Friday, 22 June 2018

Monster of the Week

Let's do it to them before they do it to us...!
At Free RPG Day last week I got the opportunity to play Monster of the Week. MoW is one of the new and hip generation of RPGs that are 'Powered by the Apocalypse', namely inspired by the mechanics of Apocalypse World, an RPG written by Vincent Baker. Previously I'd only played in one other PbtA game, namely Dungeon World, a couple of years ago at another Free RPG Day.

Both Monster of the Week and Dungeon World work on exactly the same premise. The mechanics of the game are very simple - roll 2d6 and make some adjustments based on your Traits and some special abilities. Roll under a 7 and you fail / bad things happen; roll 7-9 and you succeed, but frequently with complications; roll 10+ and it's all good. With Monster of the Week you can also use XP to purchase additional advantages that kick in if you really nail it with 12+.

XP, by the way, is earned if you roll 6 or less. You fail, but you learn.

What I really like about PbtA, and why I'd like to run it myself at some point, is that so much of the game is contained in the character play books. For example, in Monster of the Week I played the Crooked. MoW is a game about monster hunting in the modern world, inspired by TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Supernatural. You play part of a team of people who for one reason or another hunt evil creatures for a living.

The Crooked play book is just one personality in the group, but by playing that archetype, I was playing the only person in the team with a criminal background. In my case I chose Assassin as my background - I picked the name Marco Ambrosius, a former hit man for the mob who had gone 'straight' after he was assigned the job of killing what turned out to be a troll. This opened his eyes to the existence of the supernatural. I imagined him somewhat like Tom Cruise's character in Collateral.

The other characters included the Spooky (a psychic), the Divine (an actual creature sent by divine forces to fight evil on Earth, in this case some form of angel) and a Monster (only one player can play an actual monster fighting on the side of good, in this case a ghost).

But all your information and abilities are right there on your play book. You choose a lot of your background options and resources simply by ticking boxes and then you go around the table and take it in turns to work out your relationships with the other characters. I think this is less important in a one shot but can be very interesting indeed as the basis for a campaign. I know FATE RPG has this focus on character relationships too, and believe it ought to be standard for any good RPG design.

So, take for example Marco's relationship with Frank, the Spooky. Frank, who has premonitions of disaster, managed to save one of Marco's targets. This is how they met. Subsequently, as both Frank and Marco have contacts in the City of London, they have worked together to make money on the side using Frank's psychic abilities to realise a small fortune on the stock market. This has freed them up to spend more time monster hunting.

Marco's relationship with the ghost, Molly, is even better. He is the descendant of one of her sisters from the 1800s.

It really helps to wire the party up in this way, particularly if you have a group of players who have not met each other before. It also provides the basis for relationships between the characters well before the play actually begins.

PbtA games are a little more restricted in terms of so-called moves, actions that you can take. Even the GM has a list of moves. These take a bit of getting used to, but in 90% of cases you will find something you want to do covered either by basic moves like Investigate A Mystery or Kick Some Ass. Taking the Crooked as an example, I picked Driver and Notorious. These are not stand alone moves, but add bonuses when doing something else - for example, Driver helps with tasks that involve motor transport, plus I also gained the ability to hot wire vehicles.

Each character really makes you feel like you are playing a classic archetype from the genre, but at the same time bringing your own take on it, your own level of personalisation.

And on to the action...

A quick summary of the plot then - our team was recruited by a bar tender in Brighton who was actually one of the fae (and a patron of Marco's having given him the botched troll assassination mission) and tasked with finding out why the population of buskers in Brighton seemed to be going down. The fae were upset about this, as it meant the town's high levels of glamour were declining, one of their main reasons for being in Brighton was the town's the high levels of creativity, she explained.

We also had a run-in with Damien, a vampire who was tasked with policing Brighton's supernatural population, but who was somewhat in awe of our team, particularly the Divine.

We established fairly quickly through our ghostly comrade Molly (who damned herself via a demonic pact in the Old West in the 1800s) that the buskers were not being murdered. A stake out near the pier led to Molly being on the scene when another busker was kidnapped. Leaning on a contact of Marco's at Sussex Police (using my Notorious ability) gave us access to CCTV footage which in turn led us to the missing busker in an alley way. She was still alive and it looked as if someone had fabricated the attack to look like a vampire was responsible. Damien arrived shortly thereafter to explain that he did not believe a vampire was to blame. We could see that the cameras had failed to pick up the entity which removed her - it resembled a blur on the footage.

Frank hit his occult library for clues while our Divine used his ability to teleport into the recovery ward at the Royal Sussex Hospital to speak with the busker, Mia. It turned out that she had had all her creative impulse drained from her and now wanted nothing better than to pursue a clerical job. This helped us to zero in on the fae and in particular a banshee as the likely culprit, according to Frank.

A second stake out on the pier was set up, with Frank summoning a demon as back up (it perched on the roof tops and snacked on sea gulls).We were ambushed by the missing buskers who had been drained of their creative urges and armed with knives to attack us. The Divine managed to banish the evil power motivating them while the banshee was tackled by Molly and stunned. Marco, in case you are curious, spent most of the time shooting at the banshee and missing. However, it then teleported out to the Fae Wyld to save itself.

Now keen to nail this fae before it assaulted any more of Brighton's buskers, we consulted our night club contact who was eventually - reluctantly - persuaded to part with some 9mm cold iron rounds which could harm the banshee.

As it turned out, we noticed two former buskers hanging around one of the beach huts in Hove (the western half of Brighton, although some would argue it is still a separate city). We set our demon to apprehend them, allowing the rest of us to kick down the door of the hut they were guarding and enter the Fae Wyld. This turned out to be a huge dining hall inhabited by our banshee foe. A short fight ensued, but she made the mistake of going toe to toe with the Divine and his blessed crystal hammer which put her down for good - imagine a combination of Thor and St Michael in jogging pants and sandals and you are getting close to the concept of our Divine ally.

That was pretty much it for the evening. Much fun was had by all and I'm more convinced than ever that PbtA should be one of my go to RPGs in the future. I have a copy of Monster of the Week myself and it may well prove to be a good starting point.

Monday, 18 June 2018

Free RPG Day - Pathfinder's new science fiction brother

A Skittermander - ready for action!
So Free RPG Day has come and gone again. I have to say that this is a wonderful institution, and have the good fortune to live about 10 minutes by car from the Dice Saloon, now in new premises in the heart of Brighton, which hosted the event last weekend. If you are in the Sussex area, the Dice Saloon is well worth checking out.

This year I managed to get along to Free RPG Day in Brighton for the third year running, which has to be a record for me, as I failed to get to Dragonmeet in December 2017 and also failed to go to Salute in London in April of this year.

One of the attractions of Free RPG Day is the swag - free stuff that is given away by publishers to promote their games. Among the items I picked up were an excellent little one shot for Paizo's new Starfinder science fiction RPG. I was in two minds when Starfinder came out, partly because I wondered whether it would be a clone of the original Pathfinder RPG, but in space, which I suppose you could say it largely is.

BUT, I've found myself recently becoming a little jaded with horror RPGs, which have been my mainstay over a number of years, even though, if you looked at the number of hours I have spent actually playing horror RPGs versus Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder and other FRPGs, then horror still stands in a distinct minority. I have tended to run horror / pulp as my favoured genres on those occasions when I have been behind the GM's screen, be it in 1960s Vietnam, 1930s New Orleans or even Renaissance Spain.

However, more recently I've been playing more science fiction. I think this comes more through force of circumstance, since at the Dice Saloon I've been able to dip in and out of Star Wars D6 and a Judge Dredd D20 campaign that was in its final stages, and bend this around my work schedule. I've also been inspired by a fellow player to start watching Star Trek.

Star Trek is a setting I've never been that familiar with, always being at heart a Star Wars fan when it comes to the whole Trek vs Wars debate. Yet as I become more jaded by the global political situation and the financial markets, somehow the wide eyed optimism of Star Trek becomes more attractive. I've started watching Star Trek: the Next Generation on Netflix, which I missed out on when it first came out as I was at school/university and had other things to worry about. This I'm finding quite entertaining. I'm still on series one, mind you, but I enjoy dipping into it at the end of a long day, and at 45 minutes per episode, there is less chance of being interrupted!

Starfinder RPG

Back to science fiction RPGs. I've played quite a bit in my time, including forays into SLA Industries, Shadowrun, and more recently Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader from the Warhammer 40,000 stable since moving to Brighton. But many of these settings have been very pessimistic and dystopian in nature - SLA Industries' World of Progress is a very nihilistic vision, while Dark Heresy's inquisitors work to preserve a ghastly pseudo-medieval bureaucracy. By contrast Star Trek is bounding with optimism and a drive to explore and improve the galaxy. We need a bit more of that in today's world.

Reading between the lines, and I don't own the game yet, Starfinder looks a little more positive. coming to science fiction as it does from a more heroic/generic perspective, dare I say, space opera. Like Pathfinder, it does have its own setting, and is not generic, unlike for instance the early d20 Modern offering from Wizards of the Coast in the early 2000s, which included a science fiction expansion I have since sold on eBay. That was a setting you could use as the basis for any science fiction campaign - Starfinder comes with a ready-made setting into which you can shoe horn your own plots.

During Free RPG Day Paizo released 'Skitter Shot' for Starfinder. This is a one shot which, dare I say it, has been inspired by the success of their series for their fantasy RPG based on the exploits of a mischievous tribe of goblins, which kicked off with 'We Be Goblins!' some years ago. In Skitter Shot the characters play skittermanders, a new alien race created for Starfinder, which remind me a little of Stich from the Lilo & Stitch TV series.

Is it a dungeon bash in space? It certainly looks like one, but it is a realisation of a universe which is a little less...negative...than the Imperium of Dark Heresy. And it is a universe which can probably cater to quite a wide range of styles of play. It may well help to scratch a science fiction itch. I am seriously considering buying Starfinder and giving this one a go at some point. Stay tuned.

Next time: Monster of the Week at Free RPG Day in Brighton...

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Resurrecting the Grand Duchy of Irongrim

Many moons ago, when I was still at school, a friend and I, both keen players of what was then Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (this was 1987 or thereabouts) dreamed up a new campaign area called the Grand Duchy of Irongrim. There were two regions to this world, and Irongrim was part of one region. It was very much a committee-generated campaign setting, but I think that is what made it work.

The plan was never, however, to set RPG games in this environment. We wanted to create a multi-player feudal political environment, very similar in fact to what was later created by George R. R. Martin with his Game of Thrones series. Our world still included magic, demi-human races and other such tom foolery, but the humans were most certainly in charge.

Irongrim was a classic feudal society. It sat on the eastern shore of a continent, and across the sea from it was a second continent ruled over by a powerful empire that had a Byzantine feel to it. Irongrim had been an imperial province but had successfully rebelled against the empire and become its own state, ruled by a Duke from Irongrad, its capital.

The realm was dominated by at least 12 baronial factions, possibly more. One plan included having up to 30. Part of it was still ruled by a small colony of wood elves who had successfully fenced themselves off from humanity using a massive, magically-grown wall of thorns called the High Hedge. Relations with the elves were cordial, bot not many of these folk ventured out into human lands.

To the west was a massive dyke, originally raised by slave labour, designed to keep out hostile nomadic tribes that dwelt out in the wastes to the west. I originally envisaged these people as very similar to the Huns or Tartars, generally more concerned about their herds of goats and sheep, but with the potential to become very dangerous if united. I was reading a lot of David Gemmell when I was 16-17, and was partly inspired by the Nadir tribes from Legend and The King Beyond The Gate. I went on to study the Mongol empire in my first year at university.

To the north were mountains, including a number of dwarf holds. These chaps were fiercely independent and I envisaged them as somewhat like the highland clans of medieval Scotland - under nominal control from Irongrim but in reality very troublesome and reluctant to have the Duke interfering in their affairs. Beyond them there lay a somewhat chaotic realm inspired by dark ages Norway, a collection of jarls ruled occasionally by a king, but generally more interested in piracy and feuding.

Finally, to the south was a gulf / inlet, on the other side of which, 10 leagues or so, lay the Sultanate of Hahsir. Yes, this was our Arabian Nights realm, but it was 90% desert, much of it uninhabited or roamed by warlike nomads. The civilized bits were the towns and cities along the coast. The sultan claimed most of this large realm - five or six times the size of Irongrim in terms of space, but likely about the same size in terms of population. The sultan had a pretty impressive navy but lacked the ability to really invade Irongrim.

So there we have it. Two kids dreamed this up at school. Our plan was initially to use it as the setting for miniatures wargames campaigns, but at that time neither of us had either the space or the budget for such. We subsequently turned it into a sort of informal Diplomacy-inspired campaign game, with a number of players managing realms and submitting their orders to a GM who interpreted the results. It was very rules light. I recall getting my ass kicked during the naval blockade of an island similar to Rhodes that I was trying to take off the Empire. I didn't reckon with the governor's siege engines. I also recall assigning one of my best generals and a small party of adventurers to the quest for a magic sword which I believed would solve all my problems - rumours picked up by my court astrologer indicated that this could be a game changer at a time when my fleet was in tatters.

Sadly we never really played this to a conclusion, as A-level exams got in the way, and then we were sucked into playing other games like Blood Royal and Titan. I also remember TSR brought out Birthright for AD&D in 1995 which reminded me a great deal of the Irongrim project, although Irongrim's magic was more under stated. I've also lost all the magnificent maps we created.

So why bring up Irongrim again? For the most part because I now have more miniatures to my name, plus some scenery to be able to put on wargames like the Fords of the Isen and Kachas Pass. Secondly, I've stumbled across an interesting and generic campaign system that could work well, helping to generate battles for fantasy armies. I'm going to take a closer look at this to see where it takes me. The objective would be to try to get as many figures from the various types I own on the table as possible - for example, some Games Workshop Bretonnian knights and some Wargames Foundry Republican Romans, among others. The more the merrier!

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Khan of Khans play test

Who rules in Prax?
I bought Khan of Khans a couple of weeks ago largely because I was intrigued by the game's setting in Glorantha, itself a very rich and diverse world that has evolved over the decades as the setting for the RuneQuest roleplaying game and more latterly HeroQuest. Khan of Khans is Chaosium's first venture back into the board gaming market in what has been a very long time indeed. It matches board games ace designer Reiner Knizia with the Glorantha IP which Chaosium currently controls.

KoK is a nice little card game with cartoonish art which will readily appeal to the kids. It can be played fairly quickly and once you get the hang of it, moves along at a fair clip. Each player takes on the role of one of the nomadic tribes of Prax, distinguished by the different mounts they ride - e.g. buffaloes, antelopes, heck even rhinos. Each tribe also has a unique special ability, some of which are active - they need you to consume your action that turn to use, and some of which are passive, normally in force all the time, and generally there to stop bad things happening to your tribe.

Each turn a player can choose to either raid one of the iconic Gloranthan locations, which are each represented by its own deck of cards, use magic in the form of Waha's Blessing, or corral cows. This last action is very important. The game is won by the player who steals the most cattle from those effete civilized peoples (e.g. the Mostali/Dwarves, the Ducks, the Sun Dome temple, the Grazelanders and so forth). However, bad things can happen to your herds unless you corral them - e.g. they can stampede. Putting your cows in a corral effectively locks them safely away and you can be confident you can score those at the end of the game.

As you pull cards from locations, you generally end up with cows. Sometimes a player can draw bad events, like the aforementioned stampede, or defensive magic which can also mess up your precious herds. At other times they can draw a tribal champion, who is useful for defending against magical attacks. Generally you don't want more than one tribal champion, as they have a tendency to fight and go off in a huff, taking cattle with them.

The tactical bit

Dragon Pass and the various targets for nomad raids.
Let's talk a little bit about tactics now. I've only played two games but it quickly became obvious that as each location has only one stampede (actually not correct - one of them has two, but that is because the second one is a special event), once a stampede and enemy magic cards have emerged from a location, you will want to raid it, heavily, as the other cards will generally be cows and maybe the tribal champion. It is therefore worth keeping an eye on which cards are coming from which decks.

Secondly, you only have a limited number of corrals, which is dictated by the number of players. Once you use them, they are gone. Hence you have to balance the appeals of getting your herds into a corral against risking them on the open plains. When is a herd big enough to take into your corral? That's down to you.

Each location also has a unique card. This can be extra cattle, or an extra stampede, for example. Veterans of the game WILL have a slight edge here, at least in the first couple of games, if they are more familiar with the locations. BUT, this is a short game. I'm always sceptical when a game claims to be playable in 30 minutes (my experience with the monster that is Serenity has imbued me with a high degree of caution). However, in the case of Khan of Khans this is pretty realistic and it can be quickly played, which makes it IDEAL for taking on vacation.

In conclusion

The game is not too difficult to grasp and most players will be able to get their heads around the basics pretty quickly. It may be that there are still hidden tactical subtleties in KoK that I may have missed. If so, that will have to wait until I've played it a little more. I'm definitely planning on taking this on holiday with me in July.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Force on Force battle report - Hue 1968

White die tracks hits on the squad.
So we finally got the ball rolling on our Hue mini campaign this week. The first scenario is a fictional one based on an assault by US Marines across the Dong Ba canal in Hue in February 1968. This is actually loosely adapted from a fire fight involving different Marines, in a different war (Iraq, 2003), but I've pasted it into Vietnam and it seems to work well.

I took command of the Marine platoon with Kelvin taking the Viet Cong. The communists were highly motivated (d12 morale) and dug in on the opposite side of the canal, and in ambush positions with pre-registered medium mortars. Nasty.

For this engagement we are using Force on Force from Osprey, with some of the special rules from Ambush Valley, their Vietnam War supplement. The Marines have 10 turns to get across the canal bridge, which has been damaged by VC sappers, while keeping American losses to less than 10% killed or seriously wounded.

The Marines entered by squads with an additional support team carrying an M60 'pig' LMG. They also had a Huey 'slick' gunship on call. Problems started early as the VC decided to open up as soon as they sighted targets moving among the buildings. One US squad took some light wounds (see pic above) and sought refuge in a house while another was forced to evacuate a building they were moving through as it caught fire.

First squad moving up, shortly before they took heavy fire from the VC.

Looking at the evolving tactical situation, I moved my CO to a good position overlooking the canal where I could put his squad on overwatch, and where he could relay instructions to the helicopter. This is ALWAYS a good tactic in Force on Force as it lets you put down fire all over the field. Problem is, you can end up an obvious target if not careful. Still, he's in a good observation position for the time being.

The chopper flew off-station to assist other units for one turn, which was a pain (this is a mechanic called Fog of War in the game which seeks to reproduce the chaos of the modern battlefield). When it returned, the VC unit my CO spotted took the opportunity to go hide in a house so the Huey buzzed the canal before circling around again. Luckily, on the other side of the water, Kelvin's forward observer (FO) was having problems with his cheap Chinese radio and could not get his mortar battery to respond.

Blue bead represents a pre-registered VC barrage point.

To take the bridge I realised the Marines were going to have to bite the bullet and get across that canal in the face of a torrent of enemy fire, which was not going to be comfortable. This involved charging down an alley and over the bridge into the face of an entrenched enemy position.

Bridge assault begins!
The first squad to get into position took fire and had one soldier killed and another seriously wounded. A second squad took over.

Plenty of US fire was now focusing on the VC in positions on the other side of the river and that hail of bullets was beginning to make a difference, especially once the M60 team (5d8) set up on a roof and started blazing away.

The first squad onto the bridge was pinned down halfway over with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) hitting the bridge from two sides. One Marine went down seriously wounded. My corpsman didn't fancy his chances out on the bridge. My sergeant is now leading a second unit onto the bridge as the gunship comes around for another pass.

We are five turns into the 10 turn game. The Marines need to establish and hold a position on the other side of the bridge by turn 10 to win. They have taken three serious casualties so far, although a number of other soldiers have taken light wounds. I'm hoping that my gunship will get a chance to bring some heat in the next session and that those communist mortars keep quiet. All to play for.