Monday, 26 June 2017

Captain’s Log I

After months of preparation, the new Battlefleet Gothic campaign is underway! Andy and Jon have begun their exploration of the Scyrian Expanse, an uncharted sub-sector at the edge of the Achernar Sector (that's the sector we Bunker dwellers made up as a backdrop for most of our games/stories, like the Daniverse or the Calixis Sector... feel free to suggest an appropriately irreverent name in the comments section).

As with other recent campaigns, we're keeping track of everything using a wiki. As they explore strange new worlds and stranger civilisations, or boldly go where no rogue trader has gone before, new entries will appear on the sub-sector wiki page.

Below is a star chart of the Expanse. Most sub-sectors only have ten(ish) useful star systems in them, so you can infer from this map that space is big, and it's up to the players to find the good stuff.

Jon is playing Captain Laius Ortano, the commodore of the Imperial Navy flotilla. Andy is playing Hassiq Betancourt-Xing, a rogue trader with his very own capital ship. Given the concept of the campaign, Jon thought it'd be criminal not to keep a captain's log, and such a glorious endeavour ought to be shared.  Here, then, I present what I hope is the first of several guest-posts from Jon...


Captain's log, star date 3.127.999.M41

High anchor at Xephone Prime – combat drills completed – enemy vehicle convoy sighted, bombing run commence... enemy convoy destroyed – vidcall with Governer Torosian and Captain Dorschel – message from Admiral Tryphosa – arrival of the Amphion

Journal Entry: 782

Today, I am in a solemn mood. It has been three months since we defeated the xenos threat on Xephone Prime, and not a single day goes by when I don't think of the men and women who sacrificed their lives in pursuit of our victory.

The few remaining tribal bands continue to be exterminated. And although they are but a mere nuisance now, squabbling more amongst themselves rather than posing any real threat to our continued efforts of restabilising the region, the Orks continue to pull our resources, our surveillance, ammunition, and continue to cost us lives. Each day, another group of Orks are found roaming the Badlands. Could it be that every world visited by these uncivil creatures become infested like this, seemingly without remedy?

The notion terrifies me.

A message from Admiral Tryphosa arrived today. She continues to congratulate me on our victory. I must admit, I am surprised we held out, outnumbered ten to one. But even still, the loss of the Reprimand continues to plague my mind. If only I had not have ordered them to chase down the remaining Orc ships, they would not have been caught in that infernal fusion blast that signalled the very victory for which I am now praised!

I realise that, over the past few weeks, I've already described these feelings at length, more than perhaps is healthy, but I mention this incident once again because it pains me still, and because Squadron 17 has at last received its replacement: the Amphion.

We passed it in orbit a few hours ago. It looks like a fine frigate. A reserve from Squadron 40, Captained by Commander Zhi Cheung, but an inexperienced crew. This would not concern me had Tryphosa's message not said the following:

You are to take an expedition into the Scyrian Expanse, in order to locate the origin of this Ork threat, and elsewise scout the area for additional threats, resources and habitable worlds.

She has also assigned a capital class rogue trader to the mission, a few days inbound from the BXK Mercantile Company: the Zenith, captained by one Hassiq Betancourt-Xing, a well-travelled and experienced merchant. He will accompany us to assist in destroying any threats we encounter, and provide expertise should we encounter any alien civilisations.

I do not feel ready to leave Xephone, but I must admit, the crew have become restless these past few weeks, just as I have languished in remembrance of the Reproach. And I must admit, the mystery of what lies out there in the Scyrian Expanse is thrilling, if somewhat terrifying. Perhaps Admiral Tryphosa's timing is well rehearsed? 

Xephone Prime

Captain's log, star date 3.142.999.M41

High anchor at Xephone Prime – safety drills completed – food stock full – preparations for departure – arrival of the Zenith – dinner with Hassiq Betancourt-Xing

Journal Entry: 786

Ferrer broke my quarter's comms pad today. The man is a brilliant assistant, but dash if he doesn't express a mote of emotion or surprise at anything.

I met with Hassiq Betancourt-Xing and his crew. They came aboard for dinner, and I invited the senior members of the Intemperance and the captains of all six vessels that make up our escort squadron for the trip into the Scyrian Expanse.

My first impression of Hassiq was rather positive. He has a grandiosity that reminds me of my grandfather; a model statesman. He even exhibits the same boisterous, drunken enthusiasm.

But then there were his crew members:

Antono Karolo, the second mate, spent the entire evening attempting to talk his way into my flight officer's under-garments! At one point I almost imposed myself, I couldn't tell if Sarala was uncomfortable or enjoying the attention. Regardless, it was not proper conduct.

Then there was the logistics manager, Sifira Joyner. She had kindly brought a data slate with details of the Zenith's operational performance. I thanked her and said we would take it and look on it in the morning, but she proceeded to bore Westcliffe half-to-death with it! I'm thankful he is a hardy Captain.

I suppose the crew of the Intemperance has its own eccentricities. To be fair, when I was transferred here after that horrific debacle in the Gothic sector, I thought similar things about this crew. As it turns out, the war in Xephone proved I couldn't have asked for better.

One more thing crossed my mind tonight while we were sat at the dining table:

Hassiq and Commander Priscus were sat either side of me. I asked Hassiq how he came to captain the Zenith. Priscus was utterly enthralled at the story. It wasn't long before Hassiq seemed to be speaking over me.

I leant back to let them speak, listening as I watched Antono's advances on Sarala and Westcliffe's boredom.

Hassiq told us how he had been held back by his parents. How he had fought for the opportunities that would lead him to captain the Zenith.

Now Priscus, he comes from a mercantile background. He no doubt fought hard for his opportunities too. I began to wonder if the dull, often blunt demeanour of Priscus was not a character flaw, but a personal distaste for me, a man who had briskly thanked him for his role as acting captain before pushing him off his seat to command this ship where he now serves as a subordinate to me, a man from a well-bred background, a man who was given his position on a platter and, truth be told, never wanted it.

Yet here I am.

The Zenith

Post Script, star date 3.143.999.M41

Priscus just called me. It appears that the data slate Sifira gave us mentions a whole host of inoperable weapons and machinery on the Zenith.

I can't quite believe it. We are supposed to leave tomorrow on a trip into the unknown, with no means to repair or re-stock, totally alone – into a vast and uncharted sector of space, and they don't even have long range scanners working!

How did Admiral Tryphosa come to choose this ship? Surely she must have asked for a logistics and operational report before appointing them to the expedition?

A quick call with Captain Hassiq has left me uncomfortable and full of doubt. He was reluctant to accept our help, possibly due to an embarrassment. I understand his desire to be on this expedition may have pushed him to be lax on the details, but to be honest I feel it has been utterly irresponsible. We are risking the lives of ten thousand in this mission!

I have sent a message to Admiral Tryphosa, but with four weeks before response we cannot delay tomorrow's departure.

I have also asked for a crew to investigate the workings of the Zenith and for materials to be brought up from the surface of Xephone Prime so that we might craft the components needed to mend the dysfunctional combat and surveillance equipment.

Even still, we won't have what we need and it might take months before we even start repairs. We don't have time for this.

How I wish for the dulcet tones of Captain "Pragmatist" Dorschel to accompany me into this Scyrian Chasm, but someone needs to guard Xephone.

Between the inexperienced crew of the Amphion and the inoperable Zenith, I am beginning to have serious concerns about this expedition.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Blood Angels 3rd Company (ish)

Greetings Bunker Dwellers! Unless you have been living under a rock, blindfolded, with noise cancelling headphones and singing an old timey sea shanty, you will have noticed that a new edition of Warhammer 40,000 is upon us! With it has come something of an upswing in enthusiasm for the bolter-flavoured version of Warhammer among our little band. You see, the previous edition of 40k, (while I am sure was fine for many, if not most) had for one reason or another all but killed 40k as a game among us Beard Bunker-ers, it just wasn't an enjoyable experience for us. The more we heard about the new version, the more excited we became and now... it's here!

Knowing that I was going to be looking back at some older projects with a view to sprucing them up and getting them all new-40k-ified, it suddenly struck me that some of them are of sufficient vintage that I haven't really shown them here practically at all. As a result I have resolved to reintroduce some older-but-still-good armies, talk about where I'm going with them and what had gone before. We start with my favourites, my Blood Angels:

That right there is the best part of the entire Blood Angels 3rd Company. They're missing a few folks here and there (we'll get to that later) but the vast majority is right there. I'd decided from the off that this was going to be very much a tactical company, despite the Blood Angels somewhat creative reading of how the Codex Astartes works. Unusually for me, the army is led by a special character straight out of the rulebook: Captain Erasmus Tycho. There's a reason for this, and to find out what it is we kinda have to do that thing where someone plays harp scales and the screen goes wobbly.

My well loved copy of White Dwarf 139, a little foxed, bordering on badgered...

The year is 1991 and a twelve year old Jeff has just picked up White Dwarf 139 from WHSmiths. Although most of the issue is all about Space Fleet - the precursor to the excellent Battlefleet Gothic - there is an article by Andy Chambers and Tim Prow all about this new studio Blood Angels army that they've made. They go through inventing unit markings, deciding colour schemes to denote sergeants and the different tactical roles... and they roll up (yep, in Rogue Trader you randomly generated characters) a character using the existing "Blood Angels Captain" model. They called him Tycho and that random roll was where his combi-weapon, digital lasers and all the rest came from. I was hooked. No-one had shown me how armies were made before, I thought you just got all your dudes and a lego technic guy standing in for a giant and had a fight.

In later years we saw Tycho's story grow, all through the pages of White Dwarf, he was killed in a fight with a Ork Weirdboy but they decided that he survived and got disfigured. Sure enough when a proper model was made of him, there he was. We saw when he finally fell to the Black Rage in the defence of Armageddon. We watched a whole mini-series about this one dude and his army. It left something of an impression on me. Of course, being a callow, fickle youth, Space Wolves appeared and in 3rd edition I collected them instead, an army of 15 space marines and every special character in the range of course... But the Blood Angels never really left me, there was something about the tragedy of their situation, the nobility of Sanguinius and his fall. I liked that they were flawed, that they weren't goody-goody. Finally, about seven years ago. There was a new release with all new awesome plastic bits and I saw the sign. It was finally time to collect 12 year old Jeff's army.

I made a slightly crazy decision with this army. I chose a slightly simplified version of the colour scheme that Anja Wettergren had detailed in an 'Eavy Metal Masterclass article (this really is The Army That White Dwarf Built if you hadn't picked up on the theme!). This led to some hellish long batches being painted, the red alone is like 8 stages. But the finished results were that dark, dangerous looking red that the Space Hulk terminators have rather than the nineties dayglo orange. Very nice indeedy. The picture above is of the tactical marines of the 3rd company. If you check out the kneepads, they're all properly assigned to squads, very old school. I decided to have the Veterans of the army being the first Assault squad and first Tactical squad of the army. The Tactical Veterans were of course Sternguard. The Assault Veterans....

Of course became Vanguard Veterans. Joining them are the other fifteen Assault Marines forming what I tend to think of as the Ca-Caw Corps of the army. Almost two dozen lunatics dropping from high altitude transports onto you can really spoil your day and the Blood Angels excelled at it. We'll have to see how they fare in the new rules but the old playing experience of my army felt like this: deploy a bit of a defensive force to provide fire support, then as of turn two begin raining down nutcases from orbit to mix it up close and nasty. When those are your tactics, you really need some heavy friends who can help out. Good job I brought some:

A pair of Dreadnoughts and their attendant orbital taxis fit the bill nicely. In the picture there is also the fourth tactical squad's drop pod, they're the ones with all the melta weaponry so makes sense to drop them where they can do some hurt. Supported by at least one of the two dreadnoughts (the old way that drop pods worked) they were an unpleasantly adjacent problem for most commanders facing this army. I should mention, while I am going to talk about expanding this army later, very few things on this earth would convince me to paint another drop pod without having a long hard word with myself first. They are the most hateful things to paint.

All that close in stuff needs some boom to back it up and so here we have the big guns of the army. The Devastators, the Terminators (with the lovely, lovely Forgeworld pads) and the Land Speeder fire support. You may notice the helmets on the Land Speeders, Devastator rather than assault. This is part of my Blood Angel head-canon, there is no reason to consider a Land Speeder an assault unit except for it's speed. Given that the entire Blood Angels army is built around going fast anyway, this is not a unique feature. I see them as highly mobile heavy weapon support. I.e., as Blood Angel Devastators. Plus the blue helmets look really cool and I had loads of yellow ones in the army already.

Speaking of going fast, those tactical units up there need their taxis. No Blood Angel worth their salt is going to walk when they could be being hurtled there in a turbo-charged APC. The four razorbacks up there belong to the first three tactical squads and the command squad (later) and are ably supported by the Baal Predator. I've got a few variant turrets for the Razorbacks so I can swop out the assault cannons for more lascannons if I'm up against heavy stuff and a heavy bolter turret if I'm feeling cheap. I'd always planned to fabricate some round hatches with some sort of remote firing storm bolter to fit in the sockets for the razorback weapons and turn them into rhinos for if I needed the whole squad moving. Then the 40k malaise hit and the project was abandoned... time to go for it I think!

We've run out of the "normal" Blood Angels now and are into the nutcases. This merry band were originally intended to be deployed by Stormraven so there's another dreadnought and the assault marines to bail out and slaughter things. They're led by either Chaplain Lemartes or "Just Some Chaplain in a Jump Pack" depending on how I'm feeling. What's that? Over there on the left? Why yes, that is a second Tycho (I've got issues) this time in his "fallen" mode. I painted him to look greyer, older than his younger self (coming up next) and always intended to paint up a squad of non-jump-pack-Death Company to keep him company. They're upstairs, assembled, they just need paint. So expect to see them soon-ish too.

For his younger self I went a bit off piste for Blood Angels, most people paint the characters in blingy gold armour. But it's the one bit of Blood Angel design I wasn't keen on. I thought that just having his heraldry and artificer armour but in red would be a nice look. I think I'm right, what do you folks think? You'll notice that the torsos of his command squad are those blingtastic roman style ones off've the Sanguinary Guard. Their fancy jump packs went to the Vanguard Veterans, in fact, the whole army is basically comprised of normal tactical and assault marines with the occasional bits from the death company box and the Sanguinary Guard power weapons on the Sergeants. Really helped theme it. Of course, these days there are upgrade sprues and all sorts.

Backing up the captain are a couple of Sanguinary Priests - both conversions - and the Third Company's Chaplain. I'm pretty sure that the terminator armoured one uses bits from the Grey Knights. This army took so long to complete that they'd been released by that point! In practice I tend to think of the third company as having just one Sanguinary Priest who has a suit of terminator armour on standby if he needs it. I do the same with the Chaplain. I don't have both the jump pack one and the one on foot in the same army. When, inevitably I do a Terminator Chaplain it'll just be another outfit for him. Like a terrifying, dogmatic, murderous Barbie.

Finally we have these three, my Techmarine, my converted Librarian, and the new Captain of the Third: Machiavi. You see, when Tycho died, Machiavi succeeded him and the third company became known as the Ironhelms. There's no more lore than that so I invented some. I imagined Tycho's grief stricken First Sergeant, seeing him slipping into the pit of the Black Rage and having to take command. With no time to do any fancy painting he simply stripped the paint from his helmet to help quick battlefield recognition and went to work. He's refused to change it ever since and so the bare metal skin sealing the ceramite innards remains just bare metal. An Ironhelm. Or something, it's the nice thing about vague details in codexes. There's room for your own headcanon to take root. Speaking of which, I really must name everyone, in the intervening years I've gotten much more strict on every unit and character having individual personalities. Must retrofit some to the old army as I renovate it.

So here we are, full circle. I've hopefully done what that old White Dwarf did. I've explained my army, my reasons for making certain decisions. My motivations in collecting in the first place, my own little bits of lore (which I'm starting to like as an alternative name for what I was calling fluff). Going forward, I've got plans. Sadly they have to be somewhat small plans as the paints that gave this army it's exact colour have long since gone. I'll have to do best matching to do any more. But I really want to get at least a few things done:

  1. I've got a second half for the Sternguard to bring that up to full 10 man strength. Need to paint them. 
  2. There's a full ten man bike squad (well, eight and an attack bike) that I'm going to use to represent the sixth tactical squad. Again, headcanon, Blood Angels are fast moving, what's a bike except a faster tactical marine with an extra boltgun... can we all have one?
  3. Scouts! There's no replacements for the casualties my underwhelming generalship will bring. 
  4. I've got a box full of marine tanks (Land Raiders, Whirlwinds etc.) all primed red. Then left. So they need painting too.
  5. Ultimately, I'd like to add the fifth tactical squad and a second devastator squad. I'd like the whole company as I'm so close to it anyway. 
As you can see, the minute I get the keen to paint some more marines there are projects just waiting for me to get the brush on to it.

What do you think of them? Got any fond memories of ol' 139? Or a story of your own inspiration from elderly sources? A passion project from your younger self? Let me know in the comments. Would love to hear your stories.

Until next time gentle Dwellers


Monday, 12 June 2017

Preparing Narrative Games

There are some skills that can never be perfected, only improved. Among these is the skill of running a narrative game. Ive been at it for decades now, probably since before I could spell the word narrative (nailed it last Tuesday) and certainly before I learned denouement (which I learned by googling it just now; totally thought I could spell it, but auto-correct showed me otherwise).

To cut the Ballistic Skill: I make no claim to being a master. With that out of the way

Last October I finished a long-running Battlefleet Gothic campaign, and two Beard Bunker readers (MajorTheRed and Malcus the Defiler) asked to know more about how I prepared it. Hopefully by answering that question, this post will prove useful reading for budding GMs curious about running their own narrative campaigns, as opposed to the matched play that so often dominates wargaming.

Urr nurr! Spehs urks! Is rusty trubbles.

Thing number one: whats the conflict?
All stories need conflict. Even in a story like The Martian which doesnt even have an antagonist Matt Damons character is in conflict with his environment. By conflict I'm not referring specifically to violence, but that the protagonist wants something and finds hurdles in the way. The story ends when the protagonists goal is either achieved or denied with enough finality to provide closure.

The main conflict in the BFG campaign was pretty basic: an Imperial colony was under attack by a large ork fleet, and Jon and Maiseys characters would encounter said fleet with only a reconnaissance flotilla and no chance of reinforcements. Whatever happened next was up to the two of them.

Is not enough spehs sheeps to fight urks' spehs sheeps.
Much narrative tension. Such wow.

For added spice, I added a second conflict. Increasingly Im coming to the conclusion that an essential ingredient in a good narrative is a conflict that cant (or at least shouldnt) be resolved with violence. Armed conflict against orks offers no moral or social complexity, but it does offer strategic challenge. For the social complexity, I decided that Commander Gereon Priscus, the executive officer on Jons ship, was an embittered man who felt he should be captain instead. He would therefore seek to undermine Jons authority without technically breaking any rules. Jon would have to win him over, or limit the spread of his influence by keeping the rest of his senior officers on-side.

Since one can never predict what players will do, I dont bother to plan what happens next. I simply set up a conflict, and let the players resolve it. Protagonists are meant to shape the story, and they cant do that if Ive already written it!

What is the pace?
Once you know what the conflict is, you need to have a think about how long the story should last. The length is, you guessed it, directly proportionate to the complexity/size of the conflict.

Anticipating story length can be difficult, particularly given that everything seems to take twice as long as it should (that might just be me, to be fair) but expectation needs to line up somewhat with reality. If your players are expecting an epic and you give them a short story, it feels underwhelming. If they're expecting something quick and punchy, they'll run out of steam with a meandering odyssey.

Either way, deciding length at the start forces you to decide when to hurry the players up and when to give them space. Should it be a single evening? Six evenings? Maybe one full day would be sufficient, or maybe it'll take twenty sessions. Whatever it is, the players should know before they even agree to participate.

With the Xephone campaign, I knew it would be a relatively slow story. There was an extensive cast of NPCs to meet and form relationships with, and a challenging objective that would take time to complete, so we agreed to play weekly sessions, with the expectation that it would take months to complete.

What do the players enjoy?
Obviously it's essential for a GM to write something they're excited to run, and it's just as important to be mindful of the players' preferences. If those don't line up, then don't invite everyone, or write something else. I knew that Alex (my other half) would love all the interplay between the landed-gentry-in-space that made up the fleet's senior staff, but she would also have been bored to tears by the space battles. Conversely Jon would be all over it like sexy lycra on Super Manatee, and Maisey always did love an opportunity to stare forlornly at impossible odds.

What is the tone?
Is it campy? Gritty? Derpy? Moooody? With the Xephone campaign I aimed for somewhere between Jane Austen and Terry Pratchett, with sarcy space butlers and toff-tastic naval officers enjoying five-course dinners while a string quartet scraped out Dvořák's finest offerings.

Create the world
Now you know what you're aiming for, the work begins. This is where I tend to get over-excited. Since 40K is a well-established setting, much of the work was already done for me, but there was still plenty to do. Firstly, since the whole story would be set in one star system, it seemed appropriate to have a map of said system.

Next, I knew it would be useful to know where stuff was on the planet's surface, and what Xephone Prime was like. To that end, I sat down and thought through both the climate and the culture, then I added all that information to the Beard Bunker's setting wiki, since it was all information that would have been freely available in the Imperial archives. I have to say, using a wiki to keep track of story world information has made it much, much easier for a group of people to collaborate on a setting. Wiki wiki wa-wa win.

Similarly, I thought through how the orks had attacked and how the invasion had gone thus far so that I could be consistent in what I told the players. This was also a stage where I had to come up with a lot of place names, because coming up with a place name on the fly is almost physically painful.

Prepare the NPCs
With the setting sorted, I began figuring out the NPCs. The Xephone campaign had an unusually big cast, because I felt it important to nail the sci-fi trope of getting to know the bridge crew. The added challenge was that we didn't just need the bridge crew of Jon's ship, we needed them for Maisey's ship, and we needed the captains of the flotilla's escort ships, and for any of these people to have a name, they also needed to have at least some semblance of distinctiveness.

I also wanted to flesh out life on board these giant flying towns, so went into... enthusiastic detail about the capital ships' innards.

  • The Intemperance, a dictator-class carrier, was the flotilla's flagship. Read about her and her crew here.
  • The San Celestine, a dauntless-class light cruiser, was the flotilla's only ship of the line, which made ork kroozers a touch intimidating. Maisey did an amazing job of using the San Celestine's manoeuvrability to stay out of harm's way. Except that one time when he failed, and then got lucky when a kill kroozer unloaded all its guns right up the San Celestine's chuff and whiffed its rolls like a complete space potato. You can read all about the San Celestine and her crew here.

TL;DR: plan your world in excitable detail, but don't plan your story.

The San Celestine

Okay now I've rambled on for longer than I'd like, so I shall sign off with a promise to, at some point, tell the tale of the campaign. With the new BFG campaign having started last week, there may also be some narrative treats in stall for y'all via Jon, but I make no promises on his behalf.

If there are things you feel I should have covered but didn't, do let me know! There might also be things you feel I've not covered in enough detail, despite the meaty length of this post. I'm happy to elaborate on demand.


Sunday, 4 June 2017

Scarab Occult & Tzaangors

It can't have escaped anyone's attention by now that the new edition of 40k is nigh. This is rather exciting news and the steady drip of information coming out each day is only causing further excitement. So in order to avoid the hobby equivalent of blue balls we have all found ourselves getting stuck into some painting to satisfy that particular itch.

I've got stuck into more of the Thousands Sons models. The Scarab Occult Terminators are now done, in the same method as the Rubric Marines


The other main troops unit was a blob of Tzaangors, which are Tzeentch tainted beastmen. These are painted a little bit different to the Thousand Son legionnaires. The metal work is intended to look much newer, but keeping the same red touches to tie them in. 

So with these I've nearly finished all the Thousand Sons stuff that I own. I have been lusting over the new Forgeworld Dreadnought thing that I want to include at some point. I also do want to get into some serious conversion territory and Tzeentch up a tank or two to match the armour style of the Marines. This will be a bit of a challenge as I've never really done any sculpting and all my conversion have been kit-bash type of things. So it'll be new ground for me, but it would be very much worth it as the current selection of Chaos tanks are woefully lacking.