Monday, 22 December 2014

Practical size limits for miniatures wargames

I didn't really get very much miniatures gaming in this year, but then it has been a busier year than 2013 was. Next year, I plan to focus on just a handful of projects as time will be limited. One of the games I did manage to play was The Sword and The Flame, which still has to be one of the best tabletop colonial miniatures games around if you want to measure it by pure FUN. But it is the recent arrival of some excellent new figures for the Second Afghan War (1878-80) from Artizan Designs that got me thinking about colonials, and in particular the period covered by TSaTF.

Yes, new miniatures in the colonial period always have one reaching for the Paypal button, but I decided that, before I did something stupid, I'd take a closer look at my Zulu War collection and make a decision on when I was prepared to call time on it. I have been collecting and painting Zulus for about 10 years and my impi can put close to 100 painted warriors on the table, which is not much by some people's standards, but then again, how many do you need?

A shot from one of our Zulu War games...

Taking TSaTF, for example, this is a game that despite its origins in the 1970s, still seems to work very well for colonial battles. I recently gave Battles for Empire a test run, and while I loved the deployment rules in BFE, the game itself is not as FUN as TSaTF. I tend to prefer games with simpler mechanics that you can easily teach to newcomers and are not difficult to remember when you revisit them. Something that gets bogged down in complexity, or takes six hours to play, may not be for me. Also, I'm less interested at this stage in recreating historical battles and more in producing an entertaining scenario. This can be achieved with smaller numbers of figures.

We typically play either very small skirmish battles between two people, or bigger multi-player exercises, with four or six protagonists. These seem to work very well. Which brings me back to how many figures are sufficient?

As a rule of thumb, and it is a rough one, I would say that the maximum number of models under a player's command should be around 60. For some games, it will be a lot less. Savage Worlds, for example, which we have used for Gothic horror games in the past and which seems to work equally well as an RPG, usually requires a lot less (I tend to limit games to a maximum of about five or six units per side, plus about four Wild Cards or Extras).

A Savage Worlds game in progress...

For TSaTF, which in its original format, has 20-figure units, 60 figures translates into a Zulu ibutho or an Afghan hill tribe, i.e. the second level of command in the game (a single native unit will be assigned one leader, while most colonial units will have some kind of second in command). This works quite well, as two native players could combine with 120 warriors between them, and with a single commander nominated as the induna in overall leadership.

An additional factor has to be one of time. Savage Worlds, with its card driven initiative system, does slow down the more units or figures you add. Hence, it is sometimes easier to activate a Wild Card and a unit together on one card until such a time as the Wild Card moves out of command range of the unit. BUT, the downside of that is the player risks having his whole command move further down the initiative ladder with a single card draw.

TSaTF is also card-driven, and again, too many units will cause the game to slow down. Assume, for example, three players running a Zulu impi composed of nine units. British units aside, that is still nine card draws for the movement phase, and nine for the shooting phase (presuming each unit has some rifles or muskets in it - they may not). Things will obviously speed up once units get eliminated, but the first few turns will be a lot slower. Assuming you want to get a game down in 3-4 hours maximum, which is a good measure, things have to move with alacrity.

So, let us set the maximum size of our impi at 180 models. This still gives it some scope for growth from its current size of about 100 over the course of the year, but 180 sounds like a good hard limit for the collection. Let us next assume that, for a good game, even giving the Zulus some inherent advantages like no terrain penalties and hidden deployment, they ought really to outnumber the British by 3:1 to stand a chance of winning. Other opponents, like the Sudanese Ansar, probably require slightly less, largely because they have other assets the Zulus lack, like more firearms and cavalry. The British force should therefore number between 40 and 60 figures if they are all regulars, possibly more if you are including Natal Native Contingent and Boers in their ranks. Bring the number back down again if you include British and / or colonial cavalry and artillery.

TSaTF typically sets a theoretical battalion of regulars as the maximum size of the imperial force, including two infantry companies, a cavalry squadron, and two or three guns. However, I view that as a best case force, and looking at the campaigns of the period, the British frequently relied on untested local troops, including the NNC in South Africa and Egyptian troops in the Sudan. This allows the player to field more imperial troops to face the natives without a considerable upgrade in firepower. The unit factors in the core rules can be a good guideline.

So, will I be exploring the possibility of building some armies for the NorthWest Frontier in 2015? I have not decided as yet. I'm keen to play some WW2 and possibly some fantasy if time and resources will allow. After all, we have yet to finish Bloodbath At Orc's Drift, where the final showdown has not been concluded, and Middle-earth beckons too. Finally, I'd like to play some Napoleonics, but am undecided as to whether to go with a big battle from the period, or focus on a large skirmish game like Sharp Practice. More on all that anon.

The Battle of Linden Way using Lord of the Rings SBG

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Colony

Kevin and Larry's excellent dynamite adventure
The Colony is a post-apocalyptic horror thriller, directed by Jeff Renfroe, which came out last year and is now on Netflix. It features two stalwarts of the survival horror genre, namely Bill Paxton (Aliens) and Lawrence Fishburne (Event Horizon). Fishburne seems to get signed for these sorts of projects on a regular basis, and to always play the same type of character, the inspirational but ultimately doomed leader.

The Colony posits a future in which efforts to tackle global warming back-fired and created a nuclear winter. Small groups of survivors now live underground, sheltering against the excesses of extreme arctic weather conditions. The whole world now looks like the South Pole or Hoth. To top this off, a fatal strain of flu has also decimated the global population, and now survivors are focused on eliminating any members of their communities that happen to manifest symptons (a real morale booster if you are watching this while down with flu!)

The story deals with a small community living under what looks like some form of power station. The main character in the film is a youth called Sam, played by Kevin Zegers, who is witness to the struggle for power within the community between its leader, former soldier Fishburne, and his homicidal right hand man, Paxton.

We've got the isolation, the small numbers of humans, the explosive personal issues, so now where is the external threat, I hear you ask? Well, guess what? A distress call is received from another group of survivors nearby and Fishburne and Zegers, accompanied by a third survivor, Atticus Mitchell, decide to struggle through the blizzards to find out what has happened.

We love running around in the tunnels...

Nothing good, as it turns out. I'm going to have to drop a spoiler here, and let you know that the other colony of survivors has been taken over by a roaming band of cannibals. The reason I am is because, for me, the stand out performance of the entire film comes from Dru Viergever as the truly terrifying leader of the cannibal group. He has the size and the screen presence to project a really evil SOB, and why nobody has signed him for a villain's role in Star Wars, I don't know. He makes Darth Vader seem cute and cuddly by contrast.

Is The Colony a good film though? It is certainly not as depressing as The Road, which has to be one of the truly mordant films of all time. The Colony has the cold and isolation down pat, plus there is lots of running around underground complexes (which players of my Hot War scenario will find reminiscent) and there are cannibals (somehow more evil than zombies).

The Colony is a little bit predictable however. There is a scene with a bridge about halfway through which I saw coming a mile away. The film ends up being very formulaic, and really, there is nothing NEW here, but at the same time, when I watched it, I wasn't really looking to be challenged. It is almost like classic Japanese theatre, where the audience expects the plot to devlop within certain lines, and will be outraged if it does not.

One thing I did find odd though was the Russian signage in one of the complexes. The film was made in Canada, there are no Russian characters in the film, and it never claims to be in Russia (the characters shelter in the wreck of an American rescue helicopter at one stage, and there are no Russian characters in the movie at all). So why is there obvious Russian signage all over the place? I can only assume someone else was using the same set previously and put it there, but it is also fairly obviously in shot, so why leave it? I am struggling to understand.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Red Dawn

I have been struck down, ruthlessly so, by a seasonal bout of flu. Luckily it has not been anything as severe as the pleurisy I got to dance with last winter. Hence, I've been bed-ridden, but this time around I've had access to the wonderful Netflix and the opportunity to catch up on some viewing. Over the next week or so, I will be attempting to deliver some impressions on the films I have been watching while the immune system was battling back yet again from the infected depths.

First up we have Red Dawn, the 2012 remake of the original 1984 film by John Milius. The original film, looking back on it, was a brat pack movie with Kalashnikovs, with a cast that included the likes of Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell and Lea Thompson. Most of these guys were still relative unknowns as actors - heck, Charlie Sheen looks like he hasn't started shaving yet! It was a film made at a time when the possibility of war with the Soviet Union was highly likely, although even then an actual airborne invasion of the continental US was far-fetched, to say the least.

For a schoolboy in the UK who was a member of the Combined Cadet Force from 1985 to 1988 (I dropped it as soon as it became voluntary at my school), Red Dawn certainly made an impact, partly because we were teenagers already being trained for a war, and partly because I was living that much closer to the USSR than most Americans. Indeed, I was spending my holidays in Austria, and my house in Vienna (the spy capital of the Cold War) was about 90 minutes from the Czechoslovakian border, as the T-72 tank travels.

Back when baseball jackets and flat tops were cool...

It's fair to say things were always a little...tense in 1985. On the gaming front I recall an RPG was published called The Price of Freedom, in which players took on the roles of US resistance fighters fighting a Soviet occupation, and caused something of a stir in the pages of White Dwarf, with many commentators attacking it for being tasteless, yet GDW was able to put out Twilight 2000 with seemingly less grouching, possibly because of the way it was presented (i.e. with no clear victor in the Twilight War). These days, video games with a similar theme to Price of Freedom (e.g. 2003's Freedom Fighters by IO Interactive) get waved through with hardly a raised eyebrow. This is probably a topic for another post...

To be honest, I'm not sure why MGM bothered remaking Red Dawn, as it was very much a creature of its time. In the 2012 version, it is the North Koreans invading the Pacific North West, with some Russian support once things begin to go pear-shaped. One aspect I liked about the original was the sympathetic Cuban officer (played by Ron O'Neal) who disagrees with his country's involvement in the war, but that interesting dramatic element is missing from the ranks of the North Koreans this time around - they are all two-dimensional stormtroopers this time. The whole idea that, even with Russian support, North Korea could realistically manage the invasion and occupation of a big slice of the US is laughable from the beginning and it is hard to get away from.

It is interesting, however, that the Wolverines, the teenaged team of resistance fighters at the centre of the film, adopts a different strategy from the originals. In the 1984 version, Swayze and crew take to the hills and wage a hit and run campaign against the Russians that is typical of the rural guerilla warfare preached by Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. Even in 1984, America was still living in the shadow of Vietnam, and US military planners, if asked to point to a guerilla campaign, would turn to that experience. Hence, the 1984 Wolverines fight like they are using the Viet Cong's playbook.

Fast forward to 2012, and the experience has been heavily tinged by the war in Iraq. Chris Hemsworth's character is a serving Marine, on leave from the war in the Middle East. He immediately starts drilling his Wolverines to use tactics that the US military faced in Iraq. Remote-detonated IEDs become a much bigger feature of the film, and the Wolverines try to avoid a stand up firefight with the North Koreans wherever possible, only risking an assault on a military target when the stakes get raised.

Overall, if you have the time, and have not seen the original, I'd go with that and don't bother with the new one. When I first saw it advertised two years ago, I thought "Why?" Having watched it, I'm stilling thinking "Why?"

Monday, 8 December 2014

Tremulus - first impressions

Just back from a very busy trip to Ireland and have spent the weekend recovering with a copy of Tremulus, by Sean Preston and Reality Blurs. Tremulus is one of these 'next generation' RPGs inspired by the likes of Apocalypse World. In some respects, it does remind me a little of Cold City by Malcolm Craig. It is the Lovecraftian horror setting for the Apocalypse World-style RPG, and very interesting it is too.

Like AW, Tremulus uses 'play books' that portray classic Lovecraft character archetypes like the Author, the Detective or the Devout. Each one has special 'moves' - i.e. skills or actions that are unique to that type of character (as well as access to general moves shared by all PCs). Hence, the Alienist has Therapy as a move, plus additional moves like Quid Pro Quo or Student of Human Nature. There is a great deal of flavour here.

Each player gets to play one type of character, you cannot have two of the same type, no pairs of Alienists in a party. The play book provides you with a series of choices for your PC, including name, looks, equipment, and moves. This makes it very quick and easy for players to drop straight into a game. I like this.

Here's a sample move from the Alienist character, but the game is full of this kind of detail:

COTTAGE: you have a small cottage in town where you can treat patients. It is a safe place. You have a loyal assistant (Oswald or Sheryl?) as well. You earn d6 Wealth per month it is in operation.
Not only is this an asset, it brings with it story possibility. Who is the assistant, for example? Why might it stop operating? What do other inhabitants of the town think of this?

The core mechanic is 2d6 plus any kind of bonus that might apply, for example from your attributes. You really want to score 10+, but even 7+ is a good result. Six or less means you usually give the Keeper a hard move, something he can come back at you with at some point, and bring the hurt. The Keeper gets to store this for later, or could make it happen to you immediately as a result of your failed roll. This certainly raises the tension level. But bear in mind that the Keeper never rolls dice - he always asks the players to roll dice. His 'hard' moves just tweak the situation a little more against the players, giving them less scope for response.

Apart from the core characteristics of Reason, Passion, Might, Luck and Affinity, you also need to keep track of Wealth, Luck, Physical Wellness and Mental Health. All these work in a similar fashion (i.e. adding a + / - factor to that 2d6 roll), but in the case of Wellness and Mental Health, damage to such can bring with it further consequences, like insanity.

There are various levels of damage - light damage that you can recover from on your own, moderate damage that will require treatment, and serious damage that, if not treated, will just get worse, sending you spiralling off into permanent insanity for example. This looks like a very good mechanic, but I'd need to see it in play first to be entirely convinced.

The game does bring a couple of interesting new ideas to the table which I do feel enthusiastic about. Most of this is embedded in the Keeper's section and stems from plotting. It would be entirely possible to write up a quick scenario yourself and run with the ball using this system. However, there is also a default setting called Ebon Eaves, a fictional US town in the 1930s that can be the setting for your game. What is in the town, what the threat is, and much of the detail on NPCs, is determined by asking some questions of your players at the outset. This is then used to build a fast framework of a plot which your players can further populate as they explore.

I also like the concept of the hazard track, which I'm seeing more of in RPG games design these days, and while not quite a sandbox element, does help to provide that feel. It lets the Keeper track the course of the plot over a series of events that may / may not happen, depending on investigator intervention. Thus, plot point B will follow A, assuming the investigators do not do anything to de-rail it. It provides a sense of things going on behind the scenes, of a looming evil gathering pace, rather than simply a static construct awaiting the party's tender mercies.

There are stats here for classic Mythos monsters, and an opportunity for some of them to be found in Ebon Eaves, but Preston really only uses them as examples of how to build monsters using the rules, and recommends that Keepers usher in their own creations instead.

H.P. Lovecraft invented all sorts of strange nightmare horrors that inhabited his works, that have bled over into popular culture to such a degree that many of his most famous creatures are familiar to many people likely to play this game. If anything, the people most drawn to this sort of game may be the ones for whom scares come hardest - familiarity indeed breeds contempt. (Tremulus, p.155)
Tremulus is very much a game, like Cold City, where it is expected that much of the meat of the game will be added in play, some of it by the players. It is simple enough that a Keeper familiar with the rules can focus on play and not on the crunch, so to speak. This means that preparation levels are kept to a minimum. I am reminded a little of the Armitage Files from Pelgrane Press, but Armitage Files would require an enormous amount of work to create from scratch, while Tremulus would not. Plus, every Tremulus game is unique: three different Keepers could all run games out of Ebon Eaves with the same players, and each session would be radically different.

Tremulus does, however, have a very US-centric feel to it. The atmosphere is of small town America in the 1930s, and while it would not take a lot to shift that to European adventures, the sense of isolation it conjures up occasionally makes more sense for North America with its vast spaces than it does for, say, England in circa 1930. I'm please to see, however, that more supplements have appeared to provide action in the Arctic / Antarctic wilderness, or journeying to exotic locales. I do quite like the idea of PCs as crew / passengers on a tramp steamer in the South Pacific, for example, perhaps plying its route from New Zealand to Hawai'i...?

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Denizens of Dunchester

Jeremiah Wislet, 45, Antiquarian

Jeremiah has a long interest in Dunchester and its environs. He is a medieval scholar, graduating from Oxford. He has also worked for more than a decade in the British Museum. While he is a mine of information on the ancient history of the region, he is most focused on his own pet theory regarding the legendary village of Iddlestone. Mentioned in the Doomesday Book, Iddlestone is thought to have been claimed by the sea following a particularly ferocious storm in the 13th century. Wislet is convinced that the village can still be found somewhere under the marshes.

The exact location of Iddlestone is a mystery, but Jeremiah is devoting his twilight years in his quest to discover it. He has his own boat and a pair of waders, and can be seen out and about on a fine day with a shovel, digging for medial artefacts. Perhaps of most interest to Jeremiah is the fable associated with the vicar of Iddlestone, who legend holds worked with pirates who operated in the Channel in the late 1100s. He was the custodian of much of their loot, but it was lost when the sea apparently swamped Iddlestone, perhaps as divine punishment for the crimes of its pastor.

Jeremiah has a reputation of being moody and irritable, impatient with lesser intellects and indeed all those who do not share his fascination with local archaeology. He is particularly short tempered with individuals of a dreamy, artistic bent, and is not talking to Rufus Tannisart (below).

Matthew Durnford, 50, Physician

Durnford is a cousin of Colonel Anthony Durnford, who was killed by Zulus at Isandhlwana in 1879. He also served in the army, as a military doctor, and had some experience in Africa, cut short by a bout of malaria on the Gold Coast. He has retired to a practice as a country doctor in Dunchester, but does not seem best pleased with his situation. He is a short-tempered and arrogant man, he sleeps badly and is suspected of sampling his own medicine cabinet and the occasional bottle of Scotch to help him beat his insomnia.

Durnford has been busy lately investigating the strangely high incidence of sleep walking in Dunchester. Several inhabitants have suffered minor accidents as a result of this and it has piqued the doctor's curiosity. He has even written a short piece on it for the British Medical Journal, although it has not been published. Not to be deterred, Durnford has been telling his small circle of friends (including Jeremiah Wislet, above) about his plans to conduct a more detailed survey of the problem in an effort to establish its cause.

Durnford is a bachelor, and lives with his sister Cara. She supports him as practice nurse and book keeper, as well as doing much of his shopping and cooking while he ponders how to revivify his flagging medical career.

Isabella Hellinges, 36, Landlady

Isabella is the current owner of the Grimfell Inn, ironically named after the 17th century judge who burned her ancestor. The Hellinges family moved away from Dunchester before the Civil War, but returned in the 1750s, when Daniel Hellinges, who made his money in the transatlantic slave trade, retired to Dunchester and bought the inn. It is runoured he and his son were later key figures in the smuggling activities of the Brotherhood of the Deep.

Isabella is an important figure in the community - some unkind souls would even call her a busybody. However she allows locals to spend time smoking and drinking and generally gossiping in the inn's snug, so long as they don't disturb any guests, few and far between as they might be. Isabella was born a Hellinge - her father owned and ran the Grimfell before her, and while she was once engaged to a local fisherman, his boat went down in a freak storm in the summer of 1884.

The Hellinges family has not been able to shake its association with witchcraft, however, despite Isabella's best efforts. Her fondness for the feline species, and the small pack of more than a dozen cats that haunt the Grimfell, has gone some way to perpetuate it. Gossip also surrounds her relationship with Isaiah Mentieth (see below).

Abraham Wittings, 50, Fisherman

Abraham lives in Dunchester and owns a fishing ketch called the Sea Song. He and his two sons spend most of their days out fishing, but also occasionally take tourists out to sea or ship cargo between Dunchester and Hastings. He is close-mouthed and says little of his experiences out on the storm-tossed waves, although some remark on the strange rituals he and his sons perform on their boat before setting out. The Old ways die hard amongst the fisher folk.

Abraham is considered something of a patriarch among the fishing community in and around Dunchester. He tends to avoid those he does not know or trust. He and his sons can sometimes be found drinking at the King's Head inn on the Dunchester to Hastings road. They live in a small village out on the marshes, but keep their boat down by the seaside. They also have a couple of rowboats and can sometimes be seen pottering around the many stagnant waterways that wend across the marshes. Nobody speaks of Wittings' wife, Martha, who once worked shoulder to shoulder with him on his boat. She was lost at sea on particularly stormy night, and the old man will not discuss the tragic event with anybody.

Rufus Tannisart, Painter, age 84

Tannisart is the last survivor of the infamous Dunchester Circle of painters who frequented the area in the early 1800s. Now in his dotage, Tannisart is rarely seen around town and even refuses to see visitors, preferring instead to glare balefully from the upper windows of his grey stone mansion at one end of Cable Street. Rumour has it that the old man continues to paint, and that his attic is stocked with new and original work that some European collectors would pay a fortune for, but access to him is strictly controlled by his nurse and housekeeper, Mrs Ursula Lambert.

Still, some say there are mysterious visitors to the old house, usually in the depths of night. Dark figures have been seen crossing the old churchyard behind Tannisart's home, stealing in and out by a back entrance. The old man is wealthy, however, and has patronised more than one struggling Dunchester business of charity with his considerable largesse, and those with influence in the town are loath to create problems for him. They say he spends most of his time asleep these days, dreaming perhaps of other times and places...

Isaiah Menteith - Carter, ex-Soldier, age 34

Isaiah owns a horse and cart and is frequently encountered in the streets of Dunchester, providing conveyancing for local businesses. He is also one of the few individuals prepared to transport people and their belongings overland between Dunchester and the nearest train stations at Rye and Hastings. Travellers will need to make prior arrangements to be met by Menteith, usually via Isabella Hellinges at the Grimfell Inn. Menteith is often to be found at the snug in the Grimfell when the weather is inclement, and for the right price can provide transport to most locations in the area that can be reached by road.

Menteith is a Sussex native and fought as a young man in the Sudan campaign of 1884-85 where he was decorated for gallantry. He still bears the scars of a desperate fight with the Mahdi's troops in the desert, including a sword cut to his forehead that is even more prominent now that he is losing his hair. Unlike many in Dunchester, he maintains a cheeful demeanour, humming thoughtfully to himself as he potters around town or along the lanes to outlying villages. He smokes a particularly strong brand of Egyptian tobacco that more often than not betrays his trail around the area.

Friday, 5 December 2014

More Barbarians of Hyboria

Following on from my last post on the topic, here are some more Hyborian races / birthplaces for characters, using the Barbarians of Lemuria background traits. BoL characters get one Boon for free, can take a second along with a Flaw, and finally can get a third of they spend two Hero Points. I've tried to cover all the boons and flaws included in the BoL rulebook at least once, so that a player


Covers the inhabitants of the city states that lie between the Hyborian kingdoms and Styygia. It includes everything from Asgalun on the Western Ocean to sand-girt Zamboula on the very borders of Turan. Although the city dwelling Shemites are distinguished from their nomadic cousins as Meadow Shemites, I've lumped them all into the same background, giving sufficient scope for both nomadic and urban characters.

Boons: Detect Deception, Learned, Plains Tracker, Sling, Thieves Tools. Flaws: City Dweller, Feels the Cold, Greed, Landlubber, Untrustworthy.


This category covers the many civilized kingdoms established by the Hyborian race, including the likes of Nemedia and Aquilonia, and lesser realms like Koth and Argos. They are united by a common language and cultural background and share similar political systems. I've tried to sum them all up in a single character background, but it may they will need to be differentiated further.

Boons:  Artistic, Attractive, Carouser, Etiquette, Great Wealth, Learned. Flaws: Arrogant, City Dweller, Combat Paralysis, Greed, Poor Eyesight.

Borderer (Bossonian, Gunderman, Border Kingdom)

This is a sub-class of the Hyborian stock, and covers those peoples settled primarily on the frontiers of Aquilonia, including the Bossonian Marches and Gunderland. These are tough pioneers, hardy people who are carving a new life for themselves out of the harsh wilderness, constantly in fear of attacks from Picts or Cimmerians. 

Boons: Beast Friend, Hard to Kill, Keen Hearing, Forest Tracker, Bossonian Longbow, Thick Skin. Flaws: Country Bumpkin, Drunkard, Landlubber, Missing eye/ear, Taciturn.


An ancient and decadent race of blue-skinned giants that practice sorcery and dwell in ancient citadels in the snowy fastnesses of their land. They are not a playable race in d20 Conan, but I like the way they are presented in the Dark Horse comic series (which portrays them as occasionally traveling to other lands and even serving in mercenary companies).

Boons: Fearsome Looks, Hyperborean Strength, Giant Weapons, Hard to Kill, Magic of the Sorceror Kings, Nose for Magic. Flaws: All Thumbs, Feels the Heat, Lumbering, Poor eyesight, Unsettling


One of the oldest civilizations in Hyboria, and heirs to the foul and sorcerous legacy of lost Acheron, Stygians are famed for their knowledge of magic and evil rites. The country is ruled by its inbred aristocratic elite and founded upon a slave caste.

Boons: Artistic, Escape Artist, Magic of the Sorceror Kings, Night Sight, Nose for Magic, Poison Immunity. Flaws: Arrogant, City Dweller, Cravings, Delicate, Curse of Set, Untrustworthy.


Ancient Vendhya is a mysterious land lying to the south of the Himelian mountains, and separated by them from much of the warfare and politics that plague the kingdoms of Hyboria. Vendhyans are recognised for both the wealth of their lands and the ancient wisdom of their crumbling temple cities.

Boons: Artistic, Beast Friend, Blind Combat, Escape Artist, Fighting Knife, Great Wealth, Power of the Void. Flaws: Arrogant, Cravings, Delicate, Feels the Cold, Poor Recovery.


Zamora sits between Turan and the Hyborian kingdoms. It is a highly populous realm with some of the biggest cities in the Thurian continent, including Shadizar the Wicked and Yezud, holy city of the Spider God. Many of Conan's greatest adventures take place in Zamora.

Boons: Blind Combat, Carouser, Etiquette, Escape Artist, Thieves Tools, Zamorian Agility. Flaws: City Dweller, Drunkard, Greed, Missing Eye/Ear, Untrustworthy.


Interestingly, Zingara is not classed as a Hyborian kingdom by the authors of Conan d20. Perched on the coast of the Western Ocean, its people are known as great traders, navigators and sea farers, but it is often at the mercies of more powerful Hyborian realms like Argos and Aquilonia.

Boons: Born Sailor, Keen Eyesight, Learned, Pirate Killer, Night Sight. Flaws: Arrogant, Delicate, Drunkard, Missing Limb, Poor Recovery.

And that's all folks! I've expanded on the d20 Conan races by adding Hyperborean, but I just felt they ought to included having read the Dark Horse comics, which I recommend. I may modify these going forwards, but first they will need a play test. More Barbarians of Hyborian when I have time...

Monday, 1 December 2014

Barbarians of Hyboria

I have historically GM'd adventures in Hyboria using the d20 Conan rules from Mongoose Publishing, and have also run a sword and sorcery adventure with Barbarians of Lemuria. Hence, it was only a matter of time before it occurred to run Hyborian adventures using Barbarians of Lemuria mechanics. BoL uses its own unique setting (Lemuria, surprise!) as an adventure background, however, so it befalls upon me to suggest some Hyborian cultural backgrounds for player characters using the BoL mechanics.

Here are a few to begin with. Where possible I've tried to limit races to five Boons / Flaws each, but some extras have just had to sneak in. I'm pondering whether to include Marked by Crom as an additional boon for Cimmerian PCs. Characters in BoL get a free Boon from their birthplace, and may take a second if they also take a Flaw. A third Boon can be acquired by spending two Hero Points. Some Boons are unique to certain races - so far, only the Himelians have Detect Deception, and the Kushites have a monopoly on Jungle Tracker.


Savage hillmen who dwell in the highlands north of Aquilonia and Nemedia. Fierce, clannish people with little scope for uniting under central leadership. Cimmerian characters take Barbarian as their first career.

Boons: Cimmerian Strength, Disease Immunity, Hard to Kill, Quick Recovery, Rock Tracker,  Cimmerian War Cry ("Crom!"). Flaws: Country Bumpkin, Distrust of Sorcery, Feels the Heat, Illiterate, Taciturn

Himelian Tribesman

Fierce tribes that dwell in the mountain range that divides Vendhya from the wide plains of Hyrkania. Independent and fond of war, they often raid into Vendhya and Iranistan when the opportunity presents. Himelian tribesmen must take Barbarian as their first career. Missing Eye / Ear reflects both the fact that Himelians get exposure to tribal warfare at an early age, and a popular form of punishment among the hill tribes.

Boons:  Detect Deception, Fighting Knife, Quick Recovery, Rock Tracker, Sneaky. Flaws: Country Bumpkin, Landlubber, Missing Eye / Ear, Untrustworthy


A nomadic people, they wander across the broad tundra to the north and east of Turan, and west of Khitai. They rear livestock and hunt strange beats on the grasslands. They are excellent horsemen. Starting Hyrkanian characters must take Barbarian or Slave as their first career.

Boons: Beast Friend, Hyrkanian Agility, Keen Eyesight, Keen Scent, Plains Tracker, Hyrkanian Curved Bow. Flaws:  Arrogant, Country Bumpkin, Illiterate, Ugly and Brutish, Untrustworthy.


Originally a nomadic tribe like the Hyrkanians, the Turanians have established a formidable empire on the shores of the Sea of Vilayet. Although still accomplished riders, they now have a considerable navy as well.

Boons: Etiquette, Great Wealth, Swamp Tracker, Thieves Tools, Turanian Tulwar. Flaws: City Dweller, Cravings, Feels the Cold, Greed, Poor recovery.


An ancient oriental empire that has pushed out the frontiers of learning and sorcery, little is known of it in the Hyborian lands, although sometimes Khitan sorcerers and monks will travel to the western lands. Khitan Alchemists are justly renowned. Special Item reflects the possible possession of a piece of Khitan technology, like gunpowder or some of their fabled Yellow Lotus Dust!

Boons: Learned, Magic Resistance, Poison Immunity, Power of the Void, Special Item. Flaws: Combat Paralysis, Cravings, Delicate, Taciturn, Unsettling


A catch all term for most of the black skinned tribes that dwell in the hotter climes south of Stygia and over the deserts from Shem. This includes Darfar, Keshan, and the cities of Punt and Zembabwei. Kushite adventurers must begin with either the Barbarian or Hunter careers.

Boons: Beast Friend, Fighting Spear, Jungle Tracker, Keen Hearing, Keen Scent. Flaws: Country Bumpkin, Distrust of Sorcery, Feels the Cold, Illiterate, Taciturn.


Covers the kingdoms and tribal fiefdoms of Asgard and Vanaheim, impoverished lands that spawn warriors and pirates for the most part. Adventurers from these climes tend to be hot tempered and motivated by loot. It is very unlikely to meet sorcerers or alchemists from Nordheim. Only Aesir characters can take Landlubber as a flaw. Missing Limb reflects the frequent internecine warfare and piracy that is so much a part of Nordheimer society.

Boons: Keen Scent, Marked by the Gods, Snow Tracker, Quick Recovery, Asgardian Blade, Vanir War Cry. Flaws: Drunkard, Feels the Heat, Greed, Landlubber, Lumbering, Missing Limb.


Forest-dwelling savages who populate the wilderness areas to the west of Aquilonia and north of Zingara. They rarely venture into civilized lands other than to raid border settlements. Conan d20 has them as a racial option, so I've included them here. Their first career must be Hunter or Savage.

Boons: Beast Friend, Forest Tracker, Keen Scent, Night Sight, Pictish War Cry. Flaws: Country Bumpkin, Delicate, Fear of Fire, Illiterate, Taciturn, Ugly and Brutish.

That's pretty much it for now. If there's interest, I'll add some more when I have time. Note: there is no Sky Pilot career in Barbarians of Hyboria.

Monday, 3 November 2014

GUMSHOE - conclusions

I've completed my first adventure running Gumshoe. We played the scenario 'Operation Slaughterhouse' from the original Esoterrorists core book. What follows are my observations firstly on the Gumshoe system, in the fairly basic format in which it appears in the original Esoterrorists game, then on the scenario itself, and finally on running games with covert operatives as the core party.

Gumshoe / Esoterrorists

This feels very much like a game inspired by CSI and similar crime series. Although Ken Hite later took Gumshoe in the direction of the Cthulhu Mythos, the original game places massive emphasis on forensic skills and interviewing suspects. The action component - fighting, infiltration, etc - is very truncated. The idea behind the system is to faciliate a progressive investigation without reliance on dice rolls. Investigators are defined by their capabilities in academic, interpersonal and technical skill groups, with general abilities called on to support action and to meter health and mental stability.

Running the game, perhaps the hardest thing is to decide when to wave through player success, and when to call for them to spend points. Robin D. Laws, author of Esoterrorists, believes the point spend should really be the choice of the player, to obtain additional information / colour and to demonstrate their ability to excel in the particular area of knowledge. I'm not sure this works for me.

We had a pretty diverse team of agents, namely an assassin who used the cover identity of an antiques dealer, a history professor and a Boston detective. They were later joined by a second academic specialising in occult studies. Because the investigation focused on a deceased CIA agent, a Congressional corruption investigation, and shady dealings by military intelligence in the Caribbean, the cop and the assassin were probably given the most opportunity to shine. But some skills, like Bullshit Detector, Data Retrieval and Cop Talk can be used to cover a multitude of sins and can push the investigation forward quickly. For a GM who has spent many, many years running Call of Cthulhu, it requires a major mental jump to go from imposing an obstacle by asking for a dice roll to simply providing an automatic success that can, in some instances, literally blow the case wide open. But thinking on it, this is what happens in TV series of this ilk.

Think of it more like running a dungeon adventure where, instead of requiring the group to pick the lock of each and every door they come across, you allow them to get through the door regardless. The important issue is what lies in the room, not how you get into it.

So where does the point spend come in? Because we're all new to Gumshoe, I've tended to ask players to spend points to facilitate activities that are not 'core' to the investigative trail, but can be used to support it - for example, use of Bureaucracy to obtain travel documents supporting a cover identity, or to manufacture false evidence to frame an NPC suspect for a murder. These activities are not uncovering new information, but agents are using skills and knowledge to achieve other objectives. Hence, a point spend is required. IIRC I think I called for a 2-point spend to allow the agents to sneak across to the Dominican Republic with a boat load of illegal firearms and C4 without the US Coast Guard paying them any attention. But that could have been an Infiltration check...

The focus on the game is very much one of piecing together the investigation. It feels very much like an exercise in crime fiction, and you could quite easily drop most of the horror / mystical elements from Esoterrorists and run it as a straight CSI / murder mystery game, particularly for newcomers to roleplaying. There is far less dice rolling and leaving things to chance than there is in Call of Cthulhu, but sometimes I felt that when the game progressed into action scenarios, e.g. when the players ambushed some rogue military contractors - there was a lack of crunch. Hopefully this is something that will be resolved in the second edition of the game, which I believe includes more rules on combat.

Operation Slaughterhouse

I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that running pre-written scenarios may not be for me, or that I must find a new way of prepping them effectively. Operation Slaughterhouse, which is one of the first adventures ever written for Gumshoe, is meant to demonstrate the system in action and it does to a certain degree, but I felt it could have been done far, far better. I doubt I will run it again.

It revolves around the ritual murder of a CIA officer in a plush Washington DC hotel, with the PCs coming in under the cover of a ritual crimes squad working with the FBI team already on the case.

It is a sorry tale of high level corruption, defence contracts and the illegal rendition of terrorist suspects from the Middle East in the dying months of the Bush administration. It demonstrates how a Gumshoe plot is meant to hang on core clues, and to a large degree that works well. There are few opportunities for the party to ski off piste and go chasing for red herrings, and that is a sign of a focused scenario.

At one point they did begin to focus on a corrupt Congressman to an alarming degree, with the team walking into the Capitol in broad daylight using manufactured identities, but that was the only time they left the path. Many core clues were uncovered in ways other than those specified in the adventure, and the scenario author does sometimes assume clue 'x' will be provided by 'y' when in fact this can be missed completely, forcing the GM to improvise by inserting clue 'x' elsewhere.

Generally, this is easy to do with Gumshoe, but in the case of core intelligence, it has to happen. I made one error that allowed the PCs to miss a core clue, attributing too much competence to the dead CIA agent, Rusty Mistaugh in covering his tracks. Hence, I had to drop the clue in via a new PC joining the party, but this seemed to happen seamlessly.

Writing Gumshoe scenarios requires a lot more focus on clues and plotting than Call of Cthulhu, IMHO. CoC favours a scattergun approach - throw enough leads in there, and PCs are sure to pick up one of them that is needed for the investigation to progress. Look at Masks of Nyarlathotep, which dumps a parcel full of information on the investigators in the opening scene, and lets them run with it. Gumshoe requires a little more structure, with precise clues needed to progress the investigation. I am sorely tempted to write my own material for Gumshoe and see how I go, but may run another published adventure first before I do.

Running spy games

Like superheroes, spies / intelligence agents are a bunch of tough and resourceful individuals. While the party we generated for Esoterrorists included two academics, between them and with the help of their patrons, they represented a much greater potential threat to the opposition than your average party of 'civilian' Cthulhu investigators.

These investigators have the training, the contacts and the equipment to make themselves very dangerous indeed. Our team sneaked into Congress, hacked databases, forged evidence, and shot their way into a secure compound in pitch darkness, laden with semi-automatic weapons and C4. They also made use of a wide range of connections, from smugglers to CIA agents, to get the job done.

I have run one game of Delta Green in the past, where the team were all FBI agents (one of the starter adventures in the original DG core book), but those were law enforcement agents constrained by the legal agenda. In Esoterrorists we have guys trained and prepared to go off the radar and carry out illegal activities. They represent a much more potent force. The opposition needs to be configured to meet this effectively. The group was also very effective in covering their tracks, and the tracks of the cult they were investigating. Mind you, we have some very experienced players as well, with the capacity to slash their way effectively through an investigation with consummate skill.

 Night's Black Agents, by Ken Hite, includes a lot more detail on running espionage-based campaigns for Gumshoe, and includes a new milieu which channels more of The Bourne Identity and Ronin than CSI Las Vegas. It will be interesting to how this plays out...

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Battles for Empire - part deux

I'm not sure whether I'm going to be able to get this battle finished before the weekend, largely because I'll need to clear the hut for an RPG games day on Sunday. Hence, the engagement has a real time limit which may or may not see it played to its conclusion. We're at a point now where there is likely to be a clash between the two sides, and casualties will be taken.

Turn 3

Colonial scouts cross the donga
This time the Zulus won initiative, giving them an effective double move. Reinforcement roll saw them get another two units which advanced on from the chest division. They still have only two commanders on the field. The Zulu induna commanding the left horn decides to detach one unit from his formation and send it in the direction of the kraal.

The British continue towards the donga. The Colonial Volunteers stop at the donga, rather than face being in it when they contact the Zulus, who are now obvious to their front. The British commander decided to keep the column moving, and gets his dragoons over the donga in short order. Overall, the British remain confident about the whole situation.



Turn 4

No reinforcements for the Zulus this turn.

Initiative back to the British, and their dragoons detach from the column and canter independently towards the kraal. Company A from the column now struggles over the donga, picking up disordered status on the way. The British colonel keeps pushing his men, but detaches his native infantry who, with their commander, move to support the rifle skirmishers. He is worried about the two units of Zulus massing to their front. The rifle skirmishers shoot at the Zulus to their front, but only succeed in giving them a disruption marker (i.e. few enemy hit). Luckily for the Zulus, they are not rated as Boers.

Two waves of Zulus at the end of turn 2.

Now the Zulu left horn enters the donga, getting disrupted again in the process. The rest of the army is moving through the maize field behind them.


It may well be that this battle does not progress any further, hence I will include some initial impressions here. This game is really being played as a walk through, and I have to say I do like the mechanics. It has to measure up against The Sword & The Flame, which I have decided is a good set of rules for smaller battles, but no good once you have more than, say, 40 imperial troops on the board, effectively a company of imperial forces in that game. Go beyond this, and it begins to get clunky, or you have to play 800 Fighting Englishmen, the bigger battle variant, which we may be trialing on this blog in the future.

Battles For Empire feels like it can manage larger engagements, and has been written to play out the battles specifically of the mid-colonial period (i.e. between the general issue of breech-loading rifles to imperial troops and the adoption of non-linear tactics during the Boer War). At the time of writing I have not touched on the melee rules, nor has there been much shooting. I expect I will play test further in the future, possibly using a historical scenario this time!

Zulus including third wave from chest, kraal in the distance

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

GUMSHOE Esoterrorists - first impressions

So I'm in the middle of play testing Esoterrorists, the original edition from Pelgrane, published back in 2006. As this was one of the earlier iterations for GUMSHOE, I wanted to use it to test drive the mechanics before stumbling into anything more complex, like Night's Black Agents. Esoterrorists 1e is a very much stripped down, basic version of the game, so good to get to grips with initially.

We were playing the starting scenario in the game with three players. Rather than muddle about with the default setting of the Ordo Veritatis, we used the Delta Green background setting, bringing it forwards to 2007 so that we can make use of the starter scenario in Esoterrorists. In future, I would probably prefer to continue to use Delta Green rather than the Ordo Veritatis, as it is simply a better developed background. Esoterrorists reads like it was written with DG in mind, and could readily be employed for DG scenarios, if you get sick of BRP as a system.

So, first impressions. We all remarked on the lack of dice rolling, especially as we spent most of our first session in an almost purely investigative mode. It took no time at all to generate characters, and we built a scratch DG 'W' cell for a mission in Washington DC in less than 30 minutes. We have a retired CIA assassin now working as an antiques dealer, a history professor, and a Boston police detective. I set up the first scene as a meeting with Agent Verity in the car park of Ronald Reagan airport in Washington.

Gumshoe in its purest form is VERY investigation focused, more than BRP, which is the system I have tended to use historically for running Call of Cthulhu. The scenario is not an easy one, especially if you are dealing with experienced players who can circumvent many of the obstacles a less veteran troop would encounter. Plus, as a DG cell, with DG's contacts and resources, they are ideally suited to a high level investigation of the sort we were dealing with.

There is much less dice rolling in a Gumshoe game - the investigative skills allow for players to pick up most of the core clues they need fairly easily. Where points are being spent from skill pools, they are adding to the core findings - e.g. whether the blood in a bath is more than the quantity one would expect from a single person (Forensic Anthropology). The interpersonal skills, like Bureaucracy, Cop Talk, Bullsh!t Detector, and Flirting all got plenty of use, and as a CoC GM is was pretty easy to call for them rather than ask for Fast Talk or Persuade rolls. Data Retrieval is also a great skill for investigators in this kind of environment, and abstracts what would otherwise be time-consuming rolls on Computer Use.

The discipline for the GM is to be ready to wave things through, rather than instinctively put up obstacles. Gumshoe does not have that philosophy at all. It is like playing Dungeons and Dragons, but letting the party force the door automatically. Assume they don't need to roll - the only question is how much noise they make doing it.

I think we're starting to get our heads around the basics now. We have not finished the adventure yet, and it would be good to try out some more of the general skills in the second half, just from a road test perspective, but as we get more familiar with the skill list and with what skills can do, we will be better prepared for something like Night's Black Agents, with its additional crunch. More on Gumshoe once we have finished the adventure...

Monday, 27 October 2014

We play Battles for Empire

Following on from my last post, I am play testing the Battles For Empire rules by Chris Leach. I am using the first edition of the game, largely just to give it a go and see whether it might become my new default battle rules for the Zulu War. Previously, we've had forays with a Legends of the Old West variant, and The Sword and The Flame, by Larry Brom. Incidentally, I'm using a Larry Brom scenario, 'The Kraal', the give these rules a dry run.

I will be endeavouring to chronicle the progress of this battle on a post-by-post basis for the rest of half term, and hopefully it will be played to a conclusion.

The Setting

A British punitive expedition has been sent to burn the kraal of a Zulu chief who has been raiding across the Tugela river and attacking Imperial supply convoys for the main army already operating in Zululand. The British commander's objective is to destroy all three huts in the kraal, signalling irreparable damage to the Zulu base. He must do this in at least 10 turns (I am setting a maximum 14 turn game limit, but each turn after 10 there is a chance the game will end). He must avoid losing four units in the course of the battle.

The British have the following:

  • Three units of Regular, 1st Rate Infantry
  • Two units of Green Natal Native Contingent, 3rd rate Infantry (I'm not running these as Zulus for this battle, but as Regulars, but Green ones and 3rd rate shots)
  • One unit of Regular Dragoons, 1st Rate Cavalry
  • One unit of Colonial Volunteers, 2nd Rate Skirmish Infantry
In addition, the British column has the Colonel as its CinC, and a Colonial officer in charge of the NNC units. It also has two ammo mules.

The Zulus are split into the traditional horns of the buffalo command structure. They have a total of 15 units of warriors to bring to the party, of which two are armed with rifles and muskets. They have ONE unit of white shields which I have rated as Elite, representing the chief's personal retainers and household warriors.

British column on the march, led by dragoons and local scouts.

The Zulus must prevent their kraal from being burned, or take out at least four units from the invading column.

Part of the objective for this game is to get a clear grasp of the rules via a leisurely walk through, but also get an estimate of when enough Zulus are enough for a regular game of BFE. Most of the scenarios in the book seem written for slightly bigger tables than I have, so I have scaled back the total number of figures appropriately. Plus, I think 15 units would be sufficient for most of the battles in the Colonial Campaigns scenario book I have purchased for the Zulu War.

Onto the action now...


In this scenario, the column deploys up to 24" onto the table. Some units have yet to enter. The British are brigaded as a multi-unit formation. Two Boer scouts lead the way, in case any Zulus ended up getting into the donga early. I put the dragoons at the head of the column, followed by the British regulars with the NNC and ammo mules bringing up the rear. I'm not sure what benefits the column formation brings in BFE, but the imperials are presumed to be in march formation anyway at this stage of the scenario. The colonial rifles are already in skirmish formation and off to the right of the column in case Zulus attack off the ridge. All Zulu forces begin off the table.

Turn #1

The British won initiative and marched confidently onto the field, heading for the kraal. The Zulus then rolled three units of regulars from the chest formation, entering from the opposite edge of the table. With them is the induna in command of the chest. He brigaded them into a multi-unit formation, and they began wading through the mealie field to their front.

Turn #2

The British won initiative again, electing to go first, and moving their forces towards the donga. All of their troops are now on the table. At this stage the Zulus were still too far away to be spotted, plus most of them were in the mealie field. BFE has a maximum 36" spotting distance at this scale. One British unit is the equivalent of an infantry company.

First wave - Zulu chest unis advance through mealie field.

The Zulus roll again, this time getting the left horn of their buffalo, and three units of regulars, including one with rifles. The Zulu player elected to bring on the left horn commander. Unfortunately, his troops arrived behind the chest unit, with the Zulu warriors trailing them into the melee. An expensive waste of time with the enemy getting ever closer.

So, at this stage, we have the British approaching the donga. The Zulus have moved to the second deployment table in the rules, as they have units from one of the horns on the table. Six Zulu units are on the table in two formations, along with two commanders.

Tune in later this week to find out what happens next...

Monday, 13 October 2014

Another venture into Zululand?

This blog has been sadly silent of late, largely because work has been so heinously busy, and showing little evidence of letting up. My efforts to finish my Realms of Cthulhu / Tour of Darkness cross-over adventure have been shelved yet again, although I'm about 90% there. Still, work is getting more and more interesting every week, so no complaints there.

With half term soon upon me, I'm pondering whether to play some miniature wargames with the kids, to help them fill time rather than kicking their heels in front of Minecraft or I Carly. Instead I will seek to twist arms into a possible play test of the colonial era miniatures rules, Washing The Spears.

WTS is a battalion level set of rules for the Anglo Zulu War of 1879. I've been working to expand my collection of figures in this area, with more Zulus and Boers and my first gatling gun. I fear I am still light on Zulus and seemingly can't resist the temptation of add more units to the British force rather than making sure the Zulus enjoy the 3-1 numerical advantage they need.

I am using the Larry Brom scenario, 'The Kraal', which appeared in The Sword and The Flame scenario portfolio in 2000. This may be played simply using classic TSTF, or with WTS, or indeed with both. The British objective is to burn the Zulu kraal in a punitive action. The Zulu impi simply has to stop them.

For this battle I've been experimenting with a new approach to hills, using old PS2 boxes to model the two long ridges topped with brush that feature in this scenario. Sadly, they are not immediately obvious in the photos, but they are very clear to the human eye. NB: the thorn wall around the kraal was not finished when these photos were taken. You can also see the dry donga (riverbed) which is a big feature of this battle, and which offers concealment for Zulu units which make use of it.

Note PS 2 boxes being used to create the ridge at the bottom left.

I am also tinkering with the Zulu deployment, using a system that draws from Washing the Spears and Force on Force. The Zulus have 12 'hot spots' along the edge of the battlefield, with a 20% chance on the first turn of 1d3 units appearing on a random location. They get a free 2d6 inch move straight onto the battlefield, or can choose to remain concealed, letting the luckless British get a bit closer.

British entry edge on the right hand side.

More on this as and when I get to play it...

Thursday, 25 September 2014

13th Age - final analysis

After playing through a fairly extensive series of sessions using 13th Age characters, I thought I'd add my summiation of the game system as experienced so far. I should emphasise at this point that this review is being written from the perspective of a player, not a GM. I would add, however, that 13th Age fits the bill of 4th edition Dungeons &and Dragons 'done right', just as Pathfinder, despite its complexity, is probably a better riff on 3rd edition DandD. Heck, I don't think I'd ever consider running or playing DandD 4.0 now - 13th Age is a superior product, which I would like to try out from the other side of the referee's screen at some point in the future.

So, let's get on with my observations:


13th Age is a roleplaying game, but what do I mean by this? I mean that there are mechanics that involve roleplaying. It is not a glorified skirmish wargame. It is not just about fighting and killing monsters. It is also about who your character is. What is his / her One Unique Thing? What makes them special? Why should the campaign be focused on this little group of adventurers rather than any others? Why do they have the potential to be legends? The skill system has also been streamlined and melded into the background, letting the players decide what their non-combat skills might be as a consequence of what they did before. Hence, 'Pirate +1' can cover a host of things, from sailing and navigation, to chatting to sea dogs down at the docks, plus we know you used to be a pirate in your past, and the GM can bring in elements to the story that could draw on that background. Is that the sound of your old comrade Blind Pew making his way up to the Admiral Benbow inn?

You need to do your homework on your character

Like 4.0, you need to keep focused on what your character can do. Each class in the basic game is like an entire sub-game in itself. I played a Rogue, a Barbarian and a Bard, and each is radically, radically different. Even within each class, there can be builds which can take you off into a totally different direction. There is plenty of meat here for players without the need for additional splat books. But, it means you have to concentrate in a battle in order to maximise your abilities. It is easy to miss an opportunity - if it is not your turn to act, it pays to stay focused on what the other party members are doing and what the opposition is doing. Some characters have out of turn abilities that can react to others' actions. The downside: it is hard to run two PCs at the same time, there is quite a lot to stay on top of. Playing Savage Worlds, you can run a whole squad of GIs quite easily, but not in 13th Age.

A 13th Age GM needs to think on his feet...but players get story input

Icon relationships mean players can align themselves with the great powers of the game world, in a positive or negative way. This makes the game much more political, and gives it an epic feel that is lacking in many games. You feel that what your characters are doing is important, and will affect the delicate balance of power in the campaign world. It also means you can control the story to a degree. I am a fan of the Adventure Cards in Savage Worlds, which do something similar. The icons dice in 13th Age kept coming into play in a big way, helping us to overcome obstacles, find magic items, source help and information and indeed drive the course of the plot. But, caveat emptor, it requires a GM who can think on his feet and build a story on the fly. If you are a GM who likes pre-published material which you can run out of the box, 13th Age may not be the game for you, unless you drop the icon dice mechanic completely, which would be a shame.

Player characters don't feel too far!

We played until our PCs were 4th level. 13th Age has 10 levels, so in power terms this probably equates to 8th level in Pathfinder. At this point in their evolution, I felt they were still being considerably challenged by encounters, and indeed we lost one character KIA at 3rd. However, IMHO, Pathfinder really only begins to break down at around 12th level, which would be 6th in 13th Age. It remains to be seen how the game behaves at higher levels. The spell throwers in 13th Age don't feel as powerful as in Pathfinder, or even in 5.0; hence the game may suit those who prefer a slightly lower magic environment. I reckon you could even run this in a setting like Fritz Leiber's Nehwon.

The Dragon Empire - make of it what you will.

The campaign world is an interesting one. Obviously, the icons play a big part in it, but because it is new and does not have copious amounts of detail, it is easy for GMs to make of it what they will. I think this is a hugely important issue, because the players have more control of the story, and can inject their own ideas into the campaign the minute they dream up their One Unique Thing. You need a world with just high level detail because the players will be re-drawing the map from the start. Running 13th Age in a highly detailed world like the Forgotten Realms could prove more difficult, unless you are prepared to re-write much of the canon.

Battles take less time.

In an average session of Pathfinder, let's say 3-4 hours, you will be lucky to play through three encounters. In 4.0, perhaps two. Battles in 13th Age are much quicker, with the capability to get through 3-4 encounters in an evening with ease. This feels more like the good old days of 1.0, before things got too crunchy. They are still exciting, still challenging, and because of the story driven elements, should still be of importance. Part of this is thanks to the escalation die mechanic, which prevents fights from dragging on, as the advantage gradually shifts in favour of the heroes. Yes, we ran into the odd wandering monster, but most of the time there was a good reason to be fighting the people we were fighting.

Magic items need more work.

I've already beefed about 13th Age magic items on this blog. I'm not sure I like the way they work so far. They are meant to affect the personalities of the character, but really, there are no mechanics in the game to make this happen, and while some players threw themselves into the additional role-playing elements offered by the magic items we acquired, others largely ignored them. Magic items are not as prolific in 13th Age as they are in Pathfinder, and harder to make / acquire. Potions seem to be freely trafficked however, but are less potent given the inherent recovery abilities character possess. My PC owned some elven leather armour which provided him with a +1 bonus, which I could understand - it was elven armour after all, superior to mere human armour. But would it really mess with his head too, particularly as he was a reptile with non-mammalian physiognomy? I have the glimmerings of an idea about how semi-permanent items could be unique and perhaps provide players with some of the abilities of classes not represented in the party. For example, a wand of healing could provide the same ability as the cleric's Heal ability (cf 13th Age, p95), but perhaps with limited charges and usable only once per battle...?


I like 13th Age. Along with Castles & Crusades, it remains the game I would most likely run if the urge seized me to GM some traditional fantasy roleplaying. Is 13th Age traditional? Possibly not. It represents the latest iteration in a sequence of game design which has taken the world's favourite roleplaying game in a number of different directions since the end of 3.5. But it is an important one, and I believe it will hold its own with many groups against both Pathfinder and 5.0.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

13th Age - the summing up

Rarity - teller of lost legends
So at last we come to the summing up of our campaign and of the 13th Age games system. IIRC, we reached fourth level in 13th Age, which is the equivalent of eighth level in, say, Pathfinder terms. It may be that we resume the campaign at some point in the future. I hope so.

What follows are my impressions of the game, having played at least 40 to 50 man hours of it. I've done more than crack open the book and look at the shiny pictures! I've earned my stripes, from the depths of the Elf Queen's lizard-haunted forests to the automaton-guarded tunnels of High Rock, floating thousands of feet above Horizon.

The story telling aspects of 13th Age are brilliant. One of my criticisms of Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons 4.0 were that there were no real role playing mechanics embedded in the rules. Having been exposed to Exalted and Savage Worlds, I felt there was something missing in 4.0 when it first came out. 13th Age addresses this lack of roleplaying mechanics with its system of character backgrounds and its icon relationships.

There are no alignments in 13th Age, so no detect evil. With Pathfinder I increasingly find myself defaulting to Neutral or Lawful Neutral or Chaotic Neutral, as this gives the character the most flexibility outside extremes of behaviour. There is no strict moral code you need to adhere to. Business can be conducted in a nebulous grey area.

For example, we are playing an occasional Pathfinder campaign at home now, and both the PCs are Neutral (one is a Lawful Neutral  War Priest, the other a Neutral Drow Gunslinger). In 13th Age, you define your character's relationships with the Great Powers of the campaign world. This replaces your alignment, and introduces the icon dice as storytelling mechanics you or the GM can bring in during the session. Sure, there were times when I rolled a '6' with one of my icons and simply burned it to find a magic item associated with that icon, but at other times my positive relationship with the Prince of Shadows helped to provide transport (e.g. a crew of smugglers to sail a boat) or information (to enable us to blackmail a magistrate, for instance).

The icons mechanic does sometimes need your GM to stay on his toes and be able to respond to sudden twists in the campaign plot, for example when we decided to help the Blue escape from its geas, making Shadow Port an instant focal point for the next session. This is not a game for rigid plot structures, and I'm not sure whether 13th Age is a game for very localised adventures - it plays more like the sort of epic tale you find in three volumes on the fantasy book shelves at Waterstone's. I feel like I've just reached the end of volume 1. A referee probably needs to be comfortable with 'winging' it from time to time.

The One Unique Thing aspect of your character is inspired, as it forces you to add plot elements into the campaign which the GM can riff from. We had a pirate bard with knowledge of lost treasure, the only red dragonborn, a tiefling barbarian who remembered forgotten legends, a wizard possessed by the devil and a warforged who could see through the fabric of reality. It made for a memorable and colourful combination of characters who were really starting to find their feet by the time we hit 4th level. I'm not even going to discuss the Dragon Empire's semi-pro tavern brawl league, which became setting flavour dreamed up by one or two players.

Each class in 13th Age is like a mini game unto itself, which does make it harder, much harder, to play another player's chatacter when he / she is away. This is also the case with Pathfinder at higher levels (say 12+), to the extent that sometimes the characters of absent players just had to sit out the session, guarding wagons or foraging or somesuch mundane activity. Focus is needed to get the most out of your character. I suspect I failed to make the most of the Swashbuckling feature of the rogue at times.

Speaking for the rogue in the main, but also to an extent for the bard and the barbarian, I felt that some talents were no-brainers; they were powerful, and you really needed to have them, while others were really of less import. Luckily, you can dump talents that you're not using in favour of the more powerful ones you acquire as you level. Having said that, my rogue was still regularly making use of talents at 4th level that he acquired at chargen stage.

The game seemed to avoid some of the silliness of Pathfinder (e.g. the ability to summon rampaging woolly rhinoceri at the wave of a hand, detect evil, detect magic, etc.) We didn't end up 'tooled up' to the extent a typical Pathfinder party would be by 8th level. The game also limits the number of permanent magic items you can carry (something of an articifical constraint). I think more work needs to be done on magic items - the items we recovered were meant to influence our personalities as well, but there are no mechanics for this. In our Pathfinder Carrion Crown story arc, my cleric Veneticus was carrying a powerful magical artefact that was effectively played by another player and on occasion did seek to influence his behaviour (luckily Veneticus' high Will save precluded this). I think mechanics are needed to make 13th Age magic items more personal. I will think on this further, as I feel magic items could add considerably to 13th Age games.

Overall, I really enjoyed 13th Age. It is a vast improvement on 4.0 Dungeons and Dragons, and while Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet claim that it is an amalgamation of the best of 3.0 and 4.0, there is little of the 3.0 I can see in here. It feels more like 'son of 4.0' and very much the Alexander of Macedon to 4.0's Philip II. I really can't see myself ever playing 4.0 again, unless I was looking for a very combat focused solution. I shall, however, keep my 4.0 books for nostalgia's sake, next to my original copy of the Fiend Folio.

13th Age is written in a very engaging style, and contrasts directly with the dense content of Pathfinder, which sometimes felt like the corpus of a European Union directive rather than a game. That's not to say that my kids don't still love Pathfinder and want to play it, which they do, but then they've had little experience of much else. If I were going to run a Dungeons and Dragons style game now, I'd probably reach for 13th Age.

Caveat emptor - we have just started playing 5.0, of which I will write more in a future post, including how I feel it compares with 13th Age. But suffice to say I'm now backing the 13th Age Glorantha Kickstarter, which offers some very interesting synergies indeed! More on that anon...

Thursday, 11 September 2014

13th Age - of shadows, mazes and talking dogs

Last time, our 13th Age party lost its Bard, Jordan Young, who was beheaded by a barbarian (a bit like Saint Denis really). The survivors of this bloody contest decided it was time to leave town with the wooden box that we believed was the source of the geas that bound the Blue to the service of the Emperor. This turned out to be easier said than done, as strange shadow creatures emerged from, to way lay us. It quickly became apparent that they were part and parcel of the city's defences. Not only that, but Shadow Port also had the uncanny ability to move streets around, making our efforts to reach the edge of town null and void (something like Brighton & Hove Council, in fact).

How the permanent residents manage to put up with the regular re-jigging of their streets is anyone's guess (I'm talking about Shadow Port here, but the same goes for Brighton). Our navigation was made harder by assaults from yet more shadows, forcing us to take to the roof tops in our bid for freedom. Eventually we were compelled to seek refuge with a priest who used talismans to keep out the shadows (and lamps too...obviously). We suspected he might be a cultist of a sleeping sea god with a strange, tentacled face, but he seemed affable enough and ready to help.

We also decided to try to accomplish our mission by destroying the wooden pyramid, but having done so, Sartheen didn't feel particularly different. Had the geas been lifted? There was a long discussion about this which went largely nowhere.

Taking the priest's advice, we decided to head for a tower in town belonging to a wizard called Hallas, in the hopes that he might be able to advise us (we felt we'd exhausted the priest's store of knowledge by this stage). En route, we were attacked by an odd fellow in black armour made from cured hobbit skin, with a flaming green skull where his head should be. I seem to recall that there was a suspicion he may have been sent by the Lich King to kill one of the party members with whom the LK had unsettled business. This was not Sartheen, hence the details are a bit fuzzy...

Our dynamic assailant became the victim of what is technically termed hideously poor dice rolling by the GM, from which our GM luckily suffers quite regularly, even more than me. A battery of low rolls left our undead attacker nothing but a vacant suit of armour lying in the street. Said armour was appropriated for us, but ethical qualms remain about its provenance. Sartheen stuck with his elven leather armour, which is quite nice, thank you.

After that somewhat random attempt at mugging, we proceeded to Hallas' tower, where, following no response to knocking, shouting and ringing of door bell, we entered. Here, Sartheen revealed - again - that 13th Age rogues are not necessarily the best spotters of traps, as he triggered one after another fire traps on the stairs of the tower. This is something anyone coming to 13th Age from Pathfinder needs to bear in mind. Rarity took over trap finding duties, but this still didn't prevent Sartheen from triggering another.

At the top of the tower, we confronted Hallas, who seemed a bit vague, other than to tell us to s*d off. He didn't seem interested in helping us. Indeed, he also had a talking dog which threatened us too. All very rude. Eventually this discourse degenerated into a fight, as by this stage the party was tired, hungry, down a man, and just keen to get out of Shadow Port by any means necessary. We didn't bargain with the tower being attacked by a shadow beast the size of a mansion, or Hallas being 'inadvertently' killed by one of our spell slingers (I can't remember who, but think it might have been Amras). As it turned out, Hallas was the key to the geas, being the anchor to the Arch Mage's spell. He was not really a wizard at all, more a simulacrum, as far as I understood it. Ho hum, anyway, the Hallas 'thing' checked out, as did the shadow beast (did I mention our GM's propensity for rolling '1'?)

With the tower collapsing like the proverbial James Bond secret base, it was time to scoot out of Shadow Port before someone asked any probing questions. Before leaving, we discovered a statue that turned out to be a petrified half orc paladin (who must have asked Hallas directions or some other such appalling sin). We revivified him, and high tailed it. Sensibly, he came with us.

The city was still making stringent efforts to prevent us leaving, and we had to run down some more shadows before exiting its precincts. Once out of there, we were faced with going back to the portal, which led to the Blue (not a prospect relished by Sartheen or anyone else for that matter), or finding some other way off the island that Shadow Port sits on. Luckily Sartheen, a former member of the Shadow Port thieves' guild, recalled that some smuggler friends of his had been executed a while back without anyone bothering to retrieve their boat (a 6 on his Prince of Shadows relationship dice, although after the events in this chapter, I'm thinking he'll need to revise that relationship from friendly to ambiguous at the very least, while his standing with the Three may well have been augmented).

We finished this arc of the campaign with our hardy heroes sailing to Glitterhaegen. It seemed like a good place to pause, as the summer holidays were upon us, and there were dark mutterings about test driving 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, which was due out in August.

That's it in a nutshell really. I will include my thoughts on 13th Age in a future post, but hope that we will be able to resume the campaign at some point in the future. Bear in mind, of course, that this all began as a test of the rules using the published scenario in the rule book, and you can see how we have been able to run with the story telling elements in the game. But that's a discussion for another time.