Sunday, 23 June 2019

New crossover short that absolutely nobody asked for.

Every now and again you have one of those ideas that gets stuck in your brain and won't go away until you do it. This phenomenon is probably responsible for the deep-fried Mars Bar, the Bognor Regis Birdman competition, and many other things that probably shouldn't exist but do.

Into this crowded field of lunatic endeavours comes my latest crossover short story, "The Not-Quite Kidnap of Betty Hardin", which can be found either at that link or in the Crossover Shorts side-panel. In the story, the 13th Doctor meets the legendary Floating Outfit of 1960's Western author J.T. Edson. It's an everyday tale of mistaken identity, bandit kidnappers, and cybernetic killing machines from the far future.

Given that some people (often many of the sort of people who still read J.T.) decry the recent Dr Who canon as overly politically-correct and J.T. himself was as politically-correct as something that most definitely, certainly isn't, this wasn't exactly a match made in heaven but I consider everyone involved to be basically good at heart so I did it anyway. To allay any fears, this is not one of those really annoying revenge-fiction pieces where a writer takes a character they have it in for and does horrible things to them.

To finish with a little warning- while I've done my best to stay as close to J.T's style as possible, not especially hard since he's been an influence on my own to some extent, I should point out to anyone interested in his books that he was very much a man of his time regarding sexual preferences, gender politics and race (though all three topics could be the subject of some interesting discussion in this context.) If you do decide to check them out, You Have Been Warned.

At the very least have a look at that Wikipedia page if you're at all concerned!

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

I don't often do refutations. Most of the time, they're a waste of effort and rapidly devolve into people throwing rocks at each other. But this recent BBC piece on speaking roles in Game of Thrones.. well, you might want to read it for yourself before continuing. One thing you can say for it is that since the BBC isn't ad-supported, it's not click-bait.

Anyway, here's the gist- the piece suggests that there's something wrong (I won't use the 'P-word' because they don't) with the fact that roughly 2/3 of the dialogue in the series is spoken by men. Here's one of the quotes:
"Overall, the actions and words women are participating in are still very attached to gender-related stereotypes".

Now this is a repetition of something I've mentioned before and call Raven's Cry Syndrome. If you're not familiar with what I'm referring to, Raven's Cry was a game that came out a few years ago set in the 17th century that was mostly about pirates. It wasn't very good, but simply pointing this out wasn't enough for certain critics, who instead devoted large chunks of their reviews to complaining that the characters were racist, sexist, and swore a lot. Well guess what kids, pirates were Not Very Nice People, and there's a reason no-one holds up Blackbeard as a paragon of virtue. In effect, Raven's Cry Syndrome is when a period-set piece of fiction or art is criticised simply for accurately reflecting its setting.

Coming back to Game of Thrones, we're looking at a low(ish) fantasy story set in a basically medieval world. Whilst there are plenty of noblewomen, queens and other women in positions of power, as a world where military tactics still revolve mostly around using muscle power to hit people with sharp bits of metal in various shapes, the majority of the military are male. To define our terms here a little, I say low fantasy because whilst GoT has plenty of magic in it, it's usually of the ritual or mystical variety. Even the most powerful magic-users, like Melisandre, can't cast Fireball and obliterate an entire regiment. By contrast, in a high fantasy setting, magical abilities make female military commanders or warriors far more feasible, as seen in my own books, for example. (Come on, had to get that in there). It's hard to tell Magister Thalia Daran to sit quietly on the sidelines when her personal offensive  firepower is up there with the average battle tank.

This means that when you get a big battle scene, like the Battle of the Bastards, the defence of Winterfell, etc, you're going to have a lot of blokes in beards standing about discussing tactics. It's just inevitable in such a setting. GoT, of course, makes a point of having characters like Arya and Brienne who break the mould, but they do it in a setting-appropriate way- Arya by gaining mystical powers and utilising stealth and deception, and Brienne by being simply an unusually tall and strong woman. Even so, both run up against patriarchal attitudes, as you'd expect, but they overcome them.

Even allowing for the setting, though, the analysis in the BBC piece is blisteringly unfair. The quote I use as my title has been variously appropriated to Mark Twain, Benjamin Disraeli and others:
"There are lies, there are damned lies, and then there are statistics."

The point of this isn't to suggest that all statistics are worthless, but to remind us that you can massage them all sorts of ways to make a point if you'd like. To use the language of Sherlock Holmes, statistics aren't facts, they're data. A fact is data with the context to interpret it. For example, the statistics tell us that the character who has the most lines in GoT is Tyrion. This should hardly be a surprise, given that talking is Tyrion's primary talent (especially TV Tyrion) and he's in more episodes than anyone else. If we look at the chart, we see that in the top four speaking characters we have two men, and two women (and second place looks to be a male-female tie).

Here's where trying to use statistics to analyse fiction falls to bits completely. The two top-scoring women are both, for most of their time in the show, queens or rulers. The thing with being in charge is that often you do more listening than talking. Consider the example of a board meeting- the Chairman is the most important person, but spends most of their time asking their subordinates for reports and getting comments on them. As the saying goes, there's no point having a dog and barking yourself. Possibly the best example of this, though, comes from the very last episode, where the remaining lords of Westeros are appointing a new King. Tyrion does a lot of talking, but it's abundantly clear that as far as those listening are concerned it's Sansa wearing the proverbial trousers. "Shut up, Uncle." may be one of the simplest and most effective burns in GoT to not be delivered by an actual Dragon.

Ultimately, trying to determine who has the most impact or agency in a story based on how much time they spend 'on camera' or how many words they speak is pointless. It's like trying to analyse cooking with economics- cold, hard numbers have nothing to do with the feel of a story. If everyone watching thinks a story has strong, powerful women who take control of their own destiny in it, they are by definition correct. Using statistics to try to argue against that is like watching an unconscious boxer being carried out of the ring on a stretcher and saying that because he landed 100 punches and his opponent only landed three, he actually won. It's not quantity that counts in communication, but quality. To go back to the chart, we see Lord Varys sitting very near the bottom. I defy anyone to claim his was a weak or ineffectual character, he just doesn't make a big noise about his influence. He's called 'Master of Whispers' for a reason.

I'm not sure what the motive of the BBC piece or the research behind it was. I'm all for strong female characters in fiction (I hope my own writing reflects that) but Game of Thrones is completely the wrong target for this sort of piece and nothing hurts a good cause worse than a terribly flawed argument.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

The importance of getting it right

Not pictured: Tactics

By now most people who care have probably seen the most recent episode of Game of Thrones (Episode 3 of the final series, for any internet archaeologists out there). Those who have not might want to avoid this little rant for now since there may be the odd minor spoiler in here, though I'll resist any blow-by-blows or casualty lists.

Anyway, those of us who have basically any understanding of tactics were probably more than a little perplexed by the way the big battle in this episode played out from a strategic point of view. There have been quite a few very detailed breakdowns elsewhere by people better qualified than I, but it doesn't take Sun Tzu to spot that the cavalry and artillery in particular were spectacularly mishandled. I've seen a few comments expressed to the effect of this not mattering, or things like 'I must have missed the bit in The Art of War about fighting zombies with dragons', as one particular God of Snark put it. As you might expect, I disagree pretty strongly.

Here's the thing- if your heroes are meant to be everyday men in the street, there's no problem with them doing dumb things on occasion. It always annoys me when critics whine about dialogue in movies or books where people respond to stressful situations by shouting 'F*@k you!' because they say it's 'cliched' or uninspired when the reality is that real people don't always come up with the best and most poetic lines on the spot. But if your heroes are meant to be experienced military commanders (and in the case of GoT, they had enough veteran warriors and strategists to run three campaigns at once) it's important that they at least give some impression of being just that.

In part this is that old classic 'show, don't tell'. You can tell us Sir Hack of Slash is a military genius, or you can show him pulling off a brilliant tactic against impossible odds and make us believe it. Better yet, do both. In the specific case of GoT, it's entirely fair to say that given that their enemy had effectively unlimited numbers and could raise the dead to fight again, no strategy the defenders might have employed would have made much difference, but that isn't really the point. Had we seen the defence well-planned, with a properly obstructed killing-zone, the artillery pounding a hampered advance, archers killing hundreds of the enemy whilst they were held up in the field, etc, it makes the true scale of the threat that much more impressive when they take all of that and just keep coming. As it was, we're left with the impression, false though it may be, that the various heroic sacrifices might have been completely unnecessary.

We see this in a lot of games and movies. One of the Dragon Age expansions, for example, tasks you with defending a castle against Darkspawn, and at one point presents you with the 'choice' of sending troops out to defend farmers in their fields (weakening the castle's defences), or leaving them to die. Of course, anyone who knows the first thing about castles and the feudal system knows that the whole point of the damn things is to bring the food and the peasantry inside at the first sign of trouble, which makes the whole 'choice' feel cheap and the inevitable NPC harangue you have to endure whatever decision you make feel undeserved.

Likewise, in some 40k novels and shorts we see troops fighting using tactics that make no sense whatsoever. Quite some time ago I reviewed the short story 'Mercy' by Danie Ware and whilst I actually quite like that author from what I've seen I stand by my main criticism of it, which is that the tactics employed (and their result) don't make sense. If you write a story where a Guard commander has been reading too much Regimental Standard and orders his men to engage Orks or Genestealers in melee with bayonets rather than 'waste' ammunition on them, that had better not work or all you've done is make the enemy look like a joke. Even if it fails, you've opened the door to the idea that defeat would have been avoided with a competent commander, which is fine if that's what you're going for, but a big problem if he was supposed to be highly-skilled. Losing against impossible odds is fine and can be heroic, but it doesn't look that way if you make the enemy's job easier for them. Death is acceptable, failure is not, to use the old Imperial adage.

Orks! Thousands of 'em!

As a counterpoint, we could think about some of the great desperate defences of history, like Rourke's Drift, The Alamo, the Knights of St John in Malta or Stalingrad in WWII. Whilst adaptations of most of those exist, to varying degrees of success (both on the part of the adaptation, and of the defence) one thing they have in common is that most of the best at least pay lip-service to getting the facts straight where possible. At some, like Stalingrad, both sides made horrendous mistakes at various times and trying to gloss over that seriously distorts the narrative. (As an aside, the directors of GoT could have done a lot worse than watching Zulu for some ideas!) In fantasy, we could look at the defences of Minas Tirith and Helms Deep in LoTR, which to my mind did a far better job of showing a defence that failed (or could have) not because of incompetence or cowardice, but due to the sheer numerical advantage of the enemy.*

So anyway, that's my hot take. Consistency and accuracy matter, not because of the need to ablate torrents of potential nerd-rage** but because if you don't have them, it begins to cheapen your story and weaken any sense of peril or threat, a trap more than one otherwise good author has fallen into.*** Of course, we should be careful not to lay too much of this on the shoulders of GRRM, since his story will presumably work out a little differently.****

Oh, and 'they' were still bad-ass. You know who I mean.

*And in at least one incident, their flat refusal to die when pin-cushioned with arrows. Torch Ork can serve in my Waaagh any time.

**Because as I've said before, once a certain crowd decides they don't like you there's literally nothing you can do to change that...

*** Cough-The Belgariad-Cough. I'm not kidding, I do have a cough.

****If the stubborn bugger survives long enough to finish it.

Friday, 29 March 2019

The Decaying Doctrine

I'll admit that was a sneaky effort to lever the title of a particularly solid Kiuas track in, but it's sort of relevant, as is Kjeldor Thricecurse up there, and not just because he's all Nurgley. The recent reveal of the new Havocs for Chaos and the Warhammer Community tactica piece has got me thinking about something in 40k that gets less discussion than it possibly should- the subject of Decay.

Not these guys

The Havocs are a particularly interesting example of this mechanic, which boils down to models and units getting weaker as they take damage. In the game, it happens to basically any unit with more than one model in it, or which is a single model with 10 or more Wounds, but it's quite a bit more complicated than that. The new Havocs, with their Toughness of 5 and ability to fire on the move, have got quite a few people excited about power-creep and auto-take units. Whilst I don't really see why the Havocs are T5 (unless they're supposed to be wearing a Chaos Armour version of Gravis Armour*) I think people are missing a more important change in the grand scheme of things.

Havocs, as modelled in that image from the Community article, are capped at five models strong. On top of that, their default equipment is either a Heavy Bolter or Lascannon. Taken together, this means that the very most Wounds a unit of Havocs can take before its firepower begins to be reduced is one, and that assumes you're prepared to remove the Champion first. As an aside, being the Champion of a Havoc squad seems to be one of the worst jobs in a CSM army now. You don't add anything to the squad unless it gets very close (unlike, say, a Devastator Sergeant with his Signum) and you're almost certain to either spend the game doing nothing, or get killed. Compared to the old version of Havocs, who could have up to five bolter-armed chaff models added to the squad, the firepower of the new ones is very fragile.

Now of course, adding those bolter marines costs points, points which you could now spend on something else, like, say, more Havocs. But those guys don't simply add survivability to the unit, they can actively discourage an enemy from shooting at it at all. I recently saw a game in which an Iron Warriors force with two units of ten Havocs (Slaanesh of course) sat them in ruins blazing away at an oncoming Khorne force, and lost barely any of them for the entire game. The reason was that the Khorne army's firepower was limited, and whilst it could have killed a few Havocs each turn it couldn't remove enough in one round of shooting to reach the big guns, which were the only things doing anything. You will often see this in other units, too- players will ask how close a model is to the next stage of its decaying profile, and then try to damage it enough to reduce its effectiveness.

I know they're the wrong scale, but hey

Decay is even more complicated than that, though, because different models decay in different ways. The general rule-of-thumb is that a model starts to lose some level of effectiveness once it's lost half of its Wounds, but this only holds true up to a point. A Stompa, for example, starts to decay having lost only 10 Wounds of its 40 (25%) whereas a Warlord Titan similarly takes 10 Wounds to reach its first break-point but has 70 of them (~14%). An Imperial Knight, on the other hand, has the more common three levels to its profile, meaning that in the case of a Castellan it has to take 14 Wounds before it begins to suffer. Just as 8 Wounds is the 'sweet spot' for a Character where they can't be targeted but are reasonably tough (9 would be even better but is rare), for Vehicles it seems to fall somewhere near 30, meaning the Castellan is in a good place and the Stompa takes it in the shorts.** This also leads to the odd situation with light vehicles where a Dreadnought or Buggy with 8 Wounds 'feels' more durable than one with 10, since the 10-wound versions start to decay very fast- 5 Wounds will weaken a Contemptor but have no effect on a basic Dread.

But wait, there's more! Even when a model or unit does decay, the significance of that decay varies massively. A Morkanaut, for example, loses Movement, WS and Attacks as it's damaged, but if it's being used as an anchor for a Freeboota gun-line doesn't much care, since its (bad) BS remains unchanged. The same effects are far more pronounced on the more assault-minded Gorkanaut. Infantry squads of course lose models to Wounds, which reduces their overall effectiveness, but a Combat Squad camping an objective with a Lascannon marine can be reduced to a single model and still play a significant part in the proceedings.

Overall then, decay is something every player needs to be thinking about, both from the point of view of their own forces and that of the enemy. It makes certain abilities and Stratagems that inflict or repair relatively small amounts of damage potential game-winners when used to cross a break-point in one direction or the other, and can make some units less of a bargain or game-breaker than they might appear. It's also a mechanic, like much else in 40k, with some serious oddities that could possibly use a tweak.


**No change there, then

Friday, 22 February 2019

The Baby and the Bath-Water

There's an old saying which I'm 90% sure other people use, which is "throwing out the baby with the bath-water". In other words, when getting rid of extraneous rubbish there's always a danger that you'll get rid of something you intended to keep- or even in extremis, the whole of the thing.

I've been getting that kind of feeling with 40k recently. For example, how many of us old grognards have played the 'armour marks' game when looking at a miniature, especially a conversion or a Chaos model?

Basically, you look at a model and in your best train-spotter/ tank geek/ aero enthusiast voice say "Ah yes, mostly Mk III but the helm looks to be MK V and I reckon those are MKIV shoulder pads. Probably a Chapter heirloom."

Well here's the thing- you may well not be doing that much longer. With the advent of Primaris, the older armour Marks are going to lose a lot of relevance since they're too small for the big new kids on the block. The various types of Mark X armour don't have any of the same history and aren't all that interchangeable, which is odd. Considering the Imperium is meant to be under serious pressure, the idea that MKX is so easily available when MKIV fell out of use almost as soon as the Heresy started feels weird.

It's not just in the Primaris range, though, where it seems to me like 40k's inherent flavour is in danger. With the advent of mono-pose kits, making your own custom characters is harder than it used to be (though still not as hard as when everything was metal) but more importantly, the tightening of the rules has led to a lot less options. The Ork range, most notably, is seeing a massive contraction of what you can do with your models, with many options being relegated to index-only. Outside of Open Play, the ability to take a random vehicle, festoon it with gunz, and run it as part of your army is now very limited. Were the Indexes to be abolished, as some are advocating for, you wouldn't even be able to put Rokkits on a Battlewagon.

There are several things which certain elements of the community have been advocating for for some time- better communication with the playerbase, tighter and more balanced rules, and advancement of the story. GW have tried pretty hard to deliver all three, and I think they've succeeded for the most part. And yet with that have come some very negative effects, for example the reduction of the effects of terrain to the extent that I've even seen some players argue for the removal of the LOS rules and the loss of blast templates (and the utterly predictable rise in tightly-packed horde armies that followed it). Then we have rules changes that seem to make little to no logical sense, such as the way Characters work and the fact that assault moves can't use the Fly rule, which had to be made because of exploits creeping in.

As for the advancing story, for every player excited for the return of the Primarchs and the Imperium Nihilus, there's another who thinks the whole thing is very badly written and poorly thought-out. For my part, I worry that GW are actively pushing for a 40k End Times which would see our existing armies retired or changed out of all recognition. It would almost certainly lead to an uptick in sales, but I fear it might drive older players, like myself, out of the hobby altogether.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

The Genestealer/ Chaos Cult Collision Conundrum

With Genestealer Cults about to get their epic new update, I thought it was about time to address the elephant in the room* with them as far as I'm concerned. For the uninitiated (and why are you still uninitiated when the link is right there?) the Cults have all sorts of re-purposed civilian and mining gear and use guerrilla** tactics like ambushes and attacking from underground tunnels. Among the more notable recent examples are snipers dragooned on bikes:

Do we deliver? Yes we do!
Not to mention the Achilles Ridgerunner, a lightly-armed and armoured scout vehicle that somehow got named after a nigh-invulnerable Greek warrior hero:

Actually, looking at the preview, not all that lightly-armed
I think we can all agree that this is pretty damn cool. If your spider-sense is tingling at this point it means two things:
1: You'd be handy to have around during a Cult Uprising.
2: You should possibly turn yourself in for mandatory purging on the grounds of irredeemable mutation.
3: You can sense a 'but' coming.
4: I really can't count.

The 'but'.
Ah, there it is! The 'but' is that all this sounds very familiar. There's another faction that lurks beneath the surface of Imperial society, biding its time, before rising up to overthrow the oppressor and herald in a new golden age.*** They're called Chaos Cults, and somehow, with Chaos gnawing at the very roots of the Imperium and trying to break down the doors to Terra via Vigilus, they're not a thing as far as 40k is concerned at the moment. Right now, the only Chaos Cultists playable in 40k outside of a terrible Forge World list that I'm not going to complain about again**** are those in the Chaos Marine Codex, who are just terribly equipped Guardsmen who recently got more expensive, thank you very much tournament meta.

The label on the toybox
Chaos has always felt like a bit of a poor relation when it comes to available models and rules. Whilst most Marine Chapters get access to the full range of equipment, be it Primaris or previously Chapter-exclusive things like the Stormraven or Land Raider Crusader, Chaos Marines start with a very limited pool of kit and lose access to even more if they happen to belong to one of the Legions that has benefited from a specific Codex. When the Crimson Slaughter fell to Chaos, to give a notorious example, apparently every one of their Land Speeders, Stormravens, Land Raiders that weren't Godhammer-pattern, Thunderfire Cannons etc etc immediately fell to bits or got impounded. Likewise, if a planet's PDF rebels, they immediately forget all their training, kill all their Officers, and get led by some dimwit who doesn't even know how to shout 'Move move move!'. Alternatively, they just all start running about with Autoguns and let the Chaos Marines  do everything complicated.

What I'm saying here is that GW seems to have a big problem with Chaos Rebellions actually having rebellious Imperial elements in them. You'd expect that what would actually happen when a Chaos Cult rose up would be much like what happens when a Genestealer Cult does- key personnel would be revealed to be Traitors, PDF regiments would switch sides, and civilian Cultists would grab whatever equipment they could before trying to sow enough, well, chaos to keep the defenders off-balance until the Black Crusade turns up. But for some reason, rather than going with the rebels that are key to the whole Imperial storyline, they've gone with the ones that are key to an entirely different doomsday clock. Whether an actual Hive Fleet is going to turn up and eat Vigilus is anyone's guess, but we know damned well that Abaddon is.

Gear Envy
Now I'm not saying that Chaos players can't get inventive and use good-old 'counts-as' to sidestep some of these problems. My own Third Trojan Regiment have been using Imperial rules since 8th dropped, and here's my Taurox:

Hot Escher-on-Goliath action!
But that only goes so far. If I want my Emperor's Children to respond to my renegades' call for aid, either we need to do some keyword shenanigans or they have to pretend to be Sisters of Battle with odd dress-sense. Maybe the Achilles could  use the rules for a Tauros Venator? Maybe the bikes could possibly be Rough Riders? It all just seems very odd that Renegades are getting so little love at a time when they should be so important.

So every time I see a new Genestealer Cults release at the moment, I get this odd little twinge of knowing that this is stuff my Renegades could have got, but didn't. Some people think that they'll have their time in the sun and a bunch of conversion kits or reworked models, but at the moment I'm not optimistic. At least it gives my wallet a breather!

*Or 'purestrain in the creche', if you prefer.
** No matter how many times I spell it like that, I still imagine them using heavily-armed great apes in battle.
*** For two weeks before they all get murdered/ otherwise horribly abused by Daemons. Or Astartes, if they're lucky.
**** Except just then.

Friday, 18 January 2019

Con Job

We interrupt the usual output of this blog to bring you this important announcement. On the 1st and 2nd of June, I'm going to be a guest at Great Yarmouth Comic Con 2019!

I should point out straight away that this is largely because I'll be helping out the good folks at Wyldstorm Games, who'll have stalls and demo games at the event, but everyone involved have graciously allowed me to also attend in my capacity as an author, so I'll have books for sale (which I will, of course, be signing). I'm also hoping to premiere the third book in the Curriculum, The Flyblown Crusade, at the event.

Obviously it goes without saying that I'm incredibly excited to be a part of something like this, and I'll be sure to bring you a convention report once the dust settles. Maybe I'll even see you there!

Of course, if you absolutely can't wait to see what all the fuss is about*, you can always check out the links to the right and pick up either Kindle or Paperback versions of the first two books right now!

*Statistically there must be some somewhere.