Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Khan of Khans play test

Who rules in Prax?
I bought Khan of Khans a couple of weeks ago largely because I was intrigued by the game's setting in Glorantha, itself a very rich and diverse world that has evolved over the decades as the setting for the RuneQuest roleplaying game and more latterly HeroQuest. Khan of Khans is Chaosium's first venture back into the board gaming market in what has been a very long time indeed. It matches board games ace designer Reiner Knizia with the Glorantha IP which Chaosium currently controls.

KoK is a nice little card game with cartoonish art which will readily appeal to the kids. It can be played fairly quickly and once you get the hang of it, moves along at a fair clip. Each player takes on the role of one of the nomadic tribes of Prax, distinguished by the different mounts they ride - e.g. buffaloes, antelopes, heck even rhinos. Each tribe also has a unique special ability, some of which are active - they need you to consume your action that turn to use, and some of which are passive, normally in force all the time, and generally there to stop bad things happening to your tribe.

Each turn a player can choose to either raid one of the iconic Gloranthan locations, which are each represented by its own deck of cards, use magic in the form of Waha's Blessing, or corral cows. This last action is very important. The game is won by the player who steals the most cattle from those effete civilized peoples (e.g. the Mostali/Dwarves, the Ducks, the Sun Dome temple, the Grazelanders and so forth). However, bad things can happen to your herds unless you corral them - e.g. they can stampede. Putting your cows in a corral effectively locks them safely away and you can be confident you can score those at the end of the game.

As you pull cards from locations, you generally end up with cows. Sometimes a player can draw bad events, like the aforementioned stampede, or defensive magic which can also mess up your precious herds. At other times they can draw a tribal champion, who is useful for defending against magical attacks. Generally you don't want more than one tribal champion, as they have a tendency to fight and go off in a huff, taking cattle with them.

The tactical bit

Dragon Pass and the various targets for nomad raids.
Let's talk a little bit about tactics now. I've only played two games but it quickly became obvious that as each location has only one stampede (actually not correct - one of them has two, but that is because the second one is a special event), once a stampede and enemy magic cards have emerged from a location, you will want to raid it, heavily, as the other cards will generally be cows and maybe the tribal champion. It is therefore worth keeping an eye on which cards are coming from which decks.

Secondly, you only have a limited number of corrals, which is dictated by the number of players. Once you use them, they are gone. Hence you have to balance the appeals of getting your herds into a corral against risking them on the open plains. When is a herd big enough to take into your corral? That's down to you.

Each location also has a unique card. This can be extra cattle, or an extra stampede, for example. Veterans of the game WILL have a slight edge here, at least in the first couple of games, if they are more familiar with the locations. BUT, this is a short game. I'm always sceptical when a game claims to be playable in 30 minutes (my experience with the monster that is Serenity has imbued me with a high degree of caution). However, in the case of Khan of Khans this is pretty realistic and it can be quickly played, which makes it IDEAL for taking on vacation.

In conclusion

The game is not too difficult to grasp and most players will be able to get their heads around the basics pretty quickly. It may be that there are still hidden tactical subtleties in KoK that I may have missed. If so, that will have to wait until I've played it a little more. I'm definitely planning on taking this on holiday with me in July.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Force on Force battle report - Hue 1968

White die tracks hits on the squad.
So we finally got the ball rolling on our Hue mini campaign this week. The first scenario is a fictional one based on an assault by US Marines across the Dong Ba canal in Hue in February 1968. This is actually loosely adapted from a fire fight involving different Marines, in a different war (Iraq, 2003), but I've pasted it into Vietnam and it seems to work well.

I took command of the Marine platoon with Kelvin taking the Viet Cong. The communists were highly motivated (d12 morale) and dug in on the opposite side of the canal, and in ambush positions with pre-registered medium mortars. Nasty.

For this engagement we are using Force on Force from Osprey, with some of the special rules from Ambush Valley, their Vietnam War supplement. The Marines have 10 turns to get across the canal bridge, which has been damaged by VC sappers, while keeping American losses to less than 10% killed or seriously wounded.

The Marines entered by squads with an additional support team carrying an M60 'pig' LMG. They also had a Huey 'slick' gunship on call. Problems started early as the VC decided to open up as soon as they sighted targets moving among the buildings. One US squad took some light wounds (see pic above) and sought refuge in a house while another was forced to evacuate a building they were moving through as it caught fire.

First squad moving up, shortly before they took heavy fire from the VC.

Looking at the evolving tactical situation, I moved my CO to a good position overlooking the canal where I could put his squad on overwatch, and where he could relay instructions to the helicopter. This is ALWAYS a good tactic in Force on Force as it lets you put down fire all over the field. Problem is, you can end up an obvious target if not careful. Still, he's in a good observation position for the time being.

The chopper flew off-station to assist other units for one turn, which was a pain (this is a mechanic called Fog of War in the game which seeks to reproduce the chaos of the modern battlefield). When it returned, the VC unit my CO spotted took the opportunity to go hide in a house so the Huey buzzed the canal before circling around again. Luckily, on the other side of the water, Kelvin's forward observer (FO) was having problems with his cheap Chinese radio and could not get his mortar battery to respond.

Blue bead represents a pre-registered VC barrage point.

To take the bridge I realised the Marines were going to have to bite the bullet and get across that canal in the face of a torrent of enemy fire, which was not going to be comfortable. This involved charging down an alley and over the bridge into the face of an entrenched enemy position.

Bridge assault begins!
The first squad to get into position took fire and had one soldier killed and another seriously wounded. A second squad took over.

Plenty of US fire was now focusing on the VC in positions on the other side of the river and that hail of bullets was beginning to make a difference, especially once the M60 team (5d8) set up on a roof and started blazing away.

The first squad onto the bridge was pinned down halfway over with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) hitting the bridge from two sides. One Marine went down seriously wounded. My corpsman didn't fancy his chances out on the bridge. My sergeant is now leading a second unit onto the bridge as the gunship comes around for another pass.

We are five turns into the 10 turn game. The Marines need to establish and hold a position on the other side of the bridge by turn 10 to win. They have taken three serious casualties so far, although a number of other soldiers have taken light wounds. I'm hoping that my gunship will get a chance to bring some heat in the next session and that those communist mortars keep quiet. All to play for.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

My struggle with American Gods

I've read quite a bit of Neil Gaiman's work now, including some of his Sandman comics, Neverwhere, which was a delight, and The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, which I would also recommend. I've even seen the movie Stardust, which is excellent viewing with the kids on a wet Sunday afternoon. While I was reading Neverwhere on the train, I was approached by a fabulously beautiful American girl who recommended that if I liked Neverwhere, I should really take a look at American Gods. Maybe it was her chat up line?

Still, I took her at her word, and I've been working my way through American Gods, but I've been finding it a bit of a slog to be honest. The premise is that gods are real, and the more people who follow them or worship them, the more powerful and influential they are. One of the main protagonists is Mr Wednesday who is, in fact, Odin, as should be pretty obvious from early in the book. He is on a quest to rally the old gods of America - i.e. the deities of both the Native Americans and successive waves of immigrants - to wage war against the new gods, like the Internet and popular music.

On the surface of it, it is quite a good idea. Odin/Wednesday represents the American concept of Odin, brought to North America by the Vikings. But there are older gods than Wednesday, including the Egyptian gods Anubis and Ibis.

My problem with American Gods is that it is a bit of a road trip book, with the characters meandering their way across early 2000s America, which Gaiman is obviously fascinated with, having various conversations and encounters with different gods. That's pretty much it. Yes, there is lots of talk about sacrifice, and betrayal and so forth, and a sub-plot involving the main hero's dead wife, brought back from the dead with a leprechaun's lucky coin.

But it's not really as very good book. I've almost finished it now, and it somehow feels like a progression of images and experiences. Shadow, the main character, is largely adrift, being buffeted hither and yon by other forces, including being manipulated by his dead wife, but is frequently completely ineffectual. He is there to experience all this, and it is never really obvious what his role is, what his value is to Wednesday.

In desperation, I've started watching the TV series by the same name. This is interesting in that it starts by sticking closely to the book in the first couple of episodes before heading off in new directions, possibly because Bryan Fuller and Michael Green found the original plot too dire - and who can blame them? Gaiman was executive producer on the project, and is known for being a bit prickly about how his work is transferred to the silver screen - Neverwhere was born out of his issues with the original screen play.

American Gods the TV series is only eight episodes, and I'm five in so far. It starts looking at some of the other characters in more detail, like Laura, Shadow's wife, who is ably played by Emily Browning, and the leprechaun Mad Sweeney played by Pablo Schreiber. If anything, it is better than the book, as it ditches Gaiman's meandering panoply in favour of some much more focused story telling. Gillian Anderson is simply awesome as the god/goddess Media, and demonstrates once again her uncanny ability to switch into a flawless English accent, the legacy of spending some of her childhood in the UK.

I have persevered with American Gods, and have almost finished it, but I really don't rate it as Gaiman's finest hour. The TV series is better, I have to say, and hopefully funding will be available to continue it, as I can't believe they can cover the epic plot adequately in eight episodes.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Thoughts about using 5th edition D&D in Glorantha

13th Age in Glorantha
On Saturday I played in a game of Adventures in Middle-earth which got me thinking about whether it would be possible to run a 5e Dungeons and Dragons game in Glorantha. I've managed to umpire a semi-successful game in Glorantha using Monte Cook's Cypher system, which went well, but if I have one criticism of the Cypher system, it is the important role played by the cyphers themselves, and how they might be harder to wedge into the kind of Glorantha game I had in mind.

D&D 5.0 has the advantage of being quite simple and flexible and thus easier to adapt to other settings and ways of playing. There are some things I still don't like about it - for example, the relationship between inspiration and backgrounds, which seems to fall by the wayside more often than not - i.e. it can reasonably be ignored by players in the heat of game play, leaving one to question what it's there for in the first place.

13th Age in Glorantha

I have turned to the pages of 13th Age in Glorantha, which I backed on Kickstarter, and which I now have in PDF, although it is not clear when the hard copy will arrive. A revised version of the PDF was only issued to backers at the start of this month. Still, the game is interesting in that it seeks to blend 13th Age with the Glorantha setting. It is quite specific in this, creating a series of brand new classes for 13th Age, some of which are highly complex, with the Earth Priestess taking the biscuit here.

In 13th Age each class is almost a mini game unto itself. Some, like the Barbarian, are relatively simple to play, but others, like the Rogue, require quite a bit of concentration to get right and to properly optimise. On top of this 13th Age has some of its inspiration from 4e D&D, and that game's stress on set piece combat encounters. This can lead to a situation where you are faced with the prospect of an armed encounter with 30-40 minutes left in a game session and decide that it would be better to finish early rather than break out the miniatures for another epic contest.

Talislanta - the Savage Land

Talislanta - the Savage Land
5e has the advantage of streamlining battles somewhat. Going further, however, I also received a copy of the new edition of Talislanta - the Savage Land in PDF recently. I've received the 5e version, although other versions are being published for Savage Worlds and D6 Fantasy. Talislanta has some additional interesting mechanics for 5e. First of all, it has rules for building and managing a tribe. The game uses a very post-apocalyptic setting, where a civilization built by a race of sorcerers has collapsed, leaving the races they created / enslaved to squabble over the ruins.

Talislanta has many races for players to choose from, more than your traditional D&D setting, although none of the traditional D&D races are here. The great thing is that even if each player in your group takes a different race, you'll still have plenty of opposition to draw on from the other races they didn't pick. There is no need in Talislanta for goblins or orcs to make up the sword fodder. But Talislanta also argues that, rather than opt for the classes in D&D, players can use a basic profile and then build their characters by selecting a range of abilities. As they advance, they add more abilities. Ultimately you drop the whole D&D class restrictions entirely.

Revolutionary, eh? This got me thinking about an alternative approach to d20 Glorantha, whereby the players start off with a basic profile and can then add abilities from a list defined by level. Some abilities can be generic - anyone can get them - while others would require membership of a cult. Cult initiates would get access to specific spells and capabilities that would be taught to them during downtime periods.

A typical campaign would therefore start the adventurers off with the option to also be initiates of some of the cults with religious centres in their campaign area. For example, 13AG ties many of the barbarian's abilities to the Storm Bull cult, which is very appropriate. It may also make sense to make cantrips freely available to characters as part of the Battle Magic they learn in the course of growing up. They might start with only a couple of cantrips each, but it means all characters have access to magic from the beginning.

Why go to all this trouble? 

I have a couple of criticisms of 13AG: I think it is slightly harder for players to access, due to the complexity of the character classes. Secondly, it is written for a very specific time and place in the history of Glorantha, namely the Hero Wars in Dragon Pass. It requires GM work to take it anyplace or anytime else, although the authors include plenty of additional advice on using the new classes in other settings, including the Dragon Empire of the core 13th Age rules. If you wanted to play a tribal campaign in Prax, for example, you'd need to do a bit of work. That's not to say that I wouldn't want to run this beast - I like a challenge!

I'm going to take a look at seeing whether my approach to character generation would work, using the idea of a Praxian tribal campaign - i.e. the characters are all members of one of the nomadic tribes that wander the wastelands of Prax. It would leverage much of the content of the 5e PHB, but also some of the ideas out of Talislanta and 13AG. I'd need to work out how attunement with runes would work as well.

More on this when I have it. Updates on this, 13AG and Talislanta, will be posted on the blog.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Judge Dredd - Poison on Hell's Highway

Judge Deacon had been waiting patiently in the barren wasteland known as the Cursed Earth for his comrades to return. They had gone on a mission to recover or disarm some nuclear missiles, relics from before the apocalypse, held in a silo somewhere out in the wastes. He became somewhat concerned about the emergence of a mushroom cloud on the horizon, but it eventually dissipated. He decided to give his fellow judges three more days before returning to Mega City One.

However, less than 24 hours later the other judges arrived, with their Killdozer still intact although bearing the marks of bullet dents. Led by the Psi Judge, Judge Judy, they said they were intent on making it back overland to MC1 down Hell's Highway. It might have had another name once, before the war that almost destroyed mankind, but for their purposes it was the most direct route home.

The judges were accompanied by a two-headed mutant child, which they claimed had psi abilities. She in turn was keeping another judge, a rogue SJS judge, in some kind of coma. Deacon shrugged. This seemed par for the course with this mission.

A Judge Dredd GM's screen forms the back drop

The team headed east, hoping to make it back to MC1 as quickly as possible, but within a day they came across an obstacle, a road block on the highway manned by what looked like mutants. Their spokesman demanded a toll from the judges to let them past. The law officers threatened to arrest him for the obstruction of justice. In turn he remote activated a concealed hatch that lay beside the road.

Some form of electronic obelisk emerged from the ground, and immediately generated an electro magnetic pulse which crashed all the judges' electronics, including the targeting systems on the Killdozer's missile array. Deacon dismounted from his Lawmaster and sprinted over to the tank, where he worked to reconfigure the array to manual. This he was able to do and managed to fire one of the Killdozer's missiles at the mutant barricade. The explosion did not do an enormous amount of damage, to be sure, but it did cause the mutant leader to ask for a pow wow.

Judy and Mean meet with the mutant leader.

Judge Judy and Judge Mean met to talk with the mutant leader to try to negotiate safe passage. He was after medical supplies and rad cloaks in the main. Judge Judy used his psi power to cause the mutant to become enraptured by the judges and he eventually offered them supplies from his own stash and ordered his brigands to open the barricade.

So far, so good. The judges cautiously rode through the blockade. It was only as they were leaving it behind that some kind of emaciated fellow with a bowler hat and what looked like a pet rat on his shoulder popped up and shot Judge Mean with a poisoned dart from a blow pipe. Poor Mean succumbed almost immediately to a paralyzing poison. The mutant - Fink Angel - for it was he, offered the judges the antidote in exchange for a Lawmaster bike and one of the remaining missiles in the Killdozer.

Judge down: Fink Angel (far left) ambushes the convoy!

Judy tried to unleash his psi powers on Fink, but he proved resistant, instead shooting another dart at the psi judge, and just missing. It was a stand off. Mean was deteriorating quickly, so Judy decided to cut a deal. Deacon, inside the Killdozer, had been madly trying to sabotage one of the missiles before handing it over to the mutants, but was sadly unsuccessful.

The judges gave Fink and his men a missile (!) and a Lawmaster. Then they motored away until safely out of range, at which point they managed to remote activate the Lawmaster and bring it back to them, shooting its way through the barricade. Unfortunately one missile was left in the mutants' possession. That would not look good in the report.

The judges continued overnight, allowing Judy to restore his powers. The next day they ran into an Australian bloke in shorts, standing in the middle of the road, who was organising a supersurf tournament. As it turned out, the prize for this was a flight to MC1 on board a luxury 'strat bat' [?]. This could provide the judges with the opportunity to get back to MC1 quickly, and do it under the cover of the tournament, ideally without the rogue elements within the Justice Department becoming aware of them. The only problem was that the organisers wanted the judges to compete as a Justice Department team. That might get them unwanted attention...

This game was played using the d20 Judge Dredd RPG, originally published by Mongoose in 2002. It was held at the Dice Saloon in Brighton.