Thursday, 29 August 2019

A spotter's guide to Beorn

One of the great pleasures of reading (and re-reading) Tolkien is spotting the influences. Many of these are well known: the dwarf-names from Voluspa (The Seeress's Prophecy) in the Poetic Edda, for example, or the Orcs and Ents from the orcneas and eotenas of Beowulf.

Then there's Tolkien's own acknowledgement of the Orcs' debt to George MacDonald's goblins. And there's their Misty Mountain lair's original in Skirnismal (identified by Tom Shippey in The Road to Middle Earth).

But one of the most satisfying spots comes in Hrolf Kraki's Saga. Many Tolkien enthusiasts know that Beorn owes a debt to Bodvar Bjarki ("Warlike Little-Bear"),  Hrolf's shapeshifting comrade-in-arms. But rereading part of the saga the other day, I was struck by just how strong the influence is.

Here's Beorn's decisive appearance at the Battle of the Five Armies:

In that last hour Beorn himself had appeared—no one knew how or from where. He came alone, and in bear’s shape; and he seemed to have grown almost to giant-size in his wrath. 
The roar of his voice was like drums and guns; and he tossed wolves and goblins from his path like straws and feathers. He fell upon their rear, and broke like a clap of thunder through the ring. The dwarves were making a stand still about their lords upon a low rounded hill. Then Beorn stooped and lifted Thorin, who had fallen pierced with spears, and bore him out of the fray.  
Swiftly he returned and his wrath was redoubled, so that nothing could withstand him, and no weapon seemed to bite upon him. He scattered the bodyguard, and pulled down Bolg himself and crushed him. Then dismay fell on the Goblins and they fled in all directions.But weariness left their enemies with the coming of new hope, and they pursued them closely, and prevented most of them from escaping where they could.

And here's Bodvar's spirit-bear in the saga's great battle:

Hjorvard and his men saw a great bear advancing in front of King Hrolf's troop. The bear was always beside the king, and it killed more men with its paws than any five of the king's champions did. Blows and missiles glanced off the animal, as it used its weight to crush King Hjorvard's men and their horses. Between its teeth, it tore everything within reach, causing a palpable fear to spread through the ranks of King Hjorvard's army.
All the elements are there: the surprise appearance, the massive carnage, the apparent invulnerability and the shattering of enemy morale. Tolkien's conclusion is rather more consolatory, though (I won't spoil the saga's here).

If you haven't read Hrolf Kraki's Saga, please do. It's short and great and brimming with ideas for games, including sundry trolls, literature's best half-elven sorceress and a terrific strategic use of undead soldiers. Poul Anderson did a pretty serviceable novelisation, but the Penguin Classics translation is marvellous, as well as being much shorter.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

The Flute of Bones

Though I can't recall its inspiration, this magic item is almost certainly unoriginal. But I think I've got a little twist on it that makes it quite interesting. It fits with my theory of magic items, such as it is: that they should involve both risks and rewards.

The Flute of Bones is a short, five-holed instrument made from a human femur. When played, it causes up to three nearby skeletons (human, animal or monstrous) to animate and attack the flautist's foes. The skeletons need no direction, but the flautist can call them off by stopping playing (they will stand still for a moment, then collapse in a heap of bones, only to reassemble themselves when the flute is played again).

The flute requires largely intact and largely clean skeletons to work its magic, but it will make do with 'kitbashing' the necessary parts from what's available. The bones of a headless man and a deer's skull, for instance, will produce a deer-skulled skeleton; likewise a human skull and the bones of a dog. The flute has a preference for human bones where it can get them, but also has a fondness for symmetry: a human ribcage, one arm and a head, along with the complete skeleton of a bear, will result in a human-headed bear skeleton. But as beheaded human skeletons are common, animal-skulled variations are frequently produced.

Any skeleton reanimated (or assembled) by the flute will continue to obey it until it has been 'killed' in combat. After this happens, none of the bones involved will respond to its music.

To be animated by the flute, a skeleton - or sufficient component parts - must be readily available. Playing the flute in an conventional graveyard will have no effect; bones will not disinter themselves. In an ossuary, however, or in an ogre's lair, skeletons will happily pry themselves from the dust. In other words, half-buried bones will rise; those fully covered by the earth, as in a formal burial, will not.

That, of course, incentivises the flute's owner to body-snatching. It also provides a rationale for carrying around a sack of old bones. After all, skeletons are comparatively light. Typically, when the flute is discovered, a sack containing 1D3 skeletons and some light weaponry will be found with it, the previous owner having been ambushed before he could put flute to lip.

But neither grave-robbing nor bone-carrying are activities likely to endear adventurers to the authorities - especially if those bones need regular replacement from local necropolises. The flute's owners are likely to find themselves subject to social sanction - or offering themselves as future candidates for musical reanimation from the confines of a local gibbet.

When the flute is played, it produces a complex, haunting tune in a minor key. The melody is never the same and emerges with indifference to the flautist's ability or intentions.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Some experiments with contrast paints

A few weeks ago, I got hold of a batch of Games Workshop's new contrast paints. They're designed to speed up miniature painting by delivering shading, base colour and highlights in one.

I like them. They're 'oilier' and richer than the standard GW washes, and they do tend to slip away from the raised points on a surface, creating pretty decent highlights. This effect is enhanced if you use the accompanying spray primers, which create a very smooth finish. I think they're particularly useful for miniatures with lots of detail that's too fine to respond well to drybrushing, as with the Grenadier demon/griffin thing above. I plan to use them heavily with the Ral Partha and Grenadier stuff in the leadpile.

They're certainly quick. I've been racing through large batches of miniatures, some in preparation for my son's birthday RPG extravaganza (and so under wraps for now), some to give to friends' kids, and some for various domestic gaming purposes.

I think they're probably even more useful for RPG encounters than wargaming armies. If you put a wargaming army together, you're probably planning to use it more than once. But RPG encounters - like the skeleton group above - might only feature once, or not at all. So an extremely fast means fo churning these out is a boon to the miniature-using GM.

They're also very handy for finishing off the hundreds of partially painted figures that I (and I suspect many others) have languishing in drawers. These goblins, for example, had lain dormant since 2015:

But perhaps the best use of contrast paints is in something that Games Workshop doesn't do at all: 15mm. That scale benefits from bright colours and bold contrasts, but can be fiddly to work with. The contrast paints help a lot here:

I'm working on creating some Hordes of the Things armies using 15mm miniatures on 28mm bases. That gives much more of a "massed battle" effect, but it does take a bit more work (seven to twelve miniatures to a base rather than three or four). So the contrast paints are a huge help here.