Sunday, 29 December 2013

Looking ahead to 2014

Is it that time already? Sadly it looks like I'm not going to beat my record of posts from 2012. I'm near, but not there, and won't have the time to write a whole slurry of posts before the end of the year. But as we say farewell to 2013, it is also time to look ahead to 2014 and make some New Year's resolutions.

I didn't really referee an awful lot of RPGs this year. I managed to run a game of Hot War at the last Wintercon way back in January, which I thought went rather well (although I can't believe that was almost a year ago). I also ran some Savage Worlds more recently, and IIRC that was about it for me in the GM's chair. I didn't get an awful lot of board gaming in either, although more recently I've been playing a bit of Monopoly and Railroad Tycoon, not to mention Nuns on the Run, of course.

Having recently taken delivery of my pre-ordered copy of OGRE, which is the biggest and heaviest board game I think I'm ever likely to buy, as well as the recently released Firefly, I've had to take a long hard look at my gaming shelves and the reality of available storage space. Sadly, I must come to the conclusion that I really don't have the room for more board games - they are simply too bulky. I will need to become a lot more selective in 2014 when acquiring new board games. I notice there are a few still in their shrink wrap, which is not a good sign...

So, resolution primus has to be to cut way back on new board games. Period.

Once upon a time pilotless killing machines were a sci fi concept!

I anticipate that 2014 is going to be quite busy on the work front, and probably busier than 2013. This is partly because the funds industry is entering a boom cycle, and, as the saying goes, it is time to make hay while the sun shines. My aim is to work like a blighter until the wheels come off the wagon again, which they most certainly shall. Perhaps by then I'll be able to retire? What it does mean is that there is less likelihood of me writing my own scenarios in 2014 or finishing those I'm working on.

Paris night life - not what it is cracked up to be!
It may be that the upcoming new BBC adaptation of The Three Musketeers might tempt me to dust off my copy of All For One - Regime Diabolique, but we shall see. I'd love to also be able to play some Trail of Cthulhu if the opportunity allows. Luckily I have the long train journey into London for such activities. I felt I really got a little too rusty from not GMing in 2013. Resolution secundus must be to try to run at least three sessions, which would beat my record this year!

Finally, I need to consolidate my collection of miniatures. I'm too thinly spread across too many projects, many of which I'm sure I'll never get around to. Consequently, I'm going to be off-loading some of my unpainted lead and plastic in January. One project that looks certain to get axed are my 28mm Carthaginian and Roman armies. I just don't think I'm going to get around to this, and if I ever go back to large scale ancients, I'll probably start from scratch.

I really didn't do very much miniatures gaming in 2013, and hope to rectify this in 2014. In particular, I want to focus on my Colonial, WW2, Vietnam War and Middle-earth projects. These will be sufficient to keep me busy. I may look to play some Sikh Wars (1840s), perhaps with some multi-player action towards the end of the year. It is all a question of time really.

So, my final resolution is to try to get some more regular miniatures games played. That will hopefully also include some Blood Bowl, Warhammer 40,000 and Stars Wars X-Wing if we can manage it, not to mention Battlefleet Gothic, which has a busy and interesting Facebook community, if you ever have the inclination to join it. See you in the New Year everyone!

The 62nd regiment of foot at Ferozeshah.

Monday, 9 December 2013

WFRP - the Road to Middenheim

Okay, so I'll admit it - I'm going to try to beat 51 posts on this blog, which was what I achieved in 2012, and which would equate to one post per week, which seems respectable to me. We don't have much time left in 2013, so I had better get my skates on. Today, we return to the topic of our ongoing Warhammer FRP campaign, namely The Enemy Within, but the more recent version published by Fantasy Flight Games. What follows is chock full of spoilers, so please don't read it if you think there is any danger of playing in this campaign.

Readers of this blog may remember we had uncovered a Skaven conspiracy in Averheim to create the clapper for a magical bell, but if not, you can read about that here. Since then, rather more has happened in the campaign. I suggest you go over to our GM Kelvin's blog and read the next installment there, before returning here for the update below.

So, we resume the tale with our stalwart adventurers leaving Averheim on the trail of the witch hunter Adele Ketzenblum, who may be able to help us find the mysterious Black Hood. We are also carrying two boxes, one containing the magical clapper Rudiger stole from the Skaven, and one empty, really just a decoy. We were headed for Middenheim, where we hoped to meet the academic Robert von Oppenheimer, who the white wizard Konrad Mauer felt would aid us in destroying the foul chaos artefact.

Around this time, Rudiger graduated from mere Thief to Tomb Robber, and Magnar was muttering about raiding some barrows in the vicinity of our journey in his efforts to loot some plate mail armour. We decided to take a couple of days out to do some grave robbing, targeting the barrows of an ancient tribal people whose name escapes me, but who did a so-so job of protecting their tombs with traps. Luckily, Rudiger had Trap Finding as a talent, and those traps we did trigger fell on top of hard-headed dwarves, so no problems there. The undead, now, that was a bit more of a challenge.

Despite our best efforts to destroy the bones of the dead warriors we found in the tombs, some had been concealed behind false panels, and came to life. Although they were frightening, our collective team now has higher WP scores than when they fought the Skaven and were able to cope admirably. We also had Podo, our halfling surgeon, with us to patch up characters that were wounded in the affray. While victorious over the undead, we sadly found less loot than we hoped for, and no plate mail to speak of. Only Aelric was happy, having discovered a strange iron ring, which he caressed in an unwholesome manner as we trundled off in our cart.

It was decided that sticking around in the highlands was asking for trouble from the local tribes, especially as we were plundering their ancestral tombs. There was also the question of the witch hunter we were pursuing. We continued our journey into the Great Forest, where we were ambushed by a giant spider, literally dropping onto the cart out of a tree. Poor old Podo was poisoned and fell out of the cart, but the two elves, who had been riding ahead, dispatched the spider shortly thereafter, with Aelric demonstrating that his magic is becoming more lethal all the time. Podo recovered. Eventually.

We found the city of Talabheim closed against us, and the chaos horde that we knew was sweeping south. We were forced therefore to ask around at a local village about Ketzenblum, and they had indeed seen someone matching her description pass through. It seems she may not have entered Talabheim at all. We set off in hot pursuit, or as hot as you can with a cart drawn by an ancient nag, loaded to the gills with weapons, supplies and heavily muscled dwarf killing machines. Stopping at a coaching inn, Rudiger decided to have a quiet cider and watch the world go by, while Magnar and Torek had a drinking competition. Torek lost, but by this stage both dwarves were paralytic with booze. Which would have been fine had the Skaven not decided to try to steal the bell clapper from us in the night.

Luckily, there is a magical alarm on the clapper, and the Skaven thief only made it to the inn's courtyard wall before we were awake and armed and suitably alarumed - apart from the drunken dwarves of course. While Rudiger climbed out the window, Drandruel took a running jump out the window, somersaulting through the air to land on the wall. Someone needs to sign her up for the War Dancers if you ask me. The astonished Skaven fled cross country as quick as he could, but was hit by a quarrel from Drandruel's crossbow, and was nuked shortly afterwards by Aelric, who had managed to run around to the main gate to intercept him (hiding his face in his cloak, as he forgot his mask in the bedroom). The boxes were duly retrieved, with the ratman obligingly melting away to conceal knowledge of his presence.

Thus it was that we slipped away from the inn at dawn, before anyone could dream up any interesting questions about the night's events, and before the dwarves could get at the beer again. We knew we were not far from Middenheim, but we also knew there was a chaos army not far from us too. Needless to say, they obligingly decided to put in an appeareance...

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Dragonmeet 2013

I finally made it to Dragonmeet, despite still feeling under the weather. But I was well enough to struggle up to London for the day to visit a convention I have not been to for many a year. I used to be a semi-regular at Dragonmeet when I actually lived in London and had no kids, but these days my presence in Kensington for this event is rare. I think I've been to it only once since I moved to Brighton.

In previous years, I've tended to sign up for games I've not played before, but would like to try out. I've always found this is a good way to get a feel for how a game works. The other great thing about Dragonmeet is the number of creators, designers, authors and artists who are there. This includes not only RPG authors, but also some board games designers.

This year, I really wanted to check out some of the seminars, taking place in the council chambers at Kensington Town Hall, which look more like the venue for a UN summit meeting than any seminar room I've been to (other than the awesome conference chamber in the Centre de Conferences Kirchberg et Hemicycle in Luxembourg, which is more like the Senate chamber in Star Wars).

I attended a very interesting presentation by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson on the early years of Games Workshop, although they did concentrate more on GW in the 1970s and how they used Dungeons and Dragons as the thin end of their wedge into the UK retail market. But there were some very interesting insights into how Citadel Miniatures got off the ground, how the Games Workshop logo was designed, and why they wrote the Fighting Fantasy game books. I didn't realise that they had both sold out of GW entirely by 1992, and in the Q&A session afterwards they admitted that you can't control what your wayward children get up to after they grow up!

The other seminar I attended was the live podcast recording of the latest episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, which you can hear here, and which has become one of my favourite podcasts at the moment. It was great to meet Robin and Ken in the flesh, although they both looked a tad jet lagged to me! It would not surprise me to hear they only got into the UK yesterday. I had a brief chat with them about their new Trail of Cthulhu campaign, Eternal Lies, which they tried to persuade me to buy, even thought I told them Kelvin would be running it using Call of Cthulhu!

Apart from buying some lurid pink dice for my daughter, I also picked up a few other items I've had my eye on, including the latest edition of The Unspeakable Oath (to whom I owe an article, but they sadly have to get in line behind people with deeper pockets), Ashen Stars, the science fiction setting for the Gumshoe rules, and Shotguns v Cthulhu, an anthology of short stories from Robin Laws' Stoneskin Press. I also picked up some Fudge dice for FATE.

I had an impulse buy too - the softback version of Maelstrom - Domesday. Gaming veterans will remember Maelstrom as a fantasy RPG with a Tudor English background which appeared in paperback format in the 1980s, much like Dragon Warriors, and which has since been reprinted. I spoke with Graham Bottley or Arion Games, who has used a successful Kickstarter to re-release the game using a new, Norman England setting (1086 is the default campaign date). It seems like an excellent idea, and Graham himself is a very bright and personable character who I suspect will go far. One of the problems with meeting games designers in person is that they sell you on their idea and you end up buying their game - that's why I have Darkwood and Dark Continent sitting on my shelves, both games I'd love to run at some point, and how Malcolm Craig talked me into buying Cold City.

We also played a few board games which were left conveniently set up for punters to just sit down and play. And it was great to meet up with a few old friends I've not seen in a while, including Paco of GMS Magazine, and Charlie, whom I used to play Exalted and Vampire with back in 2004-06. A great day out, and if I can make the time (a very big 'if' these days), I will try to go again next year.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

We play Nuns on the Run

Nuns on the Run - what an awesome title for a game! I bought this after watching the review on Dice Tower, as I felt it met a number of key criteria I'm looking for from board games at the moment. These boil down as follows:
  • They can be played inside a couple of hours.
  • They have simple rules which are not too involved, and can be taught to kids
  • There is not too much warfare / combat in them - this a specific request from my daughter who feels too many of my games involve fighting!
Nuns on the Run meets all of these criteria. If I had any concern, I would say the slightly complex line of sight rules preclude it from being played by anyone under the age of eight, although it is probably possible for a young player of 7-8 to play the nuns, of which more later.

The game is set in a convent, at night. Most of the players take the roles of novices who must creep around looking for keys which they need to access their Secret Wish. These are items located in locked rooms in the convent which they must retrieve and return with to their cells (e.g. the Abbess' birthday cake is locked in the kitchen). The first player to return to their cell wins, UNLESS the patrolling nuns catch a number of novices equal to the number of players.

One player takes the role of the Abbess and the Prioress. They follow patrol routes in the convent marked by coloured lines, and can only deviate from these if they hear something. They get to listen TWICE a turn, once when the novices have moved, and again when the nuns have moved. A D6 determines how far they can hear.

Players record on paper how far they are moving, where they are moving to and how fast they are going. Novices who run are easier for the nuns to hear than novices who sneak or are completely still. Nuns can also see in a 180 degree arc in front of them, but cannot see novices behind this axis. Thus, a nun in a north-south corridor, facing west, can see all the way down both ends of the corridor, but cannot see someone behind them.

Novices are not placed on the map. Like Dracula in Fury of Dracula, they are only placed when seen by nuns (well, in Dracula's case, when found by hunters, but you get the drift I'm sure). The nuns have to move into the same spot as a novice to catch them: if the novice manages to run out of sight before a nun can get to them, they can evade, as happened in our game. Some areas of the board, like the gardens and church, are easier to be spotted in. Also, some areas, off the main patrol routes, might make better hiding places (my son's novice managed to evade the Abbess by hiding in a toilet).

The player of the nuns has a slightly more regimented game, which is why I feel this role is best reserved for the youngest player, as all their moves are out in the open, and you can see whether they are getting anything wrong. The nun player uses cards which determine patrol routes: each route can only be used once in the game, although the nuns also have two cards which allow them to go back on the same route. Once these are used, however, that's it. The nuns really only engage when they hear novices, when they can then decide to go looking for them. Counters are used to show which direction sounds came from, or where a novice was last seen. These stay on the board until the end of the nun's go, at which point they are removed. Consequently, nuns really only have one move in which to find a novice: if they fail, they tend to have to return to their patrol route.

In our only game of Nuns on the Run so far, I failed to catch any novices. I only had two to hunt for, but it is harder for the nuns with a smaller number of novices. This is balanced with a lower victory requirement, of course, but I suspect that with six novices running around, the nuns will certainly start catching them. Being caught is not the end of the game for a novice, but it does make it much harder for them to win. You get sent back to your cell, but can go AWOL as soon as the nun is out of sight. however, you do have to give up any cards you had, like your keys, for example. This can make it much harder to accomplish your goals in the 15 turn game limit.

Nuns of the Run is a great game if you are playing with kids or people who don't want to kill orcs or trample over Tokyo. It reminds me of Fury of Dracula, stripped down and without the horror elements. But instead of Dracula being invisible, the hunters are hidden and it is Dracula doing the searching. It is good fun and not too complex. I think it can easily be played inside 90 minutes, and this goal is certainly helped by the fact that most of the players move simultaneously.

I have included the review from the Dice Tower below if you need further convincing -

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The land of forgotten armies....

I'm in the process of clearing out and re-arranging my workspace at home. This is not a complete re-modelling project - that will have to wait until the rest of the house is done. But I am going through all my games and figures, not only re-arranging them, but also putting some things on eBay, because really, I don't think I'll ever use them. However, this also prompts one to focus on all the unfinished war gaming projects that litter my space, assessing those in progress and those yet to launch, and trying to come up with some idea of what is likely to get played, and what is likely to go to Mister eBay.

Given that I have also pre-ordered copies of the new Firefly and Ogre games, I am also in need of some space to fit these into the games museum. Hence, it is time to rationalise what we're likely to be painting in 2014, and what we're likely to be playing. I've also decided I may see if I can get along to some actual tournaments in 2014. If I can make one per quarter, I'll be happy.

Ancients: A 6mm Carthaginian army project in progress, based for Impetus. I estimate I've got approximately 400 points. I'd like to give Impetus a go in 2014, and possibly even aim to attend the tournament in Derby in September. Hence, this army is a top priority. IF I like the system, I'll look to get a 28mm Carthaginian army off the production line in 2014, but that's a big ask.

Warhammer 40,000: Approximately 2000 points of Necrons, much of it unfinished, needs to be rounded off. I've also got a 1000 point Tyranid army on the boil. The plan here is to get some WH40K played in the New Year, and then maybe play a few competition games in the second half of the year. A combined Space Marine / Imperial Guard army is only just beginning to take shape. This may only be used for internal play testing of other army lists. Given the fragility of the plastics, I'm going to need a better carry case for my troops! Getting that Tyranid army up to scratch should be a priority.

Warhammer Fantasy Battle: Still very much a work in progress, with both Bretonnians and Lizardmen on the table. I don't really know where to go with WFB. The figures have been used largely as a testing ground for the kids when they want to paint or model - a convenient creative direction to point them in. I'm almost content to let them get on with these, and see how we go. I don't expect much progress here in 2014. The WH40K Space Marine (Dark Angels) army is similarly being painted by the small folk.

Lord of the Rings / War of the Ring: I seem to have amassed a fair amount of GW Lord of the Rings figures over the last decade or so, ranging from free, to eBay, to sales. Very little of it was bought at RRP. I have used some of this in my Bloodbath At Orc's Drift campaign, but am wondering now whether we're close to having enough figures to play a War of the Ring battle. I'm going to review the collection when I have time and maybe play a few smaller skirmish games first.

Blood Bowl: With an Elf team and a part-painted Chaos team (and a Human team in its very early stages), I'd like to play some Blood Bowl in 2014. A few games here and there could inspire me to finish off the Chaos team. BB seems to be one of those games which, while not supported by its original manufacturer Games Workshop, still enjoys a busy and vibrant tournament scene in the UK and abroad. Given that I'm close to having two teams, with a third in the wings, it seems silly not to pay more attention to BB in 2014.

Dystopian Wars: A Russian fleet that is probably 20% complete (the tiny flyers are done, and the frigates are underway). After the Impetus army, this is the next priority. Exactly how long it will take to paint this is anyone's guess, but I'd like to get it finished asap.

Bolt Action: As I have a platoon of Russians and a platoon of Germans, I will be play testing Bolt Action from Warlord Games, possibly even over the Xmas break. BA seems very popular with tournament organisers at the moment, so it could be worthwhile becoming more familiar with the system and generating a couple of army lists. As with WH40K and Blood Bowl, it should not take much to get into this.

Battlefleet Gothic: Really not sure whether I'll get much use out of my BFG Necron fleet in 2014. Part of me wonders whether it might not make more sense to sell my BFG stuff, particularly as Firestorm Armada now seems to have taken its place as the go-to large ship space combat game. To sell or not to sell, that is the question...? I'll keep my fleet mothballed for the time being, but if there is no opportunity to play soon, will likely sell it.

Judge Dredd: I seem to have picked up quite a few 1980s Judge Dredd miniatures (back from when Games Workshop had the license). Now that Warlord is supporting the JD game that Mongoose originally developed, Judge Dredd skirmish gaming has come to the fore again. I've probaby almost got enough to get playing straight away.

In Her Majesty's Name: Finally, in lieu of Mordheim, there is this new and interesting setting from Osprey. Like Mordheim, it uses small warbands / posses although I'm not sure whether it would work so well as a multi-player game. I can probably put together a number of factions for this almost immediately, including using my colonial troops for some of them. Look out for a play test of this in the not too distant future.

So that's 2014 in a nutshell kids. Looking around, there are still a lot of other projects gathering dust which will not get touched next year if I stick to the above plan. This includes expanding my Zulu impi for Black Powder, my Peninsular War project, the Sikh Wars, All Things Zombie, and WW2 naval gaming. All on the back burner sadly, although I might give Black Powder another go when the new Zulu War supplement emerges from Warlord.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Milestones in gaming #3: Red Box Dungeons and Dragons

The so-called 'Red Box' Dungeons and Dragons set was also known as Basic Dungeons and Dragons. I received this as my Christmas present in December 1983 from my parents. At the time I'd been showing some interest in the Advanced version of the game, having already become embroiled in the Fighting Fantasy game books of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (see previous post). I think they may have wanted me to get into a hobby that might stimulate my intellect somewhat, as there was some concern I was going to flunk my Common Entrance exams.

[Note to readers unfamiliar with the UK private school system: the Common Entrance exam or CE is sat by pupils in the equivalent of Year 8 (12/13 years) in UK state school parlance. It is intended to help private schools to measure the intellectual capability of applicants for entry in Year 9, which is the typical starting age group at most UK private schools, although many now take pupils at 11+ and set their own exams. It features a range of papers on most key subjects, with the exam papers then sent for marking to the school(s) the candidate is applying for.]

I think the feeling was that the game might help me to improve my Maths grades,which were at that point less than impressive. With my Latin and Religious Studies also in the basement, things were looking bleak. It seems obvious at the time that the Red Box was a good starting point and indeed, it was a clever marketing ploy by TSR, as it made the game far more accessible than Advanced, which was impenetrable to most (and written like a tax manual).

Basic featured two booklets, one for players and one for Dungeon Masters, and also came with a set of polyhedral dice and a starting module (mine had B2 - The Keep on the Borderlands). Basic was also written in easy to understand language, with many of the core game concepts introduced via a step by step solo adventure. Finally, the game had great art from Larry Elmore, including the fantastic box cover painting. Elmore went on to do even better work with the Dragonlance modules and for me became the definitive artist for the game.

I had massive fun with this. It was the first RPG I owned, but I quickly added to it the blue Expert set, which brought new monsters, the idea of hex crawl wilderness adventures, and the Isle of Dread module.

This RPG quickly caught on as the accessory of choice for many of the kids in my year at school. As we were in boarding school, we frequently had to fill our Sundays with something, as the school had limited ideas about how to entertain pupils on weekends, other than with sport, cross country rambles and church. Dungeons and Dragons leaped into this vacuum with alacrity and we soon had a number of boys running their own homebrew campaigns. It even became possible to move from one campaign to another with your character, which I understand is what happened originally with the early campaigns in the US in the 1970s.

Bear in mind that at this stage we had no access to computer games of any sort. The first personal computers for home use were only just appearing. Hence, in many ways, the game represented a sort of pen and paper computer game which we could readily access at school, where resources were limited. We didn't use miniatures, and we had all gone our separate ways by the time the Companion set came out (in 1985 IIRC).

Few characters ever got to Lord level (9+) and most died at 1-2. Indeed, I only got a character past 6th level in Pathfinder last year! The attrition rate amongst low level PCs was high, but then they didn't take long to roll up. You would regularly see an AC 9 Magic User wandering into a dungeon with nothing but a dagger, a couple of hit points, and two first level spells to rub together. A kobold with a knife became serious opposition for him! There was one guy who ran an Advanced campaign, but he was a Maths whizz, went on to Eton, and is now a millionaire, so I guess that says it all.

Next time - I discover White Dwarf...

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Previously, on the Enemy Within

WARNING: the following contains spoilers for Fantasy Flight's The Enemy Within campaign (but not the earlier Games Workshop classic) on at your peril.

Our little band of heroes is currently in Averheim, in the Empire. Let's introduce our posse of hardy stalwarts:

Rudiger Adler - ruggedly handsome in an earthy sort of way, Adler is a former Outlaw, and now works part-time as a Thief, while being in the service of the elven lord Aelric. Rudiger deserted from the Count's army following a battle with orcs in the Black Fire Pass. Rudiger is looking for his brother, Ralf, who seems to have disappeared in Averheim.

Magnar - a Dwarf of ill-repute, it is rumoured he was drummed out of dwarf society due to certain 'irregularities' during a Blood Bowl tourney, but we do not speak of it. Magnar and Rudiger were outlaws together before arriving in Averheim.

Aelric - an Elf, an aristocrat and a budding Wizard. Aelric has the advantage of being good looking and having his own house and a butler. We generally leave him to do most of the talking and answering the hard questions that sometimes arise from the town authorities.

Thorik - a Trollslayer, Thorik and Magnar knew each other back in the Blood Bowl days, and may have been involved in the same 'misunderstanding' that led to Magnar's banishment, but we do not speak of it. Thorik is busy trying to get himself killed as quickly as possible.

Drandruel - an elf Sergeant and former Mercenary, she hails from the Great Forest. Although still young, she has seen service in Tilean armies. She does not speak much, but has mentioned she has ambitions to become a Knight. She is arguably our best fighter, but always seems to be somewhere else when the blood starts flying.

So where were we? Oh yes, Averheim. The party has been doing a bit of this and that, including looking into some mysterious disappearances in the docks, breaking up the odd gang fight, rescuing people from burning barges, and escorting countesses out to their country estates. Rudiger has been looking fruitlessly for his brother, while he and Magnar have been trying to keep Aelric out of trouble and Thorik in one piece (the latter task proving particularly difficult).

Due to suspicions that some members of the City Watch might be moonlighting as bandits, the party was hired to provide security at a garden party and exhibition staged by Frederick von Kaufmann, to show off some artefacts gathered by an expedition he sponsored to the Southern Continent, including a gold plaque and a strange green mask. In a previous session, someone used alchemical magic to break up the garden party, steal the mask and the plaque, and release a griffon from its cage into the Count's maze, where it killed a couple of guests and almost did for Magnar and Thorik. Rudiger, meanwhile, prudently hid under a hedge, having learned his lesson about violence during an earlier encounter with bandits (when he was shot in the face).

The griffon having been slain by the City Watch, Aelric, Rudiger and Drandruel investigated the crime scene while the two dwarfs were carted off bleeding to the temple of Shallya for healing (and an eating competition). The investigators that stayed behind discovered some kind of envenomed throwing star had been used to enrage the griffon before it went on the rampage. They also found traces of a form of quicklime solution that had been used by an intruder with clawed feet, a small intruder, one with fangs. Said intruder was also seen by a drunk outside, leaving the crime scene, shrouded in a dark cloak. Could this be the mysterious Hooded One, allegedly muscling in on the protection racket at the docks?

While waiting for the dwarfs to recover, Adler went to see Captain Marcus Bauerfast, the City Watch officer who seems to have become our contact in the Averheim law enforcement fraternity. Adler wanted to find out who the mysterious female witch hunter was, the one we'd seen him leave with at the garden party. Bauerfast seemed oddly ignorant of her whereabouts, but we got her name, Adele Ketzenboom. Apparently she's bad news, and we should stay out of her way. This probably means we'll almost certainly end up doing anything but.

We then consulted Konrad Mauer, a white wizard who, when not picking fights with aristocrats, is investigating murders down at the docks. Luckily, he seems to be even more paranoid than we are, and following a pooling of information, deduced that we could be dealing with rat men (note: Warhammer afficionados will know them as Skaven, but in our game they have a very low profile, and this was the first time the characters had heard of them - in a world populated by orcs and undead, the public is strangely sceptical about the existence of chaos rat men).

Suspecting the Skaven would have another go at the racketeer Frederick Grosz, we went by his house to see if he was interested in protection, only to discover he had gone to Aelric's house, to tell us he was leaving town and request armed escort to the town gates. Still, a job's a job, and after the usual haggling session, we walked Herr Grosz to the town gates and saw him on his way. Adler then popped by his house again, to break in and rifle through his things in search of valuables and information on his racketeering business. Sadly, there was neither, although Adler and Magnar are working on the beginnings of a plan to fill the protection business vacuum that the recent murders and the sudden departure of Grosz has created.

I'm going to skip over our luncheon with von Kaufmann, probably because Adler missed some of it, and was also chatting with Drandruel about her plans to join the knighthood, and I shall move forthwith to the resumption of the investigation in the docks (still, very surprised was I that von Kaufmann was happy to stump up lunch, accommodation for the dwarfs at the temple of Shallya and pay us our full fee for the wreck of a garden party and failing to kill a rampaging griffon).

We then worried away at the docks like a dog with the body of a mangy rat, going down the sewers, setting traps, and generally getting filthy. There were traces of Skaven activity, including a discarded throwing star, foot prints, more disappearances and the scent of quicklime which they may have been using to disguise their scent. After two days knee deep in excrement (it is WFRP after all), we finally got a break by picking up a trail that led us to a tanner's yard by the river We bumbled into the tanner's yard, not really expecting to find anything that useful, and promptly discovered a pit full of bodies, including several citizens who had been relieved of their lives and their hearts.

"So," we said to ourselves, "here's a rum turn." We sent the Trollslayer round the front of the tannery while the rest of us went in the back and burst in. A big mistake that was. We were facing a massive, four armed rat man the size of an ogre, plus three of his smaller brethren who were armed to the teeth. While the Trollslayer burst in the front door, everyone else was paralysed with fear. The big rodent took out Thorik in pretty short order, Magnar and Aelric tried to flee, and Adler climbed onto the roof, where he found himself eye to toe with another rat creature.

Chaos, literally and figuratively, ensued. Aelric had been casting spells at the rat ogre with seemingly little effect. He and Magnar managed to escape over the wall of the tannery before the raging monster could get to grips with them, while Adler scuttled over the roof, dropping down to the front of the tannery. With no sign of Skaven there, he crept in and relieved them of the gold plaque they had stolen, and some kind of silver bell clapper, before dragging the unconscious Thorik out with him into the street.

By this time curious crowds were gathering, causing the Skaven to slip away unseen. The City Watch duly arrived, followed by Mauer. Upon closer examination of the scene, it seems as if the hearts of 13 humans were needed to enact a ritual to enchant the bell clapper for some nefarious purposes. Adler was not able to identify his brother's body amongst the dead, although one body was wearing a coat belonging to said fraternal relation. The wounded Thorik went back to see his friends at the temple of Shallya to have his spleen re-stitched. The party kept the gold plaque, and omitted to mention its discovery to anyone (including our patron von Kaufmann) before Magnar had a chance to melt it down into ingots. I can't for the life of me remember what happened to the clapper, as it was getting late, but I think we left it with Mauer. And that, bar the obligatory wine and cake back at Aelric's house, was that.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Hillfolk - first thoughts

On Friday I received my copy of Robin D. Laws' Hillfolk, which I've been dipping into periodically over the weekend when time allowed (I was a Kickstarter backer). This is really just a first impressions piece, and I've by no means read it cover-to-cover or been able to fully digest it.

Some time ago I was working on a Savage Worlds scenario called Village People. While I never got around to running it, the premise of the scenario was that the characters were the burghers of a small village in a typical fantasy roleplaying world. For example, one of the PCs was the local blacksmith, another was the sheriff, etc. They were tied to their community and to their fellow villagers. The action would be driven by primarily external events, but the hope was that a mini-campaign could be procured through the dynamics of interplayer interaction was well as via external threats and intrigues.

In retrospect, Savage Worlds might not have been the right system to use. Hillfolk, on the other hand, probably is. Hillfolk uses a default Bronze Age tribal setting, in a fictitious Levant of circa 2000 BC before the big empires of the next 1000 years or so really got rolling. It is the beginning of recorded history, and because details are so sketchy about the people of this time, players can improvise with confidence.

Hillfolk is driven by the emotional dynamics and relationships of the player characters themselves. It does not use dice, but there look to be some random elements involved using a deck of cards. It is not a complex game, and has shrugged off much of the tactical wargame elements that have dominated previous generations of RPG design. It feels in some respects like Cold City, an RPG I love, and seeks to deliver a high degree of narrative control to the players.

Unlike in Cold City or Paranoia, characters in Hillfolk are not necessarily plotting against one another, but they do want / need things from each other. There are no secret agendas between players, although there may be between characters. In some ways, Hillfolk reminds me a little bit of Pendragon, but it travels further, and is more genre neutral. While things that happen to the players are still important, like a TV series, it is the relationships between the players which really make it tick. Think about Battlestar Galactica the TV series, and you will know what I mean.

The idea of Hillfolk is almost to create a TV series on your tabletop, with each session of the game being one episode in that series. I have to say that, in my experience of GMing in the last couple of years, some of the most entertaining bits of the games I've run have come from when the party has gone off script, and left the adventure as written for parts new and undefined. Frequently they have not realised when they have been doing it, but being able to roll with it has ended up generating some of the most brilliant RPG incidents.

The second half of the book is comprised of 'series pitches' - alternative settings. While it is recommended that groups use the default setting as their first attempt in this area, there are some great ideas for subsequent forays. It seems as if a group could really only play through the default setting once, so having tons of other options in the wings to follow on with is great.

I have yet to finish reading Hillfolk, and may revert with more conclusions once I have.

Friday, 1 November 2013

New ideas for Action Points

I'm currently writing a d20 Modern one-shot scenario for use at some point this winter. As some of you may know, d20 Modern uses Action Points. It came out, IIRC, around the same time as the Eberron setting, and both settings initially made use of APs. However, for the purposes of my scenario, Operation Fallen Angel, I'm tweaking the AP rules. The below incorporates ideas from Cold City and Shadowrun, as well as some of my own ideas. I may still tweak them before the final scenario.
Each character has SEVEN Action Points (APs) at the beginning of the adventure. I should stress that this is intended for use in a one-shot; if you were planning to use the below in a campaign, it would require additional tweaking, for example, how to restore APs, and short-term objectives against longer term objectives.
At the start of the scenario, you can assign your APs in three ways:
  • Assign them to your personal mission: you can spend these APs only if this furthers your personal mission goals (each PC has a personal mission at the start of the scenario, some harder than others to achieve). If you fail your personal mission in the course of the game, you immediately lose all your APs remaining in this pool.
  •  Assign them to another player character as Trust points. This measures how much you trust that player character. You can assign APs to multiple characters, but not GM characters.
  •  Assign them to the Team Karma pool.
 At the start of the game, players take it in turns to assign APs in a clockwise direction. Each player must assign one of his pools before the next player in turn. Pools may not be topped up in the initial allocation session and remain in place until the GM says that players can start changing them. Pools may only be changed out of combat.

Personal missions

Every character has a secret personal mission they wish to accomplish in the course of the game. If your action supports the accomplishment of your personal mission, you may use APs from that pool.


If you have Trust APs assigned to you, you may spend them only on actions that either aid other team members or are used to actively betray other team members. You can only use Trust that has been allocated to you by the player concerned - e.g. if you wanted to spend Bob’s Trust in you, then it can only be spent on actions that directly affect Bob. Trust can be re-assigned by the assigning player at any time in the game, other than during combat.

Team Karma

Players allocate team karma to a central pool at the start of the game. Players can spend karma from the team pool whenever they are doing something that benefits the team or appears to benefit the team. The GM has final decision on this. Players may take their own karma tokens out of the pool whenever they like. If a character is killed or incapacitated, their karma tokens are removed from the pool.

What can I use my APs for?

  • APs can be used to add 1d6 to an existing roll you have made before the GM says whether the roll has succeeded or failed. Alternatively, they can be used to subtract 1d6 from either a GM’s roll or another player’s roll. In the latter cases, these have to be rolls that directly affect your character. You may spend APs to boost damage rolls.
  • APs can be used to re-roll any roll, including combat damage.
  • APs sometimes need to be used to activate class specific features.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Pulp Savage Worlds and lessons learned

I ran a one-shot Savage Worlds pulp adventure on Friday night (as a brief interlude in our WFRP campaign), which seemed to go fairly well. It was a pre-published scenario from Triple Ace Games with pre-generated characters, using 1930s Boston as its backdrop. All the PCs were Seasoned rank. My first observations about this post relate to the game itself, my secondary observations stem from some of the takeaways I had as a GM from the session.

Running Pulp Savage Worlds

Savage Worlds is a game that has evolved since I first ran it, back in the days of 1e SW. The game's creators have continued to tinker with it ever since. These changes can become confusing for players and GMs who have played previous iterations of the game.

Savage Worlds is still a fast and furious game, even run using the Deluxe edition, and in an evening you can cover quite a bit of action. The ability to run a combat with five PCs against over a dozen mooks and a Wild Card and still have plenty of time for a car chase and an aerial battle involving a zeppelin, shows you what can be achieved with SW. Unlike d20, the initiative order changes ever round, which injects a level of chaos and unpredictability into the game.

We also saw a LOT of exploding dice in this session, another aspect of SW I like. But there were a number of points in the plot where characters took 20-25 points of damage from a single hit. One NPC was badly injured in a friendly fire incident where a stray bullet detonated a gas tank, forcing the heroes to rescue her immediately (luckily she had two bennies of her own to burn to soak the damage).  I recall playing in a Savage Eberron game where a party of Novice PCs failed to take down a manticore in a lengthy battle because of its high Toughness score, but in this session there were regular massive damage totals being dished out. Characters were using automatic weapons, however, which could have had something to do with the sheer lethality of the scenario.

It was also noticeable how GM Wild Cards could be effectively shut down in fairly short order as wounds or a shaken condition stopped them from really getting into a fight at all. I had this happen to me in a previous scenario where a major villain was not able to get off a single spell in the course of a climactic battle because he kept getting knocked down every time he passed his Spirit roll to un-shake himself.

Having saved a Nazi bruiser for the final encounter, I watched as he effectively had the stuffing knocked out of him throughout the zeppelin battle, and gradually took wounds that reduced his effectiveness. In SW, once a Seasoned character begins to take wounds, they are going to struggle. One PC, using a rocket pack, ended up crashing into a truck full of nerve gas once he was wounded.

I wanted to also use the SW Adventure Deck for the first time in this scenario. I like the idea of the Adventure Deck - it provides the players with a small element of control over the course of the game, including boons and advantages which allow them to seize the moment. I've not sought feedback from the players yet on what they thought of these cards, but I felt they worked well. I gave each player two cards, one of which they could play in the course of the session. This meant there was more chance of them finding an opportunity to play a card.

Arguably the most outrageous was the Send in the Clones card which one player used after his character was incapacitated when he crashed into a truck full of nerve gas. This allowed him to bring the same character back as a new PC, passing off his former self as a clone. It felt somehow appropriate to me that the PC with the weird science background was messing with cloning technology, and if this had been an ongoing campaign, would have ruled that his clone had perished in the truck.


What follows are a few takeaways from the session:

  1. I prefer running one-shots or very short campaigns. I don't think I could really summon the energy and resources at the moment to run more than the odd one-shot here and there. Having said that, I felt a bit rusty, as I've not been in the GM's chair since I ran Hot War in January, which is too long really.
  2. I really liked the Adventure Cards and the way they provided the players with an element of narrative control. I'm toying with a few ideas from Cold City and Shadowrun for a d20 Modern game I'm cooking up called Operation Blue Tempest.
  3. We used miniatures for this game, but in the final chase / battle with the zeppelin, I abstracted quite a bit, as we needed to involve streets, a speeding truck full of nerve agent, a PC with a rocket pack, Boston landmarks, and the crew of the zeppelin itself. Luckily, SW can be switched into more of an abstract mode to facilitate this (I was less impressed with the new chase rules in the Deluxe edition). I still like using miniatures as it helps players to visualise the setting and will be looking to bring more of my miniatures collection into my RPGing.
  4. I worry about my capacity to absorb new game systems and wonder whether I should simply adapt the games I already understand and have played extensively to my ideas of how to improve the narrative element. I'm pretty familiar with d20, Basic Roleplaying (e.g. Call of Cthulhu) and Savage Worlds, and wonder whether that is simply enough for my tired / addled brain to cope with...however, the Gumshoe system from Pelgrane Press continues to tempt me.
  5. Every time I run a pre-published scenario, I end up nipping and tucking it, frequently on the fly. In many ways, I find written adventures often don't gel well with the way I like to present a setting, and the advantage of writing your own scenarios is that you can leave some elements vague and just focus on the detail you really need. That way you can fill in the blanks as you are GMing. I'm hoping to do this with Operation Blue Tempest and have done this in the past with Cold City.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Milestones in gaming #2: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

The second in my occasional series on my personal milestones in gaming, those eye-opening moments which may or may not have been of importance to the wider gaming fraternity, deals with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Penned by Games Workshop founder Ian Livingstone and published in 1982, it was one of the first of the 'choose your own adventure' game books to hit the market.

At the time, I was in boarding school in the West Midlands. At the start of every term, my mother always used to buy my brothers and I a new book each to take our minds off the start of term. I was 12 at the time, and had no previous knowledge of RPGs, so WoFTM was a bit of an eye opener for me. Here was no work of fiction to be read cover to cover. It was an adventure, where you decided which path to take and found out what happened next as your adventurer quested deeper into the bowels of the mountain.

The plot was not complex: you were there to kill the warlock and take his place, fighting your way past the various underworld denizens, like orcs and giant rats, which protected him. On top of this, there was a game element, with variable starting attributes for your character , and simple combat / fortune mechanics. It was a cost-effective solo gaming experience at a time when the earliest home computers were appearing on the market (by 1985 I was already playing games on the Spectrum +), but one you could play at school in break time without ever going near a computer (all you needed were a pencil and a couple of d6).

WoFTM kicked off a mid-1980s craze in adventure gaming books, and swept my school as the latest must-have mania in circa 1982/83. I can't believe it was 30 years ago. Its sequels, the Citadel of Chaos and Forest of Doom, were also eagerly devoured, and we were soon tremulously treading the streets of the City of Thieves or exploring Deathtrap Dungeon.

The awesome ghoul illustration by Russ Nicholson
The books were very atmospheric, and if you were playing through one for the first time, entirely absorbing. The early ones were also illustrated by Russ Nicholson, who for me, like Larry Elmore with Dungeons and Dragons, became the definitive artist of the series.  

I've since bought a few for my son, who has played through a few, but for someone who is growing up in the era of Dragon Age and Minecraft, they probably don't hold the same level of fascination for him as they did for me in 1982/3.

I've recently had a crack at a few of the others which I didn't get around to in the 1980s, but somehow the appeal and excitement were simply not what they were - perhaps attention spans have been narrowed by too much video gaming.

I also see WoFTM has gone on to spawn a board game and Nintendo DS and PSP variants, which seems like a sensible move. It seems somehow unfair that the original only rates a 5.8 on Boardgamegeek, which surely does not take into consideration its innovation?

At the back of my dog-eared copy of WoFTM was an advertisement for John Butterfield's - What is Dungeons & Dragons? I read this with interest too. The result of that will be the topic of my next milestone...

Friday, 11 October 2013

Kortaq - Figures of Note

In the World Burning process of Burning Empires, the players / GM come up with some figures of note for the planet. These are meant to be important people, the sort of folk who can really determine the outcome of a struggle for the planet. Due to the hostile climate, I've already decided that the human population on Kortaq is relatively small, and that most of them are clustered around the main mining silos. Hence, any Vaylen infestation is also going to focus on these population centres.

Rather than provide figures of note for the entire world, here are summaries for six figures of note for the mining station at Valusium. It has about 50,000 residents, and is run by a mining corporation called Telfenek (which is 51% owned by members of the ruling military government, naturally). An important distinction made by Burning Empires is that there is a great deal more player transparency on NPCs than in most RPGs. Players get to know who is pro-Vaylen (or potentially pro-Vaylen) from the start. They can even choose to take figures of note as their PCs.

The only consideration is that the players' characters are lined up - at least initially - in a pro-Human or pro-Vaylen camp - i.e. they are all on the same side. What the players won't know is the next actions the figures of note are planning (unless they have appropriate spies or surveillance in place), and it is their degree of success or failure which helps to advance the interests of the competing factions, and ultimately determines the fate of the world and the outcome of the campaign.


Troy Aikus - Covert Labour Organizer - unions are banned on Kortaq, and union membership is punishable with hard labour. Troy Aikus, however, is the leader of an underground labour movement which has won some recent successes against Telfenek, improving working and living conditions in Valusium.

Commander Tovol Hesse - Senior Law Enforcement Officer - Tovol runs the entire internal security operation in Valusium, including informants. He reports to the central military government, but in Valusium itself, his word is law.

Sonya Falen - Managing Director with Telfenek - part of the senior management team with Telfenek, she is an engineer by training and has ultimate responsibility for the day-to-day mechanical operations at Valusium, including mining and life support (e.g. heating, waste, oxygen recycling).


Alix Cogito - Underworld Kingpin - a major player in the black market on Kortaq. Born and bred a Kortaqi, his lowly origins combined with over-weening ambition and a reputation for brutal violence have provided him with control over a criminal syndicate that extends to several mining settlements. His base is in Valusium.

Bishop Lucius Gornem - heads up the Mundas Humanitas personnel in Valusium and has ambitions for promotion. He is an off-worlder and has a secondary brief to provide intelligence to the Kudus Theocracy on the state of military strength on Kortaq.

Thomas Yashi - Smuggler - lives on one of the major orbital platforms and owns a trio of starships which he uses to for smuggling to and from the surface. He and Alix Cogito were once members of the same gang in Valusium before Yashi enlisted with the Hammers.

The GM in Burning Wheel would then need to provide in-depth detail on all of the above. This, as far as I can see, is his main area of pre-game prep, as it is these NPCs who will be his primary tools in playing the game.

PCs can either be drawn from the above list, can be other powerful figures, or can have strong relationships with the figures of note. They should have the capacity to determine what happens in Valusium. Generating an ordinary cop or a miner is not going to cut it, as they won't have enough power or authority.

So, some examples of potential PC backgrounds:

  • One of Troy Aikus' inner circler, perhaps a close associate who has worked with him over the years, promoting his covert revolution.
  • A deep cover cop sent to infiltrate Aikus' or Alix Cogito's organisations, who has been in place for some years now and has risen through the ranks.
  • An ambitious criminal who is looking to replace Cogito as the local crime lord in Valusium.
  • A senior off-world member of the Mundas Humanitas who has been sent to Kortaq to check in with all the bishops and possibly plot a coup with them.
  • The chairman of Telfenek, perhaps a retired general, who has been relocated to Valusium to keep tabs on the Anvil's investment.
I hope this sheds a little light on the power level of the game, and also gives an idea of the high level of transparency players enjoy when driving the plot forwards.

Next - generating/burning  Commander Tovol Hesse

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Burning the world of Kortaq

This is a sample world I may / may not use as the basis for a small Burning Empires campaign. I've designed it using the World Burner on p.24 of Burning Empires. It may even be the site for a one-shot.

Kortaq is an Old Imperial Core World, part of the Kudus Theocracy. It has an Alien-Life-Supporting atmosphere, which is hostile to humans and Vaylen. There is also hostile fauna on Kortaq, and an indigenous life forms faction. The planet is Predominantly Land, although some of this is ice sheet or the glacial overlay of ancient seas. Accessible seas exist only in the equatorial zone.

Human habitation is in Artificially Created Environs, including reinforced bio-domes and underground complexes. There are also some orbital platforms. Kortaq has Low Index technology. It is ruled by a Military Dictatorship, led by a rogue Anvil Lord (i.e. a military junta). It is the last refuge of a military faction that failed in a rebellion against the Kudus Theocracy. Its presence is now merely tolerated, as the government's ability to project power outside the immediate system is virtually non-existent.

There are four important factions present on Kortaq:

Indigenous Life Forms - I'm going to work these up using the Alien Life Form Burner in another post.

Military Junta - The planetary government is propped up by a military junta. The junta also controls Kortaq's Anvil and Hammer forces.

Organised Crime - Not much to say about this yet. The criminal element is present and powerful.

Theocratic Institutions - the Mundus Humanitas is here in force. While not in charge, per se, their power is growing. I'm thinking here of the delicate relationship between the Buddhist clergy and the military junta in Burma in the 1990s.

Kortaq's Predominany Military is Levy. Attitude towards the Vaylen is Indifferent, largely because this is a Core World run by a junta with more interest in staying in power than anything else. The Primary Export / Industry is Raw Materials, likely minerals. It supports a big mining industry, largely state-controlled, although there is limited off-world participation. Kortaq maintains an Advanced Quarantine, although this has little to do with the Vaylen. Most imports are restricted, apart from specialist machinery including medical machinery/implements, food items, and clerics (bona fide members of the Mundus Humanitas).

The economy is Tightly Regulated, with a high stakes black market from which the Organised Crime faction obviously benefits. Immigrant Labour and Weaponry are prohibited outright. Marriage is code 3 restricted, Power Infrastructure and Medical Practice are code 2, and Psychology, Slavery and Military Manufacture are all code 1 restricted.

Additional native settings: Anvil, Hammer, Theocracy

Other notes: Administration, Finance and Bureaucracy skill obstacles are 4.

The scores on the doors...this looks like a world wide open to a Usurpation strategy, but a tough one to invade. Possibly an early stage infiltration followed up by a bid to control the junta.

Vaylen Disposition: Infiltration 27; Usurpation 33; Invasion 21

Human Disposition: Infiltration 23; Usurpation 22; Invasion 30

Next time - Figures of Note on Kortaq.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Why Burning Wheel is LA Takedown

Not many film directors get the chance to direct the same film twice, but when they do, they frequently provide us with  a better product than its predecessor. Take for example, Michael Mann's Heat (1995), which far surpasses its progenitor, LA Takedown (1989), on so many levels, although I readily accept a bigger budget and the presence of Robert deNiro and Al Pacino on the set might have helped.

I've also started to notice this with RPGs. I've been banging my head against the Burning Wheel system by Luke Crane for some time now, but keep running out of steam before I've been able to fully digest it. After all, it is a hefty meal of role-playing red meat, bloody and awesome in all its culinary glory. But I love the concepts behind the rules and the way they provide characters with so much additional depth, while abstracting other factors (e.g. equipment lists, which bore me to death these days).

I've been looking for a decent sci fi game to run, as we play very little sci fi in my group (apart from a Rogue Trader mini-campaign), so this week I started reading Burning Empires, which is the sci fi progeny of Burning Wheel. What astonished me is how much clearer it is, and how it makes the entire BW concept easier to understand and to teach others. It then struck me that Empires is really just the Heat to Wheel's LA Takedown. The original ideas are there, but Empires is a much plusher beast, pegged to the sci fi milieu of Christopher Moeller's Iron Empires saga. By sitting down to write Wheel a second time, using a sci fi backdrop, Crane has somehow made the entire system that much clearer.

Of course, there is also the experience of running the game, teaching the game, having others play-test the game, all this goes into putting out a better product. For some authors, this is achieved with a second edition, but frequently such a beast is not a complete re-write, it is often just a cut and paste exercise with new bits added. Empires is a new iteration of the game, written with the benefit of the years in which Burning Wheel has been in print.

Once I got thinking about Burning Wheel, it also struck me that there are a couple of other examples kicking around my shelves. Despite the positive reviews of Spirit of the Century, I've not been able to get my head around it, even though I like its pulp background. I recently bought the FATE core rules, which are a new iteration of the rules engine powering Spirit, and again, hey presto, the writing is much clearer, the explanations so much easier to get your head around. Questions I had about Spirit are readily answered. The door of understanding opens on the library of greater knowledge. Plus, if I get stuck with Spirit, I can always revert back to FATE core for answers.

Another good example is Gumshoe, which when first presented in The Esoterrorists left me scratching my head. Trail of Cthulhu helped shed some light on it, but if you want the best explanation of Gumshoe to date, it has to be Night's Dark Agents. By the time he sat down to write NDA, Kenneth Hite was looking at his fourth shot at refining the Gumshoe rules package (if you count Ashen Stars) and it shows.

Here's a fan trailer of LA Takedown to finish with - those who have seen Heat will notice the obvious similarities:

Monday, 7 October 2013

Introducing Rudiger Adler (The Enemy Within 2.0)

A very busy week last week left me almost totally shattered by Friday. Luckily we convened on Saturday for our regular dose of RPGing, which was to kick off our Enemy Within campaign, using Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, or WFRP. We're using the new version of this campaign from Fantasy Flight, not the old, but classic, Games Workshop adventure, but it has been converted from the FFG edition of the game into the 2e Black Library edition, which is arguably the better iteration.

What follows is the background of my character, Rudiger Adler, which is the richest background I've had for a character in a while. This is partly due to the way you can generate some of your background in WFRP, and partly from the means by which the party of disparate adventurers is being integrated into the plot.

Rudiger Adler was born in Ostland but came to Averland (where the campaign begins) in search of his fortune. He traveled with his younger, gangly brother Rolf, leaving behind a life of rural penury in the hopes of winning land and freedom. The reality in Ostland was found to be somewhat different, and the brothers were conscripted in the army of the Mad Count, Marius Leitdorf. Rudiger was in his army when he fought the orcs of Vorgaz Ironjaw at Black Fire Pass. Count Marius didn't survive that contest - Rudiger did, albeit he lost a tooth and was knocked senseless as a regiment of orcs trampled over him.

Once nursed back to health, Rudiger deserted from the army of Averland, and fell in with a dwarf called Magnar (another PC), and the two became outlaws. Rudiger's brother Ralf sought work in Averheim (and occasionally tipped the outlaws off about vulnerable caravans leaving the city). The life of an outlaw was hard, but could occasionally be profitable, for example when Rudiger hired out as a guard for an elf lord (the father of Aelric Shadowstar - another PC).

Hunger and poverty have finally forced Rudiger and Magnar to seek new opportunities in Averheim. Rudiger is planning to do some more sophisticated thievery than pure banditry, and link up with his brother, who seems to have disappeared in the docks district. They have run into Aleric Shadowstar, who has taken then on as bodyguards / muscle, although there remains an unanswered question over some gold that went missing when Rudiger left his father's service...

NB - I've not included some elements of Rudiger's background here, only really items known to Magnar and Aelric. There are secrets yet to be discovered!

Friday, 4 October 2013

The end of Carrion Crown

Warning - O gentle reader, there are spoilers for Paizo's Carrion Crown adventure path below. Continue at your peril.

Last week we finally completed the Carrion Crown adventure path, using Pathfinder. Our characters finished the campaign at 15th level, leveling up in lacum, so to speak, in the final dungeon. Carrion Crown seems to have taken longer than previous campaigns, but we did interrupt it after one player left, only to re-start it again after some other games. What follows are my observations, firstly on Carrion Crown, having played through the bulk of it (and only missing a few room clearing sessions) and secondly on what it has taught me about Pathfinder and by extension, playing high level Dungeons and Dragons.

Firstly, Carrion Crown. This is the second Paizo Adventure Path we've played, having played through the bulk of Kingmaker. The group had played in an earlier one, I think Rise of the Runelords, before I joined, but we're going back a way here. Carrion Crown sets out to be something of a gothic horror setting, perhaps inspired by Hammer Horror films and latterly the Ravenloft campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons. It does feel a bit like the recent Van Helsing movie, certainly in its earlier stages.

We had some interesting challenges along the way, particularly in the earlier stages of the campaign when the party was weaker. In terms of characters killed, I think Kelvin's PC Nicodemus and Nicodemus' henchman Norman both died at some point, although application of powerful magic in both cases managed to restore them (luckily, when Nicodemus succumbed to dragon breath in the later stages of the campaign, the cost of a Raise Dead scroll was a lot less, relatively speaking, than it might have been earlier on).

There is a nod to H.P.Lovecraft in the campaign.
Because we were expecting to face undead on a regular basis, our party was keyed to fighting undead, which made any undead encounters much easier to manage. In a conventional game, it might be possible to prep your spell list for undead, if warned in advance, but ultimately, a party needs to be a little more balanced. Here, we had specialist undead killers, including a cleric of Abadar, a paladin and a necromancer. Even our rogue/ranger had undead as his favoured enemy. Hence undead encounters were more easily dealt with (e.g. my cleric, Veneticus, made regular use of large area effect spells which could do plenty of damage to low level undead, which appeared in their hordes later in the campaign). The addition of another lower level cleric henchman, a follower of our paladin's, made life easier, as he took on healing duties. At higher levels we were wading through dozens of vampires with relative ease.

Probably our toughest encounters were with constructs, of which there were a fair few throughout the campaign, although one story arc was particularly heavy with them. They caused us no end of trouble and it was no surprise that the scenario designer peppered the later levels with constructs too. Again, this was because the party was keyed to fighting undead (and hence anything else became commensurately tougher), and the constructs' invulnerabilities made them much harder to stop.

The gothic horror/pseudo-Ravenloft atmosphere began to suffer somewhat as the PCs became more dangerous and scarier than the opposition. Our paladin morphed into a dragon disciple with infernal leanings, while the rogue/ranger became a shadow dancer. The necromancer was always a little suspect, particularly once he began throwing Control Undead around. There is quite a fine line ethically speaking between Raise Dead and Control Undead, but he trod it well. Walking into a spooky ruined cathedral and being surprised by dozens of ghouls is also less shocking if you can summon a dinosaur or a rhino into the fray - the presence of stampeding megafauna is always going to detract a little from the creepy miasma. Peter Cushing didn't have an anklyosaurus to back him up against Dracula.

At one point we teamed up with some werewolves.

 Secondly, Pathfinder. Playing through a full campaign in this way - and, yes, we finished it, which was an absolute triumph of consistency - brought home to me how different, how very different, the high level and low level games are to what I'll call the middle game. This was brought home to me when we had a break to play 1st level characters in Rappan Athuk while our main party was about 13th level. Going back to 1st really brought home the weaknesses and limitations of 1st level parties. On the other side, parties of 13+ are massive killing machines, able to blast their way through hordes of enemies, frequently taking down most opposition in the first round of combat. You end up rolling bucket loads of dice, which feels more like Warhammer 40,000! Our GM Ben was forced to combine encounters to save time and to present more of a challenge in the later stages of the game. Some encounters were nixed at higher levels with Magic Jar and I remember taking down some mummies and two invisible stalkers with Holy Word.

I therefore have come to the conclusion that Pathfinder distils into three very distinct games. The first, the low level game, where the characters are more vulnerable, can potentially die and not be resurrected, regularly drop to negative hit points, and where they can be more constrained by the campaign environment. This probably stops at about 5th level. The high level game kicks in at around 12-13th and really becomes more exaggerated from there, with followers, masses of summoned support, some really ridiculous spells coming online, teleportation, magic jars, etc.

Our 14th level party recently rooted through a pile of loot including magic items that would have had the same characters whooping for joy at 3rd level, but the magic was literally discarded on the floor of the dungeon. Hence, my view is that the optimum core party strength levels, and the most fun for both GMs and players, is 5th-12th level. And that also explains to me why so many older modules were written for those strength factors. The party is tough enough that there is less scope for total party kill, but not so powerful that many encounters can be nixed almost immediately.

So that's it really. Carrion Crown is a wrap. Now we're on to a Warhammer campaign next week, the new Enemy Within.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Army of Two

I spent far too much time on Sunday playing Army of Two and not doing mission critical gardening work. But this is a great game, and really ticks the boxes for a two-player shoot 'em up. It plays very like Gears of War, but since GoW is not available on PS3, AoT fills the gap quite nicely. You can watch a video review from a third party here, but here are a few observations from me having played through the first two levels (Somalia and Afghanistan).

Although set in the real world, with an arsenal of real world weapons to choose from, it is not a gritty game. The two characters are ex-US Army troops who complete a mission in Somalia before being offered contract work with a shadowy security corporation as contractors (read - mercenaries). From here they go on to accept a mission in Afghanistan.

What to like?

Great two player action in the same format as GoW, where cooperative game play is particularly rewarding in completing missions. What sets it apart from GoW is the additional 'aggro-meter' - one player can work to draw enemy fire while another sneaks round and takes out the opposition. Similar moves include use of riot shields or car doors, with one player blocking enemy fire as he shuffles forwards, while another shoots from behind the door. There's also the back to back mode where you set up a 360 degree fire zone.

So far, and admittedly we've only just progressed onto the Iraq level, there have been no major boss encounters. I don't mind the odd boss here and there, but bosses ruined some of the levels of Tenchu - Stealth Assassins for me, and also, IMHO, broke Metal Gear Solid.

I also happen to like the humour and banter which goes on between the two characters throughout the mission, particularly how one is obsessed with conspiracy theories and the other is just interested in making money.

There is also something new in each level. For example, the base jump into a gorge in Afghanistan, or having to carry a wounded man out of a terrorist lair while being shot at. In the early stages of the Iraq mission (which we've just started) you get put on the defensive for a change, being attacked by dozens of insurgents.

I also like the sense of paranoia that exists between firefights. It's even got me checking our rear periodically for enemy fighters sneaking up on us rather than simply focusing on targets ahead. I love a game which can sneak up on you.

You can earn cash by completing missions which allows you to buy a range of upgrades to your weapons, plus special equipment, and fancy new face masks which are the game's hallmark.

What not to like?

Not enough grenades. But then there never is.

A tendency to run out of ammo too quickly, but then maybe I'm getting too trigger happy. This is probably not a fault in the game design but more the way in which I play it. I'd rather adapt to a more realistic situation and pay more attention to ammo caches in the game.

Overall, AoT is an awesome game, particularly when you consider it came out in 2006. It has not lost its edge at all and is a worthy successor to Judge Dredd, which I got so much game play out of on the PS2.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Wargame - European Escalation

I had my first crack at Wargame - European Escalation on Steam last night, and boy what fun that was! WEE is an RTS set during the Cold War. You command combat formations from either side, drawn from historic orders of battle from the 1970s and 1980s. I've always wanted to wargame NATO vs Warsaw Pact, probably ever since I stayed on an army base in West Germany in 1980, and this is a rather nifty way to do it. No painting tanks. No model terrain. No need for an opponent, although I expect an online one is readily available. It was all quite a revelation for me.

I decided to buy this game when Steam was having a 75% off sale in July. I was attracted by the awesome scenery, which really does look as if you're hovering above the battlefield in a helicopter. It is not far from being almost photographic in its realism. Plus, you can zoom in to watch how individual engagements are working out or even follow a scout as he investigates a deserted town.

This is very much an armoured game - you do get infantry, but they're little more than speed bumps it seems once they exit their armoured personnel carriers.

In my first outing I chose to command a West German brigade. It was 1975 (the year I started school, in fact). The East Germans had launched a raid over the border after Bonn refused to hand back a defecting border guard wanted for murder. I was commanding a troop of Leopard tanks sent in response with a small number of scouts, and some conscript infantry who seemed to largely want to sit and watch. I only worked out the reinforcements tool towards the end of the game, so for most of it I completed missions using the same four tanks, one of which got badly shot up, but carried on throughout the scenario. Hero!

Leopard tanks on the prowl in close up format!

The initial mission was to secure the first of two bridgeheads the communists had established on the wrong side of the border. I was initially confronted by T34s (!), which the Leopards quickly made short work of. The DDR boys followed this up with some T55s, but again superior range and accuracy told a bloody tale.

The next job was to move north to a town where a second enemy bridgehead was established. I quickly came to appreciate the value of armoured scouts. These boys have a superior detection range, and indeed my tanks proved eminently capable of rolling straight past enemy infantry and getting shot at from the rear, which they find very disconcerting, with suitable impact on morale. However, the scouts are useless in a straight up firefight with tanks or even infantry with anti-tank weapons. Hence, I began using them as point men, and dropping them back behind the Leopards when they ran into trouble. You can tell I was in the Combined Cadet Force, can't you?

A more distant perspective of a tank battle.

I also had to sortie over the border, about a mile into East Germany, to take out the enemy HQ and fuel dump. This was where I realised my tanks were running out of fuel. Luckily, they were able to stop and refuel before blowing the place.

The final challenge was securing the northern bridgehead. Lacking scout cars, my tanks had serious problems hunting enemy infantry through the streets of a town. Only once I brought in scouts could they ID the enemy and take them out. Even here, I lost a Leopard which strayed down a side street and got ambushed. Luckily, by this stage, I was bringing up another troop of tanks, so was quickly able to complete the mission.

An example of a tactical map with ranging tool.

I also love the graphics on this baby. Enormous fun tracking behind scout cars as they probe ahead, or watching your Leopards mow down a farmer's fences or plough through some poor sod's house. What's cooler than commanding a tank? Commanding EIGHT! Vicarious, unpolitically-correct fun. Bring it on!