Saturday, December 24, 2011

Fifth Century Franks in Gaul: Modeling Ideas

Guy Halsall made some insightful comments regarding tabletop representations of the Frankish troops in Roman service in 5th Century Gaul in a recent post (see Comments). In short, he suggested those troops ought to have some distinctive elements of Frankish and Roman appearance - ie. Frankish axes and top knots, but Roman uniforms.
While I have never built a Frankish army like this (I've got an Essex 15mm Early Franks DBA army from the mid-1990s...), I think it could be done with some existing ranges of figures and accessories.

Gripping Beast offers weapon packs of the Frankish axe, which makes it a cinch to give Late Roman figures a quick and easy Frankish look. But what about the top knots? Well, with helmeted figures, no one will be able to tell. However, it would be nice to tell on at least some of the figures. So unless you are looking to do some head conversions, what can you do?

I think some Early Franks figures might could pass for Franks in Roman service if painted right. What I would look for is unarmored types whose tunics look like Late Roman tunics; avoid overlong tunics and skip the fur vests.  Equip them with oval shields and paint them to look like your other Roman infantry as opposed to giving them the striped Frankish tunic.
In general, I think some of Wargames Foundry's Early Franks/Saxons "Spearmen Standing" might be the best candidates for this.

The Horsa figure from the Wargames Foundry Arthurian characters pack (he's got the top knot, short scale shirt, and a sword) seems like a good officer candidate. As far as that goes, a number of GB's Early Saxon/German noble warriors could pass for some decent Roman-helmeted officers as well - just add some Frankish axes. Alternately, I suppose these guys could work as well-armored rank and file.

In the meantime, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Winter Reading: Halsall's Genesis of the Frankish Aristrocracy

While I don't have much to add directly to my thoughts on the Roman/Frankish armies operating within the Loire region of Gaul in the mid-5th Century, I do recommend that you take some time to read Guy Halsall's s four-part series on "The Genesis of the Frankish Aristocracy" over at Historian on the Edge (link takes you to Part One).
If I recall correctly, Halsall has advised he will not keep the series up indefinitely, so don't wait.

What does this socio-economic-military piece have to with wargaming the period? Well, lots if you are trying to put the Roman and 'Barbarian' factions into a proper context of the Fourth and Fifth Centuries AD. It certainly made me wonder how much the Franks serving as bodies of imperial military forces might have considered themselves as Roman as the state they fought for. Could one really tell the difference between one Roman army composed of Franks and another that was not, especially if both purchased clothing and equipment from the same kinds of imperial sources (whether government-issued or otherwise)?

How do you interpret that for the tabletop? I would imagine it means predominantly using late imperial figures, mixing in more 'Frankish' elements the further away from 460 you get. If nothing else, I'm not convinced the stereotypical Frankish warrior images - top-knots, throwing axe, round shield - are necessarily applicable to what was going on inside mid-Fifth Century Gaul.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

It's Elemental

I took a bit of my own advice regarding arcane wards, portals, and traps for the elemental-built level of a my Pathfinder group's recent dungeon delve into the lowest reaches of ancient dwarven catacombs. In short, I took typical game traps and simply allowed characters to use Arcane Knowledge instead of Perception to detect/understand a magic ward/trap; instead of Disable Device, they used Spellcraft to suppress, bypass, or otherwise safely negotiate a number of elementally magicked areas encountered during the heroes' underground ramblings.

For the most part, these were just simple affairs applied to doorways and the like. I did use a standard spiked pit trap and jazzed it up like some kind of earth elemental worm creature. As far as game mechanics go, it was nothing more than a trap that could move around in a room.

One of the key parts of the climactic encounter in the undead-filled temple (see last post) was to allow the heroes a chance to prevent - or at least hamper - the transmission of a a large lightning elemental to the temple via a large (10' x 20') black marble altar which served as a kind of portal between the planes when properly activated. I reasoned the mighty being was only sending a portion of his essence to aid the heroes' cultist foes. I also reasoned that such a challenge would be the equivalent of a lightning trap - if they could overcome the trap, they could further limit the elemental creature's avatar (for lack of better word) from arriving in the temple - ie. shrink him down to a medium-sized or small elemental instead of taking on a ten-foot tall man-shaped angry cloud of thunder and lightning. If they failed the disarm attempt, they faced a lightning attack. It seemed appropriate that the monster could channel its electrical energy through the altar/portal if the heroes could do the same.

This was a great way to give the players some choice - take a chance on getting zapped to reduce the effectiveness of a truly tough enemy or just let him come on. As it turns out, they failed in their attempts, but that just made things more exciting. This is where we became much more familiar with weapon resistance rules.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

I Advance Masked

I couldn't resist the Andy Summers reference for this piece. I'm sure it will all make sense once you have recovered from Police-related nostalgia and read the latest dispatch from my dungeon.

I wanted to bring back that hint of Lovecraft that appeared fairly regularly in 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and fit so well with the elements of the game's pulp fantasy appeal. Beyond the slimy and tentacled horrors such as mindflayers, beholders, and aboleths, players got to glimpse at the Elder Ones in any number of ruined (or active and secret) temples and cults. A step further, we find gods like Tharizdun (god of entropy and madness) and god-like elemental powers playing well with the sphere of alien intelligences bent on spreading destruction in the world. Pictured right is the cover to The Temple of Elemental Evil, the classic mixing of eldritch, elemental, and fiendish creepiness.

It's certainly easy enough to place those elements in a regular dungeon-delving setting. On the group's first outing they took a medallion shaped like a mindflayer head from leader of hobgoblin mercenaries, so from the start they know that they face a faction of horrific overlords and probably a mixed of sneaky and/or crazed cultists. In time, they learn of an as yet-explored abandoned(?) temple in the wilderness. Even better, they begin to piece together a cult-driven conspiracy within the safety of the adventuring base, a human/dwarven mountain enclave.

When it came time to expose the secret horrors playing in the lowest levels of the town's ancient catacombs (built by dwarves and elemental beings), I had to make it memorable without being too overpowering for a low-level group. I re-purposed some game mechanics for traps and monster powers and did some cosmetic things that gave the adventure more personality.

I reasoned that the corrupting influence of evil and alien powers could certainly transform the faithful into sentient undead, so I used ghouls as the local cult leaders. I thought about beefing the head honcho up as a cleric, but I settled on letting him be a ghast (a ghoul with the advanced template in the Pathfinder RPG) and substituted a cleric's channel energy power for the normal stench ability. Instead of using two claw attacks for these monsters, I had them used curvy, sacrificial swords (short swords) instead - the damage was the same, but the image made for a better fit. Once these creeps put on silver fish-faced masks and some robes, they weren't just any old ghouls - they were devotees of the Old Ones.

Their minions were simple skeletons as far as game mechanics go. However, I determined that the skeletons were sentient - not because they needed to do anything complicated, but because the players needed to get an understanding of the madness and hate that drove them. Furthermore, the skeletons were the remnants of skum (an aberrant race of fishlike humanoids created by eldritch horrors long ago). These guys were dancing around a large black marble altar when the adventurers arrived. Yeah - I did fudge here - I really didn't want to beef up the skeletons to match Skum stats, but they were no less a challenge for all that. Like the ghouls, they gave the encounter the feel and power level it needed - both were memorable to the players.

Lastly, the ghouls were served by zombie slaves - human and dwarven victims of the cult. They were definitely playing the animated servant role as defined by the game, but I did have them provide a disturbing chorus as part of a summoning ritual the party intruded upon.

In the next post, I'll talk a little bit more about the elemental elements of the game.