Friday, December 31, 2010

Future War Commander with rebased MechWarrior clix

After a few very successful online trades, Karl and I found ourselves with a surplus of MechWarrior clix. Maybe surplus is too generous — we each snagged hundreds of mechs, tanks and infantry for the mostly-defunct game. Our plans are to rebase them as "proper" miniatures and play Future War Commander, the excellent mass battle game from the publisher of Blitzkrieg Commander, and we tried our hand doing that very thing last night.

I've played plenty of Blitzkrieg Commander, so there wasn't a learning curve at all for FWC. Karl picked up the game after just a few turns too.

We played the Surgical Strike scenario, with two 2,000-point armies. I used the Reaper/CAV army lists to create both of our armies; this list, while not expressly designed for MechWarrior units, was nonetheless full of ideal surrogates for the tanks and mechs that we pushed around the tabletop. A MechWarrior Marksman M1 tank was easily statted up as a CAV Wolverine tank, for example. There are also several fan-made BattleTech lists floating around on the web for use with FWC.

For the scenario, we set up two installations — Forward Hangar JX-7 and the Noonien Astrophysics Laboratory — as the objectives. I was the attacker; it was my job to push onto the table and infiltrate the two facilities using my infantry units. As the defender, Karl was allowed to deploy a small force near each installation while the bulk of his army deployed near his table edge.

As the photos show, the two facilities were positioned on opposite ends of the table, with several built-up city blocks separating them. The buildings are actually superb paper models from Dream Pod 9 (perfectly in scale at 10mm), assembled by me and Karl and mounted on vinyl tiles to add stability. They're cheap, modular and stackable, so you can create multiple stories and entire city blocks with ease.

I moved onto the table with my infantry-heavy force and immediately sent the bulk of my forces toward the Noonien Astrophysics Laboratory. For the remainder of the game, this sector of the table saw the fiercest fighting, although a few firefights erupted near Forward Hangar JX-7 on the opposite flank.

I scored two lucky shots early in the game and destroyed two of Karl's three battle tanks. Behind a heavy mech and a tank bristling with weapons, 6 squads of my infantry advanced steadily on the Noonien Astrophysics Laboratory, led by an elite unit mounted in an infantry fighting vehicle.

This spearhead surged forward under heavy fire, delivering its squad of battle-armored soldiers to the laboratory entrance — where they were met with a withering hail of fire from the defenders of the installation. My elite infantry was forced to fall back in the face of the entrenched defenders.

But it was only a matter of time before I overwhelmed the Noonien defenders with sheer weight of numbers. Moreover, a lopsided turn of point-blank shooting by my armored vehicles on the opposite flank had crushed Karl's defenses, leaving behind two burning tanks and a flaming mech wreck. Unopposed, my remaining infantry raced toward Forward Hangar JX-7.

By turn 7 I had moved four squads of infantry into the Noonien Astrophysics Laboratory, thereby allowing me to roll on a cool chart to see if my guys were able to carry out their mission. Indeed they were! Charges were set and the lab exploded while my soldiers evacuated to safety.

It was a very fun game, and a good reminder of why I like the "Commander" series of games. Unit statistics are abstracted a bit, but the focus on command units ensures that players remain "in the game" turn after turn. Both Karl and I agreed that we could easily scale our game up to 4,000 points (or more) per side. We definitely have the miniatures to do that!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Invading the solar system with Full Thrust

Tim and I found ourselves with a random weeknight free, so we got together for a game of Full Thrust. A couple months ago Tim picked up a fleet of Cold Navy ships at an auction, and this was his first outing with his newly painted fleets. They ended up being two separate factions: the brown/yellow asteroid pirates and the green/blue...somethings. Yeah, we haven't done much with the backstory yet.

I managed to come up with names for my fleet of blue-and-gray ships — all Scandinavian names from various cultures throughout history. I have this idea that they're a quasi-Germanic far-future federation that's exploring the stars, etc. I definitely had a lot of fun saying stuff like "OK, the Rensselaer is going to open up with its laser batteries while the Gothenburg II tries a torpedo run."

Tim had been on a planet-making bender over the last couple of weeks...he literally showed up with a dozen painted planets, so we put about half of them on the table and came up with a quick scenario: the invasion of an alien solar system. Our two fleets would compete to land ground forces on the planets in an attempt to conquer and subjugate them. To land a strike team, a ship (any ship, we said) had to enter orbit around the planet and spend a turn orbiting it to drop sufficient troops and supplies. We came up with some fast-and-dirty rules to accomplish this, based around the Full Thrust framework, and then went at it.

My kitchen table is large and square, but it's only 5x3, whereas my space hex mat is 6x4. So we were playing on a slightly smaller area than our previous game. In retrospect, we could have compensated by changing all measurements from inches to centimeters, but we realized that midway through the game. Oh well — it just meant that our two fleets crashed together one or two turns ahead of schedule.

Tim sent his smaller ships to the planets nearest his side of the table, and I did the same on my side. Our largest battleships all converged on each other in an attempt to engage and destroy the most dangerous ships in the opposing fleets. Thus there developed a huge scrum between battleships in the center of the table, with little support ships flitting around on the fringes, landing troops and supplies in the middle of a huge firefight.

This proved to be my undoing. I was doing fine at mauling his big ships, but I had trouble getting my smaller ships into orbit to land strike teams. In the end, both of our fleets were hurting badly — note the raging inferno engulfing the bridge of the battleship Ostrogoth in the pic below — but he had claimed a decisive victory by occupying 4 planets to my 2.

Interestingly, one of those planets was occupied by one of his strike teams and one of mine. Full Thrust dovetails nicely with Dirtside and Stargrunt, two other sci-fi games published by Ground Zero Games, so it's possible that we could play out the fight between the two landing parties at a later date using either of those two other systems. Both include rules for orbital bombardment, which could definitely be interesting considering we both had ships in the vicinity of the planet when the game ended...

Monday, December 6, 2010

Rebased MechWarrior clix in action

For Karl's birthday last week, we got together to play Armor Grid: Mech Attack!, a fast-play skirmish wargame for sci-fi wargames featuring — you guessed it — BattleMechs, along with assorted infantry and tanks. The game is designed for paper miniatures, but you can just as easily use classic BattleTech figures, Reaper CAV models, or in our case a bunch of re-based MechWarrior clix.

Karl has amassed an impressive collection of MechWarrior clix (infantry, vehicles and mechs) specifically for this game. These are prepainted figures from the WizKids game, and most of them look quite nice on the tabletop — especially when removed from the clicky base and put onto a proper miniatures base, complete with drybrushed desert sand.

At 13 pages, Mech Attack is most definitely rules-lite. Like the other skirmish games that our group regularly plays — including Song of Blades & Heroes and Wastelands — Mech Attack is designed to be played with anywhere from 5 to 15 models, depending on the size of game. We played two games, the first being five mechs vs. five mechs, the second being combined arms with light mechs, a vehicle and a couple infantry squads.

Both games were a lot of fun. Players take turns moving mechs and firing their weapons, which include lasers, cannons, machineguns and missile launchers. But be careful — moving and firing generates heat, which can cause your mech to overheat if you try to do too much in a turn. I never played classic BattleTech, but I understand that heat and heat dissipation was a big part of that game. As it was, heat is certainly a unique mechanic in Mech Attack, and it really forces players to carefully consider how they use their mechs on the battlefield.

The most innovative part of Mech Attack is the armor grid (from whence came the publisher's name, no doubt). Picture a big grid of boxes, with each vertical column numbered 1-10. Each type of weapon (cannon, laser, missile, etc) does a different damage "shape" (I'm talking Tetris pieces here) that is applied to the armor grid based on a dice roll. In this way, you gradually fill up the armor grid columns by dealing damage. Once filled, these columns force critical damage, which in turn causes the mech or vehicle to lose weapons or get destroyed outright.

Anyway, the armor grid was far and away the most interesting part of the game. Some weapons are good in combination with others, combining their shapes to create devastating damage patterns on the armor grid. Infantry weapons are applied to the armor grid as well, giving infantry a real chance of harming mechs by peppering them with relentless small arms fire. In the picture below, an Ocelot mech tried to assault a dug-in unit of light infantry, only to be destroyed by a lucky critical result on the following turn. (That made the game for me right there — I heart games where infantry has a valid role to play on the battlefield.)

Overall, Mech Attack looks to be a great excuse to fiddle around with bucketloads of prepainted MechWarrior clix. For a slightly more strategic gaming experience, I'm planning to use these same re-based MechWarrior figures to try out Future War Commander (which has plenty of reference points for classic BattleTech players).

Friday, November 12, 2010

Full Thrust, the way it was meant to be played

At GenCon last summer, I got bitten big-time by the spaceship wargaming bug. I demoed War Rocket and had a blast, but the pulp sci-fi setting didn't really resonate with me. I wanted more of a deep-space naval experience, kind of like Star Wars/Trek but without the added burden of a well-developed setting.

Enter Full Thrust, the granddaddy of spaceship wargames that's still going strong almost two decades after it was first published. The game is officially in its second edition (free on the Web) but a fan-made, creator-sanctioned PDF offers an updated representation of the game. It's called Full Thrust: Cross Dimensions, and it's also available as a free download.

The best part about Full Thrust is that players are explicitly encouraged to use any miniatures they want to assemble their fleets. There's an established universe for the game, and the publisher sells miniatures to go with this setting, but it's not essential for the playing experience. The creator notes several times in the rules that the game can be grafted onto any number sci-fi settings, including (of course) homebrew universes.

So, in true Full Thrust fashion, I assembled two mishmash fleets using miniatures from 4 different game lines and manufacturers. For smaller escort ships, I'm using the starfighters from Silent Death. For medium-sized destroyers and light cruisers, I'm using a handful of BattleTech/AeroTech miniatures. Heavy cruisers and battleships were drawn from Starfleet Battles and Firestorm Armada, both of which have some beefy, cool-looking ships.

To a casual player who's more familiar with branded miniatures games, my fleets might look like a mess. But to me they're a perfect example of the Full Thrust ideal: generic fleets composed of the various miniatures, painted up and ready to hit the battlefield (er, space-field?).

I'll make a little universe one day to go along with my fleets, but right now they're just the Gray Fleet and the Green Fleet. Original, huh?

We played our first game of Full Thrust the other night. Thankfully my opponent had played the game a time or two before, so between the two of us we were able to get up to speed quickly.

In Full Thrust, players plot each ship's movement on a piece of paper at the start of each turn. Then, all ships are moved at once. This puts players in the interesting position of trying to anticipate their opponents' maneuvers, and react accordingly. It's also possible that your ships will find themselves with nothing to shoot at because of your opponent's maneuvers. It took some getting used to, but by the second game I was really enjoying the movement system.

Combat is fairly simple, with most ships mounting huge banks of beam weapons, or various missile/torpedo systems. I'm told the combat resolution system inspired similar systems in Uncharted Seas and Firestorm Armada.

The deep space felt mat in these photos is from Hotz ArtWorks. It was a custom job, like almost all of his products, and it took about a month and a half to get to me in Chicago. But the wait was worth it...while playing at our local game store, about a dozen gamers wandered over throughout the evening to ask about our game, drawn solely by the gorgeous spectacle of two fleets exchanging volleys on the pretty felt mat.

The asteroids were pieces of lava rock mounted on flying bases, and the planet was a decorative bamboo ball I snagged from a hobby store. It looked great as a storm-wracked gas giant looming in the middle of the battlefield!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Battle report for Wastelands, the post-apocalyptic skirmish game

My regular wargaming group got together last week to try out Wastelands, a skirmish miniatures game set in a post-apocalyptic world. The rules are philosophically similar to Song of Blades & Heroes — meaning they're simple, customizable and packed with RPG-like flavor — so we knew this would be an easy game to pick up and play. Plus, the game is generic enough to support all manner of post-apocalyptic scenarios and factions: Road Warrior-style highway raiders, Terminator machines, 40k-style shock troopers and everything in between. Games generally include anywhere from 3 to 10 figures, plus maybe a vehicle or two.

Karl, one of the players in the group, had a fantastic desert board set up at his place, and we were able to get in two games, each lasting just over an hour or so. Each game was a three-way slugfest; we avoided crafting a specific scenario because we really just wanted to see how the game would play.

The games were a lot of fun, but the suggested point value for each team (300 points) offered some wildly disparate teams. For example, 300 points got 6 Mad Max-style gangers, or 3 tricked-out shock trooper commandos, or 3 nomadic survivors plus a rustbucket police cruiser.

The 3 armored shock troopers proved to be the most potent fighting force on the board that evening, owing mostly to their bitchin' body armor. They didn't have numerical superiority, but they were able to walk all over the nomadic survivors and the Terminator-style robot infantry, as seen in these photos.

We all agreed that, despite the prowess of the shock troopers, it's just not that much fun to have a team consisting of only 3 guys, so we are definitely going to raise the point cap a bit higher next time we play, maybe up to 500 points or so. I mean, the point of playing miniatures wargames is to get fun toys on the table, right?

Also, the lone vehicle didn't really perform as we hoped it would. I didn't buy a gun for it, so all it was able to do was lurch back and forth, attempting to ram various enemies. It looked cool on the table, but it ultimately killed no one and was itself destroyed piecemeal in both games. I think the game will play much better with several vehicles zipping around on the board, rather than one big moving target that everyone shoots at each turn.

Lastly, Wastelands had its share of inconsistencies and muddled rules. We ended up houseruling more than a few key things over the course of two games. This wasn't a big deal, and I understand that Wastelands is a DIY release that probably didn't benefit from an outside editor, but it's worth mentioning. I'm sure we'll codify our Wastelands notes in some sort of house rules addendum that we can all share.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Pretty terrain for a Song of Blades & Heroes

I met up with my regular miniatures group (well, just the one guy this time) to play Song of Blades & Heroes. The folks at the game shop had recently built some gorgeous new fall scenery pieces, so we whipped up a quick battlefield featuring an autumn forest leading up to a brooding manor house.

My barbarians were assaulting the manor house, which was defended by Karl's humans and elves. I expected him to sit tight behind the walls and wait for me to venture forth — but Karl denied me such satisfaction and instead sallied forth to meet my forces with a rain of arrows from his three archers.

We got to try out the group shooting rules, and they proved to be quite effective. In fact, that seems to be the best way to use archers in SBH: in groups of 2-3, rather than as single shooters. Combined, the elven archers felled my barbarian leader, which wreaked havoc on my loose formation of attackers. Some fled, others plunged into the forest to escape the steel-tipped storm.

The game carried on, but I was on the ropes from the second turn. In retrospect, the attacker probably should have had more points than the defender.

But damn! The game was so PRETTY! The autumn tree clumps looked just right with my marauding fighters mixed in there. And the defenders' keep was cool, too. It had working doors and everything. Overall, we were definitely able to stay faithful to the old adage of miniature wargaming: getting cool toys on the table.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The image that says "D&D" to me

I came to D&D late in my gaming career, only acquiring a copy of the AD&D Players Handbook last year, at the ripe age of 27. Thus this image, while dazzling to my adult self, didn't have near the impact that it would have had on my 12-year-old self had I seen it back then.

Anyway, this is the image that says "D&D" to me. Part of me wants to yell "Don't look at that freakin' mouth, there's some glowing eyes at the end of the hallway! Get your shields up!"

Anytime I want to get juiced up for fantasy gaming, I take a look at this image. And whenever I need to get in the right mindset for D&D in particular (what with its adventuring parties, hirelings, 10-foot poles, secret doors and the like) I take a look at the following image.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My ever-changing gaming interests

It's been months since I've run a roleplaying game, mainly because I've been spending lots of time painting miniatures — and consequently I've been gravitating toward games that will give me an opportunity to actually use those painted miniatures!

Lately I've found a group of guys in Chicago who play Song of Blades & Heroes, the excellent little fantasy skirmish game that I discovered earlier this year. We've been meeting twice a month, or thereabouts, to talk trash and move our little fantasy figures around the table. It doesn't hurt that the game shop where we meet is just 4 blocks from my apartment in Chicago!

The thing with Song of Blades & Heroes is that it's almost a roleplaying game. You can choose unique-looking miniatures, name your characters, send them on specific tasks, etc. The game mechanic is simple enough that it can be adapted to handle typical roleplaying tasks.

For our most recent game, we set up some dungeon blocks to create a full-on tabletop labyrinth, and then we rolled up a "quest for the magic item" scenario that pitted a squad of dark elves against a marauding crew of gladiators and a patrol of evil snakemen. Badass!

Since GenCon, I've become enamored with sci-fi miniatures gaming — starships in particular, probably a direct result of me sitting in on an excellent demo of War Rocket, the pulp sci-fi starship game from Hydra Miniatures.

During the drive back to Chicago, I realized that I loved the War Rocket ruleset, but I decided to collect a more "generic" looking set of starships, so I could potentially use them for Full Thrust, Starmada or any of the other fleet-action rulesets out there. Full Thrust, by the way, is available for free on the web from Ground Zero Games.

I'm just a week or so away from trying out my first game of Full Thrust (or War Rocket, depending on the group). For now, I'm trying to create my own sci-fi milieu, rather than use a published setting. (Aside: Starship minis games seem to have this disturbing tendency to make all their factions into fascimiles of political blocs that exist today on Earth. So we have space Russians, space Japanese, space Germans, space Americans, etc. Weird, that. How about some aliens?)

I'm also deliberately building my starship fleets using a variety of models from different manufacturers. This is explicitly encouraged in Full Thrust, much to my delight. So far, I'm using models from Silent Death, Firestorm Armada, Star Fleet Battles and AeroTech. Check back for photos soon!

My sci-fi bug hasn't stopped with starships, though...I'm contemplating getting some old MechWarrior click-base figures to rebase and use with Future War Commander or Dirtside. I priced out some pieces last night, and it looks like I can get two armies for $30 or so. And of course, they're prepainted...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Flying Blind Down the Railroad Tracks

We played our second session of ICONS last night, and I was not a fully prepared GM. I had miscalculated. I was completely ready to finish the previous (published) adventure (The Skeletron Key), to simply show up and play Heroclix, or to play some combination of the two. But throughout the day before the game, I started to get the feeling that the players who showed up for this game wouldn't have a strong overlap with players from the first game. So, I downloaded the second (published) adventure for ICONS (Sins of the Past) and read/skimmed about 3/4 of it on the el on the way home from work.

Surely enough, we had four players, but only one from the original game. So, we played the new adventure. Like the first adventure, Sins of the Past was a real railroad. I'm generally not into railroading my players, but I understand that non-sandbox adventures tend to be railroads, and the GM just has to deal. When I've run railroady adventures in the past, I feel like I've done well on the fly modifying the adventure to fit what the players do. But this time was different: I simply didn't know the adventure well, and I hadn't read the ending before we started playing.

I think I did alright at the beginning. Within literally the first 10 minutes, the players had left the tracks. They were supposed to form a friendly relationship with the Golden Agents - a classic superhero group from the WWII era - and the Golden Agents would help lead them through the adventure. But the relationship didn't work out this way. This was partially because of my actions. In the earlier game, one of the characters threw a helicopter into a skyscraper, and the one repeat player wasn't very popular as a result. The Golden Agents reacted accordingly. For the most part, this worked out fine, and we managed to progress through set scenes in the adventure with a plot reconstructed on the fly.

But I made a bad decision at the end, right as we got into the part that I had quickly skimmed/not read at all. The characters by all rights should've captured a super villain (a talking monkey with a tommie gun!), and I didn't let them. My actions were a little believable, given the capacities the villains had shown in the past, but they were way too facile - a probability controlling teleporter snatched the hostage away in a single turn. In retrospect, I realize that I did this out of desperation - I simply didn't know what was coming next, and a hostage was the railroaded outcome of the scene (which in turn would lead the PCs to the next scene). Now that I've thought about it and read the full adventure, I know that I clearly didn't need to do this. So, I'm thinking about a retcon to even things out in the next game.

But I still feel like I made a rookie mistake: I railroaded the players with a bs move to further the pre-existing plot. I know that kind of thing can grind. Just goes to show that you shouldn't fly blind down the railroad tracks.

Friday, August 20, 2010

ICONS and the Adult Gamer: Actual Play/Review

A couple days ago, four of us got together to play ICONS - the new superhero rpg by Steven Kenson et al. The game is a cross between a cleaned up, old school TSR Marvel supers game and the more narrative and modern Spirit of the Century. The game includes information about several powers, but it's not crunchy - ICONS is heavily tilted toward random character generation and being able to sit down and play quick-like. While I love Mutants and Masterminds (Kenson's other, much ballyhooed supers game), ICONS is a different beast. It's not for the munchkins. Really, it's not for the gritty old schoolers or vampire narrativists either. It's for some goofy, quick fun with a splash of dynamic play and modern cool.

And that's how it actually played. Which was perfect for this particular night. Here's the origin story of said night:

My friends and I are late-20s/early 30s gamers with wives, long term relationships, careers, and in my case, a kid. We're not as grizzled as Old Guy Mike (glad you're back on the blogging scene!), but time is still scarce, and it has empirically proven near-impossible to have a steady campaign going. So, we've decided to make a set, biweekly game. Whoever shows, shows. At our first meeting, we had about 8 people (WOW!!!). Our second was sadly cancelled because of attendance issues. At our third meeting, Pat was supposed to continue his long-running old school, fantasy, sandbox, gritty, savage worlds campaign. But he bailed at the last minute because he had professional responsibilities (you know, like editing fantasy flight rpg books for real money).

I had ICONS sitting on my desktop, and it looked quick and fun. I downloaded the first adventure the night before our game, quickly skimmed the ICONS rules, read the adventure, and showed up with some makers mark for the game the next day.

The game was great. We randomly generated characters in 45 minutes. We played through about 3/4 of the adventure in a few hours. This was quite fast indeed. Much of this speed is due to the simplicity of the system: The GM doesn't roll dice, and only compares PC rolls against NPC stats. (A couple times, muscle memory kicked in and I caught myself reaching for dice when it was the NPCs' turns to attack, and rolling is FUN, but it worked well regardless.) The system was simple enough that I didn't really explain it to the players. I just translated the results of their die rolls for them. In the end, we had a few pretty cinematic combats, some cool between combat scenes, and ended up with what turned out to be some morally ambiguous superheroes (e.g. they wouldn't help a dying CEO/inventor live without a promise that he would sell his entire company - that he grew from his garage in the 80s- to a rival CEO... who was also player in the game.) Good stuff was generated in a limited period of time.

So here's the verdict: ICONS is goofy as hell, but it's also cool and surprisingly dynamic. It's a really nice blend of old school mechanics and new school narrativist ones. If you want a supers game built for long campaigns, you probably want to look elsewhere (like at Mutants and Masterminds). But if you're looking for a fun pick-up-and-play game with little prep needed, this is a great game for you. With our schedules these days, it was the perfect game for the perfect time.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The run-up to GenCon

My biweekly game fell through this week, which probably for the best — I've got to pack for GenCon!

Typically I'll bring an assortment of notebooks, pencils, erasers and dice to carry around during the convention, just in case a game falls into place in a hurry (like lightning, games can strike anywhere at GenCon). I'm not currently signed up for any games, but I hope to do some last-minute registering and/or bump into some folks interested in playing.

As far as shopping, there are a few stops I make every year. First, I go to the dice vendor and buy a big mug full of random dice, which I then distribute over the course of the year to friends (mostly non-RPG players) as gifts to sucker them into gaming. (Disclosure: I also keep the occasional super-sweet dice for myself.)

I also make time to paw through the loose D&D miniatures, of course. It's almost always duplicates of the same dozen figures, and you have to shoulder aside sweaty dudes wearing 3 Wolves Shirts, but it's generally worth it to track down a few plumb figures for cheap.

This year I'm also planning to spend a lot of time browsing cool fantasy miniatures that could work for Song of Blades & Heroes. Since that game lets you use any combination of minis from different manufacturers, it's prompted me to look again at figures from Crocodile Games, Privateer Press, Reaper, Wargames Factory and others.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Running games for large groups of people

Participating (and especially running) games for large groups of people can be a difficult enterprise, but it can sometimes be quite rewarding. I recently participated as a player in two different large gaming get togethers. The first of these was to restart a gritty/old-school/fantasy/low-magic/wilderness/sandbox savage worlds campaign. The second was to continue a fairly long-running D&D 2e campaign with an overlapping group of people that's much more magical, goofier, and pulpier in tone. I really enjoy both. Although neither of these games have involved huge numbers of people at any period in time, many have flitted in and out of the games. The games respectively involved 8 and 9 participants in our most recent sessions.

In the gritty/old-school/fantasy/low-magic/wilderness/sandbox game, we didn't actually play - we simply introduced our characters (which took a little bit), checked out some of the old maps and rehashed some of the old plot threads, and devolved into heroclix and magic tables. Wow. I guess I'm a geek.

Anyway, you could feel the enthusiasm for the game building. Pat, the GM and main writer on this site, was leery of GMing so many people, but man, people wanted to play. That said, we have players of all different experience levels with the campaign, savage worlds, and rpg'ing itself. It'll be a challenge for sure.

My D&D game a couple days later game me some insight into the nature of the challenge. It went off pretty well. Lots of fun around the table, but there were some expected problems. First, it was a little slow. I was the "caller" for the group to speed things along, but with 8 players, that's just what happens anyway. Second, there were some very inexperienced players (including one who was a pure rookie), and DM conversations with them naturally slowed down the game. Third, we were focusing on picking up the pace so much toward the back half of the game, that some of the visuals and details faded into the background as we focused on systematically checking out all the rooms of the dungeon and ploughing through the mechanics of combat.

So, what are the lessons of all this?

(1) In combat, the DM should press people for fast and hard responses about what they're doing, or else they do nothing.  It is combat, after all.  More leeway should be given to beginners.

(2) Newbies should have a buddy to make sure they know what they can do and don't hold up play in the middle of a fast paced sequence.

(3) A caller out of combat is good.  But the players need to breathe when they're out of combat and make collective decisions about some things (e.g. not which way to turn at a dungeon intersection, but definitely how to storm the keep or whether to turn back home).  Still, it's worth it to set a clock for these sorts of conversations (maybe at 10 minutes or so?).

(4) The newbies matter most.  Some of the newbies thrive on character stuff.  For example, we had one newbie talking in character like bob dylan for 3 hours.  The newbies also get a real kick out of the descriptive stuff, both hearing stuff from the DM about the environment and making up for themselves how their magic missiles look ("how do your magic missiles look, newbie dude?" "Uh... hmmm... like glowing bright blue arrows emerging from the outstretched palms of my hands that arc instead of going in a straight line." "cool!").

But it's worth noting that some newbies just fade in a big group like this, especially outside of combat.  I'm not really sure what the solution is for this. Except for maybe introducing these people to gaming in a smaller setting.

(5) Don't skimp on the descriptions and the character moments. This is probably the first thing to go in a big group, but it should probably be the last for the kinds of games I'm most interested in. If I want a more tactical game, I'll play heroclix or something. But if I'm playing Prometheor of the Righteous Flame in Savage Worlds, I want to imagine his self-righteous paladin ways, his flaming sword, and his placid smile as shit hits the fan. And I want to do it while he's having a disagreement with Adabraxes Stormcrow, the White Wolf of the North, his shapechanging friend who's a barbarian psychic detective. It's weird, but it's one of the biggest reasons why I play these games.

(6) If you're going to shoot for any ideal, shoot for the Justice League (says the comic book fan). At least with the classic lineup, there was some niche protection, but some nice areas of overlap. The villains and scenarios could be interesting in themselves, but the real joy was to see the team interaction - both in terms of powers/tactics and personality - in these wacky scenarios. Somehow, the spotlight still needs to remain on the characters... as a team. Not the DM. Not the players. The characters. Without that, any ensemble lineup will fall apart. And that's what this is really all about - how to make an ensemble game hum.

My SAGE submission - Random Treasure

I almost forgot, but I jumped on board Zak's Secret Arneson Gift Exchange in honor of Gygax's birthday. I was sent a random request by one of the 50 or so folks who chose to take request was to come up with a list of 20 or so random non-magical treasure items, so here they are!

Roll 1d20:

1. A small leather purse containing six pearls. The pearls themselves are valued at 75gp each, but rumors persist that each contains a kernel of platinum at its core. So who wants to smash one open and find out? The pouch and pearls weigh one pound.

2. A medium-sized urn filled with three double handfuls of ruby dust and sealed with wax. The ruby dust is a vital component of certain magic spells, though it is not magical itself, and wizards will pay varying prices for doses of the stuff, from 100gp for a pinch to 1,000gp for a handful. The filled urn weighs 25 pounds.

3. A leather-bound copy of Tales of the Southern Prelates, by Master Magician Hoeth. The book weighs 7 pounds and is valued at 800gp.

4. A small icon of a hawk in flight, wrought in silver and wrapped in rough green felt. The trinket fetches 30sp, but it holds special significance for dwarves, who will pay 15gp for it. The idol weighs less than 1 pound.

5. A pair of supple calfskin boots, each with a silver buckles. The pair is valued at 30gp, though the clasps could each sell for 10gp. The boots weigh 16 pounds.

6. A boar's tusk upon which the word "Vainglorious" is etched in an elven dialect. The boar's tusk is valued at 200gp and weighs 2 pounds.

7. A roc's feather, which is at least as long as an adventurer's leg but weighs just 5 pounds. The feather is quite unwieldy, being so large, but it is valued at 1,100gp.

8. A necklace of polished agate weighing one pound and valued at 90sp.

9. A hollowed-out wyvern egg the size of a large dinner platter weighing just 1 pound. Its surface is painted with beautiful scenes from a high lord's court, but it is very fragile, requiring a saving throw if it is jostled or dropped. It is valued at 400gp.

10. A matched pair of giant beetle mandibles weighing 9 pounds. They are glossy black and valued at 150gp.

11. A fist-sized chunk of amber with a jeweled ring encased inside. The amber piece weighs 3 pounds and is valued at 215gp. The ring would need a professional appraisal to determine its worth...

12. Three sticks of wax, each the size of one's finger. The wax has flecks of gold embedded in it and each stick is valued at 15gp. Each stick weighs 1 pound.

13. A tarnished brass trumpet wrapped in animal hide. The trumpet is valued at 90gp and weighs 12 pounds.

14. A prancing unicorn crafted out of brass and enameled in a rich purple color. Fittings and latches suggest that the small decoration was once affixed to a helm. The unicorn weighs 15 pounds and is valued at 230gp.

15. A sundial made of polished silver and carved with elven runes. The sundial weighs 40 pounds and is valued at 750gp.

16. A set of jeweler's tools in a leather case valued at 100gp and weighing 8 pounds. Hidden inside one pocket is an uncut diamond valued at 500gp.

17. A drinking horn banded with alternating gold, silver, and platinum rings. It weighs 10 pounds and is valued at 450gp.

18. A bolt of patterned silk valued at 100gp per square yard — or more, depending its rarity. The bundle of fabric weighs 15 pounds.

19. The arm from must have been an ornate throne. The arm alone is carved from mahogany and encrusted with six 500gp gemstones.

20. A potted plant in a stone urn weighing 30 pounds. The plant is an eastern lotus, which produces 1d6 blossoms each month (with proper care and feeding). When burned, the blossoms have a powerful intoxicating effect. Each flower can be sold for 1,250gp. The plant itself is beyond value.

I should also mention that my own request, sent to a random participant, was answered as well. I asked for quite a particular, I wanted a map for a particular area of my wilderness campaign. And my SAGer delivered! I'll look over the submission and hopefully post it here soon.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Unique scrolls in fantasy RPGs

I never was too keen on generic magic items, to the point that I ended up running a low-magic fantasy campaign specifically to get away from them. Ring of invisibility, bracers of defense, wand of all struck me as way too goofy. Same with scrolls — the charm of fantasy falls flat when I describe how the wizened mage hands the characters a scroll of water walking. Eh.

The obvious solution is to come up with unique names for spells, magic items, potions and scrolls. Which I've resolved to do, starting with scrolls. In particular, I like the idea that they're part of some larger body of research or some school of magic. So it's not a magic missile scroll, it's Vendamyr's Annotations on the Application of Force. A piddly light scroll becomes Deleterio's Bright Idea. Protection from evil becomes A Survey of the Nether Voids and Their Denizens, by the Arch-Wizard Foclis. And so on.

Not all generic names are bad. Renaming just a few injects a lot of character into my milieu, and it also has a powerfully beneficial effect on my creativity.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Play report: Song of Blades & Heroes

I downloaded Ganesha Games' Song of Blades & Heroes last month with much anticipation. Here, I thought, was the miniatures game I was looking for: fast, rules-lite and beholden to no particular manufacturer of miniatures. I could paw through my miniatures collection, scrape together a motley handful and create a warband in 10 minutes flat.

All these expectation were exceeded in my first game, which took place last weekend at Chicagoland Games. I met up with Brian, a friend and fellow player in ChicagoWiz's Dark Ages AD&D game. Brian was in the same boat as me: he wanted a super casual minis game that retained a bit of tactical appeal. Like me, he had tried Mordheim but found it lacking.

Anyway, we were joined by Tim, who had actually played Song of Blades & Heroes before (and boasted some keen custom miniatures to boot). We played two games: the first with about 8 models per side, the second with about 15 models per side (it was a two-vs-one game where Brian and I teamed up to take on Tim).

In the game, players take turns activating miniatures one at a time, generally using them to move, shoot and attack where appropriate. To activate a figure, players roll between 1 and 3d6. Each dice that rolls at or higher than the figure's Quality value (one of only two stats for each figure! simplicity!) grants one action. BUT if a player ever rolls two failures on a single activation, his turn is over. This means that if you get greedy and try to squeeze too many actions out of a low Quality figure, your turn can end prematurely — leaving one whole flank exposed, as happened in my game against Brian.

So there's some risk — and some tactical decision-making — that goes along with activating your troops. Do you roll three dice for your lizardman warchief, knowing that if he fails your turn will be over? Or do you play it safe and roll one dice, knowing that you will only be able to do one thing with your guy?

Beyond activation, combat is a simple d6 roll with each figure's combat score added to the result. A few other modifiers get thrown in as well, stuff that's pretty familiar to anyone who's ever played D&D 3.x. If you double your opponent's score, he dies. If you beat him without doubling, a couple other cool effects can happen.

In any case, the sheer speed of the game and the fact that you can use a huge variety of miniatures won me over. I daresay this game would be an excellent wargame option for folks seeking to add a little strategy into their D&D campaigns. And it's perfect for my beer and pretzels miniatures crowd.