Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Frostgrave: The Silent Tower at Dice Saloon

I finally managed to eke out some time to continue my Frostgrave campaign with Kelvin last night, this time progressing to the third scenario in the book, the Silent Tower. As my usual gaming venue has been turned over to my son's engineering project, we decided to take the game down to the Dice Saloon in Brighton. We found there was more than enough scenery to populate the table top and recreate the ghostly ruins of Frostgrave.

The battlefield from my perspective - fog bank on the right.

We created the Silent Tower, which acts as a sort of anti-magic zone in this scenario, using three towers connected by walkways [see below]. There was only one door, in the middle tower, allowing access from the ground. My soothsayer Ragnar fluffed both his zombie and fool's gold spells, so there was no illusory chest to start the game with this time. An extra chest, stuffed with booty, sat at the top of the tower. This would allow three rolls on the treasure table for whoever recovered it.

The Three Towers!
My band was up to full capacity this time, with a trio of dogs, both my men at arms, two rangers, a newly recruited dwarf with a crossbow, and my wizard and apprentice. Kelvin, who had taken the time to add a kennel to his HQ, was able to field his squigg/dog for free, getting eleven members for his party.

I split my band into three, allowing the dogs to operate as an independent pack, while Ragnar led the men at arms and his apprentice Nordgrint moved with the two rangers for protection. My strategy was to let the dogs create havoc, as per usual, but this time I had three shooters. I had found myself suffering in previous encounters from Kelvin's orc archers, so wanted to try the tactic for myself.

This turned out to be a good move, since my bow-armed rangers and the crossbow wreaked merry havoc with the goblins, resulting in the death of the goblin apprentice and dispatching two summoned zombies, which the apprentice had raised to protect himself with. One of the rangers was also able to recover a chest as a direct consequence (more on that below).

On my right, the early use of a fog potion allowed me to screen my wizard and the dogs from any shooting from the orcs, plus it meant some of the goblin witch's spells were countered. The dogs could rush through the fog without being impeded, but they were less effective this time. The orc barbarian took two of them down in short order, and a passing wolf killed the third. I'm in two minds whether it is worth getting any more, as two of the dogs made their survival rolls, so I'll still have them in my band, although one is too badly hurt to make the next battle.

The key to this battle was control / access to the central tower - there were two treasure chests, one on the main tower and a second on one of the ancillary towers. I realised I  needed to get my band into a good strategic position early on to control access to the tower, ideally using my shooters. Kelvin got one goblin into the tower ahead of me, and the maniac managed to seize one chest before throwing himself off the tower with it, to escape my soldiers climbing up the tower after him! The goblin took a lot of damage, but survived, only to be hacked down soon after by my dwarvish warrior Skeggi Boozehound. I tried repeating the same trick with my man at arms, Grimgur, but he only succeeded in breaking his neck on the way down...

Nordgrint keeps a low profile!

At this stage of the game it was time to race to safety. My wizard Ragnar, who had one chest, was followed by his apprentice Nordgrint, who had picked up the super bonus chest the hapless Grimgur had jumped from the tower with. A ranger was escaping with a third. Kelvin's orcs came in pursuit, shooting arrows all the way. The ranger and Ragnar escaped off the field, but Nordgrint was pounced on by a wandering minor demon, who managed to put him down, before wandering off again. Nordgrint recovered, but lost a potion in the process.

The last opportunity to grab a chest came from the other side of the field, where the goblins had abandoned a chest when their apprentice was slain by an crossbow bolt. Gosted, one of my rangers, grabbed it and ran to safety while a zombie summoned by Ragnar was keeping the goblin witch busy.

The game ended with three chests in my possession, yielding 210 gold, plus two grimoires with illusionary soldier and reveal death spells. I also picked up potions of strength and speed, and scrolls of decay, explosive, rune, miraculous cure, planar tear and two scrolls of telekinesis. Not a bad haul, but it addresses one issue I have with my soothsayer, in that he lacks many of the offensive spells that the opposition has - for example, grenade and mud, both of which seem highly useful.

Ragnar takes cover to avoid orc archers on his way to safety.

My band took quite a beating in the process, but given my aggressive posture on this one, I was expecting it. One dog is dead, plus Grimgur broke his neck jumping off a tower. A second dog is hors de combat, as is poor Skeggi, who I think got hit by a grenade spell. That takes me down to six for my next expedition into Frostgrave, unless I can grab some more recruits. I'm currently left with Ragnar and Nordgrint, one dog, Gosted and Lumbard the rangers, and Brekin Sharp Eye, my dwarven crossbow sniper. But having said all that, it is really time for my spell users to step up to the plate!

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Book of the Month: Red Storm Rising

Soviet Victor-class nuclear submarine
This week I celebrate my 48th birthday. I'm still astonished, every year, that I'm even over 40. When I was still at school, in the bad old days of the 1980s, I was convinced that war with the Soviet Union and an eventual exchange of strategic nuclear weapons was an inevitability. I think that only thanks to the efforts of a very small number of individuals, among them John. F. Kennedy, Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan and Oleg Gordievsky, was that conflict avoided.

Red Storm Rising was one of Tom Clancy's earlier novels, written before he became more established with books like The Hunt For Red October or Patriot Games (although Red October itself first came out in 1984), and their central character CIA analyst Jack Ryan (now the subject of a new series on Amazon Prime). Red Storm Rising is a techo thriller, published in 1986, and written with Larry Bond, one of the authors of the Harpoon modern naval miniatures rules.

It is an epic book, and authored by those with a background in naval operations and wargaming (Bond served six years in the US Navy, including four years on a destroyer).  Red Storm Rising charts a hypothetical conflict between NATO and the USSR in 1985, caused by a terrorist incident in Azerbaijan, when saboteurs destroy a big slice of the USSR's oil and gas infrastructure. It looks at the war that ensues from the perspective of several combatants, including major roles for, among others, a US Air Force officer in Iceland, an American submarine commander and a destroyer captain, a Russian general, and the commander of a Soviet airborne division.

There are also lesser roles for a supporting cast of characters involved in different aspects of the war - for example, early on, the Spetznaz commando operations in West Germany against NATO targets, or later efforts by the USAF to shoot down Russian spy satellites with missiles. At the time, the advent of ground breaking stealth technology was still a rumour, but this is encapsulated in Clancy's Operation Dreamland, the use of Stealth fighters to take out the Warsaw Pact's AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System) planes in a pre-emptive strike over East Germany, resulting in massive losses for the Soviet air force in the first day of the war.

Operation Dreamland

The Russians have their own cards to play, naturally, including a surprise attack on Iceland, which provides them with the air base at Keflavik and shuts down the NATO SOSUS sonar network between Greenland and the UK.

It is a gripping read. There is a bias towards naval operations, although the fighting in Germany gets the occasional look in, mainly from the perspective of the leader of a US armoured platoon and the Soviet headquarters in Germany, grappling with its own logistical and leadership problems, not the mention the unrealistic demands of their masters in Moscow.

Clancy and Bond look at the typical scenarios that might have been fought out in the 1980s, including convoy operations in the Atlantic, missions to track down Russian submarines, air raids on Iceland, and the tactical Stealth missions at low level in East Germany.

The Russian characters are not card board cut outs by any means: the first 15% of the book looks at the reasons behind the war, the decision making process, including at Politburo level, the KGB's maskirovka tactics, and the Red Army's military planning. There's a great scene where the army general staff meet in a sauna in Moscow to discuss their plans without being recorded by the KGB (the steam makes it impossible to bug them).

If you are interested in a gripping read, with plenty of technical detail, but not enough to get bogged down in, then Red Storm Rising is a good choice. It is becoming quite dated now, and the period it is set in over three decades in the past, but for the Cold War military enthusiast it remains a classic.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Friday night X Wing: Biggs Darklighter saves the day

X wings on patrol!
All of a sudden Fantasy Flight Games has launched a second edition of its massively popular X Wing science fiction space combat miniatures game. I've only played this once before, and already there is a second edition! X Wing has a large and vibrant community of players here in Sussex, however, with the centre of activity located in the new and sprawling Dice Saloon premises.

I had another opportunity to 'fly casual' last week and try out the new second edition rules. Those who are expecting a detailed analysis of the differences between the two will be disappointed sadly, as it has been so long since I last played, I'd have to go back to the first edition, play that again, and then let you know.

I played two X Wings, with Biggs Darklighter and Wedge Antilles, against a trio of TIE fighters of varying levels of experience. I was not flying against generic mooks here - some of these guys were quite dangerous. Points-wise, I still had an edge, as Wedge had several additional abilities and was equipped with a couple of photon torpedoes.

The early part of the game was spent just trying to get some shots on each other. I scored an early success, destroying one of the TIEs, but he was the greenest flyer of the bunch. I tried this time to fly my X wings in close formation, as Biggs has an ability that lets him take a hit for another pilot if he is within short range of them. However, my opportunity to use my photon torpedoes quickly evaporated.

I have to confess I was rusty, and getting to grips with the rules meant I neglected my photons. By the time I decided it would be good to try them, Wedge had a TIE on his tail that refused to be shaken and both my X wings spent three turns being shot at without having any targets in their firing arcs! This is not a good situation and only my shields saved me from taking any serious damage.

Wedge Antilles faces an asteroid

I then took the decision to split the X wings, forcing the Imperial player to do the same. Wedge wrestled to get a shot on the TIE with his torpedoes, but my jammy opponent was not going to let me get there (they can't be fired at short range, and every time Wedge had a shot the TIE was right in his face). Eventually, he decided to detach his other TIE from Biggs and send it after Wedge, managing to bag Wedge.

At this point it was suggested we stop, as I now had only Biggs, with no shields, facing down two experienced TIE fighters. I chose to fight on, in the spirit of the Rebellion, and to avenge Alderaan. Within the next turn Biggs took out his second TIE with an amazing shot. Now it was Biggs, in a badly damaged X wing, against the last TIE, which was at this point unscratched and piloted by the most experienced of the three Imperial flyers.

The bad guys - TIEs!
By this point in the game I'd become more familiar with the maneuver matrix for the X wing. Although slower than the TIE it had the ability to execute a hard turn and then drop its speed to 1, which the TIEs could not emulate. I finally had a means of making sure the enemy was going to pop up fairly consistently in Biggs' sights. I knew Biggs' X wing would not hold together for much longer - one more hit and he was a goner - so the next time I had him, took full advantage of it. An amazing shot by Biggs inflicted three hits (jammy rolling on my part) and a botched defensive roll left the last TIE as a cloud of glowing radioactive dust.

Victory for the Rebellion! What a game, and an entertaining return to X wing. I'll have to see if I can get some more games in this autumn. The second edition seems to flow extremely well, although I'm told players will need the £40 upgrade box for each faction plus the core rules to really be able to convert their miniatures collections over to the new edition - e.g. new order dials and bases are required, not to mention card decks. All you are really keeping from first edition are the miniatures.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Icons of Hyboria

I've been asked if I can run a Conan campaign at some stage. Many years ago, I had a stab at this using the OGL Conan system from Mongoose Publishing. Things have moved on a bit since then and while I might still return to d20, I'm looking at some possible alternatives. I have used some RuneQuest to run a few adventures in Shem involving a gang of thieves which went well; RQ is still an option here. Another possibility is Savage Worlds, which I think more than anything would suit the feel of Conan's world.

I have really enjoyed playing in Kelvin's 13th Age campaign and consequently am pondering whether one could use 13A to power a Hyborian campaign.

One of the keys behind any campaign using 13th Age is the icons - as these can end up defining much of the plot and the events within the campaign, I want to see if I can come up with some good ones for Hyboria. They will need to be personalities and factions that can conceivably be drawn into any game at the roll of a d6, thus able to exercise power across much of the campaign milieu.

Here are four for starters, more when I've had the chance to mull them over, but any suggestions welcome.

Conan (Heroic Icon)

Conan the Cimmerian, a barbarian, thief, mercenary and pirate, his escapades across the continent have left a trail of chaos and destruction behind them. He has toppled kings and sorcerors and challenged the power of the very gods themselves. Conan has now seized the throne of Aquilonia, one of the most powerful of the Hyborian kingdoms, and set himself up as ruler there. But he is an alien in a feudal land where wealthy barons and other enemies are plotting to unseat him even now. Conan has at his command one of the most vaunted armies in the western kingdoms and his reach is long. Location: Aquilonia, but known to travel, sometimes on his own, sometimes with an army.

Thoth Amon (Villainous Icon)

Thoth Amon is regarded as one of the most dangerous sorcerors of the Black Ring, a cabal of Stygian magicians. His origins remain obscure but it is known that he exercises considerable power both within Stygia and beyond. Although nominally an adherent to the Stygian snake cult of Set, Thoth Amon is also thought to be advancing his own sorcerous schemes independently of both the Setites and Stygia itself. Thoth Amon has been interested for some time in uncovering the ancient mysteries of the fallen civilization of Acheron. Location: Stygia, but known to travel.

The Bone Woman (Ambiguous Icon)

She is an ancient and powerful witch. Little is known of her origins and her agenda frequently clashes with those of other sorcerors. She sees adventurers as tools in a larger game that she is playing and her influence stretches far. Kings and emperors may be her play things. She draws on ancient magics that existed before the written word, before mighty Acheron dominated the continent of Hyboria. Her powers allow her to draw regularly on demonic entities from outside time and space. Her agents are many and can be encountered all over the world. Location: unknown. It is possible she lives in some form of proto dimension of her own creation.

The Church of Mitra (Heroic Icon)

Mitra's is the most influential and widely followed cult among the Hyborian kingdoms of the west. The priests of Mitra teach a benevolent creed that has won wide acceptance among rich and poor. They promote healing and wisdom as two of the core tenets of their faith. Temples to Mitra can be found in many of the main settlements of the Hyborian kingdoms and their priests frequently have the ear of kings and princes. Mitra's priests are recognised for their knowledge and their access to libraries houses within the precincts of their religious institutions. Mitra's followers are often intolerant of other religions. Location: Throughout the Hyborian kingdoms, but also found further afield (e.g. as missionaries of the faith).

The above are just four of what may be 13 icons in total for the Hyborian Age. I'll post more here when I have time. I think King Yezdigerd of Turan may be another possible icon, and my son has suggested Taurus, Prince of Thieves as a potential icon. Taurus doesn't work chronologically, however, as he died in the Tower of the Elephant before Conan was king of Aquilonia. Also, he seems as if he was a solo operator and not someone with a wide network (although I could always change this!)

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Trail of Cthulhu - whatever happened to Cheery Patterson?

Private Roade reports for duty

And so we approach the conclusion of our thrilling tale. We left our trio of stalwarts as they stumbled across what looked like some kind of cult, composed of patients and at least one member of the hospital staff, celebrating a pagan ritual under a ruined barn. It is France. It is 1917. It is almost dawn, and it is time to take down the bad guys.

Roade retreated from the cellar to consult with his new comrades. What followed was a debate between the investigators as to the next best steps. While they were doing this, Private Gurdip Dal emerged quietly through the door behind Roade. Only Anne Thrope spotted him (Sense Trouble roll) before he attacked Topless with a kukri. Topless was hurt (-5 Health IIRC), but Thrope responded with a needle from her knitting kit (Preparedness check, TN3), stabbing Dal through the hand and causing him to drop his knife.

Thrope suddenly found herself in a bunker, somewhere on the Western Front. There were two Indian soldiers in the bunker with her, Dal and another wearing a gas mask. Dal was humming to himself as he cooked a curry in a mess tin. He welcomed Thrope into the bunker and explained cheerfully that the war would be over soon and that he and his brother would be returning home to India.

The other soldier remained mysteriously incommunicative. Filled with trepidation, but responding to her Curiosity drive (I forgot to give her a Stability reward for this), Thrope pulled the gas mask off the soldier, only to find below it the face of a man many weeks dead. Dal shrieked and Thrope found herself back outside the barn, with Dal now frothing at the mouth and in convulsions at her feet. She sought to apply First Aid to the soldier, but he died almost immediately with no other obvious wounds on his body.

At the cry, Roade, who had his .303 rifle with him having just come off guard duty at the administration tent, charged through the door back into the barn. Here he found the strange green mist event thicker, but he didn’t pause, and shot one of the cultists, disrupting the ceremony.

Lieutenant Parker-Bowles, the blind officer, turned to Roade, shouting “Stop! Stop!” Roade aimed his rifle at the blind man, point blank…and found himself in the courtyard of the Royal Academy in London.

Except Roade had never been to the Royal Academy, or London, so it all seemed strange to him. He was still holding his rifle. The only familiar figure was Parker-Bowles, now seated at the base of a statue in the centre of the courtyard, speaking with some other men. He smiled and waved when her saw Roade. The orderly approached cautiously. Parker-Bowles explained to Roade that he was better now and could see again. The war was over and he would be able to return to his career as an artist. Roade was dumbfounded. But before he could speak, the double doors that led into the RA flew open and he could see beyond the unmistakable trenches of the Western Front.

Parker-Bowles screamed in terror, and Roade found himself back in the cellar, with the artist now in convulsions at his feet. Around him, other cultists were starting to fall. He could hear a deep voice coming from the direction of the altar, thrumming with an unearthly vigour: “One may not escape the angel of death, or say to him, ‘Wait until I put my affairs in order…!’”

The candles in the room died down, and the only light was the glow coming from the skull on the altar. Roade took aim at it and fired (TN5), hitting the skull and shattering it into pieces. The chanting ceased, as did the screaming. Thrope entered the cellar, bringing her lamp, and surveyed the carnage.

All the cultists had perished together, and seemed to have died having the same fit. Among them were Borden and Dicky Fallon. More shockingly, Roade also saw the body of Cheery Patterson, who had been recruited into the cult (BIG Stability check here).

The altar was piled with a seemingly random collection of objects, mostly military equipment. They were heaped on some wooden planks, across what looked like an old - and empty - Roman tomb.


As Roade headed off to find Major Parker, we ran out of time and had to pack up, but I was satisfied with the conclusion. On re-reading the adventure, I think I was kind to the investigators in the final scene. They were facing down a Great Old One that should have done a lot more damage to Roade at the very least. Given that in the Delta Green adventure we played we achieved a total party kill, the players were all somewhat disappointed to emerge relatively unscathed.

Topless had a bad knife wound, but was still in positive Health, and nobody had dropped below zero Stability. There had been some erosion of Sanity, but nothing too drastic. Roade was the closest to going insane, although Topless had started the adventure fairly unstable.

I ran the adventure in a three-hour slot. It felt a bit rushed at times and I escalated the conclusion, but I wanted to avoid the possibility of the authorities/Major Parker getting too involved. The scenario has provision for this, and it included the military police being called in if the characters discover the body of Father Pombal (murdered by the cultists). But that would have burned up precious time. I wanted to keep the players focused. Four hours would have been preferable to be honest.

I really wanted to run a World War 1 scenario, and Not So Quiet fits the bill perfectly. On first reading it seems a little hard to understand how the adventure is meant to progress. But I figured it out using a mine chart and working out which scenes were core to the plot, and which were optional extras. This also makes the adventure fairly elastic – you could easily expand it to two sessions. The cult did not have to be revealed quite as quickly as it was, for example: even if Thrope had tried to point the finger of suspicion at Borden, the blame was more likely to fall on Mrs Ogilvy, as it was her medicine cupboard the green poison had been discovered inside. Mrs Ogily, while a tyrant and an unpleasant individual, was not a cultist.

The best way to run Not So Quiet is as a sandbox. The important scene is the meeting of the wounded characters with the medical characters, and this is achieved through the barrage scene early in the adventure. It also introduces the character of Cheery. If I’d had more time, it would have been good to play out more of the Roade/Cheery plotline and the Roade/Topless blackmail plot, but there was no scope for this. Cheery’s death at the end was a perfect closure piece, I felt, and it certainly shocked the Roade player! He was checking the dead cultists hoping not to find her, but right at the end, there she was.

Gumshoe seemed to work well here. I am working on a WW2 Mythos adventure and have thus far been developing it system-free. I wanted to see if a military-based one-shot would work with Gumshoe and it certainly does seem to have achieved this.

I felt the loss of some good roleplaying opportunities – this group likes to get into character, but it can lead to some long in-character discussions with NPCs which, while eminently enjoyable, do consume time.

There is now some debate as to what to do next. The Roade and Topless players are considering whether they would like to continue with the soldiers' post-war careers, in which case some kind of campaign may be in order. I am also pondering a one-shot for them in Egypt in 1920. The Thrope player has expressed an interest in generating her own character, potentially one of the generation of pioneering female pilots that emerged in the inter-war era.

One the other side of the coin, there may be interest in a campaign of some kind. Thoughts naturally stray to Masks of Nyarlathotep, which I have never run before…