Saturday, August 15, 2009

Thoughts on Warmachine's Next Big Thing

On the evening of August 14th, 2009 many hundreds of Warmachine players across the globe joined with those in attendance in a convention room somewhere in the sprawl of GenCon 2009 to discover what exactly it was that Matt Wilson of Privateer Press was going to unveil as the NBT for Warmachine. I won't say that speculation was rampant for the week before the announcement, but certainly there must have been a high level of interest in the tabletop wargaming geek community across the globe.

Let's face it, we have a new and most high and excellent edition of Warmachine. There is a completely new faction, the Retribution of Ios, with an army book and a massive release of miniatures all of which became available for purchase on August the 13th at GenCon. In the context of Privateer Press' enviable security against rumours, what could it possibly be?

I went with the Orgoth invasion, for much the same reason that I always choose heads on a coin toss. My friend Ken guessed a naval variant of Warmachine, given recent releases and No Quarter articles. Others on the net chose a Warmachine mass battle game, or a new faction from southern Immoren, or new unit types or abilities. Some people chose a movie or a videogame.

As it turned out, it is a videogame. It will be able to be played on xBox and Playstation but not on Wii. Whether it will be a FPS or a RTS (?) is not yet known. It will have multi-player capacity. The player will control a warcaster with a battlegroup. Presumably there will come into being a domain on the interweb where online combat between warcasters from all the factions, reminiscent of certain of the fiction in Legends and other books, will be ongoing 24/7 in a WOW mode.

What is to be made of this? Well, first of all let me say that what Privateer Press does is none of my business. I'm not interested in questioning the wisdom of its business plan. If I had shares in the company or if I had otherwise invested in it that would be different. Because, as I sit here, I have both an Extreme Juggernaut and Drago winging their way towards my collection does not give me any say on what PP does. I acknowledge this.

That said, I won't be buying a Playstation, xBox or other video or computer gaming system so I can play this or any other videogame. Nor will I be losing myself and my marriage in an online Immoren chasing electrons about the web. It's just not my thing. I'm a tabletop wargamer. Warmachine is, I thought, a tabletop wargame. I'd rather play 10 games a year against other human beings on a 4' x 4' surface than 1,000 against a computer or against others on a computer.

For me, and this is solely my personal take on the matter, computer gaming is a form of wasting disease or elongated suicide. There is no substance to it. When I was a child, there were pinball machines that retained high scores and so, in the small communities that played on them, there was at least the competition amongst the various players to have their three initials up there between plays. There was no cheating the tilt. PAK was the man, until he wasn't the man any more.

I need that human element, the person on the other side of the table, the sense that "this all happened", the substance of the acquisition, preparation, modelling, painting, deployment, movement, the gaming with and putting away of miniatures, scenery and the tabletop surfaces. I need the art, the travel to play, the thrill of a victory or, more likely, the agony of yet another defeat, but a victory or a defeat that is witnessed by at least one other human being.

I sat at a computer a few times in the early 90's and got up 14 hours later after my civilization was nuked out of existence. Afterwards, it was hard to shake the feeling that I had just wasted so much of my time. There are some lines of script from Bladerunner that I think are apt to decribe what I'm trying to say:

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.

It's hard to imagine describing anything that ever happened in a videogame with such language. Isn't it more the case that every moment playing a videogame is forever lost in time, just throwing parts of one's life away as if it was garbage?

I know, I know, different strokes for different folks.

I can't wait to get Drago and that Extreme Juggernaut. My tabletop gaming schwi is only going to get better with these additions to my arsenal. Really.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Book Review - John M. Del Vecchio's The 13th Valley

This novel was first published in 1982. The particular story follows the experience of the members of one company of the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) in offensive operations in the Khe Ta Laou valley, located in the area of South Vietnam the US armed forces called 1st Corps, between August 13 and August 25th, 1970. By that point in the Vietnam War the Americans were well into the Vietnamization process, withdrawing US troops in the tens of thousands per month and continuously passing over fire and other front line bases to ARVN units. John M. Del Vecchio served as a combat correspondent with the 101st in 1970 and 1971 in the area south of the DMZ (1st Corps) where the actions in this novel took place.

I think it is now safe to say that this work is one of the great war novels of the 20th century, easily keeping company with Solzhenitsyn's August 1914, Jones' The Thin Red Line, Heinrich's The Cross of Iron and Mailer's The Naked and the Dead. This book is not pulp fiction. There is nothing in the least bit gratuitous about the violence of the combat scenes. Nor is the writing of the masturbatory variety like that, most notably in the years since, of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels. With Sharpe we know at all times that he will suffer from no vississitude more inconvenient than a temporary interlude between sexual partners or perhaps a superior officer that he will thwart with ease at the right time. He never misses with musket or rifle, treasure falls into his lap like manna from heaven, and his foes (and lawyers generally) will all suffer from fates that would make any schoolboy shudder.

In The 13th Valley, the opposing forces, NVA regulars and Air Cav infantry, are equally brave and equally capable. There is no attempt by Del Vecchio to portray the character of any particular Vietnamese (except perhaps one Kit Carson Scout). They remain unknown to the reader, except through their deeds, but their deeds are known to the Americans. The difference between the opposing forces in the Khe Ta Laou is material in nature. The Americans had helicopter gunships, artillery of all calibres, B-52 bombers and an endless supply capability. The NVA had AK-47s, RPGs, mortars, bicycles, sampans and rice.

The combat scenes are incredible. Everything that happens has the indelible mark of truth. The interior life of the American soldiers, the transition from cherry to boonierat, the racial tension in the unit, the techniques and tactics of jungle fighting, whether on recon, ambush or in listening posts, or while in movement, during assault or in the desperate anguish of counter ambush, all of this is wholly contained within the pages of this novel.

A somewhat fascinating aspect of this book that has absolutely required the passage of time is the similarity of the mindset between the Nixon establishment and that of Dubya. There are good reasons for this, ones are well beyond the confines of this short review, but time and again the message of that time was capable of being readily transposed to this.

Other contrasts occur to the reader. It has been commonly asserted by American authorities over the last decade (well, at least since the invasion of Iraq) that the current volunteer army is of a higher quality in terms of educational background than that of the draftees (and volunteers) that fought in Vietnam. The 13th Valley offers another perspective on this issue, and one can only wonder how accurate the message of the last few years has been. After all, unless a college graduate dodged the draft, most notably by either leaving for Canada or serving in the Texas Air National Guard, there was a very good chance that he would have ended up in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The images and writings of the Iraq War that I have seen have not led me to consider the US forces there overly comprised of university graduates. This is not to detract from the servicemen and women in either war. I think, ultimately, that despite the fact that this is not an anti-war novel as such, Del Vecchio does continually seek to remind us that America lost far more than a war in Vietnam. It lost tens of thousands of its citizens there, citizens who were thinkers, lovers, caregivers, fathers to be, citizens who learned how to tell right from wrong under the sternest test any person can face. That is the great tragedy of any war I suppose, but it is particularly so where a war is fought for reasons that are open to doubt.

Apart from that, there is the myth in the US, which Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick and Oliver Stone bear no little responsibility for, that combat in Vietnam was fought by American soldiers to the accompaniment of music. While this sells soundtracks, it hardly seems credible given the kinds of operations engaged in by US troops in the jungle or to and fro those operations. Of course, this has since changed with the 2003 Iraq war and it now appears clear that heavy metal is de riguer when US forces are unleashing, erm, heavy metal.

One final note on Oliver Stone. There were several moments while reading The 13th Valley that I was reminded of scenes in Platoon. This may well be because Stone experienced similiar events himself. There are some indications that he fought as a recon grunt in the A Shau Valley with the 1st Cavalry Division in 1968. The A Shau is in 1st Corps, south of the Khe Ta Laou. That said, it was interesting to me to compare the images that the prose of Del Vecchio inspired with those that Stone directed into being in Platoon. It seems strange, but Del Vecchio's prose is more cinematic than the very movie that most closely relates to its action. I think this is more of a compliment to Del Vecchio than a criticism of Stone. Film and writing are different media, and it may well be that the former is more limited in what it can portray to our minds. In any event, despite the fact that Del Vecchio wasn't writing a screenplay, his work is profoundly cinematic in nature, and perhaps more than is possible for a work of cinema.

In the final analysis, I simply could not put this book down. If one is interested in the American phase of the Vietnam War for any reason whatsoever this novel is a gold mine. For wargamers, I can't think of any fiction that I've ever read from the Vietnam War canon that has as much intrinsic value. There are obviously excellent non-fiction works about the war that cannot be ignored - most notably for me Bernard Fall's Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu - but The 13th Valley is written by a veteran who was in fact a boonierat, and he has recounted his experiences in a way that transcends the narrative of either an academic or a hack. Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A new direction

I have recently been quite inspired by a holiday in Gros Morne National Park and by the works I discovered there of a Canadian landscape artist named Shawn McNevin. Many of her subjects are to be found in the park. The Works page of her website is as follows:

I understand the gulf that separates me from an artist of her talent and experience. What I intend is somewhat imitative, but I will be using acrylic on canvas, and the scenes that I intend to paint, for the most part, will be used as backdrops for tabletop photographs. The picture above shows my first canvas with two basecoats of white gesso on it so far. At least one more coat of gesso will be needed. Then I will lightly sketch out the scene before starting to paint it in.