Thursday, 29 November 2012

Whatever happened to Golden Heroes?

An early cover of WD!
Back in the early days, when I was still at school and playing Dungeons and Dragons, I picked up a copy of White Dwarf at the newsagent. Big mistake. It opened up a whole world of RPG opportunity for me. While I was most interested in anything to do with D and D (most of it was AD and D, so still a bit intimidating for me at 15), it was the Dwarf's articles on Call of Cthulhu that first led me to buy that game, a game that would dominate much of my RPGing in the 1990s.

Interestingly, if you look back at the White Dwarfs published in the 1980s, particularly when I was a regular reader (from about #65 to #100), there were very few games covered, simply because there weren't that many in print. To begin with, it seems to be AD and D, Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest and Traveller. Games Workshop then acquired the license to a number of other RPGs and republished them. These games also received coverage, including Stormbringer and Paranoia. There was cursory writing for the likes of Bushido, Pendragon and Rolemaster. GW published a Judge Dredd RPG off its own bat to seemingly mixed success in about 1986.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay debuted in, I think, 1987, and subsequently this continued to get regular articles until elbowed out by all the wargaming. This was a GW in-house system, mind you, so not surprising really. And then there was MERP, or Middle Earth Role Playing for those born after the Berlin Wall came down who have no idea what I'm talking about, which seemed to be more popular than Rolemaster.

Angus McBride helped to define MERP
I stopped subscribing to the Dwarf round about 1988. I didn't have the money or the space to play miniatures games (I've only really begun collecting miniatures since I came to Brighton), and I also had my A-levels to worry about. Of all the RPGs mentioned above, however, only MERP is not back in print (and it could be argued that AD and D never went out of print). Some have evolved more than others - today's WFRP from Fantasy Flight is very different from Rick Priestley's creation of 1987. MERP, being a licensed property, is a goner, although here you could argue that The One Ring from Cubicle 7 is a worthy successor.

But, although we have seen WFRP earn thousands of fans around the world, and it is still played by my gaming group today (albeit in the Black Library edition), there is one game missing here, and that's Golden Heroes.

GH was GW's superhero RPG and it DID get plenty of space in White Dwarf, around the 60s and 70s in terms of issue chronology. It was first published in 1982 on an amateur basis, and then republished by GW in 1984. A number of supplements also came out. Although I never played it myself, I hear veteran gamers liked it because of its UK-centric approach and the random chargen process. It fell off the map in about 1986 as GW began focusing on Judge Dredd and other RPG properties.

There seems to be a move at the moment to resurrect it. GW, however, has issued a cease and desist order on the first effort, by Simon Burley, but another edition, called Codename: Spandex has emerged with many of the copyright protected elements stripped off, and is being made freely available on the Internet. I'm curious about GH as I never got around to playing it as a schoolboy, but CS aspires to deliver much of the mechanical system of the game without using the art or adventures published by GW. I'll be back with more once I've had a chance to read this in more depth.

Looking back at the period 1985-90, I was playing Dungeons and Dragons fairly solidly. I never really got into RQ or Traveller, never played MERP before it died a death. I've since had the chance to play or GM many of the systems that GW published during my school years, but some games have continued to elude me: I've never played Traveller or Bushido for example. And Golden Heroes has been way off the radar, partly because it never really returned to print. While I realise that superhero gaming is not for everyone, I remain curious about GH, if only for nostalgia's sake. I'm also a fan of random character generation systems, simply because they're so old school and can end up producing more entertaining characters than today's optimised combat monsters.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Mike Mignola's Baltimore

I first got into Baltimore partly through the excellent Mike Mignola covers, and partly because of the free comic provided on Free Comic Book Day 2011, which was one of the first strips I downloaded onto my iPad using the Dark Horse comics app. Mike Mignola also wrote that stand alone episode, entitled A Passing Stranger, which really set the scene for Lord Baltimore's future exploits.

In A Passing Stranger we learn very little about Baltimore himself, but it does give you an idea of the kind of story you can expect with this superb series. The tale begins in 1916, where a plague of undead has swept across Europe and brought hostilities to an end. The armies of the great powers have dissolved, and bands of soldiers are wandering across the devastated continent. One such is Baltimore, a lone British army officer on the trail of a vampire. In A Passing Stranger we meet him for the first time, in Tulingart, Germany. Here we get a measure of the plight Europe is facing as well as the Central European background against which this bloody epic is enacted.

For me much of the appeal of Baltimore is the art. I've recently been heard to criticise the Conan graphic novel Free Companions for its so-so art, which I felt really detracted from the story and had me in two minds about continuing to follow this series. You can still tell a good story if your art is less than sumptuous - check out From Hell or Queen & Country to see what I mean - but somehow the art in the recent Conan stories has been...struggling...particularly with such a rich and colourful setting at Robert E. Howard's Hyboria.

Baltimore, on the other hand, is in the capable hands of Ben Stenbeck, who seems to have taken a lot of his inspiration from Mignola's work on Hellboy. I could be wrong here, but the shadowy setting he evokes with his work does justice to the gloomy plot and reminds me a little of some of Hellboy's early missions in Europe - The Wolves of St August, for example.

Baltimore as a character has something of the Clint Eastwood about him, particularly the Man With No Name. A combat veteran of the trenches, a British aristocrat, an officer with his own code of honour, but also a man equipped to fight the undead and ready to take on enormous odds to reach his goal. He is very handy in a fight, and always being underestimated by the opposition, and I kinda like that. He is generally a solo warrior (although in the more recent The Curse Bells, he is teamed up with an American journalist), a mysterious wanderer with no attachments and few sympathies for the ordinary mortals he comes across in his travels.

Mignola certainly encourages this with the script. Early in the first series, The Plague Ships, he is ambushed by a vampire in a French sea port during a thunderstorm:

Max (vampire): "Max doesn't hide. Max doesn't run! You don't hunt us...we hunt you!"

BAMM! [Max takes a .45 bullet between the eyes]

Baltimore: "Max should've run."

So far I've read the first series, The Plague Ships, and now I'm onto the second, which is similarly excellent. I'm also mulling over whether the setting can sustain a Savage Worlds RPG campaign. Let's hope Mignola and Stenbeck can keep this up! Full marks guys.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Carrion Crown vs Kingmaker: a comparison

So we played Pathfinder again last night, and it was a late one, but somehow quite satisfactory. We are still on the second story arc of the Carrion Crown campaign, which seems to be inspired by Frankstein, with plenty of constructs and mobs of enraged peasants to deal with. But it also got me thinking about how Carrion Crown compares with the Kingmaker campaign, which our group played back in 2010-11 and has returned to sporadically.

I have to say that I enjoy Carrion Crown more than Kingmaker. The latter campaign was a domain building game, where the party was tasked with pacifying and settling an area of wilderness. This required plenty of exploration and the defeat of various factions within the assigned zone of conquest, as well as defending our domain against external threats. In the middle of all this, there was plenty of book keeping which was ably managed by Manoj, as we expanded our core settlement of Staghelm, and founded others around the realm. It felt a bit like the Romans arriving in Britain, defeating the local tribes of Celts, and then building new towns around their new province.

In the early stages, Kingmaker does feel like an old school Dungeons and Dragons hex bash, which is quite fun. Once we passed 8th level it changed into something different, and at around this point it began to feel as if the party of PCs was becoming overpowered. I was ruminating last night - having difficulty getting to sleep after playing Pathfinder - about whether this was the fault of Pathfinder itself, or the fault of the writers of the Kingmaker campaign. By 13th level we seem to have reached the point where we won't even play it when Ric, our absent player, is in town on a visit. But is this an issue of Pathfinder, or a failure of Kingmaker, or because PCs started Kingmaker with their attributes set too high? Does Pathfinder begin to break down once your characters pass 10-11th level?

Last night, our Carrion Crown campaign experienced a very challenging encounter with an erinyes, which summoned a trio of bearded devils to support it. Our point man, the half elven ranger/rogue Tarion, triggered a summoning trap while on a rope bridge over a 200 foot waterfall. It led to an intense battle which I was not sure we would even win. This followed an encounter with trolls last week which also proved so draining for the party that we were forced to rest overnight. The campaign seems capable of generating tough and tactically interesting encounters for the adventurers to deal with, which at 6th level seem to be capable of taxing them to the hilt.

This is not to say Kingmaker did not also have some challenging encounters - my barbarian character Artemisia was almost killed in a battle with trolls (again!) in the second story arc of Kingmaker. But in many cases, the Kingmaker writers seem to have simply thrown bigger and bigger solo monsters our way, forgetting that a large, mid-level party with plenty of hangers on (charmed monsters, animal companions, followers, etc) can be launching literally dozens of attacks at them, to the extent that even a fearsome critter like a hydra would only last a few rounds of combat.

Carrion Crown, by contrast, uses a combination of difficult terrain and multiple creatures to make life harder for the characters. The presence of a cleric in this campaign has meant we are able to restore PCs to full health relatively quickly, so that even a damaging encounter like last night's can still leave us standing on our feet at full hit points within a matter of minutes of the battle finishing. But the challenges are hard. The same can be said for the first story arc, which featured ghosts as its primary theme.

However, the PCs are approaching 7th level. Tarion will, I believe, have an animal companion and our necromancer Nicodemus could well have an NPC retainer following us around. Plus monster summoning spells are beginning to come into their own - my PC Veneticus summoned a pack of air elementals to our aid last night which effectively stopped one of the bearded devils from being an offensive threat, forcing him to abandon his evil glaive and fight with claws against the wind entities. It looks as if summoned creatures will be playing a bigger role for us in the future. We will have to see how the next story arc for Carrion Crown holds up for us once we get up to 9th or 10th level. It should prove interesting.

I should end by also saying that Carrion Crown has a more compelling plot than Kingmaker. Many encounters happen because of that plot; there is a logical sequence of events; plus there is increasing evidence of an overarching scheme by the necromancers of the Whispering Way. Clues do play a role in piecing together a bigger puzzle, which is great, but the game does not become too bogged down with investigation and opaque mystery. It gets the balance right.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

My ideal GMing recipe

A busy week this week, so I'll try to keep this short. I've been trying to work out what sort of game I like running as a GM these days, and I'm starting to get a clearer idea of the sort of parameters I enjoy when I'm on that side of the screen. This does not stretch to my preferences as a player in an RPG, where the quality of the group of people assembled and the general bonhomie it generates is just as important as the rules used.

For some time now I've been conscious that I've not the stamina to run a campaign, week in, week out. I like running shorter games which stretch to about three sessions maximum and reach some form of definite conclusion. One of the bonuses of this is that player characters can convincingly die in the course of the adventure, particularly in the last session, and nobody will be as put out as they might be if their character bought the farm after six months of play. Because of this, the chargen process also needs to be relatively swift. One of the reasons I like Gumshoe, for example, is that it requires the players to sit down together and create the party at the outset, and to do this in about 30-40 minutes. Call of Cthulhu is also very easy - when we generated our characters for a recent campaign, I was amazed at how quick it was compared with, say, Pathfinder. I'd forgotten. But then CoC investigators suffer a higher attrition rate than their Pathfinder counterparts.

The days of my running lengthy campaigns, like the old Fungi From Yuggoth Cthulhu campaign, are, I feel, over. I simply have not got the time - or the mental stamina - for it.

Secondly, the system needs to be relatively simple. By that, I mean it should not take that long to teach a complete novice how to play it. If this can't be achieved in less than 10 minutes, it is probably too complex. People simply don't have the attention spans for highly complex games, if they are only going to be playing for two or three sessions. Heck, people don't seem to have the attention spans full stop.

Thirdly, there must be some form of mechanics governing a character's personality. Taking Call of Cthulhu again as an example, the Sanity mechanic in this game helps to measure a character's descent into madness. It was one of the first RPGs to actually move away from purely combat-related stats and seek to impose a form of game mechanic on personality, in this case mental stability. King Arthur Pendragon was another example, with its passions rules, and Vampire most famously, with its measure of a character's remaining humanity once they became undead.

Fourth, the setting or environment must be familiar to the players. If they spend too long having to ask questions about the setting, or make false assumptions based on lack of knowledge, then that milieu is simply unsuitable for the task at hand. One of the reasons - again - Call of Cthulhu has been so successful, is that it is easy to drop a newbie into the environment, and they are almost completely familiar with the world they are adventuring in. The GM/Keeper does not need to do much in the way of setting explanation. It helps to have some knowledge of the 1920s, if the game is taking place in the 1920s, but that's about it. I am ruminating about a Trail of Cthulhu game in Shanghai in the 1930s, which would take investigators slightly further out of their comfort zone, but if they are non-Chinese characters, this lack of familiarity with Asia would only serve to reinforce their plight.

Finally, I like giving the PCs their own agendas. I loved Paranoia and Cold City because of this: PCs have their own factional and personal agendas which help to dictate their actions. Cold City has it all really: a contemporary setting, espionage, hidden agendas, horror and even some dungeon bashing on occasion. As a campaign setting, it stands as an appropriate heir to Call of Cthulhu. Mechanically, it still needs some work/adaptation, to suit my style of play.

A level of intra-party conflict/suspicion is ideal for the shorter game. I'm not sure it works as well over the longer term, although I was once playing in a Legend of the Five Rings game where this was made to work perfectly, and the multi-clan nature of a typical Lot5R party just helps to add fuel to this fire of intrigue and double dealing (particularly if the Scorpion clan is represented).

That's it in a nutshell really. Next time I will be posting on Hot War, why I like it as a successor to Cold City, and what I think of the changes to the core Cold City mechanics. Do they represent enough of an improvement?

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Book of the month: The Forgotten Soldier

Now and then you stumble upon a book which really just blows you away with its sheer intensity, and The Forgotten Soldier is one of these. It was written by Guy Sajer, a young man of mixed Franco-German parentage who volunteered to serve as an infantryman with the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front in WW2. It is intriguing because it is his account of what it felt like to be on the ground as part of Army Group Centre during some of the biggest and bloodiest land battles of WW2.

I have not yet finished the book, and have resisted doing further research on Sajer himself, because I don't want to find out what happens to him in 1944-45 (the last section of the book). He obviously survives, as he mentions returning to live in France after the war (listening quietly to the boasts of French 'veterans' in a cafe), but the intensity of his exposition and the drama of the events he relates is so gripping that the reader literally can't put it down, which does not often happen with memoirs of this kind (although there are some good examples out there - I've raved about Robert Mason's Chickenhawk before). This has much to do with Sajer's ability as a writer, but also because of the emotional experience comes through in a way that it doesn't in some other memoirs, which can seem detached when the author is recalling events separated from them by decades.

Increasingly, WW2 accounts by German soldiers are finding their way into English, but up until recently the war in the east was not as well covered in this language, when it comes down to the accounts of individual combatants. Even Sajer occasionally gets vague about events, individuals and units that could be held to account for war crimes, as there is obviously a fear of guilt by association - e.g. when he is on a train which is attacked by Soviet partisans and takes part in a brutal follow-up operation.

It also seems to have quickly become generally accepted by both sides that prisoners only be taken when there were orders to do so. Some German units seem to have simply disarmed their prisoners and turned them loose, which given the weather conditions was probably tantamount to shooting them anyway. Others lacked the food and resources to feed prisoners, so simply shot anyone surrendering. It all contributed to a do-or-die attitude on both sides: the epic last stand of 7000 German troops caught on the wrong side of the river Dnieper during the retreat to Kiev is related in bloody detail, the last sad chapter in a Dunkirk-like evacuation operation of more than 150,000 troops across the river, under daily attack from enemy planes.

Sajer does a great job of remembering how he felt at the age of 16 when he first enlisted, and why he did it (as a French national he did not get drafted). He relates, for example, his hope - certainty even - that the French would join the fight on the Eastern Front, and his disappointment when this did not occur. It is interesting how his idealism about the mission of the Third Reich is gradually beaten out of him in the course of events, as he begins to realise the war in Russia in unwinnable. Soldiers on the ground obviously hoped that Hitler would at some point come to terms with Stalin, or that the Soviet Union would accept a frontier on the Dnieper river. There was an assumption that a higher degree of rationality prevailed in Berlin than was actually the case.

German troops in the Soviet Union, circa 1943
Information and communications were also very poor: the German high command obviously realised that morale could quickly become a problem, and managed information dissemination very carefully. Many soldiers did not realise that the Sixth Army in Stalingrad had become cut off until it was close to collapse. The shock of Stalingrad's fall in 1943 was enormous, as it transformed the entire character of the war for the Germans, and sowed the first doubt in the minds of ordinary soldiers that the USSR could be beaten.

Without radios and limited accurate maps (generally only officers had these), soldiers were often left to blunder around in the dark. Sajer and his colleagues were constantly getting lost before, during and after battles, and bumping into other units and tanks that were also lost. The Russians had similar problems.

The conditions of fighting in the east were some of the worst faced by any combat soldiers in WW2, particularly in the winter months. Casualties from cold and disease were substantial, and half the battle for Sajer was a struggle against the elements and disease, particularly in his case, dysentery. Soldiers were badly fed, often badly led, and were expected to stand and die in the face of enormous firepower from the Russian side. Sajer is caught in a number of heavy bombardments, including from katushya rocket batteries, and this more than anything else seems to have come close to unhinging him. When morale started to ebb, it seems to have drained out of the army en masse. Belief in the mission simply evaporated, and the struggle became more on of survival than anything else.

The young Guy Sajer
There are also moments of humour, and here Sajer's dry sense of wit comes across from what I assume was originally French (as German was his second language). There were funny moments amidst all the tragedy. One of my favourites is when the survivors of a random bombardment of a front line village - both Russian and German - try to figure out who should be surrendering to who, or when a Soviet T34 tank is chased off a battlefield by a lone German half track with no AT weapons to speak of. Sajer's sense of irony also comes through in his relations with the German non-coms (whom he hates) and the officers (who seem to be generally worshiped).

This has to stand as one of the classic WW2 memoirs, and anyone interested in the war on the Eastern Front from the perspective of the man on the ground should read it. Frankly, I think it ought to be compulsory reading at school, far superior to much of the tosh I had to read, and an important lesson to the iPhone generation, who have only GCSE exams to face at 16, not Russian tanks.