Jan 27, 2020

Rogue Trader: Holidays of the Acheron sector

I wanted to add a little bit of verisimilitude to our Rogue Trader tabletop role-playing game campaign by figuring out what holidays people celebrate in the Acheron sector. We actually don't seem to know a whole lot about the Imperial year. There's a pretty good summary of what we do know at Bell of Lost Souls, and I've taken it as my point of departure. All dates are, of course, in the Imperial Dating System.

So what we learn from BoLS is that the main holidays of the Imperial calendar are Emperor's Day, which marks the new year, the Feast of the Emperor's Ascension, whose date is not given, and Candlemas at the end of the year. In general, holidays attached to religious figures don't necessarily have anything to do with their actual lives, if they even lived at all; for example, the date of Christmas was fairly obviously selected to coincide with the winter solstice, not least because it was already a popular Roman holiday. The fact that the first "Christmas" was celebrated centuries after Jesus's alleged birth quite conclusively demonstrates that it has no relation to any actual events. Using the same logic, I've decided to assign the Feast of the Emperor's Ascension to Midsummer, or year fraction 500.

This leaves the spring and autumn equinoxes, and since the Imperial calendar is based on ours, I thought it would be appropriate for them to also be important holidays that somehow carry on the spirit of ours. For autumn, it feels very Imperial to celebrate martyrs, so I've named the autumn equinox holiday the Martyrion. Spring is more difficult, since something celebrating new life and fertility verges on Slaanesh (although I still maintain that the Imperium is probably much more sex-positive than our 21st century society!), but I came up with a holiday called Vigilia, or Vigil in English: a coming-of-age feast day themed around the changing of the guard. A new generation takes up the watch and so on.

Apart from these major holidays, I've come up with a bunch of minor ones, with some assistance from my players, for which I'm grateful. As a final note, all the official year fraction dates are just that; in practice, I'd expect worlds would have to decide whether to celebrate a solstice holiday on the actual solstice, or on the exact official Imperial date. With ships each having their own time, some fairly bizarre feast-day coincidences will undoubtedly happen (if they get too bizarre, get in touch with the Ordo Chronos. Be vigilant!)


Major imperial holidays

Emperor's Day

Official date: year fraction 1

The most sacred holiday in the Imperial calendar celebrates, well, the Emperor. Not commemorating this holiday is surely a heresy. Unfortunately, we know very little about how it's celebrated! As it opens the new year, I'd like to think it's a time to celebrate new beginnings and undertakings.


Official date: year fraction 250

The Festival of the Watch celebrates coming of age, and the changing of the guard as new generations take up the cause of the Imperium of Man. Vigilia is celebrated in many different ways across the Imperium, from solemn religious ceremonies to blood sports. Space Marine chapters often choose recruits on Vigilia, and it is a traditional time for promotions and retirements.


Official date: year fraction 500

Lexicanum tells us that the Feast of the Emperor's Ascension is a week-long festival that's considered an especially auspicious time for marriages and other undertakings, and is generally the most important festivity of the year.


Official date: year fraction 750

As the autumn darkens, Imperial citizens come together to remember the dead at Martyrion. The form of the festivities varies from planet to planet, from somber processions to raucous parties, but all are focused on the honored dead, especially those who gave their lives in the service of the Emperor.


Official date: year fraction 997

A solemn holiday that marks the end of the year, and usually the darkest time of winter. Candlemas is a celebration of the light of the Emperor shining throughout the galaxy. On some worlds, Candlemas is celebrated as Sanguinala, in memory of the sacrifice of the Primarch Sanguinius.


Minor Imperial holidays

Day of Light

Official date: year fraction 200

An important ecclesiastical holiday, the Day of Light commemorates the overthrow of the tyrant Vandire by Sebastian Thor, and the founding of the Adepta Sororitas.

Knights' Day

Official date: year fraction 225

The main festival of the year on knight worlds, on other planets of the Imperium Knights' Day is celebrated as a martial holiday and the start of Vigilia festivities.

Feast-day of the Imperial Guard

Official date: year fraction 300

Soon after the great feast of Vigilia comes the feast-day of the Imperial Guard. On worlds with extensive Vigilia celebrations, this can be a solemn holiday of remembrance and return to duty; regiments often ship out after the feast-day. Years of service in the Guard are traditionally calculated by this date.

Day of Mercy

Official date: year fraction 400

A holy day of many saints across the Imperium, the Day of Mercy is the feast-day of the Imperial courts and Judges, and an important day for the Ecclesiarchy. If prisoners are to be pardoned or other indulgences announced, they are traditionally done on this day. The Day of Mercy is also considered an auspicious day to appeal to authorities or sponsors.

The Olympiad

Official date: year fraction 600

The Olympiad celebrates the Treaty of Olympus between the Imperium and the Machine Cult. For reasons that have been long since forgotten, the Olympiad is a time of athletic contests between teams and individuals.

Orphans' Day

Official date: year fraction 650

The feast-day of the Schola Progenum, Orphans' Day is a festival dedicated to children.

Tank Day

Official date: year fraction 700

The mailed fist of the Imperial Guard is celebrated on a day of motor-races and noisy festivities. On some worlds famous for their armored regiments, Tank Day is a highlight of the year and can involve an entire week of feasting, and even contests of skill involving actual tanks.


Official date: year fraction 775

A festival of masks and and revelry, rumored to be the feast-day of the Officio Assassinorum.

Artillery Day

Official date: year fraction 885

A feast-day that celebrates the Imperial Guard's massive indirect fire support, and also the factories and Forge Worlds that produce it. This is a festival of both firepower and labor.

Fleet Day

Official date: year fraction 900


Official date: year fraction 925

The first of the end-of-the year festivals, Reckoning heralds the coming of the Emperor's day and the last labors of the year. It is the feast-day of the Adeptus Arbites and of Imperial justice in general.

Feast-day of the Administratum

Official date: year fraction 950

In the Segmentum Obscurus, Candlemas season traditionally starts in 950 with the Feast-day of the Administratum, signifying another year in the record-books. There is great pressure on the scribes and adepts of the Administratum to conclude their work by the feast-day, though this rarely succeeds. By tradition, Administratum business stops on the feast-day and recommences after Emperor's Day. Filling and submitting forms on the feast-day is considered to bring good luck to the endeavour.


Acheron sector holidays

Martyrion of St. Valeria

Official date: year fraction 400

Consort of Saint Anastasia and scourge of the xenos, the Martyrion of St. Valeria the Light-bringer closes out the spring festivities in the Acheron sector, and is celebrated as the feast-day of Navigators.

Martyrion of St. Isabella

Official date: year fraction 700

Revered Saint Isabella the Just purged the Charon fringe of heretics and founded the Acheron sector, where her saint's day opens the Martyrion festivities.

Martyrion of St. Anastasia

Official date: year fraction 800

The last day of Martyrion in Acheron is in memory of revered Saint Anastasia, who opened the way to the rimward reaches of the sector and is especially commemorated in Ultra Pars.


Other local holidays

Confederation Day

Official date: year fraction 150

This day commemorates the founding of the Confederation, and is celebrated there as a joyous festival.


Anyway there's a bit of fluff that was fun to write. Next up, I think I'm going to talk a little more about the Confederation.

Jan 13, 2020

LotR LCG: The Haradrim cycle

I have crossed many mountains and many rivers, and trodden many plains, even into the far countries of Rhûn and Harad where the stars are strange.
- Aragorn, in the Lord of the Rings, book II, chapter II

Times were weird around Gencon 2016: we'd only just heard about Sands of Harad and gotten our hands on the Flame of the West when the first Haradrim adventure pack was announced, and promised for Q4 that year! Of course, none of us believed it, and as it happened, we got our copy of the Mûmakil in February 2017. February was also when the last pack in the cycle was announced; it officially came out a year later, in February 2018, but we didn't get our hands on it until the very end of April. At this release rate, the Ered Mithrin cycle should still be going!

John Howe: Haradrim, 2002


The Mûmakil - DL 4

The first quest in the cycle picks up right where Sands of Harad left off: our heroes have met up with Kahliel and his tribesmen, and are going to make their way back to Gondor. To do this, we're going to need to catch some Mûmakil, or Oliphaunts, to carry us across the Harad desert.

In practice, the quest is pretty heavy on locations until you get to the final phase, where you have to take on the Mûmaks and do damage to them in order to catch them. Out first three-handed attempt with the hobbits ended in location lock, so bring location control! There's also a treachery that turns into a condition attachment, Terrible Fever, and even an enemy that does the same, so bring something to get rid of them as well.

Next time, we brought a bear. This time, we survived the initial flood of locations and got our questing going. The enemies aren't very tough, but when the Mûmaks showed up, we got into a proper fight. Beorn died defending a Mûmak attack, but was brought back by Landroval, and eventually (pre-errata) Boromir secured some Support of the Eagles and memorably defended three Mûmakil in a turn! Soon enough, a Northern Tracker cleared out the locations, and when the last Mûmak fell into one of our traps, we won!

I still think that condition attachments are one of the worst-thought-out ideas in an otherwise excellently designed game; most quests don't have them, so something like Power of Orthanc will be a dead card most of the time. It feels a bit silly to have a list of the quests where I need to remember to add them to my deck. I like condition attachments as such - they work well in this quest - but I wish they were better integrated with the rest of the game.

Having said that, though, we enjoyed this quest. It's a bit heavy on the locations, but the mechanic where you first have to find and then catch the Mûmakil feels really thematic and a little different than anything we've done before. My only real complaints are that the locations all feel a bit too similar, and the encounter deck is really thin; in a reasonably succesful three-player game where we weren't particularly taking our time, we reshuffled at least twice. But like I said, it was fun and thematic, and I feel that this is a necessary part of the Harad experience.

Card spotlight: Wait No Longer

There were lots of useful player cards in the Mûmakil: we got Leadership Feint, Lore Feint, and, of course, Kahliel and the other objective allies from the Long Arm of Mordor as player cards. But the most interesting card here is the one that gives Tactics some encounter deck manipulation. In most quests, swapping an encounter card in staging for an engaged enemy is simply a great deal, especially for someone like Core Legolas, or a Dúnedain deck. Obviously this is an amazing card in solo, where it lets you skip staging entirely, but even with more players, everything is just that much easier with less encounter cards. Especially brilliant for a last-ditch questing push, where the extra engaged enemy just won't matter.


Race Across Harad - DL 6

Now that our heroes have captured Mûmaks to ride, they take off across the desert for the river Harnen, which marks the boundary between Harad and Gondor. Pursuing them are orcs on wargs, so not only do we have to survive the desert, but also outrace the orcs.

In practice, the quest setup is identical to Flight of the Stormcaller: there's the usual quest deck and staging area, and the orcs have their own area, as well as a quest deck they're advancing on. There are orc and warg enqemies, and the wargs will sometimes attach to the orcs as mounts, which is clever and works with the concept of the quest. Other than that, however, there isn't a whole lot of new stuff here. We took a swing at this back when it came out, but misplayed the orcs' questing at first, so although we won, I'm afraid we have to forfeit the result. We did have a fairly epic time of it, though, using a Boromir bomb to survive one last onslaught of enemies until a last questing push, aided greatly by Wait No Longer, got us to the river.

This is by no means an easy quest: quite a lot of threat can pile up in the staging area, and quite a few orcs in their staging area. I have to say, though, that as much fun as riding Oliphaunts across Harad is as an idea, in practice this is kind of a forgettable quest. It doesn't help that it really is exactly like Flight of the Stormcaller, but whereas that quest did a really good job of creating the feeling of an intense chase on the high seas, this is just, well, a slightly humdrum quest with like a desert, and some orcs. Decent but unimpressive.

Card spotlight: Steward of Orthanc

Two willpower and two hit points for three neutral resources? Spirit is the only sphere in which this isn't a great deal, and it's amazing for Tactics. The ability is a pure bonus. Also, it was a real pleasure to see an Orthanc ally again; it's a long time since the Ring-maker cycle, and we weren't expecting to see any more of these guys. It was kinda weird to see a whole archetype like Doomed introduced and then almost abandoned, so not only is this a really good card, but also a pleasant surprise.


Beneath the Sands - DL 5

In the comedy of errors that is our heroes' trek across Harad, they've now stumbled across desert spiders, and have to go rescue their companions from a spider cave in the desert.

We gave it a shot, and while the quest itself isn't too difficult, we eventually lost to location lock because several copies of Blocked Passage showed up, completely negating all of my deck's location control abilities. So that was annoying. Other than that, it's not a bad quest, but the on track - off track mechanism is a bit fiddly, and basically the quest consists of clearing uninteresting locations and fighting weakish enemies. Not exactly memorable.

Card spotlight: Keep Watch

An interesting side quest for several reasons: not a battle quest like the previous Tactics side quest, and a potentially very useful effect. Side quests are very situational, and since they're limited to one copy each, rarely show up, but this is one I really wouldn't mind seeing in, say, Moria.


The Black Serpent - DL 8

With the spiders behind us, our heroes come across the Black Serpent's forces. This quest is a pleasant surprise, as we're the ones doing the raiding for a change: you advance the quest both by placing progress and capturing objectives, which earns you the increasing attention of your enemies. Also, we're finally fighting the Haradrim again, in this adventure pack cycle called the jungle creatures southern orcs desert spiders Haradrim!

We took a stab at this quest three-handed with our visiting hobbit player, and pretty comprehensively threated out after losing several heroes to a combination of nasty shadow effects and the Black Serpent himself. Like the quests in the Harad deluxe expansion, this one was difficult (even if DL 8 feels a bit high), but it didn't steamroll us with massive enemies or giant piles of threat. Instead, this is another intelligently designed quest where the different pieces interact with each other to produce an escalating threat that you feel like you have several ways to fight. So a good quest, then; if you don't mind a little difficulty, I might even recommend it.

Card spotlight: Southron Refugee

An inadvertently topical card in terms of contemporary politics, the Southron Refugee is also the first faction reducer character like the ones we're used to seeing in the Game of Thrones LCG. She's certainly well suited to the expensive unique Harad allies, and the second hit point means she's not entirely useless on her own either. I also wanted to highlight this card because it reminds us of a feature of Tolkien's works that so often gets overlooked: his humanity towards the enemies of the Free Peoples. Sam gets a moment of empathy with the dead Southron warrior; Gandalf tells us he even pities the orcs. Similarly, the suffering and destruction of war isn't elided in the Lord of the Rings, but is part of the overall tragedy. So as a Tolkien fan, I'm very happy that Southron Refugee is part of our card collection.


The Dungeons of Cirith Gurat - DL 7

I guess the raiding of the southron caravan didn't go all that well, because the next quest is a jailbreak. This one focuses on capturing allies, but I have to be honest and say that we didn't really get anywhere with this quest, so this is a bit of a non-review. We found the combination of pure difficulty right off the bat and the sheer amount of text and special mechanics so offputting that we gave up on this one. Maybe there's a good quest hidden under all that stuff, but honestly, I doubt it.

Card spotlight: Heirs of Eärendil

Not only is this an excellent location control card, but I love the way it takes the Haradrim cycle mechanic of playing off heroes' traits and executes it in a very Tolkienian way. I used this with Arwen and Idraen, which I find adorably cute in so many ways.


The Crossings of Poros - DL 5

The last phase of our heroes' journey takes them to the Poros, the river that marks the boundary between Gondor and the lands of the Haradrim. Continuing the trend of really fiddly quests right to the end of the cycle, here you get an encounter deck and four different set-aside encounter decks. The occasional treachery will make you reveal a random card from a set-aside deck, and which randomly selected quest stage you end up on also removes some decks. This is another one of those things where on the one hand, I see how this is good for replay value and it's kind of interesting in itself, but again, it's fiddly, overly complicated and distracts from the actual gameplay. Because you can also draw just about anything, on our first try we found ourselves facing both the Uruk Chieftain and a Southron Champion - in addition to The Black Serpent, obviously - on our second turn! So the difficulty level can be, shall we say, variable. Still, at least it's an interesting quest, although again we didn't get very far.

Card spotlight: Wind from the Sea

Magic Ring is also in this adventure pack, and it's a really cool card because it's about time we got an artifact that represents both the potential and the danger of Rings of Power! But I like Flight to the Sea more, because it's also intensely Tolkien, and it lets you screw around with the encounter deck, and that's always fun. Specifically, for the measly price of two Spirit resources, you get to shuffle this beauty into the encounter deck:

It doesn't even have surge! I love the art, and the card itself is such a delight to see in staging. When it turns up as a shadow card, it can sometimes feel a bit wasted - but in that case it goes back into the discards, so if you're lucky you'll draw it again. An excellent card, very cheap and I think definitely worth bringing in any Spirit deck that can afford it.


On the whole, then, the Haradrim cycle was a bit of a mixed bag. None of the quests really stand out; Black Serpent was pretty good, Dungeons of Cirith Gurat wasn't; Crossings of Poros was kind of interesting, most of the rest of them weren't. I think Poros is the only one we'd be interested in revisiting at all. So I might actually go as far as to say - with the considerable caveat that we've barely played the Angmar adventure packs at all - that unfortunately the Haradrim cycle is the blandest adventure pack cycle in the game.


As for my deck, it remains unchanged.

57 cards; 33 Spirit, 20 Lore, 4 neutral; 25 allies, 13 attachments, 16 events, 3 side quests. Starting threat 27.

Lanwyn (TTitD)
Idraen (TTT)
Rossiel (EfMG)

Allies: 25 (19/6)
Elfhelm (TDM)
Northern Tracker ×2
Bofur (TRG)
Elrohir (TMoF)
Greyflood Wanderer (TTT) ×2
Rhovanion Outrider (TotD) ×2
Arwen Undómiel (TWitW) ×2
Bilbo Baggins (TRD)
Curious Brandybuck (TWoE)
Galadriel's Handmaiden (CS) ×3
West Road Traveler (RtM) ×3
Elladan (TMoF)
Mablung (TLoS)
Warden of Healing (TLD) ×3
Henamarth Riversong

Attachments: 13 (7/5/1)
Unexpected Courage ×2
Light of Valinor (FoS) ×2
Mithril Shirt (TFoW)
Song of Eärendil (RtR)
Warden of Arnor (TTT)
A Burning Brand (CatC) ×2
Cloak of Lórien (CS)
Dúnedain Pipe (TBS)
Map of Rhovanion (TWoR)
Magic Ring (TCoP)

Events: 16 (5/8/3)
Flight to the Sea (TCoP) ×2
A Test of Will ×3
Leave No Trace (EfMG) ×2
None Return (AtE) ×3
Daeron's Runes (FoS) ×3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) ×3

Side quests: 3 (2/1)
Rally the West (TBS)
Double Back (EfMG)
Scout Ahead (TWoE)

Dwarven Tomb ×2
Power of Orthanc (VoI) ×3
Deep Knowledge (VoI) ×3

Lord of the Rings saga expansions with Fellowship Frodo when the hobbit deck isn't around sideboard:
Sam Gamgee (TTitD) x1

Jan 6, 2020

Let's Read Tolkien 64: The Passing of the Grey Company

Gandalf was gone, and the thudding hoofs of Shadowfax were lost in the night, when Merry came back to Aragorn.

Meanwhile, back at the other ranch: Gandalf speeds off with Pippin, leaving Merry with Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas and the Riders of Rohan. Soon after they've set off back to Helm's Deep, they're overtaken by a group of riders who turn out to be Aragorn's kinsmen from the North, and Elrond's twin sons. I don't think we ever find out if they're as racist as their dad. Anyway they bring Aragorn a flag and some lore reminders.

Fortified with these, Aragorn withdraws while the others eat at the Hornburg. For his own reasons, Merry has taken a shine to Théoden, and offers his service to the king. It's accepted, and he rides off to Edoras with the king's household while Aragorn dramatically announces that he will be taking the Paths of the Dead.

After Théoden's party leaves, Aragorn explains that he looked into the palantír. He not only introduced himself to Sauron, but as Isildur's heir and therefore the rightful owner of the stone, used it to look around a bit as well. Apparently he saw a threat from the south which he has to intercept, and he will do this by passing the White Mountains through the Paths of the Dead, and recruiting a bunch of dead guys while he's there. Dead Men of Dunharrow is a hell of a card to have at the right time in War of the Ring, so it's a good strategy. The ghosts will do what he says because - you guessed it - he's Isildur's heir.

The way to the Paths is through Dunharrow, where Éowyn is in charge. Because the Rohirrim apparently believe that if you go to the Paths you get eaten by ghosts or something, she is very skeptical about Aragorn's plans. However, because she has a crush on him and is extremely frustrated that she can't go to war with her king, she begs Aragorn to take her with him. He refuses and gives her a homily on how she needs to stay behind, and how she may yet get to fight to defend her home if the men fail. Her reply:

And she answered: "All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more."

This is such a searingly, amazingly brutal takedown of Aragorn's patriarchal condescension that I'm still not over it. Aragorn then rides off and they go through a scary ghost place to meet the ghosts, but never mind because this is the key part of the chapter right here. Éowyn is directly putting into words how the system of male honor and warfare works: only men are allowed to go and fight, and if they win, women must praise and worship them; if they lose, it doesn't matter what happens to the women because the men will no longer need them. Whatever her abilities, a woman's place in this scheme is only ever as a spectator or a victim. Aragorn has no counter-argument to this, and only gets out of the situation on the technicality that he can't countermand Théoden's orders.

"I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death."
"What do you fear, lady?" he asked.
"A cage."

This is genuinely powerful stuff. This is Éowyn's chapter; Aragorn just happens to ride through it.


So, the return of the king is underway, with Aragorn openly declaring himself Isildur's heir to various ghosts and Saurons. His claiming of the palantír and confrontation with the Enemy is good stuff. For all that he carps on about his royal heritage, though, it's worth remembering that the actual hero of the story, Frodo, is the heir of Bilbo, but neither of them ever got anywhere by declaring their illustrious heritage. Because they don't have one. Heritage and heroism were current themes as I was writing this, and there's still a strange obsession with bloodlines and descent in our entertainment, from space wizard daddy issues to orphan wizards who grow up to be cops. Tolkien and his waning bloodlines certainly plays his part, but let's not forget that the fate of Middle-earth is not ultimately decided by any scion of a legendary family tree.

Tolkien takes a moment here to underline the connection between the Rohirrim and the Anglo-Saxons by referring to the "weapontake" at Edoras; in the Danelaw, a wapentake was a subdivision of a shire, and here Tolkien uses the word in a far more literal meaning that may well be where it originally comes from.

Edoras, by the way, is where we already met Éowyn. How Tolkien goes from an entire novel that fails to feature one single named woman character to Éowyn basically indicting the patriarchy, I will never fully understand. Her biting commentary on gender inequality could have been written today.

In his letters, Tolkien talks briefly about the "theme of mistaken love" (Letters, 131) with Éowyn and Aragorn; the idea is that Aragorn represented a way out of her predicament, rather than someone she actually loved. Her despair at being left behind due to sexism is palpable.

My personal opinion is that in the end, the absence of women in Tolkien's writing is not necessarily so much due to any particular misogyny, but rather that it's a product of his almost exclusively masculine upbringing. While it's far too rarely remarked upon that Tolkien was introduced to this whole business of inventing languages by two of his female cousins, most of his childhood and youth after the death of his mother seem to have been spent in exclusively masculine company. His only sibling was a brother; they were raised by a Catholic priest and went to boys-only schools; Tolkien's friends at university seem to all have been men, and he served in the army with men. With a background like this, is it really surprising that women are either distant and ethereal objects of worship, matronly older relatives or, far more often, simply completely absent? It seems like it would have been quite natural for Tolkien to have conceived of his stories as quite literally "Boys' Own" adventures.

The great exception, of course, is Éowyn, who comes straight out of the Scandinavian sagas. In a sense, she's another victory of Tolkien's faithfulness to his "Northern" ideas: even though women barely appear in the story at all, if the Lord of the Rings is a saga, then it must have a shield-maiden, and Éowyn is her. As I said earlier, Éowyn also echoes the strong historical role of women in Mercia, which Éowyn's Rohan is based on. Ultimately it's a tragedy that Tolkien was so incurably phallocentric in his writing, since I think Éowyn and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins are some of his best characters. He could "write women"; he could even potray a woman as equal to men; it's just that he could not actually seem to conceive of women as equal participants in his stories. Their absence is one of the most enduring, fundamental flaws of his work.


Next time: more horses.