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!