Shannara: The Battle of Baen Draw by Bill Johnson

Issue: 28

Shannara: The Battle of Baen Draw
by Bill Johnson

The Shannara series by Terry Brooks comes in seven weighty volumes which could be retitled The Ohmsford Saga. For those (are there any?) who have not read this saga of worlds and centuries, they belong to the 'quest' genre and are somewhat formulaic in their writing. This is not to say that they are not well written and they do, to my mind, make entertaining reading. However, whilst they are a great source of skirmish ideas the few full scale battles that occur are mainly sieges and do not, on the whole, lend themselves to wargaming. The most promising conflict is that in The Elfstones of Shannara

A quick summary of the plot: Wil Ohmsford, holder of the Elfstones, a rapid fire plasma beam projector with auto-target selector disguised as three harmless looking pebbles, has to journey into the far west to escort an elf maiden to germinate the seed of the Ellcrys. This is a sort of tree which for centuries has secured the gateway to a parallel universe full of nasties. The poor old magic tree has reached the end of its tether and is about to die. Demon hordes under the leadership of a primitive Thatcherite called Dagda Mor are out for a bit of asset stripping and have broken through the failing gateway. They are attempting to destroy the site of the Ellcrys and thus obtain complete power over the world, maybe the galaxy, maybe the universe. Whatever it is, it's dire and the poor old elves haven't even got a health service.

Anyway, young Will with his bit of fluff, well, two bits of fluff actually, disappears into the Wild West and (Would you believe it?) they start out in a wagon train. This leaves the elven army under their king Eventine and his son Ander Elessidil to hold back the demon hordes. After being thoroughly smegged in a pass called Halys Cut, (no relation to Government) they then attempt to hold the Baen Draw, the entrance to the Sarandonon, a valley which is, or was, the granary of the elves.

In the book the strategy is for the bowmen to hold the steep sides of the valley mouth and keep on smacking an apparently limitless supply of arrows into an equally limitless supply of horrid black demons. After a spell of resistance the cavalry feigns a retreat and draws the demon hordes on into a reckless pursuit and then when the baddies are all strung out in a long salient the super wizard, Allanon the druid, nips it off at the base with a bit of blue fire, just your everyday wizard stuff. Meanwhile goody horsemen have been waiting in ambush and now close in on the flanks of the salient and smeg the tired demons. This old Mongol tactic works quite well until the knock-off whistle blows at five-o-clock. By this time the goodies are so fed up with all this running around and not making any dent in the numbers of demons that they all grab their lunch tins, pick up their hats and coats and trot along home.

Doesn't work in Hordes of the Things. Try it and see.

First problem is that the demons in order to keep on coming would have to be hordes and these are so slow moving as to make it impossible for them to chase cavalry. In any case, once let through the hole any demon commander worth his salt would not pursue but use the overlap advantage or attempt to encircle the remaining elf units. In order to stop this you can make the hordes impetuous as in DBM and increase their speed so as to make it worthwhile for them to chase the cavalry. However this illustrates one of the major disadvantages of HOTT. In a paraphrase of the well known Gertrude Stein phrase, 'a horde is a horde is a horde' and 'a blade is a blade.....', etc. And it doesn't matter whether the blades are fairies with dressmaker's pins for rapiers, ogres with giant axes or, as I have seen in the pages of Ragnarok, teddy bears with wooden swords, they are all blades and in HOTT, all have exactly the same status.

Aw, come on fellas, let's get real! Well, at least, fantastically real.

Then of course, we know that if faced with hordes, Combat Factor (CF) 2, any elf commander worth his bananas would dismount his knights (CF 3 versus infantry) and have them fight as blades CF 5. If the blades stretch from cliff to shining cliff then the hordes don't have a chance of destroying one element. Ah but, I hear you say, they do have a 1 in 18 chance of pushing one of the blade elements back and thus securing an overlap so as to reduce the odds on a target element. However, they still cannot destroy this target blade element unless they manage to drive back the element on the other side of the target. Another 1 in 18 chance. Now they do indeed have a chance, a 1 in 36 chance, of destroying the isolated blade element. Statistically speaking only a 1 in 11,644 chance of the three events happening together.

Oooh, easy! Nothing to it. Happens every day.

This leads us on to yet another problem in HOTT: the indefatigability and endless optimism of those little lead soldiers. These elf blades can fight all day and all night and on into the next month if necessary and still have plenty of time to sing, quaff back a few ales and roger a buxom lass or two. You could say, "So, lets get them tired. Take 1 off their CFs after they have fought 3 or 4 or, think of a number, times." Bit crude isn't it and who's going to keep count? Are you going to do it in every battle? For those with a ancient history bent the identical problem occurs when trying to refight Zama with DBM and, of course, completely destroys what appears to have been Hannibal's strategy.

On the other hand keeping HOTT as it is, in order to have a chance of breaking through, the demon commander could put a bit of beef into his army, classify some big demons as behemoths. The Armies might then read:

The Elves
1 MagicianAllanon the Druid4
1 HeroSundry characters4
2 CavalryThe Border Riders4
1 KnightsThe Elf Riders2
2 BowmenElf Archers4
2 SpearsThe rest of the Elves4
1 BladesDwarf Pioneers2
The Demons
3 Behemoths12
6 Hordes12

But in HOTT behemoths can't return like hordes. The magician or the bows clobber a couple and we're back to square one.

What are we to do?

Of course, you can increase the supply of troops, a kind of super HOTT, then you can have limitless supplies of hordes together with lots of other troop types whilst at the same time you give the elves just 24 points. But if we do, then we know the outcome before the battle, so what's the point?

In conclusion, while we all know that it is virtually impossible to reproduce a battle from a novel onto a wargames table without major surgery, a scenario like this well illustrates the drawbacks of all the DBA derivatives.

Now various amendments to DBA variants have been suggested. Some deal with the movement allowance variations as Alex Baumann in Slingshot 183 January 1996. If you regard fantasy battles as similar to those fought in the Dark Ages then there could be an argument that if generals are engaged in front line fighting they can no longer control their troops so that instead of rolling PIPs you roll to see if you can move any unengaged unit on a Yes/No arrangement.

Others suggest altering combat factors slightly for different periods to reflect the efficiency of developments in weapon systems. In relation to HOTT one amendment immediately comes to mind which is taking 1 from the combat factor of all small creatures although one could argue against this saying that the bases represent a fixed space and there would be more small creatures packed into this space. Would this really balance their decreased strength and hitting range?

Another area of frequent complaint is magic. Can magic be limited simply to one kind of spell? Admittedly spells like lightning bolt, fireball, ice blast all belong to the death ray type and are adequately covered by the SPG type spell already in HOTT. Also possibly the "blockade" type of spell, dig pit, wall of flame could be said to be represented by recoils. But what about spells like invisibility, flying, teleportation etc? Do you consider them to be sufficiently different and sufficiently useful to want to utilise them in a game of this nature. Again there are psychological spells such as haste or fear or bless, which temporarily affect the combat factors or movement of specific units or bases. Are these different enough and useful enough to warrant inclusion?

DBA and its derivatives are games which seem to attract either love or hate with little in between. They purport to do away with technical minutiae and leave the way free to concentrate on battlefield tactics. They have done this very well, no order sheets, combat, morale, fatigue and casualty removal are pared down to their most simple. But in doing this, when it comes to fantasy, have they thrown the baby out with the bathwater?

Well, for my part, if you use HOTT or a DBM derivative I don't think you can even get the feel of a battle like this and give it any sort of unpredictability. Secondly, to me HOTT battles do not fight like fantasy whose main attraction is having lots of different races and creatures all with their own peculiarities. Lastly, no DBA derivative fights like a real battle with people getting tired or just plain pissed off. (I do believe that genteel persons like wot I ain't call the latter, 'declining morale'.)

In the little group I wargame with we have tried the novel sized rule sets like Fantasy Warlord and have become so bogged down in paper that we have given up. We've tried Martin Hacket's magnum opus but that works best as a skirmish game and is really designed for 25mm. figures. The same applies to an equally well known game from THAT chain of shops and besides I hate rolling for the same thing three bloody times. We have tried fiddling with DBM modifiers but the fight mechanisms are so simple that tinkering with it only makes it worse. We have tried Necromancer's Bane from Irregular Miniatures. Right idea, pity it doesn't work too well. At the moment we are tinkering with Necromancer's Bane in order to make it work better.

But, what we would really like are a set of quick play rules that can get us through a game in one evening, keep the feel of fantasy, eliminate most of the bookwork, has a QR sheet that only runs to 2 sides of A4 and not have to use a library that's bigger than the wargames table and yet still allows us to play big army games with 10mm. figures. Preferable it should not be so old fashioned that it relies on casualty removal and it must certainly not go along with the idea that that two thirds of the army is killed before morale drops to running away point.

Are we dreaming? Probably, but we would welcome any suggestions. (Sensible ones only, please.)