Friday, 31 May 2013

Naval Thunder: Battleship Row (first impressions)

I've not done an awful lot of WW2 naval wargaming, and all of it has been using Mongoose's Victory At Sea to date. I stopped because there was something about VaS that was not quite 'right'. The last game I played was with the Hove Area Wargames Society, where we tried to use it to game a convoy scenario. After that we abandoned it.

I've been keeping an eye open for a successor system and have been reading General Quarters, but more recently downloaded a copy of Naval Thunder - Battleship Row (NTBR) from Wargames Vault. I've not had a chance to play it yet, so this really should be taken as purely first impressions on my part although I will be aiming to have a walkthrough of the Komandorski Islands scenario to familiarise myself with the system.

NTBR is designed for any scale of ships. It covers only the Japanese and US fleets in the Pacific. You will need its expansion, Bitter Rivals, if you want to game the conflict in the North Atlantic / Mediterranean, or indeed bring the Royal Navy into the Asian theatre of operations. The files include a PDF of what looks like all the major and most of the minor ship classes of both the USN and IJN in the Pacific. You will need to print out the data cards for all the ships in a scenario if you wish to play it - these are essential reference points during a game, particularly in terms of tracking firepower / torpedoes as well as damage to vessels.

I've been reading the rules on the train, and my first impressions can be summarised as follows:

Movement is relatively simple. It probably becomes more complex as ships start taking damage. Where granularity occurs in the game, it comes in the damage effects. You don't just knock damage points off ships - you also do a fair amount of detailed damage in the form of fires, listing, etc. I expect that this applies more to bigger vessels which can still operate after multiple hits - i.e. light cruisers and up - while destroyers will take one or two hits in this game and go down. Hence, most of the markers you might use in this game relate to damage effects.

Air and submarine combat is heavily abstracted. You don't even require submarine or aircraft miniatures, which is great. I felt the use of submarines in VaS simply didn't work and felt very unrealistic. Historically, there were few instances of slow-moving WW2 subs playing a role during fleet actions. NTBR abstracts submarines to attack rolls made before and after battles (the latter of more significance in campaigns). The silent service is very much on the sidelines in this game, which really focuses heavily on the capital ships.

Despite their increasing importance in WW2, aircraft are also abstracted. Flights of planes are simulated with dice pools used to attack other ships. There is no need to use aircraft miniatures. I like this. In addition, carriers, while being part of a fleet list, don't even necessarily need to be on the table. They can function like an off-table battery of artillery in a land battle, but it looks as if they will not be able to use their planes as effectively this way. We'll see how this works in practice.

There are quite a few modifiers involved in gunnery combat. I'm cautious about this, as I find too many modifiers can bog a game down. There are about a dozen + / - factors to take into consideration with gunnery in the basic game. On the upside, torpedoes are fairly straightforwards and there is an interesting mechanic that lets the player digest a whole spread or torpedoes into a couple of dice rolls.

Commanders can lose their bottle. I have found that in 20th century naval wargames, including many hours spent playing 2nd Fleet with my brother in the early 1990s, ship commanders will battle on religiously until they go down. Obviously, in a NATO scenario like that of 2nd Fleet, there is not much time that elapses between first radar contact and an ASM blowing a huge hole in the side of your vessel (e.g. HMS Sheffield in 1982), but what of WW2? In the age of sail, captains could and did surrender, striking their colours, and we've seen this numerous times when playing the likes of Fire As She Bears or Trafalgar. NTBR does include provision for a captain to lose his bottle and seek to save his ship. There is less likelihood of this if he is in line and / or in command range of his flagship. But there is still scope for a commander to break off an action. Think here of Hans Langsdorff breaking off the action at the River Plate and seeking refuge in a neutral port. It seems more realistic somehow for a captain to decide to try to save his ship rather than go down fighting, although I accept this happened a lot.

The above are really just my first impressions, and I'll have a better grasp of the game once I get some of my ships out on the table (or the floor) and start rolling some dice.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

A cracking Pathfinder session!

A major battle was fought in a strange temple...
Last night we probably had one of our best sessions of the current Pathfinder campaign, Carrion Crown, which we're playing through, and here's why. There were two combat encounters plus a bit of role playing. Nothing special there, you may think. Our characters are on the trail of two mysterious riders who are seeking to trade occult items for the ingredients of a powerful spell, designed to bring back a terrible lich lord. We've stumbled into a seaside village that also seems to be the centre of worship of a Dagon cult. We've already been through ghosts, constructs, werewolves, evil priests and all manner of undead to get here. Now it looks like we've stumbled on an evil seaside cult.

What made the game session good is that we faced one of the more challenging combat encounters of the campaign so far and this was largely down to innovation by Ben, the GM, as he seeks to counter the growing power of a 9th level party of characters. Rather than simply buffing the bad guys, he chose to unleash a number of different encounters at the party simultaneously. We reaped the benefit of masses of XP when we won, but the battles have tested us more severely than the previous ones.

Two of the problems we've been encountering with Pathfinder have been as follows:

  1. Once a party gets past 9th level, they become much harder to cope with. Simply put, the power at the disposal of a 10th level party makes them sufficiently unique that unforeseen solutions can be found to get around many of the challenges posed by the published scenarios from Paizo. No adventure can be written to cope with the powers every party has at its fingertips. Playing a 9th level cleric with access to 5th level spells, I can see the step up in the power level from 8th to 9th level is already significant.
  2. The writers of Pathfinder adventures that we have played to date have tended to simply increase the threat levels by pitching bigger monsters at the party. This does not work when a party is able to focus all its attacks on one target - for every attack a big critter like a hydra or monstrous troll can make, a high powered party is making dozens. There can only be one outcome in these situations.
Our second battle last night featured an initial encounter with evil clerics which was successively reinforced by other clerics, a chuul and an evil priest all entering the battle. This caused some real problems for our party, including having a command spell and an ice storm laid on us. Silence spells also made things more difficult and we needed to start thinking very tactically. But this did feel realistic - the clerics in the evil temple are not going to sit twiddling their thumbs while there is obviously a fight of some kind going on next door, even with silence spells in use on parts of the battlefield; it is entirely natural for them to tool up and come to investigate.

Such an approach is not a conventional one for a dungeon bash - back in the day, when I regularly ran Basic / Red box games, we used to take a room-by-room approach. Many encounters dutifully stayed put, waiting for the adventurers to turn up and slaughter them. Obviously, there are some encounters that will always do this, preferring to lie in wait, but intelligent monsters / NPCs will regard the dungeon as a whole, and the concentration of power against intruders is natural. Where I have used this more reactive approach as a GM, for example in the Keep on the Borderlands, which had detailed notes on how each tribe of monsters would react to intruders, it has even managed to drive parties out of dungeons. It forces players to think more carefully, rather than kicking the door down and marching in.
Chuul - one of last night's encounters.

There is something of 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons here, dare I say it. That game relies on fewer encounters, but makes them more complex and extended in nature, effectively turning the game into a chain of skirmish battles connected by a common narrative theme. The adventures are resolved in fewer encounters, which makes some sense, as we don't have the time these days for massive, sprawling, clear 'em out adventures. Playing Pathfinder, we usually only have time for 2-3 combat encounters per session. Treating every room in a dungeon in isolation would make each adventure much longer as the party scoured dungeons / places of interest in search of clues / adventure goals.

So, a welcome change of pace, with a bigger combat encounter which saw enemies coming at the party from different directions, and in sufficient numbers to protect key spell casters. Despite being 9th level and heavily tooled up, our party was tested. There was no single target we could focus on until right near the end, where a cloudkill spell forced their evil priest and leader into attacking our tank of a paladin, to his immediate demise.