Awake O Dead

Let the splintered bones burrow from the grave pall.

It has been over 15 years since the Vampire Counts of 6th Edition Warhammer Fantasy have ridden across a battlefield for me, but for the undead time holds little change. “The Laws of Undeath“, as the rules called them, made the Vampire counts army a frightening opponent in more ways than one.

Their lack of ability to march, or move at double their normal rate, unless within 12″ of their General meant the mass of troops made a slow shamble toward their opponent. Of course, many opponents didn’t use this time wisely to pepper the undead with missile fire, instead closing with the Counts’ army only to realize at the last moment that close combat is exactly where the undead wanted to be.

The undead drums of war

As it says on tin, Cause Fear, was a staple ability of all undead units. Forcing any unit being charged by a fear causing unit or wishing to charge a fear causing unit to take a Psychology Test, basically a 2d6 roll vs the Leadership statistic of the troops or their nearby leader. Failure could result in a unit failing to charge or shoot during their turn or require 6’s to hit during their first turn of close combat. It also could automatically break a defeated unit in close combat if the loser’s unit strength was less than the victor’s.

Further, being undead granted the Vampire Counts’ units the linked abilities of Immune to Psychology and Immune to Break Tests. The former exempting them from worrying about the effects of Panic, Terror, Frenzy, Stubborn, Fear, Stupidity and Hatred during play. In short, rendering the nifty bag of tricks many other armies brought to the table just so much fluff in the description block instead.

The latter ability of being unbreakable caused units to mire the battlefield with minefields of attrition. They would take an additional wound for every point the Vampire Count unit lost a combat by and which was not preventable by saves. On the surface this extra damage seems like a fair trade, however that loss was often short lived due to Necromancy spells such as the Invocation of Nehek which could create between 1D6, 2D6 and 3D6 Skeletons or Zombies with a casting difficulty of 3+, 7+ and 11+ respectively. Every turn.

The achilles heel of the Vampire Counts army lay in their reliance on the General to be on the field of battle. Once destroyed, every undead unit is required to take a Leadership test or suffer a number of wounds equal to the failure amount. This is further bad news because undead troops are not exactly what you would call, leadership material in and of themselves with Skeletons and Zombies having a 3 and 2 out of 10 respectively.

Mannfred von Carstein rides again with his summoned wolves

This vulnerability however is wrapped in an extremely dangerous package such as the dreaded Mannfred von Carstein. Riding a barded Nightmare steed, this legendary count is expensive to field, extraordinarily difficult to kill and just plain dangerous to be around. His Cloak of Darkness provides a 3+ ward save just in case his toughness of 5 doesn’t keep him safe enough from the raging battle. He carries the Sword of Unholy Power which grants a extra magic dice to cast spells with on the following round, every time he takes an unsaved wound.

Von Carstein is also Level 4 wizard and wields the Ebony Staff which grants an extra free Necromancy spell cast each turn. Combined with his sword, described above, means Mannfred can unleash a serious amount of Necromantic firepower both at range and up close. Being the highest level of wizard possible, he will always have 4 of the 6 available Necromantic spells at his disposal and will be using probably two of them every turn.

He can summon fresh troops with the always available Invocation of Nehek, or use it to heal himself and others. With Hand of Dust, he can reduce himself to a single attack, rather than his bewildering normal 5, but that attack kills any model instantly with no armor save. His enemies better have brought their ward saves or doom is waiting.

For foes that try to stay out of reach, he can direct the Gaze of Nagash at a target within 24″ and cause 2D6 Strength 4 hits as a magic missile. Also at range, he can inflict the Curse of Years, causing every model in a unit to roll a D6 and suffer a wound on a result of 6 until the spell is dispelled.

If von Carstein so wishes, he can also enhance his numerous shambling hordes with Hellish Vigour, providing a first strike attack, or Vanhel’s Danse Macabre to allow a sudden 8″ charge.

Lest his opponent think that fielding their own mighty wizard is enough to bottle the wily Count, he also packs some nifty tricks just for carrying the von Carstein moniker that can’t be dispelled. Once per game he can summon D3 Dire Wolves that can enter from any table edge, a nasty surprise for any rear echelon lurkers. Being the center of attention and boasting a personality to match, von Carstein also has a longer than normal Leadership range of 18″ instead of 12″ which can catch many opponents off balance when they thought a undead unit was vulnerably away from their fearless leader.

Something wicked this way comes….

His most powerful inherent ability is Call Winds, which requires him to remain stationary but then subjects the entire battlefield to a -1 shooting penalty and grounds all flying units, forcing them to move at their ground speed and contend with normal rules for obstacles, scenery and turning. This grants his troops a reprieve from pesky ranged fire and brings those high and mighty eagle riding elves out of the clouds.

The hordes of undead have graced the Warhammer Fantasy battlefield for many editions and caused much consternation about how to thwart their nihilistic plans. Despite changes in specific rules they have always provided genre appropriate fun, at least for the devious player at the helm. While the troops are far from the best fighters and have a few tactical limitations, the one thing they are is reliable. They will march on until the end of time forcing an opponent to kill every last one of them.

Top Secret Homage Cover

Always loved a good espionage game, so I decided to homebrew an homage recreation of the classic Top Secret/S.I. box artwork using things I had laying around the house.

Always loved a good espionage game, so I decided to homebrew an homage recreation of the classic Top Secret/S.I. box artwork using things I had laying around the house. The retro-props scattered about the image are from the wonderful Dark Adventure Radio Series CDs produced by the HPL Historical Society.

I’ve left the actual Top Secret/S.I. logo off the image for a couple of reasons. One, I didn’t want to tread too heavily on “Fair Use” laws and two, I just couldn’t get the font to look right 🙂

About that logo…

I know what you’re thinking, the site logo for Grognard Gravity Well is rather striking, but what does it mean?

I know what you’re thinking, the site logo for Grognard Gravity Well is rather striking, but what does it mean?

Since logos typically combine ideograms with words to represent a public brand it must mean something right? It looks very fluid, like something you’d see in neon in a cyberpunk setting. Perhaps it is the Kanji symbol “dai” that translates to “big” in english.


Except the symbol is flipped upside down and has a dot associated with it. Does the opposite orientation have the opposite meaning and hence “small“? Nope, the symbol “sho” represents “small“.


That Japanese logograms train of thought apparently doesn’t lead anywhere, so what are we left to think now about the logo meaning? Maybe the answer is more abstract and related to the wording. We could say the symbol consists of three distinct parts; a circle, a line and vee shape.

The vee shape looks like a direction, perhaps a vector pointing towards a boundary.

The line certainly makes a nice representation of a boundary, but of what, the circle?

If the circle represents an object of significant mass, like a planet or star, then maybe it all makes sense because the mass has gravity and the vee could represent the “gravity well“. That seems tidy indeed!

Of course it could also just be a grognard stick figure falling on his head due to gravity, who am I to say….I only work here.

Classic Old School Gaming

They share themes of simple, hackable rule mechanics that trust in referees to make judgements rather than exhaustive pages of unbending rules. If there are pages of rules, they are guidelines for the referee not weapons for the players.

So what differs between classic old school gaming and the old school revival [OSR] role-playing game movement you ask? Well, like most things involving more than two people, opinions vary.

The OSR RPG movement tends to stick to an end point defined by the Moldvay/Mentzer editions of Dungeons & Dragons in the early 1980s. This generally allows the original versions of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest and Traveller to join the B/X or BECMI D&D sets on the OSR roster. They share themes of simple, hackable rule mechanics that trust in referees to make judgements rather than exhaustive pages of unbending rules. If there are pages of rules, they are guidelines for the referee not weapons for the players.

That cut-off point in time excludes some great classic games that I enjoyed thoroughly in my youth so OSR doesn’t exactly describe what I’m going for here on the blog. I’m therefore defining classic old school gaming [COSG] as expanding to include excellent RPGs first published in the 12 year span known as the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan presidencies. For those of you not familiar with the chronological mile markers of the “Peanut Farmer” and the “Gipper”, it is a period of time starting in January of 1977 and ending in January of 1989.

Jimmy Carter
Ronald Reagan

This time period contains both the great first generation of games but also the remarkable second generation that was built on the shoulders of the first with interesting mechanics and new licenses from Marvel, Star Wars and Middle Earth IP holders. I enjoyed many games of both generations with my personal list of memorable titles below. There are of course other games that fall into the time period like Victory Games’ James Bond 007, Columbia Games’ HarnMaster and Palladium’s Robotech, but I am keeping the list to ones I personally owned and played.

  • Role-Playing Games
    • Dungeons & Dragons Basic/Expert [Moldvay] – TSR 1981
    • Dungeons & Dragons Basic/Expert [Mentzer] – TSR 1983
    • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – TSR 1977
    • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Ed- TSR 1987
    • Gamma World – TSR 1978
    • Star Frontiers – TSR 1982
    • Top Secret – TSR 1980
    • Call of Cthulhu – Chaosium 1981
    • GURPS – Steve Jackson Games 1986
    • Middle Earth Roleplaying – Iron Crown Enterprises 1984
    • Traveller – GDW 1977
    • Twilight 2000 – GDW 1984
    • Traveller 2300 – GDW 1986
    • Star Wars – West End Games 1987
    • MechWarrior – FASA 1986
    • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay – Games Workshop 1986

Many of these classic titles have gone on to have multiple successful editions over the decades, a testament to the charm and uniqueness they brought into the gaming landscape.

Unfortunately, not all my original copies of these games successfully made the move with me from the Midwest to the South in the early 90’s while attending college. I am still mad about not having my original Ravenloft isometric map over 30 years later. The recent establishment of the PDF marketplace for out-of-print games and print-on-demand has luckily allowed myself, and many other gamers/collectors, to reacquire these classic old school titles.

So that’s my take on what classic old school gaming is in a nutshell. The same nostalgic Carter-Reagan period can also be used to capture classic old school movies (Escape from New York, Aliens, Blade Runner), television (Battlestar Galactica, Miami Vice, Magnum P.I.) and books (The Shining, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Name of the Rose). So while I can’t promise not to color outside the lines on this blog, this period in time defines the culture that influenced a lot of the entertainment I consumed so I’m using it as a handy reference. Plus I’ve never seen anyone else define their gaming using Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan so I’m hoping for points for originality from the judges.