Monday, 29 October 2018

Generating a new player character for The Laundry RPG

For those not in the know, The Laundry was a tabletop roleplaying game published by Cubicle 7 and based on the Laundry Files books of Charles Stross, a British science fiction writer. The stories tell the tale of a group of misfits working for the Laundry, a top secret UK counter intelligence agency that is tasked with protecting Britain - and the world - from various supernatural threats.

The stories, and the game, are a little more tongue in cheek than, say, Delta Green, and one of the biggest threats characters may face are the horrors of bureaucracy and inter-departmental politics which seem to crop up in any large organisation. The setting does have a typically British sheen to it, however, worthy of Ricky Gervais' The Office.

I'm exploring the core rules a little in the odd moment of spare time - work has been very busy of late, and as ever, I try to teach the rules to myself by first generating a player character. I find groups these days don't have the time for longer character generation sessions as we once did, hence like to have pregens, at least initially, when they are getting to grips with the system.

Hence, I sat down last night to create Harold Whitepole. Attributes are rolled in a similar way to Call of Cthulhu, on which The Laundry is based - it uses the same rules as Chaosium's BRP system, but with tweaks. The core attributes are the same, so I rolled and came up with:

Strength 14, Constitution 8, Power 8, Dexterity 11, Charisma 13, Intelligence 10, Size 16, Education 11.

This provides some derived attributes, as per CoC, including a +1d4 damage bonus for melee combat, a Dodge score of 22%, Sanity of 40, and 12 hit points. The Laundry gives him two additional derived attributes, a Major Wound Level of 6 and an XP bonus of +5%. The first measures whether or not he blacks out from serious physical injuries and the second aids him in learning from his experiences.

I also rolled for his age randomly, and came up with 24.

Based on Harold's attributes, I coloured in a bit of background for him, making him a big, cheerful chap, but a man out of shape, with a bit of a drinking problem (fond of too many beers with the lads) and a 40-a-day cigarette habit.

The Laundry approaches skills a little differently, and is more reminiscent of Cubicle 7's World War Cthulhu in that skills are determined by training and background packages. I rolled for Harold and came up with a Leader personality type, which gives me his first set of skills. This is then followed by his pre-Laundry background. I can see from his poor Education that he left school at 16. He was already coming to life in my eyes.

I decided to base Harold on some of the people I was at school with: privately educated but not very academic, Harold left school at 16 and has spent time in France, had a French girlfriend for a bit and also worked for a while at a major telecommunications firm, possibly in a job at Carphone Warehouse which his father secured for him.

Harold comes from an affluent background, his father is a successful lawyer and he has spent some time interning at his father's law firm. However, the law did not appeal to Harold, who preferred playing rugby and partying in London. His job at the Laundry has also been procured through family contacts. I gave Harold Dilettante as his background, which makes him Affluent in Laundry terms, although he's not been able to hold down a proper job to date. You can spend quite a few points on these skills.

A further batch of skills occur once you choose a department within the Laundry to work for, at least initially. I decided that Harold's father has got him a job in the Interdepartmental Liaison Group, where he has been working as an assistant liaison with the Home Office. A final basic training package comes at the end of the entire process, once the Laundry decides the character is needed for a stint 'in operations.'

His skill package now looks like this (operations training in parantheses):

Appraise 60%, Athletics (rugby forward) 45%, Bargain 25% Bureaucracy 35% (40%), Command 25%, Computer Use 15%, Etiquette 60%, Fast Talk 25%, Fine Manipulation Knowledge - Politics 35%, French 45%, English 75%, Perform - Act 25% (Drama GCSE perhaps), Persuade 45%, Sense 30%, Firearm - Shotgun 50% (killing pheasants), Firearm Pistol - 25%, Drive 45%, Research 70%, Pharmacy 26% (recreational drug habit which he is keeping to himself), Technology - Communications 40% (Carphone Warehouse job), Knowledge - Law 30% (internship with father's firm), Status 25%.

Seasoned CoC players will notice that the game has quite a few new skills - some are fairly self-evident, for example Research is like Library Use, but boosted to cover online research, government archives, and the Laundry's own internal resources, the dreaded Stacks. Status is actually the character's own standing within the organisation, and reflects his/her ability to get things done with other employees. "It is a combination of rank, political pull, favours owed and standing. A character with low Status is an anonymous drone..." I quite like this. No skills are allowed above 75% at character generation.

Some initial equipment is available for characters that cross 50% skill boundaries, another nice touch. In Harold's case, this gives him certification to carry a pistol on duty, even though his high score is in shotgun - the Laundry has decided he can handle himself around weapons of this nature.

So there you have it, my first Laundry character. The core rules contain some further pre-gens, plus some of the characters from the books who can easily be co-opted as player characters.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Frostgrave: The Silent Tower at Dice Saloon

I finally managed to eke out some time to continue my Frostgrave campaign with Kelvin last night, this time progressing to the third scenario in the book, the Silent Tower. As my usual gaming venue has been turned over to my son's engineering project, we decided to take the game down to the Dice Saloon in Brighton. We found there was more than enough scenery to populate the table top and recreate the ghostly ruins of Frostgrave.

The battlefield from my perspective - fog bank on the right.

We created the Silent Tower, which acts as a sort of anti-magic zone in this scenario, using three towers connected by walkways [see below]. There was only one door, in the middle tower, allowing access from the ground. My soothsayer Ragnar fluffed both his zombie and fool's gold spells, so there was no illusory chest to start the game with this time. An extra chest, stuffed with booty, sat at the top of the tower. This would allow three rolls on the treasure table for whoever recovered it.

The Three Towers!
My band was up to full capacity this time, with a trio of dogs, both my men at arms, two rangers, a newly recruited dwarf with a crossbow, and my wizard and apprentice. Kelvin, who had taken the time to add a kennel to his HQ, was able to field his squigg/dog for free, getting eleven members for his party.

I split my band into three, allowing the dogs to operate as an independent pack, while Ragnar led the men at arms and his apprentice Nordgrint moved with the two rangers for protection. My strategy was to let the dogs create havoc, as per usual, but this time I had three shooters. I had found myself suffering in previous encounters from Kelvin's orc archers, so wanted to try the tactic for myself.

This turned out to be a good move, since my bow-armed rangers and the crossbow wreaked merry havoc with the goblins, resulting in the death of the goblin apprentice and dispatching two summoned zombies, which the apprentice had raised to protect himself with. One of the rangers was also able to recover a chest as a direct consequence (more on that below).

On my right, the early use of a fog potion allowed me to screen my wizard and the dogs from any shooting from the orcs, plus it meant some of the goblin witch's spells were countered. The dogs could rush through the fog without being impeded, but they were less effective this time. The orc barbarian took two of them down in short order, and a passing wolf killed the third. I'm in two minds whether it is worth getting any more, as two of the dogs made their survival rolls, so I'll still have them in my band, although one is too badly hurt to make the next battle.

The key to this battle was control / access to the central tower - there were two treasure chests, one on the main tower and a second on one of the ancillary towers. I realised I  needed to get my band into a good strategic position early on to control access to the tower, ideally using my shooters. Kelvin got one goblin into the tower ahead of me, and the maniac managed to seize one chest before throwing himself off the tower with it, to escape my soldiers climbing up the tower after him! The goblin took a lot of damage, but survived, only to be hacked down soon after by my dwarvish warrior Skeggi Boozehound. I tried repeating the same trick with my man at arms, Grimgur, but he only succeeded in breaking his neck on the way down...

Nordgrint keeps a low profile!

At this stage of the game it was time to race to safety. My wizard Ragnar, who had one chest, was followed by his apprentice Nordgrint, who had picked up the super bonus chest the hapless Grimgur had jumped from the tower with. A ranger was escaping with a third. Kelvin's orcs came in pursuit, shooting arrows all the way. The ranger and Ragnar escaped off the field, but Nordgrint was pounced on by a wandering minor demon, who managed to put him down, before wandering off again. Nordgrint recovered, but lost a potion in the process.

The last opportunity to grab a chest came from the other side of the field, where the goblins had abandoned a chest when their apprentice was slain by an crossbow bolt. Gosted, one of my rangers, grabbed it and ran to safety while a zombie summoned by Ragnar was keeping the goblin witch busy.

The game ended with three chests in my possession, yielding 210 gold, plus two grimoires with illusionary soldier and reveal death spells. I also picked up potions of strength and speed, and scrolls of decay, explosive, rune, miraculous cure, planar tear and two scrolls of telekinesis. Not a bad haul, but it addresses one issue I have with my soothsayer, in that he lacks many of the offensive spells that the opposition has - for example, grenade and mud, both of which seem highly useful.

Ragnar takes cover to avoid orc archers on his way to safety.

My band took quite a beating in the process, but given my aggressive posture on this one, I was expecting it. One dog is dead, plus Grimgur broke his neck jumping off a tower. A second dog is hors de combat, as is poor Skeggi, who I think got hit by a grenade spell. That takes me down to six for my next expedition into Frostgrave, unless I can grab some more recruits. I'm currently left with Ragnar and Nordgrint, one dog, Gosted and Lumbard the rangers, and Brekin Sharp Eye, my dwarven crossbow sniper. But having said all that, it is really time for my spell users to step up to the plate!

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Book of the Month: Red Storm Rising

Soviet Victor-class nuclear submarine
This week I celebrate my 48th birthday. I'm still astonished, every year, that I'm even over 40. When I was still at school, in the bad old days of the 1980s, I was convinced that war with the Soviet Union and an eventual exchange of strategic nuclear weapons was an inevitability. I think that only thanks to the efforts of a very small number of individuals, among them John. F. Kennedy, Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan and Oleg Gordievsky, was that conflict avoided.

Red Storm Rising was one of Tom Clancy's earlier novels, written before he became more established with books like The Hunt For Red October or Patriot Games (although Red October itself first came out in 1984), and their central character CIA analyst Jack Ryan (now the subject of a new series on Amazon Prime). Red Storm Rising is a techo thriller, published in 1986, and written with Larry Bond, one of the authors of the Harpoon modern naval miniatures rules.

It is an epic book, and authored by those with a background in naval operations and wargaming (Bond served six years in the US Navy, including four years on a destroyer).  Red Storm Rising charts a hypothetical conflict between NATO and the USSR in 1985, caused by a terrorist incident in Azerbaijan, when saboteurs destroy a big slice of the USSR's oil and gas infrastructure. It looks at the war that ensues from the perspective of several combatants, including major roles for, among others, a US Air Force officer in Iceland, an American submarine commander and a destroyer captain, a Russian general, and the commander of a Soviet airborne division.

There are also lesser roles for a supporting cast of characters involved in different aspects of the war - for example, early on, the Spetznaz commando operations in West Germany against NATO targets, or later efforts by the USAF to shoot down Russian spy satellites with missiles. At the time, the advent of ground breaking stealth technology was still a rumour, but this is encapsulated in Clancy's Operation Dreamland, the use of Stealth fighters to take out the Warsaw Pact's AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System) planes in a pre-emptive strike over East Germany, resulting in massive losses for the Soviet air force in the first day of the war.

Operation Dreamland

The Russians have their own cards to play, naturally, including a surprise attack on Iceland, which provides them with the air base at Keflavik and shuts down the NATO SOSUS sonar network between Greenland and the UK.

It is a gripping read. There is a bias towards naval operations, although the fighting in Germany gets the occasional look in, mainly from the perspective of the leader of a US armoured platoon and the Soviet headquarters in Germany, grappling with its own logistical and leadership problems, not the mention the unrealistic demands of their masters in Moscow.

Clancy and Bond look at the typical scenarios that might have been fought out in the 1980s, including convoy operations in the Atlantic, missions to track down Russian submarines, air raids on Iceland, and the tactical Stealth missions at low level in East Germany.

The Russian characters are not card board cut outs by any means: the first 15% of the book looks at the reasons behind the war, the decision making process, including at Politburo level, the KGB's maskirovka tactics, and the Red Army's military planning. There's a great scene where the army general staff meet in a sauna in Moscow to discuss their plans without being recorded by the KGB (the steam makes it impossible to bug them).

If you are interested in a gripping read, with plenty of technical detail, but not enough to get bogged down in, then Red Storm Rising is a good choice. It is becoming quite dated now, and the period it is set in over three decades in the past, but for the Cold War military enthusiast it remains a classic.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Friday night X Wing: Biggs Darklighter saves the day

X wings on patrol!
All of a sudden Fantasy Flight Games has launched a second edition of its massively popular X Wing science fiction space combat miniatures game. I've only played this once before, and already there is a second edition! X Wing has a large and vibrant community of players here in Sussex, however, with the centre of activity located in the new and sprawling Dice Saloon premises.

I had another opportunity to 'fly casual' last week and try out the new second edition rules. Those who are expecting a detailed analysis of the differences between the two will be disappointed sadly, as it has been so long since I last played, I'd have to go back to the first edition, play that again, and then let you know.

I played two X Wings, with Biggs Darklighter and Wedge Antilles, against a trio of TIE fighters of varying levels of experience. I was not flying against generic mooks here - some of these guys were quite dangerous. Points-wise, I still had an edge, as Wedge had several additional abilities and was equipped with a couple of photon torpedoes.

The early part of the game was spent just trying to get some shots on each other. I scored an early success, destroying one of the TIEs, but he was the greenest flyer of the bunch. I tried this time to fly my X wings in close formation, as Biggs has an ability that lets him take a hit for another pilot if he is within short range of them. However, my opportunity to use my photon torpedoes quickly evaporated.

I have to confess I was rusty, and getting to grips with the rules meant I neglected my photons. By the time I decided it would be good to try them, Wedge had a TIE on his tail that refused to be shaken and both my X wings spent three turns being shot at without having any targets in their firing arcs! This is not a good situation and only my shields saved me from taking any serious damage.

Wedge Antilles faces an asteroid

I then took the decision to split the X wings, forcing the Imperial player to do the same. Wedge wrestled to get a shot on the TIE with his torpedoes, but my jammy opponent was not going to let me get there (they can't be fired at short range, and every time Wedge had a shot the TIE was right in his face). Eventually, he decided to detach his other TIE from Biggs and send it after Wedge, managing to bag Wedge.

At this point it was suggested we stop, as I now had only Biggs, with no shields, facing down two experienced TIE fighters. I chose to fight on, in the spirit of the Rebellion, and to avenge Alderaan. Within the next turn Biggs took out his second TIE with an amazing shot. Now it was Biggs, in a badly damaged X wing, against the last TIE, which was at this point unscratched and piloted by the most experienced of the three Imperial flyers.

The bad guys - TIEs!
By this point in the game I'd become more familiar with the maneuver matrix for the X wing. Although slower than the TIE it had the ability to execute a hard turn and then drop its speed to 1, which the TIEs could not emulate. I finally had a means of making sure the enemy was going to pop up fairly consistently in Biggs' sights. I knew Biggs' X wing would not hold together for much longer - one more hit and he was a goner - so the next time I had him, took full advantage of it. An amazing shot by Biggs inflicted three hits (jammy rolling on my part) and a botched defensive roll left the last TIE as a cloud of glowing radioactive dust.

Victory for the Rebellion! What a game, and an entertaining return to X wing. I'll have to see if I can get some more games in this autumn. The second edition seems to flow extremely well, although I'm told players will need the £40 upgrade box for each faction plus the core rules to really be able to convert their miniatures collections over to the new edition - e.g. new order dials and bases are required, not to mention card decks. All you are really keeping from first edition are the miniatures.