Saturday 21 January 2023

The Disciples and Acolytes of "The Celestial Path"


The monk, Makoto, looked at both Lord and Lady Fuchida. Makotos's company of poor ronin, former retainers and impoverished tradesmen had been travelling for several days. The information that Makoto had been given was that both Lord and Lady Fuchida were keen acolytes of "The Celestial Path". Quite the fervent believers, Makoto had been told. Which was good news - as the long journey from Takasaki had sapped some of the high spirits of Makoto's company as they trudged through rain squalls and difficult terrain.

All that Makoto needed now was additional funds for food and lodging - enough to cross the palms of ferrymen, innkeepers and friendly farmers along the rest of the journey. Of course, a few extra coins would be more than helpful to persuade additional disciples to join the pilgrimage.

Makoto's eyes widened when Lord Fuchida greeted them and passed the heavy coin purse to the monk. "Thank you, my Lord. I can see you are a true believer in The Celestial Path", the monk replied gracefully.

Lord Fuchida Ichiro almost blushed, and bowed, introducing his wife. "This was very much my wife's idea. There are these fishing rights, downstream, which we have long contested are ours.." Lord Fuchida waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the dusty, earthen road leading down the valley. "Maybe", Lord Fuchida added, "..... maybe The Celestial Path can be followed in a direction which guarantees those fishing rights will be returned to the House of Fuchida?"

Lady Fuchida took one small step to her husband's side, smiled politely, and counted the swords of the disciples of The Celestial Path. There were more than enough weapons in the company to secure the fishing rights that had been stolen from the Fuchida.  And maybe 'recover' the woodlands in the valley as well....


I’m very much a historical wargamer. That probably comes through loud and strong on this Blog. In recent years, I’ve loved weaving history together with a narrative which is historically plausible but also allows some creativity. The characters, timeline and precise locations are fictional, but the engagements, skirmishes and battles which the characters fight are consistent with those of their historical contemporaries.

I freely admit that might not be everyone’s cup of green tea, but it works for me - and, I hope, for you. A very good friend of mine said to me the other week that the historical reality Japan of the 16th and 17th centuries was quite different to what we, as wargamers and roleplayers, might understand it to have been. But in a moment of great insight, my friend then also said that it is the “otherness” of Japan which has attracted many roleplayers and wargamers to create that Japan on the tabletop. 

The legend, the colour and the “otherness” of what we might understand to be Japanese culture and warfare has been the magnet which has drawn people to wargame that setting. For me, as well.  I hope that's not disrespectful of the authentic reality of historical Japan.  It's certainly not meant to be.  If anything, it hopefully has much in common with the Kabuki dramas and Ukiyo-e art of the nineteenth centuries, and the work of authors such as Lafcadio Hearn at the turn of the nineteenth century. And this Blog post fits into that dynamic - drawn and entranced by the “otherness” of Japan for a wargamer and roleplayer.

The figures are - with the exception of the female noblewoman - all Dixon Miniatures from Mark Copplestone’s Legends of Japan” range. These were sculpted in the late 1980s, but are still a pleasure to paint.  Lady Fuchida is an equally-lovely Perry Miniatures sculpt.  They’ll be used in our Japanese skirmish games of “When the Last Sword is Drawn’, set loosely in Tokugawa Japan.

I wanted to create a company of adventurers for our skirmish games, themed around a religious purpose. So here we have seven adventurers, including a rural samurai nobleman and a monk and their portable shrine. They are adherents of “The Celestial Path”, a fictional religious group themed around the various collections of religious fanatics wandering Japan both in the Sengoku Jidai (the Age of the Country at War), and afterwards.

I painted the figures with a limited palate. I used Vallejo Sky Grey, Dark Grey, Medium Grey and US Field Drab as the base colours. These themed well together, and were complimentary. I tried to add a splash of suitably-Buddhist orange - even if just an emblem, sash or set of prayer beads - onto each figure. This hopefully brings the company together, along with the colour scheme. I painted the samurai in black - no doubt an expensive cloth, but a sombre colour as befits members of the samurai class following The Celestial Path. I did make sure to add some item of orange clothing or pattern on both of the nobles, just to keep the theme going.

But what is The Celestial Path I hear you ask? In game background terms, it's a good background for an unusual religious group. Historically, religious groups such as the Ikko-ikki were the inspiration for The Celestial Pat. The Ikko-ikki were the product of various populist movements arising in and around the Oni Rebellion. The principles of self-determination taught by the Oni spread widely among the population of central Japan, with the most extreme members of the group insisting that each individual had the right to their own expression of reality. In that regard, maybe the acolytes and disciples of the Celestial Path are seeking their expression of reality in following the stars in the heavens, from adventure to adventure.

And to do this, I needed a ‘Path’ for the acolytes and disciples to follow. In wargaming terms, I wanted this to be a map, with various destinations for the players to follow in a small mini-campaign. Tracing the campaign along a heavily wooded valley - complete with hamlets, a small monastery, several shrines and culminating in a fortified samurai’s house - gave me the ‘Path’ I was looking for. I prepared the map earlier this month and finished it with some watercolours last weekend.

The circles on the map can serve as encounters for the acolytes and disciples to survive and endure. For those successfully completing the Path, a suitable reward can await them.

I hope to add destinations from The Celestial Path in future posts.  So... stay tuned and watch the stars, Dear Readers.


Saturday 31 December 2022

The Samurai, the Servant and the Demon: A Folklore adversary for "When the Last Sword is Drawn"

"The smoke curled slowly in the still air of the woodland clearing. There was the scent of freshly-caught fish, cooking on an open fire. The samurai’s servant, Akira, turned the freshwater fish on the wooden spit, the fire occasionally crackling and sending a shower of sparks into the evening sky.

Across the clearing, the demon eyed the fire, enviously. The demon drew its grey tongue over its lips, salivating at the thought of the feast it might be able to enjoy in just a few minutes. Akira was sure that if his master, Kazuko, lost the duel, the demon would be consuming more than just the huge river-fish which Akira had caught that afternoon.

Kazuko levelled his sword at the demon’s throat. His hand was steady and he bent slightly bent forward in a stance long-practised in his family dojo. Despite his skill at sword fighting, Kazuko’s heart was racing. Kazuko watched the demon draw an over-sized, enormous sword with a single, crimson-red, muscled hand. In the demon’s other hand was an immaculately wrought katana - a trophy from another, older duel - but wielded as easily as if the sword was made of fly-wood, like a child’s toy.

As Kazuko circled around the clearing, the dust rose from his bare feet. He was quick on his feet. But was the demon faster?"

As I mentioned in my last Blog post, I’ve spent much of my wargaming time this year building up Japanese terrain and painting miniatures for a skirmish ruleset, set in 17th Century Japan.

We’ve now played about a dozen or more games set in a Japanese historical background, but I wanted to expand the scope to create some games based on historical ukiyo-e prints and the rich tapestry of Japanese myths, folklore and legends. 

The Christmas break has given me the chance to do some painting for the Analogue Hobbies Painting Challenge, and this has been the first submission I've entered in the Challenge so far.

In a woodland clearing one evening, a samurai and his servant prepare for a duel against an Oni, a Japanese demon...  

Oni are depicted in Japanese folklore as being a supernatural form of ogre or demon, known for their fierce and bloodthirsty nature. They have a propensity for murder and brutal behaviour, frequently terrifying the heroes of folk tales and serving as a villain in kabuki drama. Japanese demons even have an appetite for human flesh, although we can guess that the Oni in this blog post might have first been attracted by the scent of cooking fish.

I wanted to equip the Oni with two swords, one a huge (normally two-handed) no-dachi and the other a katana. The Oni and the swords are from the wonderful Dixon Miniatures range of 28mm “Legends of Japan”, sculpted by Mark Copplestone in the late 1980s. Adding the swords into the Oni’s sculpted hands required a bit of brass-rod pinning, really to try and ensure that the swords could be 'held' steady and would not come adrift in hours of gaming.

The samurai is from the former Games Workshop range of Samurai, now sold by Wargames Foundry. I love these sculpts - created by Aly Morrison in 1984. They have, to my mind, stood the test of time very well.  I had the great pleasure of chatting to Aly about the figures a few years back.  I remember that one of his guides in sculpting the range were the ukiyo-e woodblock prints of artists such as Utamaro, Kunichika, Utagawa and Yoshitoshi. Which makes the range perfectly suited for the ‘feel’ of the game I’m looking to try and create.

I didn’t make any changes to the samurai, or his trusty servant (from Perry Miniatures). But I did scratch-build a small campfire on which a large freshwater fish could be cooking. I used a few scraps of wood, and a selection of 3D printed fish, one of which I could skewer on a brass-wire spit over the camp fire. I also added a few spare fish to base of verdant, broad leaves - cut from the meal foil from a wine bottle.  A small sprinkle of fiery-painted sand and foam completed the embers and small flames of the smoky fire.

My time is a bit restricted for painting at the moment.  So wargames which have a low figure count are definitely something which I'm enjoying at the present time.  With this in mind, our games of "When the Last Sword is Drawn" have featured duels, smaller engagements, and companies of half a dozen figures or so on each side.   Combined with a smaller wargaming table, the emphasis has been on opposing forces which are very easy to assemble and paint.  

The larger trees in the photos for this blog post were plastic bonsai, bought from an aquarium supplier in the 1990s and brushed-up this year to serve in our skirmish games.  The smaller trees are some very useful 3d prints - certainly something which we didn't have access to in the 1990s!

And, to follow the character cards I prepared for the "Characters of Laarden" a few years back, here some cards themed around the characters in this blog post but tailored for the rules in "When the Last Sword is Drawn".  Hope you enjoy the cards - they're very frivolous, but have proved to be fun in the games we've played.  

And I hope you can join me for more about Japanese skirmish wargames in another blog post in about a week's time.


Thursday 29 December 2022

"When the Last Sword is Drawn": a Japanese-themed skirmish wargame


Over the past ten months, I’ve been continuing to work on our rules for “...with Flashing Blades”, and also have been exploring a quite different version of those rules which is set in Tokugawa Japan. The rules are tentatively called “When the Last Sword is Drawn” - maybe a bit of a mouthful, but based on a wonderful Japanese movie from 2002.

Whatever the rules end up finally being called, the core theme of the skirmish wargame is gaining honour by faithfully serving a Daimyo, Lord or Lady through a series of skirmishes and other conflicts.  Other themes have also appeared during the games we have played: deceptive appearances, family obligations, imagined slights and vicious revenge.  

I’ve really enjoyed the journey so far of creating another small-scale game which is a really interesting counterpoint to “...with Flashing Blades”. Certain common rules mechanisms appear in both sets of rules, but the themes are quite distinct and the two games play differently. For example, the swordplay in the Japanese version game is deadlier than “...with Flashing Blades”, which I feel fits the environment in which protagonists are fighting with razor-sharp katanas at close quarters.

I’ve also enjoyed rekindling a fascination and love for wargames with a historical and legendary Japanese background. It’s been fifteen years since I last painted up figures for this theme, and returning to paint noble samurai, disgraced ronin and wandering rikishi has been a sheer delight.

I hope to share more images of “When the Last Sword is Drawn” here, on the Blog, in the next few weeks. This blog has been neglected for the last year and a half, mainly as I’ve been been working on “...with Flashing Blades” and “When the Last Sword is Drawn” - painting figures, creating terrain, and also taking the games around to friends’ houses, various games days and smaller wargames shows. However, I have very much missed blogging and sharing ideas here. Although I think Twitter is a useful social media for keeping in touch with wargaming (and other) friends, I do struggle to keep track of older postings.  Blogging seems a lot easier in that regard.

So, with the New Year around the corner, I’ll leave you all with some images of the figures I've painted and games of “When the Last Sword is Drawn” we enjoyed in 2022.


Tuesday 10 August 2021

“With Flashing Blades” – Recommendations for Background Books

Since my last Blog post, a couple of people have asked me about reading and viewing material which might accompany the game which Nick, Rich and myself have been working on.  I thought it might be fun to mention some of the books I’ve been reading as background and inspiration for “With Flashing Blades”.  Like any list, this is not comprehensive.  The literature for swordsmanship, duelling and swashbuckling of all kinds is huge, and spans different genres from historical fiction to swords-and-sorcery, and from the supernatural to science fiction.  Here, I’ve confined my list to the books which I personally found useful as encouragement for the game.

Another couple of small caveats:  I’ve not listed any historical sources here.  I’ll prepare a Blog post in a week or so on that subject, looking at some of the background to early 17th Century France and also the ‘Schools’ of swords-handling, duelling and fencing which I found really interesting in the context of working on the game.  I have also limited this blog to written material.  A future Blog post will contain all the film and TV inspiration, including that theme tune!  

So let’s start with the grand-daddy of them all, “The Three Musketeers” by Alexandre Dumas.  I thought I knew this book, but I’d never read it before as a complete novel.  As I read it from cover to cover for the first time last month, I was really surprised.  It is not the book I thought I was going to read.  The actual sword fighting is infrequent in the book, and takes place quickly over very few pages.  I’ll not give too much away (just in case you, dear Readers, have not read the book), but it is not one of those novels where there is a sword-fight every twenty pages.  What is, however, very much present is intrigue.  There are plots, plans, stories, developments and yet more intrigues on top of all that.  When you read the novel, all the various plots hang together very well and the central arch of the story is not difficult to follow.  This is not “The Name of the Rose” or an Agatha Christie novel – the intrigue, though deep and pernicious, never obscures the story in which the lives of our heroes is unfurled. 

And, while we’re speaking of heroes, it surprised me that huge chunks of the book are placed in the in upper echelons of society.  We are frequently present in the world of the King, the Queen, the Cardinal and the Duke of Buckingham. Dumas loves to name-drop the titles of Dukes, Counts, Duchesses and nobles generally.  The actions of the musketeers frequently revolve around noble and royal characters, not the opposite.

Dumas also loves place-name dropping.  Much more familiar to his 19th Century French audience than to me in 2021, there is a litany of French street and place names, including prisons, palaces, market places and execution sites.  Some we know (La Bastille), but some are much more unfamiliar.  I thought that a map would be helpful in reading the book, and I found myself reaching for a guidebook of Paris in the early chapters.  You don’t need to do that, but it’s fun to have alongside you as you read the novel.

Finally, a huge shout-out to one of the Audible audiobooks of the “The Three Musketeers”.  I was reading the Penguin Classics version of the book, and chose the accompanying Audible version, narrated by the well-known actor, Paterson Joseph.  The narration by Paterson is a total delight. 

I love Audible generally, and Mr Joseph’s narration was one of the finest narrations I’ve heard on the site.  He has a real ear for French names, and really evoked the sense of place with each of the names of the people and places being pronounced. I was really thrilled to learn (from a Twitter post) that Paterson regarded his work on the Audible narration of "The Three Musketeers" as one of his best pieces of work.  I think its amazing and, if you have any interest at all in Dumas’ novel, I would strongly recommend you give Paterson’s Audible narration a try.

From Dumas’ classic, the next suggestion I have on my list is the canon of books by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, featuring Captain Alatriste.  I came to these books the long way around.  I first read Pérez-Reverte’s books in the 1990s and early 2000s, starting with the complicated (but remarkable) “Club Dumas”.  This book, incidentally, has a rich seam of connection to Dumas and “The Three Musketeers” (no spoilers, folks), but that was rather lost on me at the time, as the book is really about the supernatural, or – more accurately – the possibility of the supernatural. 

From there I read Pérez -Reverte’s other books, including the most excellent “The Fencing Master”.  Don Jaime, the main character of the book, is one of my literary heroes, especially as I have got older.  His sparse, austere and controlled lifestyle in Madrid as a 19th Century fencing master is something I’ve often thought about, particularly as an antidote to the uncontrollable and byzantine mess of my normal family life! I really enjoyed the book when I read it in 2003, and I enjoyed re-eading it last year in the depths of the pandemic.  

But I digress.  All of these books just prepared me for Pérez-Reverte’s “Alatriste” series of books.  Several of my friends recommended the “Alatriste” series to me (thank you!), and I have not been disappointed.  Captain Alatriste is the hero of the series, being a battle-scarred and indefatigable veteran of Spain’s wars of the early 17th Century.  Perhaps inevitably for a literary hero, Alatriste finds that fighting the French and Dutch in Flanders to be less dangerous than navigating the treacherous alleys and squares of Madrid, Seville and Toledo.  The books are narrated by a wonderful character, Inigo Balboa, a young companion and sometimes-manservant.  Unlike Dom Jaime in “The Fencing Master”, Inigo gives depth and humanity to Captain Alatriste's journeys, and I feel Inigo as a narrator adds to the stories considerably.

All of the Alatriste books I have read are fun and worthwhile.  So far, I’ve really enjoyed “The Purity of Blood” the most, but I have yet to tackle “Pirates of the Levant”.  Recommended reading and very much in the right vein for “With Flashing Blades”.

And finally, two left-field inspirations.  “With Flashing Blades” is set in Paris, in 1622, a city with a good claim to being the centre, or one of the centres, of the world at that time.  Thinking about the 'place' of the city in a game might seem a little bit abstract.  While we wanted to make our game of “With Flashing Blades” to be a miniature wargame (and “not a roleplaying game”), I did also want to think about how we could make the idea, and the themes, of a city come to life in a small table-space. 

In that context, I’d like to recommend two wonderful books, from very different genres.

Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino is a tour de force about the potential of the city as an experience.  Is it literature?  Is it philosophy? Is it a mediation?  Or perhaps it's a mystery?  Who knows?  Not me, for sure.  But I loved every page and some of the images conjured by Calvino in the novel are simply spell-binding.  Invisible Cities” is not the city of “With Flashing Blades”, but it might hopefully help us capture some of the chaotic fun and confusion of setting a game within our chosen city of 1622 Paris.

And last but never least, is a slim booklet which I bought through Drive Thru-RPG.  If you've never come across Chris Kutalik’s “Fever Dreaming Marlinko”, you are missing out. 

Chris’s book is small in size (only 68 pages), but it's a masterpiece.  “Fever Dreaming Marlinko” is a roleplaying guide to the strange city of Marlinko, and serves as a ‘city adventure supplement’.  You don’t need to be a fan of role-playing games, or play the Labyrinth Lord system to be inspired by Chris’ book. 

Funny, rude, dramatic and constantly inventive, it’s a terrific example of how to create a city which really feels like it exists as a backdrop to the gaming action.  If we can do anything like this in “With Flashing Blades”, we would be very pleased. 

So that's my very personal list of books which have inspired me in playing and helping develop "With Flashing Blades". I am sure Nick and Rich will have their own to add to the list, perhaps in a future episode of the TooFatLardies Oddcast.

I hope you can join me for the next Blog post, when I'll either be posting about converting and painting figures for "With Flashing Blades", or blogging about the films and television inspirations behind the game. Until next time, dear friends!


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