Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Greeks, trilobites and giant mechanical crab cities

Savage Worlds is one of those game which you can pretty much co-opt to run any genre you like. I guess that's why it is in my top five RPGs, those games I'd take with me to a desert island.

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night with hay fever, as the weather has been dry but windy here in Sussex, and I guess there must have been a wind blowing from inland, bringing with it lots of lovely pollen. So I took an anti-hystamin pill at about 4.30 in an effort to go back to sleep. The only problem with these are that, firstly, you then find it very hard to get going in the morning, and secondly, you can have some fairly bizarre dreams.

Mind you, the latter can be quite useful as a source of inspiration for fiction and / or game settings.

In this case, I had an idea for a short campaign which really sounds something Studio Ghibli might have dreamed up. It could have been because I read that there is a Studio Ghibli retrospective being screened in London next weekend, or because I'm currently reading the Gianni Riotta's Prince of the Clouds, which is constantly reminding me of Porco Rosso.

Anyway, the idea for the campaign goes like this. The world has been drowned under water. There are a few mountain peaks left as islands, but most of them are inhospitable. Some pockets of humans have been saved by technology / magic, and continue to live on in underwater communities, although unable to travel far without oxygen.

The Fallen Realms, once might city states, lie ruined under the waves.

The players are all members of the crew of an enormous, mechanical crab, also powered by magic or some kind of advanced technology. This thing is the size of a very large ship, say 700-800 metres in diameter, and about 100-150 metres draft. The crab is captained by the Last Emperor, a mysterious, Nemo-esque figure who is scouring the sea bed for the artefact which, they say, can once again freeze the poles and bring the sea level down again.

As with Star Trek, the campaign is one of traveling from place to place, seeking clues to the artefact in question. The crew of the Karkinos, the mighty steam-powered iron leviathan, are primarily concerned with making sue the thing keeps moving and they have enough to eat and drink. Some of them are slaves and some are citizens of the Fallen Realms. The Karkinos carries somewhere in the region of 150 crew, occasionally replenished with captives / new recruits. It also has the capacity to crawl up onto those small atolls that remain above water.

The explorers have access to magic, arcane diving suits and small submersibles that look like iron trilobites, that crawl along the surface or can swim for short distances, carrying about 10-15 people (remember the Eagle transporters in Space 1999?) Heck, I might even make them organic, actual critters that cling to the bottom of the Karkinos, and carry water-tight cabins on their backs.

The culture is probably going to be Hellenistic in flavour, with Greek names and gods, and possibly Greek-style armour and equipment / clothing. I'm still pondering that. Early days, but given I'm about to take three weeks off in the Adriatic, I may find further inspiration there.

The Last Emperor - Captain Nemo in sandals?

Friday, 19 July 2013

Space 1889 is coming back!

Frank Chadwick announced on his blog yesterday that a new edition of Space 1889 is in the works. This will be an English translation of the new German edition which came out last year from Clockwork Publishing. It is probably more than a little ironic that this announcement is made at the same time as the Curiosity Space Rover team postulate that Mars did once have an atmosphere.

I was going to post this week about a certain degree of disillusionment about Kickstarter, especially as I've yet to receive my hard copy of Deadlands Noir, which was the very first Kickstarter I backed (although I understand copies are now in the mail). Now, of course, the new Space 1889 is going to be on Kickstarter. Do I back it?

I am probably being a little unfair, as some of the other projects I have supported have been turned around relatively quickly, even the Battle of the Bulge game on the iPad from Shenandoah Studios. I'm still waiting for the new Shadowrun online game to debut, but I fully understand that launching an MMO is a lot more complex than an RPG. But where is Ken Hite's Hill Folk, eh?

Still, I find myself severely tempted by the new Space 1889 rules, even though they will not use the same rules system as the original, but instead the Ubiquity engine from Hollow Earth Expedition. I also have the Savage Worlds version of the setting, Red Sands, which I've hardly looked at. Will I get time to play this, I ask myself? There is interest in playing the game from my son, as he particularly enjoyed Philip Reeve's Larklight series of books, and can see the similarities in the settings, so it could be an easy sell domestically.

I keep getting the itch for steampunk gaming. I've got a fleet of Russian ships for Dystopian Wars on the painting table (I've been distracted from these by my son's demand that we get our Bretonnian and Lizardmen armies completed). We played a single game of Deadlands in January. But with the imminent arrival of an army of Lizardmen for Warhammer (my son and his friends are currently painting the Saurus Cold One riders), I'm speculating about a Venusian jungle campaign using my hordes of Skinks, my Zulu War British, and a copy of the Soldiers' Companion written by Frank Chadwick himself, which can be used for both straight colonial battles and steampunk actions. Cold Ones charging a British square in the jungle? It could work...

I'm going to have to put my thinking cap on for this one, but the autumn might well see the redcoats struggling through the swamps of Venus. In the meantime, I may be tempted into backing the English version of the new Space 1889, especially as the game is to all intents and purposes there, it just needs translation.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Forgotten Battles of the Zulu War

Those interested in gaming the battles of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 could do worse than pick up a copy of Forgotten Battles of the Zulu War by Adrian Greaves. He has written a number of books on the conflict, including volumes devoted specifically to Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana. Forgotten Battles covers the other battles of the campaign.

Greaves argues in his foreword that Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana tend to overshadow the other engagements, partly due to their cinematic exposure. The war falls into three phases: the first invasion, which was abandoned once the centre column under Lord Chelmsford was decimated at Isandlwana; the period during which the British prepared for a second campaign, and when they still managed a couple of other disasters (e.g. the action at Ntombi Drift), and then the final invasion which culminated in the epic battle at Ulundi.

Greaves in his introduction says that part of his objective with this book is raise awareness of those battles which, unlike Rorke's Drift or Isandlwana, have not been the topic of films:

 "It is not only within the UK that the memories of these past battles are becoming lost in time; the situation has long been replicated in South Africa, where these battles were actually fought. Indeed, many registered guides in South Africa, who make their living guiding parties to the Zulu War battlefields, focus their attention specifically onto Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana."

Forgotten Battles is a great 'dipping in' book, ideal for the odd quiet moment that might present itself. The chapters on each battle are short enough to read in one sitting. It does NOT, however,cover Rorke's Drift or Isandlwana, skipping from Sihayo's Kraal and First Hlobane to Inyezane. In this, it is not a complete account, but it does not set out to be.

The book also has some excellent maps of each battle at the beginning, superimposed onto maps of the contemporary area, so that a visitor can use current landmarks to help to orientate themselves. It also draws heavily on primary source material, for example including many of the written orders from British commanders to help clarify why confusion sometimes occurred - fatally at Hlobane Mountain and Isandlwana. Each chapter also includes a short description of how to get to the site, but it seems many of these battlefields are unmarked and hard to access, or require an experienced guide who knows their way around.

In terms of the primary source material, there is a quite brilliant letter from Major William Knox-Leet written after Hlobane Mountain to a high ranking officer friend in England in an effort to have himself awarded the VC. It is really quite breathtaking in its wheedling and grovelling tone. The reproduction of these documents really help to bring the whole war to life and it is really a pity that there is not more from the Zulu side.

It should also be mentioned that there is quite a lot of other material here, including a list of all the units that took part, and the full text of Lord Chelmsford's battle memo to his commanders on how they should tackle the Zulus.

If you're interested in writing your own Zulu War scenarios, this book is an excellent starting point!

Friday, 12 July 2013

Ruminations on Pathfinder power curve

"I stakes 'em."
Our current Pathfinder campaign - Carrion Crown - has now reached 12th level and we're in the process of trying to complete it before the summer break, although this now looks unlikely. Regular readers of this blog may recall that we abandoned our previous Pathfinder campaign, Kingmaker, when we got to 13th level, partly because the PCs had simply become too powerful for the opposition. Our GM Ben was doubling the size of encounters and maximising the number of hit points for the critters we faced and we were still trashing them in record time.

We have not had the same problems in Carrion Crown, although with 12th level it is fair to say we are becoming beefy enough to take on a room full of vampires and annihilate them in less than 18 seconds of game time. Eat your heart out Buffy.

The issue is one of power curve, and it is something I've debated before on this blog. At 1st-3rd level, the power level and tool set available to a typical Pathfinder party is fairly restricted. Hence, a commercial adventure can be written in such a way as to be fairly certain that unusual short cuts and / or solutions will not occur. At higher levels, adventure writers have to anticipate a vast range of complexity on the part of a party. The battery of spells and magic items and various power ups available to a 12th level party is simply enormous (as the actress said to the vicar).
"I chops 'em."

On top of this, adventurers can also call on a battery of allies with which to flesh out a party. Take ours, for example. Apart from four main PCs - a Dragon Disciple, a Shadow Dancer, a Cleric and a Necromancer, we can now also call on:
  • a Gunslinger (the servant of the Necromancer, acquired via a Leadership feat)
  • another Cleric (again, acquired by a Leadership feat on the part of the Dragon Disciple)
  • a Golem (purchased, I think, by the Necromancer)
  • an intelligent magic mace (an artifact) which commands a battery of additional spells
This has already taken our party to seven regular characters, and the Necromancer, who is also a wealthy aristocrat, can call on minor servants for mundane duties, and transports the party around Ustalav in two sumptuous coaches. With his arrival at 12th level, my cleric is now also considering the Planar Ally spell, which, while expensive, can also bring the aid of 12 HDs of Outsiders if required.

Beyond this, of course, we have all the additional magic items we have been able to purchase. My cleric is wearing over 130,000 gps worth of kit. That's probably enough to buy a small estate in Ustalav.

Take into consideration as well that the party has been deliberately set up as undead fighters and hunters, and it is not surprising that they are merrily carving their way through the local vampire population in short order. Yet again, the power curve appears to be asserting itself.

I have to say, however, that I find high level play more FUN. It is hard to drop straight into a high level game, and it feels better to warm up to it through the lower levels, but we recently took a break to play in a 1st level dungeon bash and the sudden change of gear was hard to assimilate.

"I stares at 'em. Hard."
The focus of this party is less on problem solving and negotiations and more on just laying waste to the enemy. Because of the nature of the campaign, the bulk of the opposition is evil by definition, much of it undead, and the party has two religious fanatics who are being played as such to the hilt, so resort to uncompromising holy violence seems to be within character. Some of our toughest challenges were earlier in the campaign, when we fought constructs and were seeking to save an intelligent flesh golem from unjust death; hordes of undead make the emotional decision a lot easier.

For me, the ideal levels for play in Pathfinder, as a player, are between 5th and 11th. Beyond 11th the game does seem to start to creak a little, and begin to resemble a superhero campaign. But as a player it is still great fun to tap into so much more power. If I were running the game, however, I would probably concentrate on the lower levels, say 1st through to about 6th or 7th and would not go beyond that.

So how do you manage the power creep in Pathfinder? Well, here are just some possible ideas:
  • Make players roll for hit points after 1st level
  • Make it harder to find and buy magic items - the Olde Magic Shoppe syndrome makes it too easy for players to sink cash into improving their arsenals. At higher levels, teleport capability makes it easy for one PC to nip back to a major population centre and buy more magic, so making magic generally scarcer across the campaign world might work. Of course, high level PCs can make their own stuff, but this will take time.
  • Tweak or tailor encounters to hit party weaknesses.
  • Attack party assets - if they're off hunting vampires, who is looking after their coaches? Low level NPCs you say? Not the sort of people who will be able to stand up to vampire subversion, I expect...
Overall, though, I still enjoy playing Pathfinder more now that I have a copy of Hero Lab. It means I need to worry less about the number crunching and can get on with playing the game. Awesome.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

History repeats itself on the streets of Cairo

I saw this article on Quartz this morning, and thought it rather eerie. It mentions three armies, a lacklustre Egyptian leader, angry crowds on the streets of the Arab world's largest city - we've been here before, and it was not in 2010.

I've been reading a collection of short stories by Robert E. Howard recently. He earned his fame as the author of sword and sorcery fiction, and in particular as the creator of the character Conan the Barbarian. But he also wrote a lot of excellent historical fiction, much of it in the same vein. For someone who has read all his Conan and Solomon Kane stories, it is great to discover a new treasure trove of material, much of which is as good, if not better than, his Conan tales.

But what has Howard got to do with the events in Egypt this week? His story, Hawks Over Egypt, is a dramatic tale of the end of the Fatimid caliphate of Al Hakim bi-Amr Allah in 1021. Al Hakim ascended to caliphate of Egypt as a minor and became renowned in the West as the Mad Caliph - he certainly seems to have become somewhat unhinged in the later stages of his reign. Various legends are ascribed to his homicidal streak, but he was also responsible for banning the consumption of alcohol in Egypt, even by non-Muslims. He also prohibited the playing of chess and women were not allowed to leave their homes.

Where Al Hakim seems to have crossed the line is allowing preachers to proclaim that he was a god. He was already unpopular, but this sparked off riots and uprisings in Egypt which eventually seem to have undermined his reign. In the story, Hawks Over Egypt, which I won't spoil for you, Cairo is simmering as three rival factions prepare to square up to each other. These are the Turkish/Mameluke forces, the Sudanese army, and the Berbers. The story begins with an attempt on the life of the commander of the Turks, and rolls onward from there with characteristic Howardian verve. It was later adapted by L. Sprague de Camp and re-published as a Conan story, Hawks Over Shem, with Conan being swapped for the Castillian knight in the original.

There is not an awful lot of information available on the events of the actual fall of Al Hakim online, although it looks like a number of books have been published about him. He is also still venerated by the Druze religion. Howard fills in some of the gaps in the historical record surrounding the actual fate of Al Hakim, by proposing one alternative. We will probably never know what happened to the real Al Hakim however.

But I was struck by a sudden sense of deja vu, having just read Hawks Over Egypt, with the developing situation in Cairo. The rule of Egypt lost control of the street, and his fate, it seems, lay in the hands of the commanders of the three armies then quartered in Cairo. It seems like yet another striking example of history repeating itself, almost exactly 1000 years later.