3 from one of each of the "allied" schools, and 2 from any two neutral schools.

This makes the creation of the wizard critical to the functioning of the warband. I, for example, picked what is objectively one of the dinkiest wizard classes (Sigilist) in the vain hope that it might encourage Jocelyn and Frank to beat the shit out of me and enjoy learning the game. Instead, I got into a casting conflict with an experienced wargamer at the table and came out on the losing side of that exchange. Still, even with his carefully built warband of powerful knights, my one reserve combat spell (from outside of my school, even) nearly knocked him out of the game by killing a number of his very expensive units.

The game is fast for a wargame. Battle is a contested d20 roll with the winner dealing damage. Spells are critical. But the most interesting facet of gameplay is that there really aren't very high incentives to knock out other warbands save insofar as you want the treasure they're grabbing. What this amounts to is a disincentive to fight if you don't have to and a real incentive to push two enemy warbands into each other and grab all the loot.

These incentives are codified in the experience chart for wizards, which is tallied at the end of every battle. While knocking down enemy warband members grants some paltry xp, casting spells also grants a little experience. Killing an enemy wizard is worth a great deal, but each treasure is worth 50 experience at the end of the battle as well. This means that treasure, which allows you to upgrade your warband, may contain magic items and new spells, and is worth a sizeable chunk of xp, is the most valuable goal to pursue in the game.

Jocelyn, who never fought another person in any kind of combat, managed to secure 5 treasures to everyone else's 2-3. She gained as many levels as combat-hardened wizards and now has a huge stock of items and gold to boot.

The Campaign
The campaign factor is what makes everything interesting. I got the snot kicked out of me and had to withdraw early with no treasure. However, due to the fact that each warband can choose a "base" in the city after their first game, I managed to secure myself a treasury vault and make up for some of my awful gameplay. There are inns, libraries, and other such places to make your own as well.

The ongoing continuity between battles presents an interesting conundrum for the players, as my experience now shows that they will tend to ally to limit the expansion of the leading player and provide extra treasure for themselves in the battles to come.

There's no point-balance system; you hire your warband with the gold you won in the previous matches or stored from matches before. This is an intriguing mechanic, and one that mirrors the most interesting parts of Warhammer campaigns whereby victories in certain campaign battles may lead to additional (or restricted) point-buys in later ones.

The balance seems weighted very well. Melee is not overwhelming, and ranged attacks won't destroy a warband that doesn't have them if their wizard deploys correctly and makes good use of terrain. The spells, at least at level 0, aren't game-altering. They certainly shift the tables of victory, but they don't obliterate entire gobs of men.

Would play again. Very enjoyable. Considering getting Osprey miniatures for it and putting together some real terrain.