Monday, October 19, 2009

Fully Painted: Death Knight and some Zombies

This death knight is a Reaper figure from an old Warlord faction box. I wasn't too sure how I wanted to paint him up, but I knew I wanted his sword to be striking. I started by painting it red—but the paint I used was old, and it looked terrible. So I tried to salvage things by painting the sword in this sort of yellow-fade-red scheme, which came out better than I'd expected. And seeing the finished product really helped me imagine this guy in the game—which will come in handy if/when my players ever encounter him. The sword he's carrying was forged from a smoldering meteorite, and it radiates scorching heat when wielded by the knight.

And below you can see some zombies from the same Reaper/Warlord boxed set. Maybe they're the death knight's retinue? Or just shambling undead with a hunger for brains? This was my first attempt at painting zombies, so I went for a straightforward paint scheme that emphasized their pallid flesh and wobbly gait.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Outside the Sandbox: The Challenges of GMing a Large Scale Game

Tonight, my buddies and I are going to embark on a new game that I'm GMing. We're playing Fading Suns with the Spirit of the Century Rules (instead of that crappy victory point system or D20). I've played in a 6 month campaign of Fading Suns before, and I love the setting. It's Middle Ages in space, with a touch of Roman Empire thrown in, and a huge array of different planets and campaign possibilities. The setting is also politically explosive, and it's explicitly aimed at having large scale political repercussions for PC actions. With source books galore, it's maybe one of the most well supported settings I've ever seen. But there's a potential problem that I've quickly run into: With so much source material and options for players, it can be demanding on the GM.

Contrast this sort of game with the sandboxy old school games that are all the rage right now. I'm actively playing in one of those right now (using the Savage Worlds system), and I'm really digging on it. We can go wherever we want, and every little thing is a struggle. We've been playing for about a year, and we still had some serious problems with well positioned goblins not so long ago. The map is set, and the GM doesn't force any plot hooks on us. I know this took a whole lot of preparation on the front end to get this sandbox up and running. But in game, things seem to be more straightforward for the GM.

On the other hand, part of the appeal of Fading Suns is that players can move from world to world, and city to city on these worlds. As a GM, I have some plot hooks for players, and Spirit of the Century is set up to give players incentives for characters to follow the GM's lead (there's a really cool mechanic for this, called invoking aspects). Some degree of player buy in to what the GM has planned is necessary for this sort of game. But the last thing I want to do is railroad the players. After all, I get most of my fun from GMing from trying to flexibly respond to the unpredictable things players do. On a very large scale.

In fact, the large scale nature of the game is what appeals to me so much. It's just how my mind tends to work. It's what fascinates me. But it sure makes for tough preparation and on the spot GMing sometimes. As we play, I'll keep posting.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fully Painted: Mantic Elves, freebies from GenCon

I've been painting a lot of miniatures in recent weeks (byproduct of getting married in September? You be the judge...), so I'm starting "Fully Painted," an occasional series on RPG Diehard, to show off some of my finished products.

Up first is a pair of elves I picked up as freebies from GenCon this year. They were from Mantic Games, a new game company dedicated to producing inexpensive plastic fantasy figures for use with "mass battle" wargames like Warhammer Fantasy and Arcane Legions. They hadn't yet launched at GenCon, so they were giving out a free sprue of these elves to generate excitement for their pending release.

These elves are sculpted like the traditional "high elves" with their imperious demeanor and helmet crests and master-crafted armor and whatnot, but for some reason I decided to paint them up more like the "wood elves" of Tolkien lore. So I did both figures in slightly different shades of green, along with a little detail work–not much, though, because I plan to play with these figs, not put them on a shelf. As such they'll get knocked around a little bit. Better not to spend much time on them, especially if I'll be re-gluing arms in a month or two.

The good part is that my Savage Worlds fantasy sandbox campaign has several elf and half-elf characters, so these guys will no doubt hit the table sooner rather than later.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Looking back on the worst session ever

I've seen a few posts here and there about the worst GM, worst game session, worst player, etc. and it's inspired me to recount my own tale of woe. It was an easy choice—I've had exactly one really terrible game experience, run by "That Guy" I knew in college, and it almost singlehandedly turned me off to fantasy gaming for five years. Here it is:

At the time, our group (composed of high school students, college students, grad students, one professor) was taking turns in the GM's seat, running short arcs of various games. One week, a player I'll call "Steve" took the reins, promising to run his own homebrew fantasy setting which, in his words, had been under development for decades.

That should have tipped me off right there. Excessive pimping of your own setting and/or game system is often a harbinger of a bad game.

But anyway, we rolled up characters using our generic fantasy system of choice, met in a tavern and got our mission. We were to sail across a vast sea and perform some task. Exactly what it was didn't matter; we never got there. In fact, the session lasted about two hours before we all stomped away from the table in disgust. Read on:

Steve explained that wood was very rare in his campaign world, so all boats were carved out of stone and then made buoyant by magical enchantments. This, he explained, was very commonplace and enabled stone merchant ships to ply the seas of his fantasy realm. Good stuff—we boarded our rock sloop and set sail for the horizon. No doubt adventure awaited us in the wilderlands beyond!

At this point, about an hour of play time had elapsed. Another hour remained, although we didn't know it at the time.

After a day or two of sailing in our magical granite clipper, with no land in sight, we entered the first line of defense set up by the inhabitants of our destination.

It was an anti-magic aura.

We sailed right into it. And our boulder boat started sinking instantly.

This development prompted a huge metagame discussion about what, exactly, we could do to save ourselves. We brainstormed, strategized, dumped excess cargo, shed armor, tried to flee, argued with the DM—to no avail. He had a bemused expression on his face, like he was just waiting for us to stumble across the obvious solution to the problem, but clearly there was none.

After 30 minutes of this, we all threw up our hands. "We don't know what do do!" we moaned.

But Steve knew what we could do. And he told us.

"You all drown!" he crowed, rolling dice to see just how long it would take for our lungs to fill with saltwater and for our bodies to stop twitching spasmodically.

You could have heard a pin drop at the table. One by one we picked up our dice. A few guys went outside to smoke. A couple more went home immediately. The oldest player, whose basement we were playing in, tried to gently talk some sense into Steve and explain what a crappy game we'd just had.

But he didn't get it. In fact, the more he was taken to task for the impossible scenario he put us in, the more he dug his heels in and refused to compromise. He kept insisting that his world was awesome, that we'd agree with him if we just rolled up characters and played again. But at that point, the damage was done.

I didn't play fantasy RPGs for years after that, preferring instead to focus on sci-fi and superhero games—anything to avoid a game with freakin' magic.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fresh from 1980: Grenadier's Fighting Men boxed set

The "buy of the day" from last weekend's gaming auction has to be this boxed set of AD&D Fighting Men from Grenadier Models Inc. The set is in mint condition, considering its age.
The box is pristine and the miniatures themselves look like they were cast yesterday. I even had to clean off flash and mold lines, that's how new they were. Take a look:

I love the variety of weapons and poses: halberds, swords, axes, spears, crossbows and more. I don't think any of the dudes herein are fitted out exactly the same way. And is it just me, or do you sense a little trepidation—maybe even fear—in the lead-molded faces of these bold little fighters? They're aggressive, sure, but I'll bet they know when to turn tail and run.

Believe it or not, I snagged this box for $3. I'll be painting a lot of miniatures this winter, so perhaps I'll check back on these fellows so we can see how they've progressed.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Fistfuls of loot at the fall gaming auction

Last weekend was the fall auction at Games Plus, Chicago's gaming mecca. Enthusiasts from near and far emptied out their closets and bookshelves, filling the halls of Games Plus with much-loved gaming books, miniatures, board games and accessories.

Each day had a particular theme. I stopped by for Saturday (the tabletop RPG book day) and Sunday (the miniatures day). Once the bidding commenced around 11 a.m., it didn't stop until about 8 or 9 p.m. The Games Plus team went non-stop, auctioning items fast and furious—and frequently switching out auctioneers when a particular volunteer's voice started to fade.

Most lots went for less than $10, and plenty of great deals could be had for as little as $1 or $2. The auction featured several jewels from the hobby's early days. In particular, I saw near-mint copies of Phil Edgren's "The Book of Monsters" and "The Book of Demons"—both circa-1976 unofficial supplements to D&D and other first-generation fantasy RPGs. I admit that I didn't really know what they were when I saw them sitting atop a pile of books. But a quick flip through the musty pages confirmed their old-school cred. They were published through Little Soldier Games. I couldn't find much reference to Edgren or the publisher on the Web, but there's this.

Interestingly, throughout the day, the D&D 3.x core books received much higher bids than the 4e stuff in the auction. One 4e PHB with a starting bid of $10 didn't even sell! But none of the current generation of fantasy games proved as popular as the Pathfinder core book. I saw just one copy go up for auction, and bidding ended somewhere around the actual retail price for the book.

And I spotted this just before I left, so I couldn't bid on it. But I would have!

So what did I get, you ask? I scored a copy of Fantasy Flight's "Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation" 2-player board game, and a I won a lot of 6 AD&D books, all by Gygax—two of which were immediately earmarked for The Reverend, an occasional commenter on this blog and a real-life fellow gamer here in Chicago.

On Sunday, the miniatures day, I spent about $35 and walked away with a nice pile of assorted miniatures, rulebooks, terrain and some static grass. I had entered some of my own stuff in the auction too; later this week I'll find out how much cold, hard store credit I'll be getting from that.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dynamic dungeons and the lessons learned therein

Earlier this week was the 20th session of Chgowiz's Dark Ages OSRIC campaign. I've only played in maybe 12 of those sessions, but that's alright—Mike's running a drop-in/drop-out campaign along the lines of Ben Robbins' West Marches concept.

But last Tuesday's session was a real meatgrinder, almost from the get-go. We ventured into the abandoned dwarven mines, an area that we've mapped extensively and thoroughly cleared out over the previous 19 adventures. The thing is, the unfolding story of the Dark Ages meant that a tribe of goblins, bent on delivering genocide unto a nearby kobold tribe, moved in to occupy the mines.

We hadn't counted on this.

What started as a simple "OK, let's get back to those stairs leading down to level 2" turned into a 2-hour running battle with untold dozens of goblin warriors. There were five of us in the party—4 PCs and a hireling—and we absolutely exhausted all of our resources in a desperate attempt to keep those goblins at bay. We threw oil flasks down hallways, hurled javelins, tossed spells, smashed our way through cordons of goblins and finally escaped into the wilderness. It was daytime, so the goblins opted not to pursue.

But I think this session really illustrates how we have all become "better" players over the course of this campaign. Early on, we had a pretty horrific hireling casualty rate. But this most recent adventure saw everyone emerge alive—the cleric even used one of his precious healing spells to treat our wounded hireling!

We relied heavily on our map to navigate our way into (and out of) the goblin deathtrap. Out of all the oil flasks we threw, I don't think we killed a single goblin—but by setting doorways and corridors on fire, we made those pesky goblins think twice about pursuing us.

The party included a 3rd level cleric, a 2nd level ranger, a 1st level cleric and a 1st level elf fighter-mage, plus our hireling. During the ensuing combat, the two higher-level characters used their double-digit hit points with great aplomb, soaking up tremendous amounts of damage and barking terse orders at the other two characters. Mostly those orders were "Light a torch! Throw the oil!" I'm not really a big fan of having higher-level characters order around the lower level characters—but dammit, our survival was in the balance! My 3rd level cleric wasn't going to screw around when it came to saving the party!

One aspect of last night's campaign that really stood out to me was Chgowiz's pacing. During the frenzied escape, it would have been easy to gloss over some of OSRIC's rather tedious timekeeping requirements. Mike didn't, which meant that our combat rounds were very regimented and by-the-book. Everything took the time it took, no questions asked. Digging a flask of oil out of your bag meant that you couldn't benefit from your shield that round. Casting a spell meant you couldn't move—so do you want to run or cast? Several times our very survival came down to an initiative roll.

In the end, as Chgowiz notes on his blog, our deliverance came in the form of a single botched die roll that paradoxically saved our collective asses. We fled, lacking treasure and a measure of our dignity—but we were alive, and 13 goblins were dead. In this campaign, that's the greatest reward.