Friday, 27 May 2011

Orcs on the painting table

Part of my task this weekend, apart from making progress with the book, is to get my Vile Rune Orcs painted up for Kachas Pass, the first battle in the Bloodbath At Orc's Drift campaign. I've decided to go with Citadel plastic Middle Earth orcs for this battle, and here's why: they're actually quite good.

1. They're cheap, and you can quickly build up a large force of orcs.

2. They are very dynamic, in terms of pose. Okay, they're still on the painting table, but Sebastian and I have used their armoured cousins in a skirmish before (and they've also done service in a Pathfinder game defending their lair in a ruined castle), and seeing them in action so to speak, they do look like they're running and fighting, rather than just standing growling like so many of the GW Warhammer plastics.

3. They are actually fairly realistically proportioned, with no chunky limbs and out-sized heads. Citadel have done their best with the Middle Earth metals too, but plastic gives the sculptor just that more of an edge in terms of getting proportions right.

I'd strongly recommend anyone needing to beef up their orc horde, either for roleplaying games or wargames, to give these guys a look. They are from the Uruk-hai Scouts boxed set, and you get 24 to a box. Shop around, and you'll find them for £15-18, which is not bad. You can buy 10 Mantic orcs for about £7.50. The new Wargames Factory orcs also look exceedingly fine, but I'm building a unit of WF Zulus at the moment (off to the left of the picture), and have not been impressed with these, to be honest.

On the right of the pic you can catch a glimpse of my Undead army for Warmaster, which is making very slow progress, and at the back you might be able to make out some WW2 Germans which a friend of mine kindly donated to me, as he's focusing on 15mm Dark Ages these days.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Viscounts & Vagabonds

I have for some time been ruminating on the possibilitiy of eventually sitting down to write my own RPG. I've had an idea that has been kicking around within the somewhat polluted depths of my brainpan for a few years now, but I've never really got around to sitting down and getting the ball rolling on it.

While I have two books to finish off this year - well, by September - after that I may go back to brainstorming the actual mechanics of an RPG to be called Viscounts & Vagabonds. In essence, V&V is a game about rogues, rascals, highwaymen and pirates, and their largely fruitless efforts to survive in 18th century England. It is slightly tongue in cheek, and inspired by the likes of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Blackadder The Third, and the film Plunkett & Maclean. It would not have any magic or supernatural elements to it, but would allow for more 'social' roleplaying in the England of the Georges.

Characters would have both physical and social characteristics. So, for example, Strength, Speed and Stealth would all be critical attributes, as would Social Status, Wealth, and indeed Charm (combining both physical good looks and the ability to chin wag your way graciously around a ballroom).

The game would also draw on its inspiration from swashbuckling RPGs like En Garde and Lace & Steel, but as it is set towards the end of the classic swashbuckling era, it leans more towards social graces, managing money, and generally trying to get ahead.

I am genuinely thinking of creating a purely random character generation system, letting players roll up a PC in good old 'olde skewl' traditions, and stick with the results. Tables would be slanted towards providing characters fallen on hard times, who would need to connive, steal and lie their way towards the wealth they feel they deserve. Random 'afflictions' might include smallpox scars, a war wound, creditors, vengeful husbands, all the way to leprosy and lechery. It would be great to illustrate the game with some of those wonderful Hogarth drawings of the debauched aristocracy of the time.

PCs would be largely set on the course of wealth acquisition, be it via enterprise (South Sea Bubble anyone?), theft (highwaymen perhaps?), con games, marriage, naval service (although this would be abstracted in downtime between games or to explain a player's absence - 'yes, Viscount Dibblingham has indeed been press-ganged...') or some other money making endeavour.

Most games would use London as their default setting, but obviously GMs would be within their rights to arrange excursions to the country, on the continent, or further afield. However, Bath and Brighton were both emerging as major centres for the polite classes during this period, so there might be scope for supplements on both.

Ideally, players would have sub-plots attached to their characters that they would have to resolve, as well as the main adventures thrust as them by the GM, which might allow them scope to line their pockets. I doubt this is a game that would pave the way for an epic 30 session campaign, with the average campaign being completed in six or seven sessions maximum (i.e. what I'm comfortable running myself).

The other area I wanted to explore was the role of the vagabonds in all this. Initially, I thought the players would be working their way up from being vagabonds themselves towards the dizzy heights of social acceptability, but then I hit on the idea of having vagabonds as the PCs' retainers. Following a game of Land of the Samurai and seeing the way the Leadership feat in Pathfinder can totally transform a game, I thought the vagabond game could, in effect, become a game within a game. Players with sufficient wealth could hire vagabond retainers, and the character sheet would contain space for a vagabond's stats as well. Vagabonds would be the players' 'gofers', able to go places and do things the PCs could not. At some points in the game, they would merely be an extra pair of eyes and ears, while at others the vagabond game would take centrew stage. Think Jeeves and Wooster, in lace and tights.

So that's it in a nut shell. I'm not looking to create anything outrageously complex, but it would be a game where roleplaying would be embedded in the mechanics, and where an hilarious escapade could ensue without the need for pistols to be primed or rapiers drawn.

More on this when I have the time for dream up more madness!

Monday, 16 May 2011

Raid on Iran: a trip down memory lane

Given that my parents are currently adventuring in the Golan Heights with a former Israeli tank commander, I thought perhaps now might be a good time to re-visit the Middle East, in the form of Steve Jackson's most excellent Raid on Iran. I had thought I'd lost this game, one of a series of fondly remembered mini-games produced by Steve Jackson back in the Eighties, of which Car Wars and OGRE are probably the most famous. However, while digging around in my parents' attic a few weeks ago, my brother stumbled upon it, and joyously restored this relic of a forgotten age to its rightful owner.

Raid on Iran was published not long after the events it depicts, namely the failed attempt by US special forces to retrieve the American hostages held by revolutionaries in the grounds of the American embassy in Tehran. In the wake of Desert Storm, Mogadishu, and 9/11, this seems like small beer (heck, I've forgotten Grenada and Panama too). But back then it was big stuff. I was living in Bahrain at the time, and 1979 was certainly one of those years of Living Dangerously, capped off with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

But Raid on Iran was a brave move. It is a 'what if' scenario dealing with the US assault on the embassy compound that was planned, but never happened. The Iranian player controls the hostage takers and the mobs that quickly converge on the compound once news of the assault leaks out. He has a number of options available, like extra choppers, or Farsi speakers to distract reinforcements (always my favourite as the American player).

The hostages' location is hidden, so you don't know for certain which buildings they are in, or how many there are. Indeed, the American player starts off with relatively little intelligence on the actual locations of his targets, plus the knowledge that he is on borrowed time. The Iranian player has unlimited reinforcements, including the aforesaid mobs. Those who have played the excellent Block Mania may remember the way the Justice Department finally moves on the blocks to bring the riots to an end. Raid has a similar mechanic.

Raid on Iran also featured a very smooth area movement system, which made it easier and quicker for units to cross large, open spaces, but harder to move inside a building. Firepower was based on numbers of soldiers shooting into an area, although it was also possible to initiate bloody close combat. Units could also be split up: need your unit of 10 Revolutionary Guards to split up? No problem, make change with two 5s, or a 4 and a 6. Units were not static, they were fluid. They could be split up during the game, but not reunited again, although they could combine firepower.

Finally, there was the nail-biting evacuation, as the American player struggled to get his rescued hostages into the helicopters.

It played well, you did not get bogged down in charts and tables, it 'felt' realistic. It was also cheap and affordable. In my view it was one of the better mini-games Steve Jackson came up with, OGRE being the other I really enjoyed. I aim to play it again soon, to see if it really is as good as I remember. Never advisable, of course. But still, when I saw that little black box again, the Eighties came flooding back with it.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Sword & The Flame: First Impressions

The Sword & The Flame is a set of colonial wargames rules written by Larry Brom that has been kicking around the wargaming scene for three decades now. It still seems to be the most widely played rules amongst colonial wargamers, even though it is skirmish-based in nature, with figures mounted on individual bases, and even tracking whether individual characters are killed or wounded.

The core period for the rules is 1878-84, a short period of time during which British and imperial forces were engaged against the Pathans, Zulus, Boers, and the forces of the Mahdi in the Sudan. The edition I own also includes a variant for small unit actions in equatorial Africa, campaigns in China (e.g. the 1860 Arrow War), and for playing the French Foreign Legion in North Africa.

The basic unit is a 20-man platoon or 12-man troop of cavalry (native forces fight in similarly sized warbands) although it is playable down to eight man basic infantry units and six man cavalry units. This is the variant that has been used in the recent series of colonial campaign supplements emerging from Skirmish Wargames.

Having begun play-testing, I can honestly say that they are rather playable. You don't get bogged down too much poring over combat results tables, and don't need to do the sort of number crunching needed for many Games Workshop stable games (e.g. Trafalgar, which I played recently). There is a random element in terms of unit activation, as you use a deck of playing cards to determine the order in which units move and fire. You also roll to see how far units move - e.g. a charging Zulu unit might have 4d6 inches.

Colonial units tend to possess superior firepower, but this is balanced by allowing the natives a number of local advantages, including less concern for rescuing wounded comrades (they can always come and get them later under cover of darkness), ability to cross terrain with no penalties (reflecting better knowledge of the locality), and scope for concealing themselves. This last item lets the native player nominate terrain behind or within which units are hidden, and they are only deployed once enemy units are within 4" or they choose to reveal themselves. This can be a real problem for the imperial player, when natives pop up out of nowhere and charge into combat before you can get a decent volley off. This is like Deep Strike in WH40K, but on steroids!

There are still quite a few tactical considerations: it is not simply a case of one side rushing the other in the hopes they can close with them before being decimated. We are playing Zulus against British in the 1879 Zulu War, and the Zulus are severely lacking in firepower, but once they get within spear-throwing range, things can go badly for the British. They also enjoy numerical superiority of 12:5 which seems to be delivering a balanced game.

Having to manhandle wounded soldiers out of a difficult situation can also lead to tough decisions - do you leave Lieutenant Fauntleroy behind to be speared to death? What will you tell the major at tiffin?

Overall I'm really enjoying these. The game still needs to be finished, but I've moved from sceptical to actually really rather fond of the mechanics, especially their simplicity. The trick will be dreaming up scenarios which will contribute to a close game.

More to follow on the actual game, scenario notes, and the final bloody outcome!