Books

Conqueror: Siege Assault - basic concepts

Over the next few days I will be posting some of the working rules I've developed for Conqueror: Siege Assault.  These are the trial versions and obvious need to be firmed up.

Feedback is much appreciated.

The Fortress

Fortifications over time have varied greatly, form simple earthen mounds to wooden stockades and finally stone castles.  It is impossible for one set of rules to cover all of these materials in detail (and foolish to try) so instead we will focus on the essential structures and provide rules to support attacking (or defending) them.

Curtain Walls

This is the building block of all fortresses, and their height and materials are entirely up to the players’ imagination.  For convenience, however, we shall assume that they are at least twice the height of models being used to attack them and created in sections six to twelve inches long.  They should have some form of parapet along the top where the defenders can stand and this should be wide enough to support two models.

The key features of curtain walls for our purposes are that they can be scaled using ladders and breached with greater ease than any other section of the fortress.  We will look into this in greater detail later.

Towers

Towers are self-contained defensive works that overshadow the curtain walls.  Towers are much smaller (no more than four inches on a side) and too high to be reached by ladders.  Breaching a tower is more difficult (due the deeper foundations necessary to support their immense weight) and also more dangerous to the defenders.

The Gate

The gate is the most vulnerable and therefore important point in the entire fortress.  The gate may be simply a gap in the wall or a complex building featuring a portcullis and multiple doors.  Either way, possession of the gate is usually tantamount to taking the fortress.

The Keep

Some castles may be built with a keep, which is rally just an enlarged tower.  The keep is too high for ladders, too difficult to batter down (since it is often inside the curtain walls) and it serves as the last refuge for the defenders.

Rally Points

In field battles, routed units have plenty of room to try to make good their escape, but within the confines of a castle, there are less options.

Troops outside the walls will fleet away from the enemy as normal, with defending troops attempting to reach the (relative) safety of their fortress. 

Within the walls, defending troops will attempted to reach a rally point, that is a spot within the castle selected before the game begins.  This will usually be a tower or the keep (if there is one).

Attacking troops will attempt to escape and will only rally outside the walls.

Special Morale Rules

Limited Outranking

Because the tight confines of a fortress do not lend themselves to fighting in close order, combats will generally not see the outranking bonus applied.  Thus units scaling walls, using siege towers, etc. will not receive this bonus.  However, where space permits (such as a breach), the extra weight of numbers will be felt.  The simple rule is: if both sides are fighting from a position where normal ranks can be utilized, this is included, if either side cannot benefit from it, no one does.

Desperate Defenders

Troops defending a fortress are under no illusion regarding their chances of escape, and typically will fight with greater determination than in the open field.  To reflect this “backs against the wall” mentality, defending troops gain a +1 bonus to all their morale rolls.  Note that this applies even to units outside the fortress (since the sortie may be their best hope to survive).

Special Shooting Rules

Full Cover

Units within a fortress generally benefit from a -2 to hit modifier for being in heavy cover.  However, if the walls are properly battlemented (which they should be), units may take Full Cover, that is stay below the parapet or step back from the arrow loop to avoid any risk of taking missile fire.

Units within a fortress may start the game in Full Cover (and it’s a good idea to assume that they do), and may only emerge from it during their own movement phase – they may not “pop up” during the opposing player’s turn to participate in their portion of the shooting phase.

Once out of Full Cover, they may not return to it until it is once again their Movement Phase.

Overhead Bombardment

Models on the top of walls or towers are assumed to be equipped with copious amounts of missiles (rocks, boiling liquids, darts, pianos, kitchen sinks) that can be dropped on the attackers below.

These weapons make missile attacks as normal during the Shooting Phase using their unmodified Shooting Skill.  Unlike normal missile attacks, the resulting hits are not halved (because the targets are so closely packed together) and have an armor save modifier of -2.

Models may only target models “beneath them” aligning as if they were to engage in Melee Combat.  Just as with Melee Combat, only a partial overlap is needed to conduct the attack.

Models may move into position (either up to the wall or along it to reach a troop concentration) and still attack without penalty.

 


When the actor defines a literary character: Alec Guinness and George Smiley

I'm not generally a fan of the spy genre.  When I was in middle school I started reading some of the James Bond novels - not the originals, the later ones that were current at the time.  They were quite similar to the Star Trek adventures, which is to say palatable only to someone who didn't know better.

I bring this up because I've never read a John le Carre novel and don't think I ever will.  I have a sense it would likely be a let-down because the Alec Guinness adaptations are simply so good.

Indeed, Guinness inhabited the role of the protagonist, George Smiley, to such an extent that the author himself modified his character based on the portrayal.

Basically, Guinness had the definitive take, not le Carre.

It happens from time to time.  I'm told that Tom Selleck basically defines the Jesse Stone literary character because of his superb portrayal. 

One could of course mention Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable defining Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, but even in our modern age a well-done adaptation can shape the source material.

So it is that I'm watching Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and will then move onto Smiley's People, both of which I own on DVD.

The plots in both are intricate and interesting, but the actor's performances are what really get me to watch it again and again.  They are superb. 

I think that's really the biggest factor in the success of a film adaptation of a book.  The plot being mulched is also a risk, but it can survive if the actors are compelling enough.

Remember, the Golden Age of Hollywood wasn't about superior stories, it was about larger-than-life performances.  Sometimes, as in the case of Clark Gable or John Wayne, you weren't looking to see a story so much as a known actor do his thing.  Gable didn't have immense range, but the man had vast reserves of presence and charisma. 

Guinness is the opposite - seemingly unassuming, he can shift form like a chameleon, equally at home as a brash British officer, a Soviet KGB general or an Arab sheik.  In George Smiley, he gets one of his best roles, because Smiley himself is a master of deceit, and can be both quiet and meek as well as cunning and vicious.

It's a pleasure to watch and the written version just can't compare.


Geek Guns on hiatus

After 23 consecutive installments, I've decided to take a break from Geek Guns over at Bleedingfool.com.  The decision is based on a thinning of material to work with and also declining feedback.  People used to comment on the articles and now they're not.

I'm not writing this stuff for my health, so I figure I'll take a break, recharge, and maybe write more later.

There's also a sense that in trying to sustain a weekly column, I'm siphoning off creative energy that could be used for bigger projects.   When I was writing Long Live Death, I basically abandoned that site, and I started writing again only after the book was published.

So I'm going to take a break and see what happens.  I've got some ideas for a book and I know I'm being horribly indecisive, vacillating back and forth between projects.  My hope is that if I dam up the creative energy for a bit, it will cut a new channel and I can roll with the flood.


When the trends reverse themselves

A few years ago, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book called The Black Swan that created something of a sensation and established him as the go-to guy for risk management.

The book wasn't long, somewhat repetitive, but it did make important points about human bias and imperfect information.  Basically, we don't fully understand risk and so we don't properly prepare for it.  The 'black swan' of the title was the discovery in Australia of actual black swans - something that exists nowhere else in the world.  In fact, when they were found, it was shocking because of course swans are white.

A "black swan event" is therefore a rare event with significant consequences that no one even thought about, let alone prepared for.  The fact that it is rare doesn't mean impossible, which was his point.  Taleb has gone on to talk about fragility and the ineptitude of the current ruling classes.  His politics are all over the place, but he's brought up important points.

One of them is that trends only last until they change, and it's not always obvious when that will be.  Trend lines themselves are backwards-looking and therefore prone to misleading people if a big change is about to hit.  He gives the classic example of a sudden change in the trend by charting the weight gain (and health) of a Thanksgiving turkey, which shows steady improvement right up until it becomes dinner.

The key point is that the turkey doesn't know when that will happen or even if it will happen.  The turkey just goes on eating and getting bigger. 

So it is with other trends.  For years it was assumed that globalism meant that manufacturing jobs have to go overseas and will never come back.  Then it became clear that this trend wasn't an impersonal force of nature but the result of deliberate policy choices.  Change those choices, and the trend reverses itself.

The Catholic Church has watched with alarm as the number of active priests dwindled over the years.  One argument was that the requirements were too strict for the modern age and the doctrine to antiquated.  Married priests and maybe female clergy were the only options open.

Pope Benedict XVI disagreed and instead focused on stronger doctrine and also raising the standards for clergy, including increased accountability to prevent future abuses.

The result is that more people are choosing the vocations.  Note that I said "people" because women are also choosing to join the holy orders in numbers not seen in my lifetime.  Even before my conversion I recall the closure of various abbeys due to lack of members and yet now new ones are opening up.

Interestingly, the new members wear the traditional habit, a departure from plain-clothes nuns of the 80s and 90s.

Overall, the trend is still downward because it will take years to make up for the 'lost generation' of priests, but it is now moving in the right direction.

My point is that its easy to get locked into a fatalistic approach on so many things and simply assume an outcome is assured based on trend.  A better approach is to look at why things are trending that way and whether it can continue.  I notice housing prices are now even hotter than they were in 2008.  People looking for houses tell me that listings sell the day they go up and people have to bid over the asking price.

That's another trend that can't last forever.

 


The Cruelty of Roman Discipline: Titus Manlius

For the past few weeks I've been working my way through Livy's History of Rome, one of the few books from antiquity that has survived reasonably intact.

Livy was writing well after the fact, and like many historians of his time, saw his task as using the past for moral lessons about the present as well as a chronicle of things that had gone on before.  Where the two collide, drama and story generally win the day over unpleasant facts.

One celebrated episode in Roman history took place in 340 B.C. when Rome faced enemies on multiple fronts, the most dangerous one being a revolt of their Latin allies.  A stern man, Titus Manlius (love the names they had!) was elected consul for that year and his task was to crush the Latins.

I should mention that under the Roman Republic there were two consuls -  executives elected to one-year terms.  The idea was to prevent a return of monarchy and the consolidation of power into a single individual.  The Roman solution to this frequently was to create two identical offices which shared responsibility.  In times of great danger, however, the Senate could appoint a dictator (their term) with absolute power to defend the state, but only for a limited amount of time, usually six months.

In practice, the dictator was assigned a specific task and then expected to surrender their authority. 

Anyway, back to our story.  Passions are running high, and the Romans are eager to get to grips with their enemy.  Titus Manlius is worried that a chance encounter - say a duel among patrols - could lead to a skirmish and escalate into a battle, wrecking his plans.  He instead wants to maneuver the Latins into a position where he can crush them decisively.

He therefore gives an order that no one is to engage the enemy without his orders upon pain of death.

Naturally, this is tested and the example historians give is that his own son (also named Titus Manlius) was baited into battle by insults and totally defeated an enemy champion in a duel.

Manlius Junior not only wins the fight, but strips his fallen enemy of his weapons and armor (a big deal in ancient times) and brings the trophies back to his father.  Daddy Manlius looks at his son and orders the army to form up, presumably so he can give his son an award in front of them.

The troops fall into their ranks and then as expected, Manlius Senior announces that his son has distinguished himself in battle and awards him a medal.  He then announces that the duel was against orders and has his son beheaded.

This sends a shock wave through the whole army, which hitherto had been a bit lax about discipline.  After watching the general execute his son, they get serious about it.

I mention this episode because it is celebrated in Roman history.  Livy is writing more then 300 years later and he tells the story in a way that indicates that his readers already know it, they just don't know the context and the exact time period.  He's basically saying "Okay, so this is when that famous Titus Manlius thing took place.  We all know the basics of the story, but let me get into the details."

There are of course countless other variations of this storyline where a soldier disobeys orders in order to save lives or win a battle and gets simultaneously rewarded and punished, but this is to my knowledge the oldest version of it.

In more modern variations, the reward and punishment are less severe - a soldier gets promoted for valor and then demoted for insubordination, for example.  Or he wins a medal and is then put in the stockade for a few months.  The Romans, however, took pride in what they considered to be firm discipline.  To us, it looks cruel.

Objectively speaking, it is, and while the Romans (and Greeks) had many of the same virtues, their pagan culture was decidedly weak on mercy.  They knew it as a quality, sometimes praised it, often begged for it, but rarely granted it.  In the pre-Christian era, mercy was optional, something one might do to win a reputation or perhaps because it strategic value.

What I'm driving at is that there was no particular requirement for it.  Over the last few decades, Christianity has been subjected to heavy cultural criticism for supposedly being patriarchal or oppressive and (of late) even racist.  All of this is nonsense, and we're already getting a glimpse of the cruel morality that is intended to replace it - a "cancel culture" where apologies are demanded but never accepted and mercy is shown only to those who have sufficient clout to merit it.

Every moral question is reduced to the classic "who, whom" formulation, where there is no absolute standard of right and wrong, merely a question of who derives benefit.  If it's your team, it's okay.

Titus Manlius is an example of who one can take the virtues of discipline and courage and turn them into something absurdly cruel.

I should add that Game of Thrones was another great example in the popular culture of just how vicious a non-Christian world can be.  Some of the nastiness was simply low-talent writers trying to paper over their plot holes with salacious materials, but at its core the story has no real heroes.  Everyone remotely admirable gets killed or turned into a villain.

Even a cursory glance in Roman history shows that this isn't all that far-fetched.

 


Last of the great war movies: A Bridge Too Far

Recently I re-watched A Bridge Too Far, the sprawling, all-star film adaptation of Cornelius Ryan's epic account of Operation Market-Garden.

The movie has aged surprisingly well, in part because in the age of CGI, one really appreciates old-school battles involving vast numbers of extras.

Not to mention the equipment.  The Dutch government went all-in on supporting the film, providing paratroopers, aircraft, locations - it was clearly a story they wanted the world to know.

The cast is also impressive.  It is a veritable who's who of 1970s movie stars, and all of them are great. 

There are a few sour notes, and "Dickie" Attenborough took some liberties with the stories - most famously when he had Anthony Hopins (who played Lt. Col. John Frost) run from cover to cover while keeping his head down.  The actual Lt. Col John Frost was present on set, and he loudly interrupted filming to explain that he never ducked, and never ran for cover.  Bad for the men, you see.

Attenborough left the scene in, and tweaked some other ones, but overall it gives a detailed and suitably impressive picture of a botched campaign.

I'm sure a few folks might take issue with my assertion that no great war movies followed, but I can't think of a single one.  Pearl Harbor was a mess and Saving Private Ryan is an unwatchable pastiche of lies and Hollywood tropes.  I tried to watch Fury once, but found it completely flat.

That's why I think A Bridge Too Far is the hinge point, because after the 1970s, the WW II generation faded from entertainment and also became a less consequential audience.  Prior to that point, a war movie had to be plausible, because there were 14 million veterans to call "bullshit" if it wasn't.  As that number began to dwindle, people increasingly mistook tropes for facts, and woe to anyone who knew better.

The older generation also appreciated that the horror of war wasn't in the gore and blood sprays, but instead in the actual loss of lives.  The fact that a private got blown to pieces was less important than his death.  The older movies dwell on those losses, whereas modern films quickly move to the next special effect sequence where even more computerized soldiers can get vaporized in particularly grisly ways.

The end result is a giant snuff film, divorced from perspective or feeling.  They have no core, and therefore no resonance.

By the way, I think the other Ryan adaptation, The Longest Day, is even better, but that film came when there was still room for other movies to emerge.  After A Bridge Too Far, that was it.

 


Clueless civilians talking about military stuff

I'm not one of those poeple who makes a fetish out of military service.  To me, it's a job like anything else.  To be sure, it can be very dangerous and very necessary, but for the most part it's tedious and not particularly exciting.

The experience of military service has many benefits, though, and one of the ones I've come to appreciate is a better understanding of history.  I generally enjoy watching some of the history buffs on youtube offer their opinions, and often they are smarter than the "professional" historians.  However, sometimes they are wrong in a very civilian way.

Lest anyone accuse me of arrogance, I will freely admit that I was just like them.  I didn't enlist until my mid-20s, so I had plenty of time to beclown myself in various ways, both in analysis and fiction.  A lot of what I thought I knew from books and movies was just flat-out wrong.  There were some things that I had correct, but for the wrong reason.

Just to be clear, I'm not talking about the experience of battle of which I have none.  I'm speaking of the culture, how leadership works, and the minutae that seem insignificant but actually make up a huge part of service.

I'm also going to acknowledge that there are historians who don't fall into this trap.  I'm speaking specifically of people who simply assume that they're smarter than everyone else who came before them.

A great example of this is uniforms and equipment.  It's hard for people who have never had to carry or wear certain gear in a certain way to understand how much you come to hate it.  Civilians relish wearing helmets, masks, uniforms, belts, etc. but people who are compelled to can't wait to take the stuff off.  There is a reason modern body armor actually comes with labels saying "ALWAYS WEAR THIS!  DON'T TAKE IT OFF!"

Civilians look at that and shake their heads in confusion, but it's pretty simple: the stuff is heavy, can trap heat and unless you think you need it right now, it's more comfortable to have it off.  That goes doubly for the helmet.

What further complicates matters is that veterans themselves may seem inconsistent, relishing wearing their gear (particularly boots) while hiking, camping and so on.  The crucial difference is that when one is off-duty, you can take the stuff off whenever you feel like it.  That's not the case when you're under orders.

This experience carries over into military history, even though the eras may seem very different.  Body armor has changed quite a bit since 1066 or 476, but it's still heavy, often hot and it's always easier to move around without it.  Armor is  a compromise between protection and comfort.

The thing about armor is: you only need it if you're going to get hit.  Naturally, you're going to work pretty hard to ensure that it doesn't happen, but at the same time, you can only do so much in the chaos of battle.

Thus there are lots of examples of armor that modern civilians look at and say:  "Why didn't they wear more gear?  They clearly had the materials, were these people stupid?"  Nope, they simply wore what they felt was adequate.

Modern reenactors are likewise both good and bad.  On the positive side, they can shine light onto archeological discoveries and help us understand how things were put together and fit.  At the same time, they can introduce biases because when their weekend encampment is over, they go back to the day job and their gear goes back into the closet.

Moreover, their gear is often built to standards that aren't all that realistic.  Much replica gear is built to withstand steady, repeated use over a long time.  Whether the combat involves live steel or sticks or whatnot, it has to be built strong enough to provide a modern level of protection that was unknown in history.

Now contrast that with actual military gear used in action today.  The body armor and helmets have no such expectation of durability.  If your helmet stops a shell fragment or bullet, that's great and it's now time to get a new one.  The vests work the same way - one use and then you toss it aside because it's too damaged to trust again.

Imagine how heavy your gear would have to be to take repeated gunshots over many years and still be safe!  That kind of bias would totally distort your understanding of what troops carry.  Future historians may well puzzle over how kevlar could take bullet after bullet and keep working - or why it couldn't, when clearly just stopping one bullet or fragment wouldn't be enough.

Ancient armor apparently was quite thin and had minimal padding because it was only expected to stop one or two blows.  The best-preserved stuff is sport armor (such as for jousts) which is entirely different.  That was expected to see repeated heavy use, and wasn't designed for anything else than the tournament scene.   It was basically reenactor grade stuff.

This also ties into my earlier point about wearing a helmet.  Yes, they can save your life, but they can also hamper your vision and hearing, which can be even more dangerous.  There's also the question of giving commands and letting your followers know you're still alive.  I've seen some folks ridicule Hollywood for wanting to show actors' faces rather than covering them with visors, but history is chock full of episodes where a king or general tears off his helmet or hat so his men can see his face and know he's with them.

The same thing is true with weapons.  Swords in particular were disposable items.    Even a well-made sword will get pretty mangled if you spend several hours banging on shields and helmets with it.  One reason why there are stories of 'magic' swords is likely that there were certain alloys that could withstand the punishment better, breaking or cutting through inferior grades of metal.

It's interesting to read historic accounts and poems because they sometimes spend as much time on broken weapons as they do on people getting killed.  Some of it is a rhetorical flourish, but battlefield finds bear out that there's a huge amount of breakage in combat, and this is still true.  The Petersburg museum in Virginia had a section of the battlefield that had been excavated preserved in a special exhibit and you could see broken rifles and all manner of junk where it had fallen on the ground.

We think of people having a personal sword or spear like King Arthur or Achilles, but in fact your average trooper probably needed steady replacements after each battle.  Breaking one's sword may have symbolic importance in legend, but it was a very real occurrence.

Here again we have a modern bias, not wanting to damage our premium expensive historic reproduction blade by blunting it against your expensive historic reproduction helmet (or another blade), but that was the reality of war back in the day.  Not only did you expect that sort of clash to happen, you counted on it.  A key factor in combat was the quality of ones weapons and there is a reason that certain regions were highly-respected for the quality of their metalwork. 

When sword meets sword, it's an extra bonus to know that yours isn't going to be the one getting dented.

To be clear, I'm not saying that everyone who ever wore a uniform has some sort of unique insight that is denied to a lifetime student of history.  Instead, I'm saying that having a bit of both is best - the lived experience of military life combined with the study of history can give insights that are hidden from those who only know what they've read in books and/or picked up in their Living History group.

That's certainly been my experience.

I still enjoy watching these presenters, but it's just something to keep in mind.

 


Stanley G. Payne and the Road to Revolution

If you've read my ongoing discussion of the Spanish Civil War, you know one of my favorite authors is Stanley G. Payne.

He now has a article up at First Things which provides an excellent and concise account of Spain's slide into civil war.

It is a serious read, but well worth your time.

It also dovetails with the misgivings I expressed in November, which have not in any way been assuaged. 

In one sense, it is comforting that a historian with Payne's stature seems to share my sense of deja vu, but it is also deeply alarming.  I don't know Payne's politics, but his work has always been scrupulously neutral, carefully noting the excesses of the Spanish Right but also providing appropriate context within the environment and balancing them with the behavior of the Spanish Left.

This isn't false equivalence, but necessary information.  Similarly, his article offers no analogies, draws no modern parallels because it doesn't have to.  The modern left is purposefully using the exact same slogans and tactics.  To merely quote them is to expose this.

Maybe my book was driven by a premonition or subconsciously intended as a warning.  In any event, it's uncomfortably relevant.


Taking time out with Livy and the History of Rome

Things being the way they are, I'm staying away from the news and digging into some long-term reading projects.  At the top of my list is reading straight through Livy's History of Rome.  I got the books in high school and college and they were a bit tough going.  I'm making much faster progress than last time.

Even though Livy is prone to airbrushing history and highlighting Rome's virtuous past, there's plenty of skullduggery, treachery, mayhem going on.

One element that stands out is the almost constant efforts of people to turn the rules to their advantage.  For each champion of honor, there are ten examples of people twisting the rules to their advantage - and often getting lavish praise for their cleverness.

It stands in stark contrast with the teachings of the Bible, particularly the New Testament.  I've written before that Game of Thrones was a wonderful (if unintentional) advertisement for Christian civilization.  Livy's work is another.

 


Well, let's see how 2021 works out

Happy New Year!  As the song says, it's been a long December but there's reason to believe that this year will be better than the last.

Taken as a whole, 2020 has not been without its joys.  The publication of Vampires of Michigan and the subsequent writing of Long Live Death and its success was not something I contemplated a year ago.   The COVID lockdown has put our family under great strain, but we also celebrated the birth of our first grandchild, who has been a source of unceasing wonderment and happiness.

In many ways, how we approach life determines how we perceive it.  What makes a "very good" year versus a bad one?  Folks used to advise people to "count their blessings" and I think it's good advice - though not something sad people want to hear.

That's my other observation this year, something I'd noted before but I've now seen it spread on a far wider basis: misery loves company.  Online places I used to visit have become so unrelentingly negative that I can't even stomach them.  If you bring in good cheer, they boo you right off the network.

I'm not a big fan of New Year's Resolutions but I am going to enhance my efforts this winter to push aside complaints and try to hold onto moments of joy that might otherwise have been lost.