All posts by james

James has a keen interest in military history, backed with experience as a TA reservist and a 17th century re-enactor. He has designed and run several face to face social games and is the editor of MilMud, the journal of the CLWG game design group. He is currently working on a book on the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution.

Tokuemon Takedown [D&D 5e]

Tokuemon Takedown is the third, and final, session in the Yojimbo mission followed hot on the heels of the Silkworm Inn incident. Starting without pause where we left off the party gathered on the street outside.

Silkworm Inn with street context, it’s the black roofed building in the centre. The alley is to the right of the Inn. (Photo: James Kemp)

A crowd of potential helpers had arrived to put out the fire. As they assembled Harbek had created water inside the Silkworm Inn to dowse the flames. Kohei recognised Kanji, the town clerk of Yojimbo, in the crowd. They both played, and lost, regularly at Tokuemon’s table.

Rescuing Nui

Realising that they still needed to rescue Nui, Sator and Elgon sought out the alley to the side of the Silkworm to work round the back. Sator, being a halfling, lead, allowing Elgon to see over him and provide cover if necessary. On entering the Alley they found it blocked by an armoured human backed up by another human with a bow. This was communicated to the others.

Harbek and Zia decided to go long and outflank from the alley a couple of buildings to the right of the Silkworm. They set off at a run while Sator tried to establish why the men were blocking the alley.

The negotiations were brief. Sator was answered with an arrow, which narrowly missed him, Elgon and the crowd to bury itself at human head height in the Building across the street. Elgon reacted rapidly and used burning hands, scorching both humans and setting some of the rubbish in the alley on fire.

Kohei and Kanji followed up on the commotion in the alley in time to see the larger well armoured human charge Sator and jab him with a sword cut. Sator gave as good as he got, and Elgon used magic missile on the attacker. The bowman at the back shot at Kohei, sticking an arrow in him. Kohei also shot back, but missed.

Narrow Alley

Elgon realised that he was running out of spells, and stepped back. The alley was quite narrow and there wasn’t quite room for two abreast. Kanji healed Kohei a bit while Kohei traded shots with the bowman. Similarly Sator and the swordsman parried each others blows, although Sator got a bit home and drove the swordsman back down the alley.

From the side gate of the Silkworm Inn a third armoured person lead two horses, one with a suspicious package in a blanket tied over the saddle.

Sator and Kohei both shot the swordsman with their bows. Elgon used his last spell to magic missile the third warrior and both horses. The main effect of this was to panic both horses. This in turn caused as yet unseen horses in the Silkworm’s back courtyard to neigh loudly and rear up.

The brief panic bought enough time for Harbek and Zia to come running round the corner. Harbek lead with his flaming axe, and in one mighty blow cleaved the helmet on the third warrior in two. He fell to the ground in a spreading puddle of blood. This so demoralised the others that they immediately threw down their weapons.

Alley Aftermath

On closer inspection the ‘package’ on the second horse was found to be Nui. She had been tied and gagged before being carried downstairs and thrown over the horse. Interrogation of the prisoners, including the unfortunate third warrior who was healed, pointed the finger clearly at Tokuemon. On finding the Silkworm under attack and on fire they’d decided to evacuate to Tokuemon’s country house.

Realising that they weren’t expected to report in yet the party planned a surprise raid on Tokuemon’s country house. They decided to go in the middle of the night and rested up to await darkness.

Tokuemon’s Lair

The party rode out to Tokuemon’s place. They left Oroborus looking after the horses in a copse a couple of hundred yards from the edge of Tokuemon’s house. As you can see from the picture, the house is a grand affair, surrounded by a ten foot high wall. There are guard towers at each corner and a grand entrance with a guard box outside where it joins the main road into Yojimbo.

Neutralising the guards

Sator and Kohei crept up to the guardhouse to take out the guard, bows in hand. The plan was to be as silent as possible. This worked up until Kohei walked into a bush. This alerted the guard, who came out of the guard post to investigate. Sator and Kohei froze, and the guard peered into the darkness shining his lantern around.

The guard was clearly silhouetted against the whitewashed walls of the compound. When he turned to go back to his post both Sator and Kohei loosed arrows at him. Two arrows struck home, followed rapidly by two more. The guard fell to the floor with a clatter. Sator and Kohei tensed. Had anyone heard the guard’s fall?

They listened carefully, but all appeared silent. They waited a few moments longer before Sator snuck forward. Kohei couldn’t hear anything, and Sator established that there was a light coming from a room inside the gatehouse. Closing one eye to protect his night vision Sator went closer. Snores could be heard from within.

Sator slid silently to the door and felt the key in the back of the lock. He gently eased it out, closed the door behind him and then locked it. Taking the key he went back out to signal the others to join them.

Gaining Entry

Sator lead the party into Tokuemon’s compound. Wary in the silence and darkness lest there was an ambush lurking, they slid from tree to tree on the outside of the drive. Checking out the front they decided that a rear entry would be safer.

They worked their way quietly around the back of the building. Sator picked the lock to open the kitchen door. Inside the house was silent and still. A short muffled debate sprang up when Zia wanted to collect snacks for later. She was overruled.

The grand double height dining hall was next. The table was bare, and seats stacked on top of it. Cushions protecting the table top. Moonlight filtered through the windows, the curtains all still tied back.

From there it was Tokuemon’s Parlour, with the gaming table so familiar to Kohei and Kanji. After that it was the entrance hall, and up the stairs to the tower where Tokuemon had his personal quarters.

Tokuemon Appears

The entrance hall was stone flagged with carpets in the main walkway. It also had stone walls and a smooth plastered ceiling. To the left of the main door as you came in was a grand staircase, with a landing as it turned right. This was opposite the wide doorway into the Parlour.

As the party came into the darkened hallway they became aware of Tokuemon standing on the landing. When they were all in the hallway he asked what they were doing in his house in the middle of the night?

Kohei replied “You kidnapped my sister, and I’m here to make you pay”.

Tokuemon smiled.

No! Fireball!

The party tried their best to dodge, but it was rather an enclosed space. The carpets and wall hangings burst into flames, illuminating the space. Several of the party were left reeling, if Tokuemon got a second chance it would be their last.

Harbek shot Tokuemon, a good shot from his bow that went home. Tokuemon reacted without thinking and sent a lightning bolt from his fingertip to Harbek. Harbek writhed in pain, it was almost more than he could cope with. Despite this the others shot arrows into Tokuemon. Even with five arrows sticking out of him he just laughed at them.

Harbek summoned up the last of his energy and cast Hold Person on Tokuemon. His laughter faded as he struggled vainly to escape. Most of the others shot arrows into Tokuemon.

Zia took the moment to hit the button on the lightning javelin she’d found. Not sure what to expect. A blinding flash and a burning smell accompanied a loud tearing sound as lightning joined the staff to Tokuemon. No longer held by the spell Tokuemon was propelled into the wall behind him. He fell limply onto the floor.

Determined to get revenge Harbek launched himself up the stairs and removed Tokuemon’s head with his flaming axe before he could recover.

Tokuemon’s Treasure

Having taken down Tokuemon the party had a look round his house.

In the private quarters they found a number of interesting items

  • A scroll with a spell written on it
  • A mysterious potion in a glass bottle
  • A bag of beans
  • A handy haversack
  • An interesting cube
  • A ring
  • A light hammer
  • A short sword

In the Parlour there were several works of art, and also a load of cash, mainly in gold and silver.

Silkworm Inn catches fire [D&D 5e]

Fire in the Silkworm Inn is the next part of the Yojimbo D&D campaign following on from Taking Yoichiro Home. Having been bailed out of the local jail, and recruited Kohei to help find Nui the group assemble in the town square to discuss their next moves. The local constabulary keep a close eye on them, and Inokichi appears to have a beef with the brewery guards across the square. Under the watchful eye of the constables he is persuaded to save it for another day.

Silkworm Inn

SIlkworm eating a Mulberry Leaf
Silkworm eating a mulberry leaf (image: Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay)

Using Kohei’s local knowledge the group decide to go seek Tokuemon at the Silkworm Inn. He owns a chunk of it and is known to frequent the plush back room of the Silkworm, where he gambles with Kohei (and others). Oroborus decided to wait outside in case there was any trouble. She’d call the others if there was any problem.

The Silkworm Inn was relatively quiet, six regulars were in, all known to Kohei at least by sight. The bouncer was stood by the door to the back room and a barkeep was behind the bar. The group, less Oroborus, ordered drinks at the bar and then took a table in the middle.

Collecting Information

Kohei used the time while the drinks were being poured to chat to a friend and ask about his sister Nui. His friend was nervous about sharing info, but said that he’d heard Nui was back in town. When pressed by Kohei about where she might be he said he ought not to tell, and that Kohei couldn’t tell anyone how he knew, but looking upstairs in the Silkworm Inn might be fruitful.

Sator asked the barkeep about Nui while she was serving up the drinks. He was told Nui was away in the bid city, and that stories she’d been kidnapped were just that, stories. All the while the barkeep looked frequently at the bouncer, and gave the impression of sticking to a script. Needless to say Sator wasn’t convinced by her denials.

Zia chatted to a man at the corner of the bar and asked if he knew anything about the back room and what was upstairs. The man was pretty free with information. He told her that the rich folks, like what Zia obviously was, drank in the back. It was much nicer than the common room, but was about four times the price. She asked about Tokuemon and was told that he often came in, always out the back. On being asked if anyone was out the back Zia was told that there were about four or five people, plus Gonji (the Landlord).

Making for the Back Room

The group sat at their table and had a quiet drink while sharing the information that they’d picked up. Kohei shared that the bouncer was only there to keep the riffraff out from the back. So they decided to go through when they finished their drinks. As they were drinking up Gonji came into the common room from the back room. He took one look at the group, and then whispered something to the bouncer before retiring back through the door.

The group took that as their cue to follow and downed their drinks. When the bouncer realised that they were coming for the back room he banged his club on the door and shouted for backup. The group carried on walking up to him, trying not to look threatening. A somewhat drunk dwarf, sitting near the door to the back room got up and swore at them. The other regulars hurriedly finished their drinks and paid attention to the door.

Bar fight

The drunk dwarf said he was going to kill the $@!* elf. So help him gods. Drawing his sword he lunged at Elgon. Thankfully he was so drunk that all he managed to do was throw the sword across the room, missing Elgon. Sator, who was leading on the way to the door, ducked under a table. This was just as well as the bouncer lunged at him with his club, but missed owing to Sator ducking out of the way. The helpful man at the bar decided to join in the fight and hit Zia over the head with his empty glass. Without thinking Zia spun round and hit him with the flat of her great axe, dazing him.

Harbek spun round too turning on his flaming axe. He pre-emptively hit a dwarf that was going for a club from under the table. This didn’t prevent the dwarf from retaliating. Kohei was grabbed by his friend and they hid between the tables. One of the other patrons also hid between another set of tables when he saw the fight start. The last stood and watched from near the door, as did the barkeep. Elgon shot a magic missile at the drunk dwarf, who wasn’t noticeably affected by it.

Oroborus heard the commotion from outside and came into the bar. As he did the human at that end of the bar hit him with a pewter tankard, spilling beer all over her. Oroborus retaliated, pushing the human into a nearby table and knocking him off balance. Zia traded more blows with the man that attacked her, leaving him unconscious on the floor. Harbek put his opponent down too, and turned towards the back. The barkeep ducked below the bar.

Silkworm Inn burns

At the back of the Silkworm’s common room things escalated. The drunken dwarf persisted in trying to hit Elgon, despite being too drunk for co-ordination. Elgon, frustrated that magic missile hadn’t taken the dwarf out, and worried he was about to be physically assaulted, resorted to Burning Hands. In his panic Elgon put his maximum effort into it.

Unable to dodge the drunken dwarf took the full force of burning hands from Elgon. He also got hit in the rear as it bounced off the stone rear wall of the Silkworm’s common room. Elgon, surprised by the rebound, also took the full force of the cone of fire. The bouncer, Sator, Kohei and his friend all managed to dodge the blast, although got lightly singed despite cover from the benches and dodging. The barkeep popped up from behind the bar with her crossbow as soon as the cone of fire stopped. She hit Elgon square in the back with a bolt. It’s possible the only thing that kept Elgon on his feet was being hit from both sides!

Fleeing the Fire

Most of the people in the bar decided it was time to leave. Oroborus’s opponent pushed past him and ran out the door, with Oroborus in hot pursuit. The drinker hiding between the tables in the middle of the room also dashed for the door. Kohei’s friend crawled under the tables to avoid the melee at the end of where he was hiding. The bouncer took a swing with his club at Elgon as he dashed past. It was a lucky hit, connecting with a sickening crunch. Elgon dropped to the floor. Kohei rolled to put the fire on his clothes out and stop the burning. Everyone else conscious went for the door.

When Kohei rolled back up he spotted Elgon on the floor and dragged him to the door of the Silkworm. Slowed by dragging Elgon, Kohei met Harbek at the door, when Harbek came back in to dowse the flames by creating water above them. This successfully doused the fire.

Smoking Silkworm

Outside Orobus strung his longbow and took aim at his fleeing opponent. The cry of ‘Fire!’ went up and people started running. Sator checked the two patrons that hadn’t been involved in the fight were OK, he then went with them to get buckets and water. Kohei attempted to revive Elgon, but without success. Elgon was too badly injured for his healing words to have any effect.

The bouncer and Zia decided that the fight was over and also went to get help for firefighting. Oroborus shot the fleeing man in the back, he fell face down in the street some distance away from the tavern.

Many townsfolk and the local constable arrived with buckets, ladders and a pump. Just in time to find out that Harbek had put the fire out.

[To be continued…]

 

Taking Yoichiro Home [D&D 5e]

This is a write up of a D&D 5e session titled Taking Yoichiro Home which is part of a mini-campaign being run for Alexander and his friends.

Taking Yoichiro Home

So last time round you found Yoichiro, the son of Seibei, and persuaded him to go home with you to see his dad before he dies. So it’s time to take Yoichiro and his very beautiful (by dwarf standards) girlfriend Nui to the town of Yojimbo, two days ride away from the big city. Yojimbo is 2 days normal travel to the southwest, but you can do it in one day if you push the horses

On the way you spot a burning village on the horizon several miles off to the East as you are riding SW. Zia and Oroborus can also see other riders making for the village from the city, so you decide to carry on towards Yojimbo. When you stop for lunch you notice that Nui is looking worried.  She tells you that she’s worried about whether her parents will be happy, because she ran off to be with Yoichiro without getting permission

Arrival at Yojimbo

After dropping Yoichiro at his parents home, and leaving Nui to go to her folks, you spend some of the evening mooching about town trying to talk to people and find out rumours. Afterwards you gather in the common room in the Silkworm Tavern and share what you find. You’ve discovered that:

  • Seibei is the richest man in town, and that he is in partnership with the local mayor (Tazaemon) as silk merchants.
  • His right hand man, Ushitori (a human) has recently fallen out with Seibei because Ushitori was hoping to take over the silk merchant business when Seibei died.
  • Nui’s brother has lost loads of money to Tokuemon, the local brewery owner.
  • Tazaemon, the mayor, is a dwarf and also a silk merchant.

You all get a  good night’s sleep and wake up to find that it is market day in the town. There are stalls being set up in the square with a whole host of farming goods. The primary business in the town is silk farming, there’s a single large silk merchant business, and several weavers and silk farmers supporting it. About half of the fields in the couple of miles around the town were mulberry trees, The rest had a mix of crops,

Collecting Rumours

Other rumours, collected after breakfast amongst those in for the market:

  • The local constable, Hansuke (a human) is completely useless, and never intervenes.
  • The hardest fighter in town is Inokichi, but he’s pretty dense
  • Someone broke into the brewery warehouse last night, but nothing was taken.
  • Seibei appears to have made a dramatic recovery
  • Seibei is about to die any minute
  • Seibei is scheming to buy out the brewery so that he owns the whole town
  • Ushitori wants his friend Tokuemon to be the mayor
  • Tazaemon (the current mayor) is losing the plot, yesterday he thought his horse was on the council
  • There’s a room at the back of the Silkworm where you can pay 100 gold pieces and you know what…
  • Hansuke likes dwarf women better than human women
  • Isuzu, Seibei’s wife, is a sorceress and uses mind control spells to make people do what is best for Seibei
  • Yoichiro ran away because he was scared of Kohei (Nui’s brother)
  • Yoichiro ran away because his dad beat him senseless
  • Yoichiro ran away because Ushitora beat him up and threatened to kill him
  • Yoichiro ran away because Tazaemon bought him out
  • Yoichiro didn’t run away, Nui’s parents kidnapped him and had him sent to the mines to stop him courting their daughter. They did the same with their daughter too

While you are having lunch Yoichiro arrives in the Silkworm Tavern, and asks if you’ve seen Nui? She wasn’t at her parents house, and they didn’t see her last night. After some discussion the group splits up, one part to see Nui’s parents and the other to speak to the local constable.

Facts about Nui’s Disappearance

Hansuke, the constable, is eating his lunch at a table just outside the Silkworm tavern.  When he finishes eating Harbek unexplainedly picks a fight with him and ends up unconscious on the floor after hitting Hansuke once with his flaming axe. Orobus attempts to get revenge, but is taken down by a single strike from Hansuke’s halberd.  Hansuke then decides that Elgon is looking well dodgy and thumps him on the head with his baton, making Elgon collapse to the floor. Yoichiro steps in and stops Hansuke from going any further. The three unconscious ones are carried over to the town hall for healing and time in the cells….

Meanwhile, over at Nui’s parents house….

Zia and Sator knock the door. It is opened by a dwarf. Door is about four feet tall. Nui’s mum answers the door. You find out that she definitely hasn’t seen Nui for 2.5 months. Zia asks about Kohei, Nui’s brother, and with a bit of intimidation you find out that he works all hours in the smithy, but that despite this he can’t afford to get his own place and still lives with his parents.

Confirming Stories

So over to the forge in the market square to see Kohei.
Kohei has been told that Tokuemon’s friends have Nui, but he didn’t believe them. They said they’d hold her until he paid up. He doesn’t know you guys well enough, so he wants confirmation from Yoichiro that Nui came here. At the tavern you get directed over to the town hall to find Yoichiro and your friends

In the Town Hall the local cleric has healed everyone and woken them up. Yoichiro has smoothed things over with the authorities and paid a fee for your continued good behaviour.  Harbek just wants to settle with Yoichiro and leave town. However the others agree that Nui has been kidnapped and they should help free her. Tokuemon knows who holds her because he sent Kohei a message. Kohei needs 10,000 Gold Pieces to get his sister free.

Destructive & Formidable by David Blackmore [Book Review]

Destructive and Formidable: British Infantry Firepower 1642 - 1765Destructive and Formidable by David Blackmore is a quantitative look at British infantry doctrine using period sources from the British Civil Wars of the seventeenth century up to just before the Napoleonic wars. If anything you can see the constancy, which drove the success in battle of British forces, even when outnumbered.

Development of British Infantry Doctrine

Re-enactors from the Fairfax Battalia demonstrate infantry drill in the Tower of London. Pikes are charged and the musketeers present for a salvee in two ranks. (photo: Mandy Holloway)

This has got a lot of the detail you need to model infantry battles in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It’s not quite at the level of the WW2 operational research, but it’s good enough. There are comparative weights and rates of fire. Measured hit rates based on range, and commentary on doctrine and how certain tactics worked in certain situations but not others. In short everything you need to design a game (although there’s clearly a morale factor, which Destructive and Formidable covers but makes no attempt to quantify).

There’s a fairly readable style, and the book isn’t long. The examples are of individual battles and focus only on what the British infantry did, their immediate context and the doctrine/tactics of their immediate enemy. The only place there’s anything more in context, and discussion of the commanders impact, is the chapter on the North American irregular wars. This latter chapter also touches on failures of leadership, and shows that there is an effect of good leadership on the successful application of doctrine. The defeats are more attributable to poor leadership and lack of confidence than to failure of doctrine.

Core Infantry Doctrine

The core of British infantry doctrine was to reserve fire until they were close enough to ensure that it was effective. Once fired from close range the British infantry then closed to hand to hand, with clubbed muskets in the early period and bayonets later. Only one or two round were fired, often from a salvee or volley. This kept the effect concentrated, which increased the shock value.

Why didn’t British infantry doctrine spread?

Musket practice by re-enactors from the Fairfax Battalia. You can see the second rank ramming home their charge as the front rank fires. The third rank is charging with powder. (photo: Cindy Holton)

If British infantry doctrine was so successful why did other nations not copy it? Blackmore shows a relative isolation in the British officer corps from the debate of firepower vs shock which European armies seem to have spent the period arguing about. British infantry doctrine seems to have developed by trial and error during the British civil wars to get decisive battles based on the available people and technology. Early civil war battles were inconclusive, yet the British on both sides strove to improve effectiveness. They got closer before opening fire, massed to fire salvos and closed with the enemy to finish them off. Europe spent the same period in the Thirty Years War yet never came to the same conclusion. Drill manuals from the period emphasise fire, the cavalry doctrine shows shock of impact is what works.

What made the British successful?

My suspicion is one of the main things that keeps the British Army successful in this period is a continuity of experience. From the civil wars there is a near continuous presence of warfare. More importantly the outcome of the civil war is the establishment of a standing army. Even though this is supposed to be temporary, Parliament needs to renew it every year, it remains continuously in being. This means that soldiers pass on their experience to the new recruits, and many officers are professionals. Serving in one war as juniors and returning to later wars as commanders of battalions and armies.

Designing a game

My copy of this is flagged in many places, and there are a lot of marginal notations. I fully expect to use it as the core of an infantry combat model for one or more games. There’s a good model explained in the book. Maximum effective range is about 80 yards, at 100 yards less than 1% of shots result in a casualty. At 25-30 yards about a quarter of shots cause casualties. Closing with the enemy is pretty much always decisive (they either break or die). Infantry firing by platoon can stop cavalry with firepower alone if they reserve fire until the cavalry is about 30 yards away. Similarly if you fire at charging Highlanders at about 10 yards (or less) then it ends the charge…

This is an edited version of a post that was first published at https://www.themself.org/2019/01/destructive-formidable-david-blackmore-review/

Washington Conference Megagame Newspaper Reports

Washington Conference Megagame military committee
The Military Committee discussing Capital ship limits, chaired by the British. (Photo: James Kemp)

For his 70th birthday Dave Boundy decided to run his Washington Conference Megagame again. It’s at least the fourth time Washington Conference has been run as a Megagame. I’ve previously played as a Japanese Admiral, although this time I was one of the press team. Also, unlike recent megagames the entire cast list were veteran megagamers, most of us in the 50 to 100 range, with a core coming close to double that.

So it was rather old school as recent megagames go, not to mention that this was a different sort of megagame from the recent experiences, being all about negotiations. There were no mechanisms or control in the megagame, just players.

Washington Conference

The final plenary session announcing the success of the Washington Conference (photo: James Kemp)

Just in case you’ve stumbled here, the game was about the 1921 Washington Conference which was aimed at naval arms limitations, primarily focused on the Pacific. The main countries involved were the US, the British Empire, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands and China. The key flashpoint is the Western Pacific and China. Notably only the victors of the first world war are present, and they’re setting the rules.

The other main thing on the agenda is China. China helped the allies during the war and is looking for them to meet their promises and establish a single Chinese state that can bring stability. There are internal problems with warlords and some Soviet sponsored communist rebels.

Historically the conference established size limits on battleships of 35,000 tonnes displacement. It also limited the main world navies to a ratio of 5:5:3 for the UK:US:JP and the French & Italians at 1.8.

Washington Conference Megagame

The editorial office at the Baltimore Sun

We had five members of the Baltimore Sun press team. We were playing real reporters from the period with their own agendas. I was Hector Bywater, a military journalist.

We all wrote articles on different parts of the Washington Conference. There was a political track and a military one and a number of subcommittees. I followed the main military committee, and spoke to others between meetings.

Every hour of game time was a week of the conference. We put out a physical paper (one or two sides of three column A4 in 11 point) every hour. I ended up physically collating the paper every time because that’s a real life skill that I have. So I have a copy of all the issues we produced.

Here they are as PDFs.

  1. 12 Nov 1921 Baltimore Sun 1921-11-12 final
  2. 19 Nov  Baltimore Sun 1921-11-19 final
  3. 26 Nov Baltimore Sun 1921-11-26 final
  4. 3 Dec Baltimore Sun 1921-12-03 final
  5. 10 Dec Baltimore Sun 1921-12-10 final
  6. 17 Dec Baltimore Sun 1921-12-17 final
  7. 26 Dec Baltimore Sun 1921-12-26 final

For the most part all the stories were written during the game. There are four that were pre-generated and those can be identified from the fact that they are the only ones with pictures.

I only realised after the game that there were a load of period photos, adverts and some more articles that we could also have used to add to the material that we produced.

Overall I enjoyed being a press player at Washington Conference. It was engaging, entertaining and also I felt I had an impact on the game, even if it was only about prompting the complaints the editor got about my articles!

Blood and Thunder 4 – a Megagame of Pirates

Briefing for Blood and Thunder 4 megagame and a wooden treasure chest filled with gold coins
Weygand and Sons made 315 gold coins by the end of Blood and Thunder 4. That’s how many are in the wooden chest. (Photo: James Kemp)

Alexander and I played arms merchants in the Blood and Thunder 4 pirate megagame on Saturday. It was mostly a fun game, although there were a couple of sticky points for us as merchants.

I was cast as Theophilus Blodwell, a Glaswegian on the run from the British Authorities. As well as being an arms trader with a fine grasp of the importance of economics (i.e. that the money should end up with me) I was also a member of the ‘Protectors of the Seas’. The Protectors were a secret society opposed to the ‘Sons of the Sea’. The latter group were collecting ancient magical artefacts and intending to use them to bring about the end of days. So I had a side mission to identify and stop the Sons of the Sea.

Alexander was the owner of Weygand and Sons, and his side mission was to find six model ships and then to play a wargame with them involving at least four other people. He had to write the wargame rules himself, which he did right at the beginning of the day. I suspect we’ll need to bring them to Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group the next time we go so that he can try them out to see if they would have worked had he found sufficient model ships.

Blood and Thunder 4

I’ve lost count of how many megagames I’ve played or been control for. This was badged as Blood and Thunder 4, but I don’t recall the first three.

The Queen's Revenge before it set sail. The players had to operate the ship during their sea time in Blood and Thunder 4. (photo: James Kemp)
The Queen’s Revenge before it set sail. The players had to operate the ship during their sea time in Blood and Thunder 4. (photo: James Kemp)

Blood and Thunder is set on an unspecified Caribbean island under Spanish governance in the early 18th Century. There were a number of pirate ships, each with a crew of about 15 players. When at sea they worked cooperatively to find and board merchant ships. The faster they did this the more they can do in their sea time.

Every ship had scheduled port time. During this time they could sell things they’d captured, replenish consumables and effect repairs. They could also carouse in the taverns and pursue plot points with people from the town or from other vessels.

Welcome to San Serif

My role in Blood and Thunder 4 was as the salesman for Weygand and Sons. Weygand and Sons was one of three large merchant companies on the island of San Serif. We all sold arms and ammunition, as well as acting as buyers for cargo. Alexander was the owner of Weygand and Sons, so he was my boss for the megagame.

For me the game fell into three quite distinct phases, all of which had different challenges. These were:

  1. The first hour or so, where the pirates weren’t in port at all
  2. The early trading period, where we were still finding out how it worked
  3. The end game, where I mostly did other things than sell stuff

Blood and Thunder – beginning

Although the game properly started at 10, we had a whole hour as traders with pretty much nothing to do. None of the ships came into port until 11. We needed a little bit of time to shake out, and talk amongst ourselves, but a whole hour was too much. It was also too early in the game to be able to start the side plots. That said Alexander used the time productively to write the naval wargame rules he’d need with six ship models.

I did do a bit of negotiation around supplying the town’s shore battery with powder and shot in return for tax exemption. It almost worked, but the mayor vetoed it because he needed a source of income and exempting us from cash payments would have eaten into that. In the end I got undercut on the supply contract by one of the other merchants who decided to sell it at cost.

Blood and Thunder – the ships come in

At 11 the first two ships came in. However the pickings were slim. Inexperienced crews had (correctly for them) chosen the lower risk routes to raid. This got them less cargo. Also what they did pick up wasn’t that valuable. We also suffered a bit as merchants because our warehouses were at the back of the room from the pirate ships. They had to get past the street traders and the taverns to reach us. By the time we saw them some of the valuable (to us, but not to the pirates) cargo had been bartered with the street traders.

We had another problem at this point too. We didn’t have much cash by way of a float, and the locals taxed us before the trading was complete, making it thinner still. So we weren’t in a position to buy cargo for cash. There were three traders, and two pirate ships. By chance I got missed by the main officers buying for the ships. I did do some trading with individual pirates, but it was almost all barter and for low value items. It was at this time that I picked up a strange eldritch item that glowed in the dark. I recognised it as an item of power and gave the pirate who offered it to me a blunderbuss in exchange.

The bartering continued, between attempts to convert newly acquired stock to cash within the townsfolk. I picked up several bottles of wine, a couple of snuff boxes, anf a valuable necklace that turned out not to be convertible into cash that reflected the barter value. I’d expected a bit of this, but I was surprised at the scale.

Wine

The wine came with a quality rating. All the ones I handled had ratings between 1 and 10. However I’m assured by one of my customers that there were bottles up to 12 in quality.

My expectation had been that lower quality wine would be essentially worth the same as rum. That is it would have a use to players, but would be worth more than one gold per bottle (maybe multiples per gold). The higher value stuff would have a value above that of the standard, and the top values would attract a premium.

As far as I could tell only one player had an interest in wine. I sold him an 8 for 10 gold early in the game. So I valued the rest accordingly. I never sold another bottle because he raised the bar to a minimum of 10. I didn’t count, but I had over a dozen bottles at the end of the game, most between 4 and 8 in quality. My estimation is that there were over a hundred bottles in circulation based on the amount the merchants held and the number of times we turned down offers to trade wine.

As a fix to this there ought to have been a bit in the social reputation rules about consuming wine. It would have driven a bigger market which would have made the many bottles in circulation valuable for both us and the pirates. I’d have given a point for publicly consuming a bottle (per person you supplied). I’d give another point of the quality of the wine was higher than the person’s social standing. This would have made the quality people drink the nicer stuff.

‘Valuable’ items

There was an entry in the player guide about valuable items. The suggestion was that they should be worth a minimum of 5 gold. I accepted a few in barter before I realised that they had no value. Not one of the players I encountered wanted one of these, and I could only convert them to cash for 3 gold each.

The idea in the game rules was that players would want these inherently valuable items. However there was no game purpose to them and no-one seemed to have them for a side plot, unlike the strange coins, model ships and the scraps of paper.

Everything needs to have a game purpose, even if just to soak money out of the game. However that latter purpose needs to be driven by people wanting them to meet personal objectives rather than as cruft.

Insolvent

There was a point about half twelve when I hadn’t sold anything for cash and had run out of money. My personal morale plummeted to the point where I was about to ask to be re-roled. I couldn’t quite see the value of trading as none of the pirate ships could afford our big ticket items, and the individual pirates didn’t have enough cash to pay for the replacement values of the goods O could sell them.

I wallowed a little, for maybe five minutes, and spoke to my trade control about it. Particularly the feedback on the so-called ‘valuable’ items. He was sympathetic, and I know he spoke to Jim about it.

Thankfully I held my nerve on the roling. I’m a veteran megagamer, I lost count some years ago. One thing I’ve learnt, and remembered on Saturday, was that player morale personally is often the difference between success and failure.

At that point a pirate bought a rapier from me for 25 gold and the Governor’s secretary paid 30 gold for some medical instruments. Even though I had to buy the medical instruments I was solvent again.

The next wave of pirate ships that came into port were cash rich. Morale soared, and trading resumed in earnest. I lost track of all the individual trades, several times I acquired merchandise after selling it. This practice saved me from large losses when the cost of powder and cannonballs doubled. I was able to renegotiate those before the deal was finalised. My biggest deal was with the captain of the Queen’s Revenge. She bought a heavy cannon and some powder and ball for it with 100 gold in cash.

In the space of less than four hours we’d gone from being insolvent to being cash rich, with over 300 gold in the company treasury. I had 23 gold personally (from a 10% commission on sales), along with a stock of interesting items (I’d bought the valuable items and some of the better wine from the company).

Blood and Thunder end game

Towards the end of the game, when I was happy that we’d traded enough to see us solvent to the end, I started to worry about my side plot as a Protector of the Sea.

The Governor’s secretary had finished his obsession with dissecting animals and was now looking out for strange items. I found this suspicious, suggesting that he might be one of the Sons of the Sea that I was supposed to stop.

I hatched a backup plan to stash some gunpowder at his house to blow him up. Before carrying it out though I had a chat with him about these items he was looking for, under the pretext of having been offered one earlier and that I could possibly get him one. I said that I collected antiquarian artefacts, older than the colony.

He decided to risk it and asked me if I’d heard of the secret societies. I confirmed that I knew of them, but thought them somewhat shady. He outed himself as a Protector, so I confirmed that I was too. By chance he’d infiltrated the Sons of the Sea. I was able to do so too and compiled a list of members. I also discovered that they were about to conduct a ritual, although it wouldn’t work because they’d been misled about what they needed for it. The Governor’s secretary and I also had some of the components.

So we told the Colonel that there was a treasonous plot going on in the tavern. I went along with a couple of loaded blunderbusses to support the police action. As it happened I only needed to provide moral support. The regular troops easily subdued the Sons of the Sea and they were taken to prison pending execution.

The game ended there, not because of us busting the Sons of the Sea, but because it was 1630 and The Rackham’s Ghost had just been sunk!

Other Blood and Thunder reports

Divided Land – Being a Terrorist in a Megagame

I played the leader of a terrorist organisation in the Divided Land megagame. Divided Land was about the situation in Palestine in 1947, we played from March through to an agreement on partition in August 1947. We then made plans on what would happen when the agreement came into force at 00:01 on 1st January 1948. Predictably there was an Arab invasion….

I was cast as Menachem Begin, the leader of Irgun and a future Prime Minister of Israel. Begin described himself as a terrorist in his autobiography, he made no bones about ensuring a viable Jewish state in the land of Israel. Irgun were extremists, they wanted all of the biblical lands of Israel, including Judea and Samaria (including some of present day Jordan). Begin also blamed the British for not rescuing Jews from the Holocaust by failing to grant visas in sufficient numbers before the war, and failing to act to interdict the railways carrying Jews to be murdered by the Nazis.

Irgun were a breakaway faction and outside the Jewish assembly. The British had a price on Begin’s head of £25,000 (about the same as the US offered for bin Laden). So Irgun are on the outside and hiding. But there are a lot of angry Jews who agree with the view of never again will Jews rely on others for their protection, nor for retaliation against wrongs to the Jewish people.

We started with a brief discussion on policy. We decided that we needed to keep up the pressure on the British, and that we only needed to act against the Arabs in retaliation to attacks on Jews. We had 15 active cells of about 20 people (we recruited women as well as men). We could afford to run half of these every fortnight to give people time to rest between operations. We also needed to find arms and money to sustain operations.

In March 1947 we ran a campaign of bank robberies and also a planned kidnapping of a British Staff officer. The first campaign wasn’t without setbacks, we did do some banks, but some of our guys got arrested. The second was better, we netted an Intelligence Corps Colonel. We decided to pass him on to the Palmach for interrogation because we didn’t have that skillset.

It was about this point that the Jordanians approached us off the record. Through back channels we agreed to work against the Grand Mufti in return for arms and other support. I was suspicious, but the arms were supplied without strings and I had wanted to kill the Grand Mufti anyway.

The British decided almost immediately to reinforce Palestine and started to make arrangements to bring in a Mechanised Brigade. I left my partner in crime to arrange some weapons smuggling from Europe while I went off into Gaza to blow up the railway line and lay an ambush for the repair crews. My thought process here was that if we ambushed them it would increase the impact and make the British deploy more troops on protecting very long lines of communication.

Surprisingly I wasn’t the only one acting against the railway in Gaza. Adherents of the Grand Mufti were also doing the same thing a couple of miles up the track. It also turned out that there were no immediate repair attempts.

ANDR – Autonomous Networked Dynamic-learning Robots

A conversation with my son over a McDonald’s sparked a bit of architecture for Autonomous Networked Dynamic-learning Robots (AKA ANDR) and a short story about their use in a near future counterinsurgency operation. You can read the short story (First Mission ANDR12) on my writing and reading blog.

ANDR Requirements

Military robot being prepared to inspect a bomb
Military robot being prepared to inspect a bomb (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Being an analyst underneath and having worked on over 50 government projects I started off thinking about the requirements I’d write if I was going to procure some combat robots. Here’s the list I came up with, which uses MoSCoW to prioritise them.

Robots must

  • operate without external control signals
  • be able to go anywhere a human could
  • be resistant to hostile interference or attempts to subvert control
  • follow legal commands and obey rules of engagement absolutely
  • Learn from experience and share that with other units
  • Have a modular construction to facilitate field repair and upgrade to maximise operational numbers
  • retain data integrity to the same tolerance as aircraft black boxes to facilitate lessons even when the robot becomes nonfunctional
  • Have diverse sensors and multiple redundant systems to ensure operation in a wide range of environments
  • be capable of operating without EM emissions and with the minimum IR signature for periods of up to two hours.

Robots should

  • Have a reassuring presence for civilians to facilitate engagement
  • look indistinguishable from human soldiers at a distance to maintain surprise
  • Have secure communications to their home base and blue tracker/IFF capabilities built in
  • Be able to operate the full range of military equipment and weapons that human soldiers would be expected to.

ANDR Architecture

So I’ve got some requirements for my ANDRs. That leads on to a bit of solution design. I’ll be honest here and admit that I committed the cardinal sin of creating the solution and then writing the requirements, but that’s because the conversation with my son involved him asking how you avoid it being hacked.

The best way to avoid something being hacked is to keep it physically and virtually isolated. So that’s what this architecture does.

I can hear you cry ‘Wait! Doesn’t the N in ANDR stand for Networked?’ You’d be correct. The ANDR is networked, but not the decision making bit, and there are various firewalls, encryptions and other controls in place to mitigate some of the vulnerabilities.

The key components are

  • Decision engine (i.e. the brain, this needs to be read/execute only and firewalled from all the other components. Updating the software would need physical access to the ANDR unit.)
  • The mission profile (a small EPROM unit that would store the current mission profile, orders, RoE and relevant int. It would have an explosive tamper trigger to stop it falling into enemy hands. It would probably need a command authority to update and that would be a base job, not something you would do in the field.)
  • Doctrine module. This would be the ‘training’ for the ANDR and it would be divided into two sections. One the legal and absolute restrictions that were read only. It would be isolated from the outside by not being connected to it. It could get an update from the base workshop.
    The other part would be TPPs and SOPs that could be updatable by the machine learning module (see below).
  • Machine Learning Module. This would be able to monitor all of the inputs and outputs of the physical ANDR unit and draw conclusions from the experience. Its connection to the outside world wouldn’t be send only, to share lessons back home (pending a workshop update for other ANDR units if the analysis showed this was a better method). It would be able to update TPP if, for example, it found the current method didn’t achieve the expected results.
  • External HUD. This would be a blue force tracker style update. For firewall and compatibility reasons the ANDR would use visual and audio sensors in the same way as human soldiers would to assimilate data. This would keep them firewalled and also ensure that they had the same info as their human commanders.

The other important thing would be to give the ANDR units an ability to share physically with each other, both modular components to keep them upgradable and maximise serviceability. You’d also want them to have an in field method of sharing lessons, possibly through NFC style readers with physical contact required.

Lastly you’d also give them a hierarchy of trust. It would start with their isolated components, then their physical hardware, validated encrypted Comms and so on down. You’d probably also have some machine learning algorithms for recognising friendly forces and spontaneous chains of command.

ANDR physical attributes

It isn’t strictly necessary, but I reckon you’d want to skin the ANDR units so that they passed for people at first glance. Maybe even at second look too. This would make them a bit less scary, and therefore more useful in dealing with people. They could be really useful as reliable interpreters and also with FR etc in gathering intelligence on who was where.

You’d want to put the brains in the main body, where you could armour it better, and also put the same body armour on as the people had. This would keep your enemy guessing and would also improve the learning capability as it would be less likely to be destroyed. I expect it would be in a similar casing as an aircraft ‘black box’.

How far away?

It’s hard to be sure. There are already reasonable prototypes of a lot of the technology needed. None of them are ready for this yet, but one day they will be. I deliberately didn’t put a date on the story, but I would put a 40% confidence on it happening before 2030 and a 90% by 2050.

Undeniable Victory – offside report [Megagame]

Today I played in Undeniable Victory, Ben Moore’s megagame of the Iran Iraq War. I was an Iranian Radical and a member of the Council, starting off as the Procurement Minister responsible for buying military kit.

Undeniable Victory

I was a late entrant to Undeniable Victory, getting a place because someone else couldn’t make it. That said I was pretty happy with being cast as a radical Iranian. I like political roles, and being just off the side of the main targets.

Procurement Minister was senior enough to be interesting, yet junior enough not to be an automatic target. I was one of three radicals in the seven member Council. There was always going to be a move to displace one of us to change the balance of power.

 

Undeniable victory - Iranian Council
The Iranian Council, Defence Minister (Dave), Interior Minister (Chris) and First Minister (Oliver)

The Conservatives had the First Minister and Interior Minister to start with. My fellow Radicals were the Defence Minister and the Infrastructure Minister. The Moderates had the Finance and Foreign Ministries. Ayatollah Khomeini was umpire controlled and mostly absent dealing with religious matters.

Undeniable Victory – Procurement

As a radical council member I deliberately skipped over some of the military bits of the briefing for Undeniable Victory. I didn’t think it would be right for me to have a detailed understanding of the combat system when there were players in the military HQs responsible for briefing me on what they needed. I started off with a straightforward policy of equipping the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps with good quality equipment so that they were at least as good as the army.

My chief procurement officer in the military high command (Tim) was a moderate. We had a bit of conflict sorting out how to work things, but we came to a workable agreement. I became aware very early on that he was doing his own deals to get kit as stuff I hadn’t ordered was appearing. Also kit I’d ordered for the IRGC was going to the regular army.

I didn’t bother doing anything about this as I was spending more time involved in setting political leadership in the Council. There were several interesting reminders of the fundamentals of the revolution when we were dealing with events. (As an aside the events were really very well scripted and also had clear game impacts whenever we chose an option.)

Trial & Exoneration

This almost became my undoing. The Radicals, under the august leadership of the Defence Minister, narrowly failed to boot a moderate off the Council and replace them with a fourth Radical. This was followed by us swapping me with the Interior Minister (pictured above). The latter immediately brought a case against me for corruption and treason by way of evidence he’d collected of dealings with the Israelis.

I denied this vehemently and blamed Tim for any transgressions, mentioning that he’d been acting without authorisation on other matters.  Witnesses were called and my version got some corroboration. So Tim was sent for and he immediately confessed to getting kit off the Israelis for free. His testimony was very eloquent and I would have applauded if I’d not been so relieved that I wasn’t going to end up on a lamppost. The Council accepted Tim had acted in the best interests of the revolution and he was warned not to act without authorisation from the Procurement Minister again. He was also sent to a re-education retreat to contemplate the error of his ways. (OOC he was told to go stand on Anerley Station platform for a minute before returning to the game).

Interior Minister

If I ever had to give advice to another megagamer it would be that you don’t want to let me be Interior Minister unless you’ve got a lot of people you want to see dead. Dave, our radical leader and a veteran megagamer, was well aware of this when he organised the swap. He also managed to change the form of the government to advantage the radical position. This sowed the seed for our Undeniable Victory.

Sadly for Dave he was the victim of a council reorgisation in the following season. We’d been too successful too early, and as the faction leader he got hit.  He was swapped out with the Chief of the Army. Alex, a Conservative became the new Defence Minister and lasted there to almost the end of the game. I let the other Radical, Callum, take leadership in the Council for a bit.

Touring the Front

I went on a tour of the front to audit players and procurement to make sure there were no chemical weapons in play. This was in response to allegations that we had used them. The front line visit was an eye opener, I’d previously had no real idea how things were going because the reports back were vague at best.

Back in the Council we’d suffered a massive funding cut for the Interior Ministry. All the money was going into procurement and social support. The latter was something I was strongly in favour of, and I’d rather not repress the people unless they were acting against the spirit of the revolution.

I made the political dissidents kick off by blaming them for everything. This played out well because they blew up a military HQ player and got him out of my beard.

Ayatollah’s Intervention

At this point the war was going very favourably for us. Militarily it really was looking like an undeniable victory. However the Ayatollah intervened because he didn’t think we were playing nicely enough with each other. He was assuredly correct. Some subtle agreement and positive suggestions couched in suitably revolutionary language helped manoeuvre others into actions that suited my agenda. I also did a deal with the Conservative First Minister to try and position the Moderates to take the fall when the time came.

The radicals got the Iranian war goal shifted to total war and we also promoted obedience to the Ayatollah’s desires to strike hard at the little satan. An election also happened at this time and the Moderates campaigned on an anti-Arab platform. The Conservative faction Wendy anti-colonial and we chose anti-imperial. We also chose to lose the vote, playing out worst card. It didn’t make any difference to the Council freedom of action and we came out with our radical credentials intact and a better chance of winning another crucial vote (I kept back the Ace, which was the highest card possible for resolving votes, this was very useful later).

The Council buckled down and focused on the war. We came under increasing pressure from the USA, via the Foreign Minister (Bernie) to end the war. Bernie was a moderate and had taken a very technocratic position, acting in the best interests of the foreign relations agenda throughout. It was clear he had a specific agenda, but as far as I could tell it broadly matched mine, so I supported him. I even did so when the Conservative faction tried to swap him off the Council. He was someone we could work with.

Undeniable Victory – ‘Peace’

Shortly after this we suffered a massive cruise missile strike against the southern oil terminals. This was the US deadline to negotiate running out. Our undeniable victory forced them to act directly.  We’d also lost half our revenue because the oil price had collapsed. So it was time to sue for peace. But this needed careful handling, we still needed the undeniable victory for the home front.

The Council discussion was interesting. Ollie and I saw the inevitable, as did Bernie. Others were for continuing to spend scarce funds on procurement at the cost of social support. At this point there was another bomb in the Council. Chris, the Procurement Minister, was killed but the rest of us were fine. He was rapidly replaced by another Conservative from Army HQ. I later discovered that Tim, the procurement officer, had been behind the bomb as revenge for beingput on trial for dealing with the Israelis.

Succession Planning

We then got informed that Ayatollah Khomeini was gravely unwell and believed that he was dying. It was time to pick a successor. Callum and I had a quick chat, I over-ruled him as the Radical choice on the grounds that he’d been happy, as Finance Minister, to cut social support and buy tanks when the war was effectively over.

The Moderates surprised me at this point. Rather than nominating a Council member Bernie went off and found the Air Marshal and spoke eloquently about all his many successes and sacrifices for the revolution. It looked like he might actually get picked without a vote. So I also praised him and said that he was a true hero and should absolutely definitely replace on the Cpuncil. whoever might be chosen as the successor to Ayatollah Khomeini. I also prayed that it might be some time before the successor need take up post as the new Ayatollah.

So it went to a vote. I played the Ace I’d kept earlier. Thankfully Allah was great and saw that I submitted to his wisdom.

Undeniable Victory - Ayatollah and his chosen successor
The Ayatollah and his chosen successor, the revolution is secured

Ending the War

It wasn’t quite over yet. Although on his sick bed we managed to present a united front and persuade the Ayatollah that the surest way to safeguard the revolution was to discuss peace with the Iraqis. He agreed and a peace conference was set up. Head of State, First Minister and Foreign Ministers were invited. As the designated successor I tagged along. Mostly I stood at the edge and listened.

In the background news of the peace had spread. My fellow Radicals in the army were upset and worried that the Moderates had sold out the revolution. They marched on Teheran with a Division of the IRGC. I took time away from the peace conference to deal with the purge. One of the arrested Moderates (the previous Finance Minister) confessed to being involved in a plot to assassinate Ayatollah Khomeini just before the Americans had forced the peace conference. He was promptly sent for a show trial. The Radical Generals were told not to be too indiscriminate and to make sure there was some sort of evidence against the people they were arresting. It was clear I wasn’t going to be able to stop them completely.

I then got a call from the Ayatollah. He was very worried about all the shooting he could hear. Was a counter revolution under way? I reassured him that there was evidence that the Moderates had been planning to kill him, and that we were reinforcing the revolution by arresting those involved.

Game Over

That was where the game ended. A tentative peace deal underway and a second revolution in Iran to strengthen the radical position. Certainly the Radicals appear to be in the ascendancy for the next few years.  Iran will rise rebuilt as a shining example of radical Islam.

Army Education for Officers and Soldiers

WO1 variant arm badge (British Army)
WO1 variant arm badge (British Army) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Paul Barnes wrote an interesting post (The Drums of the Fore and Aft) on Army Education and the inherent problem in highly educated NCOs and Warrant Officers being over-ruled by inexperienced 22 year old Second Lieutenants. It made me think a bit about this, and the contrast with specialists in non-military organisations.

So my military experience is minimal, almost three years as a part-time member of a UOTC twenty five years ago. I came across Paul’s problem then, but as the 19 year old. Since then I’ve had a moderately successful career in civil service delivery and leadership roles. I went through a graduate management trainee programme and at 29 took over a passport office managing people twenty years older than me, and with their entire career in passport operations. So I’ve largely seen this problem from the 22 year old graduate perspective.

What does the Army need?

I suppose part of the problem is that the army prepares for lots of contingencies. It can’t see the future, so it tries to provide personnel with a variety of skills and experiences that it can adapt to the challenges of the day. Generally it’s pretty good at it.

As I see it the British Army tries to provide the following from its personnel

  • General officers capable of commanding Divisions and Corps in an all arms mechanised war
  • Mid level officers (Captains and Majors) with deep expertise in specific arms to provide staff and training roles
  • Highly specialised SNCOs that can train an army, and can also train the officers
  • Soldiers that can turn their hand to a variety of roles, including light infantry, aid to the civil power, full on mech war, etc.

You’ll notice in the list that there isn’t really a need for Lieutenants. They’re a feeder grade for the officers that understand their arm. In turn those officers become the trainees for Generals.

There are two important groups of personnel, both of whom typically have 10-20 years of experience and a deep command of their area of expertise. The SNCO/WO group are unrivaled in the mechanics and administration of warfare. They know every single soldier role in their arm (from direct personal experience) and also what all the officers up to Major should be doing.

The other group are the Colonels and Generals. They’ve mastered integration and using multiple arms to complement each other.

Both these roles can’t be trained for overnight, or even over a couple of years in peacetime. Most of those that enlist will never do either role, either because they don’t have the right stuff, or because they get lost because they aren’t recognised early enough and given the right postings to develop their talent.

How is this different elsewhere?

So the army tries to anoint people as potential generals when they join up. It does this through the commissioning process. Other organizations do similar things with graduate and management trainee programmes. Where these differ is that looser hierarchies allow more room to manoeuvre. Also people can shift jobs to get promoted or acquire skills when they choose. This is not an option for soldiers.

In a civilian role you’d almost never face the problem of the 22 year old geography graduate telling the veteran HR manager what to do, unless it was the boss’s kid. Even then you could appeal to the boss. 

What Could the Army Do?

Probably many things. Here are some ideas maybe worth chewing over:

  1. Don’t let 2Lt/Lt have command over anyone with more than two stripes. (i.e. acknowledge that Lieutenants are trainees and that Sergeants and Warrant Officers are not)
  2. Give WOs rank equivalence to Lt (OF2). This is a small change but signals clearly to the junior officer that they should listen and learn from their SNCOs.
  3. Do away with WO in the service support side (like HR) and commission experienced SNCOs to directly command the functions. Arguably you could also refuse to accept 2Lts into those arms, send them to the infantry instead.
  4. Stop commissioning people straight out of school/uni. Make them do a year as a private, a year as a corporal and then do the commissioning course. Also don’t allow people to do AOSB until they’ve got a stripe up.