Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Viking berserkers in wargames - a thesis and some notes

Gosh, it's been quiet round here. I have several games to write reports on, although they may just be short notes and photos at this late date, but they are languishing in the doldrums of lack of desire to edit the photos and write about them. However, I have just been informed that my PhD has gone live on the Nottingham eTheses website, so, instead of writing battle reports, and while my work on turning my PhD into a thrilling bestseller falters along like a 3 minute old foal, I offer the chance to read my deathless prose offline by downloading my thesis, while waiting for the next gaming related post. Alternatively, you could wait for a more reader-friendly version when the book is finally published. Click the title below to go to the page for my thesis. It's a 31Mb download. You have been warned. I've also added some thoughts after the abstract on what my conclusions mean for a Viking wargame army.

Berserkir: A re-examination of the phenomenon in literature and life
Abstract
This thesis discusses whether berserkir really went berserk. It proposes revised paradigms for berserkir as they existed in the Viking Age and as depicted in Old Norse literature. It clarifies the Viking Age berserkr as an elite warrior whose practices have a function in warfare and ritual life rather than as an example of aberrant behaviour, and considers how usage of PDE ‘berserk’ may affect the framing of research questions about berserkir through analysis of depictions in modern popular culture. The analysis shows how berserksgangr has received greater attention than it warrants with the emphasis being on how berserkir went berserk. A critical review of Old Norse literature shows that berserkir do not go berserk, and suggests that berserksgangr was a calculated form of posturing and a ritual activity designed to bolster the courage of the berserkr.

It shows how the medieval concept of berserkir  was more nuanced and less negative than is usually believed, as demonstrated by the contemporaneous existence in narratives of berserkir as king’s men, hall challengers, hólmgöngumenn, Viking raiders, and Christian champions, and by the presence of men with the byname berserkr in fourtheenth-century documents. Old Norse literature is related to pre-Viking Age evidence to show that warriors wearing wolfskins existed and can be related to berserkir , thus making it possible to produce models for Viking Age and medieval concepts of berserkir .

The modern view of berserkir is analysed and shows that frenzy is the dominant attribute, despite going berserk not being a useful attribute in Viking Age warfare which relied upon men holding a line steady rather than charging individually.

The thesis concludes that ON berserkr may be best translated as PDE ‘champion’, while PDE ‘berserker’ describes the type of uncontrollable warrior most commonly envisaged when discussing berserkir .

Most illustrations have been removed from the digital version of this thesis for copyright reasons. The references in the captions guide the reader to the original source for those illustrations.

What this means for Viking armies in wargames
In the first instance, it means an end to psycho nutjobs with no clothes and lots of special rules, not that I am the first to have written this. Berserkir were champions and bodyguards. They fought in the same manner as the other warriors in the army, but better. Their defining features such as the howling and shield-biting (or spell-chanting as I have suggested as an alternative interpretation) happened before the battle and were not part of an intrinsic berserk state, despite what popular culture says. To reflect their attributes, they would be the best armed and best armoured troops in the army, and they would be grouped around a leader. How this applies to your games will depend upon the scale of the game.

You might have an entire warband of these guys in a skirmish game, reflecting a lord and his immediate retinue going off to do a bit of plundering, or to rescue a foreign lord from the monster plaguing his hall. Your leader might be a berserkr with a following of local levies and assorted warriors. You might have one or two berserkir with a leader and then a group of levies and assorted warriors. The permutations are as many as the possible scenarios around why a leader is on his own or only accompanied by a couple of his champions.

In a big battle game, the representation will depend upon how you perceive the structure of the army. If you think the best warriors could be spread among the rabble to raise their discipline, then you would simply improve the average quality of many/all units in the army. If you think, as do I, that the berserkir would be gathered around their lord and his standard, then you should use the highest quality troop type in your army for the stands of your leaders/generals. This does not mean picking the highest quality in the army list. I doubt all lords and their retinues were of equal quality, and the number of men in a lord's personal retinue is highly unlikely to be equal to the notional number of men comprising a unit or stand in most big battle games. This means that the effect of the best troops will be diluted, so you might have a unit of veteran huskarls to represent the berserkir and the best troops, instead of automatically representing the unit as elite huskarls.

The actual physical representation of these troops is more difficult. They may have worn bearskins or a bear's mask, but the evidence is not present to state whether these accoutrements were worn, if at all, in battle or only for rituals and ceremonies. I would suggest going for what you find aesthetically pleasing. As long as your berserkir are not naked, you are not leaving yourself open to criticism by pedants like me!

So, that's a few thoughts on berserkir in wargames. They are certainly not complete or comprehensive, but I hope they provide food for thought.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Ambulatory Terrain

I was using an army based on that of Ancient Egypt, so it seems appropriate that the ambulatory terrain against which Steve's skirmishers were crushed was my cat Victor.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Ronin Campaign 3 - Defence

The third scenario in the Ronin mini-campaign was the Defence scenario. One side defends an objective, while the other side tries to take it. The rules state that the attacker gets twice as many points as the defender for the standard scenario, but it was not clear from the rules how this translates into the campaign game. In the campaign you start with 300 points of troops and divide them how you wish between the three scenarios before knowing what your opponent is allocating to each scenario, so points can be quite equal. As it happened, we decided to make the side with the higher points allocation the attacker. That was me. I had 100 points while Steve had 97 allocated to this scenario.
The terrain for the battle consisted of two impassable carst formations, a small wood and a grain storehouse in the middle. The storehouse was the monk's winter supply and was guarded by four of their best. As you will remember, the monks have been getting uppity and my samurai must enforce the law of the land by insisting that the monks pay their taxes. As part of that, our lord has decided that we must raid the monks' grain storage to recover back taxes.

As the attacker, I started with half my force on the table, and the rest would arrive in subsequent turns. This meant that I had two figures on the table, one would arrive on turn 2 and the last on turn 3. Ronin games are not large. I deployed two ashigaru in the open but around the back of the storehouse from the monks. My guys had a yumi (bow) and a teppo (arquebus). I thought that I would try to force the monks to move into the open and shoot at them before my melee troops tried storming the place. The game was 1d6+6 turns long and Steve rolled a 6, so I knew I had plenty of time (12 turns) to build up my forces and advance. I was a little worried by the fact that Steve suddenly had troops with missile weapons. He had not fielded missile weapons in any previous battle. Still, I would do what I could do.

My missile troops advanced closer to make the shooting easier and Steve's monks moved around the corner. In the exchange of fire that resulted over the next couple of turns, my guys suffered a couple of light wounds and Steve remained whole. His monks had clearly trained more with their weapons and my armour was not proof against his high dice rolls.
As the ashigaru closed the range, my melee troops arrived on the opposite corner of my starting edge. An ashigaru with a yari arrived first, using the carst formation as cover to close the range. He was closely followed by the best samurai in our lord's force (a rank 5 dude with loads of skillz). He demonstrated those skillz by using the ashigaru as cover to advance towards the enemy monks. This stopped the monks with yumi and teppo from shooting at him. The teppo in particular was a worry because it ignores armour and is quite deadly at close range.

The ashigaru did his job and fell riddled with arrows and musket balls, but the samurai was now close enough to charge and did so to good effect. By closing with the enemy he prevented further missile fire at him, but the monks quickly surround him and he was soon fending off three of the dastardly orange-clad devils. The fight was quite short and hard fought. Over the course of a couple of turns he fended off many attacks by the monks and cut down all three of them in turn. His kenjutsu skill came in particularly handy because it meant that he got a free re-roll of one die on all attack and defence rolls. Many of the re-rolls were as bad or worse than the original roll because my dice hate me, but it worked out right in the end. A couple of good re-rolls raised the numbers high enough to be useful. With the re-roll from the skill, it also meant that I could attack more often rather than spending dice from his combat pool to enhance his attacks. This meant he could badly hurt or kill enemy figures in a single turn, thus shortening the odds against him.
In the end, my samurai killed all the enemy monks, aided only a little by the largely ineffective missile fire from my ashigaru. Heads were taken, grain was transported back to the castle and the monks were put in their place.

The campaign is supposed to finish with a final climactic battle but we called it a samurai victory at this point because Steve only had one monk left alive for the final battle, while I had three samurai and three ashigaru.

Thoughts on Ronin
So, my thoughts? I enjoyed this mini-campaign. The rules are simple enough to get into and are well written with few areas of confusion. The game plays quickly, if you don't spend too much time in and between turns chatting. Our games always take longer because they are social events too.

The combat pool mechanic is good. Each figure has a combat pool and you choose a total of attack and defence dice equal to that pool. You need attack dice to actually attack and can spend an extra one to enhance your attack. You automatically get one die on all defence rolls, but you can spend a defence die to enhance your defence. Choosing the right mix for the circumstances and deciding when to use them is a great mechanic that takes you away from just standard rolling. I like mechanisms like this because it gives you interesting tactical choices to make. In the fight against the samurai above, Steve chose all attack dice for his mob. He wanted to make all-out attacks against the samurai because the samurai's heavy armour and high fight skill meant it was difficult to hurt him. This choice left the monks vulnerable to the samurai's attacks though, because they were only rolling basic defence rolls. I chose a balanced combat pool so that I could enhance the early defence rolls against Steve's best troops while still making attacks. I also relied on the kenjutsu re-reroll rather than enhancing my attacks.

Combat is made more interesting by an initiative roll too. All figures in a melee roll for initiative and attack in descending order of their roll. You have to choose your combat pool before you make the initiative roll, so there is an element of calculation and risk in choosing your combat pool. Do you rely on attacking first and killing your opponent before he can respond, or do you assume you will have to defend and give yourself a die or two for enhancing your defence? I like these sorts of decisions. They make games more interesting.

Overall, I think these are a sound set of rules and we shall return to them again in the future. The decision making is interesting and this makes the game play exciting. But first we have a Talomir Tales battle to fight and then we are going to play Impetus for a bit. It has been far too long since my Vikings hit the table.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Ronin Campaign 2 - Capture

This is the second game in our Ronin mini-campaign. You can read about the first here.

The abbot's body had been crucified and left in a wasteland for the birds to peck at as a warning to the monastery. Naturally the monks wanted to recover the body and give it the appropriate funeral rites. The samurai boss was determined to make sure this did not happen.

Both forces entered from opposite edges of the battlefield. The objective was in the centre: a newly painted vignette of the crucifixion of Torii Suneemon which I declared was actually the abbot from the previous battle.

I had a force led by a rank 3 samurai, supported by a rank 2 ashigaru-gashira and three rank 1 ashigaru. Steve had a rank 4 monk, a rank 3 monk and two rank 1 temple attendants, I think. I never actually checked or read his roster and am basing this on what I remember of the game.
Both sides charged towards the crucified body. Part-way there the ashigaru with teppo and ashigaru with bow paused to shoot but with little effect. The ashigaru-gashira and the ashigaru with yari engaged a monk as quickly as they could but neither side could gain an advantage. In the meantime, my samurai cut down a temple attendant.
My ashigaru were split up by the arrival of another monk to aid the first one. The two monks were able to kill both ashigaru in short order while the samurai cut down the other temple attendant. My archer was performing very poorly, but the ashigaru with the teppo fired and was able to cut down the junior monk right after the monk had killed the ashigaru-gashira.

This works because of the turn sequence and is something to exploit. It appears to be intentional in the rules. Steve had used this and the line of sight rules to prevent me from shooting everything at his boss monk. I repaid him by rolling well with my shooting. It all evens out in the end!
With one monk and two temple attendants dead, Steve's senior monk sought the shelter of his dead abbot's gaze and the samurai with two of his ashigaru ganged up on him. The end result was hardly in doubt and the monk died on the final turn of the game. Victory was mine once more, and the monk's force was severely reduced for the final battle, although I seem to be going through ashigaru like nobody's business.

Steve told me that he had thought he might be able to defend enough in the final melee to outlast the turn countdown. Sadly that did not work for him. He also hoped that by being in contact with the objective he might gain the victory if I forgot to contest it by placing one of my own warriors in contact with it. This too did not work for him because I realised what he was up to. Still, it was another good fun game. These rules are simple to play but with sufficient decision-making to keep things interesting. I particularly like the combat pool where you have to decide how many dice to allocate to attacking and defending for each melee.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Ronin Campaign 1 - The Skirmish

We began a Ronin mini-campaign last week. The campaign involves building a buntai (warband) and dividing it into three groups. Each group is assigned to one of three scenarios: skirmish (= encounter), capture and defence. After all three scenarios have been played, the surviving figures mix it up in a big skirmish battle. Figures can gain experience through the campaign, but it would take several such mini-campaigns for a figure to gain enough experience to rise in rank, if I read the rules aright.

The first scenario was the initial skirmish scenario. I had one rank 4 samurai and three rank 1 ashigaru. Rank 1 is the worst and Rank 5 is the best grade. Steve had 3 high ranking monks from his monastery. Clearly the monks were refusing to pay their taxes to the big samurai boss and we had to sort them out. As frequently happens in our games, there was little tactical subtlety.
There was a small building in the centre of the battlefield. I initially thought that I would seize this and then defend it from the monks. We both charged for it. My samurai chappie entered the building while the ashigaru armed with missile weapons let rip. The teppo made much noise but had little effect. The ashigaru with yari lurked near the door of the building as I realised that my plan was not workable.
 As the monks approached, my samurai left the building and sliced and diced the weakest of the monks (a rank 3 monk). The other two monks made short work of two of my ashigaru. It turns out that Steve had fielded an elite force in this scenario with the abbot of his monastery (a rank 5 model), an abbot in the making (rank 4) and a senior monk (rank 3 but now dead). When I realised this, I fully expected to get creamed, so my samurai made a break for it.
He raced towards the ashigaru with the teppo, but so did the monks. The abbot pursued the samurai while the junior abbot pursued my ashigaru. I lost the initiative and my ashiguar was toast. At this point neither of us had achieved our individual victory conditions, and the score was even in terms of points for dead bodies, because my three ashigaru were worth the same as the dead monk. My samurai had been running and had drawn the abbot away from the junior abbot. Seeing his chance, he turned and confronted the monk.
The two leaders faced each other over drawn swords as the junior abbot raced to support his master. He was too late to do anything. Both leaders screamed a battle cry and leapt at each other. When the dust cleared, the samurai was standing and the monk lay in the dust. The battle was over and the last monk withdrew from the battlefield. The monastery had been taught a lesson.

This game was characterised by very good dice rolling on Steve's part in the first half of the game. My dice only came into their own when my samurai turned and confronted the abbot. At this point I convincingly slaughtered him and won the scenario. I got lucky because the abbot was a better warrior on paper. Nevertheless, it was good fun. I really like how the special abilities for the leaders lend something to the narrative of the battle too.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

29 Thaumont 1000 AC - Elyas' Tower

Broneslav led Baik down to Ular-Taman's room, where he showed the snake creature the pendant and the ring.

"I have both pendant and ring," he announced, "How do I make them work?"
Ular-Taman hissed a reply, "With both ring and pendant joined, as I see they are, you must speak the word on the back of the pendant, and it will create a circle of power that prevents all evil magic from working. In this way you will be able to defeat the witches."

Broneslav grinned. He had read Rahasia's name on the back of the pendant. Now he knew its significance.

"Come, Baik, we must enter the wizard's tower and defeat a great evil. Riches and glory will be ours for the taking."

He led the way through the treasure room and into the corridor leading down to the tower that lay encased beneath the mountain. As he did so, he wondered if it really counted as a tower now.

The rough-hewn corridor they followed opened into a dark, dry cavern. In the wall opposite was an opening leading to another rough-hewn corridor, presumably that used by the Rahib. The walls of Elyas' tower blocked the cavern off, rising up some 60 feet to its roof. Rubble was strewn everywhere as the tower's upper levels were destroyed by the spell that encased the rest of it in the mountain. Dark, stained doors with curious engravings were visible in the middle of the wall. It took the combined might of Broneslav and Baik to open them. Beyond the doors, a corridor stretched off into the distance. The only light here was the torch carried by Baik. The torch cast eerie shadows in the vast, vaulted corridor. Seeing no danger they advanced slowly forwards.

Suddenly two men leapt out of the shadows with chilling battle cries. One sliced through a gap in Broneslav's armour (2 DAM). The other cut a wicked slash to Baik's head (1 DAM). Put off by the sudden attack, Broneslav fluffed his sword thrust, but the boot that followed it laid the man out cold. The other man missed Baik, but was not so lucky in return. A quick search of the corpses, after bandaging their own wounds, turned up two bottles of wine labeled: Wizard of Wines Winery, Purple Grapemash No.3, 14231241-S. Both men also had full purses which found their way onto Broneslav and Baik's belts. The heroes left the men's short swords, shields and armour behind. They were obviously of poor quality and well-used.

The corridor ended in a large octagonal room that had obviously been tidied up. The roof in here had collapsed but now all the rubble and debris was gathered in its centre. A quick search showed the room to be empty. Corridors led off to either side and double doors lay in the northern wall. When they checked the corridor to the east, Broneslav and Baik could see double doors at its end, as well as branches heading north and south. This was a big room, so it seemed likely that it was an antechamber to another important room. For this reason they decided to try the double doors to the north first. Neither Broneslav nor Baik could hear anything through the doors, so they pushed them open ...

Character
Broneslav Torenescu (S16, D14, C15, I12, W10, Ch14, F1, HP 9, AC4, Sword 1d8+3, Bow 1d8)
Human (Traladaran)
XPs: 1028

Traits:
Torenescu Family Member 1
Hunter 1
Keen Vision 1
Good Education 1
Empathy with Animals 1

Goal: Prove that he is an adult following the Shearing Ceremony
Goal: Slay a red dragon
Quest: Deliver a parcel to Merisa in Gray Mountain Village
Quest: Rescue Sylva and Merisa
Quest: Undo the greater evil under Kota-Hutan Temple

Allies
Baik Telor (HD 4, AC 4, ATK +4, DAM 1d8)

Roll of Honour
Alki (Level 2 Elven warrior brutally slain while helpless by the Rahib)

Saturday, 7 February 2015

29 Thaumont 1000 AC - Return to the temple

After a good night's rest, Broneslav felt much better. The Elven healer's work had been good and we was ready to return to the temple and finish the job he had started. Baik Telor agreed to accompany him on condition that he was given a full share of any treasure they found. Baik Telor had seen the treasure that Broneslav had already accrued and liked the colour of it. He equipped himself with a shield and the pair set out once mor, clad in robes previously worn by the Siswa. The journey to the temple was quick. Broneslav returned to the statue with the pendant on it and managed to work out that he needed to insert the black jade ring into the pendant to release it. Armed with the tools necessary to destroy the evil, although unsure how they worked, he and Baik headed through the portal to the middle temple level. He had not fully explored it before and explained this to Baik, as well as his reasons for not doing so. Together they decided that it would be best to clear it of enemies before moving deeper into the mountain.

Scouting the corridors soon showed that the ends of each of them was a portal just like on the temple's outer level. South of the Great Temple, where he had first seen the Rahib, Broneslav found double doors in the wall. This led to a corridor with open alcoves off it. The alcoves contained primitive cots for sleeping on and little else. As the pair approached one cell, they heard chanting coming from it. Approaching completely unnoticed, the pair found three Siswa chanting around a candle. Their chant meant little to the two heroes who used their stealthy approach to soundlessly overpower the Siswa. They tied and gagged them before moving on.

As they rounded the corner of the corridor, they could see stairs rising into a room to the south-west and two guards ahead by a double door. The two Siswa guards stood patiently watching as the heroes approached. Suddenly one of them yelled something and both leapt to the attack. As they did so, Broneslav wondered why he bothered with the disguise when everyone seemed to see right through it. The guard parried his blow and countered with a thrust that cut Broneslav's arm badly (2 DAM). Beside him, Baik also missed but fended off the guard's blow. As Broneslav and the guard countered each others' blows, Baik cursed when his opponent slipped a blow through his guard (1 DAM). Suddenly the corridor was alive with Siswa as ten more came storming out of the dark alcoves along the corridor. Broneslav and Baik swung wild blows at the nearest enemies, felling two of the new arrivals as they retreated to get their backs to a wall. Side by side and backed into a corner, no more than four of the Siswa could attack them at once. The plan seemed to work. The guards followed up, aided by the new arrivals but could not get their weapons past the heroes' shields. Broneslav knocked one guard unconscious with the flat of his blade, as Baik slew the other, and a wild swipe of Broneslav's shield left two more Siswa on the floor. The six remaining Siswa pressed the attack but the heroes were able to hold them off as Broneslav knocked out four more of them. Of the remaining two, one turned to run while the other attacked Baik. Baik blocked his blow and counter-attacked but failed to hit the Elf. Broneslav launched himself at the fleeing Siswa and brought him to the ground. A swift punch to the side of the head left the Elf snoring as Baik cursed once more at being hit. Fortunately his armour held and the blow did not cut him. With two heroes versus one Siswa, the end was not in doubt and soon eleven Siswa had been captured and tied up, while only one lay dead on the floor. Broneslav was not happy about this, but it was too late now. He had briefed Baik, but Baik was more concerned with surviving himself than with looking out for the Siswa. With Baik's wounds bandaged, they carried on.

The remaining alcoves were empty, and the two corner rooms had stairs leading up to the surface. Light could be seen at the top of the stairs. Broneslav chose not to sortie up the stairs but to continue on. In one alcove they found a chest next to one of the crude cots. The two warriors clustered round the chest and opened the lid, only to have several darts fly out at them. As the dart struck him, Broneslav collapsed to the floor. Baik remained standing. When Broneslav came to twenty minutes later, Baik informed him that he appeared to have been hit by a sleep dart, and that the chest had contained 50 silver coins and a bottle of wine. He shared these coins with Broneslav and they packed the wine in their packs.

N.B. Baik is Lawful and will usually act that way. I consulted the oracle to see if greed got the better of him, and it did! The chest actually contained 100 silver coins and 75 electrum coins. Baik chose to keep most of the treasure and share a bit because a trapped chest with no treasure would have been odd.

The two warriors then entered the central room in this part of the temple. It appeared to be a dining room with a long table down the middle and benches on either side. It had alcoves at each end, one with the work KESINI carved in the wall above it and the other with KESANA. The alcoves were empty and encouraged no further investigation there.With this part of the temple cleared and the enemy captured, Broneslav led the way down to the temple's lower level.

Character
Broneslav Torenescu (S16, D14, C15, I12, W10, Ch14, F1, HP 9, AC4, Sword 1d8+3, Bow 1d8)
Human (Traladaran)
XPs: 968

Traits:
Torenescu Family Member 1
Hunter 1
Keen Vision 1
Good Education 1
Empathy with Animals 1

Goal: Prove that he is an adult following the Shearing Ceremony
Goal: Slay a red dragon
Quest: Deliver a parcel to Merisa in Gray Mountain Village
Quest: Rescue Sylva and Merisa
Quest: Undo the greater evil under Kota-Hutan Temple

Allies
Baik Telor (HD 4, AC 4, ATK +4, DAM 1d8)

Roll of Honour
Alki (Level 2 Elven warrior brutally slain while helpless by the Rahib)