Monday, 22 April 2013

Salute 2013 impressions

I managed to get to Salute this year, having missed it last year due to getting back the previous day from Argentina. I trained it up from Brighton with my son and friend Mark, really just to have a snoop around and see what was what. I was particularly interested in picking up a copy of the Malifaux game rules, and some Vikings for my Saga project. But the rest of this post really relates to my impressions of the event, which I feel is a good barometer of the state of the hobby in the UK - taking the temperature of the patient, so to speak.

This seemed like the biggest and most well-attended Salute to date. We arrived about 11.30 in the morning, expecting to go straight in, and there was still a queue. Not only that, but it still seemed busy at 4.00 in the afternoon; punters obviously stayed on longer. And I can see why. I'm not sure we got to see everything there was to see. Going with my son means I've got to compromise and allow time for him to look at things he enjoys, which included the replica trebuchet, medieval arms and armour display, and the MDF models from the likes of Sarissa Precision Engineering.

A Japanese Sengoku era battles using Warhammer.
There were quite a few display games, as ever, but I feel that these days a large ancients battle with two guys playing each other is not going to cut the mustard, and indeed few people spent time next to these tables.

Manufacturers are obviously taking the opportunity to demo games and miniature ranges, including timing new product launches for the event, and this seems a wise move. The absence of Games Workshop was noticeable, although you could still buy GW figures at many stands, including Wayland Games, which seems to be emerging as the dominant retailer of the fantasy and sci fi rules stepping up to take on GW.

In terms of the games on offer, I lingered by the Space 1889 battle, which always makes for a good convention game. Although starting out as an RPG setting, it seems to lend itself to flights of the imagination when it comes to war gaming. We also enjoyed the sheer spectacle of a feudal Japanese battle which included a large number of 28mm buildings. This looked simply awesome, although it was also serenely quiet, with the players all pondering their hefty Warhammer Ancient Battles tomes. [Zzzzz] I don't game feudal Japan at the moment, although I did study it at university, but a table like this might persuade me otherwise!

Space 1889 battle
Steampunk seems to be emerging as a big theme with war gamers generally. I've already mentioned Space 1889, but there were also a few other steampunk games on the go, one of which featured some excellent fog-shrouded London streets using reams of cotton wool. Very atmospheric. I only had a time to take a shot and move on. Overall, the sci fi / fantasy presence at Salute this year was perhaps the biggest I've ever seen. We speculated on why this might be, and our conclusion is that an increasing number of people who have cut their teeth playing GW games have moved on to play other things. Their presence in the hobby means there is less emphasis on the drier historical topics. And even here, you're getting some much faster-paced, innovative rules, like Saga for example, which are placing more emphasis on fun.

I think my overall impression of the hobby from this outing is that it is in rude health. It is difficult to say to what degree the miniatures gaming industry still relies on GW as its recruiter, but I'm sure this is significant. At a time when the country is still in economic straits and where table top gaming faces increased competition from online / video gaming (including in my own household), it is pleasing to see so many people, including large numbers of kids, having a good time. It was tough to give up a rare sunny day to spend it in an artificially lighted hangar, but this is likely to be one of maybe only two cons I attend in 2013, so worth the price.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Elder Sign marathon

Somehow I managed to get four, yes FOUR, games of Elder Sign in during the past 24 hours. It was my first foray with the board game, and this then delivered new strategy insights for the iPad app. I ended up at 2-2, however.

Game 1: 2 player game, versus Nyarlathotep. Not sure if this one really counts, as we were still getting our heads around the rules, and we made some mistakes with monster placement. We also came up with a couple of house rules which makes the game slightly easier. I was playing a gangster who, while long on stamina, was short on Sanity. Still, I managed to survive right up until the point Nyarlathotep got summoned, at which juncture I got taken out in short order. Meh! We had a decent lead in the early stages with three or four Elder Signs on the table with only one on the Doom track, but our persistence in failing one scenario that awarded doom markers let Nyarlathotep back into the game, and he ended up winning. Mythos 1, Investigators 0. A learning experience.

Game 2: iPad, versus Yig. Onto the iPad app, which does have some substantial differences in terms of granularity from the card game. This time I chose Yig as my opposition, as I was really interested in applying my new-found tactical insights from the previous game, particularly focusing investigators. One of the keys in this game is remembering your investigator's special powers, but the iPad version helps you by reminding you when it is appropriate to use an ability. I went with the first four investigators on the menu, just to road test them, and whupped Yig's scaly ass, despite my heiress getting murdered. Investigators 1, Mythos 1.

A typical investigator in Elder Sign - I played this dude in Game 4.

Game 3: iPad, versus Tsathoggua. Brimming with confidence, it was on to the next challenge. Many of the Great Old Ones on the iPad are locked initially. Tsathoggua  stands in the way of this, and he's a 14 point beastie, a much more serious challenge than the Yigster. This time around I carried over one of the four investigators from the previous scenario, and just picked the other three from next in line. I bit off more than I could chew, however. Harvey Walters, one of my choices, proved to be a bit of a disappointment, while I also fell into the trap of worrying away for too long at a scenario that gave too many doom points to Tsathoggua. I got defeated fairly decisively: Harvey was last seen wandering in the Great Library of Celaeno. Mythos 2, Investigators 1.

Sample screen from the iPad version showing the Hidden Threat adventure.

Game 4: 2 player board game, versus Ithaqua. We were a bit more confident this time around. We kept our house rules in from Game #1, which are quite neat and add an additional tactical element that doesn't exist in the original game. I played the magician, while my co-investigator played a nun, who ended up skirting with death a couple of times as she only has three stamina and some adventures can easily cost you that and more. Add to this the fact that using spells and unique items when Ithaqua is the Big Bad will cost you stamina, and we ended up wasting a lot of time at the museum entrance getting first aid. BUT, we got lucky with some of the adventures, and despite the red die being locked for a good part of the game in a horrendously dangerous adventure, we won. Investigators 2, Mythos 2.

One of the bonus features on the iPad is the funky - but cosmetic - museum map.

Unfortunately no time for a final decider, but a very enjoyable first foray into the world(s) of Elder Sign. It plays quicker than Arkham Horror, which is great, as these days I rarely have time from games that take more than two hours, while two hours or less can be readily fit into my schedule. Plus, this game is supported by an app, so you can go sharpen your investigative skills when you're suffering from insomnia.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

If you go down to the woods today...

Who let the dogs out? Woof!
We managed to convene for a lengthy Pathfinder session at the weekend, all six and a half hours of it. I used to play big sessions of Dungeons and Dragons on that scale back in the day, but there is not as much opportunity for it these days. I woke up with a blinding headache the next day, which was either caused by all the number crunching Pathfinder requires, or the wine I was drinking (think I have an allergy to some wines from the Mediterranean littoral, but that's another story).

We continued with our Carrion Crown campaign, which has been bubbling along nicely like a spicy hot pot. I had expected more investigation in this campaign though (heck, that's how Ben pitched it to me). Each scenario involves a bit of poking around (oo-er) - for example, the current one required some snooping at a hunting lodge - but at the end of the day brute force appears to be the best way to deal with the machinations of the Whispering Way, the necromantic cabal that is obviously plotting the Downfall Of Civilization As We Know It (much like Ed Balls, really!)

We've been - until recently - in the Shadow Wood, where the WW has been fiddling in werewolf politics. There has been much battling against lycanthropes, who seem more like the clan-based dudes from a certain White Wolf RPG. Seems as if we may even be in the process of teaming up with one of these tribes - never advisable at the best of times - oh, and yes, some of them are gypsies! High point for me is a werewolf druid turning into an eagle to escape, only to be downed by our team's sniper with an amazing shot. In the dark. With a cross wind. Awesome.

I'm playing the party's cleric, Veneticus, and had set him up originally as an investigative character, but increasingly find his combat traits are being called upon. Mind you, our paladin, Sir Eradil, is now a Dragon Disciple, and has become the party tank, able to use his mighty hammer as a reach weapon to obliterate much of the opposition. The key here is to keep Sir Eradil in the fight, and heal him up as quickly as possible. But thus far he's been quite successful in taking down the bulk of our foes. We're also now assisted ably by Norman, Nicodemus' butler, who is also a gunslinger in his spare time and has been tutoring Tarion on the use of firearms. Norman has a musket which he is using to inflict severe damage on the enemy from afar. Bang!

I last played a cleric in 1988, and this time around it really has been a question of getting to know the divine spell list in Pathfinder. It is quite hard to work out which spells to learn of a morning - there have been instances where Veneticus has prayed for combat spells and ended up investigating, or prayed for interpersonal magic, and ended up being swarmed with dire boars or werewolves.

Cheery Varisian travellers or a bunch of lyncanthropes?

Scrolls have helped with this, but budget is limited. Speak with Dead is an obvious scroll choice, for example, as is Zone of Truth. The weird thing with Pathfinder spell lists, and with Dungeons and Dragons as a whole, is that some spells seem to be almost too powerful to be graded as the level they are, while others are too weak. Yes, the DC goes up for higher level spells, which is why Hold Person is increasingly useless against the NPCs and bosses we're up against, but some of the 3rd level cleric spells are surplus to requirements, to be honest. I'd much rather have had these at lower levels. Now I look at them, and wonder why...

Really, at 8th level, Veneticus' main strengths seem to be healing the party, dishing out serious damage to undead when they appear, and increasingly using area effect spells like Order's Wrath against large numbers of mooks. However, Pathfinder published scenarios being what they are, many battles are with bosses, where area attack spells that do, say, 2d8 damage (half with a Will save) are not going to be noticed in a fighter where combatants are dishing out 30-40 hps a hit (more in some cases).

We covered a lot of ground during Sunday's session. I'm still not completely sure what is going on: we figured out why the werewolves never attacked the hunting lodge, and also had an encounter with the hobbit butler at the lodge who was obviously more than he seemed (he escaped using an alchemical cloud). We even put on trial and executed one of the villains (a noble in league with the Whispering Way) who we beheaded with a scythe. Given the 'clear and present danger' presented by the WW to Ustalav, Veneticus felt a trial was somewhat of a risk, as the nobles assembled for it might have backed their own, but luckily they seemed too intimidated by the dragon disciple to offer much in the way of resistance.
I'm on your side. Honest.

No gaming for me this Friday, I'm afraid, so I'm on a two week hiatus from Pathfinder, but we have proceeded to the cursed village of Feldgrau where the WW seems to be up to no good, having...hopefully...thwarted its plans to change the leadership of the werewolf tribes in the Shadow Wood.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

We play Munchkin!

It's holiday time, and children need entertaining, as the weather in England is still dogged by the Foul Awfulness of winter. Luckily, we've had the chance to break out some Munchkin, a game I once played at UK Games Expo in Birmingham, but didn't completely understand. I've now had a chance to give it another go, and it does make sense now.

Munchkin is arguably the most successful product, in terms of raw sales, that Steve Jackson Games has ever come up with. It is a multi-player card game that is more than reminiscent of the sort of games the characters play in Dork Tower. To win, you need to get your character to 10th level. You do this by kicking down doors and killing monsters. Simples.

The best way to explain Munchkin is by types of cards used. These break down into:

  • Monsters - rated by level, these range from easy to kill critters like the 1st level Pot Plant all the way up to bigger bads. Many of them riff off established gaming stereotypes (the vampire, for example, is a nod in the direction of a certain White Wolf RPG).
  • Items - these let you buff your character, but many of them can only be used by male or female characters, or by specific classes or races. Items are also limited by slots - e.g. you only have two hands, can only wear one piece of headgear, etc. You can trade items with other players anytime you want.
  • Curses - these can be encountered in the course of your adventures, but can also be played on other players from your hand.
  • Races / Classes - these bring special abilities (e.g. Halflings are better at running away, and selling equipment, Elves get level bonuses for helping other players win fights). Ordinarily, you can only have one class and one race in play at any one time, but cards like Super Munchkin and Half Breed represent exceptions.
  • Events - these are cards which can help you to level up (e.g. Bribe GM) or bring down further badness on your opponents (e.g. Wandering Monster). They can help you to take items from other players, buff monsters they are facing, take them down a few levels, you name it.
Munchkin needs to be played quickly. We only allow Curses to be played on a player in his turn, and if he encounters a monster, he has to count to three before proceeding with the fight. This allows other players time to play cards on the encounter, but also sets a time limit to do so. It means you can waste cards, but that's the risk you have to take.

In each turn of Munchkin, you decide whether to sell equipment (1000 GP of equipment sold lets you level up), then kick the door down to a room and encounter the creature inside, sustain the curse, or take whatever other adventure card is waiting for you (e.g. Class cards are in the room deck). If you defeat a monster, by having a better strength than it does (based on your level plus any items in play and other buffs like magic potions), your draw Treasure cards based on how much treasure it has (bigger, badder monsters have more loot). If you don't defeat the monster, you have to run away (roll 5+ on a d6 or suffer Bad Stuff).

If there is no monster, you also have the options of looting the room (draw an extra adventure card which you keep in your hand), or looking for trouble (play a monster from your hand to fight and defeat). Hence, it can be advantageous to keep weaker monsters in your hand, like the Angry Duck, to play against yourself, as they still let you level up.

I have found that it takes a while for players to get up to level 3, but after that the game accelerates quickly, as the adventurers become more powerful, and can kill more monsters (hence leveling quicker). After about level 6, it becomes something of a foot race, although players will gang up on a clear leader. I also like the fact that you're forced to reduce your hand (cards in hand, not equipped and in play on the table) to five cards at the end of your turn by discarding to the lowest level player, rather than onto the discard pile.

Overall, after a couple of games of this over Easter, I'm quite taken with it and the kids seem to love it. Munchkin requires fairly aggressive play - you can't be afraid to shaft the competition and there are often threats and counter-threats issued around the table, with players bluffing that they have Wandering Monster or dangerous curses. Ha! I've also found the board and pieces that some with the deluxe version of the game to be very useful in keeping track of where everyone is in terms of level, although you don't really need this.

I'll give this an 8/10. It is fun, it is easier to wedge it into a longer gaming evening, and 3-4 players who know what they're doing can play this in an hour. Heck, I've ordered Munchkin Cthulhu as well!

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Spending Easter with GUMSHOE

It requires a major effort of will these days to learn a new games system. I don't know why, but I guess when I was at school, studying a dozen different subjects, adding an RPG system to the mental mixing bowl was a piece of cake. These days, my RPG activity boils down mainly to Pathfinder, with a bit of Basic RolePlaying / Call of Cthulhu and some Savage Worlds as side servings. Add a spot of Cold City and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay as a garnish. It seems easier to run games with an established rule system you're already familiar with, than try something completely new. Indeed, a game or game line has to offer something especially spicy for me to even contemplate such an effort (Cold City being a case in point).

Last year I was a backer of the new GUMSHOE RPG, Night's Dark Agents, which combined the horror and espionage genres into one delightful package. I'm very keen to give this a go as a referee, but yes, this would involve getting my head around an entirely new game system. To this end, I've spent the Easter break re-reading Trail of Cthulhu, the forerunner to NDA, which also harnesses the GUMSHOE engine. I'd previously made a couple of attempts to read ToC and fully understand how GUMSHOE works, as well as dipping back into the original edition of Esoterrorists, but to no avail.

This time, however, an interesting and very sensible essay in the Pelgrane online fanzine, which you can read here, prompted me to tackle the topic again. A re-reading of ToC makes me think that, yes, I could run this. But I'd need to get a little more familiar with GUMSHOE  before seeking to umpire NDA, just because NDA feels like a much more sophisticated beast for a GM than ToC - sort of like driving a Ferrari rather than a BMW.

Hence, I'm mulling over whether to run some ToC for my regular group. My plan as it stands is to potentially go through three gradations of scenario:

  1. Run a commercially published ToC scenario, probably something from the Shadows Over Filmland scenario anthology;
  2. Convert a BRP CoC scenario to ToC, to provide a better understanding of the mechanics;
  3. Finally, write a ToC scenario from scratch - here I'm thinking of something from the excellent new CoC supplement, Folklore, from Cubicle 7 which, while not an adventure anthology, does have some very intriguing British plot seeds.
If I can do all this then yes, I may be familiar enough with GUMSHOE to attempt NDA. At the moment I am still reading the core rules in the ToC book, which admittedly represent a better explanation of GUMSHOE than, say, Esoterrorists (first edition), which was still a bit vague and confusing to be honest. We'll see if I can get to a point where I'll actually feel ready to run something!