Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Northern Lights - A Campaign Setting For HOTT

I was a fan of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy within a few moments of reading the first pages of the first book. Needless to say that I was taken with its possibilities as a source of inspiration for HOTT armies and games.

The trilogy consists of 'Northern Lights', 'The Subtle Knife' and 'The Amber Spyglass'. The first book is called 'The Golden Compass' in the US for some reason.

I originally had the idea of coming up with two lists that represented the two, roughly opposing, forces in the first book (the Gyptian rescue party and the General Oblation Board), but felt that it didn't do the world in which the story is set full justice. There are no large battles in the first book, but enough small actions and mention of things in a wider context to come up with a set of simple lists for the major factions that are involved in the story. I felt that the lists are best presented in the context of a campaign.


First, some background. The trilogy essentially covers the story of a girl named Lyra, and her involvement in the schemes of her uncle, Lord Asriel and the mysterious Mrs Coulter. These schemes are involved initially with a strange elementary particle called Dust. As the story unfolds many other characters are drawn in, and the schemes have wider implications, but that is the tale in a nutshell. The trilogy covers an number of 'worlds', most essentially alternate Earths, but the first book, which we are concerned with here, is set entirely in Lyra's world.

Lyra's world is similar to our own in some ways, but radically different in others. The story appears to be set in the late 20th century, but the technology and culture of the world is closer to late 19th/early 20th century. In Europe, and possibly elsewhere, the church rules supreme, in the form of the Magisterium. The story mentions that the Papacy was abolished after Pope John Calvin moved its seat from Rome to Geneva, and the Magisterium set up to replace it. The church controls many things through a complex series of courts, boards and other organisations. Science is conducted in the form of 'experimental theology'.

The most important feature of Lyra's world is the presence of daemons. Every person is accompanied throughout their life by a daemon, which takes the form of some kind of animal. Those of children can switch forms at will, but as they grow older this happens less and less, and at puberty the daemon fixes into a single form for the rest of the person's life. This form tends to reflect the personality and nature of the person. A daemon cannot move more than a few yards away from its human without both of them experiencing pain, distress and, if prolonged or over a long distance, death. Daemons have their own name and can talk, mainly to their own human, sometimes to other daemons and rarely to other humans. They are nearly always the opposite sex to their human. The relationship between human and daemon is central to the book, and is complex, but it is best thought of as an external 'soul'. From a HOTT point of view, all human figures should be accompanied by a suitable daemon.

On to the lists. For a simple five player campaign, four lists suggest themselves, based on the political relationships described and hinted at in the story. These are the Magisterium, the Tartars, the Witches and the Panserbjorne. The campaign will be set in Scandinavia, mainly in the far North

Magisterium Expeditionary Force

Stronghold: A camp or local town
1 x Airboat general @ 3AP (Command zeppelin)
1 x Airboat @ 3AP (Zeppelin)
1 x Artillery @ 3AP (Cannon or fire thrower)
1 x Sneaker @ 3AP (Agent of the church, or absolved assassin) 
6 x Shooters @ 2AP (Soldiers with rifles)

This list represents a conjectural force assembled by the Magisterium to exert its power forcefully. Zeppelins feature in all three books in a military capacity, and use hydrogen as a lifting agent. They are armed with machine guns and can unload ground troops.

Cannon can be assumed similar to late 19th century artillery (breech loading); they are mentioned in the story but do not appear. Fire throwers are mentioned as a weapon, but only the Panserbjorne (see below) are shown using one in the book. Theirs appears to be a sophisticated catapult hurling a flammable sulphur mixture.

The Magisterium is quite capable of using devious means to achieve its aim, hence the inclusion of an agent as a sneaker. 'The Amber Spyglass' also introduces the idea of assassins who have undergone pre-emptive absolution. This means that they are able to commit appalling sins, safe in the knowledge that they have already been absolved, and makes them ruthless fanatics.

In 'Northern Lights', the only troops the Magistrium use are Tartar mercenaries. Since these are armed with rifles and machine guns the same is assumed for any other soldiers likely to appear. However, the Swiss Guard who appear in 'The Amber Spyglass' have repeating crossbows. The only uniform colour given is for the elite Muscovite Imperial Guard, and it is blue. No actual description of uniforms is given, but suitable late 19th/early 20th century figures can be assumed.


Stronghold: A tented camp
1 x Shooter general @ 2AP (Tartar khan and bodyguard)
1 x Blade @ 2AP (Champion) 
1 x Airboat @ 3AP (Zeppelin) 
1 x Artillery @ 3AP (Cannon or fire thrower)
7 x Shooters @ 2AP (Soldiers with rifles)

The Tartars appear throughout the first book as the main political enemy of Europe. There is mention of their ongoing invasion of Muscovy, as well as their having intentions in Kamchatka, and a number of characters in the story have fought against them at some time or another.

Most of the notes on equipment and classification for the Magisterium applies here. The gyptian John Faa talks of slaying a Tartar champion on the Khazakh plains, so one is included here for variety.

Tartars appear to be roughly equivalent to Mongols or Chinese, so rifle armed Manchu infantry would appear to be the best bet. The company of Tartars employed by the General Oblation Board all had wolf daemons.


Stronghold: A cave in a pine forest
1 x Flyer general @ 2AP (Witch queen) 
11 x Flyers @ 2AP (Witches) 

The witches of the far North are all women. Extremely long lived (several hundred years is the norm), the form clans throughout the wilderness, and interact little with other humans, being more in tune with nature. Rival clans are know to fight each other. Witches have the ability to separate from their daemons over a long time and distance, so not all witches need be depicted with one. Because of their nature, their daemons all appear to be birds of some kind.

Witches use magic, but not of the offensive battlefield kind, so do not justify any magicians. It would not be outside the bounds of possibility to classify a particularly powerful witch queen as a aerial hero, however. Given that the proposed campaign included two witch clans, one could be given an aerial hero general, and the other an ordinary flyer general.

They appear as beautiful, slender women wearing nothing but a few wisps of black silk, and riding through the air on pine branches and fight with bow and knife. The witch queen, Serafina Pekkala, wears a circlet of small red flowers as a crown. This army is a job for figure converters.


Stronghold: An ice fort
1 x Behemoth general @ 4AP (Bear king) 
1 x Behemoth @ 4AP (Powerful armoured bears)
6 x Beasts @ 2AP (Other armoured bears) 
1 x Artillery @ 3AP (Fire thrower) 
1 x Lurker @ 1AP (Bears in ambush)

The Panserbjorne, or armoured bears, live in the far north at Svalbard (on Spitsbergen). They are intelligent polar bears who make and wear mighty suits of plate armour, and have a fearsome reputation in combat.

This is one of those armies that is best depicted as having six behemoths. The bears are big; Iorek Byrnison is ten feet tall standing on his hind legs, and the bear-king, Ioufur Raknison, is described as being bigger than he, and their armour makes them more imposing still. However, such an army is not legal, so I have resorted to beasts for the rank and file. As mounted troops are not present in any of the other armies, this classification should work OK, making the bears fast, capable in bad going, and capable of overpowering human shooters if they can get close enough.

Another possibility is Blades, but this would make them far too vulnerable to aerial attack in bad going.

The bears that aid Lyra use a fire-thrower to oppose Mrs Coulter's zeppelin, and fire throwers are mentioned as part of the defences of Svalbard.

The lurker is included purely to offset the artillery, and has no justification in the book. Depict it as a bear erupting from a snowbank, or grade it as a water lurker and allow it to appear in patches of ice floes.

For figures use bears, the bigger the better. Armour would have to be scratchbuilt, as would the fire-thrower (a description of this is given in the book).

The Campaign

The campaign assumes that both the Magisterium and the Tartars are seeking to extend their control into the Northlands. This brings them into conflict with the witches and Panserbjorne, as well as each other.

Use the a standard five player campaign map. Clockwise, from the owner of the central province, the factions are:

Eastern witches, Tartars, Magisterium, Western Witches, Panserbjorne

In order to fix the factions geographically, I suggest the following:

The Tartars control an area roughly equivalent to Northern Russian and some of Finland.
The Magisterium occupies southern Sweden and Norway.
The two witch clans should divide the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland between them.
The Panserbjorne occupy the islands of Spitsbergen.

All routes to the Panserbjorne territories should be sea routes. Other sea routes may exist depending on how the factions are allotted into the geography.

Even these lists cannot do full justice to even the first book, and only touch on the scope of the other two books. The entire trilogy is recommended reading.


  1. Very interesting and well put together faction lists.

    I have never read the books although my son has and he really enjoyed them.

    I must get him to have a try at HoTT. He likes DBA so it would be a natural progression!

  2. I want to re-read them now! I'd forgotten the assassin who is pre-absolved of all sins.


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