Monday 29 January 2024

"Nobody Likes the Chaya": A villainous faction for 'When the Last Sword is Drawn'

"Nobody likes the House of Chaya. Their nobility is bought through wealth and their signature is greed.

They are wealthy, proud and ambitious. Their sharp-elbowed advance along the coast of northern Honshu, gathering lands and castles, has created many enemies. One clan, the Akiyama, has become the most recent victim of Lord Chaya Ichiro’s schemes of aggrandisement. But now, Lord Akiyama is dead.

Two days ago, Lord Akiyama was dishonourably killed by Chaya no Irosuke, a notorious samurai of the House of Chaya. Worst of all, Lord Akiyama’s legendary sword was taken from his dead hands and was brought to the Chaya’s ancestral temple to be re-consecrated as a trophy of the Chaya’s conquests."


Everyone loves a villain. And, as one famous actor has said, “Every villain is a hero in their own mind.”

In creating tabletop miniatures games at games days and wargame shows, I always find it helps to try and set the theme. Part of that is describing what the players are fighting for. What are the stakes? Which side are you on? It’s easy with history. Everyone, and I mean everyone, knows it’s OK to punch a Nazi.

But with games which involve a more alt-history, or a down-right fantasy feel, it’s harder. Of course, sometimes it's made easy by the bad guys wearing black, or carrying a red light-sabre. Other times, it helps for me to tell the players, in as few words as possible, which side they’re fighting on.

And so to The House of Chaya.

Put simply, they’re villains. Nobles, for sure. Wealthy, of course. Darkly handsome in a Kylo Ren kind of way? - well, maybe you can make your mind up on that one. But they’re the bad guys? Yes, they are. Because every story needs a villain.

More seriously, I’ve found that wargames with a smaller footprint (in terms of game size and playing time) need a helping hand. You can have an attractive table, and thematic rules. But the importance of the background story, or the “skinny” as American TV writers might call it, increases as the table shrinks. The figures and the terrain can’t do it all on their own.

And in that environment, it helps for there to be a villain. Someone you can point to as the bad guys. Maybe they “killed our ‘Pa”. Maybe they burned your farm. Maybe they took your sacred sword.

Or maybe they did all three.

It short circuits the long gaming background of where you are and why you’re fighting. Because as Indiana Jones says, it's always OK to punch a Nazi.

Or clash swords with the Chaya.

I've been carrying the representatives of the House of Chaya up and down the United Kingdom for the past year and a half to serve as the bad guys in our games of "When the Last Sword is Drawn". These are the latest additions to the usual suspects. Including the heart-throb of the House of Chaya - Chaya no Irosuke.

These are some more of the figures from the glorious samurai- and Japan-fixated 1980s. The two fallen fighters are from Dixon Miniatures’ early samurai range. The mounted samurai is from the same range. He’s advertised as a famous samurai commander from the 13th Century.

But he’s such a lovely figure that it’s a shame to limit him to that period. I strung his bow string with fine wire, and pinned the bow to his hand at the start of painting. I also glued him to his horse. It would, however, have been easier to paint horse, rider and bow separately, and assemble afterwards. It was a hard choice, and I might do it differently next time.

The remaining figure is a Games Workshop samurai retainer from the 1984 “Oriental Heroes” range. He’s a lovely, flexible, figure who could serve as a retainer, or a samurai without armour. I love the confident pose, the larger than normal (almost comic-book) katana, and the wicker rain cape. He’s got a swagger about him, which the mounted samurai shares. And, after all, who doesn't love a villain with a little bit of sass?

I also felt the Chaya needed a uniting theme. I chose a colour for their House. Green, the colour of confidence, green tea, lush (almost-certainly stolen) farmland, and jealousy. I tried to make it a signature of the House of Chaya. Almost so that you know when to boo when they enter the stage.

And because all the factions in "When the Last Sword is Drawn" have some traits and attributes (not all of which are helpful), here's the ones we've been using for the Chaya on the tabletop, updated for some of the new members of the household. And, of course, a ludicrously indulgent character-card for Chaya no Irosuke himself:

More from the wintry coast of northern Honshu next time, dear readers.


Tuesday 23 January 2024

Akiyama Tomoyuki Faces His Demons



There were three of them.  No.  There were more - four bakemono, and then two larger forms, lumbering through the heavy snowstorm.  Huge demonic ogres - Oni - one with a huge sword and the other with a pair of war mallets.

“There…. There they are. There’s six more!”  Tomoyuki’s shout in the gale of the snowstorm was urgent and loud.  “Give me more arrows”.  Even so, the fierce wind stripped away his voice into the void.  Tomoyuki’s retainer, Juzo, passed his master another sheaf of needle-pointed arrows: “That’s all we have left, Master”.

Tomoyuki looked at the eight arrows in the sheaf.  Make every one count, Tomoyuki told himself, notching the first of the black arrows, pulling the bowstring back and focusing on one of the large demonic Oni thrashing forward in the snow.  

Behind him was the howl of the kitsune which had followed him and Juzo to the temple earlier in the day.  If only he had offered another prayer earlier, he might have been able to persuade the kitsune to help him in the moment of battle.  But it was probably too late now.

The arrow was loosed into the storm, but the wind took it wide of the leading Oni.  Tomoyuki took another arrow from the sheaf, and finally whispered another sutra. Perhaps the kitsune would hear his prayers this time…?


Over the course of the winter, I've been adding a few more figures inspired by Japanese history and folklore to my collection for "When the Last Sword is Drawn" (or "Bonsai Bonkers" if you prefer).  This is the game we've been working on for a year and a half, focused on skirmishes in medieval and Edo-period Japan.  

These figures are a little way off the historical track.  There’s a selection of Dixon Miniatures bakemono and oni…. Japanese goblins and demons from the "Legends of Nippon" range.  They’re lovely figures, sculpted by Mark Copplestone in the 1980s.  Gosh, yes, they are that old, but I feel they still stand the passing of years very well as sculpts.  

The samurai is from the same vintage era of Japanese wargaming, being originally a Games Workshop archer sculpted by Aly Morrison in 1984.  I do love those older GW sculpts from the 'Oriental Heroes' range, turning back the years with their style and posing taken from Japanese Ukiyo-e era wood-block prints.  

The retainer is from the Perry Miniatures’ range of Sengoku era figures, in the Civilian’s box.  The kitsune is a Warbases fox. I removed her tail with a scalpel, and added two new (slightly bushier) ones from green-stuff.  Kitsune’s can have up to nine-tails - the more tails indicate the greater powers that the fox-spirit has.  Just two here, but enough to weave a little magical stardust into the skirmish.

The main thing I was trying out with these figures was Citadel contrast paints and shade paints on the bakemono and oni. My great friend, Curt Campbell, persuaded me to give these paints a try last year, but I didn’t get around to it until last month.  The contrast paints were used on a white base, and supplemented by GW inks (shades).  They certainly look vibrant on the (demonic) flesh, but I wasn’t quite sure I was getting the effect just right with the flow of paints into the creases of flesh. I’d love to experiment a bit more with these paints during the course of this year.  Above all, I just thought they were fun, and something which looked very different from green or brown goblins or ogres which I’ve done before. 

The samurai and his retainer and the kitsune were painted a little more conventionally.  Over the years, I’ve had this silly obsession with bowstrings.  I’ve no idea how I picked that up, but when I see a bow on a figure, I feel I have to string it, as in this case with thin wire.  I use my figures at the local wargames club and for participation games at wargames days and shows, so I wanted something more robust than just fishing thread.  Its fiddly to string the bow in this way, but hopefully worthwhile.

Finally, there are some scenic items to be scattered over the snowy temple of the game.  The terrain items are mainly 3D prints of trees, a smaller shrine, a miniature Buddha and a temple lantern.  These are really here to help set the theme, and to give the combatants something to fight around and fall over or bump into at the least convenient times.   I made the tiny dōsojin stone shrines with green stuff, carving the tiny stone kami (spirits) on the shrine stones with a nautical theme - hopefully the whale and octopus are just about visible.  They were fun to do, and hopefully add that little bit of Japanese ‘feel’ to the tabletop.

I’ve also added a few of my ludicrously indulgent character cards for “When the Last Sword is Drawn”, featuring these figures.  Here's the one for Akiyama Tomoyuki:

More from the snowy mountain fastnesses of fantasy Honshu soon, dear friends.  


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