Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Furui Hanmā: A Journey to the East. Part Two: The Men of the Orient

This is the second stage of our Journey into the East - looking at the visual and sculptural elements of the Orient in Warhammer. Inspired to finish this write up by the announcement that Dave Morris and Jaime Thompsons Tetsubo - an unpublished draft of an Oriental supplement for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is being resurrected by Daniel Fox's for his  Zweihander RPG.

 The original intent for Furui Hanmā II was to cover all the Orient, Nippon and Cathay material produced for Warhammer in 1984, however there is really too much material to do any kind of justice to in just one blogpost, so this has once again been split into future posts. I also made a quick banner for these posts, based on the Oriental Heroes logo (which we'll get to eventually) and featuring Two Dragons in Clouds by Kanō Hōgai...

Furui Hanma Banner
The story so far: Furui Hanmā: A Journey to the East. Part One covering the Citadel miniatures and Warhammer material produced between 1982-83, where Oriental and Occidental fantasy tropes rub shoulders in a funky fresh East-West fusion.

Now read on...

The Men of the Orient 

While a couple of Samurai  do appear in Warhammer 1st Edition Tabletop Battles book in artwork taken from an earlier flyer they not given any separate rules game-wise from any other kind of human in armour with a sword, they are fairly generic warriors, in eastern garb, fighting Orcs, which by the 1980s had become a generic western fantasy genre trope of evil.

All that changes with the publication of the Forces of Fantasy supplement. The East-meets-West approach is abandoned and instead the fantasy humans based on different historical cultures are split up and  given their own distinct geographical settings to exist within, and given statistics, profiles and special rules to differentiate them. Forces of Fantasy makes the Samurai statistically the best fighters and archers, outclassing any other humanoid troop type in the game. Alongside the superior Samurai, there are the more mundane Ashigaru or foot soldiers.

Men of the Orient

Hieta Noh mask.

The illustration accompanying the army list (I think by John Blanche, although clearly the style is different to his other work, perhaps intentionally to reflect the oriental feel) resembles the Noh mask called Heita.

Noh masks are found in traditional Japanese theatre, each mask expressing a specific character type that appears across multiple plays in the Noh genre, rather than a single specific character. The Heita mask represents the idea of a mature, heroic, victorious warrior. His bushy eyebrows and ruddy complexion due to the time spent on the battlefield, rather than plucking his brows. Noh masks are extremely influential in Japanese character design beyond the theater, in comics and videogames, from Wario to Ogami Ittō, providing a shared language of short-cuts that define characters that can be overlooked by western audiences. The choice here, in using Hieta to depict Oriental warriors is completely accurate and culturally appropriate and goes some way towards integrating Japanese cultural ideas and visual language, into Warhammer rather than simply providing an image of a western ideal of the pseudo-medieval oriental warrior.

As well as the standard warrior-types, there are several specialist troops. The Kamikazee are obviously named after the suicide bombers of World War Two, and play as suicidal shock troops. These have nothing to do with the 16th century Japan that the Samurai are based on, and have no medieval historical origins. The Kamikazee are as clear an indication as any that the Men of the Orient are grounded in contemporary notions of the Oriental warrior, rather than an attempt to create a strictly historical fantasy.

Forces of Fantasy also introduces Vim-to Monks.  For those readers who may be unfamiliar with British soft drinks that are extraordinarily popular in Arabian countries during Ramadan, Vimto is a mixed fruit flavoured beverage, sold as both a syrup and a carbonated drink. They do sweets as well. I assume "Vimto", being born in Manchester in 1908 and not having any particular relation to the far-east, or kung-fu, seems to have been chosen purely as a pun on "Shinto", the traditional religion of Japan.

This crude punning is somewhat essential to the early Warhammer experience, running throughout the names of Slann, Ogres, Halflings, and other humans, but is also displays a somewhat disrespectful  attitude towards what is an important religion.
C05 Specialists | Martial Arts Monks

Fizzy-drinks based puns aside, the description of Vim-to Monks given in Forces of Fantasy describes them as unarmed, unarmored, or with sword, bo-staff or nagitana, so only cover the C05 Martial Arts Monks miniatures that are derived from the Chinese Shaolin school of kung-fu, wearing tunics and trousers, and not the ones based on the Sōhei Buddhist warrior monks of Japan, who are hooded, armoured and carry polearms.

While Shaolin can be found in Japan - it crossed the sea from China to Japan in the 18th Century, like the Kamikazee this is quite a distance from the 16th Century Momoyama period of the Samurai and Ashigaru. As well as contracting historical periods, the Men of The Orient also collapses geography, combining both Japanese and Chinese forms,  a vague concept of The East which blending, or ignoring, of the differences between Oriental cultures and history, strongly shaped by a Western lens rather than any attempt to create any kind authentic Eastern voice or a historically accurate basis from which to build the fantasy.

While defining troop types, Forces of Fantasy also gives us a brief guide to the iconography of The Men of the Orient as might be found on their banners and other regalia. Alongside the mitsudomoe shinto symbol for Hachiman - the god of war and archery - and the Heita Noh mask, both of which go along way to showing that whilst wildly historically innacurate thought out and researched the iconography of the Men of the Orient is. One of the symbols in particular stands out - a rendition of the traditional Japanese manji 卍.

Yurr dere's a swass sticker top left.
The manji can be drawn in either direction, turning to the left, or turning to the right, the manji in a Japanese context relates strongly to Buddhism, is used to mark temples on map, and seems to mean something like 'good luck' or 'positive vibes' and usually goes to the left. 

Japanese Manji
The symbol appears twice, both in the army list iconography and in the depiction of two oriental warriors.
Samurai Rising Sun and Mount Fuji motifs | John Blanche | Forces of Fantasy 

However, instead of the usual Japanese left-wards manji, Warhammer presents us with the right-wards turning version.

Of course, the symbol is more familiar to western audiences as the one appropriated by the Nazis from the Hindu to propagate the idea of Aryan racial supremacy, and is probably one of the most recognisable and reviled visual symbols in modern European history. There is no necessity for the use of the Swastika in Warhammer. It could easily have been avoided in favour of more obviously Eastern symbols like the yin-yang or any number of Japanese family crests (or mon), but given that it appears twice, and the Noh Mask and mitsudomoe it's hard to see this as a mere accident or casual historical reference.

various mon or family crests.

There are number of possible readings of the Warhammer Oriental Swastika, none of which are exclusive to the others.

The Warhammer Oriental Swastika, could be a reclaiming of the Swastika symbol as a Manji or Kamon - the symbol is being deliberately re-aligned away from its association with Nazism and Aryanism, and placed into an previous historical context as an act of semiotic disarmament, robbing the symbol of it's specific power in singular political context, a form of genericide, where a symbol is shown to be so generic that any claims for specific use become ludicrous, and any flag-worshipping power it might have for those gathered under the banner diminished.  There have been periodic attempts at reclaiming the swastika over the years and are generally frowned upon as being 'epic fails' or worse, attempting to normalise the agenda has come to symbolise. The symbol itself has no intrinsic value, it's just some geometry, it is purely the narratives that surround it and its repeated use within specific contexts that form meanings, and while signifiers do shift, escaping the weight of history is not something that happens easily.

Then there is a  'punk' repurposing of the Swastika as pure agitprop (in a literal sense of 'agitating propaganda') the symbol only used in it's intent to shock and offend, as instigated by the prime punk provocateur, incidently of Jewish decent - Malcom McLaren, and carried out by future Queen of the Goths and Bromley Contigent superstar Siouxie Sioux.

Siouxie Sioux 1976 | Caroline Coons |via
While the adoption of the swastika by punks may have only been to upset and annoy the previous generation, it was swiftly taken up by far-right youth as an endorsement, with the all too predictable confusion and violence ensuing as the cultures clashed in the gig venues, dancehalls and streets of the late 1970s.

Notably Siouxie herself is no stranger to Orientalism, with the lyrics of The Banshees debut single, Hong Kong Garden, released in 1978 ostensibly being inspired by her local Chinese staff takeaway being abused by gangs of neo-nazi skinheads. The song is by no means unproblematical lyrically, celebration and condemnation ring out alongside crude stereotypes and witty rhymes in something of a stream of consciousness embracing all things Chinese, and there are later forays into 80s Japanomania.

Siouxie 1982 | Sheila Rock | The Face |

Siouxie Sioux Hannya Noh Mask / Onibaba T-shirt | Rabatu Smitu | 1982?

Similarly we could look to David Bowies Thin White Duke persona flirting with fascistic imagery and Orientalism:
Visions of swastikas in my head,
Plans for everyone
It's in the whites of my eyes,
My little China girl 
David Bowie - China Girl 1983
Oldhammerists often talk about the influences of 80s popular culture on Warhammer in a vague way, as if the statement itself provides validation of some innate quality, or that locating something in time explains it. In Warhammers appropriation of the Swastika / manji in a Japanese context as the Warhammer Oriental Swastika, clear parallels can be drawn with sifting of post-war cultural detritus and ambiguous play as performed by eclectic post-punk magpies Siouxie and Bowie.  Whether Bowie or Siouxies entanglement of the orient and fascism directly inspired Blanch or Priestly or Halliwell, or not, they are part of a broader cultural milieu superficially adopting the appearance of the rejected (fascistic) and exotic (oriental) as a performative, creative strategy, pushing against and challenging the mainstream consensus culture.

The Tale of Sanyo Kawasaki | Book of Batallions

The Warhammer Oriental Swastika can be read as a reference to the Japanese role as one of the Axis powers allied to the Nazis in WW2, as a kind of 'honorary aryan' proxy-nazi. We already have the Kamikaze which establishes Warhammers Men of the Orient as being based on as much post-war stereotypes of Oriental as medieval stereotypes, and this is a further continuation of a post-war influenced theme, rather than a pseudo-medieval one. Then The Book of Batallions which appears in Forces of Fantasy describes Sanyo Kawasaki (named after a well known Japanese electronics and motorcycle company, respectively) - who feels his government is 'weak and liberal' and besieges their capital city for not sinking a 'foreign' ship on sight, a cartoon of a strident insular ultra-fascist, who is ultimately made ridiculous by committing ritual suicide by standing upside down in a bucket of cold water.  The combination of anti-liberalism and violent xenophobia with the Swastika leaves very little room for doubt of what ideology is being pointed at in the character of Sanyo Kawasaki.

Samurai | Sanyo Kawasaki (?) | Forces of Fantasy

There is some irony in this as it takes what is essentially an occidental movement, bundled up with ideas of the racial superiority of Western Europeans and projects it onto a foreign, exotic culture, while swastika waving Nazis themselves were more than happy to use the kinds of romanticised Medieval imagery that Warhammer would produce for the Men of the North and Men of the West to promote their aims. On one level it can be read as a form of psychological splitting - the externalisation of unwanted or negative traits that can't be admitted to or integrated  and the subsequent psychological projection of those traits on to a foreign or distant Other. Rather than accept and deal with (one way or another) the complex relationships between the fantasy of medieval Europe and fascism they remain hidden, or sublimated, and instead Warhammer renders it 'elsewhere'.

While it should be noted the Tale of Sanyo Kawasaki only describes one clan, or one faction, by no means are all Men of the Orient, nor even the dominant clans, portrayed as fascistic this certainly wouldn't be the last time Warhammer attempted a cartoon of fascism.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

[RBG] Warbands of Wrath and Ruin

Mighty-thewed Barbarian miniatures emerging from the mists of prehistory to raid and pillage under the auspices of Dark Gods.

Warbands of Wrath & Ruin | Campaign Banner

Barbarian Slave Fighters


Untill now RBG miniatures have been largely 'northern' in inspiration, weaving Nordic and Arthurian influences into a frostbitten Dark Ages milieu.

With Warbands of Wrath and Ruin, RBG steps into a new direction.  The primeval dawn of time, before the sinking of Atlantis to a world of ruined empires, a world of gods and magic, of flesh and bronze a world or barbaric heroism.

For me it evokes the imagery and worlds of 1970s pulp fantasy fiction Robert E. Howards Conan the Barbarian, Richard Corbens Den,  John Normans Gor, Boris Vallejo, Chris Achilleos, Frank Frazetta, Brom,

Sandro Symeoni

Boris Vallejo

Val Mayerik
Joe Jusco
Les Edwards

A gaming world and rules set is under development, in the meanwhile the figures have obvious use for skirmish warbands in Songs of Blades and Heroes, Warhammer (Chaos Thugs) or barbarian themed Frostgrave warband. Bronze Age / Barbarian adventurers or NPC encounters for pulp, Swords and Sorcery remixes of contemporary Dungeons & Dragons or even  Age of Sigmar, and excellent character or encounter pieces for the various Conan RPGs (from TSR to Mophidius) and the ever burgeoning range of classic swords and sorcery inpired games, Astonishing swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, Crypts & Things, Barbarians of Lemuria or Adventurer, Conqueror, King

Warbands of Wrath & Ruin on Kickstarter: (updated and relaunched campaign)

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Renegade Scout - Review

Renegade Scout - Retro-inspired Sci-fi Miniatures Rules is a 179 page e-book (pdf) published in August 2018, by Nordic Weasel Games and written by Ivan Sorrensen, containing 50 colour photographs of various science-fiction miniatures and some scratch-built scenery.

Renegade Scout. Front Cover

"Retro-inspired Sci-fi Miniatures Rules" hmm? sounds interesting...

Ivan is quite open about his inspirations and sources - the original 1987 Warhammer 40k: Rogue Trader and 40k 2nd edition, his introduction even goes as far as to suggest a musical play-list including Slough Feg, Bolt Thrower and The Sword, all hopefully familiar territory to long time followers of this blog, and firmly in the centre of my gaming obsessions. It has to be said, rewriting the ruleset that built a gaming empire is a brave move, not only taking on Rick Priestly's 1980s design decisions, many of which lasted through 30 odd years of tinkering by inheritors, but also the legions of grongnards who appreciate the original game like a vintage motorcycle.

My original falling apart Rogue Trader
Like a vintage motorcycle, spends most of its time in the garage.

Renegade Scout is touted on it's OBS page as a retroclone. To me, the word 'retroclone' has a very specific meaning, in that the game mechanically reproduces or 'clones' the original, as near exactly as legally possible. So OSRIC is without a doubt a retroclone of the 1978 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, while Lamentations of the Flame Princess - based on 1974 'oD&D' and somewhat compatible is not a retroclone of it, but instead takes some of the core ideas and takes them into a new direction. Renegade Scout is an example of the latter rather than former.

If you're looking for a retroclone of Rogue Trader to use at the table as a straight alternative to your original hardback that fell apart because the binding was iffy, or to compile the various additional rules from White Dwarf - Renegade Scout is not intended to fill that role. Most notable deviations the core combat mechanics have been overhauled, the To-Hit and To-Wound tables have been replaced with a roll-under stat mechanism, much like contemporary 40k, which  Renegade Scout then uses as a universal mechanism for action resolution.   The turn order is different, with the players taking turns within each phase (movement, shooting, combat etc.), rather than completing all their phases before play passes to the other player. As Ivan states in his designers notes, having produced a reasonably accurate retroclone as a draft, he then took it into a new, simpler and more streamlined direction. Whether the ideals of simpler and more streamlined can produce an authentically old-school experience is very much a matter of taste, nontheless, much of the attitude and game style of the original Rogue Trader remains - the open universe, narrative gaming and providing a large toolbox of ideas to play with.

The whole thing is written in a clear, friendly, personable style, not a dry rules-lawyereese nor the incessant sales-pitch nor constant self aggrandisement that plagues many genre games. The attitude is  both casual and enthusiastic, but doesn't intrude on the clarity of the rules. Although the PDF has not been professionally designed, the page layout is very clear and functional, not suffering from paragraphs breaking over pages or many of the typographical and layout problems we see in small press games. While there are no diagrams, the explanations are clear, but for primarily visual learners this might be something of a drawback.

There is much that will be familiar to the 40k Grognard and appeal to those looking for something similar, in function, playstyle and attitude, yet different and not explicitly tied down to the extremely narrow narrative tones of 40k setting such as the recent 40K:Kill Team or Necromunda. The profiles, with renamed statistics are very much the same as Rogue Trader / Warhammer 2nd - keeping the Leadership, Cool, Intelligence, Willpower - and expanding on their use to make them more . There are familiar equipment lists and several archetypal species statlines - these are given within the lightweight "Unified Space" setting, which like the original Rogue Trader is pretty much a hodge-podge of sci-fi sources designed to enable you to tell your own stories, and easily convert from one fictional universe to another as you'd expect from a generic game.

It's easy to recognise what the Unified Space the creatures might represent from other universes - alongside both stalwart and scummy  humans there are even Necron and Tau types for those interested. So you can easily stat-up pretty much any model you have or want to make by deciding what kind of creature is closest to it, and selecting the kind of weapons it is armed with and keeping this all consistent. Renegade Scout suggests estimating force strength and judging whether the forces appear fair. There is a similarly a relaxed attitude to creature creation, where just tweak one of the example profiles to make a different creature. As someone who advocates for well thought out and predictive points systems in wargaming, I find this is a bit of a shame, but I appreciate such interests are extremely niche.

Renegade Scout Infiltration Games

The 170-odd pages of rules cover an awful lot, there several specialist troop types, Jump Troops, Fire Teams, Swarms, Cavalry, off-table heavy support weapons. There are dangerous and deadly Terrain tyes and various Flora and Fauna, some of which will be familiar to Rogue Trader players, and others adding new twists. There is a Psionic / Magic phase and attendant powers (graded in 4 levels) rather nicely titled Wyrd, with a fun critical failure table and a serviceable list of powers (from psionic blasts, to healing). While the focus of the game is small squad and character actions, there are some lightweight vehicles rules - much simpler than those presented in Rogue Trader, you won't need to work out acceleation, deceleration speeds and turning circles. This might lack the crunch for a dedicated heavy armour game, but again has an entertaining critical failure table to ensure the pushes the story forwards.

By far the biggest highlight for me is the 'Problem Solving' section, here Profile characteristics used to determine outcomes - so if you want to break down a door, roll under Strength, if you want to pick the lock, roll under Intellect, use modifiers if the problem is more or less difficult. This kind of streamlining, rather than tagging on a slew of special skills, rules and keywords to model actions is an elegant solution. Renegade Scout goes on to provide a number of useful examples, like using stolen communications equipment and barricading doors that not only illustrate the rules system but help provoke narrative scenarios and inspire the kind of games that the 'there is only war' crowd don't. It's a lightweight flexible framework that successfully expands the core engine beyond just shooting and punching stuff, towards more action, adventure and discovery without bogging the rules down or overcomplicating the game, and easily lends itself to improvisation.

Renegade Scout also has guidelines and advice on writing and running different kinds of scenarios and campaign games, as well as optional, advanced rules, many of which belie more of a nu-school game design philosophy, taking some of the better innovations of more recent game design and adding them to the core.  There is a skills system based on special rules to supplement the statline tests and provide further diversity of character and troop types,  and a Decision Point system that can be spent to invoke special rules and abilities, much like how Command Points and Stratagems/Tactics work in 40k 8th Edition/Killteam, where a certain number of points are generated each turn and these can be spent on activating special rules. These are flagged as optional but well worth playing with - Renegade Scouts modular approach encouraging experimentation and rules tinkering.

Renegade Scout: aliens on the battlefield

My biggest gripe, actually has very little to do with the game itself - unfortunately the miniature photography doesn't credit the manufacturers of the models, or note what ranges they are from, or who painted them.   On the one hand it is refreshing to read a sci-fi miniatures ruleset that doesn't exist primarily as a sales catalogue, on the other hand, there are some quite cool aliens I wouldn't mind seeing more of. Speaking of models, there is, in grand old Rogue Trader tradition, a modelling and painting section, with some solid advice on getting half decent looking terrain and models on the table quickly so you can get on with playing a game, rather than posting 4K Ultra HD tilt-shift digital photographs on Instagram and dreaming of winning Golden Demon competitions.
If you're hankering after a version of Rogue Trader that gives you narrative skirmish gaming, but with considerably little less 'clunk' in the form of table referencing and taking a steer from modern trends in tabletop gaming. Or if you're new to tabletop miniatures gaming, and perhaps not convincefd of the "there is only war" (i.e. there is only 'combat') schtick or want something more generic and not explicitly tied to one specific science-fiction universe, with a little more RPG-focus that encourages you to tinker with the rules a bit, and not treat them like the holy gospel, then Renegade Scout might just fit the bill.

Renegade Scout is available from Wargames Vault, priced $19.99 / £15.54