[WFB] Exegesis of Terrible Fiction: Vampire Wars, Steven Savile, Black Library (2008)

I’ve been spending some time in the Old World and it’s made me thirsty for trashy tie-in fiction that I’ve not read twenty times already. These books are bad, but I don’t hate them.

(The title is for Huge Ruined Scott. Consider this your content warning, dude.)

This post can be blamed on all the Mordheim: City of the Damned and Warhammer Total War I’ve been playing of late. The experience has confirmed that despite my recent less-than-entirely-negative reaction to Age of Sigmar, my deep-seated love for the ‘Forces of Death’ is rooted in the Old World, the cast of characters created or lovingly plagiarised to populate it, and the fine tradition of homage it established. (Even Kemmler, despite my previous storm-in-a-teacup peak-fake-woke-white-boi social-justice-necromancer ranting on the topic. Terror of the Lichemaster is a decent little railroad and whoever voice acted the old goon for Total War nailed it.)

Anyway, I’ve been spending some time in the Old World and it’s made me thirsty for trashy tie-in fiction that I’ve not read twenty times already.

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RIP Wayne England, you could always be counted on for a frontispiece.

Let’s get something out of the way first.

These books are not good. Not irredeemably awful, but they circle the drain in which R. A. Salvatore is the eternal and unyielding clog. I first read them on publication, during the height of my mania for all things Vampire Counts, and age has not improved them nor the years condoned. However, said mania means I have an undeniable interest in the contents of these volumes, which may in turn lead to a more positive reaction than they deserve.

These books are bad, but I don’t hate them.

The Bad

Savile’s prose is stilted and repetitive. Once or twice per page, a reader who’s accustomed to ‘hearing’ the sentences in their mind will come across a line that’s missing some crucial punctuation. This skews their internal rhythm, bringing the reader down face-first into a stop that can’t be parsed without unpicking. Unless you have a total tin ear, it’s jarring, and it comes often enough that the sensitive reader will need to flit away from this book and recuperate in between times. You can pick a page at random – I just have, it’s 317 – and there’ll be one of these clunkers waiting for you.

“Don’t mock me, dwarf,” Mann said, the edge of reason creeping back into his voice. “Kill me or be done with it and leave me to rot in peace would you?”

Where would you put the commas, dear reader? How would you punctuate this so it sounds like something an actual human would say?

Lindsey Priestley, ‘editor and friend’, you were asleep at the wheel when you let stuff like this through. You are also to blame, I think, for the way certain sentences and clauses just keep coming back. At the time I noticed “his brow contorted as he unleashed the beast within” and “he was the wolf” as particular offenders. It makes for a fine drinking game, but it’s the sort of thing an editor is supposed to catch. “You always use the same phrase for this,” you say. “Show some imagination, you bloody hack.”

I don’t blame either of you for the frequent ‘impact sentences’, the ones which stand out from the paragraphs to either side to give them more punch, which is squandered if you have three of them back to back, three times in two pages. That’s the GW house style, that is.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect Warhammer tie-in fiction to scale the dizzy heights of masterful prose. It could, in theory, but that’s not what it’s for. It’s product. Grist to the mill. These books came out because there was a new Vampire Counts range to sell and that’s an end on it.

Thing is, though… I write content marketing copy, OK? I write things that nobody will read after a week, things even I will have forgotten about after a month. I still make an effort to pace my sentences properly, and my editor still calls me out if I use the word ‘branding’ thirty-seven times in a four hundred word article. It’s about pride in your work.

The Merely Mediocre

Savile’s prose breathlessly tells-not-shows its way through decades of fictional history. I’m not the biggest fan of half-page statements of what Vlad von Carstein is like as a person, not when that can slowly uncurl from observing his actions and behaviours, bereft of the author’s guiding hand, but I understand some people need everything spelled out for them. It’s a house style thing. At the risk of doing an ableism on myself, autists gonna autist.

(Usual disclaimer: I’m on the spectrum and I can infer subtle cues from text even if I struggle with faces. I know ‘not all autists’. That’s the point. Autism is a spectrum of behaviour and difficulties. This material is written for an audience that’s no stranger to Dr. Asperger. To be honest, the style may even be a strength: it’s accessible material for the special interest crowd. ‘S probably why I like this stuff.)

However… it does have its advantages. By working his way through the timeline of the Vampire Wars without worrying too much about subtle unfoldings of theme and character, Savile’s able to move from location to location and cover an awful lot of ground. It’s as if he treated the timeline in the army book as a checklist, knocking off this incident and eliding that one, showing the things he knew his readers expected to see and skipping the rest. It works.

Also, he treats death well. I don’t mean that a high body count is a prerequisite for good storytelling – not even in these Game-of-Thrones-addled days. I mean that he understands death as the arbitrary, circumstantial, abrupt thing it is, and he’s not afraid to kill a character like that. War is hell, doubly so when one side is made up of mindless hordes and vicious backstabbing predators.

Some of the deaths are executed better than others – there’s one that’s handled neatly in half a page, and it’s excellent, but there’s another which involves stopping a melée for a chat about what it means to be a vampire, which strains credulity. That’s an after-the-fight conversation. Wouldn’t take much to have the vampire character bust his pal in the nose, sparing him in the field only to dispatch him during their heart-to-heart: or to have it be another arbitrary, vicious death, and then hop to the vampire’s perspective as he realises he’s killed his only friend and worse, doesn’t give a shit. Same impact, same message, but you don’t have them stopping in the middle of a battlefield for the boring lecture about how he feels nothing now and it’s all so liberating.

This is what I’m getting at with the tell-don’t-show stuff. I get that we don’t have time to show the slow evolution of Vlad and Isabella’s eternal bond, not without spending too much of this Vampire Wars series on stuff that ain’t Wars involving Vampires. When we have a heroic warrior bond that we’ve taken the time to establish, and a character who we’ve been with on the battlefield, so their slide into vampirism can be portrayed without derailing the brief, it seems a waste not to do a bit of show-then-tell.

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Sensual predator in the sheets, horrific fanged wossname in the streets.

The Redeeming

I didn’t buy the anthology at the time – I bought Inheritance, Dominion and Retribution separately. As is the custom with these big fat collected editions, there’s some extra material. Two short stories are added and they’re not bad.

‘Death’s Cold Kiss’ shows and tells how unprepared the Empire was for Vlad’s first invasion. They don’t have a clue what they’re up against, so their solution to the problem of a potential vampire priest is raddled with superstitions, guesswork, reluctance and overkill. Every character has a different take on the problem and nobody gets it quite right. Nice little prelude. Also, it might just be me, but the prose is a lot more polished than in the rest of the collection.

‘In The Court of the Crimson Queen’ depicts an incident which is elided over during Inheritance, mostly because our point of view character is elsewhere at the time, and needs the rumour of the incident to draw him further into Sylvania. However, it’s an important one; the death and resurrection of Isabella von Carstein, and an exploration of the bond between the von Carstein power couple. I can see why it was left out of the original trilogy but I’m glad it’s here, especially when so much Warhammer lore makes such a big deal out of vampires as predatory fiends animated by dark magic who are not the people they used to be. Vlad knows this and he’s as surprised as anyone to find that the person he is can still pair-bond. The story also bridges what, in Inheritance, feels like an abrupt change of character on Isabella’s part. It’s filler but it’s necessary filler which makes the first volume of the trilogy stronger.

Personally, I’d have kept the stuff about Isabella’s classical education and her love of ‘traditionally masculine pursuits like hunting or falconry’ (cf. every Vampire Counts army book in which she’s appeared). It’d mirror, contrast, and finally overcome the gender essentialism Savile has Vlad display with his comment about ‘women are creatures of beauty and vanity’. Such would add another layer to their relationship, another way in which Isabella is a sharp contrast to everything Vlad thinks he knows. She is not like other women, she complements him and subverts his expectations, her learning and studied seduction support and contrast his savagery and raw charisma… tell me that wouldn’t add something to what’s basically a character study of these two. I feel Savile missed a trick there. As it is the story’s a good start, does necessary work in fleshing out the novels, and has a lovely little flourish at the end.

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I see how it is, the girl one gets to keep her nose…

Finally, there’s the introduction. I do like reading author’s introductions for GW tie-ins – it’s amusing to see how well people avoid voicing the dark truth what bubbles under the surface of all such material. Savile almost cops to it, admitting that his magic words are “I can do this”, which is exactly what I say when someone offers me money to write things.

He also does some craft discussion though, explaining that his brief was to avoid spending too much time with the Vampire Counts themselves because he didn’t want to humanise them, and that he made a conscious effort to kill off anyone who looked like a conventional protagonist because he didn’t want anyone hogging the Von Carsteins’ limelight. It’s a tough call for sure, but it does explain something I hated on my first readthrough – the amount of time Savile spends with characters he invented or fleshed out from one-line references in the timeline. I still think he should have left Jerek Kruger for dead, as is stated in the lore dammit, but the choice makes sense to me.

With one hand I cross that line from my Book of Grudges, but with my other I reach for my axe. Basic craft faults cannot be forgiven and I cannot in good conscience award a higher than average score, despite my predisposition for the source material and appreciation for the perspective architecture of the story.

2/5 contorted brows as I unleash the beast within. I am the wolf.

[V:tM] V5 Pre-Alpha: Readthrough Review

Brother Ben and I have given the fifth edition Vampire: the Masquerade pre-alpha rules a coat of looking at. Here are some key thoughts from our diatribe.

Brother Ben and I have given the fifth edition Vampire: the Masquerade pre-alpha rules a coat of looking at. Here are some key thoughts from our diatribe.

Of Target Numbers and How To Reach Them

Ben: At first glance, sixes to succeed plus Willpower offering a whole reroll plus the option to Succeed At A Cost (and choose not to if you don’t like the cost) seems very forgiving to the player.

Von: I think it’s a bit less forgiving than a guaranteed no-cost bare-bones success for the low low price of one Willpower point, and at first I wasn’t quite sure how necessary it was to have both.

Ben: That’s a very powerful mechanic right there. “Hmm, Ranulf needs to really really survive this fight with Urbicus, but I don’t think I rolled enough successes on that melee to break out of his grapple/bite. I will spend a point of willpower, keep all the successes from the previous roll and re-roll all the failures.”

Ben: I like Succeed At A Cost too. Not sure the player should know the price of failure and have the chance to opt out… but not sure they SHOULDN’T have that choice either. But with both in the game I wonder – could critical dice rolls bog down into market style haggling?

Von: Yeah. That’s what I thought: always, always look for ways to eliminate stages from resolution.

Ben: Agreed there. Streamline play. I like the GM mechanic for Take Half – it streamlines stuff.

Von: I don’t think you need a reroll mechanic and a GM-taxing-potential-to-haggle-analysis-paralysis mechanic. It seems to me that “succeed at a cost” is one of those rules which is dependent on a given GM’s ability to invent and balance consequences on the fly, i.e. the sort of rule which is very dependent on the Trust Tree, i.e. the opposite direction from most modern RPGs, which are all about insulating players and GMs from having to make that kind of unreliable call.

Ben: TRUST??? TRUST? THAT HAS NO PLACE HERE! WE WILL INSTEAD SURROUND OURSELVES WITH BLOAT AND CRUFT SO THAT I NO ONE EVER HAS TO EXPLAIN THEMSELVES, BUT CAN INSTEAD HIDE BEHIND AN AUTHORITARIAN “IT’S IN THE BOOK!”

Von: Yes, quite. Now stop working for Paizo.

Von: Oh, hang on, I’ve just caught something about Succeed at a Cost – it only triggers if you’re ONE success short.

Ben: That makes a difference.

Von: Yeh. I guess it’s there to create drama around a near miss?

Ben: This gains support from me.

Von: “You don’t hang on to the ledge yourself but you DO grab Nico’s hand, now you can have a contrived moment of friendship and heroism while dramatic music plays.”

Von: I don’t like losing the botch/10-again rule though. I like that some possible outcomes on a d10 have more significance. At the moment it doeesn’t need to be d10s – it could be done with coin flips. The probability events being used don’t need ten different outputs, so it’s pointless having ten different outputs.

Ben: All you have done there is stated something in its favour – WE CAN PLAY EVEN IF NO-ONE BRINGS DICE.

Von: We could… although I find coins physically harder to manipulate and read than dice. *flips coin, it flies off, lands in someone’s drink/on the floor/in the soup etc.*

Ben: Was thinking along those lines myself.

Von: It’s more that – OK, if WW want us to use the d10 artifact, for nostalgia’s sake/because IT’S GAMING SO POLYHEDRA, they need some gradation in the outputs to justify that artifact. Some of the backlash I’ve seen indicates that people instinctively understand that.

Of Character Stats

Ben: Character attributes have been folded riiiiiight down by the look of it? The 9 attributes vs. 3 attributes + specializations? At the moment I am not quite sure I see why they made this change. They say it’s to allow for characters to customize and personalize their characters, but it seems to actually REMOVE some flexibility to me.

Von: I think they’ve gone a bit too far there. There WERE some obvious dump stats on the old sheet, but I thought Requiem did a decent job of fixing those and making the 3×3 something sensible and useful, like a look up table for what Attribute you should use. BUT: Physical, Social, Mental, with specialities, is all I’ve ever bothered with for my NPCs, and it seems to work.

Ben: Hmm. The higher your physical stats, the more damage you can take in a simple ‘you have more boxes to fill’ system. And from what I saw of combat in ‘how you roll to hit’ above, I gather there are no Soak rolls now. You make an opposed roll to hit, and the loser of that roll takes the difference between winner and loser as damage. COMBAT MIGHT BE FAST. 

Von: Yeah, they’ve stripped that sixteen stage “getting punched in the face” process down a bit.

Ben: I also like that the character whose turn it is can LOSE to their target and have the tables turned on them.

Ben: I see the damage track no longer has stunning/bashing/bullshitting/burning/whatevering all being counted separately. It’s just ‘this could worry a mortal’ and ‘this could worry a vampire’.

Von: Like Second Edition. The Sensible Edition.

Ben: It states that all superficial damage taken is halved before being applied to the damage tracker. Is that for vampires only, or mortals too? Or is the difference simply that a vampire considers far FAR more types of attack to be superficial?

Von: I think you’re right – vampires can walk off a lot more. I see several layers of granularity here: types of damage that can be halved, but those convert when you fill the track and loop around again, damaging an impaired target.

Ben: That sort of makes sense to me – and we’re already doing it after a fashion. “Ranulf jumped that badly burned (aggravated) Tremere in the sewers. His tackle would only have been superficial damage, but that guy was so badly chewed up already that the damage looped round and converted – meaning Ranulf’s tackle broke some bones and knocked the Tremere into torpor.”

Von: Exactly. It’s mostly about eliminating the bash/lethal split and the damage/soak rolls. Speeding fights up – which we kind of half do anyway by using attack rolls to modify damage rolls.

Ben: I have to admit, so far I like this system. I mean, I need to actually PLAY it, but so far I like it.

Von: There are a few places where I think it could stand to streamline more (any time I have to roll some dice, find a difference, convert one of those to a different significance, then do some halving, I’m sensing too much granularity) but it’s… close?

Of Hunger

Ben: Hmm… we no-longer have blood pools? Interesting. Brings in the idea that Vampires can… ‘fast’ for want of a better term.

Ben: Is the new Hunger system LESS book keeping than the old Blood Pools? We’re not tracking each point of Blood anymore, but we are now having to track how many times we do something that SHOULD be a Blood Point. Functionally identical? And then on TOP of that, we have to make another set of bookkeeping rolls at the end the scene to see how much our hunger changes…

Von: There’s a huge difference between Blood and Hunger that I think you’ve missed. It comes down to what WW want the core of the vampire game experience to be.

Von: IF it’s ‘how much blood you have on you’, the actual act of getting the blood is decentred. Blood points lead to that mindset where you have blood packs in your pockets as “magic potions” like in the PC games, or magical bullshit blood gems like the Tremere use.

Von: So let’s re-engineer. Vampire. Creature that preys on the living. Ergo, preying on the living should be a core, fundamental, unavoidable, unelidable part of a game about being a vampire.

Von: Here’s Hunger. It’s a drawback that doesn’t go away until you feed. It gets worse the more stuff you do. NOW: I think the end-of-scene book-keeping may have its drawbacks, if it’s executed coldly right on the heels of something highly dramatic, BUT I think I prefer it to tracking and fretting during every action where blood may come into play. Want to do a thing? Do a thing. Give yourself a hunger tick. It may come back to bite you afterwards, but that’s cool. Stride out of a confrontation, full of rage and thirst, go hunt to slake it. It… feels vampiric.

Ben: Agreed. I’m liking the clan-specific reactions to Hunger too…

Von: Same. ‘specially the Gangrel ones.

Ben: Actually I thought the Gangrel get off a bit more lightly than everyone else. Their most basic Tell is the same as a far FAR lower level one from the generic chart.

Von: They tickle and amuse me is all I mean. The Toreador ones are… asking for trouble though.

Of Disciplines

Von: Why is Aura Perception still there? It’s a pain in the ass, always has been.

Ben: Because it’s fairly central to Auspex? What would you have instead?

Von: I would streamline almost all Disciplines along the lines of VTM Bloodlines. “It basically does one thing, maybe picking up another dimension along the way, but essentially it modifies dice pools for particular things.”

Ben: I see some like Celerity are no longer just more dots = more of the same. I like the changes they’ve made to the ‘more, but better’ powers.

Von: I’m not sure I do, BUT I think if you’re going to do the “each dot represents a new power” thing, then extending that to the physical disciplines is only fair.

Ben: Indeed. All powers should progress the same. Not… “Brujah: one new dot? oh, you’re a little bit stronger. Tremere: one new dot? Here’s a whole raft of new bullshit auto-magical things you can do…”

Von: Yeah. I would personally prefer “Everyone: one new dot? OK, you get a bit better at that thing you do, and maybe a new element to that thing you do”, but you’re right.

Ben: Just read Potence – THAT’S changed a lot an- HOLY SHIT – USING THIS SYSTEM RANULF COULD PUNCH STRAIGHT THROUGH PLATE??? and it’s only a 1 dot ability use to gain his FULL Potence rating on damage rolls? 

Ben: I can’t see anything saying it works this way, but: Ranulf with his Potence 3 could put his fist straight through a knight’s breastplate…. would activating Potence 3 ALSO activate the lower levels of it? Specifically, would he still gain the enhanced damage of Potence 1 IN ADDITION to negating armour? Can’t see anything that says this is the case, but I have been sort of skimming.

Von: I think it’s one Rouse, one power. You want to do three Rouses for all your Potence effects, you be my guest fam.

Von: Think about Presence; would you want to trigger Awe, Dread Gaze and Entrancement all at once? (I can think of case where you might, actually, or at least to trigger them in that order…)

Ben: Given that I’ve seen at least one example where it explicitly stated that you also received the benefits of lower levels, this is what I expected.

Ben: I’m wondering if Disciplines don’t go beyond 3 dots or is that simply not written yet.

Von: My guess is what’s here is “enough to test the waters around the major, sensitive, bedrock-level changes like Hunger and Rousing and not needing four rolls to give someone a clip round the earhole.”

Ben: I assumed the same – ‘heres enough of the rules to test the core stuff. the rest either isn’t relevant or we haven’t included it in order to avoid muddying the test waters’. although to be honest… theres a LOT to be said for slimming down disciplines to Less Than Ten dots. can we remove needless complexity?

Ben: Using Potence as an example: the very first tier allows for near open ended actual ability. The more levels of Potence you have, the more auto-damage you actually DO. Not sure other powers have the same sort of flexibility though – in depth reading required. Some powers would lend them selves to a simple ‘you have more than three dots? then gain extra dice on your dice pool’ style stuff. But others, I suspect, definitely DON’T.

Von: Depends how you’re going to do the generation/elder mechanics, I suppose? I mean – YES, those eight or nine dot powers were seldom used, BUT those eight or nine dot powers quantify an element of the lore and atmosphere, namely “Methuselahs are running the world in their sleep”. IF that aspect is being toned down THEN the high-end powers can go.

Actual Play Review to follow. More on this as details emerge.

 

[30K] Burning of Prospero – Unboxing & Readthrough Review

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I cracked, didn’t I?

First impression, which will be obvious to 95% of more of you reading this – the Burning of Prospero game is an afterthought. A nice afterthought, it turns out, but let’s not kid ourselves: this is essentially a plastic core for a Horus Heresy army, and 95% of the people buying it will be using it to build one Legiones Astartes army for ‘proper’ wargaming with. I certainly will be. In fact I’ve already sold the Sisters of Silence because I knew I’d end up keeping some of them “in case I ever play Burning of Prospero”, which a) I won’t and b) wasn’t part of the deal by which I’d make these boxes pay for themselves. That said, I was tempted…

As you’ll see from the images above, this is not a starter set. None of that snap-together malarkey here. These are full-on multi-part plastic models, in more parts than the majority of the GW range since the legs aren’t one-piece squatty poses. The target market for this ain’t people who’ve read a couple of New York Times best-selling novels and decided they want to give the game a try – this is for people who are already in deep and not afraid to get polystyrene cement on their hands.

Despite including a board, this is nobody’s board game. It’s a wargame played without measuring sticks. Those tiles create a 2D terrain environment, similar to the sort of thing competitive Warmahordsers like and I grudgingly endorse because it’s flat-packable. The rules use ‘zones’ rather than mucking around with range rules, tape measures and laser lines: a ‘zone’ is delineated by a black border around an area of the tile, and either blocks line of sight or doesn’t. Models move two zones; zones may include up to four models, with big lads like Terminators counting as two; everyone in a zone shoots together or fights stuff in an adjacent zone together. It’s oddly elegant and does away with all that micro-measuring of squad consistency and arbitrary distances between squads and general spod-rod management to which the parent game is prone.

Mechanics are basically a dice pool: add up all the various d6s, d8s, d10s and d12s your models have available for their weapons, and beat the opponent’s roll on the various dice they have to save. The complexity isn’t in the mundane combat, but in the psychic powers. There are fifteen (three from each of the Proserpine cults), and each mission provides the Traitors with five (might be a full cult’s discipline plus a couple of randoms, or five randoms). Warp cards are flipped to cast them; Willpower cards are flipped to deny them; card flipping continues until both players have decided to let the result stand. This card fencing aspect takes place before the actual combat, and much like 40K’s psychic phase, seems likely to set the tone for the round to come.

There’s one way in which it’s decidedly unlike the parent game, though: in wargamerese, it uses Igo-Ugo for movement (players roll off, the winner gets to move all their dudes first, and the Imperials automatically win ties because they’re on the attack and dictating the flow of the engagement), but alternating activations for combat (so one zone’s worth of Imperials shoots/fights, then one zone’s worth of Traitors, and so on – if one side has more activations it gets to take them all in sequence at the end, cheerfully back-to-backing for the rest of the round). This mixed approach isn’t something I’ve seen before, and I’d have to play it to have any real idea how well it works… and as discussed, I’m unlikely to actually play this game because I’m selling off all the Imperial stuff to recoup some costs. I’m sure someone will pick up the Talons of the Emperor at some point and maybe agree to sit down and give Burning of Prospero a whirl as a side thing.

In the meantime, I have two sets of the card tiles, which should make for quite a fun 2D battlefield, easily enough to cover the 4′ x 3′ kitchen table and possibly enough for the 4′ x 4′ upstairs. As a bonus, it’ll be hella portable, which is kind of a watchword for me where terrain is concerned. I also have quite a lot of plastic Astartes to build. I don’t know if they’ll be pre-Prospero red or post-Prospero blue at this stage, but in either case they’ll be something I can batch out of an evening now that the sun’s staying out for longer.