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.