Monday, 26 December 2016

RuneQuest on the beach

I'm currently in Goa, the former Portuguese colony on the west coast of India. Fed up with the bad weather in England, the strikes and the general whingeing about whether to leave the EU, when and how, I have retreated to the little village of Utorda, about five minutes from 25 kilometres of sandy beach, shaded by palm trees.

I've brought with me a copy of Labyrinth Lord, which I picked up at Dragonmeet in London for the princely sum of £10, and my digest-sized softback copy of RuneQuest Deluxe, by Mongoose Publishing. Once the sun goes down here in southern India, sitting outside can be a little problematic due to the swarms of mosquitoes which drench the area. I anticipated the kids might appreciate playing some RPGs in the evenings rather than being eaten alive outside!

I wanted to get to grips with MRQ1 at my leisure, rather than in a live game session so to speak. I've thus also packed a copy of Greg Stafford's very early RQ scenario, Apple Lane. While this was written for an earlier version of the game (1980, so RQ1 I expect), I thought it might be useful in helping us with a walktheough of the game rules.

The kids generated four PCs for the game, including twins, Zariah and Maria. Zariah is a nomad archer, while Maria, separated from her sister at an early age (can you say "Skywalker"?) has become proficient with a rapier and...and...with baking. As you do. They met at the Tin Inn in the little Sartar village of Apple Lane with two strangers strangers fresh off the caravan trail, Rothrog, a barbarian with a big rusty ring through his nose, and Quillian, a budding sorceror with two scimitars on his back. Rothrog is wearing only sack cloth and carrying a tower shield, but looks like he means business.

As they were chatting, they were approached by Gringle, the owner of the local pawn shop, conveniently located across the street. Gringle has a baboon problem: a tribe of local baboons has tried to steal a magic crystal from him, a crystal he bought from an adventurer for 20,000 silvers. The fact that the adventurer slew most of the adult males in the tribe in order to get it is neither here nor there. Gringle has to go away on business overnight, and asks the adventurers to guard his fortified shop while he and his duck butler/bodyguard are away.

Rothrog decided he should keep the crystal on his person. After Gringle left, he took up position at the front door of the shop. Maria baked some olive bread for supper in the kitchen. Quilliam established himself on the upper floor with a good line of sight while Zaria backed up Rothrog.

Shortly after dark, the baboons made their move, smashing a downstairs shutter and dropping a burning torch into the main corridor. While Maria and Zariah ran to put out the flames with buckets of water, there was a hammering on the tiles on the roof. Quilliam soon spotted two baboons trying to break through the tiles with maces. He cast his Palsy spell at them several times, to no avail. They were soon joined by two more baboons, also intent on breaking in through the roof. At this point, Rothgar strode out of the building into the street, and roared that he had the crystal they were after, and they had better come and get it - if they thought they were hard enough, of course...

The baboon leader took the barbarian at his word, and tried to climb down the wall into the street, but rolled a critical failure on his Athletics and crashed to the ground, stunning himself. Before he could get up, Rothgar charged him and dispatched him with is axe. Another baboon (the leader's mum!) began hurling Disrupt spells down on Rothgar, while Quilliam was joined by Zariah who started shooting at the baboons on the roof with her bow. The baboons shot back with their slings.

It was at this point that three more baboons came around the side of the shop, and also started casting Disrupt at Rothgar. For the first time, the barbarian began to look a little worried. Maria decided to leave the shop to assist him. Rothgar shouted for help to the denizens of the Tin Inn over the road, but either the music was too loud or they were too afraid to assist him. However, he quickly proved how vicious he could be, using his shield and his axe in combination to take down all three baboons in short order (Rothgar's player has evolved a particularly nasty shield bash attack which combines nicely with an additional combat action). Up on the roof, Zariah managed to shoot one (critical hit, which took the baboon down straight away), while another took cover behind the chimney.

Now the adventurers heard the distinctly unpleasant sound of something trying to bash down the kitchen door at the rear of the shop. Quilliam ran downstairs to investigate, leaving Zariah to secure the shutters upstairs. As he entered the kitchen, the sorceror saw some ash coming down into the kitchen fireplace, and heard something scuffling in the chimney flue. Keeping an eye on the door, which was being subjected to repeated blows, he used an oil lamp to set light to the wood in the fireplace, then scattered some pots on the floor, and retreated back into the temple (Gringle has a small temple to Issaries in his home).

First impressions - I have run RQ before, but some time ago. Part of this exercise is really to get to grips with the combat and magic systems, and I believe this is why Stafford wrote Apple Lane in the first place. It certainly achieves that. It is great to have the time to spend working through the mechanics. We are NOT using MRQ2, which I think streamlines some of the combat, mainly because I did not want to bring heavy hardbacks to India. Combat is taking longer than Pathfinder, but it is speeding up as we get more used to it, and the system of reactions. It feels more like a real battle, and is deadlier than Pathfinder - one or two hits can be enough to take a character out of a fight. All the baboons have their own individual profiles, so it can be fiddly keeping track of all this, but at the same time, everyone seems to be having a good time. Apple Lane itself is well-written, with plenty of detail on the plans of the 'bad' guys.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Milestones in Gaming: Megagame Makers

Megagames need lots of space.

Back in 1999 I moved down to Dulwich, in south London, a leafy and very civilised suburb, that sits in the shadow of the hill where the old Crystal Palace used to be, before it burned down in 1936. The Crystal Palace was originally built to house the Great Exhibition in 1851, when it stood in Hyde Park. In a work of engineering audacity, of which the Victorians were justly proud, it was moved to a hill overlooking south London and surrounded by model dinosaurs, which can still be seen in the park today.

I lived in Dulwich between 1999 and 2001. As it happened, I was not far from the school where the Megagame Makers staged their regular mega games. What are these mega games, I hear you ask? They are massive multi-player games, usually with a political or military theme, but there have been versions embracing fantasy and science fiction as well. Typically they take place over a single day, and feature as many as 70 or 80 participants, not including umpires, who are called game controls.

My first mega game was a re-run of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where I was on the Egyptian 'team'; I was actually Anwar Sadat himself, who at that point was the commander of the Egyptian air force. My responsibilities were to manage the air support for the Egyptian divisions in the Sinai, plus ground-based air defence west of the Suez Canal. The game was hosted in a primary school on a Saturday, and took most of the day. The Eygptian command was housed in a classroom with an intercom which we could use to communicate with our corps commanders. Every 30 minutes I would also receive updated intelligence reports from one of the umpires, effectively what my pilots were seeing on the ground and in the air as they tangled with Israeli jets. We also received a couple of visits from the 'press' - a separate team that was trying to figure out what was going on, and read out a news bulletin on the hour.

The game was very intense; Israel still won out in the end, even with the Jordanians throwing in their lot with the Syrians. The day flashed by, and at the end of it all, the umpires briefed us on what actually happened. I think we Egyptians managed better than the historic army, and ended the war in control of at least some of the Sinai.

The close proximity to the school where these games took place allowed me to attend several more. Some were military in nature, like Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 (I was in charge of logistics for the German Army Group Centre), while others mixed military with politics. We had a very entertaining day as barons in the Wars of the Roses for example, and another as Japanese daimyo. I also played a White Russian general during a Russian Civil War day.

Since I moved to Brighton, I have found it more difficult to get to London for these games, and the craze has itself spread its wings to the Netherlands, the north of England, and more recently to the US and Scotland. While commentators on the increased demand for table top board games have wondered why this has been happening in the era of the Playstation/X-Box, I think mega games have been benefiting from this trend. In  particular, Watch The Skies, a game about an alien invasion of Earth, has been doing particularly well, and has become the standard bearer of the mega games movement.

Which brings me on to the fact that I've just put up my hand to play test a couple of new designs. My hope is that I will be able to host these in Brighton somewhere. One is a US political simulation, and the other is about mobsters in Chicago. I've been sent the playtest packets which I will review in January. I will be updating my blog with further progress, including hopefully event dates, when the opportunity arises. If you are interested in taking part, or would like to help in any capacity, let me know.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Deadlands Noir - Showdown At Sanzone's

Continuing on with my summary of my Deadlands Noir game, which is a re-run of my scenario, 'Looking For Lucy'. At some point I may include a full version of the adventure on this site.

We last left our heroes returning to the Hayes mansion, having had an encounter with an undead Bloat in a riverside cemetery, which they now realise was the former Colonel Hayes, late of the Confederate Army. There was some discussion of whether to present the monster's wedding ring to Mrs Hayes, but the posse decided this might be just a little too cruel.

Returning to the house, they again had a discussion with Mrs Hayes about Herman Whelan, her former butler. It emerged that Whelan might well have taken a set of keys with him when he left her employ. She was able to provide the detectives with the old man's address in the Lower Ninth Ward. The detectives also asked whether there were any documents relating to the pedigree of the missing poodle, although this was more a ruse to get a look at her safe. Mrs Hayes duly went to her safe to retrieve the documents, and a sharp-eyed Doctor LeBoeuf spotted the dog collars inside it and remarked upon them.

The collars were duly retrieved and examined, and it become obvious they had been used to conceal some form of cylindrical object, leading to much speculation about what it might be. An expensive jewel seemed the most popular theory.

Mrs Hayes was also asked about the disappearance of the Colonel, and related particulars about his fishing habits in the bayou. She mentioned the name of Milus Barbeau, a Cajun boatman who had looked after her husband's fishing boat, and who had moved out to the bayou shanty town of Trois Rivieres since he went missing.

Note - the original posse had decided against going out to interview Barbeau, and indeed, this posse also declined the option, even though he was the last person to see the colonel alive. Obviously, the idea of a trip out into the swamp was simply not appealing. Interesting. In both cases it was the LeBoeuf player who objected the most strenuously.

On with the case. The detectives examined a photo of Whelan with the Colonel, and DeVille noticed the family resemblance to Claudio Ricci (Ricci had denied any knowledge of Whelan earlier in the day). They also checked the salami they had found in the dog kennel, and decided it had been laced with a commonly available sleeping drug.

The detectives drove out to the Lower Ninth, and it was DeVille who kicked in the door of the old man's shack after knocking, just as he was opening it. Thrown to the floor, Whelan had a gun shoved in his face but responded mainly with threats of retribution from the Black Hand. He confirmed Ricci was his cousin.

The detectives proceed to turn over the place, finding dog droppings and white poodle hair, and a sawn-off shotgun. Most interestingly, however, LeBoeuf achieved a couple of raises on his Notice check, and discovered $500 in cash, plus a bag of $1000 in gold coins from the Federal mint in Washington DC. This raised eyebrows, but it was the threat of taking it altogether that got Whelan to open up, confessing his role in the plot to steal the dog.
Chez Whelan - lovely!

Whelan confirmed the dog was being held at Sanzone's, and that his cousin Ricci was in the middle of talks with a US spy called Zane to sell something to the Union, a secret weapon of some kind his former boss had stolen in turn from Fort 51 in New Mexico, when he was a guard there in the Great War. Zane had already coughed up some cash to examine the weapon, which looked like a small vial of transparent liquid.

The detectives took $250 of Whelan's money, advised him to skip town, and proceeded over to Sanzone's as dusk was gathering, in order to get there before Whelan could alert Ricci. Their main objective was still to retrieve the poodle; the secret weapon, whatever it was, did not cross their minds. Not much patriotism here.

DeVille and Gordon stayed in a bar across the street from Sanzone's while the other three walked in and Vestal used her charms (raise on a Persuasion check) to get them seated. They noticed a trio of Black Hand goons in a nearby booth, but no sign of Ricci. LeBoeuf scouted the basement of the restaurant, ostensibly on a trip to the facilities, and found a cook (Luigi), feeding the poodle in a side room. The cook was suspicious of LeBoeuf, and ushered him out, locking the door.

As LeBoeuf returned to the table, and the detectives ordered some wine, Ricci arrived, accompanied by Zane and another American spy. They proceeded to sit down and order some drinks. DeVille and Gordon, who had seen Ricci arrive, decided to see if they could get into the restaurant too, dropping Ricci's name to get themselves a seat at the back.

They now had to hatch a plan without communicating with each other. They finally accomplished this by having Vestal head to the bathroom, and signal to Gordon. The scientist followed her and she briefed them on the scheme. I won't tell you what it was, because it is irrelevant to what happened next, only that Leboeuf injected drugged the bottle of wine on their table.

Ricci presented Zane with what looked like a box of cigars, whereupon Zane and his friend got up to leave. At this precise moment Vestal was returning from the bathroom and her meeting with Gordon, and chose to pretend a collision with Zane, knocking over the box of cigars. The cigars went everywhere, particularly in front of the table where LeRalf was sitting. The voodoo priest dropped a serviette over a small, glass cylinder that tumbled out with the cigars. The only person who spotted this was the second US agent but as he approach LeRalf, the Frenchman cast Confusion on him. LeRalf fed more power into the spell, also confusing the three Sicilian mobsters and Zane.

DeVille now decided to walk up to Ricci's table, sit down and ask for the return of the poodle. Throughout the adventure, the Harrowed had been consistently focused on finding the missing dog, but not getting involved in cross-border espionage, and certainly not becoming embroiled with the Black Hand. Now, his requests just threw Ricci into a rage. He jumped up, knocked over his table and started to pull a gun. His guards still remained too confused to do anything. LeBoeuf ran up to them, disarmed one, and shot Ricci!

"Don't make any sudden moves!"
Meanwhile, Vestal pulled a gun on Zane, covering him, while LeRalf opened his violin case in time to get the drop on the other US spy. Things moved fast, as the trio of Black Hand hoods threw off the confusion hex, but before they could do anything else, Gordon moved in and used his plasma belt to fry them, effectively reducing them to ash with a major explosion on his damage dice (there were a lot of them in this game). This more or less ended the fight, as Ricci surrendered to save his own skin, and took a swig of wine to calm his nerves - from a bottle LeBoeuf had put on his table. He was soon fast asleep. DeVille and Vestal headed downstairs to retrieve Lucy the poodle, before Luigi the chef could notice something was up.

This left a stand off between Vestal and Zane, with LeRalph covering the other agent. LeRalf had already palmed the serum. Zane was under the impression that the serum was on the floor somewhere, amid the cigars, while his colleague was still failing to shake off the confusion hex. Hence, the detectives decided now was a good time to beat a retreat, leaving Zane scrabbling on the floor among the cigars for the missing serum and Ricci out cold.

The plot wrapped up pretty neatly after that. Gordon and LeBoeuf analysed the serum and discovered it was actually some form of engineered physical enhancer and fear suppressant. The detectives decided to bury it with the remains of Colonel Hayes - after collecting their fee from Mrs Hayes of course! Vestal wanted very much to file a story with the papers in New York, but DeVille talked her out of it, telling her maybe she should just turn it into a novel. Who would believe it anyway?

Monday, 5 December 2016

Deadlands: Looking For Lucy Redux

As is fast becoming a habit for me, I ran a game at Dragonmeet in London last weekend. My morning was looking a little unpredictable, so in the end I went with the afternoon slot. I wish I'd had a little more time to see the rest of the show and maybe go to some seminars. I hope that I can make it to UK Games Expo this year and run some games there.

For my slot I reprised an adventure from my Deadlands Noir campaign, using the same characters. I walked them backwards a bit in terms of experience, as some of them are Veteran level, and the adventure was originally written for Novice characters. Ultimately, I think they were probably still a little too tough for the challenges.

As a reminder to readers, the characters were:

  • Nukara Vestal - a journalist from New York
  • Lee DeVille - a Harrowed private eye
  • Le Ralf - a dilettante voodoo priest from France
  • Gordon Ramsey - a patent scientist who thinks he can talk to cats
  • Doctor LeBoeuf - a doctor with a comatose wife and an issue with technology
 I had a full slate of five players on the day, including two who registered in advance. As ever with Dragonmeet, the games tended to get filled very quickly on the day (a portion of player slots can be booked in advance, but even these disappear rapidly). My advice is book in advance or turn up early on the day if you're thinking of going next year.

I decided this time around to keep DeVille's Harrowed status a secret. His player managed to keep this secret to himself, relying on a flask of whisky to help him hide the smell of decay. In the character notes I specified this, leaving it up to the player as to whether he wanted to come clean, so to speak.

I would suggest reading my write up of the first time I ran this to familiarise yourself with the plot. As before, the detectives met with wealthy widow Kitty Hayes, and were shown around the garden and the dog kennels by Oliver Tournier, her attractive young butler. They noticed the various clues available, including the Italian cigarette stub and drugged salami. They spent quite some time searching the gardens, and discovered the footprints of the undead Colonel Hayes in the flower beds, but suspected it was just an ordinary intruder (in the original story he was photographed incidentally by Vestal while peeping in through a window).

A further interview was conducted with the butler, at which point the detectives learned that he had succeeded Herman Whelan, the colonel's previous butler, who had been let go by Mrs Hayes. They also began to suspect that Tournier and the widow Hayes had a more than professional relationship. It was at this point that Tournier told them about the intruder he had disturbed in the colonel's study a few weeks earlier.

The detectives had a look around the study while DeVille kept the widow Hayes entertained, and Doctor LeBoeuf tried to rifle through the colonel's papers, but was prevented from doing so by Tournier. LeBoeuf tried a Persuade roll on the butler with his d10 in the skill, but fluffed it. He decided it was not worth a bennie for the re-roll.

LeBoeuf persuaded Tournier to let the detectives take the widow's other dog for a walk around the area, following their usual walking route. He took Vestal and LeRalf with him. Meanwhile DeVille had made a connection between the cigarette and the Black Hand crime syndicate using his Streetwise, and he and Gordon headed over to Sanzone's restaurant in the Central District.

"Mister Ricci doesn't like his lunch being interrupted."
Here they breezed into Sanzone's and had a sit down with Claudio Ricci (Mike 'the Stick' Whelan re-cast by GM fiat). Ricci proved to be obdurate, denying all knowledge of poodle-napping, but eventually offering the detectives a deal on cheap (smuggled) cigarettes. DeVille decided to return to the Hayes mansion in the Garden District.

While walking the dog, Vestal's player asked to burn a bennie to find a clue. The dog stopped and started barking at something over a cemetery wall. The detectives found their way into the locked and disused boneyard, picking the lock to get in. Here they found some river slime on the inside of the wall. While LeBoeuf examined it, LeRalf climbed up onto the wall for a look around, and spotted a large, rotund figure in a trench coat and trilby sneaking away through the cemetery. He directed Vestal to give chase, and then followed himself, with LeBoeuf and the dog, Bob, further behind.

I used the Savage Worlds chase rules, and Vestal proved to be a surprisingly nimble pursuer. Her quarry reached the far wall of the cemetery, and started climbing it. The reporter caught up with the figure and jumped for its foot, grabbing it by the ankle, at which point it was revealed to be a Bloat (the undead colonel). Vestal passed her Fear check at TN 5. At this point LeRalf arrived, spending a bennie to still be in possession of his violin case with its Thompson .45 SMG. He opened the case and proceeded to spray the Bloat with gunfire - luckily not rolling any 1s, which could have been problematic! Vestal now managed to beat the Bloat/Hayes in an opposed Strength test to drag it back into the cemetery, whereupon she jumped up and started shooting it.

LeRalf - not your ordinary voodoo priest...
DeVille's player then burned a bennie to have himself and Gordon returning from the CBD as the shooting started (they had noted that it was not far by car from Sanzone's back to the Garden District). As they pulled up on the other side of the cemetery, they could hear the shooting going on from inside. LeRalf now used his Occult knowledge to identify the Bloat's vulnerability to alcohol (it was proving a tough nut for the detectives to hurt with a hail of gunfire). As DeVille and Gordon climbed onto the wall, LeRalf shouted to DeVille, who promptly opened his whisky flask and poured it onto the Bloat (2d6 damage). LeBoeuf followed up with some surgical spirit  and set it on fire with a lighter (3d6 damage, in this case exploding). This proved to be the end of the Bloat, which was soon a blob of scorched flesh against the cemetery wall.

Vestal had already identified the Bloat as Colonel Hayes, having seen his photo back in the mansion. The detectives removed a gold wedding ring from its finger, and returned to the mansion with further questions...

Next time - Showdown At Sanzone's

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Safe House

It can be difficult to make a good espionage movie set in the post-Cold War era, but now and again little gems are brought to light. Recovering as I am from yet another winter cold, I caught Safe House on Netflix. This stars Ryan Reynolds as a very junior CIA agent, in this case stuck in a dead end assignment in Cape Town, where he is the custodian of an unofficial CIA safe house. His job is basically to idle the day away, awaiting a call from his superiors, while trying to persuade his boss, played by Brendan Gleeson, to post him to Paris.

Why Paris, you ask? Because he is dating a hot French doctor who is about to return there, and Paris has to be a better career move in the spy stakes than South Africa.

Enter Denzel Washington at stage left. Denzel plays Tobin Frost, a legendary CIA agent from the 1980s and 1990s who eventually got sick of the agency and dropped off the grid to become a sort of freelance spy. He is walking around with some very incriminating data which he wants to auction to the highest bidder. He is in cahoots with a corrupt MI6 agent played by Liam "King Theoden" Cunningham, who obtained the files in the first place.

I don't really want to go much deeper into the plot without spoiling it, but it is a classic spy drama, with wheels turning within wheels, and a mounting sense of desperate paranoia. Reynolds is great as the wet behind the ears Ivy League type who gets dropped in the deep end of a fast evolving situation, and reminds me a little of Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor. Washington can be a bit wooden at times, but it is nice to see him playing the embittered veteran, and boy is he bitter this time! Other people worth mentioning are Sam Shepard as the deputy director of the CIA, Robert "Terminator 2" Patrick leading a team of undercover special ops troops, Vera Farmiga as an ambitious thirtysomething CIA operator and Fares Fares as a chillingly ruthless assassin.

Robert Patrick leads a CIA covert ops rendition team in this one.

South Africa is a very different choice for a setting. It occasionally intrudes into the plot - e.g. a forger is located in a shanty town, and there is a great scene that takes place during a football match.

You might come away from Safe House feeling that it is a bit formulaic, but it ticks so many of the boxes for this genre that I have to commend it for its technical execution, and I always admire that, even if some originality is lacking. The light in South Africa, which was also evident in the TV series Black Sails, is just phenomenal, and seems to make the camera's job easy, particularly in the scenes outside Cape Town.

Safe House is a grittier movie than the Bourne series. People are able to screw up and do so, frequently. Silly things go wrong for the good guys and the bad guys, and I like that. Worth seeing if you can catch it on Netflix this month.

What happens in the safe house, stays in the safe house, or does it?

Monday, 28 November 2016

Playtest review of Mai-Star

Mai-Star, from AEG Games, is a wonderful little card game for 3-6 players, created by Seiji Kanai. All the art for the game looks to come from AEG's extensive back catalogue of Legend of the Five Rings card art, but you have to wonder how much longer AEG will be able to use this, now that the rights have gone to FFG. Still, the quality of the cards and the art is first rate, and while the game does not reference Rokugan specifically, you can pretend you are playing out the intrigues of the geishas of the Emerald Empire.

Mai-Star is about geisha. Each player has one geisha character, and they are all rated for three talents, namely Performance, Service and Intelligence. But this is really just your reputation, not your actual ability. You can only attract customers by improving your reputation.

The game is played in three rounds. Geisha score according to the wealth of the customers they entertain. Each round, a player chooses one character from his hand to either be a customer, or to advertise for the geisha. Advertisers help to promote the geisha in one of the three core abilities. To entertain characters as clients, however, the geisha must meet their minimum demands in one of the core abilities, hence the importance of having reliable folk out and about promoting you.

There are quite a wide variety of characters. Some, like the scholars and ronin, pay less money but don't have massive expectations, and are good clients to use early on. Actors have money, but also make the best ambassadors for the geisha. Okasan are also excellent at spreading the word.

Many characters have particular special abilities which they can help a geisha with if they become your guests. These do not kick in if the geisha simply have them as advertisers. For example, the doctor is wealthy, but also lets you take a second turn. The thief lets you get rid of another player's guest. The sumo lets you see another player's hand and discard one of his cards. The ronin is good for protection but lacks cash. There don't seem to be many samurai, but they are quite affluent, even more well-heeled than doctors!

There are some strategically critical characters, however. The first of these are the daimyo. They are difficult to lure in, but if they turn up as your guest, then they can attract all the advertisers you have out there of the same colour card. This means they all turn up to party with the daimyo and spend more money. It basically reflects clan politics, where the presence of the feudal lord attracts his followers.

The other two characters of import are the monk and the shogun. The shogun allows the player to add his remaining cards in his hand as guests and end the round, while the monk (right) will just end the round, which is good if you're ahead. There is only one shogun and one monk. Scoring is based on the total wealth of guests entertained in the round, minus the wealth of cards still in hand. Mai-Star lasts three rounds. The winner is the geisha with the most money at the end.

I have to say I really like Mai-Star. It is quick to play, and keeps you thinking all the way through. Even with more players, I don't think it would last appreciably longer, as the shogun and monk cards will still succeed in ending the round speedily. Although I was beaten in both games I played, it was enormous fun, and I hammered the table in furstration on several occasions, so caught up was I in the intrigues of the geisha. My only criticism, and it is a small one, is that players with experience of the game have a distinct advantage over newcomers. Hence, I would advise playing a practice round, even if you have only one newbie at the table.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

The French are coming!

June 15, 1815, 10 o'clock in the morning, at Ligny

I've not had any communications from the British, although I think Wellington may still be in Brussels. A small  unit of Hanoverians rode in out of the dawn mist at Binche for a chat with Zeithen. Indications are that there may be Anglo-Dutch forces at Quatre Bras, but again, I have no idea at all how many soldiers are there. The French, however, are most certainly on the move. As expected, they have tried to assault across the river at Dinant, a sneaky move. My division there is under attack as of this morning.

Also, a second attack has come in against the division at Laneffe. Again, the purpose of its presence there was to try to detect where the French were coming from and reinforce accordingly. I've no idea what sort of strength is involved in either area at this stage. It could be a probing attack, it could be a full-blooded assault.

Finally, a third French force is trying to get across at Thuin. The big question is, which one is Napoleon's main thrust?

We also have reports of ANOTHER French force in Mons. I'm hoping my allies may be able to tackle that one, but it does sit on the right flank of the army, which could be problematic. If Napoleon is aiming for Brussels, I think this is the most likely route of his main attack.

Pirch's corps in Charleroi does not look like it will get the opportunity to fight a single opponent, but we need to get a feel for how many troops Napoleon is throwing across the river there. I am not entertaining any hopes of stopping the French there, but we need to reinforce that position today, and find out what is going on. Hence, Pirch is going to have to spread himself a bit wider, and reinforce his front where he can.

In the east, Thielemann is on his own at the moment with III Corps. I'm hoping this won't be a major French thrust against Namur, but if it is, we can handle it. Thielemann just needs to keep his wits about him, and be prepared to fall back if it turns out the main French thrust is there. We'll probably find out by early afternoon if he is in trouble.

In the west, I'm expecting more trouble, although here we have the benefit of the support of the allies on my right flank. The question is whether the English have their wits about them today? Zeithen should be able to handle whatever Napoleon has in Mons, at least until we can get a clearer picture.

I'm keeping some reserves up at Ligny and Gembloux. Why? Just because I'm paranoid. I don't believe in piling in with everything until I have the full picture, which right now I don't. Plus, it would be nice if the entire Prussian army wasn't wrecked in an afternoon. I'm hoping these divisions will be well placed to respond to a crisis, and reinforce where needed. In addition, I want to avoid marching my divisions all over the Belgian countryside, and getting them exhausted.

I'm moving my headquarters to Charleroi, as I want to be closer to where the action is, and to hear the sound of the guns. Plus I hear they do a mean carbonada flamande there, at the sign of Le Coq D'Or.

Generalfeldmarschall von Blucher

Monday, 31 October 2016

Dabbling in the Young Kingdoms

I've been reading some of the excellent fifth edition of Stormbringer recently, the RPG based on Michael Moorcock's Elric stories. This is the version that Chaosium published back in 2001, but it holds up well. I'm mulling over the possibility of running some in the New Year. We're currently enjoying our Dracula Dossier campaign, and I've got a Deadlands game to run at Dragonmeet in the meantime.

One of the ways I've found useful to get my head around a new system and setting, is to generate some characters. This also saves time, as busy players don't need to spend valuable hours designing their own PCs. I managed to crack Night's Black Agents this way, and am doing the same with Stormbringer. You can also tailor character's accurately to their back story, which is fun.

Another option is to find an interesting adventure written for a different system, and simply convert it for use in the one you're wanting to learn. The final step is to write your own!

Stormbringer actually has a very straightforward chargen system, which is a joy compared with the likes of Pathfinder or 4E. I have, however, already modified it slightly, drawing on rules modules from the latest edition of Cthulhu By Gaslight and Mongoose RuneQuest. This has given me characters that are a little more fleshed out than they might otherwise be. I will probably generate five altogether, and here are my first two efforts.

Behbehani of Dharijor, 22 yoa, female, 5' 4", 100lbs

STR 14, CON 11, INT 13, DEX 16, POW 15, APP12, SIZ 10

Damage bonus: 0; Hit points 11; Magic points 15

Behbehani has very pale skin and grew up on a farm in Dharijor. She was sent to work as a servant in the household of a wealthy merchant in Gromoorva called Sorcius. He turned out to be a cruel and heartless master, and imprisoned her in his mansion. He also met regularly with clients from Pan Tang. Eventually, Behbehani disturbed a thief called Carkan who broke into Sorcius' house one night. She threatened to raise the alarm unless Carkan took her with him. He agreed, and the two have now escaped from Gromoorva.

Skills: Art (Courtly Manners) 45%, Art (Tell Story) 35%, Bargain 35%, Craft (Animal Husbandry) 35%, Disguise 55%, Evaluate 35%, Fast Talk 55%, Insight 35%, Listen 75%, Natural World 55%, Oratory 25%, Own Language 85%, Other Language - New Melnibonean 20%, Physik 60%, Ride 55%, Scent / Taste 45%, Search 40%

Weapons - Knife 45%, Axe 45%, Grain Flail 40%

Allegiance - Law 3, Chaos 1, Balance 0; Cash - 85 bronzes

Boon - Sidekick (Carkan the Thief)

Datix - the Tatooed Troubadour of Temoraz, 26 yoa, male, 6', 1", 205lbs

 STR 13, CON 15, INT 12, DEX 16, POW 17, APP 16, SIZ 15

Damage bonus: +1d4; Hit points 15; Magic points 17

Datix is a traveling minstrel from the Isle of the Purple Towns. Of noble background, he was turned out of his family's esteem when he refused to accept the title of heir to his father's estates in favour of his musical career. This followed the disappearance of his brother on a trading expedition to Dorel. Datix had relied on the patronage of wealthy admirers in Temoraz and further afield, but being ostracised by his family has forced him to take ship in search of his missing brother. Datix walks with a limp (from an injury sustained when falling off a table in an inn in Temoraz during a particularly lively performance), and sports beautiful tattoos up both legs, which he likes to show off by wearing a kilt.

Skills: Art (Lute) 55%, Art (Song) 40%,  Bargain 65%, Conceal Object 45%, Disguise 35%, Evaluate 35%, Fast Talk 65%, Hide 40%, Insight 65%, Natural World 45%, Oratory 55%, Own Language 60%, Pick Lock 25%, Search 40%

Weapons - Falchion 60%, Harpoon 45%

Spells - Suppleness of Xiombarg (1-3), Visage of Arioch (1-3), Wisdom of Slortar (1-3)

Allegiance - Chaos 3, Balance 1, Law 0; Cash - 150 bronzes

Curse - Limp (-1 MOV)

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Deadlands Noir At Dragonmeet

Just a quick post this week, as I'm insanely busy with work stuff. I will be attending Dragonmeet in London again this year, as I had much fun last year. It is at a new venue, the Novotel London West. Like Games Expo UK, I suspect it will continue to grow as interest in RPGs and board games increases.

I will be running Deadlands Noir in one of the afternoon slots with pre-gen characters adapted from the player characters that participated in my last campaign. For some bizarre reason, under the listings section, it declares I'll be using Fighting Fantasy Stellar Adventures - this is most definitely not the case, and I will be using Savage Worlds, which is what the game was written for.

I will be making efforts to rectify this error with the organizers at Dragonmeet. Hopefully!

A brief synopsis of the game for those remotely interested: The PCs are all members of a recently established New Orleans detective agency. The year is 1935. The cold war between the United and Confederate States has prevailed since the 1870s, despite both countries participating as allies in the Great War in Europe. A wealthy young widow has had her prize poodle Lucy stolen and wants it back. It doesn't sound like a challenging case, but the money is good and the detectives are keen to get themselves established within high society in the Big Easy...

Just remember - NOT using Fighting Fantasy!

Monday, 10 October 2016

Tour of Darkness: Into Laos

I'm a soldier of freedom in the army of man
We are the chosen, we're the partisan
The cause it is noble and the cause it is just
We are ready to pay with our lives if we must

Gonna ride across the river deep and wide
Ride across the river to the other side...

Dire Straits - 'Ride Across The River'

We left our Marines as they had just been ordered by the mysterious army intelligence officer, Major Schuler, to cross over into Laos to recover a camera from a crashed F4 Phantom. According to the current I Corps rules of engagement, as delivered to the Marines by their CO Captain Veneziano on their first day at FB Tripoli, this was illegal. Schuler stressed they would be on their own in Laos, with no support.

Their first obstacle was fording a very wide river. Luckily it was no deeper than waist high, and there were a number of sand banks at the crossing point still above water. Because of the width of the river, the soldiers would be very exposed, and they knew few of their weapons had the range to cover the squad from the Vietnamese bank.
"Roll to check for leeches..."

With over two hours until sunset, and with speed of the essence, Lieutenant 'Coop' Cooper decided to bring the whole squad across as quickly as possible. Unknown to him, a small group of four Viet Cong were posted on the Laotian bank. They had decided to wait for the Americans to get within short range of their AK47s before they opened fire (to avoid any penalties from medium range). They had the Marines dead to rights out in the water when one of them was spotted by the Rat, who started shooting first. Some of the American soldiers were able to take cover behind sand banks as the VC shot back.

Technically, the communists were in a good position, in shallow trenches and hidden in the jungle, but their muzzle flashes allowed the Marines to pinpoint them, and the unit's two big killers - Rat and Billy Bob, got to work again, with a well-placed grenade taking care of two guerrillas, and Rat killing a third with his sniper rifle. The Marines' radio man, PFC Josh Edgin, was hit and badly wounded. Luckily for him, corpsman Arnold 'Arnie' Seine was on hand to treat him before he expired.

Having finished off the VC, Coop decided to leave the wounded Edgin with Seine on the Vietnamese side of the river, and pushed on towards the crash site with only six Marines. The downed Phantom was easily located, but there was no sign of the camera in the wreckage. The body of one of the pilots was discovered, and it looked as if someone had carved pieces off him with a knife. Tracks around the site revealed that the other pilot had survived and had been captured and escorted away by men in sandals.

The Marines decided to follow the tracks - it looked like the enemy were not making much effort to cover their trail, making it easier for Rat and Jugula to follow them. The Marines were helped by the fact that the VC were more relaxed this side of the river, and not expecting to encounter US troops in Laos. Towards nightfall, the Americans spotted torchlight up ahead, and approached a ruined temple, overgrown with vines and trees.

The site was illuminated by torches, and scouting of the area revealed three VC sentries (the torches had been set there to provide illumination for a sniper who had been posted on overwatch in a tree overlooking the clearing). One guard was lured towards the jungle by Coop, who dispatched him with a machete, while another was killed by Jugula, using his compound bow. This allowed Rat to sneak up on the temple and climb the wall, disguised as a Viet Cong (he is a slight man, so was hoping not to alert anyone).

Inside the temple, Rat spotted three men standing by an altar, what looked like a North Vietnamese army officer, and two identical-looking American pilots. While Rat was observing, he was himself spotted by the VC sniper in a tree across the clearing, who opened fire on Rat. Coop decided to launch his attack on the temple, and the Marines swarmed in, shooting a third VC sentry and with Billy Bob popping a smoke grenade into the temple to screen them from the sniper. One of the pilots began chanting in a strange language, and Rat saw a wall of vines grow up around the trio by the altar, screening them from enemy fire (this was hidden from the others by the smoke).

Luckily for the Marines, the VC sniper's somewhat shoddy Chinese knock off of a Russian weapon jammed, and while he struggled with this, the Marines closed in on the altar. A wall of force was projected out at them from behind the vines, hitting them like a giant, invisible first, but Spirit rolls prevailed, and the Marines managed to down the NVA officer before he could do any damage.

One of the 'pilots' now chose this moment to flee straight towards one of the temple walls, impossibly seeming to disappear through it. Coop and Jugula gave chase, and found that a Gate spell had been used to create an emergency exit through the 15 foot wall for the fugitive. Following him through the gate, they saw him trying to flee into the jungle, now in his real guise of a Tcho Tcho shaman. Sadly for him, I was now nearly out of GM bennies, and three Marines began shooting at him with automatic weapons. He was scythed down in a vicious hail of lead.
VC sniper decides it is time to leave.

With that the fighting ended, as the lone VC sniper decided to fade into the jungle. The other pilot proved to be the real one, his feet strangely secured to the ground by vines. The camera was also found, next to the altar. Coop decided it was time for the Marines to leave, and they headed back to the river, taking the pilot with them. Seine and Edgin were picked up en route to their rendezvous with Major Schuler.

Schuler was pleased to take custody of the pilot and the camera, and said he might need the services of Coop and his men in the future. A medevac was organised for Edgin once the Marines were safely back in Vietnam.

Returning to base, the Marines were told the official story of the night's events should be that they were on an ambush patrol and tangled with some VC, end of story. However, it was not long before they were told they had earned two weeks of R&R in Bangkok. I like to think of them enjoying a few cold beers in a bar in Thailand, when they are approached again by Schuler, now wearing a loud batik shirt and mirror shades. Perhaps it is time to learn a little more about Delta Green?

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Tour of Darkness: Monkey Business

Cuter than you thought they were...?
Back to Tour of Darkness this week, where we had left our patrol of Marines under fire in the jungle. Luckily, Lieutenant 'Coop' Cooper had smelled tobacco smoke (from a hastily stubbed out cigarette) and alerted the rest of the unit, allowing some of the men to get off the trail. Ahead of them, a Viet Cong unit was opening fire.

This proved to be an interesting engagement. The VC plan was to ambush the Americans, then fall back down a trail, and hopefully the Marines would pursue them. They had thoughtfully dug a pit with punji stakes which would be waiting for the pursuers when they gave chase.

Things did not go entirely to plan for Charlie. Firstly, only the point man of the US patrol was hit, although he was badly hit and collapsed from multiple wounds. Everybody else managed to vacate the trail, and some Marines began returning fire. Plus, with all the jungle vegetation and long grass, once the Marines were off the trail, they got a lot harder to hit (in game terms, the target number to hit went from a 4 to an 8). Most of the Americans prudently hugged the dirt and stayed down, making them very hard to hit.

The VC were in a clearing, although taking advantage of long grass. However, they did not reckon with Billy Bob and his grenade launcher, which again quickly started doing considerable damage as he began dropping grenades into the middle of the VC unit. The Viet Cong commander gave the order to retreat, but the Americans still managed to kill most of the guerillas before they disappeared up the trail. Corpsman Arnie Seine managed to stabilise the badly wounded PFC Niese, while Coop called in a chopper for a medevac.

Coop ordered Sergeant Massie to search the bodies of the dead VC - no effort was made to pursue them. Rat and Billy Bob both climbed trees to go on overwatch. Massie found a gold medallion on one of the dead, but Rat spotted him trying to conceal it in his boot (rolling an 11 on his Notice), and Coop forced him to hand it over. Coop recognised the image as being similar to the foul elephant god they had encountered in statue form at Sau Vang, so hastily passed it on to Jugula.

As the helicopter approached to evacuate Niese, Billy Bob was suddenly attacked by wild monkeys while still in the tree. Altogether, five attacked him, but he lashed around himself with his machete, eventually killing three while he tried to climb down the tree. Three more monkeys converged on Rat, but this time the Marines spotted them, and they were quickly gunned down before they could attack the sniper. As the surviving monkeys tried to chase Billy Bob down the tree, the Marines managed to pick them off. Billy Bob survived with just one bite. I was a bit disappointed with this encounter - I had expected the monkeys to do more damage, and when Billy Bob climbed up a tree, I couldn't believe my luck. If he had taken a Shaken result, he was looking at 3d6 damage when he hit the ground, and his player knew it.
Not as cute as you thought they were...!

The helicopter arrived to pick up Niese, while Rat marveled at the uncharacteristic behaviour of the monkeys. Coop, realising that he had now lost his best point man, moved Rat up on to point. Which was lucky, because the sharp-eyed Rat spotted the punji trap easily once the soldiers moved 300 metres up the trail. The Viet Cong had already decided to prudently avoid further engagement.

The rest of the patrol went according to plan, with no further enemy contact, and the Marines made it back to Firebase Tripoli in one piece. Rat persuaded Jugula to give him the medallion, but could not figure out what it represented. Niese was sent to hospital in Japan, while Gee returned to the unit from Da Nang.

The Marines rested up at FB Tripoli for a few days, before Captain Veneziano sent them out again, this time to set up a night ambush on one of the trails intel suspected the North Vietnamese were using to infiltrate into the South. En route to the ambush location, they received orders by radio to rendezvous with a Major Schuler from Army intelligence. The major duly met them in a clearing, arriving by helicopter. He quickly briefed Coop on a fast developing situation across the border in Laos.

Apparently a reconnaissance flight - an F4 Phantom - had been shot down while taking photos over Laos, a couple of hours previous. As the nearest unit to the border (less than an hour away on foot), the Marines were ordered to go into Laos and retrieve any survivors and the camera from the plane. Officially, they were not meant to be there, but the intelligence the plane may have acquired was considered vital. The Marines were given the likely location of the crash site. No assets would be available to support them once they crossed into Laos. They would be on their own.

To be continued...

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Starting in a Napoleonic wargames campaign

Gerhard von Blucher
I'm recovering from severe bronchitis, so was not able to run the third part of my Tour of Darkness game this week, which was disappointing. Apologies to anyone awaiting an update on that. Instead, I've finally got around to something else I have had in the pipeline, namely a Waterloo strategic campaign in which I have enlisted. I have landed the role of one of the Prussian generals, none other than Blucher himself! Hence, I'm spending a somewhat wet weekend in Sussex working out my initial deployments.

The campaign is being managed by a neutral umpire in Canada, and I am assuming that hidden movement plays a big part in the whole process - i.e. just like the historical commanders in 1815, you don't have the benefit of satellite recon! Given that this blog is publicly available, and there is every chance that the French players may be reading this, I will have to be deliberately vague on some aspects of my operations. Indeed, much of the information you see on this blog will be common knowledge to the French players.

I'm quite excited about getting this campaign started. My familiarity with the Waterloo campaign (as opposed to the actual battle) is somewhat limited. Hence, I've done a little bit of reading up. Lack of communications between the Prussians and the Anglo-Dutch army seems to have been one key concern in the early stages of the campaign. Given I've had no contact with Wellington so far, this seems to be evolving along historical lines!

When looking at a campaign like this, you are tempted to review the historical deployments first. In my case, I had a look at the geographical situation in the first instance, then at the available Prussian forces. I immediately came to some conclusions about where my corps should be, and saw that they were very similar to Blucher's. However, I may also make some alternative deployments that the great man did not, largely because I can, and there may have been practical operational considerations for his dispositions that I can happily ignore!

The great thing about playing in a game like this is having no idea what the opposition is up to, or which direction they are going to come from. It is the classic double blind situation, which makes everything all the more exciting. Hence you need to be quite cautious in your initial dispositions - at least, I am. Luckily, I've got some knowledge about the practicalities of Napoleonic warfare, and what is possible for the French army and what is not.

The Prussians begin with four army corps in eastern Belgium. At this stage I am able to detach individual brigades and divisions to other locations. I'm being prudent, keeping detachments within easy reach; for the main part I'm using advance detachments to cover key river crossings and approach routes, but in some areas they have been deployed so that they can react quickly to fast-moving situations.

One must also bear in mind the fact that, in this simulation as in history, the French could move more quickly, and this was a key operational aspect of the success of Napoleon's armies. Hence, my Prussian commanders will need to choose wisely to avoid being outflanked. More on this as and when I have further news. I would go into more detail on my strategic thinking, but at this stage don't want to disclose too much to French spies!

The Prussian army on the march!

Monday, 26 September 2016

Tour of Darkness: the Battle of Sau Vang

The last of the Arkham Pickmans...
Two weeks ago, our unit of Marines was sitting down to a rice planting festival feast in the village of Sau Vang, in the Ah Shau Valley. They were very surprised when three of their number passed out, and quickly realised that their food was drugged. Platoon sergeant Jugula had fired off a few rounds from his tommy gun in response, only for the Marines to be attacked by hostile villagers armed with machetes and bamboo poles.

In a close fought melee, while the rest of the peasants ran screaming, the Marines resorted to machetes and point blank bursts of fire from their M16s to fend off their attackers. Medical corpsman Arnie was wounded, and there were a few other close calls, but flak jackets and M1 helmets proved useful protection.

In the midst of the fight, Jugula began to feel a little odd: he was seized by extreme pain and a burning sensation throughout his being. Smoke began coming off his skin, and his hair stood on end. As he was crouching in agony, one of his men pointed out a richly dressed woman in the window of the headman's hut, chanting, with her eyes closed and arms upraised. It was not long before multiple bursts of M16 fire put and end to her, and to Jugula's tribulations.

Shortly thereafter, the fight ended, as Billy Bob knocked out the last peasant, the rest having fled out to the fields around the village. Rat and an NPC Marine searched the headman's hut, and apart from the dead body of the woman, discovered a secret compartment in the floor, in which were concealed some ancient wooden tablets, inscribed with Chinese writing. Rat decided to keep them for himself - although Billy Bob also knows he has them.

The Marines searched the rest of the village, and it was lieutenant Cooper who came across the old temple on the outskirts of Sau Vang. Here, he discovered a baleful statue of a disturbing, monstrous, elephant-headed deity. Its eyes seemed to follow him around the temple, eventually causing him to empty his M16 into the statue. The gunfire brought Jugula running, and he did the same with his SMG. The statue looked to be made of wood, and covered in gold leaf. The Marines decided it would be prudent to burn the whole temple.

Next, the lone prisoner was interrogated. He proved to be largely uncooperative, although he claimed the attack on the Marines was staged by communist infiltrators in the village, and that they had coerced him.

Luckily for the Marines, Jugula had posted a couple of men on watch, and it was one of these that now noticed a lone Vietnamese soldier in communist fatigues and a pith helmet sneaking towards the village using a padi dike for cover. Rat climbed onto the roof of the headman's hut, and was able to snipe the soldier. This, however, caused his comrades, who were also sneaking up on the village, to open fire.

Two NPC Marines were pinned in a hut on the edge of the village, but did a good job of keeping the North Vietnamese soldiers busy, while Rat continued to pick them off one by one from his vantage point. Coop and Jugula took cover in a nearby hut, and sought to direct the fight while lying flat on the floor. Billy Bob eventually took a hand, using his M79 grenade launcher to good effect. The end result was that the surviving NVA troops fled, but none made it alive to the cover of the jungle. Sadly, PFC Pickman had been shot and killed in the course of this engagement.

Corpsman Arnie recommended that the unit end its patrol and call in a helicopter for extraction to Firebase Tripoli. Coop took his advice, but the Marines had to wait a bit for a CH46 to come and get them. Luckily no more communist troops appeared, despite the smoke from the burning temple roiling into the sky.

Another pagan temple goes up in smoke...

Back at FB Tripoli, PFC Gee was medevaced to Da Nang for treatment. Coop briefed captain Veneziano on the patrol, explaining that the Marines had been ambushed by communist sympathizers at Sau Vang, which Veneziano seems to have accepted. Sau Vang has now been noted as a suspect hamlet by intelligence.

While the Marines rested at Tripoli, Rat began the translation of the Chinese tablets, which seem to be a holy text relating to some kind of Asian deity that is said to dwell in the hills. He learned a ritual from the tablets (in game - Fear spell) but is now becoming more unhinged. The weather has also deteriorated as the spring monsoon begins, with torrential downpours punctuated by mist that reduces visibility to less than 100 metres.

The Marines also debated what to do about top sergeant 'Massive' Massie, whom they believe has tried to kill the Rat by hiding a viper in his sleeping bag and may / may not have laid a booby trap on a trail they were using. Massie is attended by a small posse of mean looking Marines called the Bad News Boys who may / may not be involved in his drug running activities. Eventually the players hit on the idea of persuading Veneziano to let them take Massie - and only Massie - with them on their next patrol, so that they could have the 'benefit of his experience.' Massie didn't seem happy about this when Veneziano agreed, but couldn't pull rank on Coop. Down two men, Coop decided to take corporal Wheeler with him this time, as Wheeler was keen for a crack at Charlie.

"Hey, that's my call sign!"
The new patrol was a recon mission along the border with Laos, to look for signs of enemy activity and perhaps engage any communists infiltrating over the frontier into South Vietnam. The terrain was dense jungle, with little sign of human habitation. Coop kept himself in the centre of the patrol, next to his radio man. Suddenly, they heard someone using their own call sign on the radio. Although there was plenty of interference, they heard the voice calling down an artillery strike on their position. Before the order could be countermanded, the Marines heard shells incoming. They scattered into the jungle to avoid the barrage. Sadly, Wheeler was not lucky, and took a direct hit, vaporizing him instantly.

Coop got on the radio to Tripoli to stop any further artillery. He managed to raise Veneziano, who was of the opinion that communications had somehow become compromised by the enemy. Until they could figure out what was going on, he ordered the patrol to keep radio silence unless absolutely essential.

The patrol camped overnight in torrential rain without incident. In the morning, they pressed on. Rat noted some monkeys following the soldiers in the treetops. He consulted Massie who said they might be hoping the Marines would drop some food. Close to noon, before the lunch stop, Coop suddenly smelled tobacco smoke. With seconds to spare, he ordered his men off the trail, just as the jungle erupted with enemy fire...

Monday, 12 September 2016

Savage Worlds Tour of Darkness

This week, while our regular GM takes a break to tackle work, I finally got to run my Vietnam War mini-campaign. I had originally intended returning to my Deadlands Noir urban sandbox, but the plot there has become quite complex, and with a new-ish player at the table, I felt it was a tall order expecting him to catch up on a complex tale that has been running on and off for more than two years.

This Vietnam campaign uses Tour of Darkness for Savage Worlds, but includes elements of Realms of Cthulhu as well. The year is 1966, and the players are part of a platoon of US Marines assigned to Firebase Tripoli in the Ah Shau Valley. The firebase is there to help interdict the flow of troops and supplies from the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam.

We have started off with a group of five player characters, namely:

  • Medical Corpsman Arnold "Arnie" Seine, who can irritate his comrades by spontaneously slipping into French. I'm not sure whether he is Quebecois or Cajun, but he's picked up a -1 Charisma penalty as a result!
  • PFC Billy-Bob Bottle, the team's grenadier
  • PFC Roland "The Rat" Wochowski, a graduate of the Marine sniper school and a natural linguist.
  • Corporal Hunting Feather, aka Jugula, a Native American starting his second tour in the Nam. He is tattoed and bloodthirsty.
  • Lieutenant Zeb "Coop" Cooper - a green lieutenant just arrived in country.
The squad flew into Firebase Tripoli as part of a routine supply run. They were introduced to the commander of the base, Captain Bill Veneziano. They also met some of the other members of their platoon (NPC soldiers being run by me). Jugula had a run in with Sergeant "Massive" Massie, a 6' 5" muscled black marine who made it clear that he was running the base, and that Jugula ought to respect his authority. Later. as the troops were bedding down for the night, The Rat found a poisonous snake in his bed, which Jugula removed, but he suspects it may have had help in finding its way into Wochowski's sleeping bag.

In the morning, they were briefed on their first mission, namely a routine patrol over 48 hours, visiting three villages and checking in with the headmen at each settlement to see if they have noticed any signs of enemy activity. The marines took five men with them, but decided against taking an M60 gunner. Bottle was toting his grenade launcher, and took point.

A couple of hours into their first patrol, Bottle stepped on a toe popper booby trap and wounded his foot. He was patched up by corpsman Arnie, but Lt Coop decided to replace him with PFC Niese on point. Just as a note, I do enjoy the way Savage Worlds manages allied NPCs. It requires less heavy lifting by the GM than many other systems.

The squad reached their first destination, Xanh Nam, close to midday, which they established to be completely deserted, although with obvious signs of recent habitation. A search of the village uncovered two small boys hiding in a rice cache under one of the huts. They had been hidden there by their mother, and said the villagers had been taken away in the night by men speaking Vietnamese, but did not know whom. The marines established the villagers had left heading north, in the direction of Nhur Chu, their next destination.

Taking the two boys with them, the squad moved north. En route, PFC Niese spotted what looked like some abandoned communist webbing and a pack on the trail. Bottle tossed a rock at it, and, sure enough, it exploded, proving to be a booby trap. Jugula also noticed a cigar stub of the type he has seen Sgt Massie smoking. Moving on, the soldiers noted that the tracks they were following left the trail before they got to Nhur Chu, but Cooper decided to stay on mission.

The M 79 grenade launcher

At Nhur Chu, the soldiers stopped to speak to the headman, who seemed nervous but claimed he had seen no enemy soldiers, although he had seen Sgt Massie move through the village four days previous. It was also made obvious that the villagers grow marijuana and sell it to Massie in substantial quantities.

Jugula noticed six of the villagers were young men with military hair cuts. The marines decided to interrogate one, and he was persuaded by the Vietnamese-speaking Rat to tell them he had been press-ganged into the North Vietnamese army. He said he and his friends were deserters hiding out. He also informed the marines that there were NVA units in the vicinity, and agreed to let them  know if he saw any communist troops. Cooper decided to leave the two boys at Nhur Chu. The headman told him that Xanh Nam had been inhabited as recently as two days ago, and said he suspected the villagers there had been abducted by the NVA, possiblhy to serve as porters on the Ho Chi Minh trail. He said that the inhabitants of Sau Vang, the next hamlet, were aloof and generally arrogant, and that relations between Nhur Chu and Sau Vang were poor.

Pressing on, the marines were ambushed by a sniper, who hit PFC Gee, bringing up the rear. The Rat spotted the bunker the sniper was using and pointed it out as the soldiers took cover on both sides of the trail. Bottle used his M79 to lay smoke across the trail, and then Jugula and Cooper led an outflanking move while Arnie treated Gee. A grenade was popped into the bunker's aperture. Cooper ordered a search for other access points, and a trap door was uncovered, leading down into a tunnel. Cooper decided to go into the tunnel himself, backed up by Jugula. It led directly back to the bunker, where he found a spent cartridge from an old WW2 M1 Garand rifle. There was no sign of the sniper. The soldiers debated whether to medevac Gee, but as he was still able to walk, Cooper determined they should press on. Now two marines are hobbling.

Approaching Sau Vang as dusk fell, the unit chose to bivouac overlooking the village and move in at dawn. Here they found the villagers preparing for a festival for planting rice; the headman invited the marines to stay for food and dancing, although Cooper ordered his men not to drink the rice wine. Jugula and Rat stood guard while Bottle joined in with the dancing - despite his bad foot. Cooper began to feel woozy, despite avoiding the booze, while Jugula noticed similarities in the dancing and chanting to a ritual he had seen enacted on a reservation back in America in his youth. Cooper then realised that three of his marines, Starr, Edgin and Pickman, were asleep. Staggering to his feet, he understood his men had been drugged. Luckily, Arnie was on hand to apply adrenalin to the lieutenant.

Jugula, realising something was wrong, opened fire with his trademark Thompson SMG into the air, bringing a halt to the festivities. At that point, some angry looking villagers began arming themselves with machetes and bamboo spears...

To be continued...

Thursday, 8 September 2016

We play Numenera

Following on from my last post, the second game I played at BURPS Reunicon was Numenera, by Monte Cook Games. Numenera is another post-apocalyptic game, but you could also describe it as science fantasy. Its intriguing premise is that the characters are living in the earth's far future, but that much of the technology of the past ages has been lost to them.

I was initially a little sceptical about Numenera, in so far as it only has three character classes, namely nanos, glaives and jacks. I played a glaive in this game, called Hawmett. A glaive is a combat-focused character, while jacks are all-rounders, and nanos seem to have some form of psionic capability and are probably the most familiar with the 'numenera' of the game's title, which seems to be the way ancient technology has changed the world, and continues to change the world.

Our party consisted of two glaives, Satha and Hawmett, a jack called Sados, and a nano called Perem. We entered a small village that had been built around the Shadewalker, a massive artefact from an earlier age that seemingly had the capability to actually get up and move a few hundred metres every few years. The village was very much a trading locale for people and settlements from miles around, but other than serving as a point at which to congregate, the Shadewalker did not seem to serve any particular role for the village.

Numenera uses a d20 mechanic, but has a highly streamlined system. Characters use a pool of only three attributes - Might, Speed and Intellect - which control many aspects of their actions, as well as measuring damage. There are no hit points. Damage is tracked against your attributes, and as each pool is reduced to zero, characters can become Impaired or Debilitated.

Recovery is cunningly contrived: like in 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons, or Iron Heroes, characters have recovery actions: there are four, which you need to use in strict succession. Each takes longer than the previous one, with the last requiring 10 hours of recovery time. What this simulates is the increasing exhaustion a character might experience, until ultimately they are left with no option but to take a full 10 hours of rest. I really like this mechanic in particular, as characters can become debilitated and require help from their comrades; it feels a lot more realistic than hit points.

Another aspect I liked was cyphers: this is how the characters make use of the technology they find. Frequently, this technology may be used for something other than its original intention. Most of it is one use only, although there are some items than can be used repetitively. Technology jumps into the role of magic items in a fantasy game, but it does not quite feel like magic in the medieval sense. The game does seem to achieve the seamless interaction between a primitive society with advanced technology very effectively. I applaud this.

Returning to the plot, the Shadewalker suddenly decided to stand up and fly off, leaving the hapless villagers to turn to the adventurers and ask them to track the Shadewalker for them. Luckily, the machine was stopping occasionally to land, allowing us to track it effectively. After encountering a local trapper, who warned us about some of the hostile fauna in the area, we scaled a rocky escarpment to finally discover the Shadewalker at rest.

XP in this game can be used to advance your character or re-roll dice. You may be familiar with this if you have experienced 'bennies' in Savage Worlds. GMs can offer characters more XP to allow bad things to happen to them (I also assume that players can suggest that bad things happen to them, in return for XP). In this case, I was offered XP if my character fell down the cliff - luckily he was dexterous enough to avoid major damage, but the risk was there.

As the sun was going down, we encountered a camp of humanoids between us and our objective, but decided to assault it under cover of darkness. These creatures turned out to look very similar to Broo from RuneQuest (or Chaos Beastmen from WFRP if you prefer).

The combat system works very well indeed - as with 13th Age, damage rates are fixed, so there is no pause to roll for damage. In addition, NPCs don't roll to attack characters, characters dodge attacks made against them instead. Players do all the rolling. The GM does not actually seem to roll any dice. This works very well in practice, and means battles can progress smoothly.

Following our victory over the 'Broo', we discovered that the Shadewalker was up to something - it looked like it was drilling into the ground, and was now protected by a trio of mini Shadewalkers that were patrolling around the larger entity like huge crabs. Our approach, however, led us into an area of undergrowth that quickly made us feel unwell - with no obvious source for this effect, although we suspected some kind of vegetation - so we withdrew. Instead, we tried another approach through a wooded escarpment, where we encountered some kind of snake like creature with loads of tentacles.

Glaive, Jack and Nano

In this second battle, Perem, our nano, spectacularly rolled two 1s on his dodge roll, and was impaled by two tentacles and hoisted aloft. Luckily for him, the rest of the party piled in and quickly slew the monster. Perem was able to use his first couple of recovery slots (one action, followed by 10 minutes), to rest and recuperate, before we proceeded.

Our final approach to the Shadewalker was a bit more tactical: Perem had set up a telepathic link with Sados, allowing the jack to sneak around behind the Shadewalker while we distracted the guards from a different direction. Sadly, despite our best efforts, one guard detected Sados' approach, and we were forced to attack. The original plan was for Sados to jump up onto the Shadewalker and burn through its carapace using some solvent we'd found (another cypher). As it turned out, the mini walkers were almost too tough for our weapons, and Hawmett and Sados were forced to use our solvent on the guards, destroying two, but using up all the solvent. The third guard was finally destroyed, as it was forced to take on the entire party alone, and Satha was using an extremely dangerous staff sword, that seemed to demolish anything she came up against. Perrem, however, had rolled two critical failures in the fight, hitting Satha once, and then suffering a backblast from his own power, which knocked him senseless.

Huzzah! Victory. Climbing onto the Shadewalker, our knowledge of numenera led us to discover that it was mining ore to build more guards. We were able to figure out how to shut it down, and wait for the arrival of the migrating village. We also realised that our knowledge of the machine might allow us to barter for a larger reward than the villagers had previously offered us!

In the final analysis I must say I feel very positive about Numenera. It is a slick system, and while this was just a taster session, I did not feel that weighed down by learning the mechanics and the background. It still retains a degree of post-apocalyptic atmosphere, but where technology became so advanced before the Fall, its capabilities are scarily impressive.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

We play Mutant: Year Zero

This weekend was the annual convention of the BURPS, the Brighton University Roleplaying Society. While I have not had the privilege of attending that august institution, I was able to participate in their annual RPG reunion, which is what it is really. This year it was held at the Dice Saloon in Brighton, which I would heartily recommend you visit if you are interested in gaming, and happen to be down in Sussex. It is certainly growing on me as a gaming venue.

I signed up for two games this year, both of which I was curious to try out. I generally take the opportunity to play new games at cons, which I'm interested in getting a feel for. My first ever game of WFRP was held at Dragonmeet back in 2000, IIRC.

This post really relates to my first experience with Mutant Year Zero, from Modiphius. It is a post-apocalypse setting, many, many years after the downfall of human civilization. We played a group of inhabitants of the Ark, which was a community of about 200 souls living on the old Brighton Pier. MY0 characters are distinguished by their specialisms, hence we had a fixer, a junk head (mechanic), an enforcer (combat monkey), a chronicler of some kind (a historian who was meant to be able to provide us with intelligence on artefacts and knowledge of the by-gone era of the Ancients) and myself playing a stalker (scout). We also had a slave.

It is interesting to note that in our Ark, most of the population were slaves. It functioned as a sort of oligarchy. As a stalker, my character was one of the few with experience of traveling in the wilderness, capable of leading our party to its destination. In this case, we were tasked with finding another settlement called Deepwood, which was rumoured to have access to large supplies of gunpowder. We were to see if we could locate this group and negotiate a trade deal.

Our slave was played as a player character: he was the property of the fixer, but it was interesting how the two of them interacted, and indeed how the slave character worked his own agenda, on a couple of occasions finding and secretly keeping artefacts from the rest of the group.

Note: MY0 has a campaign component that allows players to help plan and manage the progress of their settlement. This sounds very interesting, in that it provides more purpose to the adventures, and is reminiscent of King Arthur Pendragon. However, as a one shot game, it does not work as well, as this part of the setting goes by the wayside.

MY0 uses d6 dice pools, essentially combining dice from core attributes, skills, other abilities (e.g. my stalker's capability with tracking and navigation, which gave him an additional 2D) and kit. So, in my case, my character had a pair of scrap binoculars (made from other bits and pieces rather than original ones) which added 1D to rolls where he was using them.

You only require one 6 result to succeed. If you don't have any successes, you can push the roll, by re-rolling. This time around, however, if you receive any 1 results, bad things can happen. A 1 on your gear die, for example, can cause that item to malfunction. The enforcer character, for instance, rolled a 1 on his gear die while using a rifle in a fight with Zone Ghouls, which caused it to jam. The junk head was not able to fix it, so it became a club.

Bullets are the main currency in the game: not only are they used as ammo in firearms, but buying equipment, food and shelter also requires them. Having said that, players need to keep careful track of food and petrol too, as this can be a useful trading commodity, and is consumed quickly as you travel across country.

MY0 does feel a little bit like a traditional hex crawl game, in that the map of the region you are located in is an important part of the whole game. We were using a very nice map of post-apocalyptic Sussex, which I suspect was home made and is not commercially available. For example, our encounter with the Zone Ghouls took place in Newhaven! In a campaign, I expect players are meant to gradually explore the area as they pursue the objectives of their settlement. Encumbrance becomes very important in this game, as if you are traveling on foot, you are very limited in what you can carry. We used a boat to navigate along the coast for part of our quest, but once we set off inland, we quickly became more limited in our access to equipment. Stashing materiel as you go looks to be a useful tactic.

Artifacts from the Ancients is an entertaining part of the game - there seems to be a deck of artifact cards available from Modiphius, which I would heartily recommend. We found some useful items, like a fully-loaded assault rifle in an abandoned light house, an unopened can of Coke, a book, and even a bicycle. One character found some caffeine pills which allowed him to take most of the night watches, although he didn't tell us he had them. We became aware he was becoming more jumpy than usual.

All characters have access to mutant powers, which are powered by mutation points. For the most part they seem quite subtle - mine was improved reflexes. Mutation points can be gained if you push a roll - you are rewarded for taking the risk. If you push a roll and fail while using a mutation, however, you can acquire a NEW mutation. Sadly, this did not happen in our game, but I got the impression that the player does not have the choice of what that mutation might be...

Finally, there is a sister game to MY0 called Genlab Alpha, in which the players can be hybrid animal survivors. Some commentators speculate that this is a homage to another game, After the Bomb, published by Palladium Games in 1986. In our adventure, we learned from some dinosaur-riding explorers we encountered, that Deepwood was actually a community of human-hating rabbit hybrids! Sadly, we ran out of time and were not able to complete the adventure. This was partly because we spent so much time planning and equipping our expedition. Again, I don't think MY0 works very well as a one shot experience, but I was very pleased to have an opportunity to play it, and would be keen to take part if a longer campaign arc was ever on offer.

Some people may be in two minds about Genlab Alpha, but personally I think that sounds like fun too. Post-apocalyptic gaming seems to be enjoying a bit of a rebirth at the moment (one feels that the end of the Cold War nudged it to the back burner for a while there). Much of this new enthusiasm can be attributed to Fall Out and The Walking Dead, I suspect, but I'm glad to see it back with a vengeance!