Launching an eXpedition

SIX logoIn my relatively tame and uncorrupted youth, my biggest vice was probably a fiction addiction. Thanks to the Science Fiction Book Club and their twelve-books-for-a-penny introductory offer, I mainlined a constant stream of sci-fi and fantasy prose into the wee hours of every night, ensuring no more than a few hours of sleep to get me through school the next day. Mock me if you will, but if you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re more like me and less like the kids that were getting themselves into more exciting kinds of trouble at the time. And while I’ve often thought that maybe I missed out on some of the coming-of-age adventures that defined my generation’s journey into adulthood, what I didn’t know at the time was that I was preparing for a much greater adventure, or rather, an entire series of them, and I never could have expected where my love of reading fiction would take me.

Over time, my shelves packed with fantasy and sci-fi novels were replaced by a library of business books, art tutorials, and texts about the craft of writing. Opportunities to enjoy a good piece of fiction were few and far between and for the most part my fiction fix was fulfilled by whatever game product we were currently working on at Privateer Press.

I wasn’t the only one that enjoyed the stories based in the Iron Kingdoms, though, and over the last decade of world building and game publishing that we’ve done through the WARMACHINE, HORDES and the Iron Kingdoms RPG game lines, the number of requests  we’ve had for novels set in this dynamic universe is countless. With the proliferation of portable digital technology, I realized sometime last year that fulfilling this request — a goal we have held at Privateer for a very long time — was well within our grasp.

902947_594932690534967_149436601_oIt seemed a simple enough mission; find talented authors who would be interested in exploring the Iron Kingdoms setting with us, work with them to create novels, package them with stunning artwork, and distribute them digitally for all to enjoy. None of this seemed outside the realm of anything I’d tackled in the past and the adept staff at Privateer Press was more than capable of bringing it together. But the reality behind the fiction was somewhat less straightforward. We weren’t just trying to publish a novel or even a series, but rather, an entire library with multiple series that explored the world end to end. It quickly became clear that this would be a massive effort.

Once the decision was made to go forward with this new publishing venture, things began to come together very quickly as we planned out the line of books we wanted to publish. In very short order, projects began with several talented and accomplished authors, some of which were even players of Privateer Press games. Outlines flew back and forth by email, stories formed, and first drafts piled up on the desktop like an an impossible-to-summit mountain whose peak moved farther away with every step toward it.

885307_591394904222079_1164059918_oThe challenge was twofold: First, we wanted volume. The goal was to produce regular offerings with a minimum of one new novella or novel every month. This meant initiating multiple projects in parallel and managing them all through their development at the same time.

The second challenge was continuity. We’re creating stories in a world that has ten years of publications on the shelf already, a pantheon of developed and known characters, and a rigid system of rules that governs many aspects of what can happen in the setting. Complicate that with nearly fifteen-hundred years of in-setting history and an ongoing plot line involving a dozen factions, and you suddenly find yourself in a treacherous landscape that few can navigate on their own.

To their credit, the fantastic authors that signed on for this undertaking were ready for adventure and they rose to meet every challenge that comes with weaving new tales into an established setting. What we ended up with are multiple series that chronicle the origins and exploits of Immoren’s most famous warcasters, warlocks and adventurers. Stories range from intimate character studies to swashbuckling hijinx to epic warfare, and for me, each one has been a different kind of joy to read. While my first responsibility in reading an early draft of a story is to help maintain continuity and consistency of the setting, it’s difficult to avoid getting swept into these tales and reading them for pure pleasure. Finally, we get to read of Makeda’s harrowing youth and the complicated origins of Allister Caine. We get to explore the monster-infested wilds with Pendrake and we get to witness the emergence of an entirely new threat to the Iron Kingdoms with the Convergence. For anyone who has craved more out of their experience with WARMACHINE, HORDES and the Iron Kingdoms and beyond, there is a treasure trove of literature on the way.

883651_588015487893354_1330701628_oOver the many months of commissioning and creating content, I searched for an identity for this publishing label. While the initial books are all based on existing Privateer Press properties, and while the publishing label is a subsidiary of Privateer Press and depends very much on the efforts and contributions of Privateer’s staff, one of the goals for this venture is to be able to explore worlds beyond the Iron Kingdoms, including worlds in other Privateer properties as well as all new, never before seen settings. Working with established and accomplished authors as well as unpublished and emerging talent, we are building a bold new publishing label that will innovate, take chances, and hopefully create a name for itself that represents these qualities while doing honor to the Privateer Press legacy.

SIX_TWC_TheWayofCaine_Cover

The name we finally settled on was Skull Island eXpeditions. The ‘silly cap’ X is a way of tidying up our URL (www.SkullIslandX.com), and also giving a nod to our swashbuckling  lineage and that which marks the final destination of any great quest. Finding this identity crystalized what we were about, what we wanted to achieve, and gave us a compass to help guide and inform the kind of content readers can expect to experience with us in the future.

It’s been no small task getting here, but all of the work thus far has simply been the preparation. The real journey will be underway in a matter of days, when we finally get to release these books to the public and launch this expedition once and for all. It’s my hope that you’ll follow us on this great adventure and explore the Iron Kingdoms along with the amazing authors that have contributed their vision to it. Fair warning, though: Proceed with caution. Reading fantasy books can take you places you’d never expect.

Writer Pro Tip #1: Why Ask, “Why?”

I have a 21 month old son. As I’m sure every parent brags, he’s a total genius. He speaks two languages, can count, and has a huge vocabulary. For all his intellectual prowess, however, he hasn’t yet learned the meaning of the word, ‘why.’ My understanding from other harried parents is that this stage usually kicks in about three years old, and that it’s tedious to endure. But I can’t wait until my kid starts asking ‘why’ questions because I love answering them and I’ve already started getting my answers locked and loaded for the future. For now, though, when I confront him with a ‘why’ question of my own, such as, “Why are you throwing all of your toys over the balcony?” or “Why do you insist on pouring your milk on the dog?” the only response I receive is a blank, doe-eyed stare.

Interestingly enough, I occasionally also seem to get this response from writers.

First, let me say that I’ve had the distinctive honor of working with several writers, all more talented and accomplished than myself. My own role has been to provide creative guidance in story development.  I’m the coach, the writer is the quarterback. I can’t throw the ball, but I can tell when someone’s form is incorrect. (For a guy who doesn’t know jack shit about sports, I sure use a lot of sports analogies.) So this isn’t a critique on any writer that I’ve worked with (in case any of you are actually reading this) but rather, an observation about writers in general, and I’ll humbly include myself among them as it’s through my own mistakes that I’ve come to learn the importance of the word, ‘why’.

For the past several months, a great deal of my time and a great deal of my sacrificed sleep has gone into story development for some really amazing fiction projects, both inside and outside of Privateer Press. Most recently, I’ve had the opportunity to delve into the past of WARMACHINE’s famously infamous, Allister Caine, gunmage-warcaster extraordinaire. Working on this project has been a considerable team effort. My good friend, the talented Miles Holmes, has run point as the author of this tale that will feature in next year’s product lineup from Privateer Press. Helming our operation is the ever patient, always calculating Director of Publications, Scott Taylor. My own role has been that of creative director, which in this case has included story-plotting, character development and general guidance for handling the setting, as well as frequently acting as a liaison to our continuity and in-house writing staff of Jason Soles and Doug Seacat to make sure we’re keeping our facts straight. Five people have been involved in this project for weeks and not a single word of the actual story has even been written yet. Oh, words have been written. We’ve generated pages of them. Dozens and dozens of multi-page emails in multiple threads, an 18 page story outline that Miles has revised daily, and we’ve thrown in a few conference calls on top of it all. But it’s all just been preparation for Miles to go weapons-free and start blasting away at this fantastic tale. So much work for one story! “Why”, you ask? Well that’s the operative question, isn’t it.

The definitive Caine, by the world famous Andrea Uderzo.

Allister Caine is a central character to the WARMACHINE mythos. Despite his frequent appearances in the ongoing saga of the setting, and despite being the most popular two-gun slinging rogue in the Iron Kingdoms, the public knows very little about him. His history has been alluded to in vague references, deliberately left mysterious until the day we had the time to tell his harrowing tale of dark dealings and intrigue. At the point we decided that time had come, those involved (myself included) thought it would be a relatively simple matter. The beats of Caine’s background were well established; he was a street criminal, turned military man who relapsed to his old ways before mysteriously being restored to his military career. Internally, as the creators of this setting, we thought we knew Caine intimately, that this work of fiction would be a matter of merely connecting the dots…until we started asking, “Why?” Why did Caine join the military? Why did Caine murder a man in cold blood? Why did Caine return to lives he abandoned, twice? And that’s when the real work began.

‘Why’ is the great dismantler. It unravels the fabric of a story as quickly as the word can be spoken. Sufficiently answering the question of ‘why’ necessitates carefully orchestrated logic during the creation process, and failure to ask ‘why’ is the tungsten carbide drill that produces plot holes in any piece of writing, no matter how cleverly the words may be strung together. ‘Why’ is the the concrete foundation of a character’s motivations. And ‘why’ is the gossamer thread that suspends our disbelief.

Who hasn’t yelled aloud at the film screen, “Why is she going back in there?!!” This and every unbelievable story moment from, “Why did the the stupid space biologist touch that slimy space cobra?” to “Why would you build a flying aircraft carrier with only four lift turbines?” is the result of a writer (or someone in a creative position guiding the story) not asking, “Why?” or mistakenly believing that we the audience, wouldn’t.

Human beings have an instinctive desire to consume stories. But we also crave knowledge, and knowledge wants understanding, and understanding requires explanation. And if there’s one other thing human beings love to do, it’s criticize. We love calling bullshit on something. So when that explanation doesn’t measure up to everyday common sense and the way we all intuitively understand the world and the people in it, we all want to be the first to appear brilliant and clever by exposing the flaw in the design. The lesson here for writers is that as much as people crave a good story, they seem to be much more interested in pointing out its mistakes and tearing it down, and the only universal defense for this is to constantly, continually, and without fail, ask yourself as you’re writing, “Why?”

Sometimes it can feel like you’re chasing your tail. Each ‘why’ answered reveals a new question, sometimes forking the path and multiplying the number of questions that must be answered. Uncommitted or inexperienced writers forget to ask in the first place, or believe that the reader or viewer won’t notice the unanswered question or won’t be interested in following a string of logic down that rabbit hole only to find the unanswered dead end. But the clever writer, the experienced writer, and the writer who has an ounce of pride in the project he puts his name on, will embrace the ‘why’ and chase it through every layer it reveals, diving deeper and deeper into the plot and characters until every branch of every thread has reached its terminus and no more ‘whys’ remain.

If someone is going to do something other people would find irrational, you’ve got to seed the reason why ahead of time or we’re jarred right out of the story. If a plot twists and turns, you have to properly connect those dots and explain why, or the tale will leave us behind in disbelief.

The rule, then: always ask “Why?”, and then ask it again. Because even if you don’t, your audience will, and we are unforgiving bastards.

The origin story of Allister Caine has been a monumental exercise in asking, “Why?” There’s a decade of history to this setting and a decade’s worth of people who are intimately familiar with its every detail. Caine has been a cornerstone of the setting since almost the beginning, and his existence is embedded in the building blocks of the world itself. We’re threading the needle, weaving a story through not only an established history but a well known set of ‘rules’ that must be adhered to faithfully, lest the story ring untrue. In discovering WHO Caine is and HOW he came to be, we have endeavored to leave no WHY unturned. Fortunately, I’m working with a crack team of professionals who understand the value of ‘why’ and are committed to making sure we’ve anticipated them all so that this character and his thrilling story can be brought to life as authentically as possible.

And if we’ve done our job well, we can all avoid that blank, doe-eyed stare that my toddler gives me when I ask him, “Why do you keep hitting me with your plastic toy rake?” (Don’t worry, I’m sure there’s a good reason. He’s a genius.)

 

 

Stryker 3 — Work in Progress

I promised a progress update on the Stryker 3 concept art this week. I haven’t gotten that far with the actual art; much of the time spent on this so far has been thought and conversation.

The conversations are probably the more interesting subjects at this point. The original brief more or less called for Epic Stryker on a horse, with potentially heavier armor. While we had a draft of the new rules in development, fortunately it hadn’t gone into play testing so there was some room to brainstorm with Jason Soles about what we might do differently with Cygnar’s poster child.

Warm up jams, playing with ideas. And the ugliest sketch of Stryker’s mug you’ve ever seen.

I derived a lot of inspiration from the landslide of comments to my original post about this concept. Something I was keen on was evolving Stryker’s armor and weapons somehow, and I thought it was time to get back to Stryker’s roots — before he was a warcaster. So after some back and forth with Jason, we decided on Quicksilver 3 — now enhanced with Stormglaive technology. I mean, come on, isn’t it about time that the leader of the Storm Division started slinging some lighting bolts around? To that end, I took a little out of Quicksilver’s haft since Stryker will be swinging this one-handed from the saddle, and I added the signature coils from the Stormglaive to give the Lord Commander his most formidable weapon yet.

Rough block in of shapes for Stryker’s armor, plus QUICKSILVER MKIII!

The rest is really rough so far, working out new shapes and details in his armor. You might notice some similarities to Nemo’s epic armor styling. This is intentional. I figure Nemo has the kinks worked out in this whole storm-chamber powered armor now, and some of the aspects he perfected in his own suit would help stabilize Stryker’s [misappropriated] prototype armor. I’m also adding some weight to it; this will be the bulkiest Stryker yet, with heavy torso armor and some extra plating on his arms and legs, taking advantage of the fact that his mobility is taken care of by the mount. Since Stryker will finally be up on the high horse everyone has always accused him of, he’s ditched the duster. His silhouette loses something for me without the long coat, but I’m hoping once he’s in the saddle, it won’t be missed.

No real work done yet on the horse. I’ve got some ideas on where I’m going, but I need to go back to Jason with some new thoughts and I promised not to bug him anymore this week while he’s jamming on the next IKRPG book. Stay tuned for a horse update in the next couple of weeks. This whole project is supposed to be done by the end of the month, but I think I’m going to be begging Ed Bourelle for a deadline extension. (Here’s your notice, Ed!)

(As always, please post links, but not the pics! Thanks!)

ADDENDUM

It’s seems not everyone is a fan…

Suck it, Norm! This one’s for you, brother. :-)

 

 

Hi-yo, Quicksilver!

The original Stryker image done for the first Battlebox releases of WARMACHINE.

A couple weeks ago I tweeted that I’d gotten roped into doing the concept art for the next incarnation of one of WARMACHINE’s most iconic characters, Commander Coleman Stryker. The truth is, I wasn’t roped into it so much as presented with the opportunity. It took about three seconds for me to process the idea and agree. Stryker is, after all, a character very close to my heart and represents the very beginnings of WARMACHINE.

In terms of development, the original Commander Coleman Stryker is the first warcaster ever created. He became the baseline by which all other warcasters were compared to and balanced against. In a sense, both mathematically, and conceptually, Stryker represents the closest thing to an ‘everyman’ that a warcaster can be. He’s not ‘the best at what he does’ like the two-gun-slinging Caine, nor is he imbued with the powerful arcane abilities that Haley possesses and develops over time. He’s good at what he does, don’t get me wrong, but he was created with the idea that he’s well rounded and adaptable to a multitude of situations, relying on no single strategy for success. And fictionally, this is represented in the character as well. He’s the consummate soldier and an admirable leader, the kind of guy you want to follow into battle. While victory is his goal, the preservation of life and humanity are his foremost concerns. He’s gallant, shining, brave and ready for anything. At least he was…

Something unique about the WARMACHINE and HORDES miniatures games is the way we’ve woven the sweeping story into the game itself, primarily reflected in the character models. The big story, the one we call the ‘meta story’ started about nine years ago in our first expansion book, Escalation. Through a brief anthology story and several vignettes and snippets of fiction, we exposed the characters of the warcasters. We got to know them better, get inside their heads a little, and we got to see the beginning of their ‘character arcs’.

Andrea Uderzo’s magnificent rendering of Stryker in Prime MkII.

According to the screenwriting guru Syd Field, there are four building blocks or aspects of character, which people like to lump together with the term ‘characterization’. These aspects are a point of view unique to the character, an attitude reflecting how he interacts with life and challenges, a need, want or desire that motivates the character through the story, and last but not least, change. No, not a pocket full of coins. We’re talking about character change. The thing that ultimately connects us to a character in a dramatic situation is our observation of how that character deals with a problem and ultimately changes (or doesn’t in some cases) in order to achieve a resolution to that problem. (Am I getting too heady here? Better get some caffeine…)

So, back to Escalation. We’ve got this character, a hero of his nation, a man revered as much for his courage and martial prowess as he is for his sense of justice and mercy. He’s a veteran of numerous battles and engagements  and has certainly experienced both victory and defeat, but his character is never daunted nor tarnished because his only desire — to protect the kingdom that he cherishes — is utterly selfless. And then he’s confronted by something he’s never had to deal with before. His past wartime experience was always by the book. The rules of engagement were clear and everyone abided by those rules. Then came Khador’s invasion of Llael and everything got turned on its head. As Cygnar mobilized to assist their allies to the north, the long simmering theocracy of the Protectorate of Menoth seized the opportunity to strike at Cygnar’s unprotected flank. The result was chaos that spilled over the confines of any battlefield and quickly devastated the lives of innocent civilians caught in the line of fire. Coleman Stryker was rudely awakened from the dream that war could be a noble method of resolving conflict and forced to face the cold reality that there is nothing noble about it. He watched helplessly as ruthless Khadoran soldiers murdered and looted a defenseless village while Protectorate militia massacred fleeing civilians simply to make a point about their difference in theological preference. This was a war without boundaries, an ugly war like Stryker had never experienced before. Witnessing this inhumanity without the power to stop it became the catalyst for Stryker’s change.

Stryker served a just an honorable king, a service he’d been proud of over the ten years since he’d aided Leto in usurping his brother’s throne and leading the nation into an era of prosperity. But Leto’s code prohibited any action considered inhumane, and this is the catch 22 that Stryker found himself mired in. The enemies of Cygnar were willing to do anything to crush them, but Cygnar had no way to defend against such ignoble actions while still upholding the nation’s values. Realizing he would only be leading men to their death as his beloved country crumbled around him, Stryker laid his sword down at the feet of his king and resigned his command unless he be given the freedom to seek total destruction against the forces that threaten Cygnar’s people.

And so ends Act I of Stryker’s character arc. Met with the catalyst for change, Stryker reluctantly embraces this new reality and makes a decision to change his personal code in order to seek a solution to the problem of his nation. Ultimately, Leto has no choice but to give Stryker his leash, and what happens next becomes the subject of much heated controversy between those following the saga of the Iron Kingdoms. Stryker, the once shining knight of Cygnar, becomes the monster he is trying to defeat.

In retrospect, as the creative director driving the plot of the meta-story, I realized we moved a little too fast from the Escalation chapter to the next expansion installment, Apotheosis. If I had the chance to do it all over again, Escalation would have been a bit more of a prologue and a chance to get to know the characters and set up the conflict, and there would have been another book inserted before Apotheosis in which we take these characters to the brink like we did with Stryker. I think the controversy that stirred around Stryker and what he became in Apotheosis was largely due to the fact that we moved from the starting image of this character so quickly into something completely opposite. It might have felt a little like a bait and switch in terms of his fictional presentation. On the other hand, it was a very dramatic shift, and the fact that it polarized people to the character means that it struck the right chords. Our take on the events in the Iron Kingdoms is that nothing is black and white, it’s all grey area and one’s opinion of a situation is entirely relative to his or her position and point of view. In other words, people SHOULD disagree.

Epic Stryker in full battle rage.

So with a his newly appointed station to Lord Commander giving him authority above the law of the land, Stryker decides that the best defense is a good offense, and he sets out to offend his enemies in every way he can. In doing so, he offends some friends as well, namely his mentor, Commander Adept Nemo, when he uses his newfound authority to confiscate a suit of prototype warcaster armor against the old man’s wishes.

He proceeds to march across Cygnar, rounding up civilian sympathizers of the Protectorate (specifically, anyone that worships the Protectorate’s god, Menoth), then shipping them off to a prison island. It’s a dark turn for our once gleaming hero and obviously not something the Protectorate’s religious tyrants would ever expect from Cygnar. Then Stryker leads a brutal assault against Sul, a city filled with the downtrodden and oppressed citizens of the Protectorate. Stryker’s metamorphosis is underway. He has officially become the monster he wants to destroy. It’s a conscious choice, one born of noble intent and complete self-sacrifice but it’s a dark path and comes at the price of Stryker’s soul and very nearly his life.

His sights locked on a particularly vile priestess of the Protectorate, Feora, Stryker lets vengeance take hold of his actions. But Stryker’s hubris comes back to haunt him when the prototype armor goes on the fritz. Were it not for the quick intervention of Stryker’s least favorite ally, Caine, he would have been skewered on the ends of Feora’s fire-breathing blades. So consumed by his rage at this point, Stryker learns nothing from the close call and shirks the aid and counsel of his friends, determined to destroy the entire city.

An early version of the Stryker in-game model by WhiteMoon Dreams.

There are readers that empathized with Stryker, realizing he was doing what he thought he had to do in order to protect Cygnar from destruction. Others were disgusted with his actions, disappointed and let down that the noble hero could fall so far from grace. But that’s the point. In order for Stryker to achieve his own apotheosis, we would first have to destroy everything that he was. I hear players of the games criticize the fiction from time to time, claiming that the stories aren’t dramatic because the main characters don’t die. But I’ll argue that physical death isn’t nearly as meaningful as spiritual death, and right then, Stryker was on the express elevator to hell.

When we next meet up with Stryker, he’s cornered Feora in a temple full of Protectorate civilians seeking shelter from the battle and he’s about to get the vengeance he’s been seeking. But  Feora commands a warjack to unleash a barrage of rockets to cover her escape, bringing down the temple on top of the heads of the cowering Menite civilians. Suddenly, Stryker is hit with the realization that the civilians of the Protectorate are in just as much need of protection from their tyrant leaders as his own people are back in Cygnar. And herein lies the final fork in the road for Stryker’s soul. Pursuing Feora and leaving the civilians to die means completing his transformation into the monster. The blood of innocents on his hands can never be washed off. Victory would be his, but there would be no return to the man he once was. Instead, he places himself in harm’s way, buying time for the civilians to escape as the temple comes crashing down to bury him alive. The path of darkness has led him to new enlightenment just before he finds redemption in death.

Okay, not real death. Symbolic death. Death of a particular existence, illustrated in the action of being buried alive. We all know Stryker lived or I wouldn’t be getting the chance to concept a new model for him. But the change the character goes through over time, from courageous hero of the people to a monster, to being reborn, enlightened with the ideal that no existence is worth the compromise of values, humanity, or one’s soul is a defining theme of WARMACHINE and in my mind makes Stryker the very heart of WARMACHINE. He might not be your favorite character — there are so many to chose from, after all — and you might not even care for Cygnar as a faction, but as both a game piece, and as a fictional character that has endured and emerged victorious in the battle for his very soul, Stryker is the touch stone by which all other characters are measured in this setting.

And that’s why there was never a question about whether or not I’d do the concept art for his next incarnation.

If you made it though that long winded essay, you must really be interested in what exactly Stryker’s next incarnation actually is — that’s the real reason you’re reading this! I’m sure some of you have guessed it by now, anyway. The big change is that like the latest version of Vlad, Stryker will be mounted. Rules-wise, I’m not at liberty to speak much and honestly, I’m not sure exactly where he’s sitting in development. But the concept brief calls for his horse to be clad in heavy powered armor and there’s a suggestion that Stryker’s own armor might be heavier than his original epic version, by virtue of being mounted on the horse. Presumably, Stryker’s prototype armor has been tuned up by Nemo and he’s no longer a danger to himself, so there’s an opportunity there for some visual change. The brief also suggests that he retain his iconic blade, Quicksilver II (now you get the title of the blog!). I’m thinking this is the right call as I haven’t been able to come up with an idea for any other weapon that feels right in his hands.

It’s quite a few years back when we wrapped Stryker’s character arc in Legends, after he killed Hierarch Voyle and repelled the Protectorate invasion. He’s long overdue for a new model incarnation and this will be a return to the shining knight, but representative of the change he’s undergone. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure yet how I’ll approach it. There’s something missing in the idea that I haven’t discovered yet— the pose of Stryker atop the horse, some affectation of his armor? Would it make sense for a warcaster to carry a pennant into battle? Or is he dual wielding Quicksilver with his disruptor pistol like his original sculpt?

Concept art for Epic Stryker

I got a lot of great feedback on the Eiryss 3 concept and it was a fun process to sift through and harvest the suggestions, several of which found their way into the final concept. I’m interested in what you’d do with Stryker’s new image and look forward to sharing this creative journey with you again.

 

 

 

Two Generals Battle Report

<Spoilers Ahead>

I did not win.

<End spoilers.>

From left to right: My indomitable opponent Chris Kluwe, moi holding a ‘Fire of Menoth’ cupcake, and the event mastermind, John DeShazer. (Photo stolen from Mercenary Market’s FB page.)

I didn’t think there was chance in hell that I would, there was never really a question about that. My hope was that I could get through the game without thoroughly embarrassing myself, and I think I managed to do that. In fact, I think I made Mr. Kluwe work for it…or at least he pretended to. Either way, let the record show that I did not go down without a fight. Neigh. I brought the fight to him!

Here’s how it went down…

If you’ve been following this blog or my recent tweets/facebookings, you might know that this past Sunday I participated in a great WARMACHINE/HORDES event at Mercenary Market in Coasta Mesa, hosted by the stores owner’s, John DeShazer and my magnanimous opponent for the day, Chris Kluwe. What made this even so fantastic was the unique format, something that I expect will very shortly become a mainstay of WARMACHINE and HORDES events around the world. Twenty eight players showed up and were randomly divided into two teams, each team to be lead by a General — the Generals being Chris and myself. Through four escalating rounds, the teams faced off and during each round, Chris and I were given a limited number of advantages that we could dynamically bestow upon one of our players (whom I will refer to henceforward as ‘champions’), once per player, per round. The advantages could take the form of:

• A boosted die roll
• A re-roll of any die roll
• An automatically successful morale check

As the battles raged across the tables, our champions would call out at pivotal points in the battle to request our support. Several times, the advantage turned an otherwise negative situation into a positive, and more than a few times I witnessed it as the winning die roll in the game. Since each champion only had access to one advantage per game, the effect was not staggering or unbalancing, but the turned-hand of fate was felt throughout the day, to be sure.

Each round, the winning side gained an advantage for their respective General. I’ll try to remember what they were:

• Round 1 — 2″ of additional deployment
• Round 2 — Bonus to the initiative turn order roll
• Round 3 — Player gets to place a wall on the battlefield before deployment
• Round 4 — Player gets one instance of a bonus, as described above.

I gained all four.

My champions were amazing. Or maybe I was just an astounding General! Every player on both sides gave it their all and rallied behind their General yesterday, but round after round, my champions managed to bring home the victory and deliver the advantage to me. The rounds were close and competition was fierce, to be sure, but fortune graced me with the winning army that day, and as a whole, they accomplished a flawless victory (which I squandered with my own incompetence, but we’ll get to that part of the story soon enough).

Chris definitely had the height and reach advantage on me…

An entertaining side note to this is that the organizers of the event surprised Chris and I with a challenge for the Generals following the completion of each of the first three rounds. This added a bit of interaction and I think, comedy, to the day’s events. The General challenges went like this:

Round 1 — Chris and I were tasked before the round started with learning the names of each of our champions before the end of the hour. This was a great challenge because it thrust us onto the battlefield with our champions and required us to engage with them. Immediately, both of us began taking notes, working hard to associate the names with the faces. Impressively, when the moment of truth came, we both scored a perfect 100, memorizing each of our champion’s names. The success awarded us each an additional bonus advantage to hand out in subsequent rounds, but the playing field was still level. I’ll add though, that the greatest advantage was knowing the names of my champions after that, and this served me well.

Round 2 — For the second challenge, an army was selected at random from one of our respective champions. Chris and I were tasked with reciting the name of each model or unit in the army. You might think this is a slam dunk for the creator of the game, but after 15+ books worth of models, even I get stymied on a name once in a while, especially in the heat of competition. Amazingly, Chris and I went toe to toe again, but we both got hung up on one character solo: Sylys Wyshnalyrr. Incredibly, neither of us could dredge the name of this misbegotten elf from our subconscious, and the challenge again ended in a draw with each of us gaining the additional bonus advantage. I’m not sure what this says about ol’ Sylys, but even after multiple ‘sudden death’ rounds, he was the only one that we both failed to name. (Does anyone even know how to pronounce his name? Good grief!)

Round 3 — The humiliation round! The challenge was to lead our champions in a song or chant about, I think, our faction or our army or something. Interpretation of the challenge seemed to vary. Chris and his champions, to his credit, chanted something charitable about Privateer Press and their appreciation, and for that, I must thank him. But this was a juried challenge and I knew I’d have to dig a little deeper to pull this victory out, so as the round played out, I scribbled notes on a 3 x 5 card and subsequently lead my graciously cooperative team in the following chant (keep in mind that I knew I’d be fielding Cygnar today, but my players were made up of a random assortment of factions from both WARMACHINE and HORDES):

Cygnar, Cygnar, you’re our team today,
We might not like you but that’s okay,
You’ll kick Kluwe’s butt if you hope and pray,
Then you can pack up and go away.

My gambit payed off and self-deprecating humor won the day…or rather, the challenge. There was still much left to play out this day…

Instead of winning an advantage for the third General challenge, the losing team was forced to don the pink Privateer bandanas for the final round.

After seven hours of our champions waging bloody war, Chris and I finally got down to our death match. As I said above, I had all the advantages that my champions had won throughout the day. The table was set, and the scenario was revealed, but I won’t even worry about describing the scenario because I don’t think either Chris or I ever had an inclination to try and win by the scenario conditions. It was something about zones and objectives and contesting something or other, but you already know how this is going to go: Caster Kill.

My army. Cavalry painted by Bob Ladd as a commission a few years back. Everything else painted by me. Only Stryker, the Journeyman and the Cyclone existed before last week. I was doing some serious speed painting!

After a week of frantic painting and army building, here’s what I brought to the field with my 50pt force:

Commander Coleman Stryker
Stormwall
Cyclone
Journeyman Warcaster
Stormlancers (5)
The Black 13th
Stormsmiths (3)
Harlan Versh, Illuminated One
Eiryss, Mage Hunter of iOS
Gunmage Captain Adept

Here’s what Chris brought:

Goreshade the Cursed
Kraken
A shit-ton of banes

Okay, he had some other stuff, too. UAs for the banes, the Combine, Tartarus…what’s it matter. I couldn’t target any of them anyway!

In a final advantage granted to the Generals, the champion from each team with the day’s best strength of schedule became the Lieutenant advisor to the General. I’m going to say right up front here, and I’ll say it again, this saved my bacon. My Lieutenant, Alex, who kicked a ridiculous amount of ass throughout the day, was pretty much the only reason I didn’t look like a complete idiot. Though I studied and crammed for this event for a week leading up to it, 90% of what I had loaded into my grey matter went right out the window as soon as I stepped up to the table. I leaned heavily on Alex’s expertise, and to my great fortune, he had played a very similar Cygnar foce that day and was expertly familiar with everything I was fielding. His counsel made the difference between me looking like a chump and actually making a decent show of it, and for that, I thank him from the bottom of my heart.

My stalwart Lieutenant, Alex and me with my eyes close (ugh). Had Alex been in command of my army, things might have actually turned out a little different for Cygnar…

 

Now, I’m resurrecting this from memory without any notes and I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies. Anyone reading this who might have witnessed the event should feel free to correct me on anything I have mistakenly reported, but to the best of my recollection, the battle unfolded like this:

Though we tied with the initiative roll, my advantage gave me the choice to go first, so I took it. After we deployed, I used Stryker to snipe the Stormwall and the Journeyman to Arcane Shield the Lancers, then pushed everyone forward, spreading out across the board to meet his advancing horde of banes.

Chris countered with a tactical advance that used the fewest number of banes possible to thwart any subsequent charge on my part, while pushing his ferocious Kraken straight toward the center of my army. A well placed shot from the Kraken surgically removed Lynch from the Black 13th, diminishing their potential by a solid third, but my force was otherwise unmolested as the Kraken was the sole ranged attack he possessed. Now what followed almost seemed like a gift from heaven. No, it was a gift from heaven, but one that would soon be mocked by less benevolent forces. For some reason, Chris, despite the counsel of his Lieutenant, left Goreshade exposed without the advantage of his Occulation spell, well within striking distance of my sniped Stormwall’s Big Guns. I was practically salivating. For a moment, I thought it was a ruse. Could he actually make such a huge mistake so early in the game or was he baiting me into some diabolical trap?

Turns out, it was a complete underestimation of my position, and the game almost ended there. I loaded the Stormwall with focus and then, biding my time, set up the rest of my force. I walked my lancers into the front ranks of his banes. Meanwhile, I sent Eiryss up the left side of the field, only to come up a quarter inch short on Goreshade — almost plugged him with a disruptor then and there. Needless to say, she was bane-chow on his next turn, but it was worth the risk to try and get that shot off on him. Finally, it came down to the Stormwall. Honestly, I thought I had it in the bag. I had a perfect shot with both guns, well within the Stormwall’s sniped 18″ range. Goreshade had one focus point on him, but it seemed to matter little at that point. The whole round, my marbled green Lock & Load dice had been rolling nothing but 5′s and 6′s, so frequently I was beginning to get a little self conscious about them. A couple of average rolls from these Big Guns and I was going to pack up and head to Disneyland.

Two Generals facing off across the battlefield. You can see by the gesture Chris’s lieutenant is making that this is where I just flubbed my damage roll!

Now, I don’t remember what the rolls were, exactly, but needless to say, I used my focus to boost the hit and damage on the first roll, then to hit on the second. I hit both times. But for the damage, I rolled crap. The second gun rolled nothing but 1′s and 2′s, and when my Lieutenant Alex saved me with a reroll, I rolled the same thing again. I did a total of eight points of damage on Goreshade, and that was the last I ever saw of him because for the rest of the game, he had Occulation up and there was no getting near him.

I think a lot of people were holding their breath during that series of rolls. It looked by all counts like the battle was going to be over before it really started, but that wasn’t what the fates were looking for that day. To be honest, I’m kind of glad it didn’t work out that way because I wouldn’t have been able to claim a victory from my own good playing. I’m not above exploiting a mistake from my opponent, but I think the whole thing might have felt a little anti-climactic, and we would have missed out on a great amount of bloodshed to come.

In Chris’s next round, he deftly maneuvered around the covering fire I was laying down from the Stormwall and Cyclone. Eiryss evaporated in a fine red mist, but otherwise things didn’t look too bad. I had forced him into a conservative advance, or so I thought. In reality, in true Nightmare Legion form, Chris maneuvered cooly and comfortably in the knowledge that time and the numbers were on his side. And then came the Kraken.

This one turned out to be a bit of a twist. For a moment, it looked like the Kraken was going to invalidate the existence of the Stormwall with a weapon lock. But thanks to some rules referencing on the part of John, we found out that the imminent Kraken threat wasn’t quite in range. I was going to get another chance.

As I went into my third turn, I faced down the Kraken and a wall of banes as wide as the battlefield. Goreshade, though, was safely concealed behind his stealth-providing spell. At this point, the Kraken became enemy number one. I lead with the Stormwall, battering it with a pair of massive, Voltaic fists (zapping a necrotech in the process), then followed with a lancer assault, connecting with four of the armored cavalry while the fifth member split to take a target of opportunity on a nearby bane. I also knew it was now or never and I popped Stryker’s Invincibility feat, enveloping nearly my entire army with his +5 ARM bonus. By the end of my turn, the Kraken was a smoking heap and thanks to Versh and some Stormsmith triangulation on the Stormwall’s lighting pod, a good chunk of banes had left the table. But not for long.

At this point, though, a serious problem reared its head: being terribly rusty at my game, I was moving horribly slow. Even with the counsel provided by Alex, I was moving through my turns at a snail’s pace, and we were on the clock. The Death Clock. We’d started the game with 50 minutes each, and by the end of my third turn, I had just over 7 minutes left on the clock. If I recall correctly, Chris had over 40.

The Kraken was a smoking wreck, but I was no closer to victory…

Chris’s third turn, despite him taking his time, is a bit of a blur to me. Banes started coming back. Lancers were dying. The Combine stripped my protective spells away. And a host of undead began carving up my beloved Stormwall, despite his Invincibility bonus. It was ugly. By the end of the round, I was surrounded on all sides by a sea of violet-clad banes and the left half of the Stormwall as well as its entire superstructure had been rendered scrap. And there I was with 7 minutes on the clock.

I think at this point, the clock was simply highlighting a foregone conclusion. Goreshade was safely walled behind an impenetrable curtain of undead unless I got very lucky, so that’s what I tried for. With a power-attack sweep, I took out several banes surrounding the Stormwall, but it wasn’t enough to clear the charge lanes for the lancers. Even if it had, the rough terrain created by the Kraken’s wreck kept Goreshade safely out of range. As my minutes and seconds slipped away, so did my hope. There was nothing I could do and the game was about to be decided by time.

Screw that.

With one second left, I slapped that Death Clock and initiated Chris’s turn. I wasn’t going down because of a clock. I might not have another turn coming, but if I was going down, I was going to go down in the proverbial blaze of glory. Chris would get his victory that day, but he’d have to earn it, and I know that’s how he’d prefer it anyway.

Chris had burned a good chunk of time on his last turn, but I think we was still sitting around twenty minutes or so; plenty of time to formulate a good killing strategy on Stryker, and that’s exactly what he did. The crushing force of his bane army obliterated the Stormwall and coiled around Stryker. In the end, Stryker fell to their shadowy axe blades while I watched helplessly from the sidelines.

The day was done. Chris Kluwe and his Cryxian army had cut a bloody swath through the land, striking deep and painfully into the heart of Cygnar, robbing the kingdom of their most cherished protector. Cue the violins. It was all over but the crying.

Being competitive by nature, I do love to win. But more than winning, I love a good competition. I know I wasn’t even close to the toughest opponent that Chris has faced, but I’m happy to say I didn’t hand him his victory on a platter. As I mentioned above, I have my Lieutenant Alex to thank for that because I would have been making mistakes out of the gate if I didn’t have him watching over my shoulder. I also have an entire team of champions to thank for earning me the advantages I had from the beginning of the game. But what I came away from all of this with was a renewed desire to play this damn game. It’s been too long for me and I’ve missed it. I missed painting these models and I’ve missed the challenge of playing the game itself. It’s time to get back in the saddle and I’m looking forward to it!

Thanks again to Chris for the great game and competition throughout the day, and thanks Alex for being my wingman through that battle. And last, thanks to John, Nicole and Greg for organizing and hosting the event and to all the champions who came out and gave it their all, whether you were on Chris’s team or my own. The best part about this game has always been its community, and I’m thrilled to have had a chance to spend a day as part of it.

Until next year, Chris Kluwe, until next year…

 

Eiryss 3: Work Complete

Still reeling from Comic Con 2012, I’m a little late getting this post up. But after some pointed discussion on the practicality of the new pistol-crossbow/gunblade (Awe! See what I did there?) and a little dialog on how to handle the two different hood and head options, I’m happy to present the final concept for the third incarnation of the Iron Kingdoms’ most beloved, feared and hated mage-hunter, Eiryss.

In the interest of time, I’ll go against my nature and let the drawings speak for themselves. This has been a fantastic experiment and there were more than a few ideas that found their way from the online discussions to the final concept. Naturally, it’s impossible to accommodate the first choice of every single person and some of the choices here will be polarizing, to say the least. But that’s how you know it’s a delicacy and not a cheeseburger, if you follow what I mean.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to comment and offer suggestions. This one is done (as in, I’m not touching it again, so don’t even think about it!), but I’ve got another concept coming up that I’m really looking forward to, a new Cryxian warcaster (of sorts), and I’ll give you this one hint: HE is HUMAN.

Stop speculating and look at the pretty pictures. Hope you like it!

(As always, please feel free to post a link, but do not re-post the images, puh-lease! Thanks!)

WARMACHINE vs. IRON KINGDOMS [movie]

I had a little fun playing the ‘let’s cast the WARMACHINE movie’ game this week. I always love looking at those threads on the Privateer forums to see if other people imagine the same actors I do when I think about the characters in our games. Naturally, this is something I think about a lot, both because I’m making films of my own now as well as because just from a fan-of-films perspective, I’d love nothing more than to see an amazing WARMACHINE film done with a huge, all-star cast and an amazing director.

WARMACHINE movie = Epic metal on metal action!

Now before I go on, let me stress that there are no concealed hints here, no veiled teases— this is strictly my own daydreaming and theorizing, so join me in the frivolous flight of fancy, if you will…

If we had say, $150 million to blow making a movie, but we only get to make one, what would make a better flick: an epic WARMACHINE battle extravaganza, or a more focused, character oriented quest in the IRON KINGDOMS? The distinction I’d make here is that in the former, we’d be dealing with the political climate and the primary factions we detail in WARMACHINE, while in the latter, we’d explore the Iron Kingdoms with a party of mismatched heroes with no particular ties to the conflict between nations.

Now, I’ve got my own opinion on what I’d rather see if I only had one shot, but as I muse about this stuff, I see challenges and benefits to both approaches.

By its nature, a WARMACHINE film would have to showcase the grand battles between these magnificent and terrifying armies. Assuming we’re focused on at least one warcaster as our hero, there are inherent challenges in choreographing a story that does decent service to your central character. The reason for this is that there almost inevitably end up being a lot of characters in this story! And I know, because I’ve taken a stab at a couple of these WARMACHINE screenplays already. A warcaster is a leader of an army and part of a very big organization that has to be realized during our two hour limit. Because it’s a fantasy world, we don’t have the luxury of shortcutting the exposition because the audience possesses familiarity with the setting or time period. For instance, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN didn’t have to explain who the factions were or why they were fighting, or really even where they were. Spielberg could jump into a battle and count on the fact that most people watching that film would know exactly what was going on and what the greater stakes were. But when you’re crafting a world from whole cloth, you got a lot more ‘splaining to do. And that’s why these big fantasy and sic-fi epics can be so difficult to pull off – you have a limited amount of time and money to tell a story. Moments spent explaining the world or the politics or the science can take away from the time spent getting into your hero’s head or developing the relationships between characters. And in the case of a WARMACHINE film, you’ve got a minimum cast of your warcaster and his or her battle group (they may not talk, but warjacks are characters, too!), plus a reasonable amount of supporting cast that can actually speak words. The cast gets big, quickly.  I’m over simplifying the approach, but you get the idea — to make that film we all see instantly in our head when we look at the tabletop is nothing short of complex.

Not to mention, where do you start? The setting has a clear bias towards who the protagonists are and I think it’d be hard to make a WARMACHINE movie without the inclusion of Cygnaran characters, but where do you go from there? Who’s your main hero and what forces do you pit against each other? Can you tell a story with Haley without including Cryx? How do you give a comprehensive overview of a world as big and complex as the Iron Kingdoms in just two hours? Again, I’ve  spent way too much time thinking about this stuff so I’ve got my own ideas, but it’s not as clear cut as you might think.

The other side of the coin would be an IRON KINGDOMS movie. Here the wars between nations would be little more than a backdrop. We’d focus on a small group of characters, as few as just one, and we’d have more then enough time to spend on characterization. We’d also potentially get to see a greater cross section of the world, exploring cities, ruins, the history and the cultures that populate the setting. And while I’m sure we’d see some steamjacks, I think the thing we’d miss out on would be those huge battles that define WARMACHINE. The things that are truly iconic in the setting might never get touched on in a more quest-style storyline.

IRON KINGDOMS movie = super cool characters with ample time to do a sexy strut

It’d be a tough call! And as an aside, that’s part of the reason I’m so excited for the new Iron Kingdoms RPG to come out — I miss being able to explore those things about this vast world that we can’t fit the WARMACHINE stories into.

The truth is, these two things (WARMACHINE and the IRON KINGDOMS) aren’t really at odds. Many of the stories we tell in the WARMACHINE books are small, intimate moments, and every one of them is very focused on character. But in broad stroke terms, if you were to picture that perfect movie that represented each of them, I think you’d come up with two very different films.

What do you think? What’s your WARMACHINE or IRON KINGDOMS movie fantasy? What would you want to see in it?

Like I said, I’ve got my own ideas. Let’s see if I can make any of them happen!

Wait — what? Did someone in the back row just yell out ‘HORDES‘? Don’t worry, I didn’t forget. HORDES is a different animal altogether and I’m going to save that one for a blog of its own. I’ve got plenty of ideas for that one, too…