Sunday, 6 March 2016

Lead of Winter: How to be an Oldhammer GM or Why is playing with a Gamesmaster so important?

Bretonnian heavy knights leave their protective hedge to counter attack down the slope.
Yesterday saw another gathering of Old School Warhammer enthusiasts descend on Oldhammer's spiritual home of the Wargames Foundry. The occasion? A massive pitched battle entitled The Lead of Winter: In Defence of Far Corfe and my first proper attempt at GMing a full scale pitched battle. 

Now, I could write extensively about the game. I could describe it's frantic ebb and flow. I could comment on how a harmless looking scenery piece was transformed into a explosive powerhouse that even rattled the bones of the undead cavalry. And I could tell tales of appalling dice rolling that would chill the heart of the 40,000 or so grognards who visit this blog every month!

But I shall refrain from doing so. 

Let the combatants do that on the blogs, social media sites and blogs of their choice. I want to discuss instead the most noble aspect of Oldhammer of all! 


Humans, elves and giants prepare to bolster the defences of Far Corfe, as the forces of Keef Bullockchopper advance over the horizon. 
I have played in a great number of games over the years, and witnessed a fair few too. I have played all over England, from Cambridge to London to Exeter to Dorset so I would like to consider myself fairly experienced. 

Does this alone make me a good Gamesmaster?

I don't think so no, there are other essential skills that do not depend at all on the number of games played, how good a painter you are, how large your collection is or how well you can construct scenery. 

None of those 'normal' wargaming skills are necessary at all, they help (and having these attributes in abundance really is a BIG help) but they are far from being essential. You are probably wondering at this point 'well Orlygg, what IS essential for being a good GM?'

Read on and I shall try and explain. 

1. Scenario Building 

As you would probably imagine - this is absolutely key. The more time you put into the scenario detail, especially the context for the game, the more details are established to support player immersion. Why are they building the units that they are? What purpose might the troops they select (or are presented with) have to play in the unfolding events? This is especially true in big community games, like In Defence of Far Corfe, which was designed from the ground up to support ten or more players. When planning smaller games involving myself and a single other player, I usually create a scenario which the player 'acts through' and simply play the part of the GM on a far smaller scale. I am not trying to win but aim to create an experience that my co-player enjoys more than I do. 

What follows is the scenario background for Far Corfe. I hope it illustrates the kind of detail I think is vital for a GM to provide to establish that 'immersion' I mentioned earlier. 

In Defence of Far Corfe: A Warhammer Third Edition Fantasy Battle

Collecting Your Forces

The organisation is simple. Anyone you wants to become involved in the battle needs to bring TWO units of equal points value. ONE unit needs to be from a 'goodie race' (Empire, W H Elves, Dwarfs, Brets etc) and ONE unit needs to be from a 'baddie race' (undead, skaven, orcs, goblins).
No chaos units please - as they won't fit into the narrative as well.
More details to follow.
EDIT: All units will need a named levelled character to lead them (lvl 5 - 15).
No magical items - as they will be up for grabs during the game.

What is going on in Far Corfe?

Far Corfe was once a thriving economic centre with a wealthy and tasteful artisan class keen to patronise the arts. The key to their success? The humble wool trade. The lolling, grassy hills that surround the town could easily sustain thousands of sheep and the countryside was once awash with numerous little farmsteads specialising in this area. The town's location, built on a crossroads to Altdorf, Erzstadt and Middenheim, also helped, as it was easy to transport goods to and from the rivers that were the pathways of the Empire.
But the town has been in decline for over eighty years. New markets and cheaper produce from Kislev reduced the profitability of wool and though still worthwhile, the industry is not what it was. Nowadays, if you ask the average peasant in the street across the Old World about Far Corfe, they would probably speak about the 'Grand Recreation' rather than its former role as the hub of the wool trade.
Some two hundred years ago, the chief of the Airyaxe Wound tribe, Todge-Dropper the Terrible, unleashed a swarm of orc and goblin raiders against the defences of Far Corfe. Legend said that the previous winter had been so harsh in their mountain fastness, that even the warmest undergarments could do little to ward off the evils of frostbite. Swearing appalling oaths of violence on the altar of Mork, Todge-Dropper set out to destroy Far Corfe and claim their enormous stores of warm, fluffy wool for himself.
As all schoolboy students of history can tell you, Todge-Dropper was defeated and Far Corfe was saved in once of the most remarkable battles in history. Due to a series of remarkable coincidences, field armies of men, dwarfs, gnomes, halflings, wood, sea and high elves were all in the immediate area when Todge-Dropper launched his poorly timed assault.
Dick Fitz Inwell, leader of the Far Corfe militia, couldn't believe his eyes when rank after rank of elite fighting men marched up the road towards the townwalls within hours of him sending out the call to arms. Bjorn Whiffabigun, the dwarf mercenary captain was the first to arrive. Swiftly followed by a combined elvish force lead by the sorceress Pyria Sweetcherry. Their timely arrival meant that Todge-Dropper's vanguard were beaten back and Far Corfe was able to re-enforce itself considerably. Eventually, Todge-Dropper's forces were crushed on the wooden walls of the town, though the orc leader's body was never found.
So remarkable was the victory, that the nations of those involved continued to celebrate it years after the final survivor had died. Every ten years, hundreds of warriors would arrive in the town, from all over the Old World, for a week long festival of feasting and re-enactment. Local tribesmen were employed to dress up as Todge-Dropper's legions and a 'Grand Recreation' was fought (using safety weapons) to the delight of the adoring crowds.
Since the town's decline, the Recreation has become less and less well attended. Though all of the nations involved still send token units of troops. Interest in the spectacle is waning. Mayor Haywood Jablomi, the current ruler of the town, is now faced with being the last leader to organise the event. This year's low key celebration will be the last of the 'Recreations'.
But unbeknown to Jablomi, or the crowds that are forming inside the town, this year's event is soon to spiral out of control. For the winter has been long and harsh....
And something is coming...


'Goodie' Commander: Mayor Haywood Jablomi
Ex-Lawyer and impotency survivor, Haywood Jablomi now resides over the Mayorship of Far Corfe. A shrew political animal, Jablomi has ensured that his control of the town is pretty much absolute despite his dubious relationship record. His first wife died of excessive nagging, his second after a mishap involving a goblin, a tanning booth and one hundredweight of troll fat and his most recent, after the consumption of one too many magical cheesecakes.
Still, nothing fans the flames of passion like a counting house full of Imperial Crowns and Jablomi is already engaged to a new would be spouse from Altdorf. Only, after years of indifference from the women in his life, this time his partner has a much greater interest in the political goings on in the town, and with her past career on the stage, she is keen to play a larger role in the 'Grand Recreation' this coming weekend.
Despite his political successes, Jablomi is chronically indecisive and can switch from active man-on-a-mission to dithering dingbat at a moment's notice. This character trait is reflected in his stats and special rules.
Special Rules 
At the beginning of each turn roll a D6 and consult the following table.
Though a local leader of some renown, Haywood Jablomi is incredibly indecisive. One minute he can be an inspiration leader, rallying his fellow townsfolk to victory and the next, a dithering buffoon. To reflect this the following rules apply.
On a D6
1-2: Jablomi is gripped with indecisiveness. Nothing happens.
3-4: Jablomi makes an inspiration speech which rallies the men within 12" of him, adding +1 to their A LD INT CL and WP. 
5-6: Jablomi makes an outstanding speech which rallies the men within 12" of him, adding +2 to their A LD INT CL and WP. 

'Goodie' Second-in-Command: Iva Sweetcherry

Iva is a relative newcomer to Far Corfe. For most of her early working life, she trod the boards in mystery plays in Altdorf as a well-known, and very demanding, actress. Eventually, she met a very rich man (our friend Jablomi) and abandoned the small, smelly changing rooms and stinking crowds for a life of idleness and pleasure.
Despite being a 'prima-donna' type, Iva Sweetcherry is a real force to be reckoned with. Utterly arrogant and entitled, she considers everyone she meets (especially her husband) to be totally beneath her. Subsequently, she is utterly fearless in the face of danger; a trait that can inspire and appall those around her in equal measure.

Special Rules
At the beginning of each turn roll a D6 and consult the following table.
Iva's arrogance and self-obsession is the stuff of legend, so much so she has no fear whatsoever. This unbelievable arrogance even inspires others.
On a D6
1-2: Iva's appalling attitude just isn't enough to spread.
3-4: All friendly units within 12" are immune to psychology due to Iva's incredible personality. 
5-6: All friendly units within 16" are immune to psychology due to Iva's incredible personality. 

Keef Bullockchopper: 'Baddie' Commander
The halflings of Pistdorf have long been a insular bunch. The more adventurous sons of the village would wander no further than the bars and restuarants of Far Corfe, happy to ply their cooking trade away and steal glorious helpings from the plates of the careless.
However, some halflings meddle too deeply with the dark magics of cookery and can invoke horrors far worse than burnt pastry on to the mortal plane. History doesn't name the halfling cook who invented 'pub-quiz pie' but the consequences of his actions were dire for his adopted home of Far Corfe.
It was baked in a magic oven for the sole purpose of providing it's consumer with an unbridled command of general knowledge just at the right moment, a moment like when your team is ten points down to the Bogenhafen Barrelsmashers and you have just picked a round of questions about Tilea's minor roads.
Sadly, the 'pub-quiz pie' was stolen by a wandering giant the morning of a particularly crucial mid-league quiz night when a careless hobbit popped out for a quick five course meal. Keef Bullockchopper, a previously genial giant, was suddenly equipped with a mind that could unlock the very secrets of the universe. What did he do with this unbridled power?
He decided to rule the world with an iron fist.
Far Corfe was to be his first conquest.

Special Rules
As Keef is highly intelligent he can ignore the rules for being drunk. He prefers smoothies anyway. 

2. Flexibility with the Rulebook

This is essential. A wargame is a shared strategic experience, not a sport. Being on the winning side is great, but the true reward is contributing to the game as a whole. No ruleset is perfect and sometime the rules can be interpreted (and mis-interpreted) in many ways. As GM you should not hang the rule set you select around your neck like a metaphorical millstone. Nor should it hobble your players and restrict their strategies and ideas.

Common sense should always prevail.

Far Corfe has it's far share of unusual allies, including this Emperor Dragon.
Knights, peasants and dwarf musketeers take up commanding views on Far Corfe's defensive hedge, as orcs and skeletons advance.
3.Being Fair

It seems obvious when you state it, but a GM needs to be impartial. You cannot favour either side in the game you are running and should endeavour to balance out mishaps and calamities to keep the game moving forwards in a satisfactory way. No-one really wants to play a one-side contest, even amongst friends, and a good GM can carefully introduce situations to restore balance if one sides begins to dominate the field too early.

Having a collection of unusual monster miniatures really helps here, as you can whip out a number of giant spiders, phantasms or giant dragon turtles when players least expect it. Taking the part of these creatures is one way of involving yourself in the action too.

You need to be fair to the scenario too. Don't introduce narrative or rules elements that do not fit with the overall theme of the game. If it is a pitched battle, don't introduce political skullduggery, if you are playing through a small skirmish game, don't include a powerhouse of a character. Having a second GM to work with really helps and I was lucky enough to have one of the most experienced in England with me, Paul Mitchell. 

Keef Bullockchopper advances through fields strewn with bodies. Halflings and Wardancers man a mixture of barricade and hedge.
Big Willie tramples down his own comrades (and part of the towns' defensive structure) in his drunken desperation to get close to the tasty looking trolls. 
4. Choosing interesting models 

Who wants to play with the same models all of the time? In later editions, my games became rather boring affairs with rather bland forces based on army books. Orcs and Goblins verses Chaos etc. I have always found this approach both deathly dull and incredibly limited. Hence, for the Far Corfe game I split the forces into good and evil - and deftly removed chaos forces as I felt that they had been a little over used in our games. 

Doing this ensured that a wealth of different units would appear on the field - from giants, to dark elves, to hobbits, to hobgoblins, to ogres, to minotaurs and so on. Matthew Dunn even sneaked in Emperor Dragon! 

If planning your own scenario make similar effort to cast aside army list restrictions and get as many different model types on to your table. As you would have seen, thanks to Phil Scott we even managed a Citadel Giant!

Combined fire from the archers and musketeers send a unit of goblinoids running away in panic. 
Pikemen hold the line as archers let loose their shafts of death!
5. Encouraging team play

Enthusiasts playing together to meet their objectives, often accompanied with the sound of raucous laughter, must be preferable to the staid silence of the tournament, surely? As GM you should think of ways of getting your players to work together, or against each other, in a variety of different ways. For Far Corfe, I opted to set the game up with Warlord Paul without any of the other players seeing what we were up to. We cleared the room, set up the table with the models placed where we thought best and when all was ready, we invited the players into the room and briefed them on the game.

We deliberately tried to deploy the units to ensure that contact with the enemy would be made after a few short turns of movement. When we had finished setting up, Paul and I discussed who would best suit the role of 'goodie' and 'baddie' commander and left THEM the responsibility to allotting command to the units that made up their individual forces. In this way, most players ended up using someone else's models for the game. It was most rewarding to see that 'paternal' delight (even if the player was on the opposing team) in eyes when a personal unit did well in the game, though the sight of bittersweet tears as they were utterly destroyed (like Matthew Dunn's dragon) were perhaps not so welcome.

The scenery was supplied by Matthew Street, Steve Beales and myself with many of the buildings being scratch builds based on the classic White Dwarf houses of the '80s. We fought across one of Bryan Ansell's spectacular gaming tables. 
At the height of the battle, the giants clashed near the Pistdorf Gate as undead and elf hacked into each other. 
6. Surprising your players

Though some players need a game to be predictable, I usually find that they are the types who rely on clever armylist manipulation to 'win' games. Exploiting loopholes to crush your enemies doesn't sound very satisfying to me and is probably why many '40k Playerz' seem so angry and bitter all of the time. Conan never mentioned the meta alongside the lamentations of the women, did he?

A rule set as complex as Warhammer Third Edition is jammed packed with ideas that can be used to surprise your players and create additional challenges for them to overcome. I feel that this  encourages players to constantly adapt their battle plans to suit new situations.

For example, one of my players (Steve Casey)  asked what a scenery piece (a large wagon) contained. The wagon was positioned between his troops and the rapidly advancing enemy. Thinking quickly, I decided that the vehicle contained an enormous about of illegally distilled alcohol and would be pretty flammable if struck with a flaming arrow. Inventing rules on the fly in this way allowed Steve to send the wagon towards the enemy and detonate the alcohol within. This is fairly simple to do if you just use a stat test against which every attribute seems the most relevant. If it requires thought- intelligence, brawn- strength, speed- initiative and so on! 

What Steve didn't know what the the resulting explosion would have a radius of 12" and would require all cavalry units (including undead) make a panic test due to the noise. When the smoke cleared a huge number of good and bad troops had been killed and the undead cavalry had run! 

I don't think any of the players expected any of that to happen!

The positions of the forces after the second turn. 
7. Setting Restrictions 

Do not be afraid to set limits on your players. In many ways it is vital for the smooth running of the game. The most important rule when being a GM is getting your players to understand that your decision is final. There is no room for argument, but as 'director' of the game, you are acting impartially for EVERYONE's best interests. You are not trying to win the game for either side, but you are ensuring that everyone has fun taking part.

Other restrictions can also be useful. I placed a very tight time limit of 20 minutes per turn. If a side had not finished their movement, attacks or magic when that period of time had passed, they stopped and the opposing side had their turn. Such a rule, in my opinion, helps focus play when using such a complex edition as Third and when you have a large number of players. We played for just over four hours and managed to complete 12 turns. See, WFB3 isn't as slow as the naysayers suggest, you just need to approach it from the right direction. 

During major 'day long' games like this I have always found publishing a brief over view of the day helps players understand what will happen and when. Here is an example I used for Far Corfe.

Rough Overview for 'In Defence of Far Corfe'

10am 'Line Up' : A table will be provided for you to place your prepared units along with their 'rules' cards- please don't for get these. There will be a space for the 'goodies' and the 'baddies' and you are encouraged t have a good look at everybody's models and painting. Scenery can be placed out here too.
10:30 'Secret Set Up': Players will be asked to leave the gaming area while the scenery and forces are placed on the table. You will not get the chance to view the scenario until the game commences.
The 'baddie' commander (Keef Bullockchopper) and the 'goodie' commander (Haywood Jablomi) will be selected at random from the players available. Remaining players will be assigned a 'goodie' or 'baddie' role. It will be up to the commanders to decide which of their underlings command which units.
11-1: 'The Defence of Far Corfe - Morning. Each side will have a strict time limit of 20 minutes to complete their entire turn. This will be supervised by the GM VERY CLOSELY. Phases of play will follow the WFB3 rulebook.
1-2: Lunch and shopping
2-4: 'The Defence of Far Corfe - Afternoon. Again, a strict 20 minutes will be given for players to complete their turn under the eyes of the GM. Winning side to be declared at 4 o'clock.
Uncommon Valour.
This is the key to victory. Whether or not Far Corfe falls is NOT important and will not decide the game either way. Uncommon valour points will need to be amassed to ensure victory.
UV points can be awarded by a GM for exceptional bravery, unnatural luck and exceptional generalship. Solid roleplaying in character of your unit will also help. The victor will be the side with the highest number of Uncommon Valour points.
Secret plans, illusions and tricks are encouraged and can be added to the game via a whisper in the GM's ear.
GM's word is final.
Steve Beales, Phil Scott, Matthew Street and Adam Atom Taylor 'The Baddies' plan their next devilish move.
Just don't ask about the soap dish!
8. Getting the 'right' people

Sadly, this is so true. Putting on a game of this size takes real effort and the last thing any prospective GM wants to happen is for all his or her hard work to be undone by a 'plonker'. If you have spent any time on the internet reading through blogs, forums or social media groups you will know the type of gamer that I am describing here. They are the ones who just cannot see any other opinion other than their own.

Play with people who respect others and who want to contribute unconditionally, not those who want to use the game as a vessel with which to fulfill their own conditions. Sadly, these idiots appear in every community but they are few in number. Rage-quitters and posters of pathetic whinging blog posts (usually after they have been banned from/dramatically left an online community) do not make great players at all.

Avoid them at all costs.

Hobgoblins and Dark Elves charge towards the defensive barricade in the closing moments of the battle. 
Haywood Jablomi's last stand?
Of course, this is only the tip of the GM iceburg but I hope that the ideas I have shared today, and a few of the stirring photographs, inspire some of you to create your own games in the narrative style. Personally, the very best games I have ever had of Warhammer have been entirely devised by me, used my miniature collection and were played at my house. Inviting over a couple of friends to try out the scenario is a reward in itself, and though you are not pushing for a 'victory' in the game you play through, those traditional discussions still occur afterwards...

"Jablomi would have emerged victorious if I hadn't rolled that 1!"

Happy GMing.



  1. Great article James. I'm still smiling at the memories of yesterday's game so you and Paul definitely got the GM'ing right.

    If only that cart hadn't blown up though - Bullockchopper had designs on capturing it and riding it down the hill into the defenses of Far Corfe. Mind you the fall out of that explosion was both spectacular and hilarious!

  2. Rude names but very funny! Keep up the good work!

    1. Rude names have a long pedigree in Warhammer, at least in the 1980s! Though some of the other character creations were superb. My favourite? Chip Cockhammer the hobbit hero!

    2. For the record I must add that My Chip Cockhammer 'was' a Dwarf Hero leading a unit of Thunderers. His name refers to his use of his aquebus and is in no way a sexual reference!

    3. Apologies. Poor old Chip. A fine dwarf indeed, if a little projectile obsessed. Hopefully, he has plenty of descendants so the name Cockhammer can return to the walls of Far Forge again.

  3. Beautiful game! That's how it should be done! I love that giant!

    1. All three of the giants were beautiful models though king of the crop has to go to Phil's Citadel giant. We did a quick calculation and found out that between us all SIX Citadel giants are now owned!! Imagine the sight of them all striding across the battlefield!!

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  5. Fabulous miniatures, fantastic pics! Thanks for sharing! :D

    1. I am glad you enjoyed them! I am sure there will be more along shortly from some of the other bloggers.

  6. I do have to disagree on one thing - some people are a complete pain in the ass on the internet but absolutely lovely in person and to play with. YMMV! :)

    1. If I may say so, better like that than the opposite ;) Cheers!

    2. I was thinking of the miniature destroying rage quitters like I recently described. The thought of seeing a Citadel Giant or Emporer Dragon smashed on the floor in a pique of rage would be tragic. Though, abandoning an army of old school models as you rage quit would certainly have made some of our players most happy!

  7. Great article. Agree with pretty much everything you wrote. I'd add that as well as avoiding that person who spoils the game for everyone (I've encountered a couple recently), we should all look at ourselves and make sure we don't behave in the same way! Oldhammer games are really quite unique in that 'winning' is usually relatively low on the priority list - being part of a great story is much more important.

  8. Fantastic battle report, this is what Warhammer was always meant to be! Well done fellows!