Thursday, 28 July 2011

Russia's Full Metal Jacket

If you sat through Beneath Hill 60 and still felt remotely positive, then give 9th Company a look. This is a Russian film about their war in Afghanistan, which ended in 1989, and which played a part in the fall of the Soviet Union.

I remember clearly where I was when I heard the news that Russia had invaded Afghanistan, and also where I was when I heard they were pulling out. The pictures of Soviet armour motoring north on the long highway from Bagram up towards the then Soviet border will always stay with me: it was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

9th Company tells the story of young conscripts who volunteer to fight for Mother Russia in Afghanistan. Interestingly, they are given the choice whether to fight in Afghanistan, or be posted somewhere else in the Soviet empire.

Director Fyodor Bondarchuk has assembled a talented cast for this one, including the likes of Artur Smolyaninov, Aleksey Chadov and Konstantic Kyukov, all of whom seem incredibly young, but then so were the soldiers they are portraying. The evolution of Smolyaninov's character, Lyutyy (which I think must mean 'Angry One' in Russian, if my Serbo-Croatian is anything to go by), from orphanage thug to mature and thoughtful war veteran is particularly good.

The film, like Full Metal Jacket, is split into two halves, with the first half telling the story of the recruits' training at Ferghana, under the tutelage of grizzled war veteran Dygalo (Mikhail Porechenkov). Dygalo's obsession with giving his charges the vital skills they need to survive in Afghanistan stems from the character's own experience in the theatre of operations. Porechenkov is excellent, and plays the character to the hilt. He would also make a great Bond villain if ever given the chance!

Director Bondarchuk is the team's sergeant when they reach Afghanistan. Remember Tom Berenger's character, in Platoon? Meet his Russian alter ego. Bondarchuk literally jumps out of the screen at you. This is where the film begins moving down the road mapped out by Platoon. You can see Bondarchuk leading his troops into battle in this clip:



9th Company is not particularly sympathetic to the Afghans however: apart from one old dude who sells Chadov a box of matches, they are shadowy figures with a reputation for brutally killing their enemies. The Russians make no effort to get to know them, other than hurling obscenities at them from across a valley. They even booby-trap the body of a dead mujahideen with a grenade.

Perestroika is obviously in the air, with some discussion of Gorbachev and his political objectives, but most of the time the troops are just trying to stay alive and somehow make it back to Russia. Because while the Soviet Union may have been bad, Afghanistan, in all its rugged and uncompromising fury, is worse. As one intelligence officer tells the soldiers: "Afghanistan has never been conquered in its entire history. Never." That certainly wipes the smiles off a few faces.

Some of the problems the Russians faced in-country are obvious: a conscript army which rotates in and out of the theatre of operations is going to take heavy casualties. Logistics were an issue: Russian soldiers here have to steal food and ammo from one of their own convoys, and only stop when a tank threatens to shoot at them. The local allies were unreliable, and the resistance able to move at will, undistinguished from the population, and able to draw succour from across the border in Pakistan. Plus, they were heavily armed: at one stage a Russian transport plane is brought down by a Stinger missile while taking off from Bagram airbase.

The climax of the film, with a mujahideen assault on a Soviet outpost, is again reminiscent of the end of Platoon. Just swap NVA for Afghans, and the jungle of Vietnam for a hill in Central Asia, and you're away. The battle is allegedly based on a real engagement that took place in 1988 when a platoon lost its radio due to mortar fire. The leader of the Afghans in this battle looks a lot like Sly Stallone, right down to the mirror shades - perhaps a poke at his role in Rambo III?

It seems to have taken a while for Russians to come to grips fully with the war in Afghanistan, but this is certainly a good effort, despite obvious similarities with Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Heck, even Vladimir Putin went to see it, and despite the predictable griping from veterans about the film's accuracy, it seems to have sold well in Russia.

Afghanistan was always something of a hidden war - it was hard for the international media to cover it, without going in with the mujahideen, always a risky prospect, and it was certainly not given anything close to objective coverage in Russia. But 9th Company offers a fascinating take on the war through Russian eyes which you will simply not get from Hollywood. I only hope some of the stars get to shine on a wider stage.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Film review: Beneath Hill 60

The first of a couple of war films I've watched recently, Beneath Hill 60 is an Australian war film about ANZAC engineers in Flanders in 1917. It is inspired by the true events at Messines Ridge, when Allied engineers tunnelled under German lines, and detonated what at that time was the biggest man-made bomb of all time. The plan was to literally blast a hole through the German lines for an infantry assault to follow up. The explosion was felt as far away as Dublin!



The film focuses on a small team of Australian mining engineers, brought in to burrow through clay soil that the Germans believe is too water-logged for mines. The star of the film is the most excellent Brendan Cowell, who plays the quiet spoken Captain Oliver Woodward, a mining engineer from Queensland who enlists when a close friend is killed at Gallipoli.

Beneath Hill 60 also captures the seeming randomness of sudden death on the front line, particularly when under the ubiquitous enemy artillery fire. The experience of the engineers themselves is very claustrophic, and apart from the danger of inevitable cave-ins, there is also the prospect of encountering 'Fritz', as the Germans are constantly trying to thwart them by sinking counter tunnels.

Also excellent, and with far too small a role, is Aden Young, as the half-crazed Canadian sapper who has spent three months underground building the bomb to end all bombs.

You don't seem to get that many films coming along which deal with front line combat action in WW1. It is all a bit depressing really, and you need plenty of mud and rain to help bring the mood down. In the last five minutes the film also looks at how, even though the Australian veterans get to return to the paradise of Queensland after the war, it many ways, its effects stay with them.

One irrelevancy are the scenes with the German engineers trying to find the Allied mines. There are the arguments about whether the sacrifice is worth it, what's in it for Germany, why can't we all be friends, etc, etc. I guess it serves to show the Germans could be nice people too, but really, this film is not about the Germans. It is about the struggle against the conditions more than anything else.

The engineers are exposed to illness, indirect enemy fire, and the occasional break-through from the German tunnels, but the biggest danger is really the same danger they dealt with on civvie street, namely digging deep underground with limited resources and on a tight schedule. There are also the usual British officers and Tommies and how they look down on the Australians, but eventually give them their respect. We've seen this before, and it begins to lose its novelty, but I guess Australian directors can't resist a poke at the Poms! ;)

From a gaming perspective, Beneath Hill 60 made me think about Call of Cthulhu, and in particular the one shot scenario No Man's Land, which deals with US troops cut off behind German lines in the chaos of Belleau Wood in 1918. If anything, Beneath Hill 60 provides an even more interesting context for a CoC scenario - you've got troops underground, in small numbers, in confined spaces, in the DARK. There's plenty of water, explosives, the prospect of an encounter with Germans, and who knows what else is lurking down there? I'm already feeling the inspiration here.

I'm going to give Beneath Hill 60 68%. In my view it is not as good as the excellent low budget British horror movie, Deathwatch, and I'm not saying that just because Deathwatch has supernatural themes and BH60 does not. I was slightly more on edge and jittery at the end of Deathwatch than I was when the credits ran on BH60.

Beneath Hill 60 is a sad film in many ways - yes, there's the hard-nosed Aussie grit in the face of adversity and trying conditions (including a high command that lacks faith in their abilities to get the job done) - but the loss of so many of the youngest and brightest of a generation is particularly poignant, and it is brought home again here.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The Second Battle of Ashak Rise


Back to Ashak Rise today for a re-fight of the same scenario, this time with Ben playing the Severed Hand orcs and me playing the dwarves. Readers of the previous blog will know that I had tweaked the power level of the dwarves down a little. I decided to keep the road movement rule in, however, and feel that its presence is justified. I also decided to let Borrin Fimbull keep his magic +1 axe...

As before, the wolves rushed the bridge, followed by the orcs. Ben kept his archers to the rear, maintaining a regular volley fire on the dwarves, but to little effect, as they are tough blighters. I think one dwarf fell to volley fire in the entire game.

Because of a crucial Priority roll early in the game, the orcs managed to get a foothold on the bridge, with only one dwarf blocking it. The other dwarves who were on the wrong side of the river pitched in, and kept the orcs occupied, while more dwarves rushed to the battle from the south bank. Like Kelvin, I deployed Borrin in the house, and he quickly began loading gold onto the mules. Unlike Kelvin, I committed Snorrin to the bridge as I could see the orcs were going to get across. Snorrin and one dwarf tried to hold them, but both were eventually slain. Things started to fragment quickly after that.

One dwarf tried to escape along the road with a mule, carrying two bags of gold, but the wolves caught him. He managed to kill one of them, but the other kept him busy long enough for the orcs to catch him and surround him. His poor mule was brought down by the wolves.

Borrin managed to load two more bags of gold and begin his escape, but four wolves caught him and his mule. The mule was savaged to death, but Borrin killed three or four wolves single-handedly. He was then surrounded by orcs. Standing over his bag of gold, he went on to kill three orcs too. Ben was using his spearmen to give him extra attacks, but they also acted to trap the front rank of orcs, stopping them from retreating and giving Borrin extra attacks.

Borrin was going nowhere. Winning Priority again, he attacked Hagar Sheol, the orc leader, who had now pitched in. He won that fight too, and down went Hagar for the second time, again at the hands of Borrin.

Meanwhile, another dwarf survivor managed to sneak into the hut by climbing through a back window, having been holding orcs and wolves off with his crossbow. He grabbed a bag of gold and escaped out the front door while the orcs were distracted with Borrin. However, he was spotted and attacked by three orcs and a wolf, and died fighting. Borrin finally succumbed to the orcs, the last of the dwarfs to die.

Overall, a much more balanced game in terms of feel, but possibly not as close as the Kelvin v Ric match up, as it did not come down to a duel between the remaining leaders. The orcs lost seven wolves and five warriors, but killed all the dwarves, including Borrin and Snorrin, AND recovered all the gold. BUT, they lost their chieftain again, which is a significant development, as it means no Hagar Sheol at Orc's Drift. The orcs were still eight away from break point, so still relatively in control of the game.

Where I differed tactically from Kelvin was my decision to commit Snorrin to the bridge, and indeed to leave only two dwarves moving gold bags. Dwarves are slow, and it meant the others simply did not have time or opportunity to drop back to defend the hut once Snorrin was down and the wolves were tearing along the road. Had there been a third dwarf committed to the hut, it might have changed things.

I again noticed that casualties from shooting were few and far between. Most of the losses came from melee, which seems much more deadly in Lord of the Rings. Having said that, the dwarves are 4+ with their crossbows, and the orcs are 5+ - no shooty wood elves here. Because the dwarves can only move or shoot - not both - as the dwarf player you do end up agonising over what to do with the six crossbows. I'm idly wondering whether to add a couple of dwarf archers to the mix instead of the guys with two handed weapons.

Two handed weapons: these turned out to be something of a liability I felt. Time and again dwarves lost tied rolls they should have won because of their superior Fight skills, due to the -1 penalty for two handed weapons. This really cost them at the bridge in the early stages, where three of their number fell. I was never able to form the wall across the bridge which Kelvin was able to do, and was swept off the bridge in a couple of turns. It did not become the bottle neck I hoped it would. A bad Priority roll and lack of any leaders at the bridge were also to blame.

All in all, another entertaining afternoon. I'll give this one more go and then average the scores to see how many Severed Hand make it to Orc's Drift. But it looks like Hagar Sheol will not be there, even if he survives the last game.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Accelerate into the turn!


So, off to Goodwood today, an historic motor racing circuit in West Sussex. Those who might have thought it has something to do with horse racing would be partially right, as Goodwood also has a horse racing track. However, that was not why I was there.

Goodwood's glory days were really in the 1940s and 1950s. A former RAF fighter base during the war, it was converted into a motor racing track in 1948 by, I believe, the Duke of Richmond. Famous names from British motor racing like Stirling Moss and Graham Hill competed there, in the days before the focus of British motor sport shifted to Brands Hatch.

It is obvious why this happened. Goodwood's setting is idyllic, particularly on a beautiful day when the sun is blazing down out of a cloudless Sussex sky, the EU has managed to put together a last minute deal on Greek debt, and Mediterranean holidays are looming! but it is a small circuit, almost cosy in feel. When you're bombing round it at 80-90mph it is amazing how fast you can use up your lap allowance. In addition, it is not as broad as some of the power circuits of motor racing. You do worry a bit about going off it, but apparently my driving style is a bit too tight and I'm not making as much use of the width of the track as I could. Go figure.

The interesting thing about driving sports cars round a racing circuit, however, is just how counter-intuitive it is. By this I mean when you brake and when you accelerate. When road driving the tendency is to brake into the bend, while on the track they like you to brake once you're already in the turn, and even then, some turns seem to be braking turns and some are not.

The dynamics of the car are such that you really need to accelerate hard into the bend, then brake, then open the throttles on the way out. But the subconscious part of the brain which has been driving road cars for 20 years is screaming at you all the time as you're flooring the accelerator into the turn. High performance cars do hug the tarmac though, surprisingly well, compared to my Vauxhall Astra!

Goodwood has a nasty little chicane right at the end of the circuit as you come accelerating out of the Woodcote Bend, and it does not leave much margin for error. Screaming round Woodcote on my first lap, I thought this was a joke at first, but managed to line it up all the same and get through without a scratch. Had to lean on the brakes a bit first, mind you.

All in all, a very nice morning out. Good to get out on the track first thing, and with weather so fine it was just superb. I'm going to book myself in for September as well, before the weather in England begins to take a turn for the worse. There's a nice Dodge Viper I didn't get a chance to try which would be good to have a go on.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Fear & Faith: playtesting the horror skirmish rules


Fear & Faith is the horror variant of the most excellent fantasy skirmish rules, Song of Blades & Heroes. The reason I didn't use SoB&H for the recent battles in the Bloodbath At Orc's Drift campaign is because it really caters to minor skirmishes of 10-12 models per side, maximum. At Ashak Rise alone, the orcs brought 30 of their number to the party, plus 1o wolves.

SoB&H is a simple, fast-playing system that can play out in an hour or two max. It has branched out into a number of other genres, and I was keen to give its Gothic horror variant, Fear & Faith a go. The opportunity to test it out with the Hove Area Wargamers (HAWS) arose recently, so I took the plunge.

F&F plays fast, and brings with it many of the concepts that have made SoB&H such a hit, including the activation mechanic. Each character is assigned a Quality score, which a player needs to roll above in order for that character to take an action. You can roll up to 3d6 in the hopes of getting up to three actions, but should you fail more than once -i.e. two dice come up less than your Quality score - you automatically turn over to the other team. In many ways it feels a little like Blood Bowl in that respect. You are forced to prioritise the actions you want to take, while balancing this against the superior quality troops in your force.

Thus a Q5+ character is a bit of a risk, and it may be worth rolling only 1d6 to avoid losing your turn. A Q3+ character is competent, and worth taking a 2d6 punt on, in the hopes that he'll be able to take at least one action. It is worth leaving poorer quality troops until last, giving you the opportunity to move your best guys first. Some traits like Hero and Mob let characters have free actions - Heroes are allowed one free action per turn without needing to roll (although they are still limited to three), while Mobs get a free Short move per turn regardless of their activation rolls.

Combat is very simple: both combatants roll 1d6 and add their combat score, plus any other modifiers - e.g. -1 if there is another enemy adjacent. You need to double the opponent's score to kill him. Triple his score, and you get a gruesome kill, forcing other members of his team to make a morale check.

Our game featured a group of five vampire hunters attacking an abandoned church at twilight. Their job was to slay three vampires who were resting in the church's graveyard. The vampires were protected by a wolf and a posse of escaped lunatics (a nod here to Dracula), plus a rogue grave digger with a big shovel (which could instant kill if the player rolled a 6 on his attack).

From the off things went badly for the vampire hunters. Their priest leader entered the fray first, but then a failed activation roll left him isolated as no other members of his posse could arrive. He was ambushed and killed by a minion almost immediately, thereby costing the hunters their most powerful character in the first turn. It went downhill from there.

The vampires begin the game asleep, but can be awoken by minions or by gunfire or characters being killed. The minions had a poorer activation score (4+) so long as the master vampire remained asleep. Despite this, they were able to hold off the hunters' attack, with no hunter managing to get into the churchyard. Two lunatics were slain, however, one gunned down and another killed by Professor Van Helsing in a fit of pique.

The only point where the vampires looked threatened was when the nun character, Sister Eva, lobbed a bottle of holy water over the churchyard wall, with two vampires standing well within its 'blast' radius. Tragically, neither was hurt and Sister Eva was soon dispatched by a minion.

F&F features a fear mechanic on top of the usual morale mechanic, but I think we were still getting our heads around this. It features in the Ban Vampire special power, which forces undead to make their own Fear check if they want to attack a hunter with a crucifix. Similarly, a hunter can use a crucifix to try to Ban vampires within a Short radius.

SoB&H uses an excellent measuring system that uses Short (7.5cm), Medium (12cm) and Long (18cm) measuring sticks. Thus, holy water has a Short thrown range, a wolf makes a Long move for one action, and most characters make a Medium move with one action. Base widths are also used - being driven back one base width is a possible combat outcome.

Overall, the hunters did well on their Fear checks. They passed most of them with flying colours, and even when they failed, it was only to step back a bit, not to flee or pick up any Insanity. Still, they lost, and died to a man, at the cost of only two minions and no vampires killed.

The undead begin the game with some serious handicaps - three of their number Insane and grappling with different forms of insanity, and three more asleep. Yet even with this, the hunters were able to make a prime mess of it, with some heroically bad rolling. Sister Eva was the stand out MVP for the hunters, as she came closest to actually taking out the vampires.

I'm keen to give F&F another go, perhaps this time with my werewolves. I DO like SoB&H as a system. It is quick, simple, easy to teach, doesn't require a lot of miniatures or terrain. Ideal, really.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Orc's Drift 2: Ashak Rise


After much hard work, I was finally in position to present the Battle of Ashak Rise last night, the second part in the old Games Workshop Warhammer campaign, Blood Bath At Orc's Drift. This is very much a narrative campaign, involving three tribes of orcs descending from the mountains to converge on the hamlet of Orc's Drift, in the rear of the army of the Grand League of Ramalia. Huzzah!

Last time, we saw the Vile Rune tribe - accompanied by the frost giant Guthrum Mane - stampede over a small wood elf garrsion at Kachas Pass. This time, the Severed Hand tribe surprises a small posse of dwarf deserters panning for gold at Ashak Rise.

I'm not going to go into great detail as to the battle itself, since I hope to umpire it a couple more times before packing it up. As I am using the Lord of the Rings rules from GW, rather than the original Warhammer 2e rules, there is always a slight risk that forces might be over-balanced. At Kachas Pass, I felt the armoured orcs were too tough for the elves, who only managed to kill 11 of them (just over 25% of their total force). Consequently, the Severed Hand took the field with no armoured regiments, although they had more archers and a smattering of spears, plus the assistance of a pack of dire wolves and their hobgoblin handler.

The dwarfs of Ashak Rise also have two personality figures, the father and son team of Borrin and Snorrin Fimbull, while the elves only had one. I chose poweful LotR profiles for these two dwarves, again in the interests of getting the scenario balance right, and here I may have erred too far the other way.

I got to lay out my new river sections and a bridge I painted up over the past week and was quite pleased with the way they looked. The wolves and dwarves had all been painted up in the last month or so, although there were some additional dwarves kindly lent from Ben's collection.

The Severed Hand were also given a banner. In the last game, the Vile Rune lost their banner early in the battle, when an elf arrow found a chink in the banner bearer's armour. This time around, the Severed Hand used the banner to good effect, and it was critical in rallying their troops in a couple of key struggles with the dwarfs earlier in the game. I shall make sure the Kwae Karr have one at Linden Way as well.

The ideal outcome is for the orcs to take close to 50% losses, but still succeed. At 50% they reach break point in the LotR rules, and individuals will start to rout. A force with low Courage can quick disintegrate after that. I felt we had a pretty close game on until the two dwarf personalities were committed, and here they showed what the more powerful heroes in the LotR game can do on their own, one of them killing the hobgoblin wolf handler and two of his wolves in a single round of combat. Although out-numbered 8-1 or more, they held their own, killing the bulk of the orcs, until one of the dwarf heroes, Snorinn Fimbul, was slain. By this time, however, the puff had gone out of the Severed Hand, and most of them were running for the hills.

The game ended with the Severed Hand chief, Hagar Sheol, going toe to toe with Borinn Fimbul, but the orc lost. The rest of the orcs fled, leaving Borinn standing over the body of his son and raging at their retreating backs.

After the game we sat around for a bit in a post-game analysis session, and it was decided the strength of the Fimbuls ought to be dialled down. I had also introduced a rule which allowed figures that began their move on the road to add +50% to their move allowance. This gave the orcs a 9" road move, for example, and the wolves 15". I felt it worked quite well, but Ric, the orc commander, worried that it allowed the dwarfs to block the road too easily. I wonder, however, whether that was not the scenario writer's intention? I may give this game a second shot without the road move bonus, and see how it plays out.

King F'yar would not be pleased if the Severed Hand failed to turn up at Orc's Drift at all...!

Friday, 8 July 2011

Get to da chopper! Bad movies can make good scenarios

Sick at home today and trying to inspire myself. I always seem to get a bit depressed when I'm ill - purely clinical, I'm sure, but not helped by the current July weather here in the British Isles. Still, to take my mind off things, I watched Aliens vs Predator 2 Requiem, which, while being a rubbish film (1/5 on Rotten Tomatoes), still inspires with ideas about a possible RPG scenario.



Both the Aliens and Predator series are full of excellent plot seeds for RPG games, not just horror or sci fi, although these jump readily to mind, but even the swords and sorcery genre. What I like about them is their focus on a tight-knit team that is battling to survive in isolated circumstances. In the case of the early Aliens films, this was outer space, and you don't really get much more isolated than that. In Predator, it was the rain forests of South America. In the latter case, the humans were on a black ops mission on the wrong side of the Colombian border (this was back in the days before Colombia was firmly stuffed into Uncle Sam's back pocket).

The objective in Predator turns from one of fulfilling a mission - retrieving some downed CIA operatives is the ostensible goal - to just staying alive as team members get picked off. Such scenarios, in an RPG sense, are more useful for those one to two session games, rather than a lengthy campaign.

The Aliens vs Predator series has the Predators focusing on hunting Aliens, with humans getting in the way. The first movie featured an excavation of an ancient alien temple under the Antarctic ice (Mountains of Madness, anyone?) In the second in the series, the Predator is on the trail of an Alien that has hatched out of another Predator. Mmmmm. Nasty. And it's on the loose in Smallville, CO.

The poor humans in this scenario are caught between a rock and a hard place. The Predator seems to focus on bringing down the Big Bad while covering up evidence of his presence in Colorado - blowing up a downed Predator ship, for example. Other Aliens hatch all over the place, and are soon tearing up the town and slaughtering all and sundry (including an entire ward of new born babies and pregnant mothers). I think the best piece of dialogue in the whole exercise has to be two survivors in a tank, arguing whether they go to the rendezvous point to be picked up by the National Guard, or head to the hospital to escape on its rescue chopper:

Character A (an ex-Army female): "I don't think we can trust the Colonel."

Character B (incredulous): "Why not? Do you think our government would lie to us?"

All other characters in the tank then look at B with expressions of incredulity on their faces. A nice moment.

Of course, the other high point is when one survivor says to his brother - "Get to the chopper!" reprising the famous quote from the Gubernator in the original film. They had to get it in there somehow, and I'm glad they did.

So, who wins in this sorry escapade? The town loses, because it gets flattened with a tactical nuclear weapon. The Aliens lose, because they all die. The good guys escape, but one loses her husband and another his girlfriend, so they're probably traumatised for life and permanently interned in the little side block at Gitmo where they put all the people who have had close encounters of the third kind (I made that last but up). But still, they're probably all down to about 25 SAN each, eh?

The government wins, because they quash the alien menace at the relatively small cost of a Colorado National Guard platoon and one tactical nuclear weapon, AND get one of the Predator's toys, a ray gun, to add to their toy box (probably in Warehouse 23 next to the Ark of the Covenant).

As an RPG game, though, it would actually be more fun than as a film to watch. You can start the characters off as ordinary citizens in a normal, hum-drum town or settlement, just going about their dailies. The Aliens don't storm in on day one - they start nibbling at the edges of the town, picking off a hunter here, a deputy there, perhaps some vagrants for tea. People go missing. Maybe one or more PCs are charged with finding them. Then a body crops up, skinned alive and suspended 50 ft off the ground in a forest. Things start to get weirder. The fear and paranoia would be starting to build now.

Watching the film, I imagined it as an RPG scenario, and indeed one character did not catch a glimpse of any Aliens until right near the end. He always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time on every occasion. There's a lot of action off camera - an entire platoon of National Guard gets wiped out in 30 seconds by Aliens - but as a GM this would be easy to wing. You can imagine hopes in the party being raised when they hear help is on the way, only for the reinforcements to get slaughtered.

In games like this, the PCs should be able to pick up other survivors and NPCs who can assist them. If they've got some personality, this will help. It also allows the bad guys to kill them off in gory manner. Savage Worlds, as a game system, is of particular value here, as its use of Extras lets the PCs add NPCs to the party without too much drag factor being added to the game.

Ultimately, their objective has to be to get out alive, with the real prospect of a total party kill (TPK) in the offing. Obstacles to this can be natural - a fast-flowing river, trackless forest - or enemy (bad dudes block the way out and the group discovers the hard way that a toe-to-toe confrontation won't work).

It might also be useful to add extra pre-gen PCs later in the plot, particularly if a PC dies early on in the adventure. This also allows for the injection of new characters who perhaps may have agendas of their own.

Finally, there is an additional, somewhat overlooked scenario here, of the PCs as alien hunters themselves coming to Earth to cover up one of their comrades' bungles - unleashing a dangerous species into another ecosystem (you can imagine the Galactic Council would yank their licenses for that one, maybe a stiff fine too?) Their job is to get down their to Colorado, or Siberia, or Derbyshire, and finish off the aliens before they do too much damage, AND cover up any evidence they were there. Now THAT would be a cool game. They would, of course, have a decent budget to buy lots of cool sci fi kit, and maybe a nuke of their own as a last resort (although it would need to be big and cumbersome, not a wrist-watch like the original Predator had!)

I can sense I'm going to write up something along these lines in the not too distance future, once I've got my book finished. In the meantime I'm going to go look for some Paracetamol.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

WFRP: my on-off affair with a great RPG

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, or WFRP for short, was a game I was always interested in playing, from the moment Games Workshop announced it back in 1985 (I think!) At the time I was playing a lot of D&D, and was intrigued by the alternative setting and approach it outlined. I wondered if WFRP heroes could be somehow compatible with the battle game, which I was also interested in playing, but didn't have the money for!

I really only got a chance to play it at Dragonmeet one year, I think it was 2003, an excellent one-shot about a group of ne'er-do-wells sent on a mission to Kislev. It ended up as a TPK, but it was great fun, and several of us cried with laughter in the course of the session. After that I've been able to dip into the game a couple of times, once via a short campaign in Marienberg, and later when Ben ran The Enemy Within using the second edition of the game (we only got as far as Shadows Over Bogenhafen before that group ruptured).

We got another chance to dust off 2e WFRP last night, and were back to Marienberg as members of a gang seeking to recover old turf in the southern docks district. WFRP is ideal for these sorts of gritty, street-level campaigns. I'm playing a Norse pirate who missed the hangman's noose by a whisker, and is now an enforcer for the gang. I've not got a chance to use his berserk special ability, due to the fact that it requires a full round action to get there (unlike Pathfinder barbarians who can switch it on like a light with their first action).

Note - have you noticed how nearly all Scandinavians you meet in real life are the nicest, most mild-mannered and polite people you could hope to meet? Did they export their violent types to Britain and Russia in the Dark Ages, leaving the remaining gene pool to get on swimmingly with each other and the rest of Europe? Contrast the behaviour of British and Scandinavian holidaymakers in Spain, and you may have your answer...;)

Warhammer, yes. It's a nice little game, and not too overwhelming. PCs are underpowered, and have to make Fear checks when they face the supernatural, unlike your Pathfinder thugs. In our game we visited the Moby Dick (!) tavern, one of the few locations our gang still controls, and spotted a rival gang member selling drugs. We interrogated him in our fighting pit under the tavern (used for rigged gladiatorial contests), and found out he belonged to the Black Dogs, a young gang that has usurped ours (we're called the Jolly Butchers, on account of our also owning a butcher's shop).

Our party is composed of myself the Norse heavy (Thug, ex-Pirate), a rather slow dwarf, a very young smuggler, and I think a cutpurse/cat burglar type, but I'm not too sure...it being Friday, and having been up at 5.30 working on an article, my brain was slowing down towards the end there.

We proceeded to raid the candle shop the Black Dogs were using to process their drugs, breaking in an killing two of them in a melee. The others than surrendered and agreed to join the Jolly Butchers. We have had them tatooed with our emblem, a pig's head on the upper arm.

A couple of rat-catchers (an iconic WFRP profession) have been brutally murdered in the vicinity of the local cemetery, called The Boneyard. Because the rat catchers' guild has now gone on strike until the killer is caught, rats are multiplying in the docks district. In an effort to win credibility with the locals, we hid in the cemetery to see if we could catch the perpertrator.

First time around, we saw a couple of tomb robbers, and followed them to an address where we roughed them up a bit in an effort to find out what they were up to. Turns out they are working for Mad Eddie, a rival crime lord who controls a much bigger syndicate than the Black Dogs. We decided to leave them alone. By this time my taciturn Norse barbarian was becoming even more taciturn as the week caught up with me.

Our second stake out in the Boneyard was interrupted when one of our number (you know who you are) decided to raid a random tomb. This led to a fight with some skeleton guardians, which we won, but only because we called in our young look-out to help. We found a stash of gold which will help us to continue to fund our organisation going forwards.

That's where we left it. Hopefully we'll get a chance to play some more next Friday. I like the way the PCs are not uber-powerful, like our 13th level Pathfinder party, although the latter is still fun to play for the sheer, over-the-top munchkin factor it represents. Also, we don't have a wizard or indeed any form of spell slinger with us. This does not break WFRP. There is no need to balance parties or optimise characters like there is in Pathfinder and D&D 4e. I like the way it can cope effortlessly with a street-level, city-based campaign, and that a fight with some thugs in a basement can represent a serious encounter.

Although we were playing with the second edition rules, we did use some of the very nice cardboard pieces fron the Fantasy Flight third edition, which were of the usual high standard one has come to expect of FFG components. I'm still not convinced by WFRP 3e, but have not played it yet, so will reserve judgement until I actually have.