Saturday, January 19, 2013

RIP Lynn Willis

5th Edition Call of Cthulhu Rulebook

I didn't know Lynn Willis except through his work. I was very sorry to hear of his death yesterday. His work on the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game and others (particularly Elric!) were an integral part of what made them such classics in the field. 

I've always considered Call of Cthulhu to be the Rolls Royce of roleplaying games, mainly because it has at its heart the idea that ordinary people will do extraordinary things to save the world and that they will do so and continue to do even when defeat is inevitable.  Call it the myth of Sisyphus with dice or the struggle with sin, but the idea is worth having. 

Lynn Willis wrote the majority of the 5th edition of the game, which formed my introduction to it and is still to my mind the finest yet written. Writing of how to portray civil authority in the game, he wrote,

"There is a rough justice in uniformly portraying authorities as sleazy opportunists, corrupt fools, or rigid bumpkins, but such clichés damage the heart of the game.  Call of Cthulhu assumes that humanity and human civilization are worth defending and worth saving.  It's undramatic to say that humans are not as bad as the Mythos - for dramatic contrast, humans and human institutions must be perceivably better if the contrast is to  succeed."

I've always rather liked that. I try to be perceivably better - perhaps on good days I am. 

I met the man once. He wore a very loud Hawaiian shirt and I fought rising tide of adolescent panic. He and Janice Sellers very kindly took some time to talk to an obviously anxious teenager and sign my book.  A small kindness perhaps, but one I've always remembered. 

Eternal rest grant him O Lord and perpetual light shine upon him. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Gangster Squad: A Review

Emma Stone looking very dolly

Mrs Kinch, Cousin Basil and I went to see Gangster Squad a few days ago.  The girls had been to see Les Miserables the day before and I was determined to see something with an appropriate number of explosions to take the edge off yet another rendition of "I dreamed a dream."

Gangster Squad tells the story of a group of Los Angeles policemen who wage private war against a New York hood named Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) who is determined to take over Los Angeles. Led by Sergeant O'Mara (Josh Brolin), they fight terror with terror.

The opening sequence portrays Mickey Cohen ordering a East Coast hood torn apart by two cars. This rather spectacularly signposts the fact that while the film touts itself as "...inspired by true events," director Ruben Fleischer definitely decides to print the legend and not the facts.

But here is the real wife material (Josh Brolin & Mireille Enos)

Gangster Squad is beautifully photographed, well acted, slick film. Josh Brolin is magnificently craggy as Sergeant O'Mara and Ryan Gosling brings a light touch as Sergeant Wooters. Sean Penn's portrayal of Mickey Cohen as a twitching psyschopath owes rather more to Cagney's Cody Jarret than the real Mickey Cohen, but is still riveting. Emma Stone has received praise for her performance as a femme fatale over her head, but Mireille Enos as Connie O'Mara, Josh Brolin's pregnant wife, blows her off the screen.  In a script not marked by brilliance, the scenes of effortless intimacy between her and Brolin, brief though they are, were the highlight of the film for me.  In a world replete with dull "beautiful, but deadly" heroines, she is a breath of fresh air - funny, loving and tough as nails.  I'll take fascinating over pretty any day, though with Enos you don't have to choose. We could do with a dozen more like her. I'd love to see her play Lady Macbeth

But what about the rest of the cast? Well therein lies a tale. 

Sgt O'Mara is given a commission to raise an off the books unit of gangster hunters and the team he assembles gives the game away.  I know nothing about Ruben Fleischer, I haven't seen anything any of his other films, but like it or not, he has made a decent fist at a western.

"I'll dance with the one that brung me"

If Millers Crossing was in the words of its director, a film about men in beautiful hats,  Gangster Squad is a western that eschews stetsons. I realised it within twenty minutes of the film beginning - the diverse nature of Brolin's posse, including one genuine cowboy played with admirable humour by Robert Patrick, whose father-son relationship with Michael Pena kept me smiling, evokes John Sturge's Magnificent Seven. The landscape of Los Angeles, except for its brothels and juke joints, is as empty as John Ford's Monument Valley. The Gangster Squad beat, intimidate and shoot their way across a town that doesn't seem to support passers by as part of the local ecosystem.  Sean Penn hits the nail on the head when he warns off another gangster with the line, "This isn't Chicago, this is the wild west."

It cheered me up no end, I couldn't work out why I kept thinking of Lee Marvin when I looked at Josh Brolin.

Gangster Squad is a good film and well worth seeing, though it has two major failings.  An urban western, it's slick and it's beautiful and as stylised as Sin City ever was. It would have had a better time of it had it not used Mickey Cohen's name or claimed to have been "...inspired by true events." Far better to have set in some nameless city or a Hammet inspired Personville rather than LA, which would have avoided the ridiculous criticism that it ignores the LAPD's history of racism or the real circumstances of Mickey Cohen's fall or any number of other charges being levelled at it.  A case of a chicken being slated for not quacking like a duck.

Kicking it oldschool with the C dog

As Marlow put it, "I believe I undertook amongst other things not to disclose any trade secrets. Well, I am not going to."

The Gangster Squad win - they catch Mickey Cohen and he's put away. If this has ruined the surprise for you, my apologies; also welcome to the world of film, I hope you enjoy it here.

This is where the film falls down - if you have the chance, as soon as Mickey Cohen is arrested, leave the cinema, you'll be better off. There follows the obligatory "where are they now", where we're told what happens to each member of the squad. It's nauseatingly saccharine and I hated every minute of it. A normal gangster film could get away with this, it's unpleasant, but it's necessary. But for the western that Gangster Squad really is - underneath it's tommy guns and snap brim fedoras, it's positively criminal.

The classic Western is a film about the tension between civilization and barbarism. In Kenneth Hite's essay, "The Man Who Shot Joseph Curwen"*, he writes.

"... the central  agon of the other great American narrative art form (besides fantastic fiction), the Western film. The agon, the central conflict, of every classic Western from The Toll Road in 1920 to Unforgiven in 1992 is as follows:

• Barbarism can only be defeated with the gun.

• All those who pick up the gun are barbarians."

The Gangster Squad have stepped beyond the law, they have wrought a bloody vengeance on the men who would destroy the civilization they are sworn to protect and it is right and fitting that they do so.

Goodbye Tom Doniphan 

But they must be destroyed.  For the civilisation to thrive it must push the barbarians out, even righteous barbarians.  Connie should have left John O'Mara or should have died in their bungalow when it was machine gunned. The squad went beyond the acceptable and far beyond the decent to achieve what needed to be done, but that comes with a cost and regardless of how well intentioned or how noble the motive, that debt has to be paid.  The sacrifice has to be real for the act to be anything else other than adolescent wish fulfilment.  Ruben Fleischer had the chance to make a fine film and settled for making a good one.

In "The Man who shot Liberty Valance", John Wayne dies alone.  

I regret to say Sgt. O'Mara wasn't given the chance to die with him.

 *Available here

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Vercours Campaign - Part Three - Massacre at Vassieux-en-Vercors

German Paratroopers landing at Vassieux-en-Vercors

From the scenario description: 

"On July 20th, 1944, following several weeks of troops build-up, the Germans launched their attack on the newly proclaimed "Free Republic of Vercors". The next morning, the German 157.Reserve-Division, bolstered with Ukrainian troops from Eastern battalions, completely finished surrounding the Vercors Plateau, trapping the French Resistance in. By early morning, twenty gliders landed in the vicinity of Vassieux-en-Vercors, on a makeshift landing strip the Resistance was busy finishing. They did not contain the allied reinforcements the maquisards had hoped for though. Instead, SS troops stormed out of these gliders to seize Vassieux and the neighboring hamlets of La Mure, Jossaulx and Le Château, indiscriminately killing all they met - French Resistance and local inhabitants alike. Late in the day, French Resistance companies, coming to the rescue from other parts of the Plateau, attempted to encircle the enemy and wipe him out in a counter-attack, but failed due to a lack of heavy armament against the now well-entrenched SS troops.

The stage is set, the battle lines are drawn, and you are in command. The rest is history."

Hoping to nip the German reinforcements in the bud - Masquisards move from cover to hit the exposed Paratroopers

As a result of the previous victories in the game, the Germans were looking pretty bullish and got a second wave of reinforcements - a paradrop of two units. Things were looking grim for the Maquis, who were going to have to strike hard and early to stave of a German victory.

Maquis converge on the glider borne troops, causing several casualties

Mr E takes some further casualties as the paratroopers huddle in the wood waiting for backup

A lone Maquisard opens up on a weakened German unit

Reinforcements arrive

In normal Memoir '44, parachute drops are normally resolved by dropping an appropriate number of plastic soldiers from a height of about twelve inches. This led to some problems as I didn't fancy dropping my figures on the table. We also needed to figure out roughly how high would be appropriate. A standard Memoir board is two feet wide, so we tripled the distance for the big board and substituted corks for toy soldiers. Both German paradrops landed safely. 

It's getting rather lonely out here

The limited German counter-attack that followed the Maquis's attempt to wipe them out as soon as they hit the ground was beginning to bite. A lone Maquis attempted to do for the bloodied German glider troops, he failed to do so and when they shot back.

The result was telling...

With the initial French onslaught driven back, the SS start to consolidate their position

SS Obersturmbannführer Mr E looks over the bodies of his slain troopers and swears terrible vengence, SS Standartenführer Creanor seems less concerned. 

Further French troops move up to contest the landing strip

Exchanging fire with the resurgent Germans

The SS troops consolidate around the farm. Things are looking very grim for the Resistance as the Boche has chalked up a considerable lead and were now ensconced where we would have to attack to dig them out.

Marianne was not having the best of days.

En avant!

Braver then perhaps was wise, the partisans boiled out of the woods. With the vile Boche two points ahead, our best hope was to pick on their two weakened units in the hope of knocking them out. This sadly, did not go well.

Though you die La Resistance lives on

With the partisans out in the open and our high stakes gambit a bust - the SS counterattack was swift and merciless. It was a crushing defeat, two victory points to five and the end of the campaign. There were actually two further scenarios to be played, but we worked out that if the French scored maximum points in both the scenarios to follow and the German scored none - the French could scrape a draw. At that point we thought it best to throw in the towel.

It was interesting to play a campaign in an evening and I think once I have the troops, I would enjoy playing one of the short campaigns from the two campaign books. Sadly, the French Resistance are a gamblers army and very prone to runs of luck, both bad and good, and we found it very hard to come back from our initial defeat. Well done to Mr E and General Creanor, they seized their opportunities when they presented themselves and extracted the maximum possible gain from them.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Paths of Glory

Russian Hussar

Kristzian sent me some pictures of some casualty figures that he did for my Russian cavalry. They're based on Zvesda figures and I think you'll agree they look rather fine. Sending the pictures was very decent of him as I'm finding it difficult to keep enthused about wargaming at present.

Guard Cossack

I use these to mark dead units in Command & Colours: Napoleonics as it makes it easier to keep track of victory points. The Russian army is slowly growing, particularly as my bases from Products for Wargamers arrived and very fine they are too. I've started cleaning and gluing the Russian Infantry I got from OldJohn of 20mil Nostalgic Revival, but most of my spare time is spent fixing things around the house at present. Once those are done, it'll be off to Mark for painting and then it will be show time!

Guard Cossack, alternate view

Russian Hussar, alternate view

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Just rolling along

The War Room - a shadow of itself

There's been entirely too much of honest toil and too little wargaming here at Chez Kinch for the last while. On the other hand, we are finally beginning to see some movement. After many weeks, I finally managed to convince a chap that he wants to sell me wood and that no amount of telling me what I really want is going to change my mind.  I know what I want and I'm inclined to get it.

So wood purchased this week, room cleared and there's the matter of clearing the rubble from underneath the joists so that my much hoped for trapdoor actually leads to some useful space.

Do I have a sufficiency of Call of Cthulhu books?

Well said, I didn't think so either.

In the absence of a suitable venue for wargaming and prompted by the recent unpacking of my Call of Cthulhu books, I ran a game of Call of Cthulhu for Mrs Kinch and some friends last night. I was very successful and I think might become a regular thing.

Call of Cthulhu is a roleplaying game based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft, a distinctly odd fish, who wrote horror stories in the 1920s. The players take the role of ordinary folk who discover the strange doings and terrible alien monsters and decide to defend Mankind against the darkness by taking matters into their own hands. What is so interesting about it is that there's no guarantee that the players will succeed and the struggle is almost guaranteed to leave most of them maimed, dead or insane. There's something Sisyphean about it.

It was and remains the Rolls Royce of roleplaying games.

A Martello Tower seen on the way back - there were no French vessels in sight, 
so it seemed to be working

In other news, General Du Gourmand and I took went a trot recently, an eighteen miler from Dublin to Kingstown. It was fun and a welcome corrective after the excesses of the holiday season. We stopped off at our usual haunt for a spot of book buying - I picked up a pair of Chestertons while General Du Gourmand got the first volume of Lady Longfords biography of the Duke of Wellington.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Normal programming has resumed

I live!

Fear not! Dear Reader, I arise once more from the other side of the Christmas death march and have survived the dread beast of New Years.  I have not (as one anxious correspondent enquired, bless you for asking) come to any harm - quite the opposite in fact. Here at Chateau Kinch, Mrs Kinch and I, Cousin Basil, Sir Harry and Sissi have been having a wonderful time and I only regret it's left precious little time for blogging, though to be fair very little of it has been wargame related.

Sadly, my desk is rarely so tidy

What little time I've had for writing has been taken up with other (paying) projects - a welcome development, I must say. This year  (2012) I've been published in Battlegames, The Wargamers Annual and The Gazebo - with the prospect of more work in that line and several projects which are finished, but won't be published until 2013. This necessarily comes at the cost of reduced time for blogging, but I don't think there's any danger of Joy & Forgetfulness going silent any time soon. The continuing saga of the War Room floor has rather more to do with the lack of posts than anything else - though I'm hoping to see some movement on that count shortly.

Mrs Kinch scored yet another stunning coup of the presents front - she has taken the palm so often at this stage that it is becoming almost monotonous.  I have a long been an enthusiastic reader of a collection called "Great Battles of the 19th Century". This was a set of seven volumes written by such luminaries as Archibald Forbes, GA Henty and A. Hilliard Atteridge chronicling various set to's   during the 19th century. The writing is varied and interesting, the plates and etching are wonderful and the whole effort is just top notch.  It's history by men who've seen the elephant and who wear their partiality on their sleeve - something I find a refreshing contrast to the weaselly habits of contemporary writers.

A complete contrast to the writerly habits of contemporary weasels

There was quite a haul of wargames related loot this year, not least the before mentioned British armour and some wonderful books from Mrs Kinch, specifically Rory Muir's Salamanca and W.E. Fairbairn's Shooting to Live and some other gems from my chum, Mr Target, but more on those later.  I haven't done a tap of course, but I have finally based the Plastic Soldier Russian guns that I painted in November. 

Plastic Soldier Russian guns on curiously wintery bases

I think I've manage to do everything wrong - there is a strange white smudging around the points of contact where I've applied superglue, I think I've used the wrong shells for the 76mm gun and I'm not convinced that I'll be able to paint all the base. We shall see. I can only hope that suitably fortified with brandy, I shall have the courage to slop sufficient brown paint around to do the base and then cover my mistakes with some of those new fangled pigments the Padre has been mucking about with. I shall have to get some turpentine first of course, thought I'd seen the last of it when I laid away my enamels.

In other news - Cousin Basil and I made a discovery. We had been given a bottle of distinctly sub-par brandy by a female admirer. Mrs Kinch made game attempts to cook with it - but not much in her repertoire calls for brandy in the quantities we had available. Also it wouldn't it do to have her raiding the drinks cabinet for my Hennessey after we've disposed of the other stuff.

So Cousin Basil and I set our great minds to this problem and so was born "The Cousin Basil", a simple mixed drink within the reach of even the most inexperienced mixologist.

The Cousin Basil

1/3 Gill of Cooking Brandy
Add the juice of half a freshly squeezed lime

Serve in a brandy glass, no ice.

On occasion, a lady has requested something slightly sweeter - add a teaspoon of sugar syrup and stir.