Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Look and Feel of a Hive City

I've been digging on Dark Heresy lately, and a recent browse through the Fantasy Flight Games forums yielded this gem of a thread. The original poster asked what hive cities -- the ubiquitous urban megalopolises in the Warhammer 40,000 universe -- actually look like. The responses were amusing, along the lines of "Imagine New York City with a roof over it, with Los Angeles stacked on top of it, followed by Tokyo, Houston and so on for about 30 miles straight up."

Eventually a commenter named Jephkay posted a quick list of interesting features that can be found in these huge, ancient, decaying structures. Other forumites chimed in with their own ideas, adding to the list and no doubt firing the imagination of every Dark Heresy GM who stumbled across the thread. Here's a quick taste from Jephkay's original post:

Tactical Thinking in the Hive
I try to convey the multi-layered nature of Hives by making sure my players are aware of stairways. I'm constantly mentioning balconies, overlooks, bridges, gantries, catwalks, ducts, railways, sewage pipes, effluaries (not a real word, BTW, I made it up to describe the rivers of sludge that move waste around the underhive). They face attacks from all directions in a hive. Clever enemies will encircle the intruders, attacking from several angles at once. And there is always cover available!

There are also massive gates that close off various portions of the hive. These are most common at the spire/hive interface, but even then, there must be a few hidden ways up into the nicer areas. Also, I imagine some areas are off limits for other reasons, or once were, and the gates have been repurposed. Perhaps, a thousand years ago, there was a reason for a certain gate to close and lock for 12 hours at a time, but that's been forgotten, now there is a lockdown imposed on an area. No one knows where the cogitator is that controls the gate, so the dome in question has adapted to their imposed lifestyle. Perhaps they are unaware that no one else has such a limitation. These gates were intended to hold off armies, no force the Acolytes can muster can break through them.

I can also see massive bridges across great chasms between building blocks. The bridges themselves have buildings on them. The folks on either side of the hab-canyons occasionally get riled at one another for reasons known only to them. Every once in a while, a krak missile is launched across the void to avenge some slight. It escalates, and the bridge areas become warzones. Certainly, they can't take too much of this, and might eventually fall into the abyss between hab-zones. Of course, that's where the Acolytes have to go to collect some important scrap of information, just as a hab-war breaks out over breakfast...

Being a made up word, it should have made up rules. Perhaps falling into one counts as taking a toxic hit. 1d10 wounds, no armor or TB allowed? Drink up!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

From Common Adventurer to Ruler of the Realm

One of the players in Autumn Frontiers, my Savage Worlds sandbox campaign, has expressed an interest in pursuing that most old-school of endeavors: the construction of a stronghold. It’s the perfect springboard for a discussion about transitions, this month’s RPG Carnival topic, especially as it pertains to player characters who evolve from simple adventurers to lords of their own domains.

The player in question is Ben, my loyal co-author here at RPG Diehard, and he’s playing a gallant paladin serving a flame goddess. We’re only 5 sessions into the campaign, but Ben is already laying the groundwork for his character’s future: he’s starting to improve social skills so he can sway commoners to his cause, and he’s expressed interest in eventually building (or conquering) a small castle to better serve his character’s deity.

Very cool stuff indeed, and Ben is going about it in the right way, by putting things in motion early. But it begs the question: how exactly does a character transition from small-time adventurer to lordly ruler? The AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide is quite explicit in describing the mechanical aspects of territorial expansion — mapping the surrounding areas, driving off enemy hordes, paying labor crews to build your keep, etc — but is somewhat more nebulous in terms of what is asked of the aspiring ruler.

Surely there’s a transition coming at some point in the future, as the sword-swinging holy knight assumes the role of castellan of his own citadel? I’m thinking this will involve the social landscape of the game. As the paladin’s influence grows, the various groups and factions in Autumn Frontiers will react differently to him as he travels the lands. At some point, he won’t even have to travel to project his will — rather, he’ll be able to dispatch diplomats or companies of soldiers to carry out his business. Leaving him free, of course, to pound on Orcus.

In any case, Gygax’s meticulous mechanics for clearing a territory, mapping the landscape and building a keep don’t fit well with our somewhat more free-wheeling Savage Worlds game. Whatever transition is in store for Ben’s paladin is going to be decidedly stripped-down.

PS — My Obsidian Portal campaign wiki is growing, albeit slowly, as I add in details and adventure writeups.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hard at Work Heading Into the Holidays

Sorry for the lack of posting from me lately. I’m currently in the midst of a freelance editorial project for a major game publisher’s core RPG line, and I need to wrap it up before the holidays. Can’t talk about it in detail yet, of course, but it’s been a real treat for me to work on this month.

I don’t think I’m quite to the point yet where I can run “greatest hits” entries, but I might recycle a few posts from RPG Diehard’s early days (pre-RPG Bloggers network) over the next week or two.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Get Your Old-School Gaming Dice

On the prowl for some old school gaming dice? James from Grognardia was, and he got his fix earlier this year. If you’re willing to pay for a random handful, you could probably get your hands on some old school dice from Games Plus, my friendly local gaming store here in suburban Chicago, for 40 cents a pop.

Last week I happened upon a small cache of circa-1985 dice at the store. The clerk told me that the polyhedrals had been in the company’s warehouse for a decade or more, but they were dropped onto the sales floor a month or two ago, almost on a lark. I snapped the picture above with my camera phone.

I ended up grabbing a small handful of assorted dice, and when I got home I noticed that my d20 was numbered 1-10 twice. Old school indeed!

Games Plus has a mail order service that could almost certainly get some of these old school polyhedrals into your hands, if you’ve a mind to pay for ‘em.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Cold City Recap: We Were Playing It Wrong

Our Cold City one-shot last week was a lot of fun, but in retrospect it’s pretty clear that I was running it incorrectly. I kept clinging to the old way of doing things — namely, keeping narrative control firmly in the hands of the GM (me). Nothing malicious or mean-spirited — I just forgot, repeatedly, to pass off the story narration to the players after they won a conflict. This is how Cold City is supposed to be played; players are supposed to feel invested by devising clever ways to win arguments and deal with combats, which is then rewarded by having them receive a few minutes to narrate the outcome (within reason, of course). It’s a very mature style of roleplaying that I really dig — but in the heat of the moment, I forgot all about it.

That’s not to say we had a bad time. The session was great, in fact, and very moody. I’m a WWII history buff, so I feel like I presented a pretty atmospheric, spooky rendition of postwar Berlin. Plus, Ben’s brother-in-law was at the table for his first-ever pen-and-paper RPG experience. I gave him the British paratrooper character and he warmed up instantly, delivering his lines in a cocky Brit accent for the entire evening. That’s about as much as you can hope for from someone who’s never played tabletop RPGs before!

The plot was fairly straightforward: civil engineering crews composed of German and American workers were trying to repair a sprawling power station in a bombed-out Berlin neighborhood. Something kept happening, though. Every time the engineers would start the generators and power up the turbines, the entire setup would crap out. Fused wires, burnt-out transformers, the whole lot. Then, in the night after each attempt, there would be a horrible attack reported somewhere in the immediate neighborhood. Something was happening — but what? The players discovered a hidden Nazi hospital in a forgotten sub-basement below the power station, dating back to 1939. A little room-by-room exploration revealed a collection of metal sarcophagi, each containing a gruesome-looking humanoid creature.

The lab was hooked into the power station’s supply, so whenever the engineers would attempt to start up the generators, the nefarious operation would draw off some energy, short-circuiting the whole affair and, incidentally, activating one of the stasis coffins and releasing the inhabitant. The players tracked down one of these unfortunate creations, killed him in a blaze of gunfire, and brought the corpse back to the headquarters for research.

We played a little bit beyond there and then stopped abruptly to head out to a bar for some beers. The session was a lot of fun — and really ideal for a newbie who might be intimidated by the math of certain other, more complex games — but I still regret not playing Cold City as the developers intended. I think we would have had a much more robust session if I would have remembered to pass narrative duties around the table a bit more.

Also, the trust mechanic barely came into play. I love the idea behind this element — a multinational gang of cautious allies who are always casting sideways glances at each other — but it didn’t really click for a one-shot. We didn’t have the well-developed interactions and backstories that seem necessary to bring in the trust bonuses. All the same, we shoehorned a few trust-based rolls into a couple scenes, just to try them out. Used as part of a campaign, they would have added a lot of depth to the whole setup.

Regardless, a fun time was had by all, and we pledged to re-try Cold City and/or Hot War again the near future.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Blue Planet, Midnight For Cheap at FFG Holiday Sale

Thanks to the good folks at the Blue Planet RPG mailing list, I found out that Fantasy Flight Games is having their annual holiday sale. I missed this blowout last year, but my buddy snagged all the books for the Midnight line for $5-10 each. Quite the discount, especially for a very well-supported 3.5 setting like Midnight.

The real treat, though, is the Blue Planet portfolio. As near as I can tell (FFG’s site is blocked at work, bleh) each BP book is $5. That means you can get the whole line for under $50. As longtime RPG Diehard readers will know, Blue Planet is one of my all-time favorite game lines; it’s also the richest, most detailed sci-fi setting I’ve ever encountered. When I lived in Missouri, I had the chance to meet (and game with) Jeff Barber, Blue Planet’s creator, who later went on to write the original Midnight core rulebook.

So do your part, drop a Hamilton or two, and get some great books!