Thursday, 13 April 2017

Waterloo campaign: now the problems start

Prussian artillery near Charleroi, morning of 16 June
South of Charleroi, 0545 June 16, 1815

Well, here we are, encamped with the bulk of the Prussian II Corp south of Charleroi. To my front is the French I Corps under Ney. Prussian artillery is still arriving and my opinion is we will need to hold here and stop the French getting across the river Sambre at Charleroi.

Finally heard back from Wellington - it sounds as if the British are currently as much in the dark as I am. Neither of us is sure of where Napoleon's main thrust will be. I think it would be prudent to keep II Corps here, and see if Ney would like to try the issue.

To my right Zeithen and I Corps are facing Van Damme and the French III Corps. Again, Van Damme has yet to cross the Sambre and Zeithen has wisely put out overnight cavalry pickets on the north bank of the river to keep an eye on any French efforts to get across.

However, the real problem, and one Dutch partisans have been warning me about, is the presence of French cavalry over in the Ciney/Huy area. As it turns out, large numbers of unidentified enemy horse have swept into Huy, getting across the Meuse and severing communications with Prussia, damn their eyes!

Priority must now be to get rid of them. To this end I am sending most of IV Corps' cavalry to sort this out. Intelligence indicates more French on the move to the south and east of III Corps, so it could well be that Napoleon is aiming to direct his main thrust againt me in the east. We just need to be able to confirm this. I have taken the liberty of sending a single division under Hacke due north out of Namur to secure Hannut, as I'm worried now.

Right now we must ensure the French do not get into Namur, and we free up our supply lines back to Prussia. I must admit, it is starting to look like Napleon already has the upper hand.

Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher, Furst von Wahlstatt, Charleroi, 16 June

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Dracula Dossier - the final analysis

I've not been keeping up to date with my Dracula Dossier posts, which perhaps I should have done, as it would have helped me with my analysis of what exactly was going on. The Dracula Dossier, written by Kenneth Hite and published by Pelgrane, is a large, sprawling investigative sand box of a campaign. Like a number of other Pelgrane offerings, it is not a linear campaign: it relies heavily on the abilities of an experienced referee to mould the plot to his own requirements. As such, it may not be described as a 'plug and play' option for GMs of Night's Black Agents, the rules system it was originally written for.

We didn't play it with NBA either - we used a homebew mish-mash of Call of Cthulhu and the new Delta Green. As a player, it is difficult to deduce what events and characters stemmed from the imagination of the aforesaid Hite, and what hailed from the fevered mind of our GM. Hence, anything I say needs to be taken with a substantial pinch of salt.

Dracula Dossier took us almost a year to play, although with several periods of hiatus when a full complement of players was not available. While I enjoyed it immensely, I think for me two consistent difficulties emerged from it, one early on, and one roughly mid-way through the plot, which should be raised for those wondering whether to run this.

We had a good bunch of characters, and one aspect you do notice during any campaign is how the characters migrate from being two dimensional facades to well-rounded, consistent personalities. Hence, we had the cold-blooded GRU assassin who never left her agency, and was covertly aiding the Russian vampire project; the initially idealistic German counter-intel specialist who lost his bearings and became focused on purely eradicating the undead at any cost; the Israeli hacker cursed with bad luck and a dubious relationship with her journalist ex-husband; and the meticulous English ladies' man with an amoral streak.

I don't think the team represented a pleasant group of personalities, and they were more than capable of torturing and executing a London antiques dealer, making some student interns 'vanish' in a Russian forest, and exposing a group of underwear models to a firefight with werewolves that got them all killed. In the process a prestigious Belgravia mansion in London was blown up, the top floors of an office block in Rotterdam were destroyed, the parliament building in Bucharest was set on fire, German security personnel were framed for drug dealing, and an elderly Austrian security guard was roughed up in a museum. I could go on.

So we had characters with drives, with motivations behind their personalities. And in the system we were using, drives could be used to a degree to help restore lost Sanity. But as players we could probably have done more with this, I'm just not sure how. One particular issue was why the agents were putting themselves in harm's way, because this influenced their involvement in the plot. We began the story as members of Redline Corporate Solutions, a small industrial espionage outfit based in Zurich, that decided to 'go have a look' when a group of competitors in Malaga went missing. This led to the early discovery that Dracula was in fact real, as was evidenced by watching him carve up an SAS hit squad in graphic technicolour.

I can see now that the character of Natasha, the GRU agent, was motivated by the need the Russians had to gather material on the vampires and the British vampire program. My character, the Israeli hacker Carmel, was already disillusioned by her years in Mossad, and wanted to eventually expose the vampires to the world. To this end she uploaded all the evidence the team gathered to a secure FTP server on a regular basis, with a dead hand activation protocol that would distribute it to select media if something happened to her. I'm not entirely clear on what kept the other agents going - Max, our German comrade, eventually switched his drive to simply eliminating the vampires wherever he found them. But there was no central team goal or objective, other than an early decision to take down Dracula, something we only achieved by realising how keen he was on his brides, and doing for them first.

We also were not entirely clear on what Dracula was up to. A raid on the HQ of EDOM, the British government's vampire handling unit, led us to the conclusion that they were under-resourced and largely just interested in using Dracula as some kind of weapon against terrorists. Yet their control / knowledge of him was limited at best, and our team's knowledge of the European vampire network quickly outstripped theirs. It was also apparent that Dracula's brides were involved in some form of vampire tourism / VIP country club plot, but it didn't seem exactly world threatening and more an excuse to hang out with celebrities like Jeremy Clarkson.

While we celebrated our victory over Dracula eventually, we were still none the wiser on his plans, other than to keep running Romania as his private fiefdom. We provoked his eventual attack by simply assassinating those he cared about (who seemed to be off doing their own thing), leading him into a carefully prepared trap in Russia.

Dracula Dossier is a big and impressive sandbox investigation, and should not be embarked upon lightly. It can take agents the length and breadth of Europe. Think in terms of the epic Call of Cthulhu campaign Masks of Nyarlathotep, but make it more fragmented, more granular. Obviously there are key locations, like London, Bucharest and Munich, but it is down to the players to collate and regularly review an enormous amount of intelligence in every session, which requires focus from them and a helping hand from the GM.

Much has been said by Pelgrane and Hite especially about the unredacted copy of the novel Dracula, which was published alongside the campaign. The premise here is that the novel is the after action report of EDOM's first attempt to recruit Dracula for their purposes in the 1890s, and if you have read the original, the changes and additions are indeed entertaining. I enjoyed revisiting the book and its characters after more than 20 years since I first read it. But players need to be VERY dedicated to read this as a handout for a game, because it requires a high level of concentration to go through it looking for clues / evidence to support the ongoing investigation. GM's will have to judge the capabilities of their own group: if most of you are undergraduates reading English Literature, you should be fine. I don't think it is necessary for playing DD, however, and should be regarded as an additional embellishment for the uber-dedicated.

Dracula Dossier represents a new level of sophistication for the investigative sandbox campaign in RPGs. While I have bought it myself, and will read it, I remain of two minds as to whether I would ever try to run it. Like Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, it is one of those epics that should be attempted by ambitious groups looking for a career-defining challenge, but it is really not for the beginning to intermediate group.

Our GM, in his own ruminations on the campaign, has wondered whether Savage Worlds might not have been a better system for this game, and owners of Agents of Oblivion are advised to take a look at that supplement for a possible basis for running DD. It may also be worth cooking up a customised deck of adventure cards for the players. But that will probably be for a different post. Our campaign did result in a number of major battles which tested the homebrew rules system we were using to its limits, but that may also be because our group has a preference for action and combat to keep them awake of a Friday evening!

Friday, 7 April 2017

Just one vacancy left at UK Games Expo

In June I will be running three RPGs at UK Games Expo. Two of them have been written about on this blog previously, while a third could be a new run out for a scenario, unless I get a chance to play test it first in May at some point.

At the time of writing there is still one vacancy left for Project Prospero, my Delta Green game. This involves a scratch team of agents dispatched to a Caribbean island in the path of a massive hurricane. Their mission is to find out what is going on at a covert research facility on the island, destroy it, and make it look as if the storm was responsible. As they get into their helicopter, they only have a vague idea of what awaits them.

The game happens in real time - i.e. the agents have approximately four hours to get in and out of the research facility before the storm hits. This will probably be the last time I run this adventure, after which I will likely post it with full DG stats this site. It has already had an outing at Dragonmeet in 2015.

The following games are also now fully booked up: one is the final outing for Looking For Lucy, an adventure that began life as a starter for a Deadlands Noir campaign, but which I'll be running using Trail of Cthulhu this time.

The other is the first outing at a con of Fuel Stop, my Achtung Cthulhu scenario involving the crew of a stricken B29 bomber trying to make it back from a raid on Japan in 1945. I may run this at Free RPG Day this year, if I get my act together in time.

As I say, both these games are now fully booked up. If you are going to be at Games Expo and want to play Delta Green there is one seat left at that table. I hope to see you there.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Farewell to the Mighty Greblord

One of those false senses of security one tends to get lulled into as a human being is the assumption that you have decades ahead of you, including for gaming and everything else you want to get done before your existence on this planet finally comes to a conclusion. That is not, however, always the case. I'm still getting over the passing of Pete Armstrong, aka the Mighty Greblord, one of my gaming buddies. He and I had been planning to get together to play some Dystopian Wars in the very near future, but given how busy I was on the business front, there never seemed to be the right time to set something up. I was also aware he was juggling child care duties, which were keeping him busy.

The Greblord first introduced himself to me when I was umpiring a game of the Battle of the Nile at Salute. Myself and game organiser Mark had advertised ourselves as Brighton-based wargamers and he stopped by to say hello. Following that, we went on to be part of the same RPG group and also played numerous miniature battles games as part of the Hove Area Wargames Society, including Warhammer 40,000, Victory At Sea, Song of Arthur and Merlin, and Fear & Faith.

Pete was a keen collector and painter of miniatures and used his blog to promote his interest in vintage Games Workshop figures as well as some highly sophisticated modelling projects, including an Antarctic fortress for Dystopian Wars. His painting efforts always put mine to shame - I recall being quite pleased with my Necron fleet for Battlefleet Gothic before they went onto the table to take on his Chaos ships, next to which they looked awfully bland, such was his ability to make a Nurgle-infested battleship look truly rancid.

I came to realise that the Greblord was also a walking piece of Games Workshop history (and knowledge) as well as more widely gaming history, and had worked as a store manager for GW in Hammersmith in the late 1980s. He is even cited by Marcus Rowland as the inspiration for a Paranoia scenario in an early White Dwarf magazine.

Greblord was a Yorkshireman, too. I know he was an active member of the Sheffield wargaming scene before he moved south and regularly made the effort to go up to Sheffield for the Triples show. Salute was another high point in the annual war gaming calendar for him. Like many Yorkshiremen, including my own grandfather, he said what he meant. For many other English people, this can come across as a bit abrasive, but the Greblord was someone who did not believe in pussy-footing around or the habitual double-speak embraced by much of the nation.

Greblord's death was sudden and shocking. When, now, will I have the opportunity to pit my 6mm Carthaginians against his gorgeous army of Spartans? And my Russian Dystopian Wars fleet will not get its opportunity to sail - and no doubt be decimated by - his Covenant ships.

His loss has convinced me that I must spend more time doing what I enjoy today. Too often we put things off for when we have more time or more money. But those circumstances may not arrive. While it often seems there is never enough time in the day, we need to make time to see friends and play games with them.

Greblord's spirit lives on - you can view his blog here, with many examples of his collection of classic Citadel miniatures and gaming/modelling projects. Farewell my friend. We'll miss you.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Cypher System - first impressions

New Beginnings - d101 Games
So here's a useful way to learn a new rules system. First, sit in on a game as a player, then generate some player characters, and finally convert an existing adventure. This is exactly what I've been doing, using the core rules of Monte Cook's Cypher System, which are now available in a generic format. Wise connoissuers of Mister Cook's output will be aware that this system underpins his Numenera and The Strange offerings.

Last year I took the opportunity to sit in on a game of Numenera, as part of the BURPS RPG get-together at Brighton's Dice Saloon in September. I went away with a favourable impression. Since returning from India last month, I've been teaching myself the generic version of the rules system. I am using a copy of Gloranthan Adventures - New Beginnings, from d101 Games, which I've had for a while, but have never used. This series of adventures set in Dragon Pass is written for HeroQuest, but up until now I've had problems getting my head around the system.

Using New Beginnings as a template, I have generated five pre-gens for Cypher, based on the characters in the back of the d101 Games supplement. It has proved remarkably simple to do this, and each character really only took about 20 - 30 minutes to make. Even though the characters are Tier 1 (out of six), they are still relatively potent. Although there are four 'classes' in generic Cypher (as opposed to three in Numenera), they are so highly customisable with the other aspects of their backgrounds, that each appears a unique personality in their own right.

Each character is composed of three elements, a class, a description, and what they do. So, for example, the character of Oldra Rainwarrior, an initiate of Helamakt and a shepherd who has had his steading destroyed by Lunars, has been created as a Sharp-Eyed Adept Who Speaks For The Land. This aptly describes what he is, an adept, what he does, he is sharp-eyed (a good skill for a shepherd), and what he does (speaks for the land). His devotion to the warrior aspect of the Heortling rain god Heler is covered by a mix of his adept class and his speaks for the land.

The core classes bring most of the practical skills including the critical attribute pools, while the other features add further flesh with skill specialisations and personality traits. What I like about Cypher is that it brings character into the mechanics. Characters are not simply a combat matrix. There are rules that enforce behaviour. There is also an opportunity to tie characters to other characters via relationships.

So, taking Oldra as an example again, part of his background is that he has lost his sheep. In the confusion of the Lunar raid, he suspects the sibling of one of the other characters took the opportunity to steal them. The player gets to choose which character it is, and the players between them are left to work out the rest. It is a great little sub-plot, it is introduced right at the beginning, in the character generation phase, and adds context to the relations between the characters.

Ease of conversion and customization

Overall, the Gloranthan characters have been easy to convert to Cypher. I have also added XP rewards within their backgrounds to reflect their devotion to their gods, and also to reinforce some personality traits. If I travel further down this road, it might be worth looking at attaching XP to successful emulation of the core values of a deity, and possibly also to the successful completion of Heroquests.

I have converted two adventures into Cypher from New Beginnings. They are traditional sword and sorcery adventures, but also good as introductions to Glorantha. I've held off converting a third, largely because it is a little different from the first two, involving more politics, social interaction, and scope for mass combat. Currently I remain unsure how successful Cypher would be with a densely political scenario. That's not to say it can't manage intrigue, just that I've not attempted it yet.

I will just finish this post by saying that there are probably some settings / situations that Cypher will not work for. Because of its reliance on the discovery and use of cyphers, which play an important role in the game, some genres, like investigation, probably won't work so well. Cypher came out of Numenera, the central plot of which is the discovery of, and interaction with lost technology. It is difficult to see how the game would work in an environment where there was not scope for the cyphers to be there to be discovered and implemented by the characters. Doing this seamlessly is one of the key elements of converting existing adventures or settings to the system.

Thus far Gloranthan encounters have been relatively easy to manufacture using the template encounters in the Cypher book. There is no big Cypher bestiary to my knowledge, and some of the encounters in New Beginnings are fairly unique, even for Glorantha. But I think I've captured them adequately. The flexibility of Cypher is such that it takes less time to port them over than it would do converting these same NPCs into RuneQuest, which would be a much more complex task.

Stay tuned for more on this project as it progresses.