Saturday, 25 June 2016

Free RPG Day and Dungeon World

Dungeon World - a nice surprise
Saturday was Free RPG Day. I've read a great deal about it, but this was the first time I have had the opportunity to actually turn up to a store that was actually running it. I went down to Dice Saloon in Brighton, which is a very nice venue for gaming, hanging out and drinking coffee (they also do nice toasted paninis). For the most part, Dice Saloon focuses on board games, Magic the Gathering, and some of the more popular miniatures games (e.g. Age of Sigmar and War Machine). However, on the 18th of June it hosted several RPGs in three slots, kicking off at 12.00 noon. Sadly, I didn't have time to stay all the way through to 11 in the evening, but I did book myself into a game of Dungeon World.

When I turned up, I also asked one of the guys working in the store whether there was any free swag. "Oh yes," he said, and reached under the desk to produce a huge box full of free RPG goodies. "Take whatever you want," he added, and left me to rummage through it.

This I duly did, scooping up a big pile of swag. Most of it is one-shot adventures, but there is some excellent material here, including previews of the Atlantis the Second Age role playing game, the Thule campaign setting (with a one shot for Dungeons and Dragons), the Faith science fiction RPG / card game hybrid, a one shot for Night's Black Agents, and even a Feng Shui adventure. I also managed to grab some Reaper bones. My cup runneth over, as my school chaplain used to say. I'm still sorting through everything I picked up.

As for Dungeon World, the game was surprising well-attended, with all slots filled and THREE spectators. I felt like I was playing blackjack in Vegas. At an adjoining table, there were three slots free in a Pathfinder game, but it was standing room only at Dungeon World.

I wanted to play Dungeon World because I have been hearing all sorts of amazing things about the system, originally given life with Apocalypse World. I have even bought Monster of the Week with a view to trying that out. My problem with any new system, and it was certainly the case with Savage Worlds and Gumshoe, is that I need to play the game or listen to it being played to really get a good grasp of it. I have listened to the guys at RPPR play MOTW in an actual play podcast, but I wanted to sit down and have a go at actually playing Dungeon World.

I have to say I was favourably impressed and can now see what all the fuss was about. The game presents pretty much all a player needs on four sides of A4, of which two are your character sheet (i.e. you never need to refer to the rule book as a player). It is very easy for newcomers to grasp. It is cheap to access - with only one book you are up and running, as are your friends. You don't need everyone to own an expensive hardback book. Character generation is very speedy, with a range of options presented on your sheet to choose from. It took us 15 minutes maximum to get a party together, with only one player having played DW previously.

The game features a mechanic called 'bonds' which really ties the party together. You have suggested bonds to one or more members of your party. For example, my barbarian, Bonebreaker, was worried about the risks the druid was taking and wanted to try to keep him out of trouble (with limited success, as it turned out, as the druid was burned to a crisp by a goblin shaman). Players introduce their characters, after which they go around the table again, using the bond options on their sheets to link themselves to the other PCs.

Each character has all his equipment packages presented up front - you just need to tick what you want. You can add important kit as you go along. Encumbrance is a factor, but it is highly simplified, although still relevant.

The core of the system is 'moves': some are specific to your character, some are generic. They help you to really feel you are playing your persona. For example, my barbarian had a move that kicked in if he was fulfilling one from a list of barbaric urges (pure destruction and the quest for fame and fortune being the obvious ones I opted for). You roll 2d6 and adjust according to bonuses which might be in place at the time. Some accrue to your rolls, some are simply added to your damage. On a result of 10+ you succeed, at 7-9 you succeed, but with consequences, and at 6 or less, something bad happens. When in a battle, that something bad is frequently being hit by the other side. The GM never rolls dice. If you fail to hit an enemy, he hits you. You then roll the damage and apply it to yourself. This is quite a revolutionary concept, but it does produce entertaining combats that are a far cry from the slugfests of Pathfinder.

For example, we had a fight with goblins (who I think were intended to chase us into a magic portal), which saw a paladin wrestling on the floor with one goblin, my barbarian tripping over them, and then being swarmed by four others (using his war cry move to distract them from the paladin), while the druid ended up knocking over the goblin shaman, causing his spell to go awry, but taking most of its damage to his face. All good clean fun.

Weapons have distinguishing characteristics, like 'messy' (my battle axe), which was able to dish out gratuitous damage to the goblins, but later in the game was used to partly block a spell cast against the party's bard by a lich we were hunting. Battles seem to go very smoothly in Dungeon World. There is very little nitty gritty involving attacks of opportunity, movement rates, flanking, etc. Plus, the characters also have moves obviously designed to reflect their lives and activities outside combat, which is always a selling point for me.

The templates for characters are not rigid - the options provide players with the opportunity to customise characters, while it still feels like the sort of persona you would expect for a barbarian or a ranger, for example. XP is earned by failing tasks, rather than succeeding in them, and 'levelling up' is also very simple - just add a new move from your menu once you reach 8 XP.

Like Gumshoe or Trail of Cthulhu, Dungeon World is one of those games which you really need to see played before the light comes on. It took me ages to get my head around Gumshoe, but once I did, I began to realise I would probably never go back to running Call of Cthulhu. I suspect Dungeon World may be another example of this. Part of its strength is its accessibility to newcomers to role playing, the way it can get people up and running very quickly with very little rules explanation. This is why it is winning so many recruits among younger gamers - there are no massive tomes to leaf through. Older gamers may be used to hefty rules tomes as the barrier to entry, but not necessarily younger newcomers. Around our table, there were three of us over 40, and the rest I would say were in their twenties, including the GM.

Dungeon World does not feel like a war game or a miniatures game. It is a role playing game, adopting many of the fun aspects of Dungeons and Dragons, but not getting bogged down in the number crunching. It is drawing new blood into the hobby, and this can only be a good thing. Give it a go if you get the chance.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Iron Heroes meets Conan?

I've recently taken to reading the Iron Heroes rules again. I played in a short campaign using these many years ago (2006 IIRC). Anyway, it was before 4e Dungeons and Dragons came out, namely 2008. Reading through it again, it strikes you quickly how so many of the novel concepts in Iron Heroes have since been picked up by not only 4e, but also 5e and 13th Age. As a system, it does not seem as revolutionary as it once was.

However, what I still like about it is the fact that a party of adventurers is not composed of any spell casters, there are NO clerics, no healing potions and you can graft a magic system onto it from another d20 / OGL gaming system.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have been on a quest for a good system of rules for typical swords and sorcery gaming. I am currently looking again at Barbarians of Lemuria, which is a very nice game. But I'd also like to make use of the extensive library of Conan RPG books I acquired from Mongoose Publishing, back when they had the license. The valuable aspect of the Mongoose Conan line is that they were written for d20 / OGL.

You can see where I'm going with this, can't you? It looks to me like it should be relatively simply to run Iron Heroes in Hyboria. Most of the NPC stats and equipment in the Conan books seem like they can be migrated readily into Iron Heroes, as can the magic system. Since such a scheme would involve PCs only playing non-spell casters, the Conan d20 Scholar and Priest classes can still be employed in an NPC role. In addition, the lack of PC spell casters means that you don't experience the power creep towards arcane and divine spell casters that tends to kick in with Pathfinder about 10th level.

I need to ruminate some more on this and possibly look at converting a Conan adventure to Iron Heroes, but given the similarity of Iron Heroes to other d20 games, this doesn't look like it will involve an enormous amount of work. More on this if I get the time to develop it further.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Post-apocalyptic gaming

I saw this video recently (see below) - I love the music, but the video also proved inspirational. Regular visitors to this blog will know that I am currently backing the new Red Markets roleplaying game by Caleb Stokes on Kickstarter.

This is more how I would see a post-apocalyptic RPG I would run shaping up. There are no bands of marauders riding across the desert, nor are there any Gamma World mutants. Nature is beginning to re-assert itself over the ruins of civilization, but people are still wearing 'normal' clothing rather than running around in leather with mohawks, and technology still exists - see the start of the video with the laptop.

Red Markets, with its concept of a separation between a post-apocalyptic wasteland with the survivors of a highly developed society, works quite well. There is still a part of the world that has protected itself from the disaster, and continues to do so. Its agents may still operate in the wasteland, pursuing its own agendas. Readers of the Amtrak Wars series of books by Patrick Tilley will recall how the existence of the Amtrak Federation is a major plot point. Similarly Kass Morgan's The 100 trilogy, features two such technologically advanced societies battling for supremacy.

In the Alan Walker video I quite like the concept of the lone figure equipped with advanced technology adventuring through a wasted landscape, seeking a house in an old photograph. It raises many questions that could form the basis for an RPG scenario - why is he looking for the house, what does it hold, how is he able to get his laptop to work, who sent him?

Red Markets has now raised over $50,000 and is well on its way to becoming a colour hardcover book. Check it out here.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Lessons from Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan - you're not in Kansas anymore Dorothy!
I've been in Kazakhstan this week. I didn't really know what to make of it before going there, which is probably a good thing. I always find it better to travel somewhere with no initial preconceptions. I remember writing an essay in my second year at university about Russia's push into Central Asia in the middle of the 19th century, and its clashes with the Chinese, which proved predictably one-sided for China at that stage.

I was in Kazakhstan on business, but am resolved to try to get back there on holiday soon. One of the things I've learned about going on holiday in recent years, particularly during the summer break in July/August, is that European vacation destinations have inevitably become flooded with people. The experience is increasingly becoming a poor one, as every parent with school age children tries to have a good time at the same time, while locals seek to make as much money as humanly possible in as short a time as possible from the tourists.

I learned my lesson two years ago when I visited the French and Spanish coasts, and sadly the coast of Croatia, a regular holiday haunt for me in the past, is starting to suffer again from the same over-crowding. I say again, because I first visited Croatia in its current form in 1997, a year after the Dayton peace treaty ended the war in Bosnia. At the time the coast was almost deserted, and certainly there were few foreign tourists there, other than the odd Hungarian and UN soldier. Now it has become unpleasantly crowded.

My current resolve then is to try to focus on those areas of the world that are still less frequented by the European Horde. Kazakhstan is one such place. Few Western Europeans know much about it and its proximity to 'hot spot' Afghanistan brings unpleasant associations for the holidaymaker. Yet Kazakhstan seems like a fascinating place, a former Soviet republic, a massive centre for global metals mining, and a critical crossroads for various huge Asian empires over the centuries.

What surprised me the most was how Asian the people there really are (see picture above): I expected more of a Middle Eastern flavour, and while Islam is an important religion in Kazakhstan, the people remind me more of the Japanese than anything else, although generally taller. They are an interesting mix - Russia has ruled this place for many years, but they still preserve their own language and seem not to have the animosity towards Russia that other former Soviet republics nurse. In some respects they seem western, but in others they lean more towards Asia. Russia has left its imprint, for sure, but certainly the people seem more eastern in their behaviour and general politeness to the foreigner, without the arrogance one can encounter from the Chinese these days.

Kazakhstan is also a huge place - it is sparsely populated, seemingly very flat, yet covers a vast expanse of central Asia, almost the size of half of Europe. Just around the new capital Astana there are massive plains covered in huge farms, obviously a legacy of the Soviet collectivised approach to farming. Roads run straight to the horizon like they do in Uruguay. There are few buildings outside the main conurbations. Given the total population is only 17 million versus Uzbekistan's 30 million, it comes as quite a change for someone used to living in England's southeast.

Wealth from natural resources has, however, blessed the country with new and very modern infrastructure in its major cities. It is hard to make an accurate assessment from the perspective of Astana, which feels almost like it has been designed to meet the role of national capital (in a similar vein to Islamabad in Pakistan, Canberra in Australia or indeed even Washington DC), but I was impressed with many of the public buildings.

As someone who grew up in the more populous areas of Asia (I'm looking at you Bengal), Kazakhstan, with its post-Soviet culture and more temperate climate provides a totally different perspective on this massive continent from the well-beaten tourist trails or the mighty megalopolises of Tokyo and Hong Kong. I hope I can return there soon as I really didn't get much of a chance to see the country outside the capital. For people who travel regularly to Asia, it presents an alternative stop off point to Dubai or Abu Dhabi, and the local airline Air Astana seems very good indeed.

In summary, the lesson from Kazakhstan is to invest time and personal resources in visiting places that may not fit into the conventional travel itinerary. Just because we don't know much about them is no reason not to explore them. And you won't end up rubbing shoulders with the rest of stressed out Europe.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Solomon's Thieves

In October 1307 the king of France, Philip IV, moved against the Knights Templar in a shock assault on the wealthiest and most established of the orders of military knights in Europe. The Templars, who had accrued wealth and influence as a consequence of their role in the Crusades, as well as filling the demand in Europe for cross-border banking services, were unprepared for a crack down that was later extended to other kingdoms. They ended up with few refuges, although Scotland and some of the noble houses there were still able to provide them with some succour.

Solomon's Thieves is an excellent comic in what I hoped would be an ongoing series, as this volume professes to only be the first part in the saga (more of this later). It is written by Jordan Mechner, create of the video game Prince of Persia. It deals principally with the mysterious disappearance of the treasure of the Templars from their temple outside Paris. Where did it go? Who took it? And what happened to the small number of Templars who evaded arrest?

The story starts with a trio of Templars, veterans of the Crusades, who are caught up in the French king's plot against their order. The main character is Martin of Troyes, a nobleman who joined the Templars when the woman he loved was forced to marry someone else. Martin has two roguish friends in the order who are more liberal in their interpretation of their Templar vows, the Porthos and Aramis to his Athos.

To go into more detail would risk spoilers, but the tale is told with the fast-moving pace and wit you would expect from the Three Musketeers. The art has a slightly cartoonish element to it, but I found after a few pages that it actually worked well. There are moments of hilarity combined with scenes of grim helplessness (e.g. the interrogation of Templars by the king's authorities).

My one criticism is that this indeed only the the first part in the saga. It was published in 2010, with the intention of making it a trilogy. In the end, Mechner combined all three parts into a single volume which came out in 2013, called Templar, but which costs over £20. Is Solomon's Thieves good enough to warrant shelling out for Templar? I still believe it is.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Blood Rage - first observations and a capsule review

I am freshly back from my travels in the Balkans, where I enjoyed visiting Belgrade and then Zagreb. I also managed to visit the fortress of Kalemegdan, which sits overlooking the juncture of the Sava and Danube rivers, and was once the site of the headquarters of the Roman IVth legion (and according to legend the burial place of Attila the Hun).

Back in Sussex I had the good fortune to have a first play of Blood Rage, a game about vikings, monsters and Ragnarok. This seems to be have been selling like hot cakes, despite its expense. It does boast some lovely miniatures, which are examples of how far we have come in both the manufacture of game components and the quality of plastic miniature sculpts. I know silly sums of money are being spent on 1980s Citadel figures on eBay, but really, the modern equivalents leave them in the shade, both literally and figuratively.

Blood Rage seems to combine mechanics from a number of different strategy games. The game is divided into three ages, in this respect reminiscent of Fire and Axe, another game about ravaging hairy Norsemen. Each player controls a mixed crew of warriors with a leader, supplemented by monsters from Nordic myth.

Each faction is measured by its ability to rage (action points), deploy troops (a capacity dictating the number of figures on the board) and earn glory from winning battles. Like many Eurogames, progress is tracked via glory (victory points) using a track around the board.

The board itself has a limited number of provinces, similar in feel to Chaos in the Old World. At its centre sits Yggdrasil, the World Tree, which is distinct in that there is no limit to the number of warriors / critters than can occupy this space, thereby encouraging violent scrums at the centre of the game. Slain warriors go to an off-board space, Valhalla, where they can be cycled back into the game in the next Age. Other provinces also hail from Norse myth, but have stacking limits in terms of the number of protagonists who can congregate their to belt the living daylights out of each other.

Did I say there was an emphasis on combat in this game?

Each Age is started with a card drafting phase, with players picking from hands of Age-specific cards. These help to upgrade your clan (e.g. improving the fighting characteristics of your warriors, or the ability of your leader), provide combat abilities (cards are used instead of dice to deliver combat results) or recruit monsters like the Troll or the Fire Giant. The cards are also a source of quests to be completed, which can provide further glory for players.

The card-drafting phase is fairly vital - in two phases of the game I managed to out-think myself, neglecting to take enough quest cards in favour of beefing up my combat capabilities and generally upgrading my clan. This proved to be too expensive a process for my available Rage, costing me the ability to carry out other actions, and indeed leaving me sitting on the sidelines towards the end of the Second Age. I still can't figure out whether the game wants you to pursue a balanced strategy, or focus on particular aspects or capabilities of your clan.

Winning battles is not the be all and end all, even in Ragnarok! Losing battles can also earn you glory, as the Norse recognise a good loser (i.e. someone who can take as many enemies as possible with them - they would have liked Lehman Brothers!)
The truly awesome Fire Giant!

Placing troops in harm's way can be an effective tactic (e.g. there is an upgrade for your clan's long ships which scores you considerable points if they are destroyed). The game begins with all clans created equal, and they start to become more unique as they upgrade various areas (e.g. Rage or Glory) and recruit monsters. But ultimately it is your hand of cards and how you play them - and how they interact with other players' cards - that really makes or breaks your strategy.

I certainly enjoyed this more than Chaos in the Old World, which is its older cousin in many respects. It does drive players into long periods of analysis, particularly in the card drafting phase, which is so vital in the determination of the outcome of the Age. I will reserve final judgement after I've played it again. As a viking-themed game, I think it plays second fiddle to Fire and Axe. I felt the board was a little limiting, although I understand that this is mainly to encourage the vikings to brawl with each other.

We have also been discussing the controversial Third Age card, Odin's Throne, which doubles any victory points earned by its holder from quests at game end, which seems to be a tad over-powered, particularly in the right hands. It may get dropped in future games.