Battle Tactics: The Battle of the Bastards (TV version)

(SPOILERS for Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire)

I am not a huge fan of the later books in GRRM’s A song of ice and fire, so I have not really delved into the TV show, with the exception of when there is a major battle to watch. This most recent season had the famous battle of the Bastards which was one of the most visually spectacular and exciting battles out there. I loved it.

Mostly.

I have a serious problem with the way that Bolton’s spear wall is portrayed. Take a look at the following pictures:

BoB 1

Big shields and a wall of spears… a strong shield wall ha turned back many a barbarian horde hasn’t it? Note that men can easily fit between the spears and despite the length of the weapon it is only braced by two men.

BoB 3

Some unlucky Wilding gets too close to the shield wall and gets an ugly surprise. Note the long length of exposed wood on these spears.

BoB 2

The size of the forces involved. What happens if all of the Wildlings, fearing death, push in one direction?

.

BoB 4

Another view showing the relative size of the forces involved. The reaction of any force being squeezed like this is to push back at some point in a desperate attempt to survive.

So the Bolton Spearwall is an odd duck.

  • The shields are enormous individually, but do not gain the strength that a smaller shield overlapping with a neighbors shield would.
  • The spears are a long as some pikes but only have one set of extra hands bracing them and absolutely no support from spears further back in the formation. The main deterrent from pushing into a phalanx is that one is always exposed to more rows of spears, there is no safe channel for men to flow through to get to the shields.
  • Several of the Wildlings are shown making it to the shields. One opens up and delivers a swords thrust to keep the man back. This is great TV, but terrible tactics for a spearwall where it would be far better to ward the front rank with more spears. The sword thrust appears to come from the man in the second rank, which is a pretty long lunge, and that oversize shield looks awful clumsyand hard to get back into place.

I would argue that the Wildlinsg would push back against the shields of the Bolton men. The spear density is just too sparse to stop them and the enemy ranks are too thin to prevent a breakout. Once the mass of bodies is pushing against the shields (which is inevitable, one way or another) it is very hard for the front man to move his shield aside for the man behind him to thrust with a blade. The Romans used shorter, wider shields that they could thrust over.

Some would argue that the Bolton spearwall bears some similarities to medieval spear units, the Roman Legion, or even that the Bolton men are so good or the Wildlings are so unused to formation fighting that they could not get up to the shields to push back.

Fine. What then stops the Wildlings from doing exactly the first thing that leaps to mind when I look at that spearwall: What stops the Wildings from grabbing the spears or hacing the points off? In a true Phalanx the secondary spears could thrust out to prevent this. Nothing at all prevents it in the battle of the bastards. No matter how stupid and fearful the Wildlings are eventually someone is going to hack the head off of one of those spears, or, worse yet, grab them and pull. It would only take three men pulling to overpower the two men holding the spear in the Bolton formation.

The Macedonian Phalanx

The Macedonean Phalanx. One of the pinnacles of formation warfare. The pikes are braced by numerous men and defended by row after row of spear tips that could thrust forward to ward off anyone pushing into the formation. 

Even then a true fanboy could argue that I am wrong and it does not have to turn out that way. A particularly cynical chap might say that they were overawed or low on morale, ready to be slaughtered like animals.

Ok. So what then happens when those spears start pushing into the mass of men and getting weighed down by bodies. Each of those spears would rapidly become useless as it pushes into the packed Wildlings. After it impales a few it becomes a liability as the rest can easily surge over the encumbered weapon and get into the Bolton line before it reforms. In a true spearwall the additional spears could be used to push bodies off, but more importantly they provide immediate replacements when the front spear gets broken, pulled away, or becomes unwieldy due to impaled bodies, there are immediate replacements already in place.

I admit I am being picky. Fans loved the Battle of the Bastards. The problem is many of those fans, like my own stepson, will go on to write their own fantasy tales/shows/games and I do not want to see them compound on this error.

Tuesday Teaser

It is Tuesday, and time for a teaser. This week I am going back to my second book in the Domains series, Bloodlust: Will to Power. In this book Gavin finds himself in a dark space, seeking revenge against a Gladiator who is considered to be well above him. He is forced to journey to the Killerès Circle, the heart of the brutal Death Leagues.

Bloodlust: Will to Power

Bloodlust: Will to Power

The Killer’s Circle surprised Gavin. None of the descriptions or rumours that he had heard about the Domains most notorious house of slaughter captured the essence of the place. The arena was much smaller than the Supplicant’s Arena, seating perhaps a thousand, all in luxurious private boxes. The arena itself was made from blocks of black stone, with tall fluted obsidian columns spaced five paces apart, with bases carved like screaming skulls and capitals carved into the likeness of grinning Gladiators. The fighting grounds were half the size of a standard venue, and cunningly built to maximize the sense of intimacy between watcher and performer. Even the sand seemed a little whiter than traditional, almost as if it had been bleached or perhaps carefully sorted for the purest colour, no doubt to better to show the blood that would be spilled. The entrances were ornately framed and all of the accessories were tasteful, gold, silver, black lace and burgundy velvet. Gavin imagined that it looked very much like the inside of well-appointed mansion.

The ceiling of the arena, however, was a forest of corpses hanging on chains, a grotesque mockery of a butcher’s cold room: the remains of those who had been killed on these fighting grounds. Rabble, Mon-sters, and Gladiators hung there, some whole, many in pieces; a constellation of gore. Gavin had been warned about it, but the sight still filled his throat with bile. If he failed, his body would join that ocean of quivering meat. It was no wonder that Valaran had been so disrespectful to Omodo’s corpse given that this was the league he frequented. Gavin looked away quickly, lest he begin to take in details better left un-examined, wounds and faces. What threw him most was the smell. Despite the forest of decaying corpses thirty feet above his head, not to mention the foul air of the city of Dregs, the Killer’s Circle smelled like crushed roses with a hint of strong, dark coffee and wine. The juxtaposition of savagery and decadence unsettled him; there was no pretence of sport here.

The Reckoning and the Nature of Power in the Domains of the Chosen

Why the Chosen would participate in a system that oppresses the majority of the Gifted?

In my Domains of the Chosen series, the Chosen are the potent, ageless rulers of a sprawling Empire that clawed its way to power after surviving a massive magical cataclysm. The Gifted are those who develop the ability to wield magic, and in the Domains they are considered too dangerous to be allowed to develop their talents freely. The Gifted can choose to become Vassals who are sundered from the most destructive aspects of their magic, or to fight for their right to join the ranks of the Chosen as Gladiators.

The answer, in short, is to view the Gifted as weapons of mass destruction. States with nuclear weapons frown on other states trying to develop weapons of mass destruction, but tend be accepting of those that already have them. This even holds up with enemies: Kim Jong Un is dangerously unhinged and could be a much greater and more lasting threat than Isis, but because seems to have nuclear weapons we must practice detente with him instead of regime change.

The long answer is that the Chosen see other magic-wielders as a threat. The Reckoning began because the powerful Gifted of old began a massive war for dominance. The war was of such impressive scope that new races were created (Armodons and Minotaurs are among these and the created races suffer greater racial stigma in the Domains, because they are the product of magic) and the nations of old were mostly destroyed or became puppet states of powerful Gifted. That war went on and on, ending only when the forces that were wielded spun out of control, resulting in massive storms of Chaotic magic that scoured life from the entire planet and tainted the landscape.

The Chosen represent the Gifted who survived because they set aside their differences (temporarily, for survival) and made a pact with the people with the only safe haven around, Krass. Krass needed the Chosen for extra protection, and to help feed and shelter the massive influx of refugees that made their way to the city. The covenant they made was to the benefit of both groups; people hated the Gifted because of The Reckoning, but they needed them to survive. The Chosen needed shelter and could not survive without people (someone needs to grow food, make clothes, etc).

But The Chosen are not a monumental group. They are old enemies who often trust each other less than than anyone else. Any new Gifted who reaches the status of Chosen, migt be an ally for an enemy faction. Thus they use the Great Games as a way to control who has a shot.

It is also worth noting that by the time any Gladiator has a chance to join the the Chosen they have a large amount of popular support from years of public performance in the Arena, which counteracts the lingering fear of the Gifted for most citizens.

Finally a key point is that the Gift is not hereditary. The Chosen do not have a greater chance of having children with the Gift than anyone else. Thus any Chosen with children has a large chance of having ungifted kids; if they love those kids then they have an automatic desire to protect them from other Gifted. If the Gift were hereditary I expect things would play out very differently, with magical-aristocractic families ruling over ungifted peasant slaves.

In the end it is all about power. We can see the lengths that people go to keep and amass power throughout history, frequently killing their own family members and engaging in horrifying  atrocities. In the Domains of the Chosen, magic is power.

Teaser Tuesday

This week we have a preview from my upcoming book, Bloodlust: The Seeds of Ruin. It is a involves the Skin Leagues, so be warned.

I am always a little uncomfortable writing sexually tinged scenes, especially those involving the Skin Leagues, a degenerate form of the Great Games where the fighters are required to bare their all for the crowds and put up with other humiliating, exploitative rules in the name of gaining popularity and fandom.

“People of Solvanar, I bring you games!” began Silvius, lifting his arms. The crowd roared lustily. “The Skyclad Leagues offers what the corrupt Faction Leagues, the boring Free Leagues, and the dreadfully unrefined Death Leagues do not. Here handsome Gladiators and delectable Gladiatrices bare all and fight hard for your pleasure! Let the games begin!”

Octavia smiled as Silvius returned. Outside the trumpets sounded and the announcer called the Gladiator forth. She leaned over the railing, watching intently through the privacy screen.

Iron Lance was a large, muscular Shadow-Elf. He was wearing a heavy battle harness, but his impressive manhood was clearly visible underneath the plate protecting his abdomen. He was well-formed, with broad shoulders and barrel chest, a thin waist, and a magnificently muscular physique. His hair was glamoured into long spikes and his skin shone as if freshly oiled.

“Does he usually go into battle so impressively… engorged, Silvius?” asked Noxaia.

“It is a League rule, actually,” said Silvius. “After a few seasons we have found that the crowds have certain expectations regarding appearances. It is part of a complex refinement process that I am very involved in.”

“Hands-on, I am sure,” said Octavia.

Silvius laughed ostentatiously, because he had to, then turned back to Chosen Noxaia.

Review: Total War Warhammer – A good time to Waaaaaaaaaagh!

As I close in on the last few re-writes of Bloodlust: The Seeds of Ruin I have encountered a formidable obstacle; I am positively addicted to Total War: Warhammer.

The Total War series is well known among fans of computer wargames and Total War: Warhammer is Creative Assemblies first foray into a non-historical setting. After two less than stellar releases in Rome 2 and Attila (I pre-ordered Rome2, oops) the boys at CA really must have felt the need to knock this one out of the park, and they did.

Let’s start with the negatives, just for fun.

  • Pre-Order DLC: CA managed to cause a stir with  the news that The Chaos Faction was going to be available for free to people who pre-ordered. This was widely seen as a dick move, in an industry where consumers are constantly being milked. Eventually they reneged and made Chaos available for free during week 1, but it still left some feeling sour.
  • My biggest complaint about the game is the dominance of elite and special units. In the tabletop game even the most impressive armies had to field some grunts due to army structure. In Total War: Warhammer you really want to pack as much punch into each army as possible and the main limitation is the 20 unit/army max (although you can have multiple armies, I feel the cost increase still pushes you toward stacking elites).
  • In previous Total War games and some editions of Warhammer, units had better use of formations and special moves. I would like to have seen shield walls on certain units and grape-shots on cannons (the level of unit abilities in TW: Napoleon would be perfect IMO) for example.
  • You cannot customize your regular troops colour or kit.

Here are some features that I feel are neutral, some people will love them, others will hate them.

  • Heroes can be very, very powerful. Some people like this, some hate it. It was the same with some iterations of the tabletop. They definitely have impact on both playstyle and in combat.
  • As per usual in TW, the AI can skirmish like crazy. I found it irritating to fight Chaos horse missile troops, and just ended up auto-resolving against the armies of the North most of the time in my Chaos campaigns. The AI in general is better than the last couple of TW games, but still predictable.
  • Some people feel the diplomacy and city management are too bare-bones. I’m ok with them for the most part.
  • The battlefields are fairly open for the most part. I have seen some unusual fields, but not a lot of terrain cheese.
  • TW agents can be annoyingly OP.

And finally the positives.

  • Fun battles that are just great to watch, especially on a PC that can handle the largest unit sizes. The level of detail just zooming in on the battles is staggering.
  • Each faction has a unique play style, both on and off the fields of battle and unit roster. While some of these choices do not see play, especially later in the campaign or in competitive multiplayer, there is enough variety in late-game units to create interesting armies.
    • Dwarves, for example, lack cavalry, magic, and monstrous units but have tremendous ranged units and artillery while the Vampire counts have a lot of awesome cannon fodder, fast monstrous troops , and fearsome elites but really lacking in missile weapons and artillery.
  • Multiplayer campaign coop: I cannot emphasize how much I love this feature. I can play a campaign head to head or with another player against the AI. Games you can play cooperatively are just awesome.
  • Most of the battles are fun, especially once you get a decent variety of units. Some of them are just incredible.
  • Quest battles in the campaign are very enjoyable for the most part, with some of them presenting interesting tactical challenges balanced for a single army.
  • The map feels just big enough.
  • CA will be adding the full faction roster from 8th edition, including some for free.
  • Magic feels just right. Sometimes it is crazy strong, sometimes it just does not get you there, just like in the tabletop.
  • While the unit abilities are limited, the depth of tactics on the field is still there, once you get use to it.
  • WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!

As a whole, I love the game. I have played orcs, dwarves, and Chaos in depth so far and dabbled in empire and vampire counts. I am already drooling over bretonnia, wood elves and beastmen getting added in. It might not have grapeshot, but hey, maybe I can make a mod for that.

RPG Building: Runepunk #1

While considering what to do next of my Thursday serial I came up with the idea of doing a segment on building an RPG (Role-Playing Games). The idea has stuck with me, so I will be posting my musings on creating an RPG occasionally on Sundays.

I am using the name Runepunk for the project, although there is another RPG using that name, I doubt it will conflict with mine.

Why am I doing this?

  • The main reason is that I have been running a Shadowrun 5.0 campaign for several years and the rules are grating on me. Shadowrun is a time-tested game, but it unless everyone is familiar with the sub-systems that are appropriate to their character it slows the game down. In fact, I have stopped using any of the rules beyond character generation, gear, and the basic dice mechanics. Our Shadowrun group is just too large and too inexperienced with the system to handle the system.
    • As an aside, I truly dislike the initiative system. Characters who do not have reflex/initiative boosting are screwed. Not only do they act slowly, they are often ‘lapped’ by faster characters getting in their second and third actions. This punishes people for making non combat character, essentially giving them less turns during action sequences. While it would not be a problem for smaller, more experienced groups, it is here. One of the new RP’ers played an awesome face character, but decided to dump him for a combat character, and I suspect that the lack of turns had something to do with it. He was ok with being less effective, but not pleased with taking less turns.
  • I was considering making a homebrew system for my alternate Saturday game, but we grabbed the new FFG star wars and people seem to love it so far.
  • I love the Shadowrun setting; especially the idea of the Shadowrun itself — the modern dungeon run. On the other hand I find that placing it in the real world limits my creativity. I prefer a blank slate.

What are my goals with the game?

  • The style that I need to run with is episodic with a strong focus on character. I think including narrative hooks in the character creation process will do well for me. Obviously I am also looking for a ‘punk’ setting, which allows the characters to be part of a distinct sub-culture.
  • I need character advancement with enough depth to sustain a long running campaign with complex builds.
  • I want gamified sub-systems that emphasize fun without being too cumbersome.
  • I want an interesting dice mechanic.
  • I want a complex economy that does not break when the characters get too much money. I want players that have a gear fetish to be able to indulge it and players who do not, not to suffer if they ignore it.
  • I would like to have cool powers, but need these to be easy to use and easy to remember.
  • I would like to have sweet monsters and a rationale for dungeon style missions similar to Shadowrun.
  • I would like to have an attribute based system.

Basic Ideas

  • A post-singularity setting. A powerful AI has gained sentience and fundamentally changed the world.
  • The computer creates code that controls the fundamental aspects of reality. The pieces of that Code are Runes and Magic.
  • The AI eventually explodes or runs off the rails, releasing Runes and Magic into the setting and altering the world.

A teaser and a pause for consideration.

I am still undecided on what I want to do for my next serial. Also, Ronan is crawling now, which is too cute to miss. Here is a rough teaser from my next book. Bloodlust: The Seeds of Ruin.

As an aside, I find it interesting to consider the use of language in my world. If I were to describe the towers of Kithkaran to you*, I would liken them to stained glass in an old cathedral or the sun shining through a coloured glass bottle, but these are images that do not leap to mind for a society like Krass.

The same goes for concepts of religion. I cannot have a character exclaim ‘god’ or ‘jesus christ’ obviously, but I also lose out on bloody hell and heavenly, concepts that do not belong in their society.

Instead I tend to focus on the Reckoning, ancestors, the arena, and ocean motifs for the metaphors and exclamations of the people of the Domains.

The towers of Kithkaran shone in the sun*. Many of them were over five hundred feet tall, built from glass, gold and great magic, with lifts and lights powered by the very waters that had been turned against them in the end. Now, at last, they breathed again and people would remember the glory that his people had wrought.

Antilluvius smiled, the thin line of his desiccated lips curling slightly. He remembered the terror of those days, the endless rain, the wall of water that had assailed them. He could feel the horror as their magic failed, slowly and then all at once. He could still taste the bitterness of losing everything he’d ever known and the terrible promise that he had made to his family as they brought forth what was now called the Dark Heart. But now it was tempered, all of it, by the sight of his city once again in the light.

The weight of ages was no longer his to bear. He only wished that he could savour it longer, but just as he could not let his beloved city linger in mud and darkness, they could not suffer him to live. While this moment was wondrous, he had done terrible things to bring it about.

“My king, the Legions have begun to march.”

Moraggi’s voice woke Antidilluvius from his memories. He turned and looked down at this man, a heretic who served him, bound by an oath, in exchange for protection from the Krassians. Although old for this world, Moraggi was but a child compared to him.