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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014: Year in Review

It's customary around this time of year to do some gaming retrospection; it's been a big year for me.

A lot of what's been going on in my gaming year has been concerned with behind-the-scenes administration and preparation for the start of a new campaign in Isles of Darkness, the live gaming society I'm a member of. None of that has been particularly exciting to non-members (or even to members for the most part), but it does mean that I'll be starting a new live game in the new year (my first in several years), so that'll be fun. Hopefully I'll have props and planning stuff to talk about.

This is, of course, also the year I started this blog. It's been interesting, even though not a lot of people read it. I've sparked some good discussions and made some new acquaintances, so that's a good thing. I also started recording my YouTube videos, which again sparked some conversations.

I got a lot of painting done this year; 192 models, including 30 over the Christmas break. I'm not the greatest painter in the world, but lately I've been turning out stuff I'm satisfied with -- it's simple, but I think it looks good. I do need to overcome my habit of getting bored or impatient and leaving a figure 95% done. If I remember tomorrow I'll do some photography and show off my new models.

I'm very happy with the level of minis gaming I've been doing this year. I've played Strange Aeons, SAGA, Bolt Action, Flying Lead and some old reliables like De Bellis Antiquitatis and Full Thrust. I also picked up some new games, including World in Flames, which I haven't had the chance to play yet. I have an every-other-week minis meetup, which alternates between painting and gaming. I've also had the chance to use a lot of my miniatures in my D&D game -- I know you don't really need them, but I have a collection already and I like having the visual representation. I've got a lot of figures in my unpainted pile that I'm looking forward to painting in the new year, including some Wargames Factory zombie survivors and some Conquest Games Normans, plus some Oldhammer goodies.

Speaking of my D&D game, it continues to be pretty successful. I think the players are having a good time, and I'm having fun as well. I think I'll be happier after I switch to 5th edition in the coming year (my PHB is on backorder), since it seems like the simpler rules will suit my playstyle better. I became very frustrated with the 3.5 skill system, which I felt didn't allow enough deviation from character design -- that is, when the characters decided they wanted to run away to see to become pirates, there was a mechanical problem in that it's hard to become a capable sailor if you haven't planned it from the jump.

My online gaming struggles with scheduling -- I'm the youngest, the only player without kids, the one most completely in control of my own timetable, and even I miss the occasional date, so we don't get to play as often as I'd like. Sometimes I don't feel very rooted in that game, because it happens so infrequently. But it is great to be able to game with people across the country and even in other countries, so I think that you have to take the rough with the smooth.

I probably bought more RPGs this year than I had in the previous several years combined, partly because of Bundle of Holding and partly because my interest in games coming out reawakened. I had sort of burned out on small-press indie games, but my interest is reawakening, and I'm excited about the new D&D, which I never expected to happen. I even kickstarted some things, including the new game from Sine Nomine -- though I haven't read the download yet!

So overall it's been a good year in gaming terms. Next year I'm looking forward to jumping back into running a live game, as well as keeping the D&D game going from strength to strength. I am also going to sort my various collections of early medieval miniatures into complete SAGA armies, covering at least Anglo-Danes/Vikings and Normans, plus maybe another option. I am sworn not to get into the Crusades version until I've done at least that. I'm also going to try to run some kind of modern supernatural investigation game, tabletop-style, maybe using Unisystem or maybe something else.

It's been a pretty good year, gaming-wise, and I'm looking forward to the new one. How was yours?

Monday, 29 December 2014

Random Viking loot and gifts

Some time ago, I reviewed both The Sagas of the Icelanders and Mythic Iceland for this blog. One thing that I thought that was missing from both was a set of examples of items for gift-giving or Viking loot. Sagas understands the importance of gift-giving, but doesn't give you much of an idea what sort of things you might expect to give or get as gifts, while Mythic Iceland just gives you the amount of wealth you can expect to get plundering such-and-such a type of place.

So I had a bit of a trawl through my saga library and compiled a list of different gifts and loot items. I've also chosen some archaeological items that seem likely to be loot or trade goods. Obviously, these are typically high-end items (well, most of them), but they should give you some idea. I've compiled them into a series of random tables for your convenience.

Clothing

  1. A cloak that once belonged to King Myrkjartan. 
  2. A white headdress embroidered with gold thread. 
  3. A shawl decorated with black stitches and a fringe. 
  4. A cloak lined with white fur. 
  5. A pile of beaver, sable and marten skins. 
  6. A silk robe with gold embroidery and clasps. 
  7. A full set of coloured garments made from English cloth. 
  8. A fur jacket. 
  9. A fine cloak from abroad. 
  10. A pair of gloves with gold embroidery. 
  11. A headband studded with gold. 
  12. A Russian fur cap. 
Note that the history of clothing is important -- "a cloak worn by a king" came up so many times that I just stopped writing it down. Giving someone your old clothes isn't seen as a sign of cheapness, it's a sign of how close you are, so close that you would wear the same clothes. 

Clothing is also a good way to insult people -- in Njal's Saga, Skarp-Hedin insults someone so badly that a peace settlement collapses by offering him an inappropriate cloak as a gift. (It's probably to do with the idea that the cloak is unisex?)

Jewellery
  1. A necklace of glass beads.
  2. A gold bracelet. 
  3. A gold arm-ring, "a big and good one."
  4. A gold finger-ring. 
  5. A gold brooch. 
  6. A set of oval brooches. 


Not a lot of variety here -- gold arm-rings and bracelets turn up about a million times; arm-rings in particular are a very traditional gift from leaders to their followers. Interestingly, one of them has a spell on it; a queen gives it to her lover as a parting gift, but the spell prevents him from having sex with the woman he's leaving her for. Although we know silver jewellery was common, it doesn't turn up as a gift in the sagas much. Snobbery. 

Jewellery could be looted, too, so you get brooches or ornaments from Ireland or Britain or France or wherever in Scandinavian settlements or graves all the time, like this Frankish trefoil brooch: 

 

Weapons and armour
  1. A fine sword and a gold-inlaid spear.
  2. A gold-plated helmet.
  3. An axe inlaid with gold.
  4. A sword with a walrus-ivory hilt.
  5. A gold-inlaid atgeir
  6. A spear with a gold-inlaid socket. 
  7. A knife with a walrus-tusk handle. 
  8. An axe decorated with gold on the blade and silver mounts. 
  9. A winged spear. 
  10. "That sword which is called Dragvandil."
  11. A shield depicting scenes from the old sagas, with strips of gold framing the pictures, set with gemstones. 
  12. A spear that rings whenever someone is about to die. 




Again, object history is important here -- a lot of these swords have names, and the ones that don't begin that way wind up being called things like "King's Gift." They aren't necessarily good weapons -- at one point, someone -- I think it's Egil -- discovers that although the gold-inlaid axe a king gave his son is very beautiful, the blade is weak (although he also used it very carelessly). 

Cash money, capital, livestock, real estate, weird stuff. 
  1. A wooden bowl with a silver handle, filled with silver coins. 
  2. A ship, together with its sails, rigging and equipment. 
  3. A twelve-oared ship. 
  4. A trained fighting-horse. 
  5. "A good big treasure-chest."
  6. A hundred ells of fine-quality cloth and twelve furs. 
  7. A jet-black ox, nine years old. 
  8. An Irish dog. 
  9. A black horse. 
  10. A farm. 
  11. An island with 80 oxen on it. 
  12. A share in a trading ship. 
  13. Timber to build a church. 
  14. A stallion and three mares. 
  15. A carved ship ornament. 
  16. A set of walrus ivory chessmen. 
  17. A banner with a raven on it. 
  18. Three sea-snail shells and a duck's egg. 
  19. A cheese. 
  20. A magician's staff. 


There's also the category of monastic or religious loot, which doesn't turn up much in the sagas, but does turn up in the archaeological record. 

Religious paraphernalia
  1. A bible or prayer book. 
  2. A reliquary. 
  3. A bishop's crozier. 
  4. A pectoral cross. 
  5. An episcopal ring. 
  6. An exotic foreign religious object. 



Anyway, I hope that's handy. The important thing is that if you're going to give a gift it should have a history. A big bowl of silver coins, OK, that's just money, but in the sagas objects tend to be unique, to have a history to them. They're often the cause of strife or envy, or they can form a continuity between different parts of a saga -- Gunnar's halberd (which may be an atgeir, who knows) spends more time in Njal's Saga than Gunnar does. 

And of course this applies to every similar culture in fantasy settings. I spent a long time coming up with unique gift and trade items in my Orlanthi HeroQuest game, for instance. 

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Maelstrom Domesday -- full readthrough

In a previous post I talked about creating a character for Maelstrom Domesday, an updated version of the classic 1980s British game with the setting moved to Yorkshire in 1086. You can find the game itself and its various supplements on DTRPG. (And Arion Games has a big sale on through new year, so you can pick them up cheap. I think I may get the scenario just to give the game a try.)



Having finished character creation, I thought I'd take a look at how the abilities I acquired actually work. 

So, skills: Skills are ranked from 1 to 6, with each level having its own effect. You roll against the relevant attribute (which you will remember go from 1 to 100, so this is basically a percentile system), and having the skill usually adds 10% per level to your score. However, it's worth checking, because some skills have different effects. For instance, higher levels of Herbalism allow you to use rarer herbs, speed up your prep time, and so on, while Combat Training adds to your damage, increases the protective value of armour, and that kind of thing. 

Combat is done by percentile, like skill checks -- you roll and compare your result to the other player's (each player has attack and defense scores) on a matrix sort of like the one used in HeroQuest. This tells you how much damage you've taken. Each hit heals and is treated separately. There are also serious and critical wounds, which have extra consequences, including being hideously scarred, losing an eye and whatnot. I haven't tested it in play, but combat looks lethal, with a big advantage for the guy with the higher skill and the better weapons and armour. 

There's the usual other stuff -- diseases, poisons, fire, falling, earning your patron's favour, most of it simple spot rules. Instability is the game's answer to Sanity, and is basically another form of damage you can take. 

Magic (or Magick) is at the centre of the setting, but player character magick is pretty subtle. You can't use it to do anything that would otherwise be impossible, so it's mostly things like avoiding detection, changing minds, putting people to sleep, spotting things, all that kind of thing. Even so, if you have a non-magickal method of doing stuff, you're better off using it, because magick use carries with it the possibility of a Maelstrom breach -- that is, a moment where the weird chaotic magickal dimension that underlies ours pokes through. This can mean anything from turning people ill-tempered for a little while to summoning hideous entities from other planes (though the odds of this are pretty slim on a simple spell). 

So rules (particularly character creation) take up about half of the book, and the other half is all setting and GM resources. The bestiary covers wildlife and a handful of different monsters, ranging from "minor" creatures like elves and boggarts and the undead to "major" ones like giants and dragons. I think it's understood that there aren't going to be a lot of common monster types in this game -- most problems are going to be caused by a creature that is, in proper weird fantasy style, unique. 

The original setting guide is not easy reading. 
Then there is a lot of material on daily life 1086 and Yorkshire in particular. Now, I feel pretty good about my grip on the world of the late 11th century, but this seems clear and well-organised, detailed without beating the reader to death with minutiae (although my tolerance for historical minutiae is probably in the top 5%). 

I really like the way Yorkshire villages are laid out -- a few facts from the Domesday Book, and then a piece of local folklore and an adventure hook for each. The setting section covers 37 manors in this faction, plus one small town (Selby) and one large city (York). The town and city get much more detail, with relevant NPCs and multiple plot hooks. 

Then you get the appendices, which cover diseases, medicinal herbs (a lot of medicinal herbs), a quick timeline and a glossary. 

Production-wise, the book is OK. The layout is clean and usually readable, the art is sparse but generally pretty good. I haven't looked at any of the electronic products, but if they're laid out like this I would assume they're easy to read onscreen and economical to print. There are some fuzzy bits of poorly-reproduced art, and at least one repeated piece, but nothing too jarring. 

When I bought this game, I initially thought that it would be something like Spaceship Zero -- essentially a high-concept campaign-in-a-box that I might run for a limited series of games and be perfectly content with. Reading it through, I find it has a lot of worky bits that can be pulled out for other games. It could mash up very simply with Cthulhu Dark Ages, for instance, or with Mythic Iceland. The village writeup format is good, and I'll probably swipe that for other games. Maybe also the medicinal herbs, although they're not weird enough for a fantasy game. Maybe for another Taming of Dragon Pass type game. And it's a pretty good resource for any type of game set in 11th-c. England, fantasy or otherwise, although I already have a fair few reference works on the subject. 

So yeah. I am going to try to run this at some point! I have a pretty clear idea of the campaign already. 

Friday, 19 December 2014

Maelstrom: Domesday character creation

So, I promised I would work my way through the character creation process for Maelstrom Domesday, the game I picked up at Dragonmeet.


This is a game of supernatural investigation in the early middle ages. That makes it the game for me, as you can maybe tell from this image of a small part of my bookshelves:



So, the way character creation in this game works is via a lifepath system. You can either determine your character's background randomly or pick the individual steps, but the system encourages you to do it randomly. I approve, because I'm a big fan of random character generation. I know some people don't like it, but I find it inspiring.

I went through the process twice, just for laughs, but this is my first one.

First off, you generate your starting attributes. There are ten of these -- nothing too exotic. They all start at 40, with most humans having scores in the 30-80 range. You choose four to add d6 to, then select another two to subtract d6 from. I chose to buff up my Attack, Persuasion, Perception and Knowledge and then reduce my Missile and Speed skills. It seemed fair enough for a supernatural investigator type, but the whole point of character creation is that until you get pulled into the world of the supernatural you're just an ordinary person.

Next you roll for your character's "racial" origin -- for the first guy, I rolled Saxon, which is the most likely result, as you might expect from a game set in 11th-century Yorkshire. I then rolled for his social background, and it came up with statistically the likeliest result: a peasant.

Next you roll for three "characteristics," which are various special traits and abilities. I rolled one that made me better at archery, one that improved my mathematics, making me better at bartering and so on, and one that gave me the ability to do hedge magic -- this lets me learn the Magic skill, but only to level 1.

Once you've found your social class, you roll for your starting career -- each background has a different distribution of possible careers. So for instance, if you're a noble, you're going to wind up being a squire or something, while if you're a peasant, not so much. I rolled for my first career and wound up as a wiseman, a sort of kooky village advice-giver / herbalist guy. And I could even learn magic, so that worked out nicely.

Each time you progress through a career, you add a certain amount to your age (it varies depending on the career), then add some points to a set of attributes specified by the career plus a discretionary one. In the case of a Wiseman, these are will, endurance and perception. You also get to spend two points from the various skills available to you. Wisemen have a lot of skills, so I chose different ones each time. You also roll on a random table, with the table being determined by what kind of occupation you have -- sedentary, in the case of a wiseman. Lastly, you can also get some equipment (a random chance) and an amount of money (there's also starting money based on your social class). You then roll to see whether it's your last career, and what career you move on to. I was a Wiseman several times in a row -- it's a pretty restrictive career. As a result, my skills are varied and my Wiseman-relevant stats are great.

The random events were my favourite thing about character creation; at one point, I learned philosophy, which apparently helps me resist something called Imbalance (I haven't read the actual rules). At another, I accidentally set myself on fire, giving me some hideous facial scars.

At the end of my career (you keep rolling to see if your career ends; if you roll over your age it does) I then rolled to see what my encounter with the supernatural had been -- apparently a tapestry shifted walls overnight!

Unfortunately, my contact with the supernatural drove me out of society -- I guess they didn't notice that I could do magic in the first place -- but one magnate decided to retain my services as a supernatural investigator. I rolled to see who it was -- Richard fitz Gilbert, of all people. Great.

So I'm a horribly-scarred, half-educated hedge wizard that no one will have anything to do with because of my role in the weird tapestry incident. Fortunately, I've picked up a smattering of philosophy, so I don't let it bother me too much. My character is a prize weirdo, and I get the feeling this is pretty common among characters in this game.

I made a little picture of him:

His name is Ealdred.
I'm going to enjoy running this game.


Friday, 12 December 2014

I used to paint!

It feels like forever since I painted a figure, or at least completed one, so here's this little guy just to boost my own sense of accomplishment.

I haven't added any greenery to his base yet, so it looks a little patchy. 
He's a rush job, painted for the Future Wars Painting Club on the Lead Adventure Forum, and looking at the photo of him I'm not very happy with it. However, as with most things, he looks much better on the tabletop, where his unsubtle shading just makes him pop a little more. (Also my photo isn't great; the big armour plates are a bit more gently highlighted than they appear to be here. One day I will do a proper photo setup, right after I do everything else.)

The miniature is a Sarday'kin Legion figure from the old Hobby Products / Metal Magic line. He is a little on the small side by modern standards, but scales well with RT-era 40K figures. I've also mounted his integral base on a stock GW base, giving him a few extra hopefully-unnoticeable millimetres of height. He may, in fact, be one of the oldest figures I own; I've definitely had him since high school. Technically, like many figures I've had since high school, he may belong to my brother. Much of the line is still available from em-4, but I don't believe this one is.

Anyway, I painted a model, my photos are crap. No surprises there. My next big goal is to get my "How to Oldhammer" project done before the new year. 

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Also, how could I forget!

I also got the chance to talk to some cool people with cool products at the con, but then forgot to mention them in my last post.

This is a game called Tripods! from Oakbound Games.

Oakbound also make these awesome swamp monsters.
They have some clear Dark Crystal inspiration, as well as maybe
resembling certain one-eyed now-rare Warhammer monsters. 

I would have got the one with the skull head for D&D/Strange Aeons, but
my painting score is in a perilous state so I'm now buying minis right now.
Maybe next year. 
It was nice to meet a fellow Lead Adventure poster in person!

The UKRP Design Collective also had a stall with lots of cool games. Possibly the coolest to me was this storygame based on the siege of Montsegur: 



 Even as I move away from story games, it is nice to see people doing thematically-interesting things with them and making them look nice; they have a tendency just to be little pamphlets (although I quite like that as well, I guess? But the physical copy of Sagas of the Icelanders is damn pretty).

Lastly, this guy wasn't selling something, just having a shitload of fun with his Lego *-World Indiana Jones game.

It's still being setup; you can see the figures waiting offstage in the upper part of the photo. 




Dragonmeet, Red and Pleasant Land

Despite having lived in the UK for over a decade on the current stretch, I had never been to a Dragonmeet until this past weekend. This year I went partly off my own bat and partly as a volunteer for Isles of Darkness, a live gaming society I'm part of. I didn't get to do any actual gaming, but I got to meet and talk to people, to see some cool new games, to sell a few things in the Bring & Buy and to buy some things I wanted, so I was happy with the experience.

My photo of our booth came out blurry, but this was the view from it. 
I believe they were reporting about 1,500 people through the door, which was more than in previous years. Certainly the trade hall seemed to be doing a lively business and the lines for tickets were long. I thought the venue was good, although for some reason it was really difficult to get into the car park.

I'm going to do this post in two parts. First, brief list of cool stuff in no particular order:


  • It was nice to briefly meet Dave Chapman, whose "RPG a Day" blog series helped energise me to think about gaming in general again. 
  • I got to see some friends I rarely see. 
  • Live recording of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff was lots of fun, and featured a complete campaign idea generated within a few minutes. I wonder if the hosts' lists of un-run campaigns are as long and frustrating as mine. 
  • Response to IoD booth was very positive. I hope that this is a trend for us, both in improving our outreach and in making our games more accessible to new players. 
  • I got a cute little notebook from Squarehex; the sheets have graph paper on one side and lined paper on the other, so when you open it you've got a map on the left side and the key on the right. It's A6, so it's more going to be groups of dungeon rooms than whole dungeons, but that's OK by me. Also they are currently Kickstarting an A5 version, which has just hit its goal. If I hadn't got one for myself, that A6 would have made a great stocking stuffer for me. 
  • I picked up a copy of Maelstrom: Domesday, a variant of Maelstrom set in the 11th century -- which is to say a game that might as well have had "play this, James Holloway" written on the cover. Expect a full review once I've finished reading it. Both the original and the new version are available on DriveThru (and currently on sale!) from Arion Games. I am pretty excited about this; from what I saw of it, it looks like exactly my thing, and it's clear the creator likes a lot of the same things I like (game designers come from the oddest backgrounds; this guy's an immunologist). Will it live up to the excitement? Come back next time to find out!
  • I also got a copy of Witch: the Road to Lindisfarne, a little story game about, well, witch burnings. I'm not sure it's medieval history per se, but again, grubby middle ages seemed to be a thing for me this year. Again, I'll review that when I get the chance. 
But the big purchase for me was Red and Pleasant Land, Zak S's latest offering for the Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG (although effectively for D&D in any of its many incarnations). This thing is ... man. It is pretty good. And it's pretty. It's hardbound, but with -- is it called a cloth binding? That sort of textured cloth cover rather than the usual glossy binding you get in RPGs. It's got a bound-in red bookmark. More than anything else, it looks like a book of fairy tales. I mean, exactly, to the point where I wonder if this is a coincidence. 

Hans Christian Andersen for visual comparison, little Skaven for size comparison. 
And it looks gorgeous inside as well; lovely soft heavy paper, intelligent and tasteful use of colour. It makes most full-colour rulebooks look like some old bullshit.  

Initially, this made me want to tear up all my dungeon maps, but now it just makes me want to make some new ones. 

Continuing the Vornheim trend of printing right inside the cover. 

Lots of new monsters. 
OK, so it looks terrific. What's it about? RPL is basically a setting guide to a place called Voivodja, otherwise The Place of Unreason, a land where the rules of conventional reality are treated with a certain levity. The land was once entirely covered by the palace of a mad king, but now his gardens grow wild over it and the ruins of the palace form a substrate of "interiors" (ie dungeons) under it. Rival armies of vampires, each one of them with its own goofy-yet-creepy character, strive for mastery, so you've got plenty of plots, alliances, battles, intrigues, covert missions, hidden agendas, all that kind of thing. As I'd come to expect from Zak S's previous book, Vornheim, you not only get examples of these but lots of good ways to generate them on the fly. I am a big fan of the randomly-generated Intercepted Communique Table. 

Voivodja is basically a mashup of Alice in Wonderland and vampires, which doesn't sound like a combination that would work but does. I think this is because vampires, at least in many vampire stories, are sort of petty and obsessive in the same way that the characters in the Alice stories are. I mean, a mad monarch who lives in the ruined splendour of a crumbling palace, pursuing ever more cruel and recondite pleasures while everything falls to chaos around her ... that's either a vampire or an Alice character, depending on which angle you look at it from, right? And RPL succeeds in looking at the thing from both angles simultaneously, not 100% perfectly -- there were one or two moments where a piece of either straight whimsy or straight horror felt a little out-of-place to me -- but pretty close. 

I mentioned Vornheim, which I'm a big fan of, and this is definitely similar in some ways, but it's much more worked-out and detailed -- Vornheim was packed with usable stuff, but this is just so much larger. Let's look at what's in here: 

  • A guide to the setting, including not just places but customs, including weddings, a duelling code and how to act like a weird homicidal Alice character. 
  • A whole new character class, the Alice or Fool, with a random level-up table and a new ability, Exasperation. 
  • 47 monsters, including a shit-hot random demon (or "Guest" as they're known in Voivodja) generation table that reminds one strongly of Realms of Chaos
  • Two good-sized dungeons, being the headquarters of the two main antagonists. Making two whimsical-vampire-monarch's-castle dungeons different from each other is no mean feat!
  • Some maps of sample locations, showing each of the setting's three main terrain types. 
  • Systems for running duels, large battles and characters with social rank. 
  • A shedload of random tables, including location generators, adventure hooks, an "I Search the Body" table and a way of determining where characters who missed a session have been. 
  • Player handouts, including a fragmentary map for one of the dungeons. 

So I was reading this at the con and lamenting that although it's great, my own D&D game is more of a mud-'n'-blood, scoundrels-on-the-run sort of a thing and I'd find it hard to put something as out there as this book into it without it seeming like a jarring transition. The person I was talking to pointed out that what this setting sounded like, with its mad monarchs and weird creatures and gardens run amok, was the Hedge from Changeling: the Lost. And it is. In fact, I think it would contain a heck of a lot of good material, not just to lift whole but as an inspiration for constructing a local Hedge guide. 

I'm going to get some use out of this -- I can already see the bits I'm going to swipe -- but mainly it's just inspiring me to try to do something as good within the idiom of my game as this is good within its own. 

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

At long last some wargaming!

So gaming buddy Chris came over last weekend and we did some gaming! I have been on a big Saga kick recently, so we played a couple of games of that. My armies are still being developed, so there are a few substitutions in here.

The first game we played called on the players to contest a pair of river crossings. I like the core scenarios in the Saga rulebook, which tend to lead to Dark-Ages-appropriate self-sacrifice.

Anglo-Danish huscarls prepare to defend the bridge crossing. Briefly. 
The Viking berserkers prepare a suicide attack on the ford. 
Anglo-Danish warriors prepare to lay down their lives heroically. 
Here are some more general photos of some of the units. I painted a lot of these many years ago (over 10 years, in fact, when I lived in Durham), so be merciful.

Vikings: Foundry, Gripping Beast and Essex
Berserkers: Gripping Beast and Foundry
Levy archers: Gripping Beast and (I think) Essex.
Warriors: Gripping Beast (the bald guy is one of their plastics) and ... Harlequin?
The next game saw the Anglo-Danes trying to protect a convoy of valuable things, including a group of civilians, a flock of sheep and a bishop. I didn't have treasure bases made, so I had to stick some of my loose models to bases I had lying around. I should make some permanent ones. Time to buy more civilians and livestock! I do like civilians and livestock.

Chris used solid blocking tactics that kept the objectives shielded, swinging his line around to obstruct my shot at them. I wonder how this would have played out with more mounted troops on the board. I was a bit perplexed that the English chose to save the civilians and the sheep while leaving the bishop and his massive chest of gold to be captured. Very humane people, the English.

The bishop, one of his lads and some, er, holy relics. 

The Anglo-Danish forces form a defensive line in front of the refugees. Please
excuse the ruins of Osgiliath down front -- scenery is also still in development.
The centre of the field becomes a swirling melee, but the English defensive
line is holding. A group of Viking warriors break through on the right to attack
the bishop and his retinue, but it isn't enough. 
The line holds at great cost and the women and children escape. Also the sheep.
Figures: Essex, Black Tree(?), Gripping Beast, Perry, Irregular, I dunno.
I am turning into a pretty big fan of this game. Funnily enough, for a big dark ages guy, I don't have a lot of appropriate terrain, so I need to get on that.

We also played a quick game of Bolt Action, which was good fun. I didn't get any photos. I like the way the system handles pinning and combat stress, although I do not usually have any time for tournament-competitive systems. But the mechanic looks pretty robust, and I am looking forward to giving it another try. There are good inexpensive Red Army plastics out there ... and it's been a while since I've got to do a little UUURRRAAAAAHHHH!

Anyway, that's what I've been up to lately. Not a lot, but hopefully I'll have some good stuff to report when I go to Dragonmeet on Saturday. I'll be manning the Isles of Darkness booth for part of it, but am hoping to make some of the panels and do a little shopping.




Monday, 17 November 2014

Guest Post: The not-too-distant future!

Today, guest blogger Chris of Dreadnoughts and Dragons takes us back to the future with this look at 1980s classic Cyberpunk and its vision of the dark dystopian future of, er ...

... 2013.



One of the greatest problems with roleplaying games in general is that they over-engineer solutions to problems that don't really exist, and ignore problems that would actually make life a little better. Of course, in the real world the exact opposite is true: technology advances fastest in areas where there is greatest consumer demand.

If you want an illustration of just how this can date a game, look no further than Cyberpunk: The Roleplaying Game of the Dark Future. Unfortunately, this dark 'future' is the world of 2013, as envisaged by Mike Pondsmith in 1988. I picked up the first edition of this game for £1, and found myself back in the world before the Internet. Imagine the bastard RPG lovechild of William Gibson and Don Johnson, then add more hair spray. How dark is 2013? Well, apart from being perpetually set at night (this is cyberpunk, duh) it's your basic corporate police state/impoverished street gang dystopia. 

The 'cyber' side comes in the form of a worldwide network which you literally have to plug yourself into (to help out players who have never used a computer that didn't require a cassette tape, there are detailed sections explaining what a modem does). 

The 'punk' aspect are the party-loving, tech-fixated gang members. The character creation guide states that your motive is to wear the coolest clothes and visit the coolest clubs. One of the nine classes available to play is Rockstar. The willpower stat is called Cool. Everyone uses a nickname ('handle') to sound as cool as your idol, Johnny Silverhand.

But the technology... oh, the technology is glorious. Behold this little gem.

Fax. This is the letter-writing mode of the future.
Thank fuck the game was wrong on that score.

It's not the only glaring anachronism. In a world where the first NPC you meet (an uninteresting hacker girl called Alt) has a “gold-plated cyberarm with hidden compartment”, mobiles are still giant bricks the size of walkie-talkies.



In fact, it's worth noting where Cyberpunk gets it right, and where it gets it wrong:

Right:

  • Internet! 
  • Europe is great apart from Spain and Greece, who are broke 
  • 24/7 news coverage has turned the media into crazed lunatics 
  • People love technology 
  • Everyone wants a gold-plated cyberarm with hidden compartment.


Wrong:


  • No cyborg implants are in general use, let alone gold ones with sneaky compartments 
  • No gangs of mullet-sporting rock musicians roam the mean streets of America like they're the fucking Sharks and Jets 
  • Phones are not bricks 
  • People use the internet for things other than corporate espionage, like looking at pictures of cats 
  • Newspapers are not printed out by fax on street corners 
  • Fax is not the letter-writing mode of the future, cat pictures are 
  • Nobody wants a modem or fax machine planted in their skull 
  • Phones are not the size of bricks 
  • Hovercars don't exist 
  • You can't melt people's brains with your 133t haxxor fax skillz 
  • A phone or a laptop is not more expensive than a motorbike. 


 Anachronisms aside, Cyperpunk is surprisingly easy to pick up and play: you can generate a character very accurately in a few minutes. Part of this is because it removes any real say in your character's background; you have to pick from one of nine classes (including Rockerboys, Solos, Cops and Corporates), each with a single special skill. You're then encouraged to generate your life history, with one event per year after 16, roll for your sweet sense of style, even roll to see who you care about. 

This is all very, very easy indeed to get moving: I generated a full character in under 10 minutes, who ended up a 'silly fluffhead' rockerboy addicted to drugs and with a mental health problem, who dresses in battle armour and spiked heels, has a kid sister who looks up to him, and a pet cassette tape that he loves more than anything else in the world.

While it can appear simple, there's more than enough detail to go on. The three books (my edition also has the Friday Night Firefight expansion) come to a whole 150 pages, but have detailed corporate biographies, walkthroughs of games, and even encounter generators for anyone who wants to surprise their players with chance run-ins with celebrities, gangs (the 'Bradi Bunch' is mentioned as a particularly vicious band of miscreants) or corporate secret police.

Overall, Cyberpunk is silly, simple and hopelessly outdated. It's pretty much a defining game for the 1980s.

---

Chris also points out that to send a fax you type it into a computer, which sends it to a local post office, which then prints it out and delivers it to the recipient; also, adding call-waiting and autodial to your phone costs $2600.

Now, I went to high school with computer-loving kids in the 1990s, so obviously I know a lot of Cyberpunk fans, although they mostly came up playing the second edition. Despite all that -- and despite that same edition being one of the games owned by the cousin who set me on the Call of Cthulhu path -- I have never actually played it. Have you? Did you update it or was the retro-futurism part of the appeal for you? Let us know!

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Microscope is fun, low-content mode incoming.

It's November again, and for me that means it's National (although I am in a different nation) Novel Writing Month. I've written before about how I find that games and constraints help me do creative stuff, so despite some reservations about the format, I try to do it every year. I made a hell of a mess of it last year. The year before, I wrote The Barest Branch, which I am pleased with in spite of its flaws.

In short, there might be a little bit of a drought here for a while as I focus on that -- but it's only temporary! I will still be posting here and on my other blog, just less frequently.

However, I did get to do some gaming the other day! I went down to a group that organises one-shot games, usually indie games, here in Cambridge. Only a few of us turned out (the group wasn't running on its usual night), so we played us a game of Microscope.

This is a neat collaborative setting-history-creation game in which each player contributes periods, events and scenes according to a set of procedures that distribute different tasks and prompts -- it's got enough freedom that you can do anything you want, but enough structure that it isn't just "you tell a story. OK, now you tell a story." And because the setting is created in a non-linear way, it's super easy to create interesting narrative arcs; if you see something you want explained, you just go back and stick in an earlier explanation. Here's the setting history three of us created in about two hours (although it's not super legible):

(Click to embiggen)
So, yeah, I'm definitely picking that one up. So far so good.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Halloween monsters in D&D: or, stuff that shouldn't work but does.

Right -- it's Halloween tomorrow, so let's talk about monsters.


Now, RPGs are full of monsters, but not all monsters are Halloween monsters. I can't find a good link right now, but Chris Sims has been heard to observe that, say, Dracula is a Halloween monster but Godzilla isn't. Some monsters are "horror" monsters while others aren't.

You can see this principle at work in D&D easily. Some monsters -- owlbears, for example -- are just very dangerous wildlife. Others are stand-ins for various human stereotypes -- orcs as brutish barbarians, hobgoblins as military stormtrooper types. Yet others are much more science-fiction-y and often have a kind of puzzle element to them. I'm trying to think of an example right now, but the only one that comes to mind is beholders and I think that isn't 100% accurate. Anyway, my point is that D&D and similar games mash up lots of different monster types, in ways that probably shouldn't work. 

Let's take the vampire, for instance. Vampires turn up in a lot of media, of course, but when they turn up in horror stories it tends to be personal. There are very few horror stories -- as opposed to paranormal romances or comedies or whatever -- in which a vampire is part of a larger monster-y context. Vampires are individual monsters, or at the very least a little conspiracy of monsters. 

The vampire's horror comes partly from how unnatural it is, partly from the way it transgresses social conventions (which is also why it's sexy), partly from its spooky powers. But in a setting that's completely different from ours, where magical powers are commonplace, a vampire shouldn't be really scary. He's basically a particularly buff stirge in a tailcoat, a wizard with a few extra powers. 

And yet, I think that vampires do tend to work in D&D. I have no problem having them in my game, certainly, although they haven't really come up yet. But my experience of most horror monsters in fantasy games is that they don't work too badly. I think this is to do with the way D&D is usually pretty comfortable genre-hopping. 

I liken this to early Doctor Who -- back in the day each new story was not just the same characters arriving in a new location, but very much the same characters arriving in a different genre. "The Romans" is full of weird farce, "The Gunfighters" is a parody of westerns, but others are horror stories, historical adventures, and more-or-less straight science fiction. My campaign tends to work in discrete episodes -- usually anyway -- so perhaps that's part of it; each sequence is its own thing so each sequence has its own genre elements. 

I'm not sure if that's reflected in published scenarios; obviously, when TSR decided to horror things up they created their own horror-y setting for it. Someone with more knowledge of the history of D&D could tell you. 

On the other hand, this may not be a feature of D&D specifically, since as far as I can tell Frankenstein's-monster-types don't work in D&D at all. The idea of a "flesh golem" just thumps the whole Frankenstein thing. Perhaps it's because the monster's thing is pretty much just where he comes from. He doesn't have any special powers or anything, other than being very tall. His whole thing is that he's unnatural, which kind of means he doesn't work when made part of a type and part of a broader category of constructs. Frankenstein's monster just isn't as versatile as a vampire. 

Perhaps, then, the reason that vampires work in D&D is that the supervillain aspect is already there? Dracula already has that mastermind aspect, and a castle is not un-dungeon-like, so he works as an adventure-story villain and perhaps brings that horror quality with him. But poor old Frankie, robbed of his subtext, is just a brute, which is OK, but it's not like fantasy games were short on brutes. You could mess around with the Monster to make it tactically interesting, but I don't know what you can do to make it thematically interesting. 

L to R; Mook, nope, sure!, OK, excellent, what? 


Anyway, I don't know. I was just musing on the ways in which you can steal horror, mystery and crime drama elements for D&D games and they somehow work, even divorced from their original context. Broadly speaking, I think it might be a strength of the ripoff pastiche nature of a lot of games; you bring in a particular symbol and players are happy to assume a lot of the things that go with that symbol, even if those things don't make a whole lot of sense given your system or setting. 

Speaking of horror, if you've read this far I should mention that my little Lovecraft-y Viking-y ebook "The Barest Branch" is on sale until the end of Halloween over at Drivethru. It's just £1.25 until the end of the sale. Check it out if that's your kind of thing. 

Monday, 27 October 2014

D&D as street performance, or how to be the world's worst detective

(Update: the previous version of this post misidentified the university where Jennifer studies. My bad!)

The other day, I was walking through the Grafton Centre on my way to buy some shoes, when I met a young woman who handed me this:


So I asked her what it was, and she explained that she's a performing arts student from the University of Falmouth and that she was staging a performance the next day -- one indebted to D&D. I happened not to have a lot going on, so I decided to swing by while out running some errands. 


So, as you can see, her name is Jennifer Herron and the piece is called "Assassination! " It's a "scratch performance," which is to say a piece that isn't yet finished. Basically, it is a little mini-scenario that she runs for whoever happens by.


Character sheets! I played Krivoc, the half orc warrior, following in my traditional belief that the easiest way to encounter a new situation is playing a derpy face-kicker. Each character has an ability that gets activated by dinging a bell on the table, as you can see, together with a couple of sort of narrative personality traits. Sadly, in my enthusiasm to smite a fool I forgot to ding the bell myself.

And there's a map!

You can't go wrong with a map. 
After my own playthrough (found the culprit in the assassination but decided to side with her, framed someone I didn't like for the crime -- turns out a half-bright half-orc is not the person you want solving your crimes) I asked Jennifer why she had decided to use D&D for her project. She told me that she's an avid fan (and a LARPer) and that she thought of D&D as a form of interactive theatre -- her programme is apparently big on interactivity. 

The old "are RPGs art" debate is usually presented as a conflict between traditional D&D types and Storygamers or WoD enthusiasts. I think it is very interesting to see that it isn't like that for at least one D&D fan.

Someone -- possibly Gary Alan Fine? -- said that it was very interesting how gamers were able to switch between different modes of interaction (what would be called "stances" in Big Model Theory) without any warning, and how everyone at the table was able to understand that. For instance, I can go from speaking in character ("you son of a bitch, you sold us out!") to describing my character's actions ("and then I punch him in the chops") to talking about game mechanics ("six damage!") to talking about unrelated stuff ("pass the crisps?"). And although these are four very different kinds of communication, we can flip between them in a way that everyone at the table understands. 

I was thinking about this when Jennifer mentioned the kinds of intense emotional experiences that can happen in gaming. And I absolutely agree that those experiences are important -- but at the same time, I think that if you were to look at my D&D group swapping jokes or trying to puzzle their way through a dungeon room, you wouldn't think that you were looking at people engaging in a form of theatre. And yet, it's undeniable that those moments, when they do happen, do have a theatrical quality to them. So perhaps one of the interesting things about gaming is the way in which it can switch between those moments and other activities without (necessarily, anyway) disrupting any of them (although breaking immersion in live games can be a big problem, I suppose).

I asked Jennifer what the response of passersby had been, and she told me it had been variable -- some people had been responsive, but others had been a little reluctant. I think that getting people to be creative on cue -- even with the kind of prompts and constraints that a game provides -- is pretty challenging, and certainly I would never be able to set out my shingle and just run a little game for people in public. But then that's why I am not going into the performing arts, I suppose. (You may say that teaching is a performance, and it is, but it's not the same at all.)

Apparently the final performance might even involve drafting in other students as NPCs, which I think is a pretty interesting idea -- it would present a very different experience, but a lot of the structure would remain the same. In fact, you could run it for a "party" of audience members.

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting take on the D&D experience -- and interesting in particular how closely a D&D art project resembles, well, a game of D&D. Although I think you might not be getting the full experience without a party of characters with differing agendas.

You can learn more about the development of the project by checking out Jennifer's YouTube channel here

I don't want to spam people with promotional links, but I will just mention that my little Lovecraft-y, Viking-y, horribly-depressing-y novella "The Barest Branch" is now on sale for a mere £1.25 at Drivethru as part of their Halloween sale. Sale ends October 31st, at which point it goes up to about £2, so ... still pretty cheap.

Next up, I'm going to talk about using "horror" monsters as D&D monsters, and why I think it works even though it absolutely shouldn't. 

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Trip report: SELWG

This past Sunday, pal Chris (of new steampunk fiction blog Dreadnaughts and Dragons) and I went to the annual SELWG wargames show at Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in London. And it was pretty good!

I got some stuff -- nothing too exciting if you're not me, I guess. I'm mainly on this SAGA kick right now, and I got some Conquest Games Norman knights, discount Foundry Vikings (£8 for 10 figures, which is pretty good, especially for Foundry) and a Norman church from Timeline Miniatures, which is going to be a little 11th-c church for my Anglo-Saxon setting. No double-arch windows, but it'll do. With its later medieval crenellated top, it will also be the village church in my Strange Aeons games. I will be doing a more detailed blog on building and painting this. And I can use the last of my Renedra gravestones to give it a little detachable cemetery.

I also picked up a few bargains at the Bring and Buy, including this:

Compendium for £5? Well, all right. 
And from another trader, I picked up a copy of the Havok starter set for £1. I only became aware of this game recently -- it was a little game with plastic figures and stat cards and stuff, and it was one of those early attempts (1996, I think?) to do a totally-integrated game, where each figure comes with the rules for it. Mainly I got it out of curiosity, and for the robots! It has big stompy robots.

They are pretty stompy!
And of course there were games to see and participate in. 




Deal Wargames Society presented this Vietnam game in (I think) 15mm. I think my favourite thing about it was the little touches, from black-suited CIA agents stopping a car to villagers working in rice paddies. There were also some nice aircraft models, giving the game a multi-level appeal.


I really liked this rocket launch from Loughton Strike Force's "Hill 112" Normandy 1944 game.


Peter Pig were running a demo game (PBI, I think?). The thing I really liked about it was that the roads, ground colours and even some of the small terrain features like walls and haystacks were painted or mounted on the inside of this collapsing table. The trees and buildings were then added separately. If you look at the middle, you can see that it's hinged, sort of like a wallpapering table if the folding edge were the long edge. I thought that was a pretty cool idea. 


Southend Wargames Club did this "Talavera, but not as we know it" battle set in 1709. I really liked the fields, roads, and hills, which I felt were really lifelike. The makers informed me that they had actually chosen the terrain based on what was known to be planted in the fields around Talavera. That's more effort than I want to go to, but just varying the crops and patterns certainly makes the ground look very natural. 


GLC wargames club put on this Siege of Madrid game, featuring lots of MDF terrain -- the lightness of this material means nice tall buildings at a reasonable cost, and it really works well for an era like this one, where you have rendered walls and tall buildings. The added banners give it period flavour. I liked the command vignette, complete with Soviet military advisers. 


More MDF terrain on display in this participation tourney game of Crossed Lances. A big ring for the melee, lists, stands, archery butts ... it was pretty complete. We played a game of this. We also got to play in a chariot-racing game hosted by Crawley Wargames Club. Like all good participation games, there were hats: 
Chris models the latest in auriga fashions.
On the starting line. 
Chris at the end of turn one. 
Me, halfway through the last lap. 
     This was a great little participation game, with much reckless driving, breathless anticipation of cards turning over and applause when a young player took the victory and was rewarded with a free figure. 

I also picked up some free 15 mm sci-fi models from the Ground Zero Games stand, and Chris very generously gave me his. They will go into the 15 mm sci-fi pile, which is very definitely a project for next year, after the Vikings and the Normans and the 1/72 Romans and maybe some more Cthulhu stuff and then there will be the Reaper kickstarter arriving and and and ... 

Overall, I didn't do too badly. My painting score took a pretty nasty hit, but nothing I can't fix in a couple of weeks. I bought things I wanted, but other than the Havok box, which was a one-quid impulse buy, I don't think I bought anything I won't use or at least read. I even had a few pounds left at the end to put back in my conscience-free go-ape-shit-at-conventions tin.