Friday, 13 October 2017

My first stab at playing in an NFL fantasy league

Ed Dickson, currently the starting TE at Carolina
This year I have been roped into managing a fantasy NFL team in a 12 player league being administered by a friend of my brother. Although we live in England, we have been fans of the old gridiron since Channel 4 first started broadcasting a regular Sunday evening show back in about 1985. American football had fascinated me from an earlier age, however, as living in the Middle East we were able to watch college football on Saudi Aramco's TV channel.

Fast forward to 2017, and I'm stumbling into the first quarter of the season. We are an eclectic mix of managers, including Brits, Australians and Americans. I think there is a Kiwi in there too.

The opening draft was special, taking place at noon on a Saturday, in order to accommodate bedtime in Australia and breakfast in North Carolina. I ran a couple of simulated drafts in advance, but as far as I could see, there was broad consensus in terms of the players chosen. It was obvious on your turn who you should opt for.

It is unlike fantasy cricket - if you play fantasy cricket during the English county cricket season - in fantasy cricket, once you have a player on your roster, he's yours until you choose to trade him or drop him. In the Daily Telegraph's fantasy cricket league, more than one player can benefit from the same cricketer's points during a week. Also, the English cricket season is a sprawling, fragmented affair, making it hard to keep track of who is playing when unless you are extremely dedicated.

My first draft left me with what I thought was a fairly strong team, although I did end up with three quarterbacks, namely Cam Newton, Trevor Siemian and Tyrod Taylor. All three are starting quarterbacks, giving them a good prospect of scoring each week. I note also that quarterbacks are the biggest consistent points earners, so mess this up, and you can mess up your season.

My problem is deciding which one to go with. While I've got a fairly solid corps of running backs, including Devonta Freeman and Jordan Howard, I'm rotating my QBs as if they were pitchers in baseball. Newton has been regularly talked down since the season started, following on from a shoulder injury, but has become a decent performer. I suspect that Carolina is deliberately making him seem more badly injured than he really is, to out fake the other teams - will he play, won't he? You can imagine the frustration.

As I write this Newton has just netted me 22.1 points following the Panthers' loss to the Eagles. But deciding from week to week is difficult, as inevitably one of the QBs you have benched plays a blinder. That's just how it is. But is it maddening at times, when you see a possible victory slip through your fingers.

I'm still struggling a little against my competitors: going into this weekend I'm 2-3, but hoping to take myself to .500 if I can. It is another week where some NFL teams have a bye week, as was last week, which means some of my personnel are not playing. You really need to fill all your player slots for each weekend, otherwise you will likely lose. Even failing to start a kicker can cost you a game. I've been finding that my games are coming down to + / - 15 points or less, so I am well aware that you need to do all you can to make sure you have a healthy squad with a good chance of making some points.

Thus far I've had some surprises, and some canny moves. Picking up Carolina TE Ed Dickson off waivers after Greg Olsen was injured for the season was one: my fellow coaches had not picked up on the fact that Carolina would likely be forced to start him against New England in Week 4. I grabbed him and since then he has netted 7.2 vs New England, an awesome 19.2 against Detroit, and 4.9 against Philadelphia this week. Still, that's not bad for someone who was lazing around on waivers.

I'll probably report back on my progress later on in the season when I have more to ruminate on.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Why I won't be buying the new Conan RPG

A new Conan RPG is born!
The new Conan role playing game is now out from Modiphius, and I'm sure it is very nice too. A great deal of effort has been spent on coming up with something that sports fantastic artwork, and I'm sure it plays well. But I won't be buying it. As a Robert E. Howard fan, you might wonder why I'm not going to shell out for it.

Some years ago Mongoose published a d20 version of Conan, and I loaded up on those books. They were a mixed bag, but the system was easy to introduce to people already playing Dungeons & Dragons, as it used very similar rules. I can't say the interior art was very good, but I wasn't really buying it for that.

I think I've reached a point in my game purchasing habits where there has to be a very good reason to buy something. I have not bought the new edition of Call of Cthulhu yet, largely because I think 6th edition CoC does a good job, and there are also other rules systems (e.g. Trail of Cthulhu) which can do as good, if not a better job, when exploring the horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos.

A new Conan game means learning a new system before umpiring it. I have been playing RPGs now since 1984, and have absorbed an awful lot of different rules, most recently the Cypher system from Monte Cook Games. I am, however, reaching the point that I'd rather convert a setting to a rules set I know than buy a new game and a new rules package purely because a publisher has acquired a license.

I hear the guys at Happy Jack's are playing in a Star Wars campaign using Traveller, and good on them. If you know how to play Traveller, why bother buying the Fantasy Flight Star Wars games - just use an existing science fiction system and adapt it. There is SO much information available on the Star Wars universe online, you really don't need to buy new source books. I was flicking through the old Rebellion era campaign guide from West End Games a few weeks ago, and realised the vast bulk of the information in there is available online, and not only that, but much, much more. Indeed, half the fun of the Star Wars universe now is researching the obscure references, IMHO!

Back to Conan. After you have read the stories, and maybe some of the comics, you probably have a good grasp of the canon. Everything else can be filled in from either further online research, painting in the gaps yourself, or doing what Howard himself did, which is plundering real world history.

Yes, let's talk about Robert E. Howard


Conan the Valorous - meh!
I've had something of a revelation about Howard in the last few years. When I was a teen, I loved his stories, and read them voraciously, as well as all the knock offs by the likes of L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Jordan, Andrew J. Offut et al. I think I finally ran out of steam in the late 1980s with Conan the Valorous, when I realised that the general quality of the writing and story telling was going into decline.

Howard plundered from the pages of ancient history unashamedly. He was obviously well-read in history, and also produced a lot of historical novels. Many of his medieval stories have been 'converted' into Conan stories - Hawks Over Shem anyone? Oh yes. Based on historical fact. I've read up on it.

When I was 17 I was studying ancient history at school, and part of the program was to read and virtually memorise the entirety of Herodotus' Histories. Imagine my surprise when names and places from the pages of Conan jumped out at me. Yes, the Cimmerians were a real tribe who indulged in many of the same activities as Howard's Cimmerians, as were the Picts, the Kushites, and many more. What this taught me is that if you are happy freely porting historical material into Hyboria, you're on the right track.

Go beyond this, however, and the exotic locales Howard dreamed up in Texas begin to ring a little hollow once you have actually crossed the Sahara desert, walked the foot hills of the Himalayas (and almost died of altitude sickness) or jostled your way through the bazaars of Lahore or Malacca. Some of his visions are accurate, possibly poached from the pages of travel books, others, not quite so. That's not to say he should have been shooting for historical or geographical accuracy when writing his stories, but reading him now in my forties I sometimes wish he had had the opportunity to travel more widely himself, like Hemingway or Twain.

Finally, I'm reading now the complete stories of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle was a doctor and died at the age of 71. He wrote his first Holmes story, as far as I can tell, in 1887 (A Study in Scarlet). At that point he was still in his late twenties. But he was a trained doctor who had also spent time at school in Austria. As he progressed, his writing, including his Holmes tales, reflected his wider experience of people and places. Howard, on the other hand, seems to have kept himself to Texas, and wrote most of his output over seven years, between the ages of 23 and 30. Coming to his stories again, in later life, they somehow do not have the depth of scene and character that once they exhibited. Conan Doyle, on the other hand, does.

Yes, but where are you going with all this?


There are many interpretations of Hyborian geography.
This takes us back to running games in Howard's world. This is not, I think, a 'canon' world. Even the original maps were dreamed up by fans, not by Howard himself. He never imagined it as a cohesive world to the degree that Tolkien imagined Middle-earth. Yes, he made it up as he went along, and so, I would argue, should GMs. I was looking through the very substantial source book that Mongoose published for their iteration of Conan role playing on the mystic realm of Stygia. It is all very nice, and there are some useful tidbits in there, but this is not the Stygia of my imagination, perhaps not that of Howard's either. Mongoose did a good job of compiling a large amount of information on Stygia from a broad range of sources, including the somewhat suspect Marvel comics of the 1970s, but it comes across as something of a mish-mash, and not how I would want to present Stygia to players.

What I'm getting at is this - you don't really need to buy Conan source books or Conan role playing games. Take the Hyborian world at a high level - the kingdoms, the cultures, the peoples, the gods, and then make it your own. Sometimes people who play RPGs get a little too obsessive about settings. We've seen this in a recent Forgotten Realms versus Greyhawk debate on Facebook. Forgotten Realms is praised for its vast and detailed canon, which is great if you like vast canon, but frankly I don't. Greyhawk was great when it was just one boxed set. It had maps, high level details on kingdoms, religions, armies, encounter tables, and suchlike, but as a GM I had more fun dropping adventures into less detailed corners of Greyhawk or setting my own there - basically, designing the parameters myself. Greyhawk had room for the writer, just as Howard's world had room for the writers that followed in his wake.

I'm finding this difficulty with the depth and detail of Glorantha at the moment - you really can get lost in that world, particularly in areas like Dragon Pass or Pavis which have been heavily detailed over the years. Luckily, there are still parts of Glorantha that seem to have just had the bare bones sketched out, and that is how it should be!

My take on Conan then: I'm more than happy to play a character in someone's campaign, but I won't be spending a cent on the new game myself. There are just so many rich resources available online, and so many excellent rules systems in print already. I'm not a Robert E. Howard completist. I will still enjoy his stories and watch Arnie prance around on television once in a while, and all that will be enough to spark my imagination. I think that, personally, I've just reached a point where a new line of Conan RPG books fails to excite me. Sorry Modiphius.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Sherlock Holmes - action hero?

Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr as Watson and Holmes
Sherlock Holmes, as presented to the world by director Guy Ritchie in 2009, is an eminently watchable reinterpretation of the great Victorian detective. It is described as a "neo-noir, period mystery action film", which rather hits the nail on the head. The whole exercise is a vehicle for Robert Downey Jr's invention of Holmes as an eccentric, driven action hero. There is something of the Tony Stark in Downey Jr's Holmes, but you do need someone with this level of on-screen personality to carry it through, and he surely does.

This is not 'classic' Holmes; it is not Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett, by any means, but sometimes it is good to get out from under those immense shadows, as Benedict Cumberbatch has done with the recent BBC series. I'm working my way through the original stories, and to be honest, the Guy Ritchie interpretation of Holmes seems just as viable as others. Holmes was an eccentric, difficult to live with, occasionally inspired by flights of genius. That is all here in Ritchie's film.

But the backdrop against which the film's events take place is gorgeous, thanks to a whopping special effects budget. As an Englishman with a love of London, including its grittier side, Ritchie is able to bring the 1880s to life on screen, in a panoramic spectacular (e.g. the scenes on Tower Bridge at the end). As a native Londoner he avoids stereotypes, and includes accents and cultures which would have existed in Victorian London. The poverty and the bad teeth, the Irish navvies, hell, even a French dock worker, all are on display. It makes for a much more gritty and European portrayal.

At the time of filming in 2008-09, Ritchie, Downey Jr and co-star Jude Law (playing Doctor John Watson) were frequent fixtures on London's high end night life scene, happy to spend time partying with each other in the West End after the cameras stopped rolling, and that chemistry comes through in the camaraderie between the actors.

But what also makes the film so strong, from the perspective of a Call of Cthulhu gamer, perhaps, is Mark Strong's villainous Lord Henry Blackwood. Strong is one of the treasures of British cinema at the moment, and underused in the first Kingsman film, if you ask me, but in Sherlock Holmes he does a superb job as a corrupt aristocrat and occultist out to take over the Empire. Watch the first 10 minutes of this film and tell me if it isn't something straight out of a game of Call of Cthulhu? Strong's Blackwood could be a shoe-in for a CoC cult leader.

The whole exercise has a tense undercurrent verging on horror and nineteenth century mysticism that should make it compulsory viewing for any Keepers who are considering running some Gaslight adventures. Combine that with the pulp action elements and it feels very much like a typical game I might umpire.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Wrestling with Burning Wheel in Vanaheim

Osculan of Nemedia
I wanted to see if I could get an episodic Hyborian campaign going. I originally considered the Conan RPG from Mongoose Publishing, then Iron Heroes, but looking at both of these, I've come to the conclusion that they now contain too much unnecessary crunch. There's too much number crunching slowing the game down. Playing with my kids, they love complexity, but there is something about the level based advancement of Iron Heroes that now seems to irritate some deep part of my gaming soul. I can't quite put my finger on it.

The kids, they like RuneQuest. Having played it once, they seem to like its absence of levels and access to magic. The plot of the first Hyborian adventure is now well-advanced in my notebook. Given I tend to work on adventures on the train or just before I go to sleep, I like rule books that are small and compact and easy to carry around. While the trend within the industry is towards colourful, glossy, artpacked hardbacks, one of these plus a laptop can be difficult to lug around to meetings in London.

My plot is set in Vanaheim. I've sketched it out, plus some of the main NPCs. It already sounds very political, but thinking back to some of Howard's original tales, they feature quite a bit of skulduggery and infighting between factions. The adventure also contains an excellent initial motivation for the heroes to be at Starkad's Great Hall, at the head of the fjord called Starkadsgarth.

I launched a previous Hyborian campaign using a Vanir raid into Asgard, similar to that mentioned in The Frost Giant's Daughter and Legion of the Dead. It was inspired by both. The new scenario again starts in the north lands, however, it seems to be inspired more by Series 1 of Vikings and A Fistful of Dollars. I'll see where it takes me. My initial idea was to not keep it in Vanaheim, but that, I think, I'll leave in the hands of players. There is opportunity to both remain in Vanaheim, or to leave.

I'm also aware that Dragonmeet is coming up in a couple of months. Last year I ran some Deadlands Noir there. The question is whether I run another game. They always seem a bit short of GMs, to be honest.

But that still leaves us with the rules system.


I'm torn between three, namely RuneQuest 2 (Mongoose Publishing), Burning Wheel and an Apocalypse World hack. I'm still reading and digesting Apocalypse World, which I actually quite like. I did consider Savage Worlds, because it does a great job with pulp settings, particularly the Beasts & Barbarians supplement, but for this game don't want to be burdened by miniatures, cards and chips.

To make my mind up, ever a fan of character generation systems, I may just decide to generate the same player character in all three systems and come to a final decision. Apocalypse World, by its very nature, does not really require character generation in advance, so here we'll be focusing on RuneQuest and Burning Wheel. I will have a go at Burning Wheel first.

The first pre-gen is Osculan. I see him a devotee of Mitra, up from Nemedia, traveling in the northern wastes to spread the word. He is a missionary, seeking to bring the light of Mitra into the lives of the Nordheimers, with mixed success. He has come to Starkadsgarth to preach.

Osculan of Hanumar, itinerant Nemedian preacher

Life paths (4) - Village Born, Pilgrim, Student, Zealous Convert

Age: 32

Will B5, Perception B3, Power B4, Forte B4, Agility B3, Speed B3, Circles B3, Resources B0

Health 4, Mortal Wound 10, Reflexes 3, Steel 6

Skills: Religious Rumour-wise B3, Read B3, Religious Diatribe B5, Doctrine B5, Road-wise B5, Write B4, Astrology B3, Shrine-wise B3, Rule of Law B3, Anatomy B3, Inconspicuous B5, History B3, Rhetoric B3, Symbology B3, City-wise B3, Doctrine-wise B4, Ancient Languages B3, Cudgel B3, Foreign Languages (Nordheimr) B3

Traits: Collector, Infallible Religious Logic, Righteous, Firm, Demagogue, Booming Voice, Driven, Inspirational, Plain-Faced

Affiliation: Mitra cult in Vanaheim (+1D)

Relationship: Gefion, wife of Fjolnir (covert convert) -4 RPs

Equipment: Traveling Gear, Pack Horse, Clothes, Astrology Instruments (Toolkit)

Beliefs: I will spread the light of Mitra among these ignorant savages. The way of violence is not the only way - I will use my wits and charm to persuade others. The nobles of Vanaheim will be my path to financial security.

Instincts: Keep my cudgel within reach at all times. Go to ground when fighting starts. Always make sure my horse is looked after - I don't fancy walking out of here.

Osculan is from Nemedia. Village born, he went on a pilgrimage which initially inspired him to follow a religious path. He studied in the Nemedian city of Hanumar but significantly has not become a priest, instead leaving university to become a wandering zealot. He has no Faith, however, so is often beset by doubts. In the last few years he has wandered north, beyond the Hyborian kingdoms into the lands of the Cimmerians and the Aesir. He keeps a cudgel on his person, but relies on his wits, knowledge and debating skills to get him out of tight spots. He is aware that true power in Vanaheim lies with the thanes, and it will be their families he must spend most time working on. Gefion is the wife of Fjolnir, brother of the recently deceased Starkad. Fjolnir is one of the thanes jockeying for the position of high king of the Vanir in his brother's stead. Osculan sees an opportunity here to increase his influence, wealth and prestige in the far flung north. As a secret convert, Gefion could prove useful.

As you can see, character generation in BW is quite involved. The characters it produces, however, are unique and in-depth. They are very hard to optimise and there is no such thing as a perfect build. The designer's objective is to produce more well-rounded player characters. I can see Osculan as someone who is a stranger to Vanaheim, but he has objectives, a mission, that go beyond simply acquiring wealth. It does take time to build a character like this, and I'd equate it more to Traveler or Shadowrun in this respect. I'm not sure some groups will have the patience for it, to be honest.

Burning Wheel is designed to produce a very different gaming experience from, say, RuneQuest. RQ is a much older game, and its possible failings as a system lie within that age. It was spawned in the very early days of RPGs, when they were evolving from war games. It has some great, great concepts, but I'm starting to feel that it is a beast of its time.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Review: Adventures in Middle-earth Players Guide

I've been down with the man flu from hell for the last few days, and am only just getting back on my feet. During my period of enforced convalescence, I have been reading Adventures in Middle-earth from Cubicle 7. Seasoned gamers will know Cubicle 7 have the license for a roleplaying game based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and to this end have already produced an excellent RPG called The One Ring.

Cubilce 7 have gone further now, uniting the Middle-earth license with the mechanics of the Dungeons & Dragons RPG for the first time. D&D has been through a bit of a rough patch since the 4th edition of the game was launched, and it ended up being outsold by Pathfinder, still arguably the heir to D&D's mantle, given the amount of people who play Pathfinder steadfastly, both here in the UK and around the world.

However, D&D has taken a lot of inspiration from Tolkien's works as well as those of other fantasy fiction writers, but there has never been an official combo of the two. Many dungeon masters have set their games in Middle-earth on an informal basis, but for the most part official Middle-earth RPGs have steered their own course. Back in the glory days of early RPGs, it was ICE's Middle-earth Roleplaying (MERP) that many gamers turned to for their Middle-earth fix.

Adventures in Midde-earth is a lovely looking hardback book designed for players primarily. It is illustrated by a range of very talented artists, foremost among them John Howe and Jon Hodgson, who do an excellent job of capturing the essential feel of the realms of Middle-earth, so important in a book like this. The original MERP traded heavily on the awesome art of Angus McBride, and it is good to see that money has been spent on getting the art right. It is a truly lovely book.

Adventures in Middle-earth represents a very different feel to D&D campaigns - it takes much of its inspiration from The One Ring, in that the cultures of the heroes a more important than in vanilla D&D. Each hero is a combination of culture, class, virtues and backgrounds. Cultures here are a bit more varied than in the original One Ring, as new cultures like the Dunedain, the Men of Bree and the Men of Minas Tirith have been added. Cultures act like races in D&D, but even if you are human, you culture will set you apart from  other men in Middle-earth. For example, Riders of Rohan get +1 to their Wisdom score, and can also raise two other attributes by +1.

All the D&D classes have been replaced with new Middle-earth classes. No wizards or clerics here. Classes on offer include Scholar, Slayer, Treasure Hunter (Burglar!), Wanderer, Warden and Warrior. Because magic in Middle-earth is more understated and works in more subtle ways, there is less scope here for player characters to run around frying everything with fireballs. Some classes seem to have archetypes they can choose from, as in the 5th edition D&D - for example the Treasure Hunter can choose between Agent ("The agent relies on charm as much as stealth or wit.") and Burglar ("You employ your dubious, if highly useful, skills to acquire things that others possess.")

Virtues are additional boons granted to some characters at 1st level, those from mannish cultures, as compensation for the other abilities non-human races begin with. Many are culture specific. At 4th level players of any race can pick a virtue rather than the attribute increase that can receive within the core D&D rules. The same goes for 8th, 12th, etc. There are some open virtues, that any player can use, and some cultural virtues, which are specific to your cultural background. For example, the Dunedain can choose Dauntless Guardians, which among other things, lets them detect undead and makes them more resistant to fear caused by undead. There's quite a choice here - even the non-humans have a good selection. Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain can choose from virtues like Broken Spells, Durin's Way and Old Hatred, among others. There are some truly wonderful ones here, like Merchant Prince, a virtue of the Men of the Lake:

"Your family's fortune is rising with the reopening of the trading routes that lead to the markets of the South and the East. This increased affluence has started to positively affect your adventuring life, as you may choose a servant from those employed in your household and have him join you in your next endeavour."
As with 5th edition D&D, there are also Middle-earth specific backgrounds to choose from. These let you roll on a table to provide your character with further dimensions and some flavour with which to roleplay by. I love some of these; they really feel like backgrounds from the pages of Tolkien: Doomed to Die, Driven From Home or Emissary Of Your People are all good ones. Apart from skill proficiencies they also bring with them additional background elements. Take Oathsworn for example:

"You have sworn a mighty oath, one that is now indelibly associated with your name. The oath itself should be both suitably epic and possible to accomplish...A mighty oath carries its own legend and you often find yourself receiving aid from those who want to help the legend or even become embroiled in it."

There are a LOT of backgrounds here, which is excellent.

The equipment section is filled with some superb examples of Middle-earth specific items. Middle-earth functions on a reassuring imperial coinage system, with 12 copper coins to the silver penny, and 20 silver pennies to the gold piece. Tolkien would have recognised this currency. A frugal standard of living costs three gold pieces for a year. "Frugal folk usually sleep in comfortable common halls (or tents, if nomadic) and eat the produce of their own lands and pastures." Characters can also receive cultural heirlooms as a possible virtue (no magic shops in Middle-earth): these include the likes of the tower shields of Dale, the great spears of the Beornings or the Star of the Dunedain. You can pick up one-off items like this as a beginning character, but you cannot BUY them; they are considered priceless family heirlooms. They are also distinct to cultural backgrounds.



Everything in this book seems to work towards conjuring up the atmosphere of the books and films. Adventures themselves in this game are meant to follow the same course as in the One Ring - much revolves around a journey or mission, usually into the wild. The default setting at the moment is the wilderness around Mirkwood in the immediate aftermath of the death of the dragon Smaug and the Battle of Five Armies at the end of The Hobbit. Five years have passed since then, providing opportunity for both Laketown and Dale to be rebuilt, and for the dwarves to reoccupy Erebor.

There are mechanics here for journeys in the wild, but at the same time adventurers must keep an eye out for corruption by the Shadow. Corruption can be picked up in a number of ways, and replaces alignment. Anguish, blighted places, misdeeds, tainted treasure, all can gain you corruption. With it comes misery, madness and degeneration, something heroes must strive to avoid. Boromir and indeed his father Denethor are prime examples of this from The Lord of the Rings. Characters want to avoid becoming Miserable, as this is the first step on the way to madness, making them prone to bouts of madness and bringing with it other penalties, like automatically failing Charisma checks. It sounds nasty, but it works to keep characters on the straight and narrow and beats the usual "Hey, you can't do that - you're Lawful." Instead a character picks up a few corruption points. Coward, thief, plunderer? Have three Shadow points. Once Shadow passes your Wisdom, you become Miserable. Oh yes. Thus it boils down to players what path they choose - they are not circumscribed by an alignment system but they take a risk in becoming more degenerate.

Each adventure in Middle-earth is considered to take the course of a year - characters are not full time adventurers. As in Glorantha, they are meant to be members of their communities as well. They have families and a stake in the world. They are not travelling murder hoboes for hire. They adventure, frequently, for a reason, even if they come from disparate backgrounds. Between adventure years, there is a fellowship phase. This boils down to rest and recovery at a nominated sanctuary:

"A number of locations in Middle-earth are considered Sanctuaries; special, safe places particularly suited to rest, recovery and training, usually overseen by a host willing to welcome travellers. At the beginning of a game, the only place the player heroes may consider a Sanctuary is the town of Esgaroth on the Long Lake..."

Fellowship phases are intended also to cover between adventure activities, like training, gaining new traits, healing corruption and researching lore. Generally this matches the winter phase, a time when characters will stick to civilised areas, when snow is on the ground and wild wargs are on the prowl.

Rangers of the North, by Jon Hodgson


The book concludes with some pre-generated characters to get you going. These are all 1st level examples of the new character classes, ready to go. If you want to actually run a game in Middle-earth you will also need the Loremasters Guide from Cubicle 7, which is now also out in print, as well as the current D&D Player's Handbook. You won't require the other core D&D books however, although they could come in useful.

In conclusion I really love what Cubicle 7 has achieved here. One of my criticisms of D&D as it currently stands has been the emphasis on combat to the detriment of other areas of high fantasy. This was very much the case with fourth edition, and while I appreciate the way fifth edition has embraced the generic, 'game for all games' model it needed, I'm delighted to see products like Adventures in Middle-earth really taking things to the next level. I'm looking forward to further releases in this line. If there is something that would bring me back to running D&D, Adventures in Middle-earth is it...

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Playing through Scenarios For All Ages

It is almost September. The kids have gone back to school today. The weather is getting colder. In the British Isles the rugby posts are going up, a sure sign that winter is coming, as they say in Game of Thrones.

I'm launching a number of projects at home this autumn, largely to distract myself from the fact that the season is drawing to a close. To run in concert with these, I'm also going to see if I can launch some more ambitious gaming projects which will hopefully also mean I'll not need to spend more money on the latest shiny things to come out of the games industry over the next 12 months. The emphasis is going to be on playing with what I have already, rather than buying more game books and miniatures (although the new Star Wars skirmish game from FFG looks intriguing). That's the plan anyway. It is an exercise in self-discipline for the most part.

On the miniatures front, I've been inspired by Ross Macfarlane's blog to try to achieve what he did in 2008-09, namely play through the entire series of wargames scenarios contained in Charles Grant and Stuart Asquith's Scenarios For All Ages. This contains 52 wargames scenarios, ostensibly one for every week of the year. Macfarlane played them in sequence, achieving his goal within 14 months.

I realise there is absolutely no way on this planet I will make it anywhere near this. I'd be lucky to get one done every month. However, playing one a month would take me just over four years. This seems like rather a long term prospect. Instead of setting myself the goal of achieving something within a specific time period, I'll therefore try to focus simply on hitting the goal of the complete 52 games.

First steps will be to get the first scenario played - 'Attack On A Prepared Position'. For this I think we'll be using my Middle-earth armies, which recently had an outing for the Battle of the Fords of the Isen. However, I was not completely happy with the rules we used there, The War of the Ring from Games Workshop. We slightly mis-interpreted the casualty rules, leading to marginally more resilience on the part of both sides, and a consequently longer game. But that aside, regular opponent Sebastian was not bowled over by them [American English = disliked them], and so we will look further afield.

The Enemy Within


Work is going to make it harder for me to attend regular gaming sessions for the rest of this year, although I will see what I can do about being a semi-regular attendee. In the meantime, I'm going to try to set myself another, likely overly ambitious RPG project. This will be to run The Enemy Within, the epic old school Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign with an ad hoc, scratch group of players. Achieving this will be very challenging, giving conflicting schedules, etc, but I'm determined to give it a go.

The objective will be to run it using the Zweihander rules, which are in the process of being shipped from the US as I write, and are now available in some US stores. Zweihander was conceived as a successor to WFRP 2.0, especially once FFG took the third edition of the game in a new direction rules-wise.

Exactly how much progress I make with TEW, as it is known, remains to be seen. I will chronicle what I manage to achieve on this blog, possibly with photo or two if any emerge.

I never managed to get my hands on the final piece of the TEW saga, The Empire In Flames, when it was first out, and IIRC Hogshead never managed to publish it when they re-published the adventures in the 1990s. Hence, failing to find a copy, I may re-write my own ending. But we need to get there first!

Viscounts and Vagabonds

Finally, I'm going to have a stab at writing my own RPG. This will be a lengthy work in progress. The idea is to produce a system capable of yielding short, ribald escapades in Georgian England, involving characters that generally leave a lot to be desired, both in morals and ambitions.

What has plagued me thus far is the core mechanic. Once I get that sorted out, and am actually able to produce a test adventure, then perhaps we can make a little more progress. At the moment I'm toying with four main social classes which serve as the background for each character - these work out as the Landed, the Educated, the Rogue and the Labourer. Each type provides access to a range of skills and sub-abilities unique to that stratum of Georgian society.

I have been working on the premise that characters will have servants or sidekicks, who are in turn managed by other players. However, I am inclined to ditch this in favour of a vice mechanic which again allows other players to mess with your character's destiny. This will likely not be in the alpha play test, regardless, or may be an optional extra.

There's quite a bit here to be getting on with, as I'm sure you can imagine. Just how much success I will have with any of this is anybody's guess. Do come back to see if I've made any further progress or been distracted with a new shiny.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Frontier Cthulhu - a review

Frontier Cthulhu is a collection of short stories published by Chaosium as part of its Cthulhu fiction line in 2007. At the time Chaosium was pumping out short story anthologies on an almost monthly basis, having already run out collections of the classic Cthulhu Mythos stories oriented around particular themes or writers (e.g. The Hastur Cycle). Frontier Cthulhu sets out an interesting premise, namely a collection of Mythos tales about the American frontier. Sadly, I've given up reading it because it is rubbish.

I may be doing a disservice to some of the later stories, but I've read enough of them now to conclude that the overall level of writing here is desperate. I got as far as William Jones' 'They Who Dwell Below' before hurling the book down in utter frustration. I apologise then to Scott Lette et al, who may have produced something superior in the second half, and perhaps their work may see the light of day in future collections that are not burdened with the dross that begins Frontier Cthulhu, but even if some of them are brilliant, they will not be able to support the cover price of this travesty.

Some of these stories have been published before, and none of these writers are debut writers, but the quality of the fiction is poor. One starts to realise why H. P. Lovecraft was such a master of his craft as he is obviously hard to emulate.

Frontier Cthulhu presents its tales in chronological order. It kicks off with 'The Long Road Home' by Paul Melniczek, which uses the topic of the first Viking explorers in the New World. Fair enough - good idea. But from the off Melniczek's Vikings don't feel like vikings, but more some genetic medieval personalities you might expect to come across in Skyrim. Next, they quickly blunder through an inter-dimensional rift, and spend most of the story wandering around, being picked off by an enormous Great Old One, which then gets eaten by an even bigger Great Old One. Then, more by luck than judgement, the survivors escape. That's it, really. This could have been written so much better, as the actual subject of vikings in North America is extremely interesting, and I'd readily refer readers to Tom Holt's Meadowland, which does a vastly superior job than Melniczek does.

Angeline Hawkes gets the topic of the mysterious disappearance of the English colony at Roanoke as her subject, but again, 'In Waters Lost The Black Ones Sleep' leaves much to be desired. It starts well enough, and is disturbing in parts, but the reasons for the colonists' disappearance are a little prosaic, and the ending, well the ending is just desperate. So much more could have been achieved with this subject matter, but no, squandered. A big sea monster ate them. Yup.

Lee Clark Zumpe writes on the French & Indian War, but his tale of the early frontier war features two monster hunters, one of whom is a professional hunter, over 100 years old, on the trail of a sorceror who has set up his own cult just beyond the edge of civilization. Imagine the film The Last of the Mohicans directed in the spirit of Aliens, and you get a good idea of the travesty that is 'Where Men Had Seldom Trod'. Just get a load of this:

"We are perhaps hours away from a confrontation that will certainly end in chaos and indiscriminate killing." Greenheath patted his Kaintuck rifle, acknowledging its willingness to serve. He treated his weapon with reverence and fidelity. He preferred its accuracy to the outmoded precision of his partner's Brown Bess. Its sleek custom design - from its long octagonal barrel and small bore, to its stock made from tiger maple - lent it a quality of audaciousness.

Give me strength.

I could go on, but I won't, other than to mention 'Something To Hold The Door Closed' by Lon Prater. While not an outstanding tale, this is what I would expect of the bulk of the stories in Frontier Cthulhu in terms of  an original plot, setting, and insight into life on the frontier. Prater takes actual events from the North Carolina Gold Rush of 1795 and then injects an element of the Mythos into them. Perhaps this is why his characters, ordinary farmers trying to make a Christian living on the frontier, come across as more realistic. Their daily lives are invaded by the Mythos in a subtle and deadly way - no 200 hundred foot tall Great Old Ones stomping around here, or professional monster killers hacking their way through an army of cultists. This is what a Mythos tale ought to be. But Prater's effort is the exception that proves the rule in this collection - I persevered because of this story, but I finally gave up at 'They Who Dwell Below' by William Jones.

Oh. My. God. Jones writes about two notorious gunfighters from Cheyenne, both American Civil War veterans who - you guessed it - fought on opposite sides. They are hired by an enigmatic occultist to explore a huge maze of tunnels under Oklahoma. The entire story is set in the tunnels. All of it. Take a couple of cowboys, dump them into the plot of Descent, and you're not far off it. But why, why? The American West was so full of its own brand of drama and colour, deeply ingrained with betrayal, blood and horror. Surely you don't need to locate your entire tale in some tunnels under the ground, which have nothing to do with the Old West?

The looming darkness reminded Kane of the nights he'd spent in Georgia during the war. It was called Sherman's March, but it was plain butchery. He'd been young then, and did things a man ought not to. Things that haunted him every day of his life. Now it felt as though all those years of nightmares had come together and were prowling in the darkness.

Do yourself a favour. You've got the one life. Go read something with literary merit. Don't bother with this one. I've got some other Chaosium collections to read still on the shelf, and sincerely, I'm praying they're better than this.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Another Murder At Flaxton



A Murder At Flaxton was the first Dungeons and Dragons scenario I ran as a DM that demonstrated to me that there was more to RPGs than dungeon exploration. I should have taken this on board earlier, with The Keep On The Borderlands, that early TSR classic, which featured a fairly detailed human settlement with its own scope for adventures, but it was Flaxton which proved to be the real eye opener for me, back in 1985. Warning - spoilers occur in this article, so avoid it if you think you might be in danger of participating as a player in a scenario which is older than many sovereign nations now.

I have run it again, this summer, a mere 32 years later! It has aged a little, but is still great fun. The scenario is written for low level characters and was one of a series of very atmospheric low level adventures which appeared in White Dwarf magazine in 1984-85. It features a small fishing village and a trio of dastardly smugglers who have murdered a law enforcement official just passing through their town and are now trying to cover their tracks, while keeping their operations running of course. This is a difficult juggling act for the smugglers, let alone the DM! The PCs are assigned the role of finding out who is responsible for the murder, and the disappearance of three constables sent to kick start the investigation.

I largely decided to play this out of a sense of pure nostalgia, and also because we had such a good time adventuring in Apple Lane over Christmas, using Mongoose Publishing's RuneQuest rules (now reborn as Legend). Trips down memory lane can be entertaining.

For my return to Flaxton I used Lamentations of the Flame Princess, largely because Labyrinth Lord was probably a little too basic, and also because the adventure was originally written for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and I needed something with a little more granularity. This was my first game using Lamentations, and Flaxton suited the Lamentations oeuvre very well, as the latter leans towards games set more in a grim, dark 17th century environment. There are no monsters in this adventure, unless you count the canine encounters and only one non-human character, so the lack of a bestiary for Lamentations would not be an issue either.

We used four starting characters, with the players picking a fighter, cleric, magic user and specialist (this is the thief in Lamentations, but it is configured a little differently from the traditional 1980s AD&D thief). Nobody bothered with any of the non-human classes on offer, which intrigued me.

The vulnerability of these novice characters is high, of course, and while Flaxton does not involve adventuring in the traditional hostile environment of D&D games, it can prove dangerous. The smugglers are higher level than the PCs, their leader is 5th level, and they have scope for additional back up from a 5th level pirate and her war dog. However, the game begins with the PCs poking around Flaxton trying to figure out what is going on, chatting with a wide range of NPCs and squirreling out the truth. There is no course of events here - like the best scenarios the bad guys are really going to react to the activities of the players, and for the most part just want to keep their heads down and maintain their criminal network.

Eventually it is going to kick off - in this case the PCs finally decided something suspicious was going on at the local inn, and that its proprietor was more than he claimed to be. By sneaking around at night, they managed to break into the inn's cellar, which then led them to the smugglers' underground cove. However, they were not quiet enough. I had to improvise a bit, as unlike Pathfinder, Lamentations does not have rules for everything, and the skill system only allows the specialist character to sneak consistently. I frequently called for attribute checks on 1d20 - e.g. DEX rolls when trying to open a trap door quietly in the middle of the night, less than 20 feet from a sleeping smuggler.

Once the smugglers reacted, they faced a choice between quietly taking care of the heroes or simply bugging out. The latter is always an option, but first they tried to kill/capture the party. One adventurer was already successfully drugged using spiked brandy, so the group was down to three when the smugglers ambushed them. One of the PCs was kitted out with flintlock pistols - I have the rules for these on a book mark kindly given to me by the author of Lamentations at Dragonmeet a couple of years ago - and these proved useful in the fight. In the end, I declined to equip any NPCs with firearms, and stuck with their original AD&D load out, which, combined with their magic, was nearly good enough to wipe the party out.

Following an unsuccessful attempt to kill the PCs, which resulted in the deaths of two smugglers, and left one PC on zero hit points, the smugglers' leader decided to leave town by boat, taking the drugged PC with him (which also happened to be the party's cleric - note that one PC was now at zero hit points and thus surplus to requirements). The adventurers were down to their specialist and their magic user, who only had an enlarge spell to hand. They gave chase by rousting the village chandler out of his bed and taking one of his boats, offering him silver to help them to get out to the island in the bay, which they now correctly surmised might have something to do with the plot. There followed a second encounter with smugglers, which this time nearly wiped the remaining adventurers out, but they inflicted enough damage on the criminals that they decided to flee rather than stick around.

Lamentations includes rules for morale, yes, morale. In my earliest D&D games, we used morale rules regularly. Lamentations has these. I like morale rules. That may be because I also play wargames, and wargamers like morale rules - well almost all wargamers, maybe not naval wargamers.

I added morale to the existing NPC stats by simply rolling 2d6. This gave me a pirate leader with a morale of 5 who was therefore somewhat flighty, and despite being in a winning position, decided not to stick around once the blood started flowing. As she was a 5th level fighter, this helped the PCs considerably when she exited stage left. The adventurers were also aided by their drugged cleric, previously a prisoner of the pirates, coming around at just the right time to administer cure light wounds. Morale injected an interesting element into the game; it sometimes seems sadly lacking in RPGs, where adventurers expect encounters to be sufficiently balanced to allow them to win every battle, and where the opposition dutifully fights to the last man (or orc).

Everyone had a great time. A Murder At Flaxton is an interesting little scenario. It has aged a little, but not much, and seems ideal for starting parties. There is also enough loot here to generate the XP an old school group needs to get to 2nd level. I still heartily recommend it as a campaign starter if you can find a copy.

As a rules set, Lamentations leaves plenty of gaps that the GM must fill when questions occur about "how do I do X"? In some respects it feels more like a recommended WAY of playing rather than a pure rules set. Players of more detailed, comprehensive rules will expect a mechanic when one does not exist. The limited skills system is largely there to help the specialist look good, but often you find it is the other characters in dire situations that are dealing with the specialist's tasks. This may be partly the fault of our being used to more recent rules systems, and forgetting that the specialist is there for a reason - namely doing all the sneaking and scouting, while players have an expectation that they should ALL be able to sneak and scout.

There is a lot to like about Lamentations - for example, the weird elements, the crazy spell descriptions, the encumberance rules, the black powder weapons - but I think my players, given the choice, would opt for Pathfinder or RuneQuest. We may return to Lamentations in the near future regardless, as there has been considerable investment in the characters and in Flaxton itself.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

A Few Acres of Snow

"You know that these two nations are at war about a few acres of snow somewhere in Canada, and that they are spending on this war more than Canada is worth."
Voltaire, Candide, 1759

Okay, so it is an open secret around these parts that I am not the biggest fan of Dominion. Despite its widespread success, I find the constant shuffling somewhat tedious (as I'm not good at it), and I have had difficulty getting my head around the deck building and card drafting mechanics. However, I am starting to enjoy card drafting games, and recently took part in a very enjoyable game of Mission: Red Planet, only to lose by a point. But I really liked the way that game is driven by your choice of character at the start of each round.

Alright, so Mission: Red Planet is not a deck building game, but it has a strong card-driven mechanic, which is what I'm getting at here, so let's see if we can roll with this for now...?

I digress somewhat. A Few Acres of Snow IS a deck building game. It DOES involve shuffling. But I DO like it. It is a two player game, and it includes a board, which represents the frontier between the British and French colonies in North America, circa 1750. It is a game about developing colonies in the American wilderness, and the competition between these two great 18th century empires.

A quick history lesson for those in the dark - by the mid-1700s Britain and France were the two dominant colonial powers in North America, leaving the Spanish and Portuguese to lord it over South America. Britain had a number of colonies along the Atlantic coast - e.g. New York - while France had its colonies along the St Lawrence River - called New France. The French and British both did quite a bit of fur trading and both powers had good and bad relations with the various Native American tribes. Eventually they started treading on each other's toes, and while there were numerous 'off the ball incidents', it was only when the empires ended up on opposite sides in the Seven Years War in Europe (1756) that things got really serious. Both sides in North America decided it was time to see if they could go for the jugular. Bear in mind that the fur trade was very lucrative and depended on access to the Great Lakes and the Ohio Valley. In North America this conflict is referred to as the French & Indian War, although in Europe it was seen more as a side show to the main event of the big European military campaigns.

Back to the game... 

Each player seeks to settle the wilderness and upgrade their villages into towns. It is also possible to fortify settlements against raids and attacks from the enemy. Forts can block raiding parties and make it harder to capture a settlement by siege.

This was only my first game, and Maya  and I took it for a spin to try to iron out any creases. I played France. You build your deck from three sources:

  1. Location cards - the various locations along the frontier which you can settle and build in. You can't do something with a location without having its card in your hand.
  2. Empire cards - the various units and resources at your disposal, from priests, to fur trappers, to regular infantry to settlers. Lovely art, by the way.
  3. Neutral cards - these can be drafted by either player and comprise more settlers, Indians (Native Americans, First Nations, whatever), and forts.
Each turn you take two actions from a hand of five cards, then draw back up (you can use multiple cards as part of one action - e.g. a siege typically takes three, a location, transport and military power). Over time you add to your discard pile with new locations and resources, thus increasing your options as the game goes on (because when your draw deck is exhausted, you shuffle it to create a new deck). The board is used to keep track of the location of settlements, forts and towns in the wilderness, which in turn determines your end of game points scoring, also where you can raid and where you can siege.

Part of the board seen from the British side, with a location card.

This is where is gets a bit different


In A Few Acres of Snow, the sides are not the same like they are in Dominion. Each side has several cards which seem to be unique to them. In particular, the French seem to have a number of tricky ones, like the Intendant, which lets the French player draw cards back into his hand from the discard pile, or priests, who steal Native Americans from the British (I also like the French pirates, who represent a valuable additional source of income).

The French start off in the St Lawrence River, with some additional settlements on the Atlantic coast, in particular Louisbourg. The crown jewel in their empire is Quebec, which can be 12 points at the end of the game. France automatically loses if Quebec is taken. Similarly, Britain loses if the French take New York or Boston. I came close in our game, having driven the British out of Albany and established a fort and settlement there. I was poised to march down the Hudson valley, but sadly was not getting the right cards. Plus, Maya quickly fortified New York and then had some heavy artillery in reserve to defend it with: suffice to say, I wasn't going to be taking it in a hurry.

Maya had her own victories, in particular using hostile tribes to drive the French out of Port Royal before taking it for herself. Sneaky.

Settlers, fortifications and natives - all from the neutral deck.


The mechanics should be quite familiar to players of this kind of game. We blundered around quite a bit, simply trying to test what each card could do. I attempted a siege of Albany initially which went badly for the French. It seems to me that you really need some muscular forces to attack forts in this game - e.g. artillery. Otherwise the enemy is going to see you off in pretty short order, which happened to me in the Hudson Valley.

Raiding is a particular tactic both sides can use repeatedly to attempt to wipe out or downgrade enemy settlements. For this you can use your Indian allies, or certain irregular troops like Rangers that can strike deeper into enemy territory than your regulars, and can also navigate the various Indian trails that criss cross the wilderness. They can be blocked, however, by tribes friendly to the other side, militia, and also by forts. Indeed forts are an excellent way to curb raiding activities, and in strategic locations like Albany can quickly shut down this sort of anti-social activity (those who have played the first edition of Fury of Dracula should recall the strategic blocking value of holy wafers in Zagreb). We both had early successes with raiding, but soon learned to keep militia and Indians to hand to block it; my later efforts to harass Baltimore with raiders came to nought because Maya had recognised the value of her Indian allies.

The powers in A Few Acres do play like their historical counterparts, and the whole game possesses the essential feel of the conflict. The French are hampered by fewer settlers, as they were historically. They had inferior manpower reserves. They rely on their fur traders to make most of their money. Quebec and Montreal are important hubs for all sorts of things for them. The British on the other hand can quickly develop their diverse Atlantic colonies with a steady flow of settlers, and these can provide them with a ready source of tax revenue on top of their fur trade. This means the British seem to be flush with money all the time (at least Maya seemed to be generating cash every turn while my French were frequently skint and desperate for the next fur trading season). That also means the British can raise and deploy more regular troops at a steadier rate than France, which is forced to rely more on Indians and militia. This is what happened in reality, so thumbs up there.

Conclusion


I really like the way this game plays. As a two player wargame, it is simple enough that those who are not hard core wargamers like me can quickly get into it. I also like the new trend to use wooden pieces rather than cardboard chits in wargames. I think this makes them more accessible and is a welcome trend. A Few Acres of Snow should easily be playable in an evening, especially if one of the players has previous experience. The art and components are of an excellent standard, as you can see above. The whole product captures the atmosphere and tense decision making of a conflict that is not well-known in Europe, beyond the film The Last of the Mohicans.


Sunday, 6 August 2017

Return to Warhammer 40,000

There has been a great deal of excitement swirling around the launch of the new edition of Warhammer 40k this summer. It has generated enough enthusiasm here in the Badger Hut to dust off my old Necron army, while Sebastian has been busily assembling an allied force of Dark Angels and Imperial Guard. I think his heart lies with the Dark Angels, but the Guard have helped him to beef out his army a little bit.

Kelvin has been assembling an 'old school' Eldar army for some time, so this was also an opportunity for him to bring the space elves into the action.

We organised a three way battle in the Badger Hut. There were six objectives in the game, which you can see in some of the photos, as they are marked with cactus plants. The battlefield was our arid terrain set up, with a fair amount of buildings and dry wadis to break things up.

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I went with my usual Necron force, minus the Monolith, which I've still not completely finished and really should get around to completing when I've got the time. I managed to get the rest of the army in under the points limit. Sebastian was able to afford a squad of Terminators, two squads of Space Marines, a Librarian, some kind of Dark Angel hero (Space Marine Captain?), a brace of Hellhounds, and a pair of Guard squads in hover tanks. It was an impressive force for a first outing and he's worked hard putting it together.

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The Battle


We managed to play four turns of the battle, so 80% of its required length, before we had to call it as I was going out to a party. The new rules still feel like 40k, but with much of the complexity filed off. Certainly, the close combat rules, which always irritated me in 4th edition, have been streamlined.

I deployed my Necrons with my Destroyers on my right flank to take on the Eldar, my Tomb Spider and Scarab Swarms screening my centre, while my Overlord and two squads of Warriors formed a strategic reserve. Another squad of Warriors held the left.

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In this battle, you scored points every turn you held undisputed objectives, and I prevailed in the first couple of turns, using my Scarabs as fast movers to good effect, while my Warriors on my left quickly took and held an objective ruin. It began to go wrong when the Terminators teleported into another objective building in the middle of the battlefield and a Hellhound drove through my Scarabs like so much putty. It turned out Scarabs are not so good at taking on enemy armour.

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On my right, the Destroyers ended up in a firefight with some sort of undead Eldar, basically an Eldar knock off of Necrons (Wraith Lords, perhaps?) These were supported by a war walker, which the Necrons did manage to blow up, and an Avatar, who helped his troops become even more fanatical. It quickly become hard going for my Destroyers. I also realised that my Heavy Destroyer, the only unit I have that can competently engage armour, was in entirely the wrong part of the battlefield, with Sebastian's Hellhounds running rampant on the other flank!

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Eventually I was able to bring up my Overlord and some more Warriors to assist the Destroyers, who were beginning to take hits.

The Necrons always start to get a little brittle in the later stages of a battle, and this happened to me yet again, with my Scarabs wiped out completely, my Destroyers caught up in a static firefight, which they were doing a very good job of losing, despite the additional back up from their Overlord, while one of my other Warrior squads was caught between a Hellhound and some Space Marines and summarily annihilated.

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I had been holding my Flayed Ones in reserve - I like Flayed Ones, but I have yet to use them effectively in battle - but was finding it difficult to find somewhere they could teleport in without being immediately chopped up. In desperation, I finally brought them on in turn four, only to have them chopped up.

Suffice to say, Kelvin won with his first outing with his Eldar, Sebastian came second, in his first EVER game of 40k (we all felt he somewhat handicapped himself with his initial choice of deployment), while I came third/last.

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Rules


I do like the new rules, and would like to play some more. A three-cornered battle game also played very well, and was extremely entertaining. I'll need to do some swotting up and more revision of the rules just to get them stuck in my head, but I do believe they are an improvement on earlier editions. We are also thinking about playing some older, second edition 40k at some point in the not too distant future...Kelvin has loaned me the Imperial Guard codex, so I'll see what I can cook up from that.

The Necrons


Again with the annihilation. Am I getting my tactics wrong, or is my force composition flawed? I think next time I'll add the Monolith and maybe some heavier infantry rather than the plain vanilla Warriors. I also think that I may not be using the Destroyers properly. I'll need to experiment. The size of the armies we used was, I think, appropriate for a three player game using these rules, and I would not be tempted to expand on that. We could potentially go larger for a full-afternoon two player game.

Thoughts also turn to my Tyranid army, which is a work in progress, but I'll be looking to get them painted and onto the table during the cold winter months, with any luck. More details on that when I get around to it...

More pictures and commentary on Kelvin's blog should you be interested.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Fiasco - mayhem in the Weird West

It started out as a test drive of the Fiasco rules from Jason Morningstar. I've been curious about these for some time, having seen the episode of Tabletop where Will Wheaton played a game. Is Fiasco an entry level game for those new to RPGs? How rules light it is? These were questions I wanted answered.

Fiasco is an interactive story telling game. In some ways it reminds me of Once Upon A Time - players take it in turns to set scenes or determine the outcome of scenes (positive or negative) that affect their character. A Fiasco play set determines the setting and some of the themes in that evening's game.

For example, we went with the Wild West setting in the core rules. This quickly establishes some of the themes, relationships and characters involved. Players choose these and also choose some of their relationships, important locations, and motivating factors. I ended up with a 'government' role, which led to my character, Bart Rosslyn, being the clerk responsible for the local assaying office in a silver boom town (as well as the land registry). He was also the BFF of the sheriff, run by Kelvin, who quickly emerged as a somewhat deluded and incompetent figures, whose Chinese mail order bride was also covertly running a local gang and the saloon.

You can see how, within a short period of time, Fiasco provides the players with the ingredients and setting for an entertaining plot that is much deeper and richer than, say, four adventurers meeting in a tavern to go explore a dungeon.

Each player gets to either formulate a scene, or determine the outcome. They can do this twice in the first part of the game, there is then a phase where dice are used to determine some form of crisis (the Tilt), and then there are a couple more rounds before we move to the finale. Dice are used to mark whether there are positive or negative outcomes from scenes, to help to determine the nature of the Tilt, and also to provide facts about a character's eventual fate at the end of the game.
PCs in Fiasco - far from perfect at the best of times!

Warning - Fiasco is very much about the characters coming to bad ends. It is partly inspired by the Cohen Brothers' films, like Fargo or Burn After Reading. It can be hard for players to move out of the somewhat default role they play of the perfect heroes in many RPGs to characters to whom bad things WILL happen. I think it takes a game or two for this to fully sink it, as most of us battled throughout to place our characters in superior positions, yet ultimately saw them cut down to size.

For example, my character was trying to get his lover, Janet McKenzie, the sheriff's sister, out of town before she told the sheriff of their secret relationship. The sheriff was already being played as someone a little prone to overreaction, so there was an element of urgency here. At the same time I was also trying to secure a ranch which had silver deposits on the property, ideally at a knock down price, by forging the assayer's report. In this I quickly came up against not only the tongs but also their leader, the sherriff's wife! I was obviously trying to get some kind of positive outcome, but in Fiasco that is next to impossible, and it is best to embrace that. This is the crux of the game, and getting past that could be one of the biggest obstacles for experienced RPGers.

Now let's get onto the vampire...


Yes, let's. There is nothing to stop a player setting a scene in such a way that it can really drive the plot in a different direction. Ben decided to bring a vampire into the mix. In this case, the vampire ended up being an assassin, sent from China to hunt down his character, Wendy 'Wai Ling' McKenzie. There was a rival group of tongs hidden in the Chinese mining encampment, and they were working with Rosslyn to remove Wai Ling from the picture (it was only later that Rosslyn discovered Wai Ling and Wendy were the same person). The assassin turned out to be an undead Ming dynasty vampire whose activities quickly ravaged the whole settlement.

Vampires - always good for mixing it up...
The saloon and the McKenzie farm both burned down. Janet was bitten and became a vampire, eventually going on to attack both her brother and another PC, at the end of the whole mess. Bart Rosslyn succeeded in killing the original Ming vampire, but not before he was bitten, and he was then beaten to death by angry tongs, and rose to become a revenant wandering blindly in the desert. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Bart confronted the tongs, played in this scene by the three other players, who all knew the Chinese assassin was a vampire, while Bart was still very much in the dark.

The vampire's arrival demonstrated how easy it is for one player to re-direct the plot by introducing something from out of left field. I think it worked very well, however, giving the whole game more of a From Dusk Til Dawn feel to it. We almost had a script here worthy of Tarantino, which is more than one can say for my RPG sessions. With practice, I think we could get even better.

So Fiasco? Thumbs up from me. I'll give it a further read and may come back with more thoughts on this blog. It is rules lite, which helps our group where many of us are quite tired come Friday, juggling many other demands in our respective lives.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Fords of the Isen, part II (War of the Ring)

 "Elfhelm had been riding with all haste along the horse road from Edoras, leading four companies in answer to Theodred's summons; he was expecting battle, but not yet for some days. But near the junction of the horse road with the road down from the Deeping, his outriders on the right flank reported that two wolf riders had been seen abroad on the fields. Sensing that things were amiss, he did not turn aside to Helm's Deep for the night as he had intended, but rode with all speed towards the Fords..."
J.R.R. Tolkien - The Unfinished Tales

From out of the east came Elfhelm's riders, at speed, and behind them came the rangers of Arnor. These valiant men of the north, fresh arrived in Rohan, took up a position on a hill opposite the ford now held by the trolls. They bore with them mighty bows, and showered arrows on the wargs. The warg leader was wrathful at this, and moved his pack out of range, threatening the middle ford first, then proceeding to the southern one. Many wargs lay dead in in the pack's wake, with Arnor arrows in them.


The arrival of Elfhelm

In the centre the battle raged on. Toe to toe, the Uruk-hai scouts, rallied by their fearsome lord, stood against the hand picked Rohan royal guard, while nearby Grimbold and his men fought with the lesser orcs. But Grimbold's men were losing, and all it took was for the goblins to come swarming off their hill, assailing Grimbold's militia to their rear, for the company to collapse in its entirety. Mighty was the slaughter then, and Grimbold lay amidst the Rohirrim dead.

Uruks battle the Royal Guard, toe to toe


Far across the field, young Theodred, Prince of Rohan, fought with the Uruk pikes of Isengard. The best of the mounted Rohirrim paid dearly for Theodred's vainglorious efforts to reduce the enemy. In the end, Theodred fell, mortally wounded, but not before the orcs had scattered, pursued by the last of his knights. As he faded from life, he heard in the distance the horns of Elfhelm as he forded the Isen, or was it the call of the Valar?

The doom of Grimbold...


 Still the battle hung in the balance. The wargs now charged the Rohan guard holding the southern ford, and got in among them, although several wargs fell to yet more arrows as they charged. Heroically, the guards stood to a man by that fateful river, and not one left the field. The forces of evil now controlled two of the three fords.

Wargs charge the Royal Guard at the south ford


In the centre now, the Rohan guard was attacked treacherously in the flank by armoured Uruks while they continued to battle the scouts in front of them. Over a third of Saruman's host lay dead, dying or had fled the field. But not enough. The remaining orcs and goblins sought to form themselves into line to face Elfhelm, who now charged from the south, angered by the death of his prince.

Orcs of the White Hand face off against Elfhelm's men


The Rohirrim, with Elfhelm at their head, plunged in amongst the orcs, shrugging off their black arrows, and dozens of the evil beings fell before them. Others, faint-hearted, turned and fled...

The Rohirrim ride into the orcs!


The battle hung in the balance. But sadly we had run out of time. The table was to be cleared for a new game. Both generals claimed victory. Who would have won? We will never know. Perhaps another day we will return to the blood-soaked banks of the Isen river.

Post game observations - Isengard held two fords, two of its three objectives. The third, the centre one, was still disputed, as the Rohan guard, a powerful infantry unit, was keeping the Uruk-hai away from it. However, they had two companies of armoured Uruks still to deal with, but the orc scouts were tiring, down to one company. The question was whether Saruman's general chose to switch units, thereby transferring his enhancements to the fresher companies, or indeed seek to slay the Rohan guard captain himself.

The other decisive contest was between Elfhelm and the Isengard orcs. Rohan had routed six companies out of the 13 he needed to win, so he was almost halfway there. If he destroyed the orcs and goblins in the centre, he would be on 12 and close to victory. But Elfhelm's riders were not Theodred's knights. Still too close to call, I fear. But had the Rohan royal guard collapsed, then Isengard would have taken the centre ford and would have triumphed.

Played using The War of the Ring miniatures rules by Games Workshop.

Monday, 17 July 2017

The show must go on! (Eberron game report)

At the monastary of Onatar, Cyre/Karnath border region. A small team of Cyre spec ops has infiltrated a monastary, itself captured by Emerald Claw zealots fleeing persecution in Karnath. Their objective is to rescue a kidnapped heir of House Cannith, or failing that, kill him:

The team is comprised of -

  1. Sher Singha - a shifter warrior monk, exile from Xendrik
  2. Iron Nick - a monosyllabic warforged wizard
  3. Daniel d'Deneith - a swashbuckling bard, communer with swords
  4. Pin - a light-fingered gnome rapscallion, he has his uses
Pin the Gnome Mischief Maker
It was time for the show to begin. It was decided that Brother Bernard's wish would come true, and he would die as part of the entertainment for the Emerald Claw. Daniel and his new weapon had been having 'a little chat' - the sword apparently was created to slay the vampire, Count Van Halen, and can also detect his location. It can also detect if someone is evil - a test case, the dwarf that had been entertaining the Emerald Claw before we arrived, was most definitely evil.

The dwarf (I don't recall his name) was enlisted as part of the show: Pin began with a card trick, with the human guards trickling into the temple to watch. Daniel then enthralled the dwarf using his natural charisma, and the shifter covertly jabbed him with a sleeping dart to put him asleep, Daniel all the while convincing the audience this was all part of the act.

Pin was then able to go backstage, disguise himself as said dwarf, and quietly exit the church, seeking out the building where the House Cannith heir was being held. It was easy to get into the house using the key Pin knew was hidden outside the back door in a remarkable failure in Emerald Claw security. With all the guards watching the show, Louis Hendal d'Cannith was not being monitored very closely.

A product of privilege and decadence, Louis was not exactly a poster child for House Cannith, being somewhat of a playboy, fop, and all round mummy's boy. Sadly, the mission was to bring him back, dead or alive, and Pin was just too nice a gnome to kill him on the spot and dissolve him in a vat of acid, which was all he was good for, really (and was our last resort, should he not come quietly).

Leaving the house, Pin set off a firework, which was the signal for Iron Nick to activate his magic projector, creating a hologram of the next act, while the team exited the temple by the back door. Sadly, Bernard was sacrificed as part of the act; insane, traumatised, begging for death, he was not the best person to fall upon the mercies of a d'Deneith dragon-marked scion newly equipped with a bloodthirsty, intelligent magic blade. Poor Bernard.

"Aren't you a bit short for an Emerald Claw zealot?"

Disguised as Emerald Claw, Pin and Louis had scuttled over to the well in the centre of the monastary, and were trying to climb down the rope inside (Brother Bernard had told the party that there was an escape tunnel down there). Pin used his flying mechanical hand to draw the cover back over. But Louis didn't like the dark. Didn't like smelly wells much either. All his strident complaining and yelling attracted the attention of some of the skeleton warriors the Emerald Claw guards had left to watch their horses. Two came to investigate, removed the covering, and one obligingly threw a spear down the well, which went into Louis. More screaming. Blood. Gnome struggling with stricken d'Cannith while seeking the entrance to the tunnels under the monastary. In the dark. You get the picture.

The rest of the group now arrived; with more skeletons converging on the ruckus, it was decided that the best thing to do in the circumstances was to get down the well pretty damned quickly, ideally before Colonel Furnau and his men heard all the noise. Sher Singha showed everybody how it was done, running up and jumping into the well before the skeletons could react, grabbing the rope on his way down. Daniel followed but his acrobatic skills were sadly lacking, and he tripped, falling across the lip of the well, in an ideal place to be speared to death by skeletons.

Luckily for Daniel, the warforged Iron Nick was right behind him, and grabbing the d'Deneith heir by the scruff of the neck, he ran down the inside wall of the well with him. Even Sher Singha was quietly impressed with this feat.

By this stage, Pin had found the entrance to the tunnels, and we were off, into the dark. We knew the undead would be in pursuit soon, and the alarm would be raised in the monastary above. We just had to get out. There was some muted discussion about the lack of horses at this point. Someone produced a sun rod to light the way. Louis was moaning and babbling like an idiot, so we yanked the spear out and he obligingly fainted.

The exit from the tunnels was not far, but as the party emerged from underground, to the south, it looked as if a new sun was rising on the horizon. It was not time yet for dawn, and anyway, this was in the wrong place. A wall of flame and dust hundreds of feat high swept towards the monastary. It was the doom of Cyre; we were witnessing the beginning of the Day of Mourning...

Next time: ghosts, a new mission and the mysterious continent of Xendrik beckons

Played using the Cypher system from Monte Cook Games, in the Eberron campaign setting by Keith Baker.