Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Shadows Over Camelot

I finally dug out Shadows Over Camelot at the weekend to entertain kids too tired and cold to continue sledding. Ice, snow and now freezing fog mean it is less than easy to move around Brighton right now, and my car has become stuck on more than one occasion. No winter tyres, see?

Shadows Over Camelot is a very entertaining game which I've played a few times now, and was the first of the recent slew of co-op board games I have tackled. Other notable members of the genre include Pandemic, Battlestar Galactica, and Arkham Horror.

In Shadows players take on the role of famous knights in the service of King Arthur. The objective is to complete enough quests to save Camelot before it is destroyed. The success/failure ratio is measured by neat black and white swords which are added to the Round Table on the board, usually as quests are completed or failed. Little model catapults measure the degree of chaos in the realm - get to 12, and the knights lose. If there are seven black swords on the Round Table, the knights also lose. To win, they require seven white swords.

Players can complete quests using cards, of which there are a variety. Grail cards help in the quest for the Holy Grail, and Fight cards help in combat-oriented quests like fighting the Saxons or the Black Knight. There are some other unique cards which can help, like the famous Girl In The Pond card (my daughter's description of the Lady of the Lake). Merlin cards - of which there are several - are great for getting rid of pesky catapults and smiting dire black cards.

Each turn, a knight must either lose a life (knights begin with four, and can have up to six, but die if reduced to zero), put another catapult in front of Camelot, or pull a black card. These cards advance the Bad Things that happen in the realm. Knights acquire white cards only when they complete quests, or spend a turn in Camelot. One of the big co-op elements in the entire game is distributing white cards when a quest is completed. In our recent game we were quick to cotton onto the fact that knights with grail cards should be given more grail cards and kept on the grail quest, leaving other knights to tackle the invading Picts and Saxons or joust with the Black Knight.

The game can seem relatively complex at first glance, particularly as you need to explain each of the different quest boards to players. Each quest board is a mini game in itself, and it can be a lot to take in for the beginner. However, the game is also easy enough not to totally shaft a novice team of knights early on, and give them a fighting chance of winning. I hasten to add that, as we were rusty, and there were only three of us, we omitted the traitor rule, where one knight is potentially working against the others to bring Camelot down (something which obviously inspired the Cylon concept in Battlestar Galactica, the boardgame).

We ended up with a fairly close game, despite an early lead which saw five, yes FIVE white swords on the Round Table and no black swords in sight. However, after that the black swords came thick and fast: the Saxons beat us, and while Excalibur and Lancelot's armour were recovered, the dragon was unleashed and the Black Knight gave us a severe thrashing. The big issue became the increasing number of catapults before Camelot, and the threat of more Picts and Saxons. We realised that we could win if we completed the Grail Quest, which would give us two swords and victory, so focused on that. We achieved it with 11 catapults on the board, and two knights with only one life each (Palamides and Galahad, with Gawain down to two). I think if one of us had been a traitor, we'd never have won.

As a game it is a little less involved than Battlestar Galactica, and uses a more universally recognised mythology than BG (which will seem like jibberish if you have not watched the TV series). Everyone knows who King Arthur is, apart from those of us with the Girl in the Pond card, of course.

The game is slightly less co-op than Pandemic, which I think provokes even more inter-player dialogue and planning. Pandemic's problem is that it deals with plague in the modern world, something swine flu injects into contemporary headlines on a regular basis, while Shadows is about a legendary age of knightly valour and magic.

With a house full of people this Christmas, I will be seeing whether I can twist a few arms and get a game of Shadows. I'm also hoping for a game of Mystery of the Abbey, also a popular one with house guests. Days of Wonder games seem to have a broader appeal than some of the more esoteric options on my games cupboard.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Interface Zero: bringing Cyberpunk to Savage Worlds

I always felt Savage Worlds was lacking a decent cyberpunk treatment. I know that Triple Ace has attempted this with its Tales of the Sprawl, but what was really required was a larger and more ambitious setting that really does the genre justice.

I've always loved cyberpunk, having really first got into the genre by reading William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive and Count Zero way back in 1995 when I was down with severe flu in only my second week in my new job at the Financial Times. We had a decent public library round the corner, and I managed to borrow the books before the virus struck me down. I found them very impressive, and got my flatmate reading them too.

Ultimately, I spent the Nineties running Call of Cthulhu, but I also played in two epic, epic campaigns. One was my brother's sprawling Shadowrun campaign, and the other my flatmate's even more spectacularly epic SLA Industries campaign. We were living in East London at the time, so it was easy for the GM's to pick up ideas for the dystopian urban decay of 2053 Seattle and SLA's Mort from the environment we were living in.

I'll never forget the search for one serial killer in SLA which took the best part of three years to locate and kill. Every time we thought we were on to him, it turned out to be another copycat killer. It was probably the toughest investigative campaign I've ever played in, punctuated by other unrelated missions we picked up as a team to pay the bills. It was more like a TV series today, with an episodic format, but a major plot thread running through the whole thing, ending in a final showdown in a lab at a hospital, where the elusive serial killer was finally slain by my character in a knife fight.

I've continued to have a nostaligic soft spot for those campaigns, which were sadly wound up around 2002-03. Being a big fan of Savage Worlds, I've always hoped someone would introduce a decent cyberpunk setting, just for the sake of completeness. Along comes Interface Zero this month from Cubicle 7 and Gun Metal Games, and an interesting beast it is too.

Interface Zero originally started life as a non-SW setting, but has since jumped onto the SW bandwagon as it gathers speed. It is what I hoped it would be: a 'regular' cyberpunk setting in that there are no elves or magic or other twists in the tale that might irritate me. I loved Shadowrun, but I know the idea of the Awakened and the Sixth World gets up some people's noses in a big way.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge in the world of cyberpunk gaming since Cyberpunk 2020 was originally published by R. Talsorian in the late 1980s. For starters, a lot of the technology used by our characters in our early Shadowrun games is now a reality. On top of that, there have been a lot of very influential additions to the genre by others, including movies like The Matrix and Strange Days, and the TV series Dark Angel, as well as manga contributions like Akira and Ghost In The Shell. All these are acknowledged in Interface Zero. There's also the introduction of virtual worlds like MMOs to consider; these exist in Interface Zero, but on a much larger scale, and it is nice to see other Savage Worlds settings like Deadlands and Hellfrost existing as popular virtual gaming worlds in Interface Zero.

IZ as I shall refer to it uses the world in 2088 as its start point. It suggests a range of different play styles, from manga to the more gritty street campaign and all points in between (there is scope for Mad Max-style badlands play, or more prosaic mercenary campaigns). We have the obligatory chapters on cyberware, hacking, and gear (a cyberpunk game must have gear). I felt Shadowrun ended up going too far down this line with its massive range of gear - it really was quite mind boggling how much kit you could buy by the time 3rd edition Shadowrun was launched. IZ keeps its equipment list more conservative, but it is good to see a broad range of interesting 'tools' for runners to use, from drugs to micro transceivers, from titanium razor nails to golem mechs. Plenty of really cool hardware that could be easily transposed to other sci fi SW campaigns.

I also like the chapter on street cred, which governs the PCs' ability to access resources, rely on contacts, call on favours, indeed to function effectively on their home patch. This can also affect things like Intimidation and Persuasion rolls in game, as well as your ability to Taunt.

You also don't have to play human characters anymore: there are animal hybrids, androids (inspired by Bladerunner) and even simulacra on offer as PC races. It is a little bit more exotic without going all the way down to the elves and dwarves and pixies of Shadowrun fame.

There is no plot point campaign as such, but there are some suggested adventures attached to particular regions within the IZ world. There is also an adventure generator, which I always like to see in Savage Worlds setting books. I've often considered running a Cthulhupunk game, inspired by the GURPS supplement of the same name, and combining IZ with the Realms of Cthulhu hardback really does begin to make this look like a real possibility. Very exciting.

IZ has a rich setting which encourages play beyond the bread and butter guns for hire campaign: I particularly like the private detective agency campaign seed, and being a fan of the 2000AD Simping Detective series, I feel quite intrigued by the idea of an undercover cops campaign in a 2088 environment (I also really enjoyed The Departed, which probably explains a lot).

Anyway, I feel a major gap in the Savage Worlds pantheon has now been filled, and really can't say there's much that could be added beyond what IZ has achieved already.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Cold City: Transformations

So, we played Cold City again last night, this time with three players, and using an adventure I cooked up myself based on a plot seed in the Cold City rulebook. Rather than just a blow-by-blow commentary on the session, I'd like to focus instead on some of the key aspects of the game that rose to the surface, and some other elements that didn't, perhaps slightly disappointingly.

When running my own material, I always feel slightly nervous, because ultimately you're going into the game with a totally untested scenario, and you have no idea whether it will work out, especially with the time allotted for a one shot, in this case slightly more than three hours. Cold City is, however, a game I find it very easy to write for: I like the background of Berlin in 1950, complete with Cold War politics, while at the same time it is still a horror role playing game. The player characters are armed to the teeth, and in this session were able to call on the US military police to stage a raid against a warehouse full of black market contraband, but at the same time can find themselves cut off and alone, scouting through a large, deserted townhouse with nothing but a flashlight, some small arms, and a hand grenade for company.

Cold City is, if anything, atmospheric. Given we had experienced a recent snowfall here in the UK, I brought in ongoing wintry weather in Berlin as a constant theme in this game, and I think it worked.

My second observation is that the plot structure seemed to work well: I deliberately avoided making it sequential. The corrupt US air force colonel selling military supplies to a Berlin crim lord was kept as a sort of 'floating threat' - i.e. someone I could toss in where it suited me. As it happened, he and his network became the focus of the investigation early on, and one of his minions, sent to shadow the characters, became a key linchpin when he spilled his guts about the systematic theft of supplies - after being shot in the leg by Ben's new character, a particularly amoral former British military policeman.

Taking a leaf out of Masks of Nyarlathotep, and an earlier Cold City session, I left each 'scene' or faction as a floating, self-contained mini module. The Berlin gangsters, for example, existed as a sort of level on their own which could be approached from a variety of directions. Each module was also glued together by key NPCs, like the party's VoPo minder, Heinrich 'Garlic' Gerlach, who could both promote and impede an investigation according to his own hidden agendas. Indeed, Gerlach became quite an important NPC, forcing the players to work hard to hide their activities from him, but also using him to help organise a raid in the Soviet sector.

Gerlach was fun to play. Sebastian sat in on the early part of the session, and I let him play Gerlach initially, which I thought he did well, duly obstructing the investigation's efforts to obtain the belongings of a victim from the VoPo's. But Gerlach was also interesting as someone the PCs hard to work with, especially as, inevitably, they had to have him with them if they were going to operate successfully in the Soviet sector. I think they genuinely missed having David's Soviet character to help them out here, instead having to rely on an East German they trusted even less. Nor did they have the local expertise and contacts of Ben's old PC, Joachim Leder, killed by zombies in the last Cold City session.

On to my criticisms, and the first relates to the fact that the team seems to gel too well. There is little conflict between the national hidden agendas, and the players tended to focus on solving the mystery rather than pursuing the interests of their characters. I guess it is the role of the GM to try to sew some of this into the plot, but I was hampered by the fact that two players from the previous session were missing, and one character was really only generated in the 24 hours preceding the game. Still, I could have made more effort to bring personal objectives into play. The fact that players could double traits if they somehow involved their objectives did not seem to tempt them to do so.

Secondly, the trust mechanic which is such a great part of the Cold City system largely sat on the sidelines. There were hardly any situations where we felt a character's trust for another was an essential part of a contest. In a way, it started to feel more like a 'normal' RPG, with few of the real characteristics of the Cold City system coming to the fore.

Without the above, the mechanics began to feel a tad simplistic, particularly in the combat sequences when the team were tackling a dangerous mutant with a range of weapons in a delapidated townhouse. I found myself wishing we had a slightly more sophisticated combat system, even the BRP one. It was good not to have miniatures on the table for a change, and again I found the battle developing into three dimensions, with the villain (a shape changing killer) falling from a window, and the PCs battling another villain (a fugitive Nazi biologist) on a stairwell. I like running combats that end up going up and down as well as sideways!

Overall, the game leaves me mulling over the Cold City system and setting. I lean more towards the latter and less towards the former. I note that creator Malcolm Craig has made some changes in Cold City's 'sequel' game, Hot War, but will this be enough? We shall have to see.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Brainstorming some wargames scenarios

With Xmas approaching, and the weather conditions here in Sussex worsening - we're snowed in today - I've started brainstorming some ideas for wargames scenarios. I really should be focusing on my Cold City adventure for Saturday evening, but I'll leave that for later, as not sure who will be coming along. I suspect as many as three of the regular RPG group will be out of the picture. We shall see.

Meantime, my friend Greg M. will potentially be stopping by en route to his six month pediatrics assignment in Oslo. The mad loon is thinking of DRIVING to Norway. But as ever, he is interested in getting some gaming done in Brighton if he can fit it in.

Consequently, I'm looking at what sort of miniatures wargames scenarios can be readily staged in short notice, and here's what I've come up with.

WW2 Skirmish

This would be an ambush scenario in the ruins of Stalingrad, circa December 1942. The Russians, because I have more of them, will be doing the ambushing. The aim here is to have a three player scenario, as Sebastian will likely want to be involved too. I'm going to give Iron Ivan's Disposable Heroes skirmish rules a go, keeping it an infantry battle with no armour.

I'm thinking of giving the Germans a command squad, plus two full Grenadier squads. This would then require having the Soviets deploy two squads per player, possibly with no command squads, but maybe with a sniper team and an HMG in support. I might give this a dry run over the next few days with Sebastian playing the Germans and see how we go, and then tweak sides accordingly.

Gothic Horror

I've not yet decided on a scenario for this one, but I'm planning on using the Rippers - the Horror Wars rules from Pinnacle, which employ the Savage Worlds rules as their engine. I envisage another three cornered battle, with two posses of bad guys and one posse of good guys. The only twist here is that the objective, whatever it is, can only be achieved by one team, ergo the bad guys may end up having to duke it out.

In terms of factions, I like to mix and match my Rippers posses according to availability of miniatures. I've got some new posses on the painting bench, including a Frankenstein's monster, a very nice vampire, and a whole passel of ghouls, but given time constraints I'll have to go with what I've got.

I'm pretty sure I can field a decent group of werewolves, and one of vampires, and then the good guys will have a random selection of dudes, mainly comprised of wild cards and some other characters. I'm not sure I'll have any decent mooks for them, but will see.

Colonial: Zulu War

Thirdly, I'm working on a night attack scenario, with Zulus attacking a small Boer farmstead. This will be more of a four player game, but essentially it has the Zulus sneaking up on the farm under cover of darkness. The farm may/may not be on alert, but sentries will have been posted.

The farm's occupants will be a small detachment of British soldiers and some colonial volunteers. The Zulus will have the advantage of surprise, and being able to attack under cover of darkness, will not necessarily be cut down too easily by the rifles of the opposition.

I'm painting up some nice Zulu musketeers for a future larger scale battle, involving a bigger Rourke's Drift style battle, but want to give my British a nice cannon and some more troops. I'm just too busy at the moment to get these dudes painted up.

For the above scenario, entitled 'Zulu Night Attack', I'm going to use the Flint & Steel colonial skirmish rules.

Colonial: bigger Zulu game

I'm also working on a larger Zulu game, this time with a British column seeking to burn a Zulu kraal. This will use Colonial Adventures by Two Hour Wargames. Again, it will need play-testing, but my idea is that I'll split the Zulu commands and the British commands into two groups each, allowing for a fun four player game. We shall see how it pans out. I will report back to this blog on progress with playtesting!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Interesting indie games on my radar

The end of the year is almost upon us, and consequently I thought I'd devote a little time fulminating on some of the interesting indie RPG titles that have come up on my radar in recent months/years which I'm keen to have a go at when the opportunity presents, in 2011.

Luckily, many of these can probably be covered off in a single session, leaving time for lengthier campaigns using other systems, like Pathfinder or Rogue Trader.

Burning Wheel

I've long wanted to have a go at Luke Crane's excellent Burning Wheel system, which has since gone on to form the basis of other games like Burning Empires. I've been dipping in and out of BW in recent months, and have to say, I like what I see. It is not a simple system, by any means; its level of sophistication is comparable to Pathfinder.

I hasten to add that I've not read BW in its entirety, but I have 'burned up' (generated) a character. Initially, I found the XP system slightly off-putting. It requires players to keep tabs on which skills and attributes they test during the game, and how difficult that test was, in order to progress. In some ways this is reminiscent of BRP (Basic Role Playing), but more advanced.

However, in other areas, BW is quite simple, for example in the way it manages characters' financial resources as just another attribute that needs to be tested. Thus, the relative expense and scarcity of an item can be distilled into a single obstacle (target number in BW speak).

I will probably be posting more on BW in the near future as I continue to read up on it, but in terms of the fantasy/swords and sorcery genre, this game looks like it could end up being my favourite to GM.

Monsters & Other Childish Things

M&OCT could be a very interesting one-shot or mini campaign game. I like games which can be completed in between one and four three hour sessions. I don't like being responsible for story arcs that require more than that, to be honest. M&OCT fits the bill very nicely indeed.

M&OCT characters are school kids who happen to have monsters as friends. As a player, you generate your kid as your primary PC, but you also gen a monster. The great thing about the monsters is that you can really build one from the ground up: you have a dice (point) budget that sets a limit on the monster's overall power, but other than that, you're allowed to let your imagination run wild.

I've not figured out yet whether the monsters are invisible to adults, how they are allowed to intervene in day-to-day situations, or what the consequences of this are. The game feels a little bit like a dark version of Pokemon in some respects, as much of the conflict in the game stems from unleashing the beasts at one another, but there is also an underlying sub-game about the kids' relationships with each other, as well as with NPCs and objects/locations they value.

It is a little reminiscent of the Circles trait in BW: characters are not 'outsiders' who tramp into town and cause a ruckus like your typical D&D adventuring band: they have close connections with their community that have to be maintained if they are going to continue to benefit from them.

Chronica Feudalis

CF is a medieval RPG that uses a fairly 'straight' setting of historical Europe in the 12th or 13th century. There are no fantasy or magical elements to this game as far as I can see. It is slightly irritatingly written, as the author has tried to create it using the persona of a monk of the era - all the way through. It probably sounded like a great idea at the time.

The interesting thing about CF is that it is quite good at simulating a political-level game. It is something my group has dabbled with this year, first in our Rogue Trader campaign, and later with Pathfinder Kingmaker. The characters have had political ambitions - in both campaigns they have been granted a large area to explore and develop, and this has led them to take responsibility for their 'domain' at a fairly early stage, plus having to deal with all the threats and problems controlling such a demesne can face them with.

CF can allow players to take on a wide range of roles within medieval society, allowing for a game where they play peasants in a village, or outlaws in a forest, or even members of a noble house. It is highly scalable, and quite interesting to me as a consequence.


Finally, at some point I'd like to have a crack at the Gumshoe system. Esoterrorists was one of the first games published by Pelgrane using Robin Laws' Gumshoe system for investigative games. I played a demo of it at Dragonmeet in 2008 and I liked what I saw. I can understand the author's irritation with some aspects of Call of Cthulhu and other investigation-based games, and many of the mechanics of Esoterrorists have been cooked up to keep research-based plots pacey.

I particularly like the combination of the horror and espionage themes which Esoterrorists represents. It smacks of Delta Green, and I could quite see a Delta Green scenario being easily concocted using Esoterrorists and Ken Hite's Trail of Cthulhu together.

I really enjoyed running Cold City at BenCon this year: it is another horror/espionage game which, like Esoterrorists, uses a stripped down rules framework coupled with an exotic background, to come up with an excellent game. As a GM, I liked running a game which allowed me to focus on plot and characters, and take the game in new directions, without worrying about the crunch, of which there is little in either CC or Esoterrorists.

Having said that, playing as we do on Friday nights, at the end of the week, when everyone is tired, the question remains whether the investigative game has a viable future in our group. It may still work over a limited time arc, but I suspect that players prefer games that are more in your face these days, rather than having characters skulking around dusty libraries or poring over ancient texts.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Victory At Sea

Victory At Sea is a WW2 naval miniatures battle system from Mongoose Publishing, loosely based on their Call To Arms space combat system (set in the Babylon Five universe). I originally bought VaS in an effort to get into naval wargaming. I once owned a copy of Harpoon back in the early 1990s, and even got as far as setting up one of the starter scenarios in Harpoon, but never actually played a game of it. Looking back, and given the seeming complexity of Harpoon (and modern naval warfare) I was probably lucky: I fear the experience may have put me off naval wargaming.

Victory At Sea was really meant to be a return to the milieu, partly prompted by the availability of ready-painted plastic Axis& Allies warships, in 1/1800 scale (not really the scale of choice for WW2 naval wargamers, who tend to favour 1/2400 or 1/3000). But, the A&A miniatures include some great aircraft stands in their boosters, come ready painted (did I mention that?), AND can survive the attentions of young children, which is always a major selling point in my household.

The great thing about naval wargames rules is that they are not particularly scale specific, although playing out the Battle of Midway in 1/600 might require you to take to the garden (or one of those nice flat bowling greens that pepper the Brighton landscape).

Victory At Sea is not a comprehensive set of rules by any means. From experience we found it is NOT good for fighting convoy actions, and the rules for sub-hunting are sparse and inadequate. In the space of 20 minutes my group cooked up an alternative set of rules for ASW actions that is much more fun, using dummy counters. Oh, the frustration on the faces of the destroyer commanders as they find their latest sonar contact is but another shoal of herring!

VaS is really a game about fighting small to medium sized WW2 surface actions. Airpower in the game is understrength, to say the least. Ships get to make their AA attacks first, and any planes that survive that barrage can then drop bombs/launch torpedoes. In the two games I’ve played to date, the first saw Royal Navy Swordfish biplanes successfully attack an Italian light cruiser, crippling it with torpedoes in return for 33% losses amongst the pilots. In the second, German planes attacking a British Mediterranean convoy sustained 80% plus losses, which sounds too high to me. This was partly because they were attacking freighters in AA range of a British battleship, but still. You could potentially reason that some of the ‘losses’ were really pilots chickening out, perhaps dropping their torps into the sea prematurely, and reflect this in your campaign rules, yet…

Fellow gamers of mine have also tried VaS with a big 1945 Pacific War battle, a major clash of fleets between the Allies and a large Japanese force, but found this game dragged on too long. Their opinion was that there is an upper limit to the size of game one can manage with VaS, and it isn’t Leyte Gulf!

VaS has the feel of Warhammer about it. You roll attack dice based on the number of weapons in range, trying to score hits on a target number largely dictated by the target ship’s speed and size. Thus, a nippy destroyer is much harder for your gunners to hit than a battleship. But, once you score your hits, you then roll a number of damage dice for each hit in an effort to break through the target’s defensive armour (think Warhammer armour saves here). Damage is then tracked by ticking boxes, with scope for critical hits from sixes rolled at the damage stage (these tend to be what really puts most ships out of a battle).

What baffled me here was Crew hits. Each ship has a Crew rating, which tracks the number of active personnel, and lets losses to the crew affect the performance of the ship. The only problem is, according to the damage tables, Crew losses always seem relatively small, regardless of the weapon being used. Sure, critical damage like fire breaking out can cause additional Crew losses, but apart from merchant ships, which have relatively small crews in this game (and I suppose in real life), ships in VaS never seem to be taken out because of Crew losses. Something else always gives first, which begs the question – why bother tracking Crew hits?

There is also a lot of paperwork in VaS. Each ship has its own record sheet, even destroyers. This is great in a multi-player game, where each player has his own squadron of four or five ships, but if there are two of you playing a larger battle, you will be swamped with record keeping as you struggle to track how many torpedoes HMCS Haida has left to shoot. It does seem to set a ceiling on what can be gamed.

My group is still keen to game WW2 naval, but I suspect VaS will be shelved. Even my son has not expressed much enthusiasm about revisiting it, and this is telling. Perhaps it is lacking in the ‘fun factor’ stakes. I know A Call To Arms was a very successful project for Mongoose, and they are apparently in the process of hatching a new set of sci fi rules that draws heavily on CTA as its game engine, but this has simply not worked well for WW2.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Pathfinder Kingmaker: the mother of all owl bears

So, having killed the mother of all trolls in an earlier session, this time around we were faced with the mother of all owl bears. Regular readers will remember that a gigantic owl bear (heretofore to be known as Owlzilla by the players) had trampled all over our beloved capital of Staghelm while the party was off troll slaying. Interviewing survivors discovered said behemoth was also wearing armour (we were told metal, at which point druid Cassie and wizard Grameer dutifully swotted up on their Heat Metal spells).

Owlzilla was easy to track and we were quickly able to isolate its lair in the SE region of our domain in an as yet unexplored and unclaimed area of the domain. It was decided that we would have to enter the hill under which it laired, rather than lay an ambush outside and wait for it to come out foraging. Although an 80 foot cave mouth beckoned, we cautiously scouted for alternative entrances, and found a back route. However, this was only accessible via a narrow path, so again we left Bullwinkle, Cassie's moose companion, behind.

Wu Ya, the tengu monk, volunteered to scout the entrance, whereupon he was set upon by two ettercaps. Luckily Grameer was right behind him and fried their webs with a Fire Ball spell. The ettercaps did not last long enough for my character, Artemisia, to enter the cave but anyway, she was saving herself for the Boss.

A hole in the floor led down to a much bigger cave, where we found the body of one dead owl bear and two of its young, plus a third baby owl bear which was wounded and still alive. More worryingly the bodies of several half orcs and barbarians bore witness to a battle. We are currently working on the theory that Owlzilla was deliberately provoked into attacking Staghelm by a third party, and the finger of suspicion hovers over our erstwhile neighbours to the west, although Artemisia has not ruled out our eastern neighbours either, as this lair is much closer to their borders, and they could easily have slipped this party over the frontier.

Needless to say, as we were searching the cave for further clues, Owlzilla put in an appearance. Technically, we could have fled, but given we were here to kill him anyway, we decided to stay the course.

Most of the session was devoured by this epic battle. I can only speculate how many hit points this critter had. It managed to seize our rogue, Olban, as he was trying to flank it for a sneak attack, and proceed to use him as a club. It also managed to seize and rend our summoned griffon, eventually banishing/slaying it too. Wu Ya was enlarged by Grameer and launched a frontal attack on Owlzilla, while Artemisia moved round behind it to launch a flanking attack. Owlzilla now had both hands full, so the best he could do was fight us off using the luckless creatures he was holding (including Olban, who took damage every time he was used to strike something else).

Cassie and Grameer both summoned rhinos using Summon Nature's Ally, which proved particularly effective against Owlzilla. It managed to dispatch three of these all the same, but when it finally tottered and fell, was still facing a rhino and a pack of five dogs, all summoned, plus I think Cujo, our pet guard dog.

The surviving baby owl bear has been adopted, to join Susie, our trained owl bear, in our menagerie in Staghelm, and perhaps be trained up to be a future adventuring companion. Owlzilla is to be skinned and stuffed and mounted in the great hall of our castle in Staghelm, where it will be decorated at Xmas with ivy and presents for the children.

One other interesting outcome: Olban was almost beaten to a pulp, and had to be restored by Cassie's new cleric cohort. We decided to bribe one of his lieutenants to retire and leave the realm, letting the changeling Olban take on his identity. Then we can promote him to take over Olban's position on the council, and hopefully throw Mad Eddie, the changeling assassin on Olban's trail, off the scent. We can but hope. Whether there is a negative impact of national morale as a consequence of Olban's 'death' is an open question: I suspect the more conservative citizens are probably quietly pleased.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Enter the ninja: simples!

With Winter BenCon looming (although no date has been specified as yet), thoughts turn to the game I will be running. As established in BenCon 1, in August, there are three RPG slots to fill, namely morning, afternoon, and evening. In the words of the (in)famous meerkat, "Simples!"

I've volunteered to run a Runequest game, alongside the second part of Kelvin's Savage Eberron saga, and a Trail of Cthulhu offering from Irish Dave. I'd like to test drive the Mongoose version of Runequest to get a feel for it, and am hoping it won't be too much of a shock to the system, as I spent a large slice of the 1990s running Call of Cthulhu games. Having said that, there is new crunch involved in RQ, like strike ranks and hit point allocations to body parts, but overall, it seems somehow - simpler (there's that blasted meerkat again) than some of the more sophisticated rules I've been playing or reading recently (Pathfinder and Burning Wheel foremost amongst them).

I've chosen to run a Japanese fantasy one-shot because I'm vastly more familiar with ancient Japan than I am with Glorantha, plus Glorantha and its ducks bring Ben out in hives. Japan I've been to, and spent a good slice of my degree studying, so hey, I'm on familiar ground here, and Mongoose has kindly obliged my by publishing an RQ supplement entitled Land of Samurai.

Land of Samurai is interesting in that it really focuses on the period in advance of the Gempei War, the conflict between the Minamoto and Taira families which ushered in the Kamakura period and real feudalism in the country. Prior to that you have an imperial bureaucracy and associated nobility at the pinnacle of the social pyramid, with the samurai class doing the dirty business of fighting, killing, and conquering new lands from the Ainu in the north. Ultimately, the empire is semi-feudal in nature, with a strong clergy that, as with Europe, sits outside the social structure (although a priest from the nobility is going to get ahead quicker than a priest who was born in a grass hut).

I'm looking at five to six PCs for this game, depending on who shows and who doesn't. A lot depends on dates, as it will either occur just before Xnmas, or in the New Year. I'm guessing we're going to angle for a weekend, ideally a Saturday. Two players have already generated their own characters, or are in the process of doing so, while I'm looking at generating characters for Manoj and Irish Dave, leaving Sebastian to probably work on his own.

Hence, I have managed to run off my first PC for the game, at Manoj's request a ninja. Now, ninja were not around historically in the 11th century, but Mongoose have added them because, hey, it's a samurai game, someone is bound to want to play a ninja. What really impressed me with RQ was how quick it was to knock out a character. I sat down on Saturday afternoon with Sebastian (who has decided to put aside his Rokugan campaign in favour of a 4e Eberron game) and generated first a 4th edition D&D goliath fighter for Eberron, then my RQ ninja for Manoj, and then got started on my halfling alchemist for Kelvin's upcoming mini campaign using the Pathfinder rules.

I'll tell you what: in terms of time consumed, the RQ character was easily the quickest and simplest, followed by the 4e character. The Pathfinder character I didn't finish in the allotted time. You could argue that this was because the Pathfinder PC, Harry Beau, was 5th level, but so was the D&D character. Once you've played 4e for a bit, it becomes easier to knock out a PC. Heck, you can even randomise one, although the idea probably fills some people with horror. I happen to love random chargen systems, but then maybe that's just me!

Anyway, please find my first stab at an RQ character below:

Arasaka Shubichi, 25, Heimin Ninja

On: 23

STR 11, CON 9, SIZ 10, INT 14, POW 10, DEX 9, CHA 13

Combat Actions: 2; Damage Mod 0; Hero Pts 2, Move 4, Strike Rank 11

Finances: 180 mon carried; 3 koku income per annum

Languages: Japanese 64%; Kuji-kiri 64%

Basic skills over 20%: Athletics 25%, Dodge 39%, Driving 20%, First Aid 24%, Influence 23%, Lore - Plant 24%, Perception 34%, Persistence 30%, Resilience 24%, Sleight 24%, Stealth 29%, Throwing 29%, Unarmed 41%, Close Combat 20%

Advanced skills: Regional Lore 24%, Survival 24%, Farming Lore 14%, Disguise 23%

Weapon skills: Bojutsu 30%, Tantojutsu 30%, Kenjutsu 34%

Equipment: Do maru, wrist guards, entry equipment, firepot, smokescreen compound, 1d3 sleeping draft

I won't go into the hit points distribution, but that's it in a nutshell. As the meerkat says, "simples!"

Pathfinder: the mother of all trolls

We last left our party engaged in a battle with trolls in an abandoned dwarf hold. At this stage things were looking a little dicey, with the tengu monk Wu Ya and the barbarian Artemisia facing off against one troll, while the rest of the party had been tackled by a two-headed troll/ettin crossbreed, with our rogue, the changeling Olban, suddenly finding himself toe-to-toe with the 'trettin'.

I was already concerned, with Artemisia, my character, down to 50% hps, that we were going to dig ourselves into a hole. The fact that our wizard, the elf Grameer, had seen fit to actually create a 30 foot hole in the floor of the tunnel intersection for us to dig ourselves into, a hole since bridged by one of the trolls using a door it had torn off its hinges, was pressing on my mind. Our druid, the elf queen Cassie (and head of state of our little realm)had seen fit to set fire to this door using Flaming Sphere, with the two primary fighters in the party on the other side it.

It was all going according to plan, then...

The tide of this battle was really turned when Cassie produced her wondrous item, a statuette of a griffin which could actually turn into a life-size version. This was used to devastating effect against the trettin, which was finally flanked by Olban and then downed by Grameer using Magic Missile (if my memory serves me correctly).

On the sharp end, Wu Ya and Artemisia were locked in mortal combat with two trolls. Wu Ya was off his game, leaving Artemisia to carve great steaming chunks out of the rock troll. With Haste and her new barbarian power, Less Spirit Totem, she was making four attacks per round, and inflicted over 70hps of damage on the rock troll in one round. With the trettin dead, the rest of the team were able to join in the battle, including the griffin. The rock troll died a death, leaving one troll standing, which was grappled by the griffin, although by this stage Artemisia was down to one hit point (!), as the troll was concentrating its attacks on her (bird boy was virtually impossible to hit, as his ki powers make him AC31).

At this stage the barbarian was hit again and, despite her Guarded Life power, would have died, because by falling unconscious, she loses her additional rage hit point bonus, and at 2hps per level, at 6th level, this equates to 12hps. Guarded Life (an Advanced Players Guide power) stabilised her at -7 and effectively diverted 50% of the sub zero hit point damage total to non lethal, but add the loss of 12 rage hit points and she was at -19 and effectively dead.

It was then that someone pointed out the troll had been grappled by the griffon, and could only have delivered a single attack that round, NOT three. Being grappled by a 500lb griffin is not conducive to attacking someone else, particularly at a reach range of 10 feet. At this stage we hit the rewind button on the round, leaving the barbarian still upright, and the GM off to the kitchen to fix himself a large vodka.

The troll failed to last another round, and the party was given a single round to heal up and take positions before another troll, a giant mother of all trolls, emerged. With healing potion and spell support from the druid, Artemisia was able to restore herself to +20 hps before the encounter, but I prudently chose to stay out of range of the troll and let Wu Ya and Olban tackle it, with the aid of the griffin. I think I hit it twice with arrows, but the real damage was done elsewhere, with the griffin getting at least one crit on the monster.

This troll's death ended a protracted and bloody battle which almost saw Artemsia killed. That would have been early showers for me as I don't have a back up pc right now (I'm generating a 5th level hobbit alchemist for Kelvin's game, but that's at an early stage). We were able to level up to 7th. The highest level game of D&D I've ever played in was 7th, and that was back in the mid-1980s when I was running the Isle of Dread campaign for Expert level D&D. Lost in the mists of time!

Cassie's player Ric, who won't be with us next week, questioned the absence of her animal companion, a moose called Bullwinkle. He would have been useful in this battle, and next time round I think he ought to be brought into the dungeon. Kelvin rightly pointed out that we accessed this dungeon by climbing a tower, which a moose might have been challenged by. But the griffin was a real lifesaver for us (literally), and is powerful enough at this level to make a difference against some of the critters we are coming up against.

We returned to our base at Staghelm, to find that a gigantic owl bear had rampaged into the city and destroyed several buildings, before heading off again. We suspect that the foreign powers plotting against us might be behind this, and that it is no random rampage. Time will tell.

Next: Runequest, Ninjas, and the joys of less complex rules systems

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Half term Pathfinder

Half term came and went, and with it the chance to play some more Pathfinder. This seems to be all that we really play at the moment, with the main Kingmaker campaign rolling on Friday evenings, and Kelvin's Carrion Hill scenario looming once we complete the current Kingmaker story arc (of which more in a later post).

At half term we try to get some gaming in with Sebastian, and sometimes Jed. This October we had Sebastian and Ric round the table, with Ben in the GM's chair running a 1st level Pathfinder adventure. Sebastian and I rolled up some characters in advance: Seb had a human fighter, and I was armed with a gnome druid. Ric turned up with a drow wizard (specialising in necromantic magic), and we had an elven rogue nominally being played by Maya to round it all off (although in the end Seb took over the rogue too).

Our basic mission was to head off in the direction of a lost tower/keep, owned by a wizard who had left Ptolus (our home base and GM Ben's default urban setting at the moment) to go into self-imposed exile. The wizard was an acquaintance of Ric's pc, but it looked as if contact had been lost with him, there was a good chance he was dead, and thus the opportunity existed to go plunder the tower. Game on!

To complicate things, we were being spied on by a raven familiar belonging to one of Ric's academic rivals. I apologise to readers for not including the names of PCs as I can't remember them, other than Rom, Seb's fighter.

Our first encounter happened in the middle of the night: we were lured, in the rain away from our camp by the sound of a child in distress. Yes, veteran players of D&D will have guessed that we ran into an ambush by a mother and baby team of leucrottas, both of which we managed to slay.

Another nocturnal encounter found us being attacked by a pack of stirges. On this occasion my druid used Summon Nature's Ally to call in his own stirge to act as a sort of anti-missile missile. It woke me up to the opportunities of summoned stirges, of which more later.

We also passed what was obviously meant to be the location of the Tomb of Horrors, before we were distracted by what looked like a bonfire in the distance. We decided to investigate - against my own advice (my gnome was all for pushing on) - and found a burned out homestead with some bodies scattered around. Entering the ruins, we were ambushed by the bodies themselves, which became animated as zombies and fell on us. Two half orc mercenaries, a raven, and Ric erstwhile academic rival completed the sorry situation.

This was a close-fought battle. My druid had a wolf animal companion, and we also had purchased two trained guard dogs, giving us some much-need extra fangs in this fight. An Entangle spell (cast by yours truly) created havoc for the half orcs and the zombies, although one of our guard dogs got hacked to bits. The Entangle caused the enemy wizard to fluff one of his spells, and then a summoned stirge embedded itself in his chest, making his life yet more difficult. He tried turning himself invisible, but the drow cast faerie fire on him, leaving Rom the fighter to finish him off (beheaded with a great sword in a coup de grace). It was a bloody battle, with my gnome at one stage fleeing due to a Fear spell cast on him. But we succeeded, and walked away with some Dust of Invisibility.

We now reached the village which was to be our likely base of operations before our assault on the dungeon. We didn't stay there long, pausing only to level up to 2nd before pressing on. Ric had been largely dissatisfied with the performance of his drow, and so multi-classed into paladin. He is now a 'necrodin', a paladin of a drow death cult.We were aware that we were running out of time in the real world, and dallying in the village was deferred to next time.

Pressing on, we found that the 'tower' was in fact a ruined keep, and well guarded by orcs. This time round, the elf came into her own, scaling a tower to backstab an orc sentry, then using her bow to try to pick off some others. Eventually, this raised the alarm, as an arrow doing 1d8+2 damage is unlikely to kill orcs outright. We rushed through the gatehouse, with the druid casting Obscuring Mist in an effort to stop orcs shooting at us from the walls.

This encounter turned into a confused battle, with orcs rushing out of a guardhouse to engage us, and the drow going off on his own to tackle some orcs in one of the towers, and the wolf tracking down random orcs in the courtyard. One orc tried to jump off the gatehouse to escape sniper fire from the elf rogue, only to break both his legs. Another orc had his throat ripped out by a guard dog as he approached the mist, only to have a ferocious canine come bounding out to pounce on him. Blood, and guts, and screaming all over the place.

Suffice to say, all the orcs seem to have been killed, for the loss of one guard dog. We have now sadly lost both guard dogs, but we're now at 2nd level and twice as powerful as we were.

This was pretty much where we left it, as Ben was ailing from a stomach virus and needed to retreat anyway. The last two encounters were played using 3D terrain, including ruined buildings and trees/bushes/foliage, which I felt added considerably to the aesthetics of the game. I also got to trot out some of my Games Workshop Lord of the Rings orcs for the final battle, so good to have them getting an outing.

Overall, everyone seemed quite pleased.

Next: Plans for Winter BenCon and my first effort to GM a RuneQuest game!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

A quick catch up on Pathfinder

October ended up being a total desert for me gaming wise, as any observer will be able to tell from this blog. What, with my birthday, my wife's birthday, and various other commitments, I was not able to make the Friday Pathfinder session for about a month. On the upside, work has picked up big time. I was able to get some PS2 gaming in here and there, focusing on Champions of Norrath and Baldur's Gate - Dark Alliance 2, both great games which capture some of the old school feel of D&D. However, now my son has been banned for using the Playstation for three weeks due to a sub-standard homework performance, so it looks like I'll be forced into a few solo outings on The Thing, a single player horror adventure game I picked up for a song, which is inspired by the film(s) of the same name.

I'm seriously thinking about moving my sport and trading musings into different blogs, and restricting The Great Game to my purely gaming-related musings, which is perhaps what it should be.

Looking at the traffic on this site, it seems to be the Pathfinder posts which are attracting the most attention. Unfortunately, several chapters of our Kingmaker campaign have charged past in October, and much has gone on in my absence, which unfortunately I cannot report in any great detail. Suffice to say there seems to have been an altercation with some lizardmen, and a hydra was duly tracked down and slain (a monster, rumours of which the DM had been tormenting us with for what seems like months now!) Still, the aquatic threat seems to have been safely purged, and we're back on solid ground.

I finally made it back to the group last Friday, to pick up where I left off with Artemisia, my human barbarian character, now at 6th level. Our kingdom seems to be shaping up nicely, although I'm not really doing much of the day-to-day kingdom administration, a task nobly undertaken by Manoj, our resident elven wizard, for whom the number crunching and spreadsheets required for the Pathfinder kingdom system hold much appeal.

The kingdom continues to coalesce into spheres of influence, with a sort of university town in the north run by our wizard, Grameer, and a druidic religious centre under Queen Cassie, our druid and head of state. The capital, and most easily defensible settlement, remains Staghelm, run by Artemisia and ably assisted by the tengu monk Wu Ya. Olban, our changeling rogue, has his own somewhat disreputable settlement, little more than a collection of gambling dens and brothels, to the west.

Last week's session kicked off with Olban waking up in bed next to the severed head of one of his madams. It turns out she, and one of his bodyguards, have been murdered by an old accomplice of his, another changeling, who we believe could be out to disrupt our benevolent reign as well as assassinate Olban into the bargain. This rogue, called Mad Eddie or One Eyed Eddie, could become a problem due to his ability to change his identity with ease, and strike against us when we least expect it. We were not able to make much progress in tracking him down, so in the interests of distracting ourselves, went troll hunting instead.

We continue to explore the southern regions of our realm, where I believe there could be a dragon lurking, and where there are still some tough monsters. In this case we have infiltrated a troll lair, once a dwarf stronghold, and have managed to finally get ourselves into a bit of a pickle. We started off fairly stealthily, and managed to kill three trolls before they woke up to our presence, but now we are in some tunnels beneath the dwarf watchtower and starting to lose hit points. Plus, I'm aware some of our spellcasters have already cast their best stuff.

We're also facing off against up to three more trolls, maybe more (I think we've killed five or six now), including a 'trettin', a troll/ettin hybrid, which is particularly nasty.

We had to leave the game mid-battle last week, as we were already down two players by 11.30pm, and some of us have small children who are no respecters of lie-ins on Saturday mornings!

Next time: more on the 1st level Pathfinder game we managed to get away at half term, plus thoughts on the upcoming BenCon.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Financial spread betting: not as confusing as you thought

The financial spread betting market may at first seem dauntingly complex, but it has a number of advantages for investors who want to access financial markets in a cost effective way. Don’t be put off by the jargon you read about in the newspapers: financial spread betting is easier than it sounds.

Before opening a spread betting account, it is important you understand both the risks and the rewards. First and foremost, in the UK spread betting is tax free, with no capital gains tax or stamp duty to worry about.

Not only that, spread betting lets you take advantage of falling prices as well as rising prices. Traditionally, share traders would ‘go to cash’ and stay out of the stock market when it was falling. They had no other option. More likely than not, they would lose money if they stayed invested. Spread betting allows you to take a ‘short’ position, meaning you would make money if the price goes down.

For example, the problems being experienced by BP are bad news for investors who hold BP stock, but when the Deepwater Horizon rig blew, a canny trader with a spread betting account might have decided to go short on BP by opening a sell trade, and profiting from the fall in BP’s share price.

There are other advantages to financial spread betting: because you are not buying a ‘physical’ asset you don’t have to worry about custody fees. Back in the day, when someone bought a share, they would also have received a share certificate, their title of ownership of that share. Today, banks and brokers still have to hold those shares for investing clients, but they charge investors a small fee for the service. Luckily for clients of spread betting companies, because they are not trading physical shares, there is no cost of custody. You are trading an instrument that follows the price of an asset in the market, but you don’t have to pay a bank to look after it for you.

While we are on the subject of costs, most spread betting companies do not charge commissions for trades. If you buy or sell physical shares with a stock broker, you will find you have to pay transaction fees on every trade you make. This is not a problem for someone who trades once or twice a year, but if you are planning to trade several times a month, the fees quickly rack up.

But there’s more. Spread betting companies now offer investors access to a wide range of financial markets, not just shares. Right now, it is the most cost effective way to deal in foreign exchange or commodities markets, or take advantage of price changes in international money markets. Foreign exchange or FX is arguably the largest financial market on the planet. It has no exchange that opens or closes, so as a trader you are using the prices that banks and other FX traders are using to buy and sell currencies around the clock. One of the best things about the foreign exchange market, however, is that there is always going to be a currency going up and another going down, regardless of what is happening in other financial markets like equities. Some traders in the spread betting market just focus on trading currencies, and if this is something that interests you, then spread betting is a great way to access these markets as a private individual.

Similarly, commodities markets let you trade prices in gold and oil, two of the most commonly followed commodities, as well as precious metals like silver and platinum, base metals like copper, energy markets, and agricultural products like wheat and frozen orange juice.

By opening a spread betting account you can follow all these markets on one screen using just a single spread betting company to get all your prices and news. You don’t have the hassle of switching between accounts when you want to move from your share trades to your foreign currency trades. In addition, by opening a spread betting account, you are trading all these markets in sterling. You are not worrying about any currency risk you might be taking on by buying a share listed on a foreign market.

Spread betting also lets you trade on margin. This means the spread betting company lends you the value of a proportion of your trade. You only need commit the margin rate – usually between 2% and 10% depending on the market you want to trade. Your money can go further while you still take the full amount of gains or losses from the trade.

Many spread betting companies also offer contracts for difference or CFDs. These are very similar to spread bets in the way they work, but there are some differences to bear in mind if you are UK resident. CFDs are used as an alternative to spread betting if you are living outside the UK or Ireland, but some traders like to use them in the UK because of the way they are treated for tax.

CFDs and spread bets work slightly differently: with spread bets you decide the amount of money you want to stake on each point the market moves. For example, you might want to bet £1 on each point the FTSE 100 moves. With CFDs, while you can still trade on margin, you buy and sell a CFD like a share, benefiting from the change in price. Just be aware that, while you only need put up the margin, and you are pocketing the gains from the full value of the trade, you are also responsible for the full loss.

The other major difference is tax. In the UK, CFDs are subject to capital gains tax. This means you can usually off-set losses sustained in your CFD trading in your overall tax calculation. CFDs are exempt from stamp duty, but you will usually be charged some form of commission by your CFD broker.

If you are interested in more frequent trading, or exploring new markets like commodities and currencies, or taking advantage of falling prices (trading off bad news for example), then spread betting and CFDs could be for you. Just remember that it is easy to lose more than your initial margin deposit if the market you are trading does not behave in the way you expect!

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Step into my yakuza fighting pit, young samurai

Okay, so not much gaming going on next weekend as it is my 40th birthday (!), so I’m taking the opportunity to catch up on my domestic Rokugan d20 campaign with my son Sebastian. As readers may recall, our 1st level PCs were in a city owned by the Lion, but right on the borders of Unicorn territory, and had successfully cleared some goblins out of a temple.

The city is not in good shape, to say the least. The fact that goblins can get into and nearly set fire to a temple within its precincts is not good news. Our party returned to the mansion of the city governor, a rich Lion samurai, to heal up, drink soup, and discuss the security situation within the walls. On the way we came across a ‘fighting pit’, a sort of informal arena organised by one of the yakuza street gangs which seem to be battling for de facto control of the city. The gang was inviting all comers to fight its champions in the pit, offering koku rewards to victors. It seemed two town bushi has tried to intervene already and been killed.

The Lion samurai in the party felt it was his duty to enter the pit and face one of the champions in single combat. Despite his poor performance against the goblins, he won this fight easily. He then turned to the crowd and ordered it – and the yakuza heavies – to disperse immediately or face criminal charges. This led to our being attacked by about 10 yakuza in a pitched battle, somewhat close run, but in which the PCs emerged victorious, thanks to the liberal use of the two summoned oni.

With the yakuza wiped out, two of the audience took issue with the party, and also attacked us, but were speedily dispatched. That seemed to resolve the situation; the grumbling crowd went on its way and we returned to the Lion HQ for hot miso soup and a heart-to-heart with the governor.

Although the governor was – politely – filled in about the various evils of his realm, including the bribe taking by Lion troops at checkpoints, harassment of the bon, et cetera, he seemed little inclined to do much about it. One wonders whether the city is just a comfortable sinecure? He gave the party carte blanche to go resolve problems as they saw fit. We went to bed – and levelled up to 2nd while asleep – which was nice!

The next day we approached the watch tower where three of the corrupt Lion samurai who had been harassing the priests lived. We entered the tower and confronted them on its summit. Our NPC shugenja, a Phoenix, came into his own, using some magic rocks which he hurled at one of the samurai, killing him outright. Their leader, however, was a tougher prospect, downing both the samurai and the shaman in short order. The nezumi fighter kept him busy for a while, giving the shugenja time to heal the two fallen characters and bring them back into the fight. Another magic rock knocked a second samurai off the tower, ending his participation in the fight.

We eventually defeated the last samurai, although by my count he had at least 30hps, possibly more, making him 4th if not 5th level. Quite a tough NPC for a 2nd level party! We ended the game there, as the GM is still suffering from a flu-like illness, and his strength was ebbing.

The question is what to do now? The yakuza seem a powerful force in the city, but they really should not be. However, as ever with Rokugan, the majority of the party are not Lion, and therefore have no real interest in seeing the security situation restored. Add to that the fact that the city’s ruler is not particularly bothered either, and one wonders whether sticking around is the wise thing to do? The presence of lurking evil in the Unicorn lands and the presence of an interesting ruined castle across the river both beckon us out of the city.

I’m liking this campaign because, like Pathfinder, it has a real sandbox feel to it. The GM is pretty flexible, thinks on his feet, and seems largely happy for the party to pursue its own objectives, while casting interesting possibilities in front of it. We now have a fairly detailed map of the city to review, including its docks, which helps to fill in a few gaps geographically.

I spent quite some time focusing on levelling the shaman up. Although shaman is not really a true Rokugani class, he seems to fit quite well with the Unicorn clan ethos. I’ve now equipped him with Produce Flame to add to his Burning Hands (he is a Fire domain shaman). A maximise spell feat also means he can do 8hps automatic damage if he hits with this.

Another confusing thing about Rokugan – a bow is called a yumi, while a bo is a stick. It can get quite confusing in the midst of a battle to figure out who is doing what to whom!

More Rokugan to follow later in the month, with any luck, once the GM has recovered. Somewhere I have some nice oriental paper miniatures which will go well with this game – I just need to dig them out.

Pathfinder: "Quick, quick, it's a quickling!"

So, Friday night and it's Pathfinder night again. This time with Rick down from Manchester and playing in person, in the flesh and blood, rather than via Skype. The evening routine seems to be the domain management phase first, followed by action of the more traditional sense.

Over the previous week we have been debating some kind of legal code for our new realm, and I have been pushing for the introduction of a formal militia at every large human settlement in the domain, along with the compulsory registration of every spellcaster who wants to cast 0 or 1st level spells. The latter legislation opened up a lengthy debate around whether we used use some form of detect evil magic to determine which applicants were applying with the right intent, rather than provide blanket registration that could sanction the activities of a handful of malcontents. I don’t think our council has reached the point where the idea of licensing magic use (and banning outright the use of high level magic by those not allied to the player characters) has been approved. Our elven druid, Cassie, did not seem enthusiastic, nor our resident wizard Grameer.

Still, development of the realm continues apace, and it seems to be booming economically. It was proposed that each PC take over the development of one major settlement in the realm, with Grameer opting to develop a centre of learning around an academy on the site of the trading post where we started our adventures. Cassie – despite Rick’s ongoing suspicion of the whole domain building part of the Kingmaker campaign – has been vested with the religious centre, while our rogue Olban is working on what sounds like the crime capital of the kingdom, complete with its own black market. My own PC Artemisia is looking at some kind of mobile military camp, similar in fact to the ordo system of the Huns and later the Mongols, with a large, predominantly mounted army moving on a seasonal basis to different sites in the kingdom where grazing is best.

We also intercepted an agent provocateur preaching against the ruling council in the streets of its very own capital. Although I suggested removing him covertly and replacing him with our changeling rogue, the majority opinion was to tackle him head on with a zone of truth, forcing him to admit that he had been sent by a foreign power to stir up trouble. It turns out there is a realm to our west that favours an aggressive move into our territory (the kingdom still does not have a name incidentally), and they were using him to scout us out. After he had been discredited successfully in the eyes of the populace, he was stripped of all his money, equipment and magic items and sent on his way (as the DM has forced Good alignment on us we could not simply hang him!)

We then decided to scout to the south west, again avoiding the big lake and its tempting island due to fears of a hydra dwelling beneath its waters. We ran into a pair of owl bears in the middle of the night, but dispatched both in fairly short order. Olban ended up fighting toe-to-toe with one owl bear which almost took him down, but the changeling rogue is getting tougher now and took over 30 hps of damage without falling unconscious!

We finally ended up at some elven ruins which our gnomish intelligence told us lay in the far south west of our domain. Grameer found his staff growing warm as we approached, and suspects I think that some kind of upgrade for this item could lie within its ruins. The ruins consisted of four towers linked by a curtain wall and a large central tower. Once in the courtyard, we were ambushed by a quickling, which certainly gave us the runaround – and a detailed analysis of the Spring Attack feat – before it finally vanished again after taking damage. We’re not sure where it has gone, and hope it does not try for another crack at the party when it is more depleted. Once again the use of haste meant when the quickling did get within range it was subject to multiple attacks – which was nice!

We explored the outlying towers one by one, encountering an assassin vine which seized Wu Ya, our tengu monk, but did not manage to hang onto him for long before we killed it. However, while our attention was focused on the vine some other fae beastie that looks more like a ghoul than anything else jumped us. We took him down too.

A so-so session for my character Artemisia. She did not get much opportunity to use her war horse, and seemed to get attacked almost immediately each time. Our DM seems to zero in on her when the opportunity arises (she has AC19, AC 20 if Grameer manages to cast protection from evil in time, and 67 hps when not raging). Luckily she can’t be caught flat footed or flanked or sneak attacked anymore due to choice of feats and rage powers, plus she has a +1 to her Reflex save against traps: all details I would ask anyone who plays here next week to bear in mind, as I won’t make it to the next session. When hasted she has two attacks as a full attack action, which if they connect, are doing 2d6 +17 hps

However, other PCs like Wu Ya and now Olban are far more deadly than they were: around 2nd to 3rd level Artemisia was doing most of the serious fighting, but in the last two sessions she has fallen behind in the damage stakes. Her role now seems to draw in the attacks of the enemy, leaving Wu Ya and Olban free to do the serious damage. It is working well, so no need to change it, methinks.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Twilight Imperium: an epic classic, but with some flaws

Twilight Imperium, by Fantasy Flight Games, has the reputation of being something of an epic. I have now played it three times and feel qualified to offer some comments. I’ve never won it, mind you.

I love Frank Herbert’s book Dune, and TI (or TI3, as this is the third edition of this game) has the feel of Dune. It is an epic, galaxy-spanning power-politics boardgame, and there are a lot of things to like about it.

Number one is that no game is ever the same. Not only are there eight alien races for players to choose from, but at the start of the game, players build the board by laying hex tiles in a series of concentric circles around the capital planet, Mecatol Rex, leaving their home systems until last. Ironically, this is one of my favourite parts of the game, as you debate which of your ‘hand’ of five tiles to place next. You ideally want to place neutral planetary systems within convenient striking distance of your home world(s), while using other tiles like asteroid fields and empty space to make it harder for anyone to attack you.

There is a LOT to this game. To win, you need 10 victory points, and you acquire these by achieving objectives that, again, will differ from game to game. You also have a secret objective. Most objectives will score you one or two VPs. Some of these objectives can be extremely hard – for example, occupying another player’s homeworld seems a very tough one to achieve. In three games I’ve not seen it done. Many objectives centre around Mecatol Rex, the imperial capital, which often throws players into contact with each other.

While you have at your fingertips a sophisticated array of military units, like cruisers, destroyers, ground units, planetary defence systems, and so forth, players do not seem to come into direct conflict with each other much, even with the emphasis on controlling Mecatol Rex in some objective cards. There are action cards you can play to make other players’ lives harder – one of my favourites is Plague, which can ravage another player’s planet and wipe out 1d6 ground units – but actual fleet-to-fleet conflict or planetary invasions against other players (as opposed to simply turning up and occupying a neutral planet) does not seem to happen that often. This is odd, given the amount of juicy hardware your alien race controls.

Play proceeds by taking strategic actions, of which there are eight in the game represented by large card tiles. These let you do a number of things, for instance helping you go to war, build new units, calling the galactic senate to session, or trading with other players.

Trade works by exchanging one of your two trade contracts with another player. After that you pick up resources every time a player goes for the trade strategic action. In all the games I’ve played, the contracts get sorted out early on, and then players generally seem happy to sit on them and cash in. I once managed to successfully browbeat another player by threatening to terminate their trade agreement with me if they did not vote with me in the senate, but generally trade does not seem to have been much of an issue.

In some ways, Twilight Imperium reminds me of Supremacy, in that you need to think hard about what you want to do each turn, and try to work out what the opposition is likely to do. One problem we encountered was with the Imperium action, which automatically grants you 2 VPs if you take it. We ended up with everyone effectively taking it in turns to go for it (using the Initiative action beforehand which then lets you choose first which action you want next time around). One suggested fix for this is reducing it to 1 VP.

TI3 has the reputation of being a long game, nay, an epic exercise to play. Yes and no. I’ve now seen it played in about four hours, although one four player game took about six to complete. We found that by introducing a strictly policed two minutes for each player to take their turn, the game motored along. This encourages you to think ahead to what you’re going to do next, allowing you to leap into action when it is your turn. If you leave players all the time in the world to decide what they want to do, because of the many options at their fingertips, and the way this game functions at a number of different levels, you can expect it to take a long time. But we had five players finish two games of TI3 in eight hours, with breaks for pizza, so it shows it can be done.

Finally, according to many pundits out there in cyberspace, there are many changes to TI3 in the Shattered Empires supplement which FFG have published for this. Tragically, it is now out of print.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Back to Rokugan

Some years ago I played in a very entertaining Legend of the Five Rings campaign, and today I returned to mystic Rokugan as my son Sebastian kicked off his own campaign, this time using the d20 Oriental Adventures supplement. One of the real challenges here is being able to take my Pathfinder hat off, and put my 3.5 D&D hat back on - not an easy undertaking.

A little background first. We have four characters in the party: a Lion samurai, who seems a bit dim and blunders around a lot; a Nezumi from the Crab; a Unicorn shaman; and a Phoenix shugenja. The campaign opened with the four characters dining in the house of the Lion governor of the city of Zimbwa when they were alerted by the arrival of a frightened priest, telling them some goblins had attacked a nearby temple. The city is already in turmoil, with regular riots between competing street factions, so no garrison troops were available.

The party duly armed itself, politely retired from dinner, and headed for the temple. The goblins were busy trying to set light to it, but we interrupted them and a fight duly ensued. The samurai was largely useless, despite wielding a katana; he did not roll above an 8 for the whole fight. The real surprise was the nezumi ratling, equipped with a naginata and a tail spike, who put three goblins down, and at one point scored simultaneous critical hits with both naginata and tail spike. Nice.

The shaman summoned a minor oni which was equipped with sharp claws, a poison barb and a breath weapon, and took care of two goblins itself.

More goblins had been hiding on the roof, and jumped down to join the fray, but by the end of it, 10 of them lay dead on the floor of the temple, with only the samurai wounded.

Securing the temple against further attack, we found a box containing a ring which can summon another minor oni, which we gave to the shugenja. We also found a Lion ancestral necklace which only a samurai can use and which summons the spirit of a dead Lion general. We were also rewarded with 40 koku by the grateful priests.

Chatting to the priests over a cup of cha, we were told that there is a high degree of political tension between the clergy and the local garrison, and that priests are regularly harassed by the random checkpoints set up by Lion bushi. One particular group of Lion samurai has been singled out by the priests for retribution, and they have asked our party - despite the presence of a Lion samurai - to deal with them.

The priest also mentioned that they had heard rumours of something dark and evil lurking in the Unicorn territories, and that they knew of a deserted castle on the main road on the other side of the river which might be worth an explore.

So, lots to think about as we consider what our next move should be!