Friday 29 July 2016

The Magonium Mine Murders: Plot text

So, here's a question: how much background do you want in a plot? I find that a lot of scenarios provide very detailed background, not all of which is immediately relevant. This can lead to scenarios being overlong, which can make them fun to read but tough to use. This is a phenomenon we've seen before: scenarios are often written to be enjoyable to read, which is fine, but when you're not sure about something and you're trying to look it up at the table that can be a pain.

This salt mine map is the inspiration for the Magonium mine. 
Now, if you think you might want to play The Magonium Mine Murders at some point, there may be some spoilers here, so I'm going to put this next section below a cut.

Wednesday 27 July 2016

A joint project: Age of Sigmar

It's not that I play Age of Sigmar. I've never even really thought about it. But scheduled painting projects help clear the ol' backlog, and I do like that idea. With that in mind, Tim of The Responsible One's Wargaming Blog and I are starting a joint project. We're each going to paint 1,000 points of Age of Sigmar forces over the next five months with the goal of creating little armies for a game in the new year.

I don't intend to use actual Age of Sigmar models, unless some fall from the sky onto me, because I am not made of money. Instead, I'll be using whatever I've got lying around plus whatever I happen to come across in the next few months. There's oldhammer metal in there, Reaper Bones, historical plastics, whatever.

If this sounds like fun to you, why not join in? The idea is that by posting frequently, we encourage each other to stay on schedule and even create a little shared mythology for the characters. I should probably be focusing on the painting I need to do for next week, but you know how it is -- I'm already thinking of stuff for this project instead.

Anyway, here are some of the models that are going to wind up incorporated into my budget vanguard. Starting a project box is always fun!

I'm not including the sprues from Sprue Hell that are going to contribute to the Marauder ranks, of course.

Monday 25 July 2016

Frugal gaming: this weekend's finds

It's been a good weekend for charity shops and car boot sales. Here are a few of the things I've been picking up!

I don't know where this toy came from, but it's going to be an alien plant for Rogue Trader and similar games. I hope to paint it such that its spring-loaded mouth will still open and close. I got it out of a 50p box at a car boot sale.

My wife picked this carrying case up for me while out shopping on Saturday. Not bad for £2! I owe a lot of my cool frugal-gaming bargains to her alertness.

And finally, the thing I'm probably most excited about ...

This is a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles submarine, but when I'm done with it it's going to be a dropship for my Orks. I'm thinking of removing the front fins and replacing them with more substantial wings or thrusters, while the top hatch will probably become a gunner's turret with a Gretchin head sticking out. Obviously the mouth will get some big plasticard teef. I will probably give it a big old tailfin just to make it look less turtly.

I think these are being cleared out, presumably because of the new film; I saw one in a discount retailer for £15, but I got mine at a car boot sale for 50p because that's how I roll. It's missing everything it could be missing, like the periscope and the figure that comes with it, but that's actually ideal for me.

It even opens up, although I think detailing the interior might be a bridge too far.

Thursday 21 July 2016

Buy things for cheaps!

Is it that time already? It's DriveThru's annual Christmas in July sale, which is good news for all you pound-spending PDF buyers, since that exchange rate's not doing us any favours right now. Lots of good stuff is on sale, and I'm going to quickly list a few things I've talked about on the blog that are currently on sale. 

First off, I'd be remiss not to mention my own book, The Barest Branch. It's an early-medieval Lovecraftian novella, and it doesn't have a satisfying ending or sympathetic characters or anything like that. But I like it. It's available in both PDF and MOBI formats. 

Obviously, this year I've been playing a lot of Frostgrave. I think it's pretty good, and the PDF is on sale at the moment, as are its various supplements. 

Still grooving on Silent Legions, although I haven't had a chance to play it. I recommend pretty much anything Kevin Crawford does, honestly. If you'd like to read my review of it, the first part is here and the second part is here

And of course I've gone on and on about King of Sartar, now available in a dandy new edition. 

Frugal gaming: cheap monster inspiration

In addition to working on The Magonium Mine Murders, I've also been contemplating doing something with my whole frugal gaming miniatures-from-toys habit. As I mentioned in my last post, there are three principles: substitution, inspiration and modification. Today I want to talk about the first two, which aren't all that different from each other.

When I talk about finding inspiration in toys, a lot of people are surprised: I get a lot of "where do you find all this stuff?" And the answer is that I do have a slight advantage, in that work takes me all over town and it's not hard to just poke my head into charity shops or The Works or Poundland or whatever. I also used to live just up the road from a big car boot sale, so there was that. But really, you just have to kind of remain passively alert to what's out there.

Giant animals are an obvious example of substitution figures. Indeed, I assume one of the reasons there are so many giant deer or whatever in D&D is that it was easy to just get some plastic toy animals and stick 'em on the table. If they're a little out of scale, well, they must be giant wolves.

You can take these to extremes, as with these caterpillars I got from a zoo gift shop:

These are pretty good frugal monsters: cheap, visually distinctive, and full of resonance for people. In a sense that's substitution, because I'm sure there are giant caterpillars in the game setting somewhere. But it's more like inspiration, because it's the model that gives rise to the monster by making you think about its visual element. Caterpillars are cute but also weird, and you can see what sort of role they might play in a game setting. If they eat organic detritus, where do you get that much? They can crawl on walls and ceilings, which makes them fun dungeon inhabitants. They're not very fast and probably not aggressive, so they can be a hazard rather than a fight. And, of course, what sort of butterflies do they turn into?

What indeed? 
When I saw the caterpillars, I immediately thought about what they'd look like on the tabletop. They were cheap -- something like 25p each -- and they were fun and colourful. Then I started to think about how they would work. They'd likely be a monster mainly intended to creep out or confuse the players, which is a monster type that really benefits from some kind of visual representation. 

There are monsters that don't -- for all that skeleton models are easy and fun to paint, for instance, everyone knows what one looks like. So unless you see a bunch of skellingtons super cheap, it's not really worth going out of your way for them, or orcs or whatever. But weird monsters are a different story.

Tuesday 19 July 2016

Magonium Mine Murders: Dramatis personae

When you're writing a mystery scenario, you have a lot of characters, and you need to convey information about them tersely. Some of these guys are more important and will need extra information, but here's what the preliminary NPC list will look like.

The Dead
  • Alba, mining camp administrator. Got too close to a counterfeiting scheme. 
  • Natan Pentic, miner and inventor. He lost the Duplication Engine.
  • Olij, Ekim and Maldish, miners. Like Pentic, killed in cave-ins caused by the Mole Men.

The Living

In the mining camp
  • Rogin Hyland, an alchemist and conspirator. Killed Alba
  • Bellows, Alba's overworked former assistant. 
  • Lumicent Pulver, disillusioned veteran and guard captain. 
  • Ildico, Arinbjorn and Horvat, slaves. 
  • Simvesh Threen, Chert, and Uldaria Lattiger, miners. 
In the boomtown
  • Schenck, a crooked fight promoter. 
  • Calvey, a bookie, his crony. 
  • Gola, Pakrish, Karud, Luz and Crazy Legs, prizefighters. 
  • Lurik, Iggsy and Big Billiken, mobsters. 
  • Livia Cherm, disgraced and bitter former mine engineer. 
In the surrounding area
  • Orvant the Blind, outraged hermit and mystic. 
  • Sirine, a bandit chief. 
  • Arn, Roby, Two-shivs and Jul, bandits. 
  • Gerrick, the law north of the river. 
  • Lovint Kroth, the law south of the river. 
  • Iron Scorpion Nine, an efficient and unforgiving military officer. 
That's a lot of characters, but in most cases you don't really need to know much more about them. In the expanded version, they might get a sentence of description. 

Because you have been patient, have this photo of a Reaper Bones model I painted for an upcoming game ambushing some hapless barbarians.

The ridged texture of the thing's exoskeleton made it an ideal candidate for my usual speed-painting practice of priming grey, drybrushing up from there and applying colour using washes. 

Thursday 14 July 2016

Quick bad guys for D&D

I needed some muscle for the baddies in my D&D game, and I didn't have much time; I was dreaming up this scenario while on holiday in Italy. As soon as I came home, I rummaged through the Box o' Bones to find some guys who might do the trick. I wanted some burly dudes in evil-looking armour, and here's what I had lying around:

These guys are from the Reaper Bones II Kickstarter; I painted them in my usual speed method, priming them grey, highlighting up to white and applying colour with washes. Torso-face guy was easy (he's just that method with a 50/50 black and green wash all over his body and some contrasting areas picked out) but the one I'm really happy with is the guy in the centre, whose evil flesh-armour looks pretty good. It's a layer of GW Carroburg Crimson followed by a 50/50 mix of Carroburg Crimson and good old Tamiya Clear Red. The bony areas are Army Painter Soft Tone highlighted up with VMC Ivory.

These knock-off Chaos Warriors look a bit sloppy but I think they're all right for rush paintjobs on one-off baddies. If I were going to go into more detail I'd define the edges of the armour panels more clearly, maybe add some metal scuffs and wear, stuff like that. But to be honest I don't feel like most of the Bones models reward that level of investment for me; cleaning them up is such a nuisance. They really shine in situations like this one: I would never have bought these models, but I got them super cheap and when I needed some evil-looking dudes, I just pulled them out and gave them a super-quick paint job. I'm pretty pleased.

Plus I mashed out this quick sorceress -- also from that Bones Kickstarter -- while I was at it. I think she looks OK, although this photo could be better. She might turn up in Frostgrave or other games.

Tuesday 12 July 2016

Frugal gaming: columns!

Stopped for lunch on the way home and popped into a local charity shop only to find two of these:

8 columns for £4 isn't bad -- it'd be £10 at retail. So I snapped them up and brought them home. They're pretty nice, although they have a hole in the top (for the dowel) that I'm gonna need to fill or cover. Still, between Frostgrave and D&D I represent a lot of ruined temples and great pillared halls, so I'm very pleased with these. Check 'em out:

In the arena of Emperor Pan Augustus, hapless human gladiators fight to the death!

They are a bit stark white at the moment, so I might give them a thin sepia wash and an off-white drybrush just to bring out the texture a bit more and bring them into line with the rest of my ruined classical terrain.

Sunday 10 July 2016

Maze of the Blue Medusa review

Short version: it's pretty great.

Long version:

OK, so Maze of the Blue Medusa (available from Sator or I guess Satyr Press) is a megadungeon collaboration between Zak S. of Playing D&D with Porn Stars and Patrick Stuart of False Machine. It is a copiously-illustrated hardbound book in the style that you've come to expect from the previous work of both creators: taking the basic structure of D&D and making it memorably weird. Although there are traps, monsters and treasure, there are no orcs; the scoundrels exploring this bizarre environment are going to be up against chameleon women, moon men, masked weirdoes who think they're birds, the sinister Empty Knight, mummies stuffed with books, liches, aurum spectres, etc., etc., etc. And, of course, the titular Blue Medusa.

Here is a video I made showing what the book looks like. If you don't feel like clicking on it, basically, it looks pretty great and is well laid out and easy to use, more so than most gaming books.

The Maze

OK, so the titular Maze is a megadungeon of about 300 rooms, roughly divided into a bunch of smaller thematically and geographically-linked sectors. At the heart of the maze is the medusa herself, basically acting as a jailer for all kinds of monsters, demons, freaks of nature, supervillains, would-be tyrants and so on. Around the medusa and her collection of petrified hellraisers you have the usual accretion of scoundrels, lunatics, power-mad schemers, hapless dolts, hubristic adventurers, pitiable survivors of long-collapsed empires, religious devotees and bizarre products of reality-warping events. In particular, three sisters who once headed an empire are imprisoned here, together with the treacherous ministers who betrayed them. Their interlocking ... areas of effect, I guess? ... are a big part of why the different sections of the Maze have their different feels.

Aside from the random encounters, the monsters in the maze tend to be unique -- so there's a minotaur, for instance, but he's a named character with particular personality and agenda. There are various liches and mummies, but they are each distinct -- if sometimes briefly sketched -- individuals. And quite a lot of the monsters are one-offs of various kinds, like the two-headed monstrosity made from the severed hands of a giant demon.

A lot of what appeals to me about the Maze is the way in which it's a product of its history, without needing a history lesson to understand or explore. Everything in it feels like it's weighed down by millennia of betrayal and isolation, without you necessarily having to know about the relationship between the Triarchy and the Saurid Empire to appreciate it. A lot of the characters in it are about the weight of years and history, and the way in which life can narrow over time into futile, destructive obsession, but it doesn't feel preachy or on-the-nose.

The writing

I like the writing style here -- it's evocative and moody without being pretentious (well, that's a matter of taste, and I accept that I might be more inclined toward pretentiousness than most) or overlong.

Here's an example from the Gallery section of the Maze.

121. Fortuna -- Crown of Night

Sphinx-like statue recovered from ancient realm. Her crown is composed of the battlements of the city she was made to defend. She knows a lot about that city and not much else. Quite depressed as her city is long gone, locked away in the hidden storage area of a forgotten dungeon. 

Then you get a description of the city (which Fortuna is trying to remember more clearly) and a really clever and fun riddle mechanic by which the PCs can help Fortuna recover her memory.

Like any dungeon book, Maze of the Blue Medusa is probably not best read straight through, but I was so keen that that's just what I did. And there was a point, somewhere around room 200 or so, that weirdness fatigue set in. I started thinking "oh, ho hum, what's in this next room? I bet it's a tragic grotesque performing a futile task." But that's what you get when you try to read something that's not meant to be a novel as though it were a novel (is that why many scenarios are hard to use at the table? Because they're written to be read in a sitting? I suspect at least partly).

Set meal or a la carte?

Maze of the Blue Medusa is very different from your typical D&D dungeon, which to my admittedly inexperienced eye seems like a good thing. It might be hard to integrate into an existing campaign, especially one that has a lot of conventional fantasy elements. Even I, who love the weird stuff, tend to like occasional moments of dreamlike Gormenghast-on-acid fantasy against a backdrop of relatably mundane humanity, while Maze seems more into presenting a world of bizarre Gormenghast etc. which, when entered with the appropriate spirit, eventually reveals its tragically relatable humanity.

Now, there are two ways to deal with this: first and most obviously, the dungeon contains its own isolating idea -- it's not a hole in the ground, but rather some kind of alternate dimension. In fact, one of the cultures that has access to it thinks that the Maze is literally the afterlife and that all the people and creatures in it are gods or spirits. So even within the context of the regular 2d4-orcs kind of world, the Maze can fit because it's meant to be totally bonkers in context. So in this case the relatable everyday-ness comes from the PCs rather than their immediate setting.

Secondly, you could just break it down for parts. I think you'd lose some of the charm of the dungeon like this -- it's the balance of all the different elements that I think makes it really amazing -- but there is definitely a lot of good stuff in there. Individual traps, characters, magic items and so on are so densely-packed that I think I found a couple of dozen bits I'd be willing to steal just within the first section of the dungeon.

Honestly, what I might do is pilfer a bunch of individual characters and locations for my current (relatively high-level, probably not long before concluding) campaign, and then, at some point in the future, drop the Maze whole-hog into my next D&D game.

Using the Maze in 5th ed. 

Maze of the Blue Medusa is pretty systemless; most of its monster mechanics are one-off. It's grounded in a sort of consensus version of old-school D&D, which means that its HP totals in particular are probably a bit lower than you'd expect from a 5th ed. game. If/when I run it, I might add a bit to most bad guy totals and implement some kind of rule of thumb for calculating save DCs. Other than that, with a little bit of flexibility I think it's perfectly doable in 5th at the indicated levels. The book suggests that characters of level 1-5 can do this, assuming they box clever and don't mind dying a bit, and characters of level 6-10 should be pretty comfortable. I wouldn't say for certain without running it, but that sounds about right to me. My party are level 14 at the moment, and in stand-up-fight terms they'd stroll this, although the brainy parts are equally challenging for characters of any level.

There's a fair bit of blending player and character wits, and a surprising amount of stuff that's based on the characters' past and experiences. The latter part means that I'm not sure you'll get the most out of this dungeon if you just drop fresh characters into it. Fortunately, even getting into the dungeon requires pulling off a presumably complex art theft, so you can start the characters out with that and build up some fodder for when they meet the various memory- and regret-themed critters that play on their pasts.

So overall, then? 

Ultimately, dungeons are for playing and thus I can't really tell what this one is like for me and my players until I actually run some of it. But I found the writing evocative and almost always clear, the layout convenient and easy to use, and the art (with one or two minor niggles) cool and inspiring. If a regular old dungeon were presented with this level of clarity and efficiency, it would be excellent, but Maze of the Blue Medusa combines accessible presentation with a dungeon that's genuinely fantastic and eerie. If this sounds at all interesting to you, you should at least splash out a few bucks for one of the PDF options.

Wednesday 6 July 2016

A relatively low-content post

I was unwell today, so I cancelled my D&D game -- with much regret! This means that I can't post the miniatures I was painting for it (a good thing too, as I haven't actually finished them), or the cool little mini-scenario I wrote for it. I haven't finished Maze of the Blue Medusa, so that review is going to have to wait until next week. And today I'm teaching for seven hours (well, just under six and a half, actually, but it's still a lot and then there'll be quite a lot of travel as well), so I just don't have time to write much that's very complicated.

But all is well and I hope to have some good posts for you next week.

Thanks for your patience.

In the meantime, here's a photo of a Poundland purchase that's going to get turned into a piece of miniatures scenery. I don't know if I've posted it before, but hopefully not.

Tuesday 5 July 2016

Magonium Mine Murders: planning the presentation

When making a thing for use, make a thing you would use yourself. Obvious, right? So when I think about how to create the information-maps for The Magonium Mine Murders, I should be thinking about how I would use them at the table. For myself, that's very much a question of space. Let's take a look.

This is my DMing seat at the end of the dining table. On the right are large-scale maps and other things I only have to look at every once in a while; on the left are books that are going to get pulled out in play for reference, but which don't have to stay open. The irregular space beyond that is dice, miniatures, etc., plus of course where I keep my drink and stuff.

So the empty space in the centre needs to contain whatever I need at any one moment -- that is, it should have the info I need for a given location plus the stats of any items or people in it.

I can fit an opened book into the space if I need to, so the maximum size should be about A3.

But this sideways A4 pad fits much more neatly. So two pages of an A5 notebook would work well, or an A5 book like the excellent Forgive Us. Only problem is that most small A5 books, which is what you'd typically get with a shortish adventure, don't lie flat.

Or an intermediate-sized book like my recent acquisition (eagerly reading right now, full review coming soon), Maze of the Blue Medusa.

And it lies flat, has colour-coded page edges, has a bookmark, crucial maps frequently repeated ... 
Or indeed this handy DM's notebook from Squarehex

So let's say that the ideal structure for Magonium Mine Murders is something like this: you have the booklet, and the booklet contains the background, the detailed rules stuff, all that sort of thing. And then you have a series of single sheets, sort of like one-page dungeons (I see that there are collected volumes now available on DTRPG: 2015 and 2016).

If it's a PDF, that actually makes more sense -- you have your reading thing and then you have your one-sheets you can print out and bring to the table. Hmmm.

OK, this is all worth thinking about.