Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Of dice and (little) men...

Have you noticed it recently? The new trend in tabletop gaming? I'm talking about the dice dude. Yes, the dice. It is a slow, but creeping trend amongst manufacturers of games to make their dice, those innocent pieces of plastic used to generate random numbers, a proprietary part of their game.

Back in the day, when Dungeons & Dragons first hit the shelves, you needed some unusual polyhedral dice to play it. Lucky owners of the D&D Basic set, the famous red box, had a set of dice that game with it. But one of the crazy - and funky - things about the new game was the dice. It was novel.

Today game designers are beginning to realise they can make MORE money by also requiring that proprietary dice be used with the game. A good example is War of the Ring, where there is a set of dice that plays a key role in dictating what both players can do in any given turn. Similarly, Commands & Colours has its own set of dice for determining combat results. This is all fine, as the dice come with the game.

Action dice for War of the Ring

However...Blood Bowl was one of the first games to dictate that the player needed to own a special set of dice to play it. The conventional d6 was no longer sufficient. The recent Saga Dark Ages miniatures rules from Gripping Beast needs its own set of dice, and requires that each faction in the game use a different set. Your Anglo Danes use different dice from your Norse.

Typical faction dice set for Saga

Fantasy Flight has leaped onto the bandwagon, with special dice for its new version of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and it seems as if its new Star Wars game will go the same way. Cubicle 7 has produced special dice for use with its One Ring RPG, and wait for it, even the recent Bolt Action WW2 miniatures rules from Warlord has special orders dice you can buy from Warlord for that complete experience.

Dice set for the One Ring RPG
Dice are easy to lose too. I own dozens of d6s and d20s, so losing one here or there is not a problem. But some games are now going to be hostage to having the right dice. And replacing them won't be cheap. Oh no. I was recently quoted £16 for a set of Saga dice. I doubt there's much we can do about this trend - games manufacturers have obviously realised that linking a game to sets of 'special' dice gives them the opportunity to make a few more bucks on the side.

I'm all for innovative mechanics in miniatures games and RPGs, but I wonder whether these can still be achieved using conventional dice...

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Song of Blades & Heroes - Ambush at Sarn Ford

"Nine he gave to Mortal Men, proud and great, and so ensnared them. Long ago they fell under the dominion of the One, and they became Ringwraiths, shadows under his great Shadow, his most terrible servants. Long ago. It is many a year since the Nine walked abroad. Yet who knows? As the Shadow grows once more, they too may walk again..."
 Gandalf - The Shadow of the Past (The Fellowship of the Ring)


This is a short scenario for Song of Blades & Heroes by Ganesha Games. It takes place at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, as the Nazgul seek to steal into the Shire to hunt for Baggins and the One Ring. A small but determined posse of Dunedain rangers lie in wait for the intruders, under orders from Aragorn to stop the Dark Riders from getting to Hobbiton.


The field is 4' by 4' and should be rolling countryside, perhaps with a quiet county lane and some hedgerows. It is typical rural terrain for the Shire. The Ringwraiths are approaching Sarn Ford on their way from their meeting with Saruman in Isengard (for more on this conference, consult The Unfinished Tales). A road down the centre of the table could well represent the highway towards Sarn Ford and the Shire.


Rangers: Dunedain (9) with spears and bows; Q 3+, C3. They have Forester and Shooter (Medium).

Ringwraiths: Nazgul (3) with swords; Q 4+, C4. Undead. They have Free Disengage and Terror. One of them is the Witch King of Angmar (Q3+, C4), and should also be given Leader, Magic User and Poison (to represent a Morgul Blade).


Nazgul begin anywhere within 1S of their entry edge. Rangers set up first, and begin at least 1M away from the Nazgul entry edge. The Ranger player places 18 ambush markers in or behind terrain features, of which nine are dummies (see p.18 of SoBaH for more details on how these behave). All must be more than 1M from the Nazgul entry edge.


The Nazgul must exit at least two of their number from the opposite table edge. The Rangers must stop them at all costs.

Special Rules (optional)

Cry of the Nazgul - once per game the chilling howl of the Nazgul can paralyse the enemy with fear. Each non-Evil model must make a Quality check on 3d6. If they fail, they are transfixed with fear and must use their first action of the subsequent turn to shake this condition off. This applies to all Good models in play at that time. Cry of the Nazgul costs one wraith one action, but may only be used once per game.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Carrion Crown: Welcome to Lepidstadt

The Beast - I didn't do it guvnor
Friday arrives and it is back to Pathfinder, this time to play Carrion Crown's second story arc, as Kingmaker is on hold until Ric returns from the North. 

Our party is somewhat changed from its initial foray into the haunted prison of Harrowstone: Victor Pruce, our alchemical compadre, has been called away on business in the far north, and the ranger Brevan has elected to seek employment elsewhere. Instead we have the half elf ranger Tarion with us as we leave Ravengro to carry the arcane books of our dead mentor, Professor Lorrimor, to his old university at Lepidstadt.

An uneventful overland trip brings us to Lepidstadt, where we hear that a Beast made of the parts of dead humans, which has been tormenting the locality, has been brought to justice and is awaiting trial in the town gaol. We meet with an old colleague of Lorrimor's, Montaign Crowl, and learn of a break in at the university library, in which a statuette of an ancient god called the Sea Sage has been stolen. The Beast was captured breaking into the library and overpowered by university guards, but someone else broke in under cover of the disturbance, and made off with the statuette.

We also visit with a judge, Emerreth Darramid, who tells us of the coming trial of the Beast, and of its foul crimes, and enlists our aid in investigating these dark events further. We meet with the barrister who will defend the creature in court, who seems beneath the task ahead of him, and also view the large wicker man, called the Punisher, being constructed in the town square, in which the Beast may well meet its fate. The creature, which has dwelt in the region for several years, but whose origin remains a mystery, is accused of several crimes in the vicinity.

The Punisher - old fashioned justice in Lepidstadt

We visit the Beast in prison and debate casting Zone of Truth on it, but in the interests of harmonious relations, settle instead for a civil discussion. The Beast denies all, of course, although it is obviously a base and horrid thing. Still, our Lawful inclinations are such that we must see to its defence, in case it really is innocent.  It also speaks of a little girl Elsa that was once its friend, and of its lost teddy bear. It hints at other members of its 'family', including brothers and sisters, and a father.

Apart from breaking into the university's library, the Beast is also blamed with the disappearance of 10 souls from the swamp village of Morass, amongst other crimes. While backward folk in the most part, they are not deserving of such a fate. Our party travels to Morass to speak with its headman, and meet here with suspicion. Again Veneticus ponders using Zone of Truth, but is talked out of this by Sir Erudil. Instead the party learns how the Beast was seen by the villagers in battle with a giant blood cayman and was wounded in the arm (although it bears no such wound now). Also, we learn of how a local poacher called Nan Cleven was enlisted to help track the Beast.

Morass - waterside property in a quaint rural location

The party scouts the village's old graveyard on an island in the swamp, and there finds some bodies have been removed from graves. There are also signs of a camp, and a broken vial that once contained a potion of dark vision. A box of surgeon's tools with a crow emblem is discovered in a coracle, and a colourful coat and a human face, skinned off its owner and identified as belonging to the late Nan Cleven.

Manticore - now where did that come from?
While investigating, the adventurers are set upon by a manticore, which attacks out of the blue. Veneticus casts Obscuring Mist, but now before he and Nicodemus are wounded by its spines. Tarion and Erudil shoot back, wounding the monster sorely, but it is only slain when Veneticus casts Command on it, and forces it to crash, with deadly effect.

The party returns to Lepidstadt, where Veneticus suggests burning the Punisher, but it is decided that such flagrant ignorance of the town's laws goes against the grain. Instead, they follow up the clue of the raven-marked surgical tools, leading them from their original creator to a middle man, to a factory on the edge of town owned by Grime and Vorkstag. This is a mysterious place indeed, with chimneys belching fumes, but no workers seen to be entering or exiting. The party has a brief conversation with one of the owners, before retiring to consider whether they have enough evidence to defend the Beast on the morrow, or whether they will need to break into the factory under cover of darkness, another less than lawful act.

Monday, 17 September 2012

The Return of Kingmaker

After what seems like an awfully long time, I got back to the table with the Friday night RPG team last week, and we made a determined effort to resurrect the dormant Pathfinder Kingmaker campaign after over a year's hiatus. At 13th level. Ouch.

Readers may recall that the Kingmaker campaign arc involves the party first conquering/pacifying a realm, then expanding its frontiers eastwards and southwards, then defending it against determined attacks from the west.

We left the action with the characters taking part in a tournament hosted by the neighbouring realm of Pitax, which has been seeking to undermine the rule of the PCs by foul means, and most recently had encouraged another of our neighbours to invade our fair realm - dealt with by ourselves in the usual bloody, 'shock and awe' fashion. The tournament, initially peaceful, had degenerated into a duel to the death between Artemisia, my Human Barbarian, and a barbarian chieftain, while Kelvin's Tengu Monk Wu Ya tackled a hill giant chieftain under similar circumstances.

It took us a while to get back into the swing of things, as Pathfinder cannot be described as a straightforwards game, particularly at 10th level or higher. At the end of a long and tiring week, it can be even more of a challenge to the old grey matter. I had been up since 5.30, so always knew it would be an interesting session.

The terms of Artemisia's duel meant that she could not receive any magical buffing, so the battle degenerated into her trading blows with her enemy, and hoping that she would do more criticals than he could in the process. Both barbarians were inflicting somewhere in the region of 60-90 hit points damage per round. Artemisia ended up on 49 hps, hoping that her opponent was on less than that, because it was almost certain she wouldn't survive another round. Luckily for her, she felled him with her first blow of the next round.

Cutting off her enemy's head, she presented it to the assembled horde of barbarians who had been preparing to invade our fair kingdom under the Pitax banners. A 20 on her Intimidate roll (helped in no small part by the magic of our druid leader Cassie) left the 6000 odd barbarians kneeling at her feet.

Wu Ya's battle was also a close run thing, but the terms of his fight with the hill giant allowed some magical intervention from Grameer (13th level Elf Mage) and Cassie (13th level Elf Druid). The monk even got in a coule of 100+ hits on the hill giant.

Needless to say, victory was ours, and we marched on the capital of Pitax, only to find that its ruler had fled by sea with a small coterie of anti-heroes whom we will no doubt face at some point in the future. The two duels burned up about 90% of the session, and I came away convinced that Pathfinder is not the system for simulating epic one-on-one battles. It feels more like an early Streetfighter iteration on the Atari.

Final observations

Pathfinder is damned hard to get back into after a long hiatus, especially at higher levels. I doubt our party was functioning at full effectiveness as a consequence. Hopefully we'll be able to get our ducks in order before we return to the campaign. The decision has been made to play this when Ric is in town from Manchester, so it looks like we'll be carrying on with the Carrion Crown campaign in the meantime. Luckily, this is at 4th level at the moment, so should not be quite as 'bucket of cold water in the face' as Kingmaker. We have one more book to get through in ther Kingmaker saga - I'm not entirely sure at what level that will leave us on by the end, but I certainly need to come up with a better way to keep track of the masses of data that I need to consult in play!

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Cold War Gone Hot - review

Cold War Gone Hot is an expansion for Force on Force, the wildly popular set of modern miniatures wargames rules. I played FoF recently, and you can find a more detailed Iraq batrep here. CWGH, however, is a slightly different beast from some of the other fare Osprey Publishing has put out for FoF, like Road to Baghdad and Enduring Freedom in that it describes a hypothetical conflict, namely the possibility of a NATO vs Warsaw Pact clash in the 1980s.

I'm going to get all nostalgic on you now, as I grew up during this period, and never expected to reach the age of 20, let alone 30, such seemed the imminent possibility of nuclear holocaust. These days we worry more about global warming and the acidification of the oceans, but back then it looked like a real possibility that we'd have Soviet SS20s raining down on our heads.

It seems silly now, I know. But it all seemed very real back then. I clearly remember visiting West Germany in 1980, where my uncle was teaching at a British army base near Celle, and it was quite evident that there was an enormous amount of military hardware in the vicinity, and that it was ready to rock at a moment's notice. An hour would not go by without jets streaking overhead or tanks rumbling around. It made a very definite impression on me. Heck, I was looking forward to getting back to the relative peace and security of the Middle East!

CWGH is an excellent little book, as it postulates three very different takes on the Cold War in Europe (those interested in the other conflicts of the period, for example in Vietnam or Africa will need to look at the other expansions Osprey has published on these).

The Cold War as we expected it

The first set of scenarios in the book stem from what the CIA would have had you believe the reality was like on the ground (and in the air for that matter). I clearly recall the hideous numbers the military was putting out in the early 1980s about how heavily outnumbered NATO was, that we only had 72 hours' worth of ammo, that the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) was going to be pushed into the sea inside a week - all nightmare stuff. I half expected to see Soviet paratroops arriving on our school playing fields...

Chieftain tank, BAOR
At it happens, the real strength of the Soviet military was being consistently over-rated (some would say deliberately so), but this first series of scenarios assumes the traditional military fantasy of a massive Soviet invasion of West Germany with all the toys, the one we were all told to expect, and which Tom Clancy chronicled in Red Storm Rising. FoF is flexible enough to manage tank and infantry battles as well as more interesting scenarios, like a confrontation between the East German army and West Berlin cops, or a raid by left wing German terrorists on a US army base. These look like very interesting scenarios. Although many of them feature US units as the default, it would be very easy to swap in the NATO units of your choice - drop the M1 Abrams and bring in Chieftains, for example.

The Cold War in reality

The second series of scenarios tackles the reality of Warsaw Pact preparedness. As in the West, Soviet military planners were assuming that NATO would attack first, not the other way round. Yes, there were exponents of the pre-emptive invasion, but many generals clearly thought NATO was intended as an aggressive instrument. These battles assume a less competent and poorly equipped Warsaw Pact, with many Soviet allies not keen on putting up a fight for their masters in Moscow.

This is an interesting series of scenarios, as most of them deal with NATO operations on the offensive, for example in Poland, where the 82nd airborne division seeks to seize a radio station. There's also an excellent scenario with Russian sailors raiding an American coastal town for spare parts, to help them fix their broken down submarine!

Hollywood's War

My favourite part of the book is Hollywood's vision of the Cold War. It includes several scenarios that are clearly inspired by films that appeared during the 1980s. One has American resistance fighters raiding a Soviet-held Midwestern town for supplies (Red Dawn), another features a special forces attack on an Arctic research station (Ice Station Zebra), while my favourite is an aerial attack on Leningrad, mentioned in passing in the film Escape From New York ("You flew the Gullfire over Leningrad. You know how to get in quiet. You're all I got.")

"When I get back, I'm going to kill you."
There's also the obligatory information on various formations for both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, as well as stats for armoured vehicles. Again, as with most FoF scenario packs, the book concentrates on small unit battles, while the intervention of air power, which can be a game breaker in a kinetic battle of this kind, is less important. A couple of Apaches or an A10 into the mix can make a BIG difference at this level.

The other aspect of CWGH which inspires is its hypothetical nature. I know some war gamers resist playing FoF because they don't like the idea of gaming current conflicts like Iraq or Afghanistan, but in this case we have a hypothetical conflict - much of the technology available on today's battlefield was simply not readily available 25 years ago. No UAVs here, soldier. Plus, many of the scenarios are less conventional battles and more like spec ops missions. If I had the time, I'd take a couple of these on the road and demo them at cons, because I feel there is much to say for this system, and perhaps the period it covers is putting some people off. But put someone in the cockpit of a Gullfire over Leningrad in 1987, and they may see things differently.

Overall, I like this product. It is one of the best publications to date for FoF and deals with a period of history I lived through and am much relieved is now over!