Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Salute 2015

I decided to go to Salute this year at fairly short notice. I originally hadn't planned on going, particularly as I've done very little miniatures gaming in 2014-15, and have a number of stalled projects. But I was finally talked into going at the last minute by a wargaming friend, and capitalised on an already paid for weekly travel pass.

We didn't get to the event until almost 11.00, by which stage we were able to stroll in, with no queue at all. We heard there had been somewhat of a scrum earlier on, but I still don't understand the urge to be in there first. With the bring and buy stall now gone, there seems less incentive to get in early to pick up bargains.

Salute is a huge event now. It seemed even bigger this year and it is now difficult to get around it all in a day. There is simply too much to see. We managed to see every game being staged but didn't participate in any as we were both feeling too tired / under the weather. There were some excellent games out there, however. If I'd had the time and energy, the following looked like they could be fun:

A superb Star Wars battle on Hoth, with what looked like about a dozen players on both sides. The umpires had built Hoth using white insulation foam, including a great depiction of Echo Base, complete with its own electric lighting! They were using the old Palitoy Millennium Falcon and imperial AT-ATs, which somehow looked right scale-wise against the 25mm Wizards of the Coast Star Wars miniatures. This ought to have received the best in show award and I'm not sure if it did...?

Inside the Russian warship
A special forces game highly reminiscent of the opening mission in Call of Duty - Modern Warfare. Commandos are landing on what looked like a Russian destroyer, fully created deck by deck in 20mm scale. The destroyer could be taken apart according to where the action was.

A very ambitious amphibious operation from the American War of Independence, I think the Penobscot Expedition of 1779 as brought to life in Bernard Cornwell's The Fort.This was a huge game with 28mm figures and some beautiful waterline ships. Truly magnificent and I'd have loved to get involved in this one.

A pirate game using converted Playmobil ships and 40mm figures, with all the umpires dressed as pirates. The ships were moved around on stands with wheels, which allowed a larger playing area to be created. This was highly effective, I thought. Even islands were up on their own stands, and you had to imagine the intervening waves, but I still thought it worked.

I saw Richard Clarke of Too Fat Lardies fame demonstrating the new Fighting Season rules for modern platoon level combat, which I've got my eye on if I ever decide to stop using Force on Force for this period. The real question will be how this manages slightly more conventional battles - e.g. Falklands War or 2003 invasion of Iraq. Afghanistan seems to be the default setting, although I know some people on the forums would like to see how it works for the Vietnam War.

The battle for Hoth in full swing...
There were a LOT of naval wargames this year, which was good to see. Naval games are much easier to take to shows. I was part of a team that put on the Battle of the Nile at Salute in 2005, and can attest to the ease of transportation. There was an interesting WW1 dog fight game involving a German U-Boat, and a small group playing the Battle of the Dogger Bank. WW1 was very much in evidence all told, including a game from the campaign in Palestine against the Turks, and one that focused on the role of stretcher bearers on the Western Front.

I made very few purchases this year, as I feel I've got so many dormant projects which really need my attention and for which I rarely seem to get much time. I picked up a copy of the rules for the Judge Dredd skirmish game and I also stumbled across a copy of the new Car Wars from Steve Jackson Games. Other than that, I picked up some more trees from 4Ground, but that was it really. I pondered buying a copy of To The Strongest to re-start my Punic Wars project, but decided that first I needed to give Sword & Shield a go.

And that was it really. Salute is now such a large event that it is almost impossible to see everything. The setting is still very soul-less and there was still not enough seating when it came time to rest the weary feet. We both reminisced about the 'good old days' of Kensington Town Hall in the 1990s. Maybe we're getting old. Will I be going next year? Hard to say, really. I think the most fun I had at Salute was when I was involved in running a game. It was more exhausting but also more enjoyable. But for that you really need a crew of dedicated people and the backing of a club to make it happen properly.

A 1980s NATO game - Soviets trying to seize an autobahn bridge.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Deadlands Noir: concluding A Case of Courvoisier

I wrapped up my current Deadlands Noir plot arc on Friday evening and am now mulling over whether I have the stamina to continue with the next one this week.

While the session succeeded in tying up some plot threads, a number of back story issues for one of the detectives were thrown up which may bear a deeper look in the future. I'm currently still recovering from a long day on Saturday, when I attended the Salute wargames convention in London, which is the largest miniatures wargames event on the UK wargaming calendar. More of that in a future post. Now, on to the action...

New Orleans, early hours, 16th August, 1935

The detectives arrived at Doctor LeBoeuf's apartment to find the door broken in, and Lee DeVille looming over the comatose body of Mrs LeBoeuf, gun in hand. Rightly assuming that the Harrowed was about to execute Mrs LeBoeuf, the detectives reacted in a range of characteristic ways. LeBoeuf distracted DeVille (successful Intimidate roll) causing the detective to shoot both the good doctor and the patent scientist, Ramsey Gordon. Luckily no lasting damage was done (Shaken results).

DeVille then ended up in a brawl with Le Ralf and an animated sofa (!) conjured by Gordon's patent science. He was eventually overpowered and knocked out.

Gordon used another patent device to scan the minds of DeVille and Mrs LeBoeuf. Although not successful in discovering whether the Manitou inside DeVille was still in control, Gordon did find that Mrs LeBoeuf seemingly thought she was paddling a canoe in a large swamp of some kind. Eventually DeVille came to, and claimed no knowledge of the previous night's events. The detectives declined to release him, although he seemed genuinely shocked that DuChamps had been killed.IIRC, after debating whether to dump the Harrowed in chains in the canal, they finally concealed him in the basement of the block. DeVille is currently at +0 Dominion with the Manitou.

The police eventually arrived on news of the shooting. LeBoeuf explained what had happened and they departed satisfied, particularly after the group's links with homicide detective Townsend were outlined.

After some much-needed rest, the PCs moved Mrs LeBoeuf to Gordon's flat, and LeBoeuf himself went back to the detectives' office in the Central Business District (CBD) where he called the police again, this time to the scene of Miss DuChamps' murder. Detective Townsend appeared in person this time to take charge of the crime scene, and the Doc pointed the finger of accusation at the dead hitman, Jazzman James (however, James was already dead by the time DuChamps was killed, so it remains to be seen whether NOPD forensics are sufficiently accurate to rule him out...)

The detectives then headed down to the Yellow Sign occult book store where they encountered the attractive Hetty Sanderson, sister of murdered owner William Sanderson. Hetty said she had recently moved to New Orleans from Atlanta after she heard of her brother's death and was planning to take over the running of the book store. She said she knew a bit about demonology, but not as much as her brother or his friends, Father Joseph McBride and Bon Bon Lescartier. Hetty said she would help the detectives to banish the demon they believed her brother had helped to summon (Hetty has Knowledge - Occult and Spellcasting at d10).

The detectives duly headed back over to the dilapidated town house in Bayou St John, formerly owned by Red Sect bokkor Bon Bon Lescartier. Here they encountered a Hellhound, which LeRalf killed with his sacrificial voodoo dagger. A search of the house discovered a secret panel in the hall which led the detectives to a basement room where a seven pointed star had been inlaid in the floor. A small child - or something that looked like a small child - in a sailor suit sat in the centre of the star. At each point was a wooden throne with candles on it. On only one throne were the candles still burning.

Hetty proceeded to begin her Banish spell, with Gordon and LeBoeuf assisting. Another Hellhound chose this point to try to break into the basement, smashing its way through the door despite LeRalf's best efforts to prevent it. This time, the voodoo houngan stepped back and emptied his SMG into the beast, using a magazine of .45 ammo with Smite cast on it. This killed it immediately.
I wonder what's in the basement?

Eventually, the child in the circle, having failed to persuade the detectives to release it, transformed into a tall man in a white suit and trilby hat. LeBoeuf rebuked the creature further, distracting it while Hetty finished her spell, finally banishing it. The last pair of candles went out.

The detectives piled back into their car, driving back to Gordon's house, where they found Mrs LeBoeuf has awoken. Although very frail, she explained that she had been persuaded to help to summon the demon by Father McBride, who said it could assist her in finding her missing sister, Tammy Portunate.

Tammy had been meeting regularly with New Orleans spiritualist Laurelie 'Mammy' Martine, in an effort to contact her fiancée, a Confederate soldier killed in France in 1918. She vanished without trace in 1933, but LeBoeuf's wife blames Mammy Martine. The demon told her Tammy was in the spirit realm called the Hunting Grounds by the Native Americans and home to the manitou, and sent her there to find her sister...

Here ends the second plot arc in my Deadlands Noir campaign. I've got some seeds boiling away in the pot for the third arc, and you can probably get a whiff from the above of what some of these might be. Of the detectives, one is now Veteran rank, and two more are Seasoned. We could probably bring the others up to Seasoned but the power gap in Savage Worlds between Novice and Seasoned is not massive.

I will comment in another post on my thoughts about running an urban sandbox and how this campaign has evolved. I was quite tired when I ran this session, and hope it lived up to expectations, particularly as the original brandy shipment had already been recovered. The detectives could easily have prioritised the demon rather than the brandy, but following LeRalf's run-in with Mike the Stick, they had a time limit on their assignment from the Black Hand.

This story arc was longer, due to the parallel plot involving the demon and the cabal, and also because I managed to get LeBoeuf's comatose wife into the plot as a major hook.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

We play Firefly - the board game

Last weekend I ended up with a more empty agenda than I expected, and thought it would be an ideal moment to trot out Firefly, the board game. We had a lazy Saturday afternoon ahead of us, and I managed to summon Kelvin over to help test drive the game.

We weren't short of time for a change, so played the scenario King of All Londinium (Firefly comes with a range of different scenarios, based on Goals, which you need to complete in order to win - this makes sure the game is a bit different every time). King of All Londinium requires captains to first purchase a forged crown, then hack into a secure database to find the location of a freighter, and then steal the real crown from said freighter, replacing it with the forgery.

Firefly is a BIG game, deceptively so given the size of the box it comes in. Although the board is not in itself large, once you have all the components and card decks out on the table, yes, it is impressively sprawling. You will need to allow for some space for this one.

The game does a very good job of simulating some of the problems faced by the Firefly crew in the series. You fly around the Verse, carrying out legal and illegal jobs, shipping cargo, contraband, fugitives, and passengers from planet to planet. You recruit a crew as you go, upgrade your ship, and arm your crew with weapons and equipment to help them carry out jobs.

You need to avoid picking up warrants, as these can make life harder for you if you are intercepted by the cruiser in Alliance space. To make matters worse, there is also a Reaver cutter which hops around in the frontier areas, and if you don't have a good mechanic and pilot to help you pull a Crazy Ivan stunt, can make your life hard.

I'm not going to write a full and detailed review of the game, as this has been done better and in more depth elsewhere. Instead, I will just provide my own impressions of the game and let you make up your own mind if you want to buy it - presuming you don't own it already!

There is limited player interaction, other than the ability to poach crew (which is a rare occurrence and did not happen in our game) and make life harder for your opponents by sending the Alliance or the Reavers in their direction. I get the impression that this threat becomes less potent in the later stages of the game, as captains have better crews and equipment to aid them. However, having said that, players like my daughter who dislikes games in which you're out to get other players, particularly conflict games, loved Firefly. It was entertaining to see her being wracked by guilt when she accepted her first illegal job.
Not a pocket sized game by any means!

We played our game in five hours, but I suspect game length will change based on how many players you have and which scenario you choose. Also, we weren't that experienced, and I think in future would make sure we were better equipped to complete the goals quicker. I was lucky to have the River Tam character on my crew who helped me out of some tight spots, but also proved useless in some other crisis situations.

Luckily, it is possible for you to be finishing your turn and allow the next player to start theirs: for this purpose, the game comes with a dinosaur counter you can pass onto another player, for example if you are busy negotiating a deal on one side of the board, a player flying in Reaver space on the other side of the board is unlikely to really impact your turn. I'd encourage players to adopt this to speed things along.

I particularly liked the 'disgruntled' mechanic, which leaves moral crew members (like Shepherd Book) unhappy with captains who accept immoral missions. They eventually leave or join another crew if you don't cheer them up with some carousing at a space port. Sadly for Shepherd Book, he ended up with Sebastian's crew of heavily armed amoral mercenaries, and promptly departed the game in disgust!

The game reminds me a little in its feel of the old Games Workshop game, Rogue Trooper, which I still own. There is the same process of collecting resources, equipment, and companions and seeking to be the first to carry out the boss task at the end. In Rogue Trooper you are carrying out missions in Nu Earth, visiting people who have clues to the identity of a traitor general. Firefly has a little more depth, however, and is probably a better game for all that.

River Tam - unreliable at the best of times
We missed a few rules on the way through - for example, I think it is possible to refuel at the Alliance cruiser for $100 if you don't have any warrants out on your ship (and you're solid with the Alliance). I'm also not sure if we were managing the equipment decks properly, but will re-read that before we play again.

The game obviously has scope for expansion: the UK edition comes with the Artful Dodger expansion which allows you to play with five people (and provides a non-standard Firefly ship). I am eying the Blue Sun expansion with interest having played this game through. The board game does a great job of creating the feel of the series and the conversations going on around the table sounded like dialogue from the game, even from people like my kids who have not actually watched Firefly.

Just as the Battlestar Galactica board game does a good job of recreating the feel of the TV series, so I think Firefly does the same. It should be playable within four hours so long as you have an experienced player at the table. Don't believe the two hours printed on some of the scenario sheets: I highly doubt it, unless they are basing that on a game with a couple of players only. If you are a Firefly fan and enjoy board games, get this. It's great fun.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Deadlands Noir: A Case of Courvoisier (part 3)

New Orleans, 01.00 in the morning of 15th August, 1935

Doctor LeBoeuf is facing a policeman, identified as Lieutenant Townsend by his badge, at his front door. The cop is invited inside after he produces one of LeBoeuf's business cards, which he claims to have found at the crime scene of the murder of Father John McNelis in Loyola University. He says he is investigating the killings of McNelis, bookstore owner Matthew Sanderson, and police detective Mike Brandon.

Townsend is surprised to see the flat full of people, and in particular Le Ralf, who has disassembled his SMG and is cleaning it. He questions Le Ralf closely about his intentions with the gun. The Doc explains why he was visiting Father McNelis and tells the Lieutenant that they believe William "Jazzman" James is responsible for the killings. Townsend confirms that the Jazzman is a professional assassin used by the Black Hand on a regular basis, but thus far the police have never had enough evidence to bring him to justice. He warns the detectives about tangling with James and asks that they stay in touch, particularly if they learn anything new.

After Townsend leaves, the detectives hatch a plan. LeRalf disguises himself as the singer, Ann-Marie DuChamps, and leaves the flat with LeBoeuf. Outside, LeBoeuf spots someone ducking down inside a car. As they drive off, the other car follows, and tries to overtake. This develops into a chase and LeBoeuf fires at the chasing car, but only succeeds in breaking Le Ralf's SMG. Luckily, LeRalf manages to lose their tail.

Meanwhile, Lee DeVille and Ramsay Gordon wheel the comatose Mrs LeBoeuf out of the apartment, still in her Hellstromme life support machine, and put her in the back of their truck. They drive her to the deserted old New Orleans police building. Here they rendezvous with the others.

Gordon, LeRalf and LeBoeuf leave DeVille to guard the two women, and drive over to the detectives' offices. Here Gordon works to repair his laser gun and the SMG, while the other two detectives rest. LeBoeuf then wakes up and administers drugs from his bag to keep the exhausted patent scientist on his feet as the sun comes up over New Orleans. Leaving the office, they are shot at by a man on the roof of the block across the street. He hits the disguised LeRalf, who takes cover behind a car. A gun battle quickly develops. LeBoeuf takes cover in an open doorway and spots a black cat watching the proceedings.

The would be assassin is hit in the face with Gordon's death ray and then eventually mortally wounded. LeRalf climbs up onto the roof and, having relieved the Jazzman (for it is he) of his $100 Swiss watch, drops him off the building! The detectives also find James' sonic lock pick, a patent science tool for opening any lock. Gordon takes it. The Jazzman's car with his SMG in the boot, is found behind the apartment building.

The police eventually arrive, and the Doc persuades them to call Lieutenant Townsend, who turns up to take over the crime scene. He identifies the dead man as the Jazzman. He tells the detectives that it was just as well that the assassin didn't survive, as he is not sure a police cell would hold the Black Hand's favoured killer.
William "Jazzman" James - from Deadlands Noir

Gordon, LeRalf and the Doc go to Lakeview to pick up Tommaso Friuli, as he has promised to help them recover the missing brandy from the Red Sect. However, Friuli and his wife are nowhere to be found. They now drive out of town, to the old plantation in Jefferson County where they suspect the Red Sect is hiding the stolen brandy. As it is getting dark, the plantation proves hard to find, but sound navigation from Gordon gets them there eventually. Here they encounter two goons parked outside the locked gates to the plantation. LeBoeuf tries to convince them he has been sent by Bon Bon Lescartier (the Red Sect bokkor killed in last week's episode) to collect the brandy. The hoods seem to accept this, and give him the key to the gates.

Driving in, the detectives see the plantation grounds are overgrown, and the delapidated mansion sits shrouded in darkness. Getting out of their vehicles, they are attacked by walking dead, which come at them out of the undergrowth. Luckily, they have all been issued with invisibility belts by Gordon, which he triggers. He and LeRalf between them take out the zombies, including the two Pantarino boys, now undead, who burst out of the house to attack them. The zombies have difficulty locating the invisible detectives, and the house is lit up by laser blasts and machine gun fire as the detectives finish off the last of the undead.

Detectives arriving at the plantation
Flashlights out, they search the building, and find seven cases of the missing brandy in the cellar. These are loaded into the back of their truck. LeRalf and Gordon then proceed on foot back up the drive, and find the gates closed. Gordon turns on the invisibility belts again, and LeRalf casts confusion on the two goons sitting in the car outside the plantation, before the two detectives open fire. Gordon's ray gun packs up, but they manage to kill one of the gangsters. The other tries to escape in the car, but it gets hit by gunfire and he crashes into the swamp. Scrambling out of the car, he is gunned down before he can draw his .38, and falls back into the mire.

The detectives now drive back to the city, and park outside Sanzone's restaurant in the French Quarter. Here they meet with Mike 'The Stick' Whelan, and deliver the brandy to him. They are questioned about the fate of the missing Sicilans, and claim the Red Sect murdered the Pantarino boys. The Black Hand goons seem suspicious of this story, but they pay the detectives their fee and let them go on their way.

Returning to the old police building, the trio find no sign of De Ville or DuChamps. Only Mrs LeBoeuf remains, in her life support machine. They take her over to the LeBoeuf apartment before driving to the address in Bayou St John, known to have been used by the McNelis cabal. This turns out to be a run down four story town house. A new padlock is on the front door, but this does not resist Gordon's sonic lock pick. Inside, they are confronted by a huge black hound, wrapped in chains, with glowing red eyes. The detectives flee the building before it can attack them, locking it back in.

Getting back in their car, they drive to their offices. Inside, they find the body of Ann-Marie DuChamps. She has been shot in the head at close range. Panicking, they race at break neck speed over to LeBoeuf's apartment. The front door has been broken down, and looming over the comatose Mrs LeBoeuf is Lee De Ville, pointing a gun at her head...

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Deadlands Noir: A Case of Courovisier (part 2)

New Orleans, 14th August 1935, approximately 4.30pm to midnight

The detectives are joined by Lee De Ville, the Harrowed private eye. Now with a full posse they proceed to seek the houseboat of the Red Sect bokkor, Bon Bon Lescartier, whom the luckless Jean-Michel Bascon told them had organised the brandy heist. Driving up and down in the rain near the Charity Hospital Cemetery in Lakeview, they spot four men loitering in the rain near one houseboat, and pull up nearby. De Ville approaches them and tries to persuade them to let him onboard to speak with Lescartier, but they refuse and tell him to beat it.

De Ville turns away, having identified one of the men as the missing Black Hand hoodlum Tommaso Friuli. At a signal from De Ville, Le Ralf and Ramsey Gordon open fire on the three Red Sect goons, killing all three before their guns can clear their holsters. Friuli now begins to advance on the detectives and does not seem to be responding to them. A large black men in a top hat pops up on the house boat, opening fire with a .38 and winging Nukara Vestal. The detectives return fire, wounding the man, whom they presume to be Lescartier.

"I'll put a spell on you..."
Lescartier is not done yet, however, and manages to put a confusion hex on Le Ralf before he is hit and killed. Friuli immediately comes to his senses. He cannot remember anything since he arrived at the docks in Algiers to pick up the brandy over a week ago. He agrees he will help the detectives to recover the brandy from the Red Sect.

The detectives scamper on board the house boat, removing weapons and ammo from the bodies while a confused Friuli stands watch with the wounded Vestal. Le Ralf takes an ornate sacrificial voodoo dagger from the dead bokkor, and also finds a ticket to the performance of jazz singer Ann-Marie Duchamps at the Angel's Rest bar that very evening. They also find the deeds to a townhouse in Bayou St John along with a handwritten note to Lescartier, asking him to keep the house away from someone called the 'Jazzman'. De Ville remembers this as the nickname for a local assassin who carries out jobs for the Black Hand.

The detectives find some cash on the house boat and then decide to scarper before the police arrive. They drop Friuli at his home in Lakeview - only a few blocks away - before they split up to return to their respective abodes and prepare for a night on the town. Vestal decides to stay home to nurse her gunshot wound.

At approximately eight in the evening the posse arrives at the entrance to the Angel's Rest bar on Baronne St. Here they are able to buy some additional tickets and are seated at a table near the back of the bar, in the shadows. Eventually they are treated to a singing performance by the remarkable jazz singer Ann-Marie Duchamps, who puts on a world class act and leaves the detectives breathless with her talent. During the performance, Gordon sees a black cat lounging at the back of the stage, eyeing the singer speculatively. It gets up and walks away as her set ends.

No sooner than Duchamps has departed, the detectives head backstage, using their Black Hand connections to intimidate their way past a bouncer. Entering her dressing room, they start to tell her about the deaths of Father McNelis and Matthew Sanderson. Although shocked, she tries to deny all knowledge of the men.

It is at this stage that someone opens the door to the dressing room, and rolls a hand grenade into it. The quick thinking LeBoeuf slams a metal waste paper bin onto the grenade before it can explode, absorbing much of the force of the detonation, while De Ville hustles Duchamps out of the dressing room. As he enters the corridor, however, De Ville and the singer are fired on by a man in a trench coast with an SMG and a scarf over his face. De Ville's undead body shields the singer's and he and Le Ralf are soon in hot pursuit.

Le Ralf tries to stab the would be assassin with his dagger, but fails, and the assailant escapes out of a fire exit into the rain dark backstreets off Baronne. While Le Boeuf stays with the girl, the others set off in pursuit. I imagined this as something like the chase scene in the back alleys with Brad Pitt in Se7en. De Ville slipped in a puddle, and Le Ralf was forced to take cover when the man they were chasing opened fire on him. Eventually only Gordon was left in the chase, but he eventually crashed into one dustbin too many.

GM Note: We used the chase rules in the latest iteration of Savage Worlds, and I think these work the best I've seen so far. I've seen some pretty unwieldy chase mechanics in SW, but this one seemed to function quite well for our purposes. The GMC did burn up most of my bennies during this scene, however!

Although empty handed from the pursuit, the detectives make haste to leave the bar before the police and head back to their office. In the car, a shaky Duchamps confesses that she and Father McNelis were part of a group that blackmailed someone into giving them what they wanted. It turns out that this someone has been trapped against his will and forced to provide his captors with their hearts' desires. In Duchamps' case, she wanted to be the best singer in the South.

McNelis used his knowledge of demonology to trap someone or something in the cellar of a house in Bayou St John. He was assisted by the bokkor, Lescartier, the occult bookstore owner, Sanderson, Duchamps, the police detective Mike Brandon, the hit man William James (aka the Jazzman) and none other than Le Boeuf's comatose wife! [At this stage Le Boeuf had to make a Fear check, but passed.] Of the group, only three are left alive. The rest have all died in the last 10 days.

Back at the office, they find an envelope on the door mat addressed to Le Boeuf. It was hand delivered. He puts it in his pocket unopened as he races for the door.

Taking Duchamps with them, the four detectives drive through the night to Le Boeuf's apartment. Here they find his wife still in her iron life support capsule, a revolutionary device that Gordon recognises as experimental medical technology from Hellstromme Industries. But how did Le Boeuf get his hands on that?

Le Boeuf (De Niro) and Le Ralf (Rourke), perhaps?

While at the flat, Gordon sees a black cat lying on the sofa in the living room, and starts speaking to it. The cat says that it wants to be free, but it has been trapped. It needs those who trapped it to die before it can be free again. It offers Gordon his heart's desire if he will help it to achieve its aims. Nobody else sees or hears the cat.

Duchamps tells the detectives that it was McNelis who knew the most about demonology. She doesn't know how she can help to resolve the situation as her occult knowledge is paltry. She just wanted to be a singer! At this point there is a knock on the door. A grey-haired man in a rain-drenched mackintosh is standing in the corridor. Using the peep hole, Duchamps confirms it is not the Jazzman. When the door is opened on the chain, the man produces a police badge. "We have to talk," he says to Le Boeuf.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Beyond the Wall & Other Adventures

Imagine, if you will, Dungeons and Dragons as a huge empire, established in the 1970s, to rule the RPG world, under the aegis of Emperor Gary I of the Gygaxid dynasty. Internal squabbling inevitably follows with various important factions within the empire, but D&D remains the dominant power in FRPG for over 20 years. Eventually, however, with the launch of the Open Gaming License in 2000 the empire is subject to something of a social revolution that devolves more power to smaller potentates, nobles, governors and suchlike. In the short term the empire flourishes, becoming if anything even more supreme. Life is good.

Eventually, however, the emperors want to recentralise power. They need more money and create a new vision that will grant them more control. They hope for the good old days to return, but it is too late. The body politic has fragmented. While loyalists close to the court hope that a new age of benevolent dictatorship can be ushered in, too many provincial rulers have now been granted the tools to forge their own paths. Some have created new and exciting principalities with the power that has been afforded to them, others succeed only in spawning pale copies of the former imperial glory.

In my group, since we stopped dabbling in 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, we have tended to play Pathfinder, and more latterly, 13th Age and 5th edition D&D. Consequently there has been less time to travel in the provinces so to speak. Having said that, there are some excellent little gems out there in the OSR reaches, including Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the phenomenal Vornheim, and Crypts & Things. More recently, I've picked up a copy of Beyond the Wall & Other Adventures, hereafter referred to as BTW. I purchased a hard copy and the PDF from DrivethruRPG with some trepidation, as the print quality of the last hard copy item I ordered from Drivethru (Hunter: the Vigil) was less than satisfactory.

However, BTW comes with excellent production values and paper quality, possibly because it has been published with a view to online distribution. It has wonderful cover art by John Hodgson (my fave RPG artist at the moment) plus atmospheric internal art.

Several years ago, I postulated a village-focused setting for a Savage Worlds game called Village People. The scenario used pregen characters and assumed that they were all natives of a village near a dungeon. They were not the seasoned adventurers who might turn up to explore the dungeon themselves, but might, for example, be roped into becoming hirelings for NPC adventurers. Since the group I wrote the adventure for has broken up, I've left it somewhat fallow, apart from mulling over whether it might make for an interesting setting for Hillfolk. BTW has changed that.

BTW combines aspects of old school, OSR gaming, with new school role playing inspired by Apocalypse World. It does so in a very clean and seemingly workable format. Its premise is that the action centres around one community, and that all the characters have grown up in the community and know each other. The character generation process also helps to create the village, including populating it with NPCs the GM can use.

In the basic game, there are three character classes, Warrior, Rogue and Mage. You could use BTW to simply roll up conventional characters, but the real juice is in the background tables. These are structured more like playbooks from Apocalypse World, and help you to create a local youth with a fully-fledged and interesting history in the village.

For example, the Self Taught Mage playbook starts with:

"You were always a bright child, and loved stories of ancient wizards and sorceresses who mastered the arcane arts. Unfortunately, there was no one around to teach you such things. In fact, sometimes you wondered if the stories of magic were even true. When you came of age, you found an ancient tome and decided to find out for yourself."

The play book then features tables which address key background questions like 'What did your parents do in the village?' or 'How did you distinguish yourself as a child?' as well as class specific questions like 'Who wrote your precious book of magic?'. These are random tables, but the answers are not pat, one word responses: they help to build your story, the village's story and the relationships between the characters. Hence, the Village Hero has as a table called 'Where did you learn your skill at arms?' Roll a 7 on d8 and you find that you distinguished yourself in the village levy, gaining Long Bow weapon specialisation and +2 Dex. The tables help to individualise characters, giving them abilities, spells, property and possessions, as well as creating relationships between each other. By the end of the character generation process, you should have a community and a group of young stalwarts with rich backgrounds. I like this. It is so much better than having a group of thugs hired in a tavern. The community element also gives them more of a stake in a living, breathing village, rather than being a mob of murder hobos.

Games of BTW are meant to be played with limited prep, although it would be perfectly possible to simply stick an OSR dungeon next door to your village and send your party off to explore it. Using my Village People scenario, you could also have a number of NPC adventurers generated using another OSR rules set, turning up to explore said dungeon, your typical band of murder hobos. How do the PCs react to them?

There are no non-human options in the basic game, although rules are included for them in an appendix. The default is really expected to be humans, and the non-human elements are intended to be dark and mysterious. Elves, for example, should not be the pointy-eared tree huggers of traditional D&D, but again mysterious creatures of faerie that may / may not be friendly. Elves get funky abilities like Lords of the Fae, a +2 bonus to command or impress other fae creatures, while Dwarves have a True Name which can be used against them if revealed (+5 bonus on ANY actions against the Dwarf). The book is packed with interesting flavour and new approaches to traditional tropes.

I really like the look of BTW upon first inspection. As an OSR product it really hits the nail on the head for me, doing something a little bit different and more engaging. It is a great campaign starter in an of itself, and also offers scope for the GM to gradually expand the area around the village as the campaign continues, rather than having to map out a vast campaign world in advance. If the campaign matures, then great, but if not, you haven't wasted any time. Truly excellent and a little visionary too.

I've not played it yet, but upon first reading I'm giving this 9/10. More adventures would have been nice but I note that publisher Flatland Games is starting to make more classes and scenarios available online.