Thursday 29 March 2018

Another Monster Man contest!

Hey, do you folks remember the cavalcade of awesome creativity that was the Monster Man contest? I sure do! I enjoyed it so much I'm gonna do it again .. but this time it's going to be a little different!

Last time I asked people to design a monster based on a cheap toy, like this one:

That was fun, but I'm not gonna do the exact same thing again, at least not just yet. Instead we're going to do a quicker contest based around a different source. I explain in today's bonus episode of Monster Man.

But if you don't have time to listen to that right now, here's the rules:

1. Go to this article about D&D monster names created by neural networks.

2. Pick a monster such as the Slug, Spectral or the Mommy, Greater

3. Create a Monster Manual-style entry for your chosen name, with a description and stats for your favourite edition of D&D. Or your favourite RPG, whatever it might be. I'm not the boss of you! If you want to add a picture, that'd be double cool.

4. Send it to me by April 14th.

5. I will pick, by methods as yet undecided, a handful of winners.

6. I will create an episode of Monster Man for the winning monsters. Winners will also receive a Monster Man goody bag full of prizes. I've already had some offers of prize support, but if you have an RPG product you'd like to give away to our winners, give me a shout! Otherwise I'll think of something. It'll be a surprise!

7. You can enter more than once if you like, but you can't win more than once.

And that's it! Go make some monsters. Share this contest with your friends; the more the merrier.

Monday 26 March 2018

Shadow War Armageddon retrospective: or, in defense of bad games

Back in the autumn, I joined in the Shadow War Armageddon campaign put on by the fine young people of (deep breath) the Cambridge University Roleplaying and Tabletop games Society, hereinafter CURTS. This was just after Shadow War Armageddon had come out, and I was keen to put my Orks to good use. The campaign has now wrapped up with a big final bash, and although I missed a few sessions I feel like I played enough to prompt some thoughts.

Splatgut takes aim with his Big Shoota
So, first off: it seems like I spend a lot of time talking to people who care a lot about game design, and I sort of care about it myself. This leads me to think about games in design-y terms sometimes. In those terms, Shadow War Armageddon is ... well, I don't know if it's a bad game, but it ain't great. It has the following flaws:

  • Although its core mechanic is the simple Warhammer 40K second edition ruleset (which is simple to me, at least, because I grew up with it), it piles on layer after layer of exceptions and special conditions, virtually guaranteeing that you will forget at least one of them during a match and feel like a dummy. Special rules for the weapons, special rules for the scenario, special rules for the factions. I admit that I am not a rules guy at the best of times, so maybe this is just me. 
  • It is, hands down no foolin', the worst-organised rulebook I have read, or at least it has the highest ratio of budget to quality. Not all the kill teams are in the same section! Kill teams and their special ops are in two different parts of the book, except only for some teams. Some teams have their weapons in different sections, but others don't. I realise that this is because some teams are "core" and others aren't, but how is that relevant? That's not how people actually play the game, a fact that ten seconds' reflection would have revealed.
  • Despite its complexity, its advancement system is so limited that it's not really all that much fun. 
  • It is not balanced for toffee. In particular, the rules were designed for a game where everybody starts out with a Move of 4 and a BS of 3 (and an I of 3 as well) and gunsights are limited. I'm not just bitter because I spent a lot of time pinned, but when a significant chunk of your opponent's team starts the game hitting on 2s, there's only so much cover you can take. Similarly, the introduction of kill teams with a move of 6 should have made the designers rethink the scenario rules. There are loads of scenarios which try to prevent turn-one charges with 8" distance restrictions, which is not a big deal for kill teams where some or all of the models have move 6. 
  • It does, to some degree, compensate for its lack of balance by being random as anything. I think my win-loss was about 50-50, or slightly less, but I cannot attribute this to any tactical merit on my part. I just slugged forward and sometimes I got into optimum Ork range and shredded my opponents with sustained fire and face-punches, and sometimes I didn't. I did sometimes win by remembering to focus on mission objectives, but that's partly because I just find missions with objectives fun.

The Grotmob advances, ready for action!
Now, all of this sounds like I didn't like the game, but actually ... my view on it is much more equivocal. I had a good old time playing in this campaign, although getting all the terrain to a place far from my house was a bit of a nuisance. Still, I was getting the hang of it by the end. I'm gonna buy one of those crates with the little rolly wheels.

Sorry, yes -- I enjoyed it! I mean, it's not going to win any awards, and if it does there's something fishy, but its very goofiness works in favour of it. Its high level of randomness and its goofy exceptions wind up provoking more laughs at the table than frustration, and it produces the kind of wargaming moments everyone likes -- moments that illuminate the personalities of the players and get retold at subsequent sessions. The thought of one of my Orks running around carrying a lectern, proudly proclaiming that he was the Boss now because he had a table, or Badlug squishing people like grapes with his power klaw and then, surrounded by the corpses of his foes, deciding it was time to bottle out, is good for a laugh.

I've mentioned that randomness cancels out the balance issues to some degree, but another thing that can compensate for balance issues is a general attitude of insouciance and/or inexperience. In a group that was half veteran killers and half total rookies, the weird disparities between some of the kill teams would have been frustrating, but in a group mostly composed of beginners no one really tried to build some ultimate murder squad. I encourage this attitude.

GW games are expensive, but they have this weird effect where their shared vocabulary works in favour of them. If Shadow War Armageddon were released as a spin-off for, I dunno, Beyond the Gates of Antares, no one at CURTS would play it, partly because they wouldn't already have models knocking about to play it with and partly because it would be unfamiliar to them. It was really interesting to see how the one guy in the group who didn't have a lot of familiarity with 40K struggled -- you sometimes forget that not everyone grew up with this game and take for granted the ability to, I don't know, tell a flamer and a meltagun apart at a glance and assess their relative capabilities.

(I feel bad because I think I was a little hard on that guy, actually; I am 90% more chilled out than I was when I was younger, but sometimes I still get impatient and I ought to learn to relax about stuff more.)

My main point is that the familiarity does have genuine benefits. On paper, Shadow War Armageddon is a hard game to learn. In practice, a huge segment of the gaming population already owns the miniatures and already understands what the statline means.

This may be for historical reasons that are more to do with savvy marketing and fun IP than how good the game is, but here's a question for you: who cares? Game designers, I have no doubt. Other than them?

So take a look at that photo. That's the final game, with seven players playing on an 8 x 4 (ish) table. You can see that there's painted terrain, stuff scratch-built out of foamboard, fantasy terrain, terrain made from junk, army man toys, I mean the whole bit. The whole thing's a mess. But it was a ton of fun.

And that's really important for me to remember. Like a lot of people who are into miniatures gaming, I spend a lot of time paying attention to the writings and works of people who are much better painters and terrain makers than I am. When you do that, it can be easy to feel frustrated about what you perceive as your own lack of progress. But this game was set up pretty quickly and there were all kinds of interesting sightlines and tricky angles and people cursing the terrain and people forgetting where models were hiding, and much laughter. And it has stuff people made themselves, and creative use of found objects -- the things I love!

The buzzchoppa isn't the most supremely pointless weapon in the game, but it's close.

Boss Badlug is your basic Evil Sunz boss: a status-obsessed meathead consumed with the need for the latest gadgets.
I have often lamented that there doesn't seem to be a sci-fi Frostgrave. I have to confess that I haven't tried Mini Gangs yet, even though I have the rulebook, and I have backed the Factious Waste Kickstarter, so I guess there's that, but I haven't found a game that gives me the simplicity and the ... interesting swinginess? ... that Frostgrave does. I absolutely accept that it isn't perfect, but right now I think it's very close to my preferences in a skirmish game. I just want the same thing but with aliens and zap guns, which may be the root of my problem.

These Ramshackle Games terrain pieces make great cover and great objectives.
High above the deck of the Space Hulk, Badlug battles the dreaded Nunboss!
In short, then, I have had a good old time over the last two terms playing a game that is ... let's call it flawed. My enjoyment of this may be more revealing in terms of my priorities than the actual game, but as I've got older I've found that I care about games in the abstract less and much more about my own priorities -- this is because I'm no longer really interested in universalising from the stuff I care about. I'm just interested in meeting my own specific goals.

And that's why a game that isn't all that great can still be a lot of fun.

Wednesday 14 March 2018

New year, new campaign: a scenario

By the time you read this, the second session of my Other Dust campaign will already have happened and the players will probably know all of this. However, there might be one or two things they haven't spotted, so if you're a player in the campaign, you might not want to read this.

OK, everyone gone? Let's take a look at how I created this short Other Dust scenario. There isn't a lot that's system-specific; it's really just an example of how I develop an idea and the value of random generation!

To begin with: I started out with the parameters of a randomly-generated ruin from the Other Dust rulebook. I knew that this place was a former research establishment that people had attempted, but failed, to reactivate. I also knew that it was inhabited by "beasts." I initially planned for it to be inhabited by a pack of wild Gorehounds who would attack the caravan that was holding the PCs prisoner, giving them an opportunity to escape. But they up and escaped anyway without my intervention, so that was OK.

I had decided that the party trying to restore the Transfer Station were a group of monks from a settlement named CREDO. The random rolls for CREDO produced some weird effects: it was a theocracy that had access to a very powerful piece of pretech but was otherwise medieval-level in its technology. I decided that the ruling caste of priests had some knowledge of pretech but everyone else was at a swords-and-horses level. I then decided there would be a heresy within the faith that was interested in going out and getting more pretech, while the conservative rulers would object to anything that diminished the uniqueness of their big pretech doodad.

As a result, among the prisoners I put another CREDO monk, who had gone looking for his missing colleagues after they never returned from their attempt to reactivate the site, which I named Transfer Station 70. I still hadn't decided what the station actually did, and after the gorehound attack became unnecessary I started to get the sense that simple predators weren't interesting enough to be a main antagonist -- they had been intended to be a complication in a battle with the bandits.

So the last session ended with the PCs about to descend into the access tunnels under Transfer Station 70. I improvised during the session, saying that the Station was a nanofabricator facility -- a neutral nanobot slurry was pumped in here, then encoded with the requisite programming and pumped out as everything from construction material to shower gel. Lot of nanites in the Other Dust setting, where "nanite" = "magic" throughout.

So, over the next week I had to figure out what was down there, based on the following information:
  • missing monks
  • nanotech factory with lots of tanks and pipes
  • something more interesting than wild animals
So I sat down to think about a background. Now, I have mentioned here before that this game uses miniatures. They're not vital, and I'm not picky about positioning, but I do feel that a game with a strong visual inspiration component benefits from having something like them -- and anyway, I just enjoy painting. I decided that for my antagonists in this scenario, I wanted to use the Melty Men, some cool models from ThunderChild Miniatures

However, I only have two Melty Man models, so that wasn't going to be enough. I decided that there would be an intermediary stage, someone who was not yet completely transformed into a Melty Man by being immersed in wildly malfunctioning nanovector slurry. I later decided that these were what you got when you put a corpse, rather than a living person, into the slurry. I used some army men and hot glue to quickly knock up three of these zombie-like creatures. 

They're a little bit rough, but they were essentially free. Working with cheap materials and not paying attention to the fine details is part and parcel of creating single-use miniatures. If they cost a lot or took a long time to paint, you'd never make them, or at least I wouldn't. 

Initially the fact that they're wearing some kind of uniforms was just "eh, they're army men," but it would later come to be significant. 

So here's the outline I roughed out: 

It doesn't look very good, but that's because the cat walked on it with muddy paws. 

You may notice that Zora lacks a goal; what she winds up doing sort of depends on how the PCs interact with her. She basically comes from a religious context that tells her that pretech machines are divine. This one seems to want to turn people into glowing sludge monsters, which is definitely weird, but who is she to question the divine will? She's not completely out of touch with reality, though -- she's just got really bad tunnel vision on this issue. She could be persuaded to help shut down the machine, as long as the PCs are willing to overlook the fact that she turned her own colleagues into monsters. (Update: they killed her with a grenade and didn't give a heck.)

Anyway, I then pulled out my dungeon-mapping pad from Squarehex and roughed out a map. 

In retrospect, it could have been twice as large, but I left myself some room in case the session runs over and I want to link the complex to some other underground feature. (Update: it ran bang on the dot, reaching a satisfying conclusion just when it was time for everyone to go home.)

I ginned up some stats for the Melty Men and then went to do generate some loot from the random loot tables. I got a good amount of military equipment, as you can see, including an Insurgent Combat Shell and a laser rifle. It seemed that the backstory of Transfer Station 70 was developing. 

I decided that there were dead insurgents scattered throughout the complex. This seemingly innocuous civilian nanofabricator had been making, I dunno, something to keep the population docile. An insurgent squad had attacked it during the panic of the immediate apocalypse and managed to shut it down, but most of them had died in the process. Now that Zora has reactivated the corrupted fabricator (you kind of have to know about Other Dust's apocalypse for this to make sense, but basically all the magic nanites got turned evil, which is much more sciencey sounding than radiation in 2018), it's turning their bodies into melty zombies. The navcomp contains the coordinates for the insurgent base, which might make a fun adventure location.

So we have a main antagonist, two different kinds of minion monsters, a subplot and some fun environments (it's not very clear in the photos, but there's a pipe level below and around the complex that the Melty Men can flow through). That should be good for a session, and it's all on two pieces of paper, only one of which I'll really need at the table.

Update: the players used sample nanites from the decontamination units to reprogram the system to stop making evil goo and remove the infestations from people. They managed to save Gavin, one of the monks, although they killed the other one before they realised this was possible. The session ended with two PCs on zero HP and the remaining two with three HP between them, which makes me think I balanced it pretty well.