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Shedding Some Light on the Dark Ages

The light from the lantern cast long shadows along the stone flagged floor. The air was musty and heavy with the pungent odour of the tallow from the ecclesiastical candles that the Dean had lit by the door. The dust of centuries shrouded the scrolls that lined the shelves, only in one spot was this broken, this the professor presumed was where the chronicle had been discovered.

His hand trembled as with a pen knife he gently prised away the wax seal. The parchment was stiff with age, and gently he unrolled it, laying it flat on the desk where countless clerics must have scratched out endless gospels with their quills.

Positioning the lantern to give the best light the professor began to read, his trained eye taking in the large and clumsy Latin and Brythonnic text.

“It has been four hundred and seventy three years since the birth of our Lord and five thousand seven hundred and thirty-two years since the world was created. Londinium is abandoned. Few attempt to live within the walls of the old city and they are prey to the pagans who have blighted this island for a generation. With the abandonment of Caer Llundain, as it is called in our language, what hope have we in Verulamium of defending our homes, our lands and the shrine of our saint from the Saxons? Are we not betrayed by one who we welcomed among us as a foederati, shall our citizens sleep whilst the menace of insidious Siddicus remains?

Yet who will come to our aid? To the north King Cynfelyn ap Arthwys of Calchwynedd looks with envy upon our riches and the price of his help would be too high. In the east Caer Colun is fighting for its very survival and Einion of Celemnion needs all of his men to keep the valley of the Tamensis clear from Caer Llundain westwards. None shall heed our call. We shall stand here and fight alone.

Appius
Annales Vervlamiae”

All of which means that the civilised and genteel citizens of fifth century St Albans are in trouble! (See the red star on the map below for the location of Verulamium). Insidious Siddicus, otherwise known as the Saxon Cyddic, has turned against his former masters as news of London’s abandonment leaves Verulamium as the undefended last outpost of the British Kingdom of Caer Llundain. Cyddic knows how weakly defended what is now Britain’s second largest city is and what wealth remains behind its walls, as indeed does King Cynfelyn of Calchwynedd who, some fifteen miles up the road at Dunstable is looking to incorporate Verulamium into his Kingdom.

The Saxons now control Kent and the Angles are fighting to establish settlements on the east coast around Colchester, Caer Colun and further north in Yorkshire. The Saxons are attempting to push up the Thames valley where they are engaged in a running conflict with the British Kingdom of Caer Celemnion whose capital is in modern Silchester, then Caer Chill.
South EastHere then is the Britain of Dux Britanniarum. The Romans have been gone for over sixty years, the Saxons arrived twenty-four years ago as mercenaries serving the High King Vortigern, and have been fighting the Britons for seventeen of them. Vortigern is dead and Britain lacks a strong leader to unite its peoples and stop the influx of pagans from Germany.

A Playest Report
We enjoyed our first public outing into the Dark Ages yesterday with our usual blank-sheet-of-paper workshop approach. I had done some work at Lard Island on establishing some very basic figures for close combat and missile troops (archers in our game, but slingers as well) but we also had a long list of what we wanted to achieve from our first session.
Dux 1The Pre-Match Warm Up
In particular we wanted to examine the pre-combat phase of the game, where the two sides glare at each other and shout rude things as a preliminary to getting stuck in. My first ever outing into the Dark Ages was back in the 1980s with Andy Callan’s Dark Age Infantry Slog rules, published in Miniature Wargames and demonstrated at Salute at Kensington Town Hall (Happy days, better than the “aircraft hangar with all atmosphere removed” environment at Excel). I don’t recall much of the rules apart from the fact that the figures were based on beer mats (and that might be my memory playing tricks on me) and that a large part of the game was about getting your team psyched up for the ensuing battle before letting them off the leash. This was something that I was keen to address, but in a slightly more colourful manner.

As a starting point I looked at four specific areas where you could attempt to stack the odds in your favour. Firstly was individual combat between champions. Anyone who has read Bernard Cornwell’s Arthurian trilogy will recall the emphasis on this in the books. I realise that this does not count as a typical historical source, but one does not have to look far in the poetry of the period, Saxon and British, to find that Cornwell has done his homework. This is an opportunity to add period colour and flavour, and to create an interesting little mini-game that will affect the battle to come.

Last night we saw the British champion Mullard Ap Artor defeat Wulfstan the Saxon Champion at the ford to the south of Verulamium. What we wanted here was a mechanism that involved the players in making some simple decisions about how much of their energy they were devoting to attack and to defence, and to create a system that allowed victory here to influence the way that the men present saw their chances for the ensuing battle. In this case we allowed a victory here to influence a force in the first round of close combat, having an opportunity to add a dice or two to the pot to reflect their belief levels being buoyed up by the success of their champion.

Secondly we looked at the effect of alcohol. You only have to read Y Gododdin or Beowulf to realise that these blokes were well oiled by the time they went into battle. Indeed the price a king or warlord paid in order to keep his warriors around him was to ensure that they were constantly plied with drink in his halls. They in turn repaid that hospitality by fighting and dying in his service.

We wanted alcohol to be a double edged sword; it has positives but also potential negatives. Last evening Cyddic the Saxon was horrified to see his champion slain, but to cheer up his men he untapped the mead and they knocked back a few on the banks of the Colne. This provided them with some advantages in close combat, but it also made them harder to control. It’s the “want to fight everyone” combined with “I’m the toughest bloke in town” mentality. Yes, you do want to fight everyone, but you probably aren’t the toughest bloke in town. So Cyddic found last evening when Aelfric lead forward two groups of men prematurely to take on the British shieldwall. Cyddic was then held up crossing the ford and the British could defeat their enemy in detail rather than fight them outnumbered.

The Kings Speech was a popular rule, and Maximus Boicicus, the leader of the Verulamium force, did his best to inspire his men with some splendid rhetoric. Maximus was a Level III leader so had a 3 in 6 chance of getting it right, and only a 1 in 6 chance of getting it wrong. Sadly his men had seen the giant leek routine too many times and he was booed off stage. A somewhat rudely named card was added to the Game Deck, and if this was dealt before Maximus’ own card then he lost his actions for that turn. Had he gone for a better line in rousing speeches then his status level would have been temporarily increased and his command radius extended.

Finally we considered the Gods. What is striking about the period is how incredibly religious (or superstitious, depending on one’s own approach) these people were. Reading Saint Germanus’ account of his trip to Britain in 429AD is a window on to another world. Germanus meets a bloke, baptises him and then tells him “Great news old chap, you’ll be dead within the hour and God, Jesus and all the angels are waiting up there for you”. Amazingly the bloke couldn’t be happier! Clearly we cannot ignore the impact of religion in these peoples’ lives. What we have created is an “inclusive multi-faith mechanism” that covers anything from Bishops invoking God to pagan priests slicing up a chicken to check out its entrails. The net result is that if the Gods are with you then your men will get better reaction results in close combat, if not then the results will be worse and any foederati, or mercenaries, fighting with you are going to be open minded to other exciting career opportunities.

So, we now have four pre-game options that the players may employ to psych up their forces, all of which have slightly different results, and all of which have potential down sides, albeit good results are more likely than bad ones. This fits into an initiative structure that allows this section of the battle to be variable in its duration. If your opponent has better champions than you, is a better orator than you or has better priests than you, the chances are that you want to dismiss all of that as mumbo-jumbo, so if you have the initiative you can do just that and begin the battle proper. If he’s still choking his chicken then it’s tough luck; he’s too late!
Dux 2The Big Fight
Close combat in the Dark Ages is both complex and simple. There is much said about how we know very little (or nothing) about the warfare of the period, and consequently how we can just make it up as we go along. I would disagree. We are very short on written accounts of how battles were fought, what we do have is written in an heroic fashion and speaks more about the prowess of the leading figures than what actually happened, but it also contains gems of information that we can use as pieces in a jig-saw puzzle. In the first stanza we learn the following:

He was a man in mind, in years a youth,
And gallant in the din of war:
Fleet thick-maned chargers
Were ridden by the illustrious hero:
A shield, light and broad,
Hung on the flank of his swift slender steed:
His sword was blue and gleaming,
His spurs were gold, his raiment was woollen…

So we have a bloke with a sword and broad shield on a horse, if nothing else that tells us that we are dealing with a force with some capacity to fight mounted, and there are ninety odd more stanzas still to come! There is, of course, debate about when Y Gododdin was written, and taken alone as a source it is in danger of simply telling us what we want to hear, however outside of the normal texts that an historian would refer to we do find a large body of knowledge that is less controversial and rather more empirical. Archaeology.

Can You Dig It?
This is a big subject, and one that I intend to only cover very briefly here, but essentially archaeology can provide us with lots of information on what weapons were being used where and by whom at what date. Carbon dating is a massive boon in this respect and is incredibly accurate when dealing with stuff that is “only” 1500 years old. From this source we can establish the location of various cultural groups at different times, largely through graves, and this provides us with an indication of where the “front line” between Saxon England and sub-Roman Britain was at any point in time.
Alban BookIntriguingly it can also provide us with an indication of how people living them saw themselves and their world. For most of my life I have lived in St Albans, twenty miles to the north of London and home to the Roman city of Verulamium. Verulamium was the third biggest city in Roman Britain and still exists under several foot of top soil in a large park and fields to the north of the existing city of St Albans. Incredibly the Roman city has only ever been partially excavated, and then largely in digs in the 1920s and 1930s where the emphasis was very much on finding the Romans, rather than anyone else who had lived there. It is assumed now that anything post-Roman or Saxon was probably simply ignored or, due to the greater emphasis on wood for building rather than stone, not considered relevant. It has only been in recent decades that anyone has considered “What came next?” and amazingly nearly every dig over the past twenty years has found evidence that Verulamium continued to flourish for many years after the withdrawal of Roman rule.

This should not be surprising. The “fact” that the Romans withdrew lock, stock and barrel in around 410AD and everything went to hell in a hand-cart within half an hour is now discounted. In truth the British had been running their own affairs for some considerable time by 410, and had taken responsibility for their own defence as well as their day to day administration. It is interesting to note that in Verulamium the discovery in the 1980s of a stone build barn dated at between 450 and 470 was found in conjunction with water pipes installed at around the same time and grain storage and processing facilities, all within the walls of the city. Clearly the post-Roman occupiers were now growing their food supplies within the walls of the city rather than on farms in the surrounding area. Indeed this image, below, shows us what the “city” would have looked like.

Verulamium FarmsSo, in a nutshell, using the dual sources for evidence, historical texts and archaeological evidence, we can piece together a much clearer image of what occurred in 5th century Britain. When developing the rules this has been our starting point as we are seeking not simply to produce a set of wargames rules, but to build them into a campaign system which will allow the gamer to explore the history of the period and the conflict between Briton and the invaders. We believe that by providing some historical backdrop the gamer is then able to better re-create the warfare of the period. To understand the issues that faced a Dark Age commander.

By way of example, last evening’s game saw the British field a significant number of Levy troops. In most wargames these are cannon fodder that we can chuck in to try to disorder the enemy before we send in our good troops. That’s fine; however what happens if your levy are also the people who work in the fields in the picture above who provide the food that keep the population fed? In the campaign system we are developing losing levy in any numbers will count significantly against any victory points you may get if you win the battle. As it is victory points that will gain you prestige, and consequently followers and wealth with which to equip them, losing your workforce is a BAD idea.

Which indeed presents another issue we wanted to address. Dark Age warfare was a tough and nasty place to be, but the idea that you’d see whole armies slaughtered on a regular basis is just not right. It is no good going back to your city and saying “Great news, we’ve won a terrific victory against the enemy, however all your husbands are dead”. Leading a Dark Age army is as much about knowing when you’ve lost as when you’ve won, and we were very pleased that the casualty levels we saw in yesterday’s game were sensible. Cyddic’s Saxons were clearly beaten despite only suffering total losses of around 15% to 20%. He could have pulled back, rallied his men and reformed them for another attack, but being more pragmatic he decided to slink off and plot for his next attack. However it will take him four months to make good his losses by sending back a ship to northern Germany, so he’ll only have one more chance to take on the citizens of Verulamium before winter comes.

On the British side the victory of Maximus Boicicus was such that over the next few weeks refugees from the abandoned Londinium have more than made up for his losses and even gained a couple of additional soldiers to add to his force, so he is already putting his foot on the first rung of the campaign ladder. At present he has three points on the path towards becoming a Warlord and two points on that to being declared King of his own minor Kingdom. He doesn’t have to make his mind up which path he will ultimately take until he gets to ten points, so we’ll have a couple more games before that is likely to occur.

If you’d care to read a game report then my old chum Sidney Roundwood has penned one for his ever popular Roundwood’s World Blog. His facts are wildly inaccurate, the game was set in 478AD, but then his is a mere Saxon pagan so we can’t expect too much. Here’s his account: http://sidneyroundwood.blogspot.com/2012/01/in-year-of-our-lord-452-ad.html

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8 Responses

  1. Ahh, incentive to paint more of the 1-200(+?) Dark Age figs I’ve got. It takes a real “push” to get me to paint more than 12 or so pieces in any scale over 10mm too!

    I like your approach to “magic”, really a thing of belief and morale than fingertip fireballs!

  2. Edward Sturges says:

    This looks really interesting – at least some of my 25mm/28mm figures for this era had better move up the painting queue …

    Edward

  3. Graham Knight says:

    Interesting stuff, and I really like the localisation of the campaign setting. I bought some figures for Saga at Christmas, so I think another trip to the Beast is called for in the spring, and another set of rules to use with the Saxons and Welsh now on the paint deck.
    Graham

  4. Barry Carter says:

    Oh how I am kicking myself for not making the journey to St.Albans on Tuesday………I cant make next Tuesday, but I do hope you will be Dark Ageing again the week after

  5. Colin says:

    This is very interesting; I discovered Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles and these rules sound perfect to recreate the atmosphere of those books on the tabletop.

    Looking forward to more posts on them!

  6. Kelvin White says:

    Oh dear Rich ….I could easily get hooked on this especially as most of my wargaming is now 10mm or 6mm. As always – you’ve done and presented your research and have set out your stance before throwing a dice. Looks like I’ll have to resubscribe to the list. Best regards Kelvin.

  7. Allen says:

    For a bit of nostalgia, then, here’s “DAIS”:

    http://www.wfgamers.org.uk/resources/callan/dais.htm

  8. Jim says:

    I really like where you seem to be going with these.

    Levies were a valuable resource not to be frittered away and a leader’s reputation (and of course his ability to ‘gift’ his followers) was essential in attracting warriors to his hearth and in making the jump from local chief to potential warlord imo.

    These could be really good! 🙂

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