Friday, 30 May 2014

We play Middle Earth Quest

It's half term and in an effort to tear the kids away from Minecraft, and to play some of the board games I have gathering dust, I proposed an all afternoon session of Middle Earth Quest from Fantasy Flight Games.

MEQ feels a lot like a cross between two other FFG creations, namely Fury of Dracula, and Runebound. One player takes the role of Sauron and his evil minions, while the rest are adventurers, patrolling Middle Earth and seeking to foil Sauron's plots.

The game takes place between Bilbo's departure from the Shire for Rivendell at the start of the Fellowship of the Ring, and Frodo's eventual flight. This is not about taking the One Ring to Mount Doom, but stopping Sauron from achieving his objectives early. The heroes are not the heroes of the books, but completely new adventurers. In our game we had an aristocrat from Gondor (Eleanor) and a ranger of the North (Berevor), although their paths never crossed. Eleanor spent most of her time in Gondor, Harad and Mordor, while Berevor adventured in Eriador and Mirkwood.

The Sauron player has minions to carry out his orders, like the Mouth of Sauron and the Witch King of Angmar. In addition, as in Fury of Dracula, he can place monsters that are keyed to regions (no Mumakil in the Shire) to provide further obstacles to the Heroes. Unlike Fury, he can move these around. A mechanic has also been borrowed from Fire and Axe: the game is split into three phases, with events and plots evolving according to which phase you are in. This can create situations very reminiscent of the early stages of the Fellowship of the Ring, for example we had Gandalf and Saruman meeting for a conclave in Isengard towards the end of the game.

Characters from the books do show up in locations to provide limited support to the heroes, but they are not the focus of the game. Boromir, for example, cropped up a couple of times, meeting with Eleanor while on a secret mission to Umbar, and later seeing her again in Minas Tirith.

Sauron tries to win by seeding plots in  Middle Earth - for example, I placed an agent in the court of King Dain in Erebor and laid siege to Osgiliath with my Easterling allies. These score victory points as long as the plot is extant. The heroes should seek to dispose of these by using Favour tokens they pick up from a variety of sources. Every turn, the heroes score 2 VPs, so it is important that Sauron tries to outscore them. For comparison, I started the game with a single plot, the Hunt for the Ring, which scores Sauron +1VP for the Ring every turn. Plots can also be political or military in nature and have separate scores for progress in these areas.

My strategic mistake was simply not investing enough in my Shadow Pool. This is a pool of points Sauron uses to power cards and plots. I ended up using weak cards, weak plots as a result, and one of the adventurers (my daughter) lit early on the tactic of reducing the Shadow Pool at any opportunity, hence making life much harder for the Dark Lord. Luckily, the heroes did not really focus that much on tackling my plots. But they were paltry at the best of times.

Each side has a secret mission at the beginning of the game, and in this one both heroes spent a lot of time working towards their mission, which was sensible. Theirs was to kill all but two of my minions. I began to realise this was the case after two attempts on the Black Serpent, my Southron general in Osgiliath. Luckily this was foiled because he was screened by deadly Mumaks, one useful way to use monsters to stop heroes taking down minions. Sadly, the Mouth of Sauron, after coordinating the search for Gollum west of Mirkwood, was ambushed and taken down by that rascal Berevor. Gothmog, my orc general in Mount Gundabad, was treacherously attacked while travelling to Dol Guldur to take charge there. Although badly wounded, he survived the game. The same can not be said for the Witch King...

The combat system in MEQ is card based. Each hero has their own deck of combat cards which they use for travelling, for fighting, and in a neat mechanic, for tracking fatigue and wounds. It could almost form the basis of an RPG itself, and my son was particularly taken with it. It is faintly reminiscent of the combat system in the RPG Burning Wheel. Each round, a player selects a particular move - e.g. Poison Arrow or simply Smash! This inflicts damage on your opponent but also provides you with a degree of defence (or none at all in some cases). Some moves also provide special advantages if the opponent does something in particular. Most tactics also have a Strength score - once your total number of cards played exceeds your STR, you become exhausted, and the other size tries to pummel you to death before they run out of puff (this is what happened to the Witch King when he fought Berevor).

Heroes can also access a common pool of combat cards by training in havens (e.g. Rivendell), and are also able to buff their attributes through completing quests and chin wagging with the famous names in Middle Earth. Minions and monsters use different combat decks depending on their fighting style - a Mumak fights differently, and more dangerously, than crebain from Dunland, for example.

I liked MEQ. It is a BIG game, with loads of cards, some excellent miniatures (which I'm tempted to paint) and a sprawling board. I like this type of game, and sadly don't get enough time to play things like this. But luckily my kids are getting old enough to enjoy this sort of thing and have time to humour me. I would certainly play it again, and now I'm more familiar with the rules, I'm sure it will move more quickly. I'd like the opportunity to try out the other side of the game, as a hero, to see how that plays, because it looks like it could be a completely different experience from being Sauron. I would still suggest allotting four hours for this beast, but for my part, feel like it is the next best thing to sitting down for a session of The One Ring.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Robert E. Howard's horror stories

Of late I've been reading a collection of the horror tales of Robert E. Howard, who is most famously known as the creator of Conan the Cimmerian. The stories have been somewhat of a revelation to me. I have written on this blog previously about how some of Howard's historical tales were re-written by L. Sprague de Camp to satisfy an appetite for more Conan escapades from the deceased master. Hence, his story Hawks Over Egypt became Hawks Over Shem, with Conan being swapped in for the Spanish protagonist of the original tale.

Howard liberally plundered ancient history for much of his inspiration, and it was only after I completed an A-level in Ancient History that I began to realise just how many of the seemingly original names and civilizations of Howard's Hyborian epoch had been liberally transplanted from Herodotus and other ancient sources. The more familiar I myself became with the original civilizations, and having spent time in the Middle East and further afield, the more extrinsic they seemed in Howard's work.

The first thing one notices when reading through a range of Howard's horror fiction is how flexible he was as a writer. He was trying to make a living writing for editors serving a particular market for fiction, in the days before television. Hence, like screen writers today, he had to produce what sold. Indeed, if he were born 50 years later, perhaps he would have ended up in Hollywood, which would have been a waste of a great talent.

Howard was a correspondent of H.P. Lovecraft, and at times he seeks to emulate Lovecraft and import elements of his Mythos into his tales. Perhaps the most obvious is the Black Stone, but even here, the story is blessed by salacious elements which Lovecraft would likely have shied away from. Other stories, like Skull Face and Names in the Black Book are obviously targeted at the pulp adventure and detective market.

Reading a range of stories, it is also obvious how Howard matured as a writer. Earlier horror stories, like his werewolf tale Wolfshead (1925) are a far cry from Pigeons From Hell (1938) which has been singled out by none other than Stephen King as arguably one of the greatest horror short stories of the 20th century. The Fire of Asshurbanipal (1936) is another superb tale, mixing elements of Lovecraft with Howard's love of two-fisted action. And indeed, I would not be surprised if it served as the inspiration for some of the 1999 film, The Mummy. Brendan Fraser's character in the film could easily be Howard's Steve Clarney.
Tim Bradstreet's Steve Clarney

For all Howard's love of swords and sorcery tales, he really comes into his own when writing about his home state of Texas. His story Skull Face, which is set in 1920s London, does not feel like London at all. Not only is it obvious that the writer has never set foot in London, but he shies away from describing specific streets or landmarks. It becomes a very generic 20th century metropolis, but exhibits no obvious characteristics of the British capital.

On the other hand, some of Howard's horror tales of Texas and the Deep South smack of the writer's knowledge and familiarity with the people, the flora and the fauna. In particular, stories like the Horror From The Mound, Fangs of Gold, Graveyard Rats and Black Wind Blowing all serve to bring to life a region that Howard knew well, and the sorts of tough, no-nonesense men who farmed ranches there between the wars. Just as Lovecraft used New England as an evocative setting for his mystery stories, so Howard knew his Texas and could make it more than credible on the page.

However, I particularly like the two protagonists from Pigeons From Hell, one a hiker from New England of Puritan stock (Griswell), and other the local sheriff (Buckner). Could they be a pastiche of Howard and Lovecraft? I leave you with a description of Howard / Buckner from this story, which is a magnificent piece of genre fiction:

The rider, etched in the moonlight, looked down at him, smoking pistol still lifted in his right hand. He was a compactly-built man of medium height, and his broad-brimmed planter's hat and his boots marked him as a native of his country as definitively as Griswell's garb stamped him as a stranger...

Saturday, 24 May 2014

13th Age - The Paladin's Diary

We pick up our story as the party heads north towards the Grey Towers, mysterious ruined strongholds of elvish provenance perched on the rocky north coast of the continent. They seek a vessel to help them begin the quest for Jordan Young's trease in the isles beyond the eastern horizon.

En route they stumble across a tent, in which lies the dessicated body of Athraz, a questing paladin of the Great Gold Wyrm. Searching his possessions they find his diary, in which he speaks of being mortally wounded by a mysterious guardian in one of the high elf towers, which was defending the 'pit of bones'. Mystery surrounds why the elves abandoned their coastal fortresses in the 12th Age, and even Amras, beloved diplomat of the court of the Elf Queen, is in the dark.

Approaching the first of the towers, the most westerly, our heroes dismount and scout the tower from the safety of nearby woodland. Eventually Sartheen is persuaded to scout closer and comes under attack in the open from a statue near the entrance of the tower, which seeks to kill him with an energy beam. Taking cover again, he and his comrades approach the tower from an oblique angle and gain entry by using the faster party members to draw fire while the others charge into the tower as the statue recharges.

The first tower is in disrepair. The guardian statue is destroyed by Amras and the adventurers explore the interior. Neon, the war forged sorceror, feels there is something wrong, something missing. A stairway is discovered leading down to an underground harbour, where the heroes encounter some sahuagin who have taken over the caverns as their lair. They claim it as their territory and profess no knowledge of a guardian or the artefact Athraz was seeking. The party retreat to the surface and resume their journey eastwards to the next tower.

This building has been cut off from the mainland by erosion, and now a sea girt chasm blocks access. Sartheen uses a rope and grapple to get most of the party across. Amras uses a mage hand ritual to float Neon across, as there are fears he may plunge into the sea. The ritual is miscast, and Neon ends up floating over the ground when he reaches the other side.


The guardian statues have been destroyed. The party explores the ruined tower and finds a room full of the bones of ancient dragonborn warriors. They are attacked by a banshee but manage to defeat it. Sartheen finds a helm made out of a dragonborn skull. He puts it on his head and finds himself in a pillared temple with views over a city, which looks like Drakkenhall. A dragonborn priest in a robe becomes aware of him and engages him in conversation. Sartheen is deliberately evasive when questioned as to his location, and eventually claims to be at an inn in Concord. He then takes the helm off.

The party leave the tower and proceed east to its next cousin. Here the presence of more guardian statues encourages them to attach a rope to Neon, still floating, and use him to climb up the side of the tower. He is surprised by three banshees that come through the wall of the tower and attack the party. Both Neon and Amras use their destructive powers to great effect in stopping the banshee, but the effort leaves them exhausted.

Following this battle, the party decides to camp before returning to the tower.

NB - Apologies if I have left anything out. This was three weeks ago, so happy to be corrected.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Desert Island RPGs

If I had to move house, say to the Cayman Islands, and hypothetically had to get rid of my large stock of games, or could only take a small number with me to the Caribbean, what would they be? I've decided to limit myself to a short list of five.

Starting at number five, we have King Arthur Pendragon. I've played this game on and off since the very early 1990s, when my brother ran a campaign using the second edition of the game. I have played it more recently as well. If an RPG could be described as epic, then Pendragon is probably it. Greg Stafford has said it represents the pinnacle of his career as an RPG writer. I still don't feel I've properly got to grips with it, particularly the passions and personality traits part of it, but as a game it was so far ahead of the pack when it was first published, and even now it is laden with atmosphere and a sense of tragedy and destiny against the bloody backdrop of Arthur's campaign to unite the Britons. The classic Arthurian setting is also timeless and easy to sell to new players - everyone knows who the Knights of the Round Table are. I think it is important not to get side-tracked when playing this game: in our original campaign we deviated when we started delving into characters from other cultures (introduced in Knights Adventurous in 1990), while more recently the whole estate management sub-game began to feel a bit like playing Civilization with pen and paper. If the game stays focused on the acquisition of glory and living up to chivalric ideals, I think it can be fantastic. We've had talk in our group of starting a viking campaign using the Land of Giants (1996) supplement, which could be awesome. I'm also really sorry that the game seems to have lost much of its momentum recently - it would be great to see some of the old supplements back in print.

At number four we have Cold City. This would be a great game to take to a desert island, as it is so small, coming in an A5 booklet. Again, this is an easy concept for newbies to get to grips with: your are secret agents working in Berlin in 1950, seeking lost Nazi technology. It is a horror game, it is an investigative game, but it is so much more. It brings in mechanics for secret agendas and trust which I absolutely adore. And like Pendragon, there are personality mechanics here. Players have a great deal of control over who they want to be, and their actions in the adventure can also impact them, giving them new traits. Cold City has been modified by its successor game Hot War, which is also brilliant, and if I could fit both of them into my suitcase, I would. Cold City is fast to play. It is fairly abstract, so you don't get bogged down too much in combat. I've had a party generated and a mission played to completion in one four hour session. The background of Cold War Berlin and the developing tensions between the former wartime allies is also excellent, with a certain noir feel to it. Running this game makes me want to go off and watch The Third Man again. As with Pendragon, I felt in recent sessions we were just beginning to get to grips with some of the deeper mechanics, as this can be a game which looks simple on the surface, but has hidden depths. Players can exercise a degree of control over the plot, which is something we have really only started to do more of with our 13th Age games, but which is actively encouraged in Cold City. This is a game I can prep and run at very short notice should the need arise.

At number three is Savage Worlds. This is a generic game system which can be used to run a wide gamut of games. We've used it for pulp action scenarios (for which it is eminently suited), Wild West, and even for fast-paced fantasy action in the Eberron campaign world. I've even managed a large gothic horror skirmish game using these rules. It is the rules engine for the popular Deadlands game setting. The game's roots are in a tabletop miniatures game, namely Great Rail Wars, which was spun off the original Deadlands franchise (and which I still have not played). Savage Worlds favours the use of miniatures, but also incorporates cards and dice in its mechanics. Again, it is a great game for introducing newbies, as you can literally grab the setting that works for your group. Fancy running Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Victorian London? No problem. Star Trek crossover with Alien? Easy. Plus, this is a system which makes it very easy to manage bigger battles, including ones where the player characters have allied forces fighting with them. This can be a headache with some games, but not this one. SW also has add ons in the shape of setting companions which can be used if you are going to focus on a particular genre, like super heroes or science fiction, for example. Of all the RPGs I've played, this is arguably the most generic, and far easier to get your head around than GURPS. It plays a lot better with miniatures, although these are not essential.

At two we have Pathfinder. Currently, this is my go to set of rules for playing what might once have been called Dungeons and Dragons. This game assumed the tarnished crown of 3.5 when it breathed its last, and fought off the foul usurper 4.0. Heck, I've been playing DandD since I unwrapped the red box in 1983, and d20 since 2003. Right now, Pathfinder is still the best iteration, out of many, of this game on the market. Certainly there seem to be more people playing it than 4.0. Caveat emptor - these are heavy books. You really only need the core rules (pictured) and the first Bestiary (call it a Monster Manual if you will). If you're mad, like my group, you can go on to buy hardback after hardback as you seek to upgrade your game. However, I've found that the online Pathfinder SRD is a very useful reference tool, plus I use a reference app on iOS which includes 99% of the information contained in the hardbacks, in a format which it is easier to navigate. Finally, I've found HeroLab to be an awesome resource for running characters in this game, and it can be readily run on a laptop at the game table. Pathfinder is not an entry level game, in my view. It makes even Advanced Dungeons and Dragons look straight forward. Right now it is facing a challenger in the form of 13th Age, which we're currently playing regularly, and there is also the looming, monstrous bulk of 5.0 on the horizon in August. For the time being, however, if I was packing my bags for the Caymans, it would be the two core Pathfinder books, plus perhaps the GM's Guide which I'd be slinging into my battered hold all.

So, finally, my top must-have RPG for basking on Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman? It has to be Call of Cthulhu. Soon to be enter its new edition if Chaosium can get it out this year, CoC regularly appears at the top of surveys like this. Why not Trail of Cthulhu? Probably because I've not been able to run any Gumshoe games yet, or indeed play in any, other than a short session of Esoterrorists at Dragonmeet one year. Call of Cthulhu has many different aspects to appeal to the player - mystery, intrigue, tension, a setting which is readily accessible to newcomers, suicidal battles against an invincible enemy. I've run or played this game so many times now, I rarely need to consult the rules on anything, which is more than I can say for the other games on this list. I would say ToC, from what I've read of it, plays more like a classic H.P. Lovecraft scenario than CoC does, but CoC was published way back in 1981, and even then it was ground breaking. To have held its own for the next FOUR decades is an impressive feat. Only Dungeons and Dragons has had more longevity and popularity. Very little has been done to CoC over the years - you could play a scenario from 1982 using the rules as they appear in the current edition. I guess published Chaosium has taken the view that if it isn't broken, why fix it? Still, I couldn't help but feel there was something missing last time I ran this game. I think it is the absence of Drives as they appear in ToC more than anything else, and it makes me wonder whether I can house rule this into the CoC core rules. One to consider for a future post.

Which brings me to honourable mentions. Missing from this list are, notably, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Shadowrun. I've played both quite a bit, and enjoyed both, but if I was going to turn up on a desert island and try to put together a gaming group from scratch, these would not be the games I'd take. You need games that would be easy to explain to newcomers to the idea of tabletop roleplaying games, and neither of these games are that. Of the list above, only Pathfinder is perhaps harder to sell to the newcomer, and I've included that because you're more likely to find a Pathfinder gamer (or a former player of Dungeons and Dragons) in the Cayman Islands, Ghana or the South Pole than you are anything else.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Book of the month: H.P. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror

A young man stands on a wind-blown, benighted hillside, somewhere in New England. He focuses a camera on a tripod at a dark lake at the bottom of the hill. Across the lake, amongst the trees and undergrowth, something large moves...

So begins H.P.Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror, a graphic novel from IDW, written by Joe Lansdale with art by Peter Bergting. The story is really a sequel to the events in HPL's original short story, with Professor Armitage's grandson and some of his friends working together to banish a monster that has been summoned to earth.

There are many echoes here of the Edge of Darkness, one of the starter adventures which appeared in the 5th edition of the Call of Cthulhu RPG. A ritual gone wrong. A group of ordinary people caught up in a battle against time. Secrets of a previous generation of occultists waiting to be uncovered.

The plot revolves around a group of cynical and intelligent twenty-somethings as they tackle things that man was not meant to know, including the fearsome Necronomicon. This is most definitely a Cthulhu Mythos tale of the 21st century, but with echoes stretching back to the 1930s. Technology, from mobile phones to hacking, plays a part in the plot. And it is not only a sequel to the original tale, it also postulates how some of the 'facts' have been changed by Armitage / Lovecraft to cover up additional truths.

The whole tale resonates very much with the atmosphere and pace one might want to achieve with a CoC one shot adventure in the contemporary world and could probably serve as the inspiration for such.

The second part of the book is a reproduction of HPL's short story, 'The Hound', but this does not come from the same team and is a far, far inferior product. I guess it must be included here just to bulk out the book. It is really just a set of gloomy illustrations of the type that were popular with artists of a gothic bent in the 1990s, with the script of the story reproduced in a very hard to read font. You're better off reading the original.

I can't really say much more than this without spoilers, but it is worth a read if you can find a copy at a knock down rate.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

13th Age - whiter than wight

Come the end of a long May bank holiday weekend here in the UK and I've done very little gaming or blogging. Apart from the regular Friday session of 13th Age, I got my butt handed to me in Dawn Under, but that was about it. Excellent weather in Sussex meant I was encouraged to spend most of my time tackling the garden or lying on the beach, and highly enjoyable it was too. Decent weekend weather seems so rare in the UK that I feel the need to seize the opportunity when it appears.

I'm also very excited by the announcement by Wizards of the Coast that Battlesystem will be resurrected for the next edition of Dungeons and Dragons, rumoured to be released this summer. As readers of this blog will know, I've not only dabbled in fantasy wargaming over the last few years, but have also pondered how to include miniatures battles as part of an RPG campaign.

We again played 13th Age last week. The party had repaired to the elven court for rest and recuperation. While there, they prepared to take part in the retaliatory strike against the Three, which PC Amras, the elf wizard, had argued for in front of the Elf Queen's council. Having argued for it, of course, the party was then handed the job of carrying it out. In this particular case, it took the form of an assassination attempt on the mayor of a village controlled by the Three, who also happened to be a white dragon.

The prospect of going up against a dragon led to a quite lengthy planning session, which was somewhat reminiscent of my Shadowrun games in days of yore. We mined the elves for any intelligence they could provide on the town and its defences, which was limited. We knew the dragon had some hobgoblin bodyguards in place, and kept himself to himself for the large part. We also knew that he might be afraid of undead. Sartheen spent his icon roll for the Prince of Shadows to place an agent of the prince inside the settlement, actually a local merchant / fence.

All good planning sessions must come to an end eventually, and having blown about 30% of the session, we proceeded south on our mission. Amras had somehow leveraged his relationship with the High Druid to procure a tame white stage to use as bait for the dragon, and we'd also picked up a battle axe which we were going to claim was the original artefact Glazentorg, which the Three had sought to steal from the elves in the first place...

Arriving at the walled village, the party blagged itself inside by claiming to be on a mission to take Glazentorg to the Three. They booked in at the local inn, luckily avoiding a bar fight this time, and waited for Sartheen to touch base with his contact. The dragonborn learned that the white dragon had a gnome adviser who stayed in the town hall with him. Rather than wait to present the stag to the dragon in the morning, the party decided to strike under cover of darkness.

Amras used an illusion to make the party appear like a group of undead, then levitated them across to the roof of the town hall using a ritual (I'm still not entirely clear on how magic works in 13th Age - each class seems to have its own quite specific mechanics, and while I'm familiar with the Rogue and Barbarian, and to a lesser extent the Bard, I can't comment on the rest). Strange white mist was emerging through a large hole in the roof. The team decided to use ropes to abseil down into the room underneath and face whatever they found.

This turned out to be a white dragon, naturally. As ever at moments of extreme adventurer recklessness, this was about the time the GM started to roll quite badly, and Rarity's Curse of Chaos racial ability got an outing as the dragon choked on its own breath weapon. Sadly, Sartheen was rolling like a muppet, with a string of ones leaving him struggling to take down one of the hobgoblin bodyguards the dragon managed to call into the room. As a Rogue, once you lose momentum, many of your powers are inaccessible.

Jordan Young took a dragon claw to the face and got taken down to negative hit points - again, and was saved by a healing potion administered by Rarity - again. Powerful spells from Amras and Neon the warforged finally forced the dragon to reconsider its presence at the party and it tried to make a break for it, but failed as Amras nuked it with yet another combat spell. This is the second dragon the party has dispatched. With most of the hobgoblins dealt with, the team decided to leave the way they came, depositing the elven dagger they had been given as a message to the Three (Amras rammed it point first into a desk).

Rather than stick around for any retribution, the adventurers elected to leave by levitating to one of the township's walls and escaping into the night. It was at this point they realised they'd left the white stag in the inn's stables. Amras decided it would be better if this was retrieved, as otherwise the High Druid might throw a hissy fit if it fell alive into the hands of the Three. The party returned to the gates of the town, where they negotiated with the survivors of the hobgoblin garrison (who were all a little shell-shocked at the death of their boss), who duly returned it. Sartheen noticed the tatooed elven monk he'd met in the Queen's court lurking amongst the villagers.

The white stag was duly released back into the forest, and the group returned victorious to the elven court. It was now time to decide what to do next, and the topic of Jordan Young's lost treasure trove came up. Regular readers of this blog may know that the bard is the only survivor of an expedition to some unknown islands in the eastern sea. He also knows the location of a treasure trove there. Consequently, the team decided to head north, conveniently away from the Three, towards some ruins and the continent's chilly northern coast (the Grey Towers?) It is hoped that, despite the lack of major human settlement, a ship may be found there...

Next time I will hopefully have some cheat sheets produced for the Bard and the Barbarian to help with play in their absence.