Mine? Eh, it Wasn't That Great.

I'm not a huge comic book fan, but there are a few titles I enjoy. I've been a Transformers fan since pretty much day one, and I'm still collecting IDW's current run, though only in TPB form. I've hugely enjoyed Power Girl's most recent solo series, and was greatly upset to learn that she's not a continuing force in the New 52 universe. And then there's manga, like Fullmetal Alchemist and 20th Century Boys and Mardock Scramble. But I must admit, as far as actual, single-issue comic books go? Well, it's been a while indeed since I picked any of them up from the racks of my local comic shop.

But I was in there the other day, doing a bit of post-Christmas shopping with the lovely Madam Meagan, and a rather striking cover caught my eye. And so, for the first time in I-can't-recall-when, I bought myself a few comic books.

Seriously, what's not to love here?

The big draw? Robotman. I read some of the really old Doom Patrol run, and some of Alan Moore's fantastically deranged series, and Robotman was always the most compelling character. He's a classic, of course; a man given phenomenal power, but at the cost of his humanity. So when I flipped through the first issue of My Greatest Adventure and found out that Cliff Steele is now, not just Robotman, but Robotman, PI (Of Weirdness)? Well, hell, you couldn't sell that to me any better if you tried. And I'm pleased to say that the comics, rather than just coast on that idea, which let's face it is good idea enough for at least a few year's run, managed to add in another delightful storytelling wrinkle. You see, the nanites that make up Cliff Steele's body? They've got Asimov's Three Laws programmed into them. Which is all well and good in terms of making sure they obey Cliff, but directly and subconsciously (and Cliff's mind is the only human they can 'hear'), but they recognise non-Cliff people as being human, too. Imagine being a superhero whose bones and muscles literally will not allow you to harm a human being. Luckilly, at least, he doesn't seem to have the 'or through inaction allow humans to come to harm' commandment, but still. It's kind of a serious restraint, and forces Cliff to be pretty inventive in how he resolves any kind of human-level situation. Giant robot snakes? No problem. A couple dozen brain-controlled people at a diner? Potentially deadly threat.

It's a really interesting inversion.

Leads to a lot of this sort of thing, obviously.

The other two stories in the anthology are good, too. Garbageman's story is likewise pretty classic; a white-collar worker runs afoul of his employers, who are doing things Man Was Not Meant To, and when he Learns Too Much they try to silence him, inadvertently turning him into a hero in the process. The appearance of Batman is well handled, the Dark Knight managing to put in a solid appearance without stealing the show, but the real draw is going to be the dinosaurs in the sewers of Gotham, I suspect. As for Tanga, she seems to be set to give Robotman a run for the title of 'most interesting story'. A superpowered alien trying to save the meek and downtrodden, Tanga is pleasantly snarky without being Deadpool-esque, and has the benefit of the most interesting world of the three, an alien land where monsters appear out of portals, a giant head runs the government and an opposing superhero with serious narcissistic tendencies threatens to bring the whole thing down for reasons clear only to his own, entitled self. Add in a long-suffereing tentacle monster and a very pleasant and possibly-mad scientist, and the Tanga storyline has quite a definite draw.

Not that sort of draw.  Mind out of the gutter, you!

Not quite as strong a draw as Robotman, PI, of course. But a draw, nonetheless.

Sadly, it seems that My Greatest Adventure is only to be a 6-issue miniseries. But what the heck, I just spent years collecting the entirety of Fullmetal Alchemist, maybe a quick six-month commitment is more my speed.

Gilding the Lily

A thought recurs, more or less every time I run through a new list for my cadre; don't gild the lily.  Gilding the lily, for those who aren't familiar with the saying, came out of Shakespeare's King John.  It's actually quite a contracted paraphrase of Shakespeare's line, which advises against gilding refined gold and painting the lily, amongst other things, on the grounds that such an action is "wasteful and ridiculous excess."  With regards to 40K, the danger of gilding the lily is in pouring points into a unit, either to make it somewhat less mediocre at a task for an unreasonable cost, or to make it better at a task it's already excellent at, even for a small cost.

Kirby, of 3++ fame, recently wrote about this same subject.  But as good as Kirby and his crew (krew?) are, their wide audience requires them to talk in generalities; as an exclusively-Tau Empire player with a, let's just say less extensive audience, I can be more specific.  Because the issue of gilded lilies is both more subtle and more dangerous for adherents to the Greater Good than for most other codices.  The issue is that Tau Empire cadres, through their XV8s and to a lesser extent the '88s and vehicles, have the kind of customization options that, say, Nob Bikerz get access to.  But where Nob Bikerz can really take advantage of their customizability to increase their threat value, mostly through their wound allocation shenanigans and their ability to get both cover saves and FNP, the dropoff for Tau units is both much earlier and much sharper.

So, as we all know, XV8s get three options, usually used for two weapons and a support system.  But that's just the standard ones; team leaders, shas'vres and the army's shas'els and 'os get access to the special wargear section, which contains several duplicates from the support systems section, like multi-trackers, target locks, drone controllers and blacksun filters, along with unique pieces like bonding knives and the special issue items.  It can be extremely tempting to bump a member of an elite XV8 trinary up to a team leader or shas'vre, and use them to add something to the squad.  Targeting array, target lock, shield generator, drone controller with shield drones or networked marker drones, there are a variety of options, and in and of themselves, they're not bad options.  But they're not cheap options, either, and they almost never manage to recoup their investments.  A team leader with a targeting array is an extra fifteen points; with a shield drone it's twenty, thirty-five if you want two of them; twenty-five with that shield generator.  And these aren't cheap squads to start with, with three fireknives clocking in at nearly two hundred points for just three models, with no invulnerable saves, who can easily be one-shotted by the plethora of S8 weapons running around the game at the moment.

And the XV8s aren't the only lilies out there tempting you to gild them, either.  Tau vehicles have a tonne of upgrades that look good at first; SMS, targeting array, disruption pod, decoy launcher, multi-tracker, flechette discharger, they're all pretty good looking. And given the rather lacklustre performance of most Tau vehicles, it's particularly tempting to start throwing things on their to increase their effectiveness. But a naked Devilfish is 80 points, hardly a cheap transport to start with, and the costs climb a lot faster than the value of those upgrades. The disruption pod is basically a must-buy, so the Devilfish arguably costs 85 points, and if you add the SMS then, well, you should really add a targeting array and a multi-tracker to get the best out of it, and if you're going to be operating that aggressively some flechette dischargers wouldn't hurt, either. And before you know it, you have a tank that's not especially more difficult to kill, and hasn't particularly upped its damage abilities (with a multi-tracker, the SMS gives you two extra shots moving 6", and one fewer moving 12"), but suddenly costs fifty more points. And again, most of what you've added are the exact same S5 AP5 shots you can find every last Fire Warrior toting, only they've got better range, a higher rate of fire inside 12", and for those fifty points you actually get one more shot than the SMS offers at beyond 13".

The Tau Empire codex is one of the most option-heavy going, in terms of pure customization opportunities. Battlesuits have more unique options available than nearly any other unit in 40K, and Tau vehicles have some of the best wargear upgrades available, though sadly that's balanced out by their mostly having some of the worst weapon options in the game. But as I have learned, through rather unpleasant personal experience, the Tau also have some of the sharpest levels of diminishing returns going. The army is, ultimately, a force that has no meaningful close combat abilities, average shooting power and defenses, and weak leadership. Rather than relying on a few heavily upgraded units to carry the rest of the army, it's terribly important for a Tau player to remember that old Soviet cliche; quantity has a quality all its own. The more saves you can force your opponent to make, even 3+ or 2+ saves, the more saves they're likely to fail; conversely, your opponent will pass every save you don't force him to take. The same is true for most other races, with variations, of course. Despite its origins, 40K is currently meant to be a game of armies, not heroes, so bringing a few incredible heroes and the bare minimum of an army along often won't end well for any army commander.

After all, you can't do much fighting with nothing but a few lilies covered in yellow paint.


Munitorum Series #3 - Plasma Gun

So, my cadre and I wandered up to Black Knight Games this past Saturday, for the latest in their tournament series.  This time it was two thousand points, making these games officially the largest games I have ever played; before Saturday, I'd never gone above 1500.  Heck, before I finished off my last two XV88s on Friday, I didn't even have the points to play at 2000!  But I scraped in under the wire, managing to finish a Piranha and two XV88s in just over two weeks, so the Shining Long Strike cadre took to the field, ready for all comers!

Or at least, as ready as I ever seem to get.

Game 1
Opponent: Graham Wilson (Grey Knights)

Grand Master w/Psychotroke, Rad Grenades
5 x Purifiers w/Halberds, Razorback w/Psybolt
10 x Strike Squad w/Psybolt, 2 x Psycannon, Rhino
10 x Terminators w/Psybolt, Incinerator, Psycannon
10 x Interceptors w/Psybolt
Stormraven w/Twin-Linked Lascannon, Twin-Linked Multi-Melta
Land Raider w/Heavy Bolters, 2 x Lascannon

Major Objective: Capture and Control
Minor Objective: Headhunter (points for CC kills)
Deployment: Pitched Battle

This was my first game against Grey Knights; not bad, considering how omnipresent this 'Win Button' army is supposed to be, no? And I have to say, it didn't go so badly.

It's a cliche among 40K players that the battle is won or lost in deployment, a cliche I don't agree with in the least. In this case, however, it may not have been the game but poor deployment definitely lost Graham his Vindicare. He set the assassin on a nice, high point, with a good field of fire, and unfortunately for him he was too close and too exposed; on my first turn of shooting, which just so happened to be the first turn of the game, the combined firepower of an 8-strong Fire Warrior squad, the SMS off two XV88s and a trinary of Fireknives blasted him to smithereens. Graham has bragged about the threat of his Vindicare often enough around the store, the way it blows out invulnerable saves and kills Land Raiders better than Railguns do, so taking it out early seemed like a pretty good strategy. And I think it probably was.

With the rest of his army unmolested, more or less, Graham began his advance, and I began that oh-so-intricate dance Tau Empire players know so well. Graham used his Stormraven to deploy half his Terminator squad to my left flank, to meet up with his Interceptors already moving down there, and started rolling it up, while the other Terminators and the Grand Master in the Land Raider trundled up the centre. The game quickly turned into a bloodbath, with the Interceptors slaughtering my XV88s and Pathfinders, the Storm Raven blasting both my Piranhas with its multi-melta and the Strike Squad firing out of their Rhino immobilizing my Hammerhead with a lucky shot. Graham's aggression did not go unanswered, however. My other XV88s exploded the Land Raider and eventually shot down the Stormraven, my Shas'el, his bodyguard and one of the Fireknife squads gunned down the Grand Master and most of his squad, and a unit of Fire Warriors, dismounted from a wrecked Devilfish that was moving to contest, shot three of the five Purifiers to death. At the end of Turn 5 both our armies were quite depleted, with each of us still claiming our objectives, and Graham (obviously) having the minor objective. Sadly for me, however, the game went the full 7 turns, and ultimately these Grey Knights proved to be less a flashing rapier and more a grinding steamroller; I just could not stop their advance. Down to two XV88s, 8-strong and a 6-strong squads of Fire Warriors protecting my objective, I just didn't have the firepower to wipe out those Interceptors before they shunted onto my objective to contest it at the top of Turn 7, while out by his objective a second immobilized Devilfish, two Gun Drones and a Fireknife trinary that were criminally positioned nearly the entire game could neither break the Strike Squad off Graham's objective nor get close enough to contest it themselves. A game as hard-fought as it was well-fought, on both sides, in the end I just could not hold off those Grey Knights long enough to secure even a minor victory.

Result: Major Loss

Game 2
Opponent: Phil Swayne (Soul Drinkers)

Vulkan He'Stan
Kor'Sarro Khan
Dreadnought w/2 Twin-Linked Autocannon
Ironclad Dreadnought w/Heavy Flamer, Drop Pod
5 x Assault Terminators w/Sergeant
4 x Scouts, Sergeant w/Meltabombs, Combi-Melta, Power Weaopn
10 x Tacticals w/Meltagun, Combi-Melta, Power Fist, Drop Pod
4 x Bikers, Attack Bike w/Multi-Melta
4 x Bikers, Attack Bike w/Multi-Melta
Attack Bike w/Multi-Melta
Land Speeder Storm w/Multi-Melta
Land Raider Redeemer w/Extra Armour, Multi-Melta

Major Objective: Annihilation
Minor Objective: King of the Hill (objective in the centre of the table)
Deployment: Spearhead

Phil's army may be painted purple, but they were using Kor'Sarro for his special rules, making them the most flamboyant White Scars in history, I suspect. With everything reserved and outflanking, and with me squeezed into a quarter of the table by the deployment rules, I had a chance to put my post-Blood Angels 'all-dropping FNP CC monsters' tactic to work. And y'know, it didn't do too badly. I set up with an L-shaped ruin at one corner, a bastion at the other, and a nice high cliff running between them, effectively protecting a quarter of my border that way. Then, it was castling all the way. The XV88s went on top of the bastion and ruins, and other than that it was battlesuits in the middle, surrounded by a ring of Fire Warriors, surrounded by every vehicle hull I had, facing out in a circle.

The Ironclad dropped alone on the first turn, melta-ing one of my Piranhas into oblivion and using its Heavy Flamer on the Fire Warriors bunched up behind it, though thankfully he didn't kill that many of them. In return, I shot both its arms off and immobilized it, though I just could not kill it. And then, the Marines came on. The second drop pod landed on my left flank, supporting the Land Raider full of Terminators and the other Dreadnought who charged in off the board edge, while the Land Speeder full of Scouts turbo-boosted out from my right, covering one of the biker squads and the lone attack bike. My other Piranha went down, along with a Devilfish and a few more Fire Warriors, and then we really just started tearing into each other. Phil sent his Dreadnought into the bastion, intent on coming up from under my XV88s and tying them up in close combat, a grinding affair since the Dreadnought lacked the power weapons to negate their 2+ saves and they lacked the strength to dent his front armour. It was a good strategy, though, as it kept my XV88s out of commission for most of the game. Meanwhile, concentrating on the bigger threats, I combined plasma and pulse fire to drag down the Terminators, though only after they'd wrecked my Hammerhead, used my ruins-based XV88s to explode the Land Raider right in the face of some Tacticals about to embark, and used my Shas'el and his bodyguards to wipe out nearly the whole of the biker squad. In return, however, the Scouts' sergeant slowly but steadily cut down my Deathrains with his power sword, Kor'Sarro himself felled my Shas'el, his bodyguards and a squad of Fire Warriors, and the surviving Tacticals charged up to reinforce the Dreadnought, their powerfist tipping the scales quite handily against my XV88s. And while all this was happening, that second biker squad gunned their engines, charged out of reserve on my left flank, and raced out to grab the secondary objective in the middle of the table.

Despite the shellacking I got (why is it always Annihilation against Marines who can go from off the board to in my face in a turn?), the game was as fun as it was challenging, and Phil gave me some good pointers on what I could've done better to protect myself. The fact that I didn't deploy against the table edge, blunting his units from pincering me quite so completely, seems blindingly obvious in hindsight, and is definitely a point I'll remember. Likewise, I should've borrowed the Pathfinders and ringed the XV88s on the Bastion with them, leaving no room for the Dreadnought to charge in. And I could even have spread my castle out a little more, left it less vulnerable to flamers and less trapped by its own units once the other shoe had dropped. Little by little, I'm getting better at this game.

Result: Major Loss

Game 3
Opponent: Chris Bader (Imperial Guard)

Company Command Squad w/Straken, Lascannon HWT, Vox-Caster, Meltagun, Officer of the Fleet, Astropath, Chimera
5 x Storm Troopers w/Meltagun
5 x Storm Troopers w/Meltagun
5 x Veterans w/Plasma Pistol, Meltagun, Meltabombs
5 x Veterans w/2 x Meltaguns, Meltabombs
Infantry Command Squad w/Vox-Caster, Lascannon HWT, Meltagun, Chimera
Infantry Squad w/Power Weapon, Grenade Launcher, 2 x Missile Launcher HWT, Vox-Caster, Krak Grenades, Commissar w/Power Weapon
Infantry Squad w/Power Weapon, Grenade Launcher, Missile Launcher HWT, Krak Grenades
Infantry Squad w/Power Weapon, Grenade Launcher, Missile Launcher HWT, Krak Grenades
Vendetta w/3 x Twin-Linked Lascannons, Heavy Bolter
Vendetta w/3 x Twin-Linked Lascannons, Heavy Bolter
Medusa w/Siege Mortar, Heavy Bolter, Enclosed Crew Compartment, Camo Netting, Bastion Breacher Shells
2 x Hydras

Major Objective: Seize Ground (4 objectives rolled)
Minor Objective: Big Game Hunter (points for all HQs, MCs, and vehicles with an AV over 12)
Deployment: Dawn of War

Again, awful deployment, but this time it was the both of us. Chris was initially going first, so he deployed his biggest blob-squad right up against the centre line, with most of them hidden in a series of craters and forests to give them cover. In response I decided to leave everything off the board edge; after all, two of my four XV88s had Blacksun Filters for just this occasion, and this way I could position my units to respond to Chris' when he brought them on.

And then, for reasons I still can't actually explain, I rolled to seize. And won.

Making the best of this baffling decision, I spread my army along the table edge, my Piranhas turbo-boosted up on either side, and aimed just about everything I could at that blob squad. The only Guard unit on the table, it took a serious beating that first turn. Despite the cover it probably lost at least half its units to a staggering fusillade of SMS, Missile Pod, Plasma Rifle, and AFP fire. The unit didn't break, though, despite its pounding, and after hiding my battlesuits as best I could behind the tanks, Chris brought his army out to play. The Manticore and the Medusa took cover on my left, the two Hydras on my right, the Chimeras moved to reinforce the badly-beaten blob squad, and the Vendettas raced forwards. The two squads of Storm Troopers stayed in reserve, and thankfully Chris didn't manage anything noteworthy with his first round of firing; his searchlights could not get the range, and nor could anything else. At the top of Turn 2 I started my attack, and kept up the pressure all game. XV88s fired at Vendettas, which were ludicrously survivable (an enraging string of 1's and 2's to penetrate and on the damage chart kept one of them flying nearly all game), one of my Fireknife trinaries went after the Hydras, with mobile cover from a Devilfish, while my Fire Warriors and battlesuits kept hitting that blob squad, which half the time had a 2+ cover save, making them particularly difficult to remove save for those killed by the AFP. Hooray for S4 AP5 large blasts that ignore cover! The stars of Chris' army, meanwhile, were definitely the Medusa and the Manticore, which between them accounted for two-thirds of my Deathrains, 13 Fire Warriors and one of my Bodyguards. Thankfully, however, those Storm Troopers were absolutely useless; the first squad couldn't get a clean drop, earning them a trip back into reserve, then actually landed on the Hammerhead Chris was sending them after, which got them put nice and out of the way in the corner. The other squad did manage to go after my Hammerhead, but a torrent of close-in pulse rifle fire in return meant they didn't get to enjoy their victory. Both Piranhas, by the by, blew up well short of getting their shots off, meaning that they were three-for-three in terms of being completely useless. I really must figure out how to use those things.

With time running out, Chris and I both threw our last tricks at each other. He killed all but one of the Fire Warriors heading to my left-side objective and charged my Shas'el with his Company Command Squad, getting close enough to contest the other. Thankfully, however, my lone Fire Warrior passed his break test and hung on, and in the very last shooting phase my Fireknives finally blasted one of the Hydras to pieces. That left Chris with a Hydra and both Vendettas gone, while I had lost a Devilfish and my Hammerhead; the Piranhas, being only AV11, didn't count. That meant I had the minor objective, three points to two, and that my friends means that, for the first time ever in a Black Knight Games tournament, I had won a game!

Result: Minor Win

Total Result: 14th of 16, tied overall with 13th (but 13th had more battle points, while I'd made the difference up with presentation)


The Stupid... It Burns...

So, Tim over at The Tau of War has found quite the lovely little gem. It's a video codex review put out by Beast of War, and of course since it's popping up on Tau of War and now my own, almost-exclusively-Tau-concerned blog, obviously it's a review of Codex: Tau Empire.

And it is simply awful.

It's awful for a variety of reasons, really, but you can basically boil it down to three main problems.  The two guys doing the review, Darrell and Andy, don't know the units; they don't understand the units' roles; and no offence to all my power armoured brothers and sisters out there, but they are clearly Marine players to the core.

The first problem is as obvious as it is massive, namely, these guys haven't even got the basic rules of the units down. Their advice on the 'best' build for an XV8 crisis suit, for instance, is jaw-droppingly awful, namely twin-linked plasma rifles and "the thrusters that allow them to jump up and jump back down again to get a free move in the assault phase." They then dismiss any other loadout because the rest of the weapons "are all virtually pointless," being "all AP5, pulse rifle, carbine, pistol" weapons. Pulse pistols? On an XV8 battlesuit? Good lord! They think every battlesuit can buy three upgrades, because apparently XV15/25 stealth suits and XV88 broadsides aren't battlesuits. And speaking of stealths, they think XV15/25 stealth suits can take "some of the better weapons, with better AP," despite scoffing at fusion blasters on XV8s not five minutes earlier. They think shield drones are 30 points. They think the spotter on a Sniper Drone Team has to hit before the drones can fire at a target, and by the way, one of them initially thinks the SDT are armed with plasma rifles. They even seem to be suggesting that you could have Fire Warriors hop out of a Devilfish, rapid fire a target, then hop back in again, which isn't just not knowing the rules for the Tau, it's not knowing the rules of 40K itself. With such shockingly shallow knowledge of the basic rules for the army, it's hard to hold out any hope for a deeper analysis of how to play it.

And indeed, there is none, because these guys absolutely do not understand the roles of basic Tau Empire units. They talk about using S5 pulse weapons and the plasma rifle to threaten light vehicles, and completely miss the missile pod. They're baffled by the Kroot, and apparently by the very concept of terrain, since they worry about armour-less Kroot being "stood in the middle of the board rapid firing your guns." For that matter, they complain that Fire Warriors, "like most of the rest of the army, they need to hide behind a wall," a statement so baffling the only conclusion one can draw is that they exclusively play something like Grey Knights terminator or Blood Angels FNP armies, since everything else out there will want to find cover pretty regularly. Heck, even those armies wouldn't want to just charge across an open field into the face of Lascannons and Krak Missiles! They dismiss Piranhas as being overcosted suicide units, heck, they dismiss the entire fast attack slot as being "pretty poor," strong words for a slot that contains Piranhas, Pathfinders and even the oft-unappreciated Gun Drone squads. Despite their not understanding how SDT shooting works, repeatedly dismissing the value of BS3 in general and even specifically complaining that "their BS is terrible," they think that "arguably these guys are one of the better choices for shooting." They recommend Fish of Fury as a tactic, and they don't even add on the SMS, Targeting Array and Multi-Tracker to get the best possible results. They don't even seem to understand the concept of blocking, complaining that what you really need is "some way of slowing the enemy down in getting to you" and then just shrugging their shoulders and moving on to the next point. Their review gives absolutely no indication that a Tau Empire cadre has any kind of chance at victory, at all, and it pretty much boils down to the fact that these guys have no idea how to play a non-rock Marine army, at all.

Now, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with Marines. Heck, every now and then I find myself contemplating a small strike force to call my own, probably something done up in homage to Gurren Lagann or the Thousand Sons. So don't think I'm disparaging Marines players, in general, here. But these guys, they play like the worst, laziest sorts of Marine players, the kind of guys who just throw Longfang/Grey Hunters or Draigowing or Deathwing on the board and don't really bother to think about things. Sure, 'finesse' is often just a way of excusing poor results and taking credit for lucky breaks, but there is an artistry to a properly executed battle plan.  And frankly, listening to these guys talk I can't help but feel they're the sort who play Marines not because they have some particular affinity for a chapter or the overall mythology, but because Marines have a string of 4's in their statline and lots of 3+/2+ saves and big tanks, none of which really force them to put serious thought into the way they play. It's the same sort of lazy mentality as you see in all those min-max netlists that come out whenever a new, high-strength codex hits the shelves. And unsurprisingly, applying it to Tau Empire, or frankly any non-Marine army, is a sure way to get your army killed.

Seriously, guys.  Is it really so much to ask that you get someone who knows what they're talking about for these things?

A Lot More of One Than the Other

I'm a terrible sucker for stories of robots, stories that go beyond the cliches of 'robot who wants to become human' or 'robot who wants to destroy humanity'. As a form of life, as things that live in a way unlike us but that we can understand, they just have so much potential for uniquely fascinating stories. Of course, being non-humans ninety-nine times out of a hundred they're forced into one or the other of those cliches, their actions revolving arbitrarily around humanity, seemingly incapable of defining an existence for themselves that isn't about either emulating or exterminating us. But there is still that one time, and so every once in a blue moon you can find a story like Tony Ballantyne's Blood and Iron.

On the world of Penrose, robots are the highest form of life. These robots are strange creatures indeed, compared to what we're familiar with from other stories. They have sexes, and children, and those children are created through a form of duo-sexual reproduction, they treat bodies like clothing, they have states and empires, they go to war with rifles and swords and awls to punch through skulls, they politick, they have love and cruelty and a strange lack of curiosity about their surroundings... Ballantyne creates very particular robots, robots that could not have existed in any other story setting, marking the world of Penrose out from any other on which robots rule right from the beginning. And boy, does he create a lot of these particular robots. The novel is divided up amongst viewpoint characters, of which there are five principles and one who gets just a single section for herself, and each of those viewpoint characters routinely interact with anywhere from one or two to five or six other characters, along with the inevitable gaggle of background characters. At 553 pages Blood and Iron is a fair-sized book, and Ballantyne packs each page so full of dialogue and action and detail that at some points it was, frankly, a little overwhelming.

But ultimately, this book succeeds at nearly everything it does. It begins and concludes a civil war and a rebellion against an emperor, gives an answer to the question of how a robot mind should be woven (a key recurring theme), concludes a search for lost love and traces the events of two separate contacts between the robots of Penrose and humanity. Yes, there are humans here, but Blood and Iron does its robots the honour of treating them as independent life-forms of their own. Interestingly, although the key robot states in Blood and Iron are loosely modelled after feudal Japan and a sort of exaggerated, almost cartoon-ified militaristic Spartan city-state, their interactions with humanity put me more in mind of the unfolding of contact between the indigenous tribes of North America and the explorers, traders and colonists of England and France. It makes perfect sense; to borrow a term from Iain M. Banks, both North Americans and robots found themselves confronting an Out Of Context problem, an issue completely beyond the scope of their society pre-occurence to prepare them for. How, after all, could you plan for something you don't even know exists? Like the North Americans, the robots try a variety of responses to the presence of humanity, a strange new breed of person with technology unlike anything previously encountered and internal divisions and motivations the robots can't easily grasp. And like the North Americans, the robots' cultures are profoundly, perhaps irrevocably changed by this interaction. I don't know if Ballantyne had the North American indigenous people in mind when he was writing this, or perhaps some other group like the Australian aborigines or the Indians under the British Raj or Africa during the period of European colonial conquest, but the parallels are most certainly there, and make the book more interesting for their presence.

One thing I should note, and it's unusual for me to say so, but I didn't always enjoy this book. Usually I find books make it fairly evident early on if they're for me or not, so if I'm not enjoying a book at some point it won't become a book I ultimately enjoy, because it will keep doing the thing I'm not enjoying. But Blood and Iron is different, in that respect. Without giving too much away, there are two nationally-bounded narratives running through this book, that of Sangrel in the empire of Yukawa and that of Artemis City and the continent of Shull, and although they're both interesting it seemed, as the book went on, that there was nothing to connect them. And really, if you're going to read over five hundred pages worth of story, you want it to all be worth something as a unified whole in the end. Otherwise, why not just release two separate novels? But the writing was still solid enough that, even as my concern about the end result mounted, I continued to push onwards. And I was pleasantly surprised when Ballantyne finally made the connection, doing it in such a way that I would never have suspected. The connection actually runs through much of the book, but isn't made clear to the reader until near the very end of one of those two seemingly disparate narratives. For that deft bit of forethought, I tip my hat indeed to Tony Ballantyne.

Blood and Iron is apparently part of the 'Penrose Series', following the first book Twisted Metal. Thankfully Blood and Iron stands quite well on its own, using a prologue that presumably explains the events of the first book to bring readers up to speed, a prologue done in a delightfully in-universe mytho-historical style that keeps it from being dry and dull. There are some aspects in the story suggest a larger narrative at work, of course (particularly the fate of Calor the Scout, the meaning of the metal moon over Penrose, the purposes of Morphobia Alligator and Banjo Macrodoceous, and the stories of Nicolas the Coward and the Four Blind Horses), but even if Ballantyne decided to give up writing tomorrow and never penned another word, Blood and Iron would still stand as a satisfying singular narrative. Although the book is certainly good enough that I'd be more than happy to read more about the robots of Penrose, so I hope Ballantyne isn't planning on retiring just yet!

The particular tales Blood and Iron was telling might have reached a satisfying end, but the wider tale of the robots of Penrose is still far from finished.


Why Did This Take Me So Long To Mention?

The radio drama was a staple of the pre-television entertainment media; tales of sleuths, superheroes, explorers and soldiers streamed out over the airwaves, their visuals as rich as the imaginations of their audience.  Once movies and television started making it big such dramas largely died out, though even now the CBC maintains a fairly solid stream of audio dramas (which can also be comedic), though never runs more than one at a time.  But even as advances in modern technology open up whole new realms of self-expression and innovation, they also offer a chance to go back and rediscover older forms of entertainment.

Case in point, Tales from the Afternow.

I'd like to get this out of the way, right at the start; Tales from the Afternow is good.  It's really good.  So good, everyone with any interest in the wide variety of things I'm about to describe should absolutely give it a listen.  It's free, after all, so what other excuse could there be not to?

Anyway.  Set in a post-apocalyptic world, and narrated by Independent Librarian Sean Kennedy VII (most of which doesn't mean what you think it means), the Afternow stories take full advantage of the freedom of their medium and the opportunities of their settings.  There are corporate arcologies and polluted wastelands, genetically engineered supersoldiers and simple townsfolk, cyborgs and robots and cyber-monks, the decadence of NuRome and the hard-scrabble life of interstate couriers, and a whole host of other odds and ends.  There are adventure stories, and love stories, suspense stories and horror stories and morality tales.  Afternow is an uninhibited foray into the world of dystopian fiction, and more than that, it's a relatively unique instance of this, communicated as it is through a format that has been out of favour for decades, but has lost none of its power in the meantime.  The individual stories stand alone, more or less, but there is a certain over-arching narrative at play as well, one that will reward the listener who pays close attention.

And of course, when all you have to focus on is a voice, why would you do anything but?


The Story-Telling Animal, Now With More Pictures and Sound

One of the things that I think is so exciting about the continually-increasing power of the personal computer is the way it opens up the field of personal creativity.  Sure, a basic word processor is fine if, like myself, you do your expression through the written word.  But what about those who want a little more audio, a little more visual?  What about graphic artists, and visual artists, the budding director or animator or cinematographer?  Well, more and more nowadays, the personal computer is just as capable of letting them express themselves as me and my word processor have been since, well, since as long as I've ever had a personal computer.  Word and Notepad and the like aren't exactly the most processor-heavy programs out there, after all.

One of my favourite movies is a short anime from a few years back, called Voices of a Distant Star.  It's a story about love and separation and long-distance relationships, and since this is anime, it's also a story about space battles and giant robots and invading aliens and a schoolgirl.  It's a really beautiful piece, and I most certainly recommend it to anyone who's willing to embrace a certain quiet sorrow in their entertainment; it's not for everyone, but what is?  But the most interesting thing about Voices of a Distant Star is that, while it looks just as pretty as plenty of studio-produced anime films, it was the work of one guy, in his garage, using nothing more than off-the-shelf computers and programs.  Granted, some pretty expensive off-the-shelf computers and programs, but still.  Although no more than a student film, in terms of the funding and technical opportunities available, Voices of a Distant Star was so masterfully done that it was licensed for distribution by ADV, one of the biggest names in anime outside Japan, and got a manga adaptation and a soundtrack release.  Outside of Kevin Smith's Clerks, which cost Smith tens of thousands of dollars and would've bankrupted him if it hadn't been picked up, I can't think of anything else to compare it to.  But I suspect, in the coming years, I probably will find a few new alternatives.

Which is, actually, all just a long-winded way of introducing this video.  It's very impressive visually, though the voice work is a bit rough and the walking animation for the Inquisitor makes him look a touch jerky.  I can't wait to see what comes of this when it's finished; it's already far more interesting than Ultramarines ever managed!



The Prettiest Little Loser

So, the 2-Day 40K event has come and gone, and as predicted, it was a little more of a '1-Day 40K' event for me. The top half of the competitors from the two tournaments on Saturday went on to face each other Sunday, and given that I placed ninth out of ten, that sort of left me well down the line for coming back. But it wasn't a total loss; I was runner-up for 'Best Sportsman', and after a long string of runners-up I actually got 'Best Presentation', as voted by the other players there, which comes with a nice warm feeling and, hey, twenty dollars in store credit. Nothing to sneeze at.

Round 1: Jamie Goddard (Imperial Guard)

Army List:
Company Command w/Master of Ordinance, Officer of the Fleet, 2 x Body Guards, Camo Cloaks, Vox-caster
Platoon 1:
Command w/ Vox-caster, 2 x Flamer
Infantry Squad w/2 x Melta, Vox-caster, Melta Bomb
Heavy Weapon Team w/3 x Lascannon
Heavy Weapon Team w/3 x Autocannon
Platoon 2:
Command w/Vox-caster, Flamer
Infantry Squad w/2 x Plasma Gun, 2 x Vox-caster, Melta Bomb
Heavy Weapon Team w/3 x Lascannon
2 x Leman Russ w/Heavy Bolter Sponsons, Lascannons
Leman Russ Demolisher
Colossus w/Enclosed Crew Compartment

Deployment: Pitched Battle
Major Objective: Seize Ground
Minor Objective: Call Your Shots

First of all, sweet Christmas! I mean, I run a battlesuit-heavy list, so being outnumbered isn't hugely surprising to me; some Marine lists can have more guys on the field than I do. But this? This was madness! I've never seen so much AV14 ranged against me before, with so many Instead Death For Suits guns on them, nor have I ever had to deal with groups of lascannons that can make me re-roll my cover saves. Gah!

So, it should come as no surprise, given that little opening, that things did not go well for me. We were playing on a fairly terrain-heavy board, with lots of ruins and buildings and an L-shaped river segment dividing a quarter of the board from the rest of it, with two bridges across it. Jamie set his tanks up about equidistant from each other, the Russ squadron on my right and the other two on my left, both of them hidden behind enough cover to count as obscured. In front of those he scattered a variety of troop units, with his heavy weapon teams hiding out behind the cover of a landing platform's armoured edging and his infantry squads running around on the little island-quarter. I set my XV88s up so they could get shots on the Russ squadron, one on each side of the board, and sent my Piranha, Deathrains and Shas'el to deal with the Colossus, Demolisher and heavy weapon squads while my infantry, supported by Devilfish and my two Fireknife squads, went after the infantry.

To say I was out-shot would be the grossest understatement. That Colossus blew suits to pieces with casual ease; heavy weapons teams under orders blasted my XV88 to pieces, despite its cover; and on the island, despite the best efforts of my fire warriors, I simply could not kill enough Guardsmen to shift so much as a single unit. I did manage to run a squad into the ruins I'd hidden my objective inside on the last turn, claiming it, but Jamie got to go second, and those six poor little buggers didn't stand a chance when he dropped a S6 AP3 large blast ordinance weapon that doesn't allow cover saves on them. Gone, in a heartbeat, along with my Shas'el, both XV88s, my Hammerhead, one of my Devilfish and my Piranha, which died without getting to fire a shot. And in return I managed to down most of a command squad, some of an infantry squad, and one heavy weapon team. It was a major loss, but one I think I've learned from.

See, I don't deep strike my suits. I feel it's pointless, since nine times out of ten I need those guys on the board from turn one, shooting as hard as they can. But with only four guns in my army capable of penetrating AV14, and two of those unreliable at best (the Hammerhead and Piranha), this is that one time where deep striking would've come in handy. It would've been risky, particularly since he had his tanks backed up pretty well against the table edge, but I should have dropped my suits round the back of his tanks, and gone for rear armour shots. Their firepower wouldn't have been missed much on the board, since they rarely had decent targets to engage, and the loss of even one of those tanks could've changed the way the game went, particularly if it had been that Colossus; with it gone, nothing else could have killed my well-concealed fire warriors on the objective, and it would've been a tie.

A word on the minor objective for this game. The way it worked was, before the start of the game both players roll off, and the winner nominates one model from the enemy side that he intends to kill. Then the loser nominates two models he intends to kill. They go back and forth, at two models from then on out, and either one can stop calling his shots at any point. To claim the minor objective, you have to kill everything you called out, and if both players succeed in that, then whoever called more targets wins. Neither of us really understood this, so rather than just pick, say, one thing and make sure it died, we rattled off a half-dozen targets each, and failed to accomplish the secondary objective.

Round 1: Matt Towes (Chaos Space Marines)

Army List:
3 Terminators w/2 x Combi-Melta, Heavy Flamer, Champion w/Chain Fist
4 x Terminators w/Autocannon
4 x Terminators w/2 x Combi-Melta, Heavy Flamer, Champion w/Chain Fist
5 x Marines w/Icon of Chaos Glory, Melta, Rhino
5 x Marines w/Icon of Chaos Glory, Melta, Rhino
2 x Obliterators
Heavy Landraider w/Extra Armour

Deployment: Spearhead
Major Objective: Annihilation
Minor Objective: King of the Hill

Okay, I want to say something. I don't usually talk about luck. I find it usually balances out; one unit's spectacular failure against another unit's unbelievable success. Sometimes you have a run of bad dice, though. And sometimes, you have Matt Towes' Landraider. I must have put a dozen railgun shots against that thing, and the total result was one turn stunned, and one destroyed lascannon array. I couldn't hit; when I hit, I couldn't penetrate; when I penetrated, he got his smoke launcher saves; when I actually penetrated and there were no saves, I rolled almost exclusively 1s. That thing survived five straight turns of being the only target for two XV88s and a Hammerhead, almost without a scratch!

That being said, though, I played this game atrociously. My continued failure to kill that Landraider gave me tunnel vision, which absolutely got me killed. Matt started with the Rhinos (with Marines), the Landraider (with Abaddon and 4 Terminators) and the Defiler on the board, while I had everything but my fire warriors, since I planned to de-mech his army then have my shas'la come on and fire at the exposed Marines trudging across the field. Unfortunately, with my railguns otherwise occupied, I managed to lose my Piranha first turn to the Defiler, along with a Fireknife squad second turn, while my other Fireknives were out of range at first and then busy killing a teleporting squad of 3 Terminators that wiped out my Pathfinders, and my Deathrains were badly positioned behind the Hammerhead and took their sweet time getting clear. The end result was that the Rhinos went unmolested the entire game, which cost me my Devilfish and one of my 9-tau squads, while Abaddon, the surviving Terminators and the Obliterators teleported into my deployment area and proceeded to lay the place to waste. In an orgy of multimelta blasts, daemon weapons, autocannon rounds and powerfists, those eleven models (Matt never fired the Landraider's guns, and the Defiler actually got forgotten about, hanging around in mid-field with nothing much to shoot at) proceeded to kill both XV88s, the Hammerhead, my Deathrains, my surviving Fireknives, my Shas'el, and two fire warrior squads. In return, I put a single wound on Abaddon with thirty rapid-firing pulse rifle shots, and that was that. I was tabled by the end of turn 5, and in return I'd killed three Terminators, blown a lascannon sponson off, and done one wound to the architect of the Black Crusades. A major loss, and well deserved.

Round 3: Aaron Plate (Orks)

Army List:
Warboss w/Power Klaw, Cybork, Warbike, Attack Squig
Big Mek w/Power Klaw, KFF, 'Eavy Armour, Cybork, Attack Squig
7 x Nobs w/Warbikes, Cyborks, 3 x Power Klaw, 4 x Big Choppa, Painboy, Waagh Banner, Bosspole
30 x Boyz, Nob w/Power Klaw, 'Eavy Armour, Bosspole
30 x Boyz, Nob w/Power Klaw, 'Eavy Armour, Bosspole
10 x Kommandos w/Snikrot
5 x Loots

Deployment: Dawn of War
Major Objective: Capture and Control
Minor Objective: Big Game Hunter

Yes, it's the infamous Nob Bikerz! Not a full list, but enough to cause me some serious trouble. Winning the roll-off, Aaron deployed first, and put his squad of bikerz right up on the mid-field line, with one squad of boyz behind them. In return, I left everything off the table, to walk in on Turn 1, save for my 6-tau squad. He brought his army on, leaving the bikerz along the middle and with a Mek-protected squad of boyz on the objective, while I went for an armoured wall; my Hammerhead and one Devilfish plugged a gap between two pieces of terrain, while the Piranha extended the line on my left, and the Devilfish dithd the same on my right, nearly up against the edge of the table. I opened up with everything I had, but the nigh fighting rolls weren't especially kind, and all I really managed were a few dead boyz, and the odd wound on his bikerz. With the two armies on the field, Aaron went on the offensive; the bikerz charged through a door in a section of the wall in front of me (a slightly dodgy claim, but I agreed to it), while the kommandos and Snikrot came at me from the back, both of them pushing against my left flank. It mostly devolved into a slaughter there, with Snikrot's kommandos and the bikerz chewing up a unit a turn, each, while I tried to pour enough fire into the bikerz to put them down. Sadly, my two Fireknife squads were the first casualties, and the Pathfinders went after them, meaning I was well down on ways to beat a unit full of wound allocation shenanigans and protected by 4+/4++/FNP. Though in fact, I should've put several more bikerz down than I did; I kept forgetting that the melta on my Piranha doesn't allow FNP rolls, which saved more than one wound, and that the bikerz are only T4 when it comes to Instant Death, which would've doubled the damage of those aforementioned un-save-able melta shots. Well, live and learn.

And live I did. For all the ferocity of the Ork assault, at the end of the game I had my 6-tau squad on the objective, the aggressive boyz mob wiped out to the last, more than half the bikerz gone, my Piranha, one Devilfish, one 9-tau squad, both my XV88s and my Hammerhead still in one piece. I had my objective, and there literally weren't enough possible turns for him to charge through and kill everything between his bikerz and my objective. I had mostly played the mission, rather than the enemy army, though I should've used my Piranha to contest his objective, and the end result? A draw.

Well, sort of. See, the minor objective kind of screwed me. Big Game Hunter gave you points for every Monstrous Creature and vehicle with an AV12 or higher you destroyed, and while Aaron only managed to kill one of my Devilfish (after it flechette discharged the bejeezus out of his boyz mob, then blew up and killed even more of them), that was one more vehicle than his entire army contained. Which means, of course, it was literally impossible for me to compete with him on that one. So, with that one lucky Power Klaw attack, he managed to secure a minor win for himself, and force me to take a minor loss.  But not a loss in spirit.

Overall Result: 9th, of 10 entrants


The Latest Iteration of the Shining Long Strike Cadre

Well, after no small amount of back-and-forth, I've finally settled on what I'm taking to the tournament on Saturday.  And there's no going back, now; I've already printed my lists!  Truly, the Rubicon has been crossed!

Seriously, though.  Here's what I'll be taking with me:

Shas'el w/AFP, Missile Pod, Multi-Tracker

3 x XV8 w/Twin-Linked Missile Pod, Flamer

3 x XV8 w/Plasma Rifle, Missile Pod, Multi-Tracker

3 x XV8 w/Plasma Rifle, Missile Pod, Multi-Tracker

6 x Fire Warriors w/Devilfish, Disruption Pod, Flechette Discharger

9 x Fire Warriors

9 x Fire Warriors

5 x Pathfinders w/Devilfish, Disruption Pod, Flechette Discharger

Piranha w/Fusion Blaster, Targeting Array, Disruption Pod, Flechette Discharger

XV88 w/Advanced Stabilization System

XV88 w/Advanced Stabilization System

Hammerhed w/Railgun, 2 x Burst Cannon, Disruption Pod, Multi-Tracker

My strategy is going to be fairly straightforward, I think; I'm not yet experienced enough to get fancy.

My heavy support choices have basically never let me down, so I intend to go right on using them the way I always do.  My XV88s will be deployed on opposite ends of my zone, to get at least one of them a good field of fire on anything running around out there, with as much cover as I can find for them.  My hammerhead, meanwhile, will set up fairly openly, to extend the first-turn cover for my infantry units with its AV13 front and disruption pod, since its multi-tracker will allow it to fire like a 'fast' vehicle, making it pretty safe from close combat and capable of getting into position to drop its pie plate on pretty much anything on the field.

My elites and headquarters choices have been a little less reliable, though that's in part because I require so much more of them.  I plan to attach my shas'el to the Deathrain unit, since BS4 and BS3 twin-linked are close enough to make them work well together, and if they get close to anything three flamer templates and the AFP large blast should force so many saves even Marines will have to worry about failing them.  The Fireknives will largely operate independently, hunting down whatever most requires AP2 to remove; best case scenario, they'll chip away at MEq threats from range and then close to wipe out survivors, worst case scenario, the two squads will combine their fire to deal with a particularly tenacious unit (probably deepstriking Blood Angels assault squads with a Priest/FNP), throwing everything they have at it.

In terms of my fast attack choices, their arms and equipment pretty much defines their roles.  The pathfinders will be deployed a fair way inside my zone, since pretty much every enemy will want to close with me, and with 36" range they should be able to light up whatever I need them to while staying safer, longer.  I don't intend for them to keep their Devilfish, so they'll probably just get deployed or dropped off first turn, while the tank goes off to block, provide cover, and act as a bunker on objectives (if they last long enough).  The Piranha, on the other hand, has a little more flexibility.  As a fast skimmer with a fusion blaster and a targeting array, it can do solid duty hunting heavy armour hiding out in cover; at the same time, with its wide front profile, disruption pod and flechette discharger, it can shield other units and seize chokepoints, as well as contest objectives (again, if it lasts long enough).  Plus, it comes with a pair of gun drones, who will be dropped off early on for the two games that aren't kill points-based, to offer another little source of harassment and mobile unit cover.

Finally, my troops choices.  I have to admit, these aren't units I've got a lot of experience in using; up until now, I've basically taken three minimum-sized fire warrior squads, put them in reserve to either deny kill points or protect them for objective grabbing later, and hoped my dice wouldn't betray me and bring them running on second turn.  But I'm pretty sure that's a part of why I've been struggling, tournament after tournament.  Because what that strategy really amounts to is voluntarily handicapping myself, slicing a hundred and eighty points out of my army and hoping that I can beat often-stronger codices with an already-weakened force weakened further.  So, instead, I'll leave the 6-tau squad in reserve, while my two 9-tau squads operate more aggressively.  Of course, 'more aggressively' than hiding in reserve still leaves a lot of wiggle room.  What I'm planning is to set the two squads up, fairly far apart from each other, and just shoot and shoot and shoot; force as many saves as I can, because the dice giveth, and the dice taketh away.  They're also going to be available as roadblocks to give my battlesuits an extra turn of shooting, and I'm going to try to link them up with the pathfinders' markerlights whenever possible, especially if they're in rapid fire range; 18 S5 shots at BS5 can definitely wreck someone's day.

So, that's my strategy.  Basically, it's a more mobile version of the Tau gunline, using the hulls of my tanks and Piranha to shield my battlesuits and fire warriors, while they blast away at whatever I can find for them to concentrate their fire on. Focused fire, I have to keep reminding myself, is absolutely essential; even terminators and FNP marines will go down, if you force them to make enough saves.  I just have to keep up the pressure, and keep forcing those saves.  And if I run into someone like Guard, or Orks, or Tyranids, who don't have those saves to begin with in the face of superior Tau weapons technology?

Well, so much the better...


Prep the Mantas, Shas'el, We're Going In!

So, I'm off to my FLGS this weekend for their '2-Day 40K' event. It's a pretty big thing, actually. There are two different tournaments happening on Saturday, one from 10-4 and one from 4-10, and then the winners in those two tournaments face off against each other on Sunday. Personally, I have no real hope that it'll be a '2-Day' event for me; I firmly expect to go in there, get my battlesuited backside kicked up one side of the table and down the other, and have a great time doing it. But hey, miracles do happen!

I've been tweaking my list a bit in the run-up, inspired by my performance last time around. Helpfully, it's the same points total. One of the things I noticed was that, despite being an apparently cheap army, I actually found myself outnumbered on several occasions. Once by old-Codex Necrons, of all things! And while the firepower I had, almost exclusively mounted on my battlesuits, was solid, I didn't have nearly enough of it. With more guns, even more inferior guns, I could have had a solid chance of forcing the Necrons to phase out for a win in Game 2, and possibly shot my way free of those all-encompassing Tyranid swarms in Game 3. Now, I love my battlesuits, but if those dozen-odd battlesuits are, not my central striking power, but my sole striking power, something's gone wrong. Fire warriors may not be the best troops stats-wise, but those 30" S5 AP5 Rapid Fire weapons aren't bad, and torrenting is a recognized anti-MEq strategy. So I'm going to drop the two HQ bodyguard battlesuits, and in exchange for their six shots (eight within 12") and four wounds (two of which will be lost to every S8+ weapon that hits them), I'll either be picking up a dozen shots with a dozen wounds each and some spare points to upgrade my 'el, or six shots with six wounds and a fully-loaded Piranha.

I haven't entirely decided which way to go, yet. On the one hand, with twelve more fire warriors I could bump two squads to the full twelve, and still have a six-tau team to wait off the board for late-game objective grabbing, plus buy a plasma rifle for my 'el to give him serious variable utility (missile pod, plasma rifle and airbursting fragmentation device; any two of these will pretty much always be useful) and maybe throw something else in there with the last couple of points. On the other hand, a Piranha with fusion blaster, targeting array, disruption pod and flechette discharger is simultaneously a solid roadblock and a decent tank-hunter, along with providing another unit of drones to contest objectives and a hull to hide my battlesuits behind. Increased protection and a potentially-vital fast-moving melta-weapon, or increased output of firepower and bodies on the field to bubblewrap my battlesuits?

Decisions, decisions...


Will It Be Unironically Full of Lens Flare, This Time?

So David Yates, the director of the last four Harry Potter movies, is working with the BBC on a big-screen Doctor Who adventure. The kicker? It won't have a damn thing to do with the Doctor, any of the versions of the Doctor, who's made the series so successful that the notoriously cheap BBC is willing to shell out enough for a major motion picture. According toYates,

"It needs quite a radical transformation to take it into the bigger arena. [...] "Russell T. Davies and then Steven Moffat have done their own transformations, which were fantastic, but we have to put that aside and start from scratch."

I can't tell you how tired I am of this song and dance. Time and again, a genre property will get popular enough that the movie studios will take notice, and what happens? As a reward for it cultivating a successful brand, that brand is stripped to the bone and a whole host of random new elements are included. In the best case scenario, we can end up with something like the Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter movies, something that's strange and not quite right, but still enjoyable. More often, it seems, we get Dragonball Evolution, or the Resident Evil series, or Michael Bay's Transformers, or Roland Emmerich's Godzilla, or the upcoming live-action Akira film. No matter how closely the BBC is working with Yates and whoever else on this project, it's hard to see this as anything but a prelude to a story that is Doctor Who in name only, trading on the name but desperately trying to distance itself from everything that's made it so popular in order to appeal to the sort of people who wouldn't know Doctor Who from Doctor House.

Not that that's all bad...

And honestly, a reboot? I just can't look at this as anything but J. J. Abrams' Star Trek all over again, a needlessly complicated and unsatisfying re-write of the established mythology, failing to either tell an interesting new story or take the fans back into the pleasantly familiar universe. Star Trek was particularly brutal about this, wiping out an entire universe (sort of) in order to free Star Trek up to do 'new' and 'different' and 'interesting' things that, apparently, they couldn't do otherwise. And the new, interesting, different story they want to tell for Star Trek 2? Something with Khan Noonien Singh. You can't make this stuff up. 

So what does a reboot mean for Doctor Who? Well, the script isn't done yet; Yates isn't even talking about having this thing ready before a few years from now, and hasn't even settled on a writer yet. But it's hard not to worry, and worry with some cause, that this is going to be some sort of elsewords-Doctor, unconnected with anything from the show, and one that uses the reboot excuse to change his character. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the Doctor having a romance with his Companion, or firing a gun (repeatedly), or even having a space battle with the TARDIS. You don't reboot a series, after all, if you intend to play the pre-existing characters and themes straight. We saw this in Abrams' Star Trek, with Kirk's thoughtless bro-ishness turned up to 11, and Scotty as a work-shirking chucklehead, and the Spock/Uhura romance. So why would we expect something different from a Doctor Who that 'puts aside' everything people actually like about the series so they can 'start from scratch'?

Like this but, y'know, moreso...

Sigh. I used to wish that the movies would do something new, or different, or interesting. Now I just wish they'd stop redoing old, familiar stories so damn badly.

The Fourth Sphere Pt. 7 – Wrap-Up

So, we've gone through Codex: Tau Empire slot-by-slot, and taken a look at the worst units in each. Sometimes it's been a worst-by-default kind of situation, like the basically solid XV15/25, and sometimes the worst has just jumped straight off the page, like the Ethereals and the Vespid. Suggestions have been made about how to improve these specific units, but what about the codex as a whole? Codex: Tau Empire was published in 2005, over six years ago, and is old enough it still contains references to 4th edition rules. Since then the 5th edition codices have set a new standard for the game, and while some have been a bit lacklustre, like Tyranids and to a lesser extent Imperial Guard, the codices for Space Wolves, Blood Angels, Grey Knights, Dark Eldar and Necron have brought a variety of new options to players of those races, and gone some distance towards changing the conception of 'good enough' in Warhammer 40,000. Blood Angels and Grey Knights have made mobility and close combat even more decisive, while elevating survivability almost to the point of lunacy, while Space Wolves and Necrons have set the standard for mid-range, high-volume, highly-dangerous shooting. So where does that leave the Tau Empire as a whole?

Well, so far as I can see, it leaves it full of fragile units holding expensive guns they can't shoot very well, the most heavily armed and armoured of which can't fight their way out of a grot-pile and none of which have any psychic defences.

Now, one of these weaknesses is manageable, but two of them put a serious squeeze on a player, and the four of them together are just inexcusably poor codex design. It's hard to think of any other codex that has been specifically crafted to leave the best-possibly-designed army list struggling desperately to participate in one of the three phases of the game, or deal with basic issues like psykers. The railguns and plasma rifles and jump-shoot-jump capabilities may seem impressive at first, but at the end of the day you have an army that cannot fight, and therefore absolutely needs to shoot their enemies down as they charge across the board, but whose elites shoot no better than basic Imperial Guard troopers and who are as expensive as they are limited.

So, what should change for the next book? Well, obviously, a lot of things.

First thing's first, if Tau are going to live and die by their shooting, that shooting needs to be absolutely devastating. In terms of elite/anti-heavy infantry shooting, battlesuits should be BS4 standard across the board, and that includes XV15/25s and XV88s, and the jet pack units should be made truly Relentless. Plasma rifles should drop in points, given how essential they are to an army with no power weapons. An equivalent of the frag/krak missile launcher should be introduced; the Tau have very few weapons that can force Instant Death on a T4 model, and most of those are dedicated anti-vehicle weapons, of which Tau cadres never have enough. Some sort of anti-psyker munition should be available, something like the Necron's entropic strike that reduces or eliminates a psyker's ability to use their powers after successive hits. And as for infantry support/anti-light infantry shooting, if the Devilfish is meant to reinforce fire warrior squads it really needs a decent variety of load-outs; instead of a choice between various S5 AP5 18"-24" guns, where's the equivalent to the assault cannon, or the multi-melta, or the heavy flamer? Pulse carbines should be Assault 2, burst cannons should be AP4, and Smart Missile Systems should be assault weapons. Heavy gun drones should be introduced, not as a heavy support choice, but as upgrades to fire warrior, pathfinder or gun drone squads. The AFP should be made standard issue, and dropped in points; it's the only decent anti-horde weapon you could take multiples of without crippling the ability to respond to other threats. And all those are just off the top of my head!

But we can't spend all day talking about shooting, much as it would be a very Tau thing to do, so let's move on to fragility. Now, the Tau, and particularly the absolutely essential battlesuit squads, are fragile in three ways; low toughness, low numbers, low leadership. The first makes them very vulnerable to fairly common Instant Death-dealing weapons, particularly missile launchers and meltaguns, the second makes them vulnerable to constantly being forced to take break tests, and the third makes them vulnerable to routinely failing those tests they're constantly taking. There is a perfectly simple fix for those; increase battlesuits' T to 5, and increase all units' LD by one. Right there you've made them a significantly more hardy army, which is good, because losing a good chance at losing 186-point Fireknife squads to an 18 point Marine with a 15 point missile launcher is devastating. There's also an alternative, to lower the price and increase the size of units, so you could field four or five XV8s instead of just three, and get units of nine or ten fire warriors onto the field instead of units of six. I'm less enamoured of this, as getting XV8s into cover is often tricky as-is, and the armed forces of the small but dynamic Tau Empire are supposed to play as a moderately elite army, not an IG/Tyranid swarm.

With regards to pskyers, the lack of warp presence is, as they say, a design feature, not a bug. The Tau are supposed to be relatively cut off from the whispers of the Warp, so while the easiest recourse would be to drop some Nicassar or gue'vessa psykers into the book, it does somewhat dilute the flavour of the army. A better choice would be to have the Tau counter psykers technologically, trusting to their science over their enemies' superstitions. The aforementioned entropic strike-esque anti-psyker gun would be nice, for instance. As would a warp-dampening field generator that works like a psychic hood, something you could buy for battlesuits, or perhaps ethereals to finally give them some actual utility. And a piece of bespoke wargear that can go through psychic saves would make dealing with things like the Doom of Malantai or Eldar farseers significantly more reasonable. Psychic defences are perhaps the easiest problem to fix, because you can largely re-purpose other races' abilities, attach them to a piece of wargear, and call it a day.

If psychic defence is the easiest problem, though, close combat is the most thorny. After all, the Tau Empire's military high command disdains close combat, and the Tau themselves are famously awful at it, being shorter and weaker than the average human, with lousy depth perception to boot. But what is the point of auxiliaries if not to shore up weaknesses in the conventional Tau military? I mentioned, while looking at them, that giving the Vespid Rending and Hit and Run would make sense; they'd remain an at-best mediocre combat unit, but with some decent tricks and the chance to really participate. Well, there are other auxiliaries out there who can offer some help, too. The Kroot have a certain quality in their quantity, but making their guns Assault 2, or even just a basic one-shot assault weapon, would go a long way. What's the point of an assault unit that can't soften the enemy up with some shooting? And the gue'vessa, humans living within the borders of the Tau Empire, could lend a hand, as well. Load them up with pistols and close combat weapons, give them some decent armour (5+ minimum, 4+ ideal) and the option of special weapons and equipment, and turn them loose. And all of these choices, it should really go without saying, should be able to get access to assault grenades. Lastly, there are rumours of demiurg being included in the new codex, and if the rejuvenated space dwarf concept lends itself to anything, it's a tarpit unit. 3+/5++, T5 and W2 would go a long way towards giving the Tau something they can block dedicated close-combat units with, at least something that won't just evaporate as soon as the enemy looks at them sideways.

So, there are a host of suggestions for dealing with the various weaknesses Codex: Tau Empire has. Should all of them be implemented? Any of them? I haven't playtested them myself, so I can't speak very well to that. But if nothing else, these sorts of things are at least moves in the right direction, attempts to make the Tau Empire a little less vulnerable to being absolutely rolled over by certain, not-uncommon armies.


Big Eyes, Small Mouth, Huge Heart

Is anime the quintessential medium for telling science fiction stories?

Isn't it obvious?

The question sprang to mind the other day, after checking out one of my absolute favourite movies, Summer Wars. What's that, you say you've never heard of Summer Wars? Well, that's no surprise, since it's an anime and, unlike Evangelion, hasn't ever played on a big screen in North America. On the surface, Summer Wars is about the omnipresence of technology, and the threat of a rogue AI. Or, actually, it's a young man's coming-of-age story. Or a family drama. Or a love story? A comedy? A meditation on the role of the elderly? A warning about the depersonalizing nature of modern society?

Really, it's all of those things, and probably one or two more that I, having already watched it several times, haven't quite managed to catch yet. And that is why, I think, anime may be producing the best science fiction stories at the moment, certainly the best on film or video. Partly there are obvious reasons for that, like the simplicity of depicting non-terrestrial locations or biologies in animation, or the relative cheapness of fantastical effects. But there's more to it than that, and I think what it comes down to, in the end, is the trouble I had in explaining exactly what Summer Wars is 'about'.

This is Summer Wars, for the record.  Yeah.  Both of them.

See, that's not a problem you get in North American science fiction. Think of the big science fiction movies. What are they about? In Time is about how awful capitalism is, and a bit of a love story. The various Avengers lead-in movies are about superheroes doing classically superheroic things, like learning humility and punching Nazis. District 9 is about racism and prejudice. The Matrix series is about a war between humans and machines, and also fate vs. free will. I Am Legend is about isolation and the need for human contact, and if you've got the version with the better ending, mutual respect. The Transformers films are about two movies too many. Simple.

Now, what is Ghost in the Shell about, exactly? Or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time? Or Akira? Or Voices of a Distant Star? All of these movies have an obvious plot, just like North American films do, but they've got not just one sub-plot running, but several, and usually they're quite well done, too. And sadly, that's not really something you see in North American science fiction anymore. The Matrix, the first one, might justly be hailed as a stylistic and technical trend-setter and a relatively deep man vs. machine/man vs. society story, but Neo has no real character growth, nor do any of the other characters, all of whom are basically interchangeable and forgettable, and the love story is, frankly, embarrassing. If it weren't for Hugo Weaving, I'm not sure the whole thing would've got off the ground.

I kid, of course, but only about that last part. The more North American science fiction I consume lately, and I'm talking largely about films but television doesn't escape this either, the less impressed I find myself. Or, perhaps I should say the less challenged. It just seems as though the storytellers can't be bothered to really stretch themselves. Story after story, lately, is the same; a not-too-young disaffected/outcast male who finds himself pushed to become some kind of decisive figure, usually with a love story tacked on there and perhaps with a token bit of character growth. Where are the family dramas? Where are the meaningful love stories? Where are the comedies? The funny ones, I mean; Bay's Transformers absolutely do not count. And yes, I know there are exceptions, and that even some of those films that aren't exceptions are great films, just because they managed to do the one or two things they did really, really well. I still stand by my accolades for In Time, absolutely. But, for instance, why was Sylvia Will's age, instead of being his grandmother's age? It wouldn't matter in terms of casting, or the aesthetics of them as a couple on screen, but that small change could add such an interesting extra little touch to their admittedly formulaic relationship. It's those sorts of small things that science fiction seems to miss, time and again, to the detriment of their stories.

Behold, the romance of the summer (blockbuster)!

For all its translation and localization and dubbing issues, and for all its very real problems in terms of the portrayal of women, anime is simply the superior medium when it comes to telling science fiction stories. And the reason seems to be, at the end of the day, that anime directors and producers actually still care about telling really good stories that just happen to be science fiction, rather than science fiction stories that just happen to be good.

It's such a tiny thing, but it makes all the difference in the world.


A Fine Time, Indeed

In Time is high concept science fiction, and I don't hesitate to say that it's high concept science fiction at its best. It takes a single, simple idea, though one that could nevertheless fundamentally change the way human beings understand their lives, and uses it to hold a mirror up to modern-day society, to comment on some particular peculiarity of modern life.

 No, it's not on the new trend of day-glo tattoos.

The conceit in this film is two-fold. On the one hand, at some point in the past a technology was developed which stopped the physical ageing process at 25, offering immortality (barring violence, accident or disease) and some slight confusion when meeting a new person as to whether or not they're a peer. On the other hand, at an equally unspecified point, a system was put in place whereby life-time became money, obliging people to literally work to live and solving what some characters claim would be the problem of an ever-expanding number of immortals draining the earth's resources. So between the two, we have a world in which everyone looks young and beautiful, but one in which poor people die in the street when they 'time out' and the immortal rich are deathly afraid of risk and chance.

One of the trickiest things, when constructing a world that has changed in some fundamental way, is to create a coherent image of society. Pleasantly, the writers of In Time appear to have devoted some considerable amount of time to the issue. There are all sorts of little things throughout the movie that reflect the very different relationship the poor and the rich have to time. The poor run everywhere, they scarf down food, they never sleep in or show up late, and they're not especially afraid to do apparently crazy things, like jump from second-storey windows or play 'strong-arm', a game actually seen in the background well before it becomes a plot point. The rich, meanwhile, walk slowly, drive slowly, eat slowly, gamble huge amounts of time in casinos (though never enough to actually risk their own lives), live in fear of mischance, surround themselves with bodyguards and hoard eons. The poor ghetto is rough and dirty, but full of a certain vibrancy, while rich New Greenwich is drab and clean and monochrome, a subtly appropriate aesthetic since it's populated primarily by the very old. In fact, the lack of more science fiction elements (there aren't even cell phones) initially struck me as silly, but then I wondered; in a society in which the most powerful are the most directly concerned with maintaining the status quo and can do so for decades, even centuries, how quickly would technology advance? Particularly since the social system is built on isolation and segregation, both within areas like the ghetto and New Greenwich and between the 'time zones' themselves.

Justin Timberlake does a solid job as blue-collar Will Salas, a member of the working poor who suddenly finds himself with over a century on the clock after a run-in with a wealthy man who's grown tired of living. After one too many of Will's close associates dies in the street, succumbing to a system that is explicitly stacked against their survival, he decides to head for New Greenwich, with the intention of taking that self-same system for everything he can. In New Greenwich he meets Vincent Kartheiser and Amanda Seyfried, as Phillipe Weis and his daughter Sylvia, and just as importantly has his first run-in with Cillian Murphy's Raymond Leon, a law enforcement officer (Timekeeper) investigating the death of the man who gave Will all that time. The intersection of Will, Sylvia and Raymond sets the plot in motion, and from there it unfolds in ways both expected and surprising, constructing a solid chase narrative that keeps the film absolutely humming with energy. The romance never overtakes the story, pared down to just one or two small, intimate scenes that convey the connection between the two characters without becoming semi-pornographic, and the obvious social commentary never becomes preachy, remaining entirely within the bounds of the world constructed at the beginning of the film. This is a world where time is literally money, and that almost primal drive suffuses the film from start to finish.

The characters are, for the most part, fairly stock, but very well-played stock. Will is the good-hearted, quick-witted boy from the bad side of the tracks, and Sylvia is the naive, sheltered but ultimately well-meaning rich girl who falls for him, with Phillipe perhaps the ur-example of the controlling and heartless rich father. The real stand-out is Cillian Murphy, and his Timekeeper Raymond Leon. Throughout the film, I found myself vacillating on just what, exactly, Raymond was. He refuses to be bribed, and seems dogged in his pursuit of Will not because he dislikes him, but because Will is suspicious and eventually an outright criminal, and Raymond is an officer of the law. And he's not a bad person; he appears to be relatively well-liked by at least some of the ghetto's inhabitants, even having a small, friendly back-and-forth with a prostitute. But he shows no apparent interest in apprehending the local Minuteman, Fortis, a gangster who steals time from those in the ghetto and kills two people over the course of the film itself, and there's a suggestion that in coming out of the ghetto himself, Raymond is working to make sure nobody else can follow after him. I didn't necessarily buy that moment, but it does exist in the film, and it's part and parcel of the pleasantly complicated character that is Raymond Leon. He's easily the standout character of the piece.

I mentioned, earlier, that the lack of cellphones seemed strange, and initially it does. This is a world in which some sort of techno-organic engineering has taken place to produce functional immorality and an off-switch in the human body, after all; surely an iPhone isn't beyond them? But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Technologies like the internet and cellphones are trans-temporal; they compress space and time. In our world, a world in which the greatest amount of utility must be wrung from an extremely finite amount of time, that is a definite value. But that isn't the world of In Time. Instead, their world is one in which a potentially infinite amount of time must be whittled away to nothing for the vast majority of the population. Of course there are payphones on street corners, and not a cellphone or laptop to be seen in the ghetto, these technologies would be explicitly contrary to the entire thrust of the culture in those areas. The system would want to force the poor to spend minutes on awkwardly-positioned payphones, or run home to meet up with someone, because that burns away a few more of the minutes the system can't abide them having in the first place. In Time is one of the better, subtler representations of the systems of control that make up society cinema has provided us in quite some time.

Though it may be bad form, there is something I'd like to say about the end of the film. I'll try to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but if you are thinking of going to see In Time, you should probably stop reading here, and come back once we're both on the same page.

So. I went to see In Time with the lovely Madam Meagan, and after the film she expressed a certain dissatisfaction in the resolution. It wasn't that it was badly scripted or acted or shot, but rather, that it wasn't a total resolution. In a science fiction film, in particular, she prefers when things end in a way that is decisive and all-encompassing; the Good triumph, the Evil are destroyed, and Everything Is Fixed. I wouldn't have had any objection to such an ending myself; indeed, as an outside observer it seems almost silly that the characters didn't push for that last great step towards total victory. But, and this may just be the aftereffects of a recent bout with Herbert Marcuse and his theories, not only was I untroubled by the ending as presented, it actually rang truer to me than the alternative would have. Of course the ending doesn't produce a fundamental change in the status quo, of course it doesn't. It couldn't. For all that Will is out to take the system for everything he can, he is still, ultimately, operating under the constraints of the system. He can't fundamentally challenge it, because he, like the vast majority of human beings, is simply incapable of really understanding what it would take to produce that level of change. Yes, he hates the system, yes, he thinks the rich are parasites, yes, he balks at immortality for a few at the cost of death for the masses, but he is still, at the end of the day, incapable of conceiving a challenge to the system itself. His solution is redistributive, rather than reconceptual, because Will, like most people, cannot break free of the systems into which he is born, because that system defines the horizons of his experience.

That, more than the vicious representation of naked capitalism, was what felt to me like the true philosophical heart of the film. In Time is, more than anything else, an exploration of the inability of humans, even those with the most powerful motivations and best of intentions, to truly force the world to take the shape they desire of it, or even understand what, exactly, they desire in the first place. The timing of this film, coinciding with the Occupy Wall Street protests, is particularly interesting. The OWS protestors are likewise incapable of really challenging a system that is specifically and purposefully designed to exploit the greatest number of people for the good of the smallest number of people, because they are still defined by the boundaries of it. They aren't calling for communism or socialism, for the radical redistribution of wealth to create a truly level playing field, or for a reordering of society such that the utility of a McDonald's counter girl is equal to that of an elite banker. And why not? After all, that McDonald's girl is more useful to a greater number of people than that banker, and McDonald's staff have never crashed the economy. But the OWS protestors are a product of their society, a society that is viciously anti-communist, -socialist and even sometimes -socially just, so they can't make the leap from a system that is steadily failing more and more people to one that might work better for more people.

Almost nobody can. And maybe recognizing that limitation, even if we can't bring ourselves to transcend it, is the true value of In Time.

Though, the gunfights and chase scenes are pretty cool, too.