Monday, 21 August 2017

Another Murder At Flaxton



A Murder At Flaxton was the first Dungeons and Dragons scenario I ran as a DM that demonstrated to me that there was more to RPGs than dungeon exploration. I should have taken this on board earlier, with The Keep On The Borderlands, that early TSR classic, which featured a fairly detailed human settlement with its own scope for adventures, but it was Flaxton which proved to be the real eye opener for me, back in 1985. Warning - spoilers occur in this article, so avoid it if you think you might be in danger of participating as a player in a scenario which is older than many sovereign nations now.

I have run it again, this summer, a mere 32 years later! It has aged a little, but is still great fun. The scenario is written for low level characters and was one of a series of very atmospheric low level adventures which appeared in White Dwarf magazine in 1984-85. It features a small fishing village and a trio of dastardly smugglers who have murdered a law enforcement official just passing through their town and are now trying to cover their tracks, while keeping their operations running of course. This is a difficult juggling act for the smugglers, let alone the DM! The PCs are assigned the role of finding out who is responsible for the murder, and the disappearance of three constables sent to kick start the investigation.

I largely decided to play this out of a sense of pure nostalgia, and also because we had such a good time adventuring in Apple Lane over Christmas, using Mongoose Publishing's RuneQuest rules (now reborn as Legend). Trips down memory lane can be entertaining.

For my return to Flaxton I used Lamentations of the Flame Princess, largely because Labyrinth Lord was probably a little too basic, and also because the adventure was originally written for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and I needed something with a little more granularity. This was my first game using Lamentations, and Flaxton suited the Lamentations oeuvre very well, as the latter leans towards games set more in a grim, dark 17th century environment. There are no monsters in this adventure, unless you count the canine encounters and only one non-human character, so the lack of a bestiary for Lamentations would not be an issue either.

We used four starting characters, with the players picking a fighter, cleric, magic user and specialist (this is the thief in Lamentations, but it is configured a little differently from the traditional 1980s AD&D thief). Nobody bothered with any of the non-human classes on offer, which intrigued me.

The vulnerability of these novice characters is high, of course, and while Flaxton does not involve adventuring in the traditional hostile environment of D&D games, it can prove dangerous. The smugglers are higher level than the PCs, their leader is 5th level, and they have scope for additional back up from a 5th level pirate and her war dog. However, the game begins with the PCs poking around Flaxton trying to figure out what is going on, chatting with a wide range of NPCs and squirreling out the truth. There is no course of events here - like the best scenarios the bad guys are really going to react to the activities of the players, and for the most part just want to keep their heads down and maintain their criminal network.

Eventually it is going to kick off - in this case the PCs finally decided something suspicious was going on at the local inn, and that its proprietor was more than he claimed to be. By sneaking around at night, they managed to break into the inn's cellar, which then led them to the smugglers' underground cove. However, they were not quiet enough. I had to improvise a bit, as unlike Pathfinder, Lamentations does not have rules for everything, and the skill system only allows the specialist character to sneak consistently. I frequently called for attribute checks on 1d20 - e.g. DEX rolls when trying to open a trap door quietly in the middle of the night, less than 20 feet from a sleeping smuggler.

Once the smugglers reacted, they faced a choice between quietly taking care of the heroes or simply bugging out. The latter is always an option, but first they tried to kill/capture the party. One adventurer was already successfully drugged using spiked brandy, so the group was down to three when the smugglers ambushed them. One of the PCs was kitted out with flintlock pistols - I have the rules for these on a book mark kindly given to me by the author of Lamentations at Dragonmeet a couple of years ago - and these proved useful in the fight. In the end, I declined to equip any NPCs with firearms, and stuck with their original AD&D load out, which, combined with their magic, was nearly good enough to wipe the party out.

Following an unsuccessful attempt to kill the PCs, which resulted in the deaths of two smugglers, and left one PC on zero hit points, the smugglers' leader decided to leave town by boat, taking the drugged PC with him (which also happened to be the party's cleric - note that one PC was now at zero hit points and thus surplus to requirements). The adventurers were down to their specialist and their magic user, who only had an enlarge spell to hand. They gave chase by rousting the village chandler out of his bed and taking one of his boats, offering him silver to help them to get out to the island in the bay, which they now correctly surmised might have something to do with the plot. There followed a second encounter with smugglers, which this time nearly wiped the remaining adventurers out, but they inflicted enough damage on the criminals that they decided to flee rather than stick around.

Lamentations includes rules for morale, yes, morale. In my earliest D&D games, we used morale rules regularly. Lamentations has these. I like morale rules. That may be because I also play wargames, and wargamers like morale rules - well almost all wargamers, maybe not naval wargamers.

I added morale to the existing NPC stats by simply rolling 2d6. This gave me a pirate leader with a morale of 5 who was therefore somewhat flighty, and despite being in a winning position, decided not to stick around once the blood started flowing. As she was a 5th level fighter, this helped the PCs considerably when she exited stage left. The adventurers were also aided by their drugged cleric, previously a prisoner of the pirates, coming around at just the right time to administer cure light wounds. Morale injected an interesting element into the game; it sometimes seems sadly lacking in RPGs, where adventurers expect encounters to be sufficiently balanced to allow them to win every battle, and where the opposition dutifully fights to the last man (or orc).

Everyone had a great time. A Murder At Flaxton is an interesting little scenario. It has aged a little, but not much, and seems ideal for starting parties. There is also enough loot here to generate the XP an old school group needs to get to 2nd level. I still heartily recommend it as a campaign starter if you can find a copy.

As a rules set, Lamentations leaves plenty of gaps that the GM must fill when questions occur about "how do I do X"? In some respects it feels more like a recommended WAY of playing rather than a pure rules set. Players of more detailed, comprehensive rules will expect a mechanic when one does not exist. The limited skills system is largely there to help the specialist look good, but often you find it is the other characters in dire situations that are dealing with the specialist's tasks. This may be partly the fault of our being used to more recent rules systems, and forgetting that the specialist is there for a reason - namely doing all the sneaking and scouting, while players have an expectation that they should ALL be able to sneak and scout.

There is a lot to like about Lamentations - for example, the weird elements, the crazy spell descriptions, the encumberance rules, the black powder weapons - but I think my players, given the choice, would opt for Pathfinder or RuneQuest. We may return to Lamentations in the near future regardless, as there has been considerable investment in the characters and in Flaxton itself.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

A Few Acres of Snow

"You know that these two nations are at war about a few acres of snow somewhere in Canada, and that they are spending on this war more than Canada is worth."
Voltaire, Candide, 1759

Okay, so it is an open secret around these parts that I am not the biggest fan of Dominion. Despite its widespread success, I find the constant shuffling somewhat tedious (as I'm not good at it), and I have had difficulty getting my head around the deck building and card drafting mechanics. However, I am starting to enjoy card drafting games, and recently took part in a very enjoyable game of Mission: Red Planet, only to lose by a point. But I really liked the way that game is driven by your choice of character at the start of each round.

Alright, so Mission: Red Planet is not a deck building game, but it has a strong card-driven mechanic, which is what I'm getting at here, so let's see if we can roll with this for now...?

I digress somewhat. A Few Acres of Snow IS a deck building game. It DOES involve shuffling. But I DO like it. It is a two player game, and it includes a board, which represents the frontier between the British and French colonies in North America, circa 1750. It is a game about developing colonies in the American wilderness, and the competition between these two great 18th century empires.

A quick history lesson for those in the dark - by the mid-1700s Britain and France were the two dominant colonial powers in North America, leaving the Spanish and Portuguese to lord it over South America. Britain had a number of colonies along the Atlantic coast - e.g. New York - while France had its colonies along the St Lawrence River - called New France. The French and British both did quite a bit of fur trading and both powers had good and bad relations with the various Native American tribes. Eventually they started treading on each other's toes, and while there were numerous 'off the ball incidents', it was only when the empires ended up on opposite sides in the Seven Years War in Europe (1756) that things got really serious. Both sides in North America decided it was time to see if they could go for the jugular. Bear in mind that the fur trade was very lucrative and depended on access to the Great Lakes and the Ohio Valley. In North America this conflict is referred to as the French & Indian War, although in Europe it was seen more as a side show to the main event of the big European military campaigns.

Back to the game... 

Each player seeks to settle the wilderness and upgrade their villages into towns. It is also possible to fortify settlements against raids and attacks from the enemy. Forts can block raiding parties and make it harder to capture a settlement by siege.

This was only my first game, and Maya  and I took it for a spin to try to iron out any creases. I played France. You build your deck from three sources:

  1. Location cards - the various locations along the frontier which you can settle and build in. You can't do something with a location without having its card in your hand.
  2. Empire cards - the various units and resources at your disposal, from priests, to fur trappers, to regular infantry to settlers. Lovely art, by the way.
  3. Neutral cards - these can be drafted by either player and comprise more settlers, Indians (Native Americans, First Nations, whatever), and forts.
Each turn you take two actions from a hand of five cards, then draw back up (you can use multiple cards as part of one action - e.g. a siege typically takes three, a location, transport and military power). Over time you add to your discard pile with new locations and resources, thus increasing your options as the game goes on (because when your draw deck is exhausted, you shuffle it to create a new deck). The board is used to keep track of the location of settlements, forts and towns in the wilderness, which in turn determines your end of game points scoring, also where you can raid and where you can siege.

Part of the board seen from the British side, with a location card.

This is where is gets a bit different


In A Few Acres of Snow, the sides are not the same like they are in Dominion. Each side has several cards which seem to be unique to them. In particular, the French seem to have a number of tricky ones, like the Intendant, which lets the French player draw cards back into his hand from the discard pile, or priests, who steal Native Americans from the British (I also like the French pirates, who represent a valuable additional source of income).

The French start off in the St Lawrence River, with some additional settlements on the Atlantic coast, in particular Louisbourg. The crown jewel in their empire is Quebec, which can be 12 points at the end of the game. France automatically loses if Quebec is taken. Similarly, Britain loses if the French take New York or Boston. I came close in our game, having driven the British out of Albany and established a fort and settlement there. I was poised to march down the Hudson valley, but sadly was not getting the right cards. Plus, Maya quickly fortified New York and then had some heavy artillery in reserve to defend it with: suffice to say, I wasn't going to be taking it in a hurry.

Maya had her own victories, in particular using hostile tribes to drive the French out of Port Royal before taking it for herself. Sneaky.

Settlers, fortifications and natives - all from the neutral deck.


The mechanics should be quite familiar to players of this kind of game. We blundered around quite a bit, simply trying to test what each card could do. I attempted a siege of Albany initially which went badly for the French. It seems to me that you really need some muscular forces to attack forts in this game - e.g. artillery. Otherwise the enemy is going to see you off in pretty short order, which happened to me in the Hudson Valley.

Raiding is a particular tactic both sides can use repeatedly to attempt to wipe out or downgrade enemy settlements. For this you can use your Indian allies, or certain irregular troops like Rangers that can strike deeper into enemy territory than your regulars, and can also navigate the various Indian trails that criss cross the wilderness. They can be blocked, however, by tribes friendly to the other side, militia, and also by forts. Indeed forts are an excellent way to curb raiding activities, and in strategic locations like Albany can quickly shut down this sort of anti-social activity (those who have played the first edition of Fury of Dracula should recall the strategic blocking value of holy wafers in Zagreb). We both had early successes with raiding, but soon learned to keep militia and Indians to hand to block it; my later efforts to harass Baltimore with raiders came to nought because Maya had recognised the value of her Indian allies.

The powers in A Few Acres do play like their historical counterparts, and the whole game possesses the essential feel of the conflict. The French are hampered by fewer settlers, as they were historically. They had inferior manpower reserves. They rely on their fur traders to make most of their money. Quebec and Montreal are important hubs for all sorts of things for them. The British on the other hand can quickly develop their diverse Atlantic colonies with a steady flow of settlers, and these can provide them with a ready source of tax revenue on top of their fur trade. This means the British seem to be flush with money all the time (at least Maya seemed to be generating cash every turn while my French were frequently skint and desperate for the next fur trading season). That also means the British can raise and deploy more regular troops at a steadier rate than France, which is forced to rely more on Indians and militia. This is what happened in reality, so thumbs up there.

Conclusion


I really like the way this game plays. As a two player wargame, it is simple enough that those who are not hard core wargamers like me can quickly get into it. I also like the new trend to use wooden pieces rather than cardboard chits in wargames. I think this makes them more accessible and is a welcome trend. A Few Acres of Snow should easily be playable in an evening, especially if one of the players has previous experience. The art and components are of an excellent standard, as you can see above. The whole product captures the atmosphere and tense decision making of a conflict that is not well-known in Europe, beyond the film The Last of the Mohicans.


Sunday, 6 August 2017

Return to Warhammer 40,000

There has been a great deal of excitement swirling around the launch of the new edition of Warhammer 40k this summer. It has generated enough enthusiasm here in the Badger Hut to dust off my old Necron army, while Sebastian has been busily assembling an allied force of Dark Angels and Imperial Guard. I think his heart lies with the Dark Angels, but the Guard have helped him to beef out his army a little bit.

Kelvin has been assembling an 'old school' Eldar army for some time, so this was also an opportunity for him to bring the space elves into the action.

We organised a three way battle in the Badger Hut. There were six objectives in the game, which you can see in some of the photos, as they are marked with cactus plants. The battlefield was our arid terrain set up, with a fair amount of buildings and dry wadis to break things up.

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I went with my usual Necron force, minus the Monolith, which I've still not completely finished and really should get around to completing when I've got the time. I managed to get the rest of the army in under the points limit. Sebastian was able to afford a squad of Terminators, two squads of Space Marines, a Librarian, some kind of Dark Angel hero (Space Marine Captain?), a brace of Hellhounds, and a pair of Guard squads in hover tanks. It was an impressive force for a first outing and he's worked hard putting it together.

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The Battle


We managed to play four turns of the battle, so 80% of its required length, before we had to call it as I was going out to a party. The new rules still feel like 40k, but with much of the complexity filed off. Certainly, the close combat rules, which always irritated me in 4th edition, have been streamlined.

I deployed my Necrons with my Destroyers on my right flank to take on the Eldar, my Tomb Spider and Scarab Swarms screening my centre, while my Overlord and two squads of Warriors formed a strategic reserve. Another squad of Warriors held the left.

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In this battle, you scored points every turn you held undisputed objectives, and I prevailed in the first couple of turns, using my Scarabs as fast movers to good effect, while my Warriors on my left quickly took and held an objective ruin. It began to go wrong when the Terminators teleported into another objective building in the middle of the battlefield and a Hellhound drove through my Scarabs like so much putty. It turned out Scarabs are not so good at taking on enemy armour.

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On my right, the Destroyers ended up in a firefight with some sort of undead Eldar, basically an Eldar knock off of Necrons (Wraith Lords, perhaps?) These were supported by a war walker, which the Necrons did manage to blow up, and an Avatar, who helped his troops become even more fanatical. It quickly become hard going for my Destroyers. I also realised that my Heavy Destroyer, the only unit I have that can competently engage armour, was in entirely the wrong part of the battlefield, with Sebastian's Hellhounds running rampant on the other flank!

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Eventually I was able to bring up my Overlord and some more Warriors to assist the Destroyers, who were beginning to take hits.

The Necrons always start to get a little brittle in the later stages of a battle, and this happened to me yet again, with my Scarabs wiped out completely, my Destroyers caught up in a static firefight, which they were doing a very good job of losing, despite the additional back up from their Overlord, while one of my other Warrior squads was caught between a Hellhound and some Space Marines and summarily annihilated.

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I had been holding my Flayed Ones in reserve - I like Flayed Ones, but I have yet to use them effectively in battle - but was finding it difficult to find somewhere they could teleport in without being immediately chopped up. In desperation, I finally brought them on in turn four, only to have them chopped up.

Suffice to say, Kelvin won with his first outing with his Eldar, Sebastian came second, in his first EVER game of 40k (we all felt he somewhat handicapped himself with his initial choice of deployment), while I came third/last.

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Rules


I do like the new rules, and would like to play some more. A three-cornered battle game also played very well, and was extremely entertaining. I'll need to do some swotting up and more revision of the rules just to get them stuck in my head, but I do believe they are an improvement on earlier editions. We are also thinking about playing some older, second edition 40k at some point in the not too distant future...Kelvin has loaned me the Imperial Guard codex, so I'll see what I can cook up from that.

The Necrons


Again with the annihilation. Am I getting my tactics wrong, or is my force composition flawed? I think next time I'll add the Monolith and maybe some heavier infantry rather than the plain vanilla Warriors. I also think that I may not be using the Destroyers properly. I'll need to experiment. The size of the armies we used was, I think, appropriate for a three player game using these rules, and I would not be tempted to expand on that. We could potentially go larger for a full-afternoon two player game.

Thoughts also turn to my Tyranid army, which is a work in progress, but I'll be looking to get them painted and onto the table during the cold winter months, with any luck. More details on that when I get around to it...

More pictures and commentary on Kelvin's blog should you be interested.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Fiasco - mayhem in the Weird West

It started out as a test drive of the Fiasco rules from Jason Morningstar. I've been curious about these for some time, having seen the episode of Tabletop where Will Wheaton played a game. Is Fiasco an entry level game for those new to RPGs? How rules light it is? These were questions I wanted answered.

Fiasco is an interactive story telling game. In some ways it reminds me of Once Upon A Time - players take it in turns to set scenes or determine the outcome of scenes (positive or negative) that affect their character. A Fiasco play set determines the setting and some of the themes in that evening's game.

For example, we went with the Wild West setting in the core rules. This quickly establishes some of the themes, relationships and characters involved. Players choose these and also choose some of their relationships, important locations, and motivating factors. I ended up with a 'government' role, which led to my character, Bart Rosslyn, being the clerk responsible for the local assaying office in a silver boom town (as well as the land registry). He was also the BFF of the sheriff, run by Kelvin, who quickly emerged as a somewhat deluded and incompetent figures, whose Chinese mail order bride was also covertly running a local gang and the saloon.

You can see how, within a short period of time, Fiasco provides the players with the ingredients and setting for an entertaining plot that is much deeper and richer than, say, four adventurers meeting in a tavern to go explore a dungeon.

Each player gets to either formulate a scene, or determine the outcome. They can do this twice in the first part of the game, there is then a phase where dice are used to determine some form of crisis (the Tilt), and then there are a couple more rounds before we move to the finale. Dice are used to mark whether there are positive or negative outcomes from scenes, to help to determine the nature of the Tilt, and also to provide facts about a character's eventual fate at the end of the game.
PCs in Fiasco - far from perfect at the best of times!

Warning - Fiasco is very much about the characters coming to bad ends. It is partly inspired by the Cohen Brothers' films, like Fargo or Burn After Reading. It can be hard for players to move out of the somewhat default role they play of the perfect heroes in many RPGs to characters to whom bad things WILL happen. I think it takes a game or two for this to fully sink it, as most of us battled throughout to place our characters in superior positions, yet ultimately saw them cut down to size.

For example, my character was trying to get his lover, Janet McKenzie, the sheriff's sister, out of town before she told the sheriff of their secret relationship. The sheriff was already being played as someone a little prone to overreaction, so there was an element of urgency here. At the same time I was also trying to secure a ranch which had silver deposits on the property, ideally at a knock down price, by forging the assayer's report. In this I quickly came up against not only the tongs but also their leader, the sherriff's wife! I was obviously trying to get some kind of positive outcome, but in Fiasco that is next to impossible, and it is best to embrace that. This is the crux of the game, and getting past that could be one of the biggest obstacles for experienced RPGers.

Now let's get onto the vampire...


Yes, let's. There is nothing to stop a player setting a scene in such a way that it can really drive the plot in a different direction. Ben decided to bring a vampire into the mix. In this case, the vampire ended up being an assassin, sent from China to hunt down his character, Wendy 'Wai Ling' McKenzie. There was a rival group of tongs hidden in the Chinese mining encampment, and they were working with Rosslyn to remove Wai Ling from the picture (it was only later that Rosslyn discovered Wai Ling and Wendy were the same person). The assassin turned out to be an undead Ming dynasty vampire whose activities quickly ravaged the whole settlement.

Vampires - always good for mixing it up...
The saloon and the McKenzie farm both burned down. Janet was bitten and became a vampire, eventually going on to attack both her brother and another PC, at the end of the whole mess. Bart Rosslyn succeeded in killing the original Ming vampire, but not before he was bitten, and he was then beaten to death by angry tongs, and rose to become a revenant wandering blindly in the desert. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Bart confronted the tongs, played in this scene by the three other players, who all knew the Chinese assassin was a vampire, while Bart was still very much in the dark.

The vampire's arrival demonstrated how easy it is for one player to re-direct the plot by introducing something from out of left field. I think it worked very well, however, giving the whole game more of a From Dusk Til Dawn feel to it. We almost had a script here worthy of Tarantino, which is more than one can say for my RPG sessions. With practice, I think we could get even better.

So Fiasco? Thumbs up from me. I'll give it a further read and may come back with more thoughts on this blog. It is rules lite, which helps our group where many of us are quite tired come Friday, juggling many other demands in our respective lives.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Fords of the Isen, part II (War of the Ring)

 "Elfhelm had been riding with all haste along the horse road from Edoras, leading four companies in answer to Theodred's summons; he was expecting battle, but not yet for some days. But near the junction of the horse road with the road down from the Deeping, his outriders on the right flank reported that two wolf riders had been seen abroad on the fields. Sensing that things were amiss, he did not turn aside to Helm's Deep for the night as he had intended, but rode with all speed towards the Fords..."
J.R.R. Tolkien - The Unfinished Tales

From out of the east came Elfhelm's riders, at speed, and behind them came the rangers of Arnor. These valiant men of the north, fresh arrived in Rohan, took up a position on a hill opposite the ford now held by the trolls. They bore with them mighty bows, and showered arrows on the wargs. The warg leader was wrathful at this, and moved his pack out of range, threatening the middle ford first, then proceeding to the southern one. Many wargs lay dead in in the pack's wake, with Arnor arrows in them.


The arrival of Elfhelm

In the centre the battle raged on. Toe to toe, the Uruk-hai scouts, rallied by their fearsome lord, stood against the hand picked Rohan royal guard, while nearby Grimbold and his men fought with the lesser orcs. But Grimbold's men were losing, and all it took was for the goblins to come swarming off their hill, assailing Grimbold's militia to their rear, for the company to collapse in its entirety. Mighty was the slaughter then, and Grimbold lay amidst the Rohirrim dead.

Uruks battle the Royal Guard, toe to toe


Far across the field, young Theodred, Prince of Rohan, fought with the Uruk pikes of Isengard. The best of the mounted Rohirrim paid dearly for Theodred's vainglorious efforts to reduce the enemy. In the end, Theodred fell, mortally wounded, but not before the orcs had scattered, pursued by the last of his knights. As he faded from life, he heard in the distance the horns of Elfhelm as he forded the Isen, or was it the call of the Valar?

The doom of Grimbold...


 Still the battle hung in the balance. The wargs now charged the Rohan guard holding the southern ford, and got in among them, although several wargs fell to yet more arrows as they charged. Heroically, the guards stood to a man by that fateful river, and not one left the field. The forces of evil now controlled two of the three fords.

Wargs charge the Royal Guard at the south ford


In the centre now, the Rohan guard was attacked treacherously in the flank by armoured Uruks while they continued to battle the scouts in front of them. Over a third of Saruman's host lay dead, dying or had fled the field. But not enough. The remaining orcs and goblins sought to form themselves into line to face Elfhelm, who now charged from the south, angered by the death of his prince.

Orcs of the White Hand face off against Elfhelm's men


The Rohirrim, with Elfhelm at their head, plunged in amongst the orcs, shrugging off their black arrows, and dozens of the evil beings fell before them. Others, faint-hearted, turned and fled...

The Rohirrim ride into the orcs!


The battle hung in the balance. But sadly we had run out of time. The table was to be cleared for a new game. Both generals claimed victory. Who would have won? We will never know. Perhaps another day we will return to the blood-soaked banks of the Isen river.

Post game observations - Isengard held two fords, two of its three objectives. The third, the centre one, was still disputed, as the Rohan guard, a powerful infantry unit, was keeping the Uruk-hai away from it. However, they had two companies of armoured Uruks still to deal with, but the orc scouts were tiring, down to one company. The question was whether Saruman's general chose to switch units, thereby transferring his enhancements to the fresher companies, or indeed seek to slay the Rohan guard captain himself.

The other decisive contest was between Elfhelm and the Isengard orcs. Rohan had routed six companies out of the 13 he needed to win, so he was almost halfway there. If he destroyed the orcs and goblins in the centre, he would be on 12 and close to victory. But Elfhelm's riders were not Theodred's knights. Still too close to call, I fear. But had the Rohan royal guard collapsed, then Isengard would have taken the centre ford and would have triumphed.

Played using The War of the Ring miniatures rules by Games Workshop.

Monday, 17 July 2017

The show must go on! (Eberron game report)

At the monastary of Onatar, Cyre/Karnath border region. A small team of Cyre spec ops has infiltrated a monastary, itself captured by Emerald Claw zealots fleeing persecution in Karnath. Their objective is to rescue a kidnapped heir of House Cannith, or failing that, kill him:

The team is comprised of -

  1. Sher Singha - a shifter warrior monk, exile from Xendrik
  2. Iron Nick - a monosyllabic warforged wizard
  3. Daniel d'Deneith - a swashbuckling bard, communer with swords
  4. Pin - a light-fingered gnome rapscallion, he has his uses
Pin the Gnome Mischief Maker
It was time for the show to begin. It was decided that Brother Bernard's wish would come true, and he would die as part of the entertainment for the Emerald Claw. Daniel and his new weapon had been having 'a little chat' - the sword apparently was created to slay the vampire, Count Van Halen, and can also detect his location. It can also detect if someone is evil - a test case, the dwarf that had been entertaining the Emerald Claw before we arrived, was most definitely evil.

The dwarf (I don't recall his name) was enlisted as part of the show: Pin began with a card trick, with the human guards trickling into the temple to watch. Daniel then enthralled the dwarf using his natural charisma, and the shifter covertly jabbed him with a sleeping dart to put him asleep, Daniel all the while convincing the audience this was all part of the act.

Pin was then able to go backstage, disguise himself as said dwarf, and quietly exit the church, seeking out the building where the House Cannith heir was being held. It was easy to get into the house using the key Pin knew was hidden outside the back door in a remarkable failure in Emerald Claw security. With all the guards watching the show, Louis Hendal d'Cannith was not being monitored very closely.

A product of privilege and decadence, Louis was not exactly a poster child for House Cannith, being somewhat of a playboy, fop, and all round mummy's boy. Sadly, the mission was to bring him back, dead or alive, and Pin was just too nice a gnome to kill him on the spot and dissolve him in a vat of acid, which was all he was good for, really (and was our last resort, should he not come quietly).

Leaving the house, Pin set off a firework, which was the signal for Iron Nick to activate his magic projector, creating a hologram of the next act, while the team exited the temple by the back door. Sadly, Bernard was sacrificed as part of the act; insane, traumatised, begging for death, he was not the best person to fall upon the mercies of a d'Deneith dragon-marked scion newly equipped with a bloodthirsty, intelligent magic blade. Poor Bernard.

"Aren't you a bit short for an Emerald Claw zealot?"

Disguised as Emerald Claw, Pin and Louis had scuttled over to the well in the centre of the monastary, and were trying to climb down the rope inside (Brother Bernard had told the party that there was an escape tunnel down there). Pin used his flying mechanical hand to draw the cover back over. But Louis didn't like the dark. Didn't like smelly wells much either. All his strident complaining and yelling attracted the attention of some of the skeleton warriors the Emerald Claw guards had left to watch their horses. Two came to investigate, removed the covering, and one obligingly threw a spear down the well, which went into Louis. More screaming. Blood. Gnome struggling with stricken d'Cannith while seeking the entrance to the tunnels under the monastary. In the dark. You get the picture.

The rest of the group now arrived; with more skeletons converging on the ruckus, it was decided that the best thing to do in the circumstances was to get down the well pretty damned quickly, ideally before Colonel Furnau and his men heard all the noise. Sher Singha showed everybody how it was done, running up and jumping into the well before the skeletons could react, grabbing the rope on his way down. Daniel followed but his acrobatic skills were sadly lacking, and he tripped, falling across the lip of the well, in an ideal place to be speared to death by skeletons.

Luckily for Daniel, the warforged Iron Nick was right behind him, and grabbing the d'Deneith heir by the scruff of the neck, he ran down the inside wall of the well with him. Even Sher Singha was quietly impressed with this feat.

By this stage, Pin had found the entrance to the tunnels, and we were off, into the dark. We knew the undead would be in pursuit soon, and the alarm would be raised in the monastary above. We just had to get out. There was some muted discussion about the lack of horses at this point. Someone produced a sun rod to light the way. Louis was moaning and babbling like an idiot, so we yanked the spear out and he obligingly fainted.

The exit from the tunnels was not far, but as the party emerged from underground, to the south, it looked as if a new sun was rising on the horizon. It was not time yet for dawn, and anyway, this was in the wrong place. A wall of flame and dust hundreds of feat high swept towards the monastary. It was the doom of Cyre; we were witnessing the beginning of the Day of Mourning...

Next time: ghosts, a new mission and the mysterious continent of Xendrik beckons

Played using the Cypher system from Monte Cook Games, in the Eberron campaign setting by Keith Baker.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Darren Rummel - An Unknown Armies character (first stab)

DI Darren Rummel
By way of explanation, this is an Unknown Armies character for a game I may / may not run in the future. I've used the first edition of the game rules, simply because this comes in a nice, portable softback, easy to carry on a train, rather than the weighty, three tome effort Greg Stolze has seen fit to produce for the third edition, which you probably need a trolley to wheel around!

[On a personal note, I actually think the first edition is not a bad game in itself. Some people have complained that it is hard to understand, but I think it does a good job of throwing out an alternative modern horror mythos that has nothing to do with H.P. Lovecraft (because, to be honest, I'm starting to suffer from Lovecraft overkill right now).]

I've been kicking around the idea of the team first of all. Originally this was going to form the basis of a party of characters for Hunter - The Vigil, but I've slidden (if that's a word) beyond the World of Darkness now. I wanted a group that made sense getting up to no good in contemporary London, but with a relatively high degree of impunity. I've alighted on an unofficial 'alliance of interests' within the ranks of the Metropolitan Police, coordinated by Detective Inspector Darren Rummel. This is him.

Darren is a veteran of the Met, has been a cop man and boy, and can look back to over 20 years on the force, having joined up out of school in the mid-1990s. He's courageous, powerful, straightforward, and has had to be, making his way as a black guy in a police force that has been dogged with racial politics for the bulk of the time he's been there.

Darren is a tough customer, but smart, and a little egocentric. At the end of the day, it's got to be about Darren. His obsession is toughness - as a plain clothes detective, he got results this way. As an amateur boxer, he got results this way too. His claim to fame in the pub is that he once got knocked out by Lennox Lewis in a police charity gala, but he doesn't like to talk about it. He's now in his forties (48), so doesn't spend much time in the ring, but he reckons he can still handle himself.

Fear stimulus - the unknown, and by that we mean the Unknown, in Unknown Armies speak. He's seen a few things out there on the streets, which is why he chose to form this - unofficial - group. Some stuff just doesn't add up, and he wants to get to the bottom of it. But deep down inside, he's afraid he never will.

Rage stimulus - lazy bastards. Darren has never been tolerant of colleagues who have not been able to go the extra mile. He made DI through sheer hard work. His conviction rate was achieved through sheer hard work. He cannot stand it when cops he works with drop the ball because of a lack of commitment. If they can't give him a good reason why they failed, he suggests they go work in an office.

Noble stimulus - the little guy. Ultimately, Darren feels the job of the police is to protect the little guy. Sometimes this is about protecting him from criminals, sometimes it is about protecting him from injustice. This has got Darren into trouble with his bosses in the past, as sometimes it is not just criminals in the injustice game - negligent social workers, corrupt councilors, the odd politician on the take - he's run afoul of them all.

Attributes

Body 65 (bruiser), Speed 50 (stings like a butterfly), Mind 55 (focused), Soul 50 (crusader)

Skills

Authority 30%, Charm 25%, Dodge 35%, Driving 35%, Commanding Presence 35%, Guns 10%, General Athletics 30%, General Education 25%, Hold Your Liquor 10%, Lying 20%, Struggle 55% (obsession skill), Notice 30%

I think that's pretty much it for Darren. When I get time I may flesh out the rest of his team.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Four drag artists visit a monastary (Eberron game report)

Emerald Claw stooge
Let it be known that I, Kaleshtra, daughter of Paan Nabi, secretary and concubine to Sher Singha, Tyrant of Xen'drik, did write these words as they were spoken by my lord in his twilight years, that his subjects and descendants might benefit from the wisdom he earned, early in his lifespan, when he wandered the lands of Khorvaire as a soldier in the army of Cyre:

As I recall, there were four of us in our little unit. I was included for the muscle, of course. Iron Nick was our warforged auxiliary, while Pin was a gnome scout. Pin wasn't his real name - we couldn't pronounce his real name, so we called him Pin. He didn't like it, but he was too small to really argue. Our face man and the brains was Daniel of House Deneith, a dragon-marked heir and very pleased with it too, thank you very much.

We hadn't been seeing an awful lot of action as a unit, but we were the only ones to hand when news came in that a dragon-marked heir of House Cannith had been kidnapped by the Emerald Claw, and was being held hostage in a monastary in northern Cyre. We'd known for some time that many adherents of the Blood of Vol had been fleeing persecution in Karrnath, but taking a member of House Cannith hostage and storming a monstary of Onatar seemed a little ambitious, even for them.

Our plan was to blag our way in disguised as travelling entertainers - well, drag artists to be specific. I can't remember whose idea it was to put together a drag act, but I guess we felt it might appeal to Colonel Furnau, the man our intelligence indicated was in charge of the Emerald Claw detachment there. Our orders were to retrieve Louis Hendal, the dragon-marked heir, ideally alive; if we had to leave his body behind, we were to make sure it was not possible to reanimate it. To this end, Pin made sure to include several pints of acid amongst our equipment. He also brought a silk handkerchief with Louis' mother's initials on it, as proof of our bona fides.

The monastary was located in Cyre, not far from the border with Karrnath. You would have a hard time finding it now, for obvious reasons. It was already looking in poor nick when we first arrived, what with the banners of the Emerald Claw displayed on the walls, and the heads of monks rotting on spikes above the main gates. Security was lax, and Daniel was able to talk his way past the guards on the gate. We were directed to the main church building, where Furnau was holding court. On the way, we spotted Vorik Kessler, a necromancer known to be working with Furnau. He was in the cemetery - no surprise there - with a bunch of zombies - seemingly digging up graves. Pin tried to do some advanced marketing for our show, handing out leaflets, but it looked like most of the Emerald Claw troops were already dead, and unlikely to be interested in a drag act.

Inside the church, the Emerald Claw were busy torturing the surviving monks, including the abbott, while being entertained by a manic dwarf jester. Furnau, who was seated on a throne of bones which someone had thoughtfully built for him, seemed to be pleased to see us, and even more enthusiastic about our prospective entertainment. He said he would summon in all his living guards for the show, which was just what we wanted. We started setting up our stage at one end of the church, near the altar, although only the idiot dwarf paid us much attention.

Pin whispered that he had heard the monastary was the burial site of Count Van Halen, hunted down and killed over a century ago, for crimes unspecified. It was rumoured he was a vampire with obscure tastes in music, but nobody was sure which of those had been his principal crime. Pin thought it might have been because he was a vampire, but you never knew with Cyre.

Daniel managed to persuade Furnau to give us one of his prisoners to help with setting up the show. This monk, Brother Bernard, was near-catatonic with shock, but Daniel managed to persuade him to tell us that Louis Hendal was being held prisoner in a small house in the cemetery. Not only that, he confirmed that Van Halen was indeed buried there, but in a nondescript grave. And yes, the necromancer Kessler was looking for him, no doubt to bring him back from the dead and perhaps broaden the musical horizons of Cyre. Brother Bernard also helpfully pointed out that, hidden behind the large mosaic of a bronze dragon on the wall behind us (an archaic representation of Onatar) was the monastary's treasure.

The word 'treasure' had a mysterious motivating impact on Daniel and Pin; we set up a trapeze platform against the wall, again explaining to the Emerald Claw goons that this was going to be part of the acrobatic component of the show, and using this distraction, Pin was able to covertly access the hidden cache behind the mosaic, where he found a broadsword. Daniel was the one best-placed to use a sword like this, which looked pricey, and was inscribed with fire runes. As you know, I've always relied on killing people with my claws and teeth, and feel forged weapons are for ninnies and poseurs, but I suppose you have to cater to all tastes.

It quickly became apparent that the sword was firstly, magic, and secondly, intelligent, leading to long and frequent periods of silence from Daniel as he went glassy-eyed, communing with the weapon, while the rest of us stood around sharpening our claws or picking our noses in Pin's case.

Bernard was singing like a canary by this stage, and told us the Emerald Claw needed Louis to bring Van Halen back. He was unspecific as to the actual mechanics involved, but we didn't want to give them a chance to drag up ancient musicians, vampires or otherwise. Bernard also told us that the key to the house where Louis was being held could be found under a flower pot beside the back door, and that there was a secret passage in the well in the monastary's main courtyard that would lead outside. Finally, he politely asked us to kill him. Daniel went all vacant again at this point, and began running his thumb up and down the edge of his new toy...

Next time: We make our move, light some fireworks, and it all goes bang...

Played using the Cypher RPG from Monte Cook Games, in the Eberron campaign setting by Keith Baker

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Fords of the Isen, part I (War of the Ring)

"Saruman's attack was not unforseen, but it came sooner than was expected. Theodred's scouts had warned him of a mustering of troops before the Gates of Isengard, mainly (as it seemed) on the west side of the Isen. He therefore manned the approaches, east and west, to the Fords with the sturdy men on foot from the levies of Westfold. Leaving three companies of Riders, together with horse herds and spare mounts, on the east bank, he himself passed over with the main strength of his cavalry..."
J.R.R Tolkien - The Unfinished Tales

Herewith the first part of an account of the mighty and bloody clash that took place recently on the banks of the Isen River, on the borders between Rohan and the realm of Isengard. The White Wizard Saruman sent his mighty host to engage a small force of Oathsworn bowmen and militia that guarded the fords across the Isen. Against him stood a scratch army of the Rohirrim, for many warriors still slept at Edoras, under orders from Grima Wormtongue not to interfere with the White Wizard's schemes...

The Rohirrim were commanded by Theodred, son of Theoden, who rode into battle with four companies of royal knights. Theodred determined to cross at the south ford and take the battle to the enemy, for forsooth, he was young and full of confidence. He left a small company of royal guard with bows to guard the ford itself.

Theodred and the royal knights - Uruk pikes in the background


In the centre massed the Oathsworn militia under gallant Grimbold of Grimslade, taking up position on the west bank of the river. Behind them, on the other side of the ford, stood two companies of royal guard. Many were the warriors who had slipped quietly away from Edoras to aid the young prince in his endeavour, but many more had stayed behind to guard their king.

On the right, guarding the northern ford [see below], stood more Oathsworn archers and militia, although they lacked a commander, something that would prove fatal to them.

The north ford, with militia companies on both banks


Thus, amidst the clouds of drizzle on that fateful day, did Theodred sound the horns of Rohan to signal the advance. His knights crossed the Isen with but a sideways glance at the pillar of skulls, an evil totem of the Dunlendings, which they had left there as a warning. Ahead were two companies of Uruk hai pikes. Theodred ordered the charge, and his household knights thundered forwards. Much carnage was there, with warriors on both sides falling, but the knights had the better of it, and some of the uruks dropped their pikes and fled. Others stood, however, and sought to rally in the face of the enemy.

In the centre Grimbold led his men forward with some more Uruks approaching to his front. These were commanded by one amongst them counted high in the counsels of Saruman and renowned already as a warrior and eater of man flesh. They lacked armour, but made up for this with their ferocity. Behind these came more orcs from Isengard, four companies strong with the banner of the White Hand of Orthanc flying in the rain.


Grimbold and the Royal Guard take on Uruk hai and more orcs

The clash here was great and bloody - the Uruks were caught in the flank by Grimbold and in front by the royal guard. The Uruk leader sought to fight his way through to Grimbold but failed, instead laying about himself with great wroth upon the heads of the militia. Many fell to protect Grimbold.  Behind the Uruks came more orcs which ploughed into Grimbold's flank. The Uruk ranks shook with consternation, even as more of their number started to fall and their leader sought to rally them.

On the right flank, however, a company of reckless militia surged forward to occupy a hill dominating that side of the battlefield. They did not reckon, however, with the goblins of Moria, under their leader Guburz, who stormed the hill with three companies. The militia unit disintegrated, with men fleeing in all directions, being hunted down and slain by goblins, who scampered up and down the crimsoned slopes shouting with glee. From this hill the goblin archers now sent a volley against the royal guard, even as they joined battle with the Uruk scouts, although their wicked black arrows did little damage.


Trolls attack the islet, wild wargs on the left of picture

A single company of Oathsworn held the small island in the middle of the north ford, and it was they who were the first to hear the howls of wolves on the wind, as a huge pack of Wargs, supported by two trolls of Isengard, came thundering into the battle along the east bank, entering the field from the north. With them, on the west bank, came more armoured Uruk hai, biting their shields and howling for blood.

The two trolls turned aside and stormed across the ford against the militia. Many Rohirrim quailed and threw themselves into the fast-flowing waters, from which they never emerged. Those that didn't sought to hold their ground, but alas, the creatures were too strong for them, and cleared the islet of men within a few minutes.

Thus stood things on the rain-drenched sward when again the sound of horns was heard on the wind. In the east, in the far distance, came the sound of hooves and horse. Elfhelm was approaching...

Monday, 26 June 2017

Cuba Libre: one of our racing drivers is missing

Continuing on with my solo play of GMT's Cuba Libre. If you want to follow the progress of this campaign from the beginning, I suggest you start here. I should also point out that if you are playing this game solo, your objective is to stop the other factions from winning by the time the final propaganda card appears. You can't win any other way.

General Cantillo and los amigos.
Turn 11. Eulogio Cantillo. He was a general in the Cuban army during the period of the revolutionary war in Cuba and played an active role in counter-insurgency operations. He remained as head of the Cuban military after Batista fled Cuba in January 1959. He was later tried and imprisoned by the Castro regime before later retiring to Miami, where he died in 1978. It is the 26 July to move first, and they take the event, letting them free march their cells from Pinar to Habana, and flip them to underground status. This reflects Cantillo's willingness to negotiate with Castro. The Directorio follows - they spend 2 resources to build new cells in Havana and Las Villas. They are now out of cash, but control Las Villas.

Turn 12. Echeverria - near miss on dictator's life. Jose Antonio Echeverria was a student leader in Cuba and a founder of the Directorio Revolucionario Estudantil. He famously hijacked the National Radio Station in 1957 during peak time to broadcast a three minute speech against the Batista regime. He escaped the radio station unscathed, but was killed shortly afterwards when he attacked a police patrol. This is one of these cards that have two options: as it is my turn, I use the option that lets me remove two Directorio units from Havana. This is too good an event card not to use, as it cuts down the level of revolutionary activity in my core power base. The Syndicate follows - they activate a mob in Habana to add a terror counter there. They then use Bribe as their follow up action, removing another Directorio piece in Havana, and taking the cash horde it was guarding back into mob control.

Turn 13. Santo Trafficante Jr. He was a major mob boss and a dominant figure in organised crime in Florida and Cuba in the 1950s. He was kicked out of Cuba by Castro, and subsequently accused of being involved in CIA plots to assassinate Castro and President Kennedy. The Directorio takes the event, which cuts the Syndicate's resources to 1. They join the Directorio in the near-penniless state. 26 July then initiates a kidnap operation on the Syndicate's casino in Habana with one of its cells. The Syndicate is now broke, and 26 July has an active cell in Habana.
Enough's enough, says Signor Trafficante.

Turn 14. Batista flees. Back to me - I don't really want that event, as it is going to do bad things to the Cuban army. I instead launch assaults in Sierra Maestre and Pinar. This time I take out a Syndicate unit in Pinar and take its cash. This is a cynical money grab. I also shut down a communist base in Sierra Maestre, which completes military operations there. As a follow up, I carry out reprisals in Sierra Maestre which gives the region a terror marker and shifts opposition from active to passive. However, I can't stop Syndicate from taking the event - Batista flees and my remaining resources drops to zero. Two brigades disappear from Pinar, so I lose control there. However, the US alliance moves back to Firm, which is good, and US aid goes up to 17. I then have to pull troops back to the cities, which I duly do. However, I also realise I can swap in police units from the cities into the provinces the army is leaving, so drop two police into Sierra Maestre and two into Pinar. That lets me keep control in both.

Turn 15. Fangio. In 1958 communist rebels kidnapped Argentine motor racing driver Juan Manuel Fangio just before the Cuban Grand Prix. The move was more a publicity stunt than anything else, designed to demonstrate how Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista was losing his grip. Fangio was only held for a few hours. The race was won by the UK's Stirling Moss in a Ferrari 335 S, in case you wondered! July 26 takes this event, and moves Havana from neutral to passive opposition. The Directorio follows, but has no resources, so passes. This is actually quite crucial, as by passing they pick up +1 resource, but also they are eligible for turn 16, thus potentially changing the order of play.

Propaganda. The second propaganda phase of the game. With no support in Havana, my total support drops to 5/19. I need 19 to win. The Directorio is on 3/10, the Syndicate is 2/7 with no money, so well off a win. However, 26 July is 14/16. They are close despite only having a small number of units on the board. Directorio has been doing a lot of the hard work for them.

Sadly I had to clear up the game at this stage, but it helped me to learn the rules and get a grip on the COIN system. I still believe Cuba Libre is an excellent entry point into the COIN system. Readers will also be interested to know that you can pre-order Invierno Cubano, which expands Cuba Libre to the counter-revolution of 1959-1965. I myself have learned an enormous amount about the Cuban revolution from playing the game, and many of the systems are shared with the Afghanistan version, A Distant Plain. Look out for a potential game of that on this blog over the summer.

A few tactical observations: as the government player, control of Havana is critical. It counts for 6 population resources, while no other city or province offers more than 2. If you let the enemy start to get a grip there, things can go badly wrong for you, very quickly. Protect Havana at all costs, and prioritise operations there. Secondly, don't let the fact that you're kicking communist butt lull you into a false sense of security: even if July 26 have relatively few counters on the board, they score simply by having provinces in opposition. This is not the same as Directorio, which needs to control provinces and build bases. Having Havana in passive opposition following the Fangio kidnap gave them 6 points - they need 16 to win. If Havana ever goes to active opposition, the likelihood is a July 26 win.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Play test review of Frostgrave

Exit goblin, pursued by angry dwarf
This week I finally found an opportunity to play some Frostgrave, the fantasy skirmish miniatures game from Osprey. This has been out for a couple of years now, and is being hailed in some quarters as a successor to Games Workshop's Mordheim. I had been wanting to play Mordheim for some time, but with Frostgrave I was intrigued: unlike Mordheim, the focus is on a wizard and his apprentice rather some heroic types, although the concept is similar. The wizards are the only characters you can really advance in terms of experience - the rest of the unit, the soldiers, are along for the ride.

Each wizard comes from a different school of magic, ranging from Elementalist to Soothsayer to Chronomancer. This dictates which spells he can use, and the relative difficulty of casting spells from other schools. Apprentices function as back up wizards - they find it tougher to cast spells, but have access to the same magic as the wizard.

Beyond this, like in Mordheim, players recruit a war band using a budget of gold pieces. I hired a couple of trackers, a dwarf man at arms [see picture above] and four dogs/wolves. You don't have to buy the Frostgrave official miniatures from North Star; you can quickly get going with the miniatures you have. I found I was easily able to build a war band with the painted figures I had already. I would, however, recommend looking at the North Star ones, as they are very nice.

Also, the soldiers in Frostgrave are not differentiated by race - my opponent fielded a war band composed entirely of orcs and goblins, because the profile for an orc barbarian is the same as that for a human one. I actually quite like this - it means one's choice of figures gets even wider. My wizard, apprentice and dwarf all came from Reaper, my trackers are rangers from Games Workshop's Lord of the Rings range, while my dogs are wolves from the old Vendel fantasy range.

Frostgrave takes place in the ruined and haunted city of the same name. Like Mordheim, it has been destroyed in a mysterious cataclysm. The wizards that once ruled there, however, were among the most powerful in the world, and other magic users have now been attracted to the city in search of their secrets. Instead of warpstone, they are looking for magical loot in the form of treasure chests.

Orc archers, a wizard, and a squigg (dog stats)


The mechanics


I'm not going to go into great detail on the mechanics of Frostgrave. However, combat is very easy: shooting and melee are both determined using an opposed roll on a d20, adjusted for the Fighting bonus of the figures involved. Hence, a zombie has a bonus of +0, while a man at arms has +3. There are no poxy combat modifiers, other than for some weapons, like two-handed weapons or very light weapons. Damage is calculated by comparing your final fight score - if you were the winner - against the armour of the target. If your final score is higher than the armour of your opponent, you inflict damage. There are no separate rolls for damage.

As with generating new characters for an RPG, you are somewhat blundering around in the dark when building your first Frostgrave war band. I had no idea how mine would fare. It took us a while to get the table set up, for which I blame my busy schedule this week, and we completed our first game in about 3.5 hours. This was partly because we were learning the rules, so I would expect to be able to reduce this to three hours which fits the game neatly into an evening. I don't think it is something you could play in a lunch hour. It also looks to me like the game gets longer the more war bands are involved. A four war band game would probably take up most of a day, particularly if players were not familiar with the rules.

Orc barbarian - in red - is tackled by a mummy.


Game highlights


Tactically, it is a very interesting game. Having the wizards hurling magic around certainly adds something to it. I particularly enjoyed:

  • A goblin thug scuttling away with a treasure chest, while being pursued by an angry, heavily armoured dwarf [see picture above];
  • A frozen pond terrain feature, which had characters gingerly picking their way across it to reach a chest;
  • The opportunity for wandering monsters to appear - my Dungeons and Dragons iron cobra figure had the chance to come onto the field as a small construct encounter [see below];
  • My opponent's use of a mud spell to bog my characters down all over the board, creating all sorts of nuisance for them. It backfired in the end, however, when his goblin apprentice got too close to an angry dwarf, who unexpectedly charged him and cut the goblin in two with his axe;
  • The raise zombie spell, which I simply did not make enough use of - my wizard conjured one zombie before the game, who did sterling service all over the place, making mincemeat of several mummies (see below);
  • An orc barbarian being taken down by a dog - I was expecting my dogs to be rubbish, but with three of them on the table, they actually created all sorts of havoc.
We played the Mausoleum scenario, which has four treasure chests in close proximity to a mausoleum in the centre of the battlefield. It spawns undead every turn. Due to a shortage of skeletons, we used mummies but with the profiles of unarmoured skeletons. The war bands are trying to get off the field with as many treasure chests as possible. These are then translated into gold and magic items in the campaign phase.

Take aways


Iron cobra mixes it up with the goblins.
Tactically, I was defeated. I'm trying to analyse how this happened, what worked, and what didn't. My opponent Kelvin made very good use of three spells - poison dart, grenade and mud/bog, all of which created all sorts of problems for my team. My dwarf and the dogs created issues in turn for his orcs, and I did manage to take advantage of his goblin apprentice's overconfidence to eliminate him. But Kelvin got away with most of the treasure and his wizard was simply more effective than mine.

We WILL need some mud templates, since the battlefield got quite muddy and it was hard to keep track of where all the mud was.

My wall spell was only used once, but it DID work well, so I'll be sure to use that one again, although it is difficult to cast. It conjures up a 6" wall, which then stays in the game, with a 20% chance each turn of disappearing. In my case it was particularly useful as a shield for stopping enemy archers.

I didn't do enough to protect my wizard. My apprentice was removed early on by a poison dart, leaving me with one spell caster functional. Once he had picked up a chest and was trying to escape, he spent too much time focusing on moving (and wading through mud) and became a target for the opposition archers and wizard. This was not good. I'm now more familiar with Kelvin's war band and how it functions, so can adapt accordingly.

Campaign-wise, I think I got away with about 130 gold and a couple of magic potions, IIRC. This was not a particularly impressive haul compared with Kelvin's. However, in the post-battle casualty assessment, I had one dog dead and the dwarf out of action for one game with wounds, while K's goblin apprentice was killed outright. It will cost at least 200 gold for the apprentice to be replaced. A dog, by contrast, costs 10 gold.

Final analysis? I loved it. We probably took a little longer because we spent quite some time analysing our positions and setting up. In some respects, this is the sign of a good game, because it throws up so many potential choices. It was also very tense. I can see why it has achieved popularity. It is not difficult to get your head around, but there are plenty of sweaty palm moments, particularly once your men are fleeing with treasure chests for the edge of the field!

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Cuba Libre: you're in the army now

Cuba Libre - situation in the west, turn 6
Let's start with the scores on the doors going into turn 6. There's no imminent prospect at this stage of another propaganda card, but it is useful to see who is now winning. The Directorio, despite a good previous turn, only has one population under its control and no bases, so has 1 point. Not good. They need 10. US Aid stands at 7. Total government support has slipped to 9, I need to get it back up to 19 to win. It has slipped considerably already in the last phase. 26 July has two bases plus 12 opposition, meaning they are only two off their victory target already. The Syndicate needs to have 7 casinos open plus over 30 resources, they have three operating and 15 resources.

Thus, it looks like the communists are already in sniffing distance of a win when the next propaganda card comes up.

In the picture you can see the Syndicate (green) and 26 July are contesting power in Pinar del Rio, although the province is still fiercely pro-government.  The circle with all the pieces in is Havana: the yellow marker with a star is an active Directorio unit in Havana, the other is underground. The blue cube in a little circle is a police unit guarding the tobacco centre. In Habana the green unit with a small green disk under it is a Syndicate gang guarding cash. The other disk in Habana is an open casino, the one that has already suffered a kidnap action.

Turn 6. Escapade. The Government goes first, and as I see no benefit in Escapade, I opt for a sweep operation into the Sierra Madre. The communists look too threatening, and it is time to step on them. I move three brigades of troops out of Santiago de Cuba into the Sierra Madre, as it is an adjacent area. This is enough to activate the guerillas there, meaning I can attack them at my next opportunity, if I get one. This costs me 3 resources however. For my follow up action I use transport which allows me to ship troops wherever I want. I take 3 brigades out of Havana and move them to Pinar del Rio, again because there is a communist base area there, set up by Operation Fisherman. This depletes my troops in both cities, but I feel I have left enough personnel in both to deal with any urban guerrillas. Next up is the Syndicate, and they ignore Escapade as well: instead, they recruit another gang in Havana to replace the one broken up by the Directorio. They then follow up by producing more cash in Havana and Pinar del Rio.

Turn 7. Alberto Bayo. Bayo was a Cuban revolutionary who fought in the Spanish Civil War. He later moved to Mexico where he managed a furniture factory and taught at the military academy. Among his pupils were Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. He ended his career as a general in Cuba. It is the 26 July player who is first up. He takes the event, as it gives him two FREE cells, as he has bases in Pinar and Sierra Madre. Nice work if you can get it. Directorio follows, and he pays a resource to put another terror marker into Havana, where his urban guerillas are causing havoc. He manages to shut down a casino and makes me look bad too. Havana is my power base and this is costing me big time.

Turn 8. Resistencia Civica. The guerrillas fall out. The Syndicate is first mover, and takes the event. The 26 July cell in Santiago de Cuba changes sides, and joins the Directorio. It is the first of a series of defeats for the communists. It is now my turn. With the army now sweeping in the Sierra Madre, they have made contact with the communists and I can eliminate another red cell. I then transport two more brigades from Camaguey city into the Sierra Madre. There are now a LOT of troops hunting the communists in the mountains there, but it is costing me.

Turn 9. Pact of Caracas. The insurgents kiss and make up with the Pact of Caracas. 26 July gets first move and he takes the event. This is another permanent situation, like El Che. It means the two rebel factions can't steal each other's units until the next propaganda card comes up. So the defection in Santiago de Cuba from the previous turn would not now work if it had occurred later. Sadly for 26 July, it happened last turn! The Directorio adds another terror marker to Camaguey province.

Turn 10. Radio Rebelda. This is an interesting event - one of those that can be good or bad for the rebels, depending on whose turn it is. Unfortunately for them, they just had their Pact of Caracas. The Syndicate goes first, and he's out for blood. He uses the Radio Rebelda event to pinpoint and shut down a rebel radio station in Pinar del Rio. This means 26 July loses a BASE in Pinar, which is very bad news for the communistas. Then it is my turn: I spend resources on another - expensive - sweep in the Sierra Madre, down the other end of the island. This activates a red cell, which means I can follow up with an air strike. This is my first air strike of the game, but it takes out that cell. 26 July is looking much more exposed.

So the scores on the doors at the end of that phase: Sierra Madre now falls under government control and looks set for some reprisals in the near future. The reds seem to be on the run there, but they should be with five army brigades on their heels. The Directorio is on 1 and a long way from anywhere, my total support has dropped to 5, leaving me further from victory than ever. The Directorio has really been hitting me hard in Havana and I need to do something about their cell there, and soon. 26 July is now on 9 and has some work to do to get closer to victory but has had some very good events. The Syndicate has not managed to open any new casinos, and indeed the Directorio has closed one of his in Havana, which hurts.

Everyone seems to be hacking into everyone else, and doing lots of damage. Victory has slipped from my grasp, but my focus on taking the fight to Castro's boys has put him on the back foot too. This Directorio situation in Havana needs to be addressed as a priority over the next few turns. One major issue for me is going to be resources; US aid is down, and as my approval ratings in Washington have slipped, my counter-insurgency activities in the Sierra Madre have cost me precious resources. However, I can see Directorio is almost out of cash, which will cramp his style in the next few turns. He's been a busy little bee, but will now need to look at his resources. Robbing the Syndicate in Havana may have helped him, however.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Gloranthan Cypher: The Fortress of Doors

So last week I ran a game of Monte Cook's Cypher. While I've actually played in a game of Numenera, this was my first time actually running the Cypher system. The objective of the exercise was to test drive the rules in a live scenario with my group and see if it stood up to their ever-vigilant scrutiny. I created some pre-gens from scratch using Cypher, which was extremely easy, and I mean extremely easy compared with so many RPGs. All you really need to do is match one of the adjectives that describes your character to his class (one of four in this version of the game) and an explanation of what he/she does, like Speaks For The Land for example.

This way, players end up with some well-rounded characters, with unique abilities and some background flavour, not to mention relationships with other characters. Somehow it all seems a lot more colourful, with more depth to the adventuring party, than a standard Dungeons and Dragons group of adventurers, all designated by class and class functions.

This version of Cypher is intended to be fairly generic. I tested its genericity by adapting an adventure from Glorantha, namely the Fortress of Doors from New Beginnings published by D101 Games. I wanted to see how it coped with churning out PCs which matched the Gloranthan flavour of the setting, which it did well. Adapting the adventure was also relatively easy.

Fortress of Doors is intended to be a scenario for newcomers to Glorantha and to the HeroQuest roleplaying system. The characters are members of the Hidden Gale, an Orlanthi barbarian resistance group fighting a guerrilla war against occupying forces from the Lunar Empire. They have been ambushed by Silver Shield troops from the Empire and are looking for somewhere to hide out, but stop by their home tula (village/clan territory) to see if they can kind find any survivors from the battle.

The adventure begins with a clan moot, where the members of the clan Ring debate what the clan should do about the Hidden Gale, and what its posture to the Lunars should be. This is really written as an opportunity to do some interaction with NPCs in a more peaceful setting, and maybe for the PCs to introduce themselves and try out some of their non-warlike skills. I re-designed this section to give the PCs an opportunity to sway some of the Ring members to their side. This part of the plot probably did not go as well for the party as they might have hoped, with their most charismatic member actually fluffing his attempt to charm a Ring member to the extent that he insulted him - and his family. This led to further complications later when one of the members of the Hidden Gale turned out to be his nephew!

The big question here is whether Cypher can manage complex personal interactions of the nature of this debate. I think it can. You don't need combat to produce an entertaining scene. Characters also turned out to have skills and abilities relevant to social situations, which I like. This was one of my gripes about 4e D&D and its insane focus on combat.

GM intrusions


Let's talk about complications / GM intrusions. These are a big part of the Cypher system, as they represent how characters earn XP. The GM can introduce complications which the players which they have the option of either accepting or rejecting. I'll give you an example - the party were given fetishes made of mouse droppings to help them to shrink down sufficiently to gain access to the Fortress of Doors via a mouse hole. One of the NPC warriors accompanying them - the nephew of the sheep herder insulted in the earlier debate - refused to take his and when ordered to, ended up choking on it. This is an intrusion - can the PCs save him, or will he choke to death, resulting in further problems with his family? As the PC he was speaking to accepted the intrusion, he received 2 XP, of which 1 XP is kept and another given to another player.

Running Cypher for the first time, I must say I was probably not introducing enough intrusions. I highly, HIGHLY recommend you get your hands on the decks of GM intrusions that Monte Cook games produces. I found these of enormous value in providing additional complications/GM intrusions. But intrusions can be used in a variety of ways - for example, one of the PCs enthralled my main villain in the scenario, the Lord of Sparrows, stopping him from summoning further support and doing other evil things to them. I eventually offered his possible escape, to regenerate as it turned out, as a complication to the player enthralling him. This was accepted. There was no need for the NPC villain to break out of his situation, it happened: call it a lapse of concentration from the player character. The player was rewarded with XP for waving this through. I like this.

Combat


Combat took longer than expected. I think I over-egged the main combat encounter a bit for first tier characters. In the interests of simplicity, I did not introduce the additional optional combat rules that Cypher has. I think if these are added, you will end up with a more well-rounded combat system. As a group we also like using miniatures. You can use miniatures with Cypher, although I'm not sure Monte himself is a fan. But for us it would probably have helped. My advice to GMs is also not to underestimate the power of even Level 1 or Level 2 critters in a fight. The undead Sparrow People I created for this encounter were more than tough enough, without their Lord summoning any more. Luckily he was not given that opportunity as the party nixed him with their Enthrall ability almost immediately.

Cyphers


Finally, the Cypher system is also all about cyphers. They are in the name of the game, after all. In Numenera they represent the lost technology of past civilizations. Unlike artefacts, they are limited or one use items. The fetishes the characters were given by a Mouse shaman prior to entering the Fortress of Doors were typical examples. Tier 1 characters will tend to be restricted to about two or three of these. GMs will need to work a bit to allow them to fit properly in the environment, and are also encouraged to be fairly generous with dishing them out. For example, looting the bodies of some dead Lunar priests in the Fortress provided the opportunity to pick up some more cyphers, like an ointment of fire resistance.

A campaign setting should provide scope for the players to find and use cyphers, regularly. A setting that does not include this opportunity, cannot rationalise their presence and their temporary nature, may prove harder to convert. For Glorantha, this was not a problem. Plus, I could see how cult membership and worship of Gloranthan deities can also provide a flow of both cyphers and XP to players. In the character backgrounds, I quickly saw there was an opportunity for them to have scope to earn XP in a session from emulating some aspect of their gods. This is very Gloranthan. I may well return to Glorantha with the Cypher system in the future, although it looks like we may be using it for an imminent Eberron campaign!