Saturday 30 June 2018

This is brilliant!

I love this sort of thing.

What Emmy Allen has done here is create a great little mechanic that adds a whole lot more to d20-based combat. It's terrific.

I haven't explored the rest of her blog in any depth, but a discussion of Machen's The White People - my favourite weird tale - bodes extremely well.

Monday 25 June 2018

Another thing about The Black Hack

An interesting feature of The Black Hack is that, where most RPGs manage character creation up, it manages the stats down. How? When you roll a stat of 15 or above on 3d6, you roll the next one on 2d6+2. And then you're allowed to swap two stats round.

It's easy to see why the game uses this system. Because just about every roll in The Black Hack is based on the six core stats, it's important that characters aren't overpowered in those areas. Whether for a save, an attack or to dodge an enemy attack, you have to roll under (not equal to) the relevant stat on a d20. So universally high stats make for a duller game - hence the limits.

I love this. Low stats reflect the pathetic aesthetic that Dr Bargle outlines in his tremendous rant. They create a world in which risks are real, dungeoneering is dangerous and victory may simply be survival.

Friday 22 June 2018

Whitehack and The Black Hack

Whitehack's been my go-to RPG for some time now. I use it for regular games with the kids and their friends, for family sessions (my wife can occasionally be persuaded to play) and for occasional games with my old RPG muckers. It's great - sleek and elegant, and with nice, intuitive mechanics. The "roll equal or under" system sits nicely with those of us who were raised on RuneQuest rather than D&D, as does the freedom afforded by the flexible character-class system. I've tweaked it a bit with regard to shields and weapons, and it works very well.

I've heard good things, though, about The Black Hack, another take on old-school D&D. Astonished to find that the rules cost less than two quid on DriveThruRPG, I bought them the other day. And I'm very pleased I did.

So how do the two compare? At the most superficial level, Whitehack is more expensive (and not for sale as a PDF). It's also edited to a professional standard, which The Black Hack isn't. Editing aside, though, both are well written and clear. There's nothing in The Black Hack that's hard to understand, and my quibbles about the editing could be resolved in a quick sweep for run-on sentences and awry punctuation.

But what about the systems? Both use a "roll under" mechanic, and both make extensive use of a character's actual stats - STR, CON, DEX and so on. I love this: it very quickly gives the characters some "shape", and means that a DEX 13 thief is not identical to a DEX 15 one when it comes to fiddly tasks. A reliance on modifiers, rather than raw stats, is a weakness of Dungeon World, another re-imagining of old-school D&D that I like.

Where The Black Hack differs from Whitehack significantly, though, is in its combat system. Where Whitehack has an "attack value" stat modified by STR, The Black Hack uses the STR score itself. DEX is used for dodging and shooting, and INT or WIS for spell-casting. Saving throws are also done on the six stats rather than class-based derivatives.

Some might find this simplistic (while being strong helps in hand-to-hand fighting, surely the best swordsman isn't always the strongest?), but I can see it working just fine on the table. And it's easy to rationalise STR as including "strength-related skills" as well as raw brawn.

Like Dungeon World or Ganesha's Sellswords and Spellslingers skirmish game, The Black Hack has only the players rolling dice. Monster attacks are resolves by attempts to parry or dodge with STR or DEX; failure leads to the players rolling damage against themselves. Stronger monsters (i.e. those with more hit dice) give penalties to the roll. Like Whitehack, the Black Hack compresses a lot of information into the hit-dice number, but it goes further, so that armour, damage, hit points and penalties are all directly derived from a single number.

Spells are a major point of difference between the two games. Whitehack's "miracles" are created by the player through negotiation with the GM during character creation and cost hit points to cast. I like this; it captures the sense found in Tolkien and elsewhere that magic is physically draining (think of Gandalf after his initial encounter with the yet-to-be-revealed Balrog in Moria). The Black Hack has a spell list; a conjurer's chance of casting further spells that day falls with each casting. I like this too: it's got a nice unpredictability about it, so that you can't plan the use of magic too precisely.

The Black Hack also has a modern, dice-based system for encumbrance and supplies, including ammunition. You don't have to worry about counting individual arrows, but you'll know when your quiver's getting light. This is a bit like Dungeon World, I suppose, and a nice abstraction that might work well if imported to Whitehack.

Perhaps the most innovative element of the game is its approach to armour. Whitehack uses ascending armour class (0 is none, 6 is plate), which is clear and intuitive. In The Black Hack, traditional armour class is abandoned; instead, armour and shields act as a bank of "buffer" hit points that must be whittled down before wounds can be inflicted. This is highly abstract, of course, but no more so than hit points themselves. I like it: it means that heavily armoured warriors are more or less invulnerable at the start of a combat but become susceptible to injury the longer it lasts - and the more tired they get. Armour points regenerate after an hour.

It's easy to think of situations where this will strain realism; imagine, for example, two plate-armoured fighters who are just about to deal with the last of their orcish opponents when more orcs reveal themselves and start shooting. By the rules, I think, those fighters would be effectively unarmoured against the arrows if they've used up their armoured points. But of course you can easily rule that armour points renew themselves in such situations (perhaps fresh combatants replenish armour point automatically).

So what are the respective strengths of the systems? I think I'll stick with Whitehack for campaigns. It's a more subtle system, and its less rigid character classes allow for less stereotypical roles in the party. I'm increasingly flexible with the players, so that a Deft character can have a Wise miracle in return for forfeiting his attunement or something similar; a Strong character might forego one of the special fighting abilities in return for a miracle or a sneak-attack specialisation.

But I can see two clear roles for The Black Hack. First, we often play one-off family games on holiday or with visiting friends, and The Black Hack is perfect for that. Character creation is very quick, and the game has a tremendously no-frills approach. The set spells will work much better for occasional players than Whitehack's creative approach, and "time to table" is extremely short.

The other thing I'll be using The Black Hack for is out-and-out dungeon-crawling - games where the excitement comes as much from the rapid dwindling of your hit points as the coherence of the setting.  We've dabbled a bit in Descent, but I increasingly think that looking for the platonic dungeon-crawler board game is a fool's errand. Full-blown role-playing games simply do the job far better, giving you more opportunity for character individualisation and innovative problem-solving. Although The Black Hack is written primarily as a "theatre of the mind" game, with abstracted distances and ranges, it would work tremendously well as a miniature-based tabletop game. I occasionally lay out dungeon tiles for the kids on the premise that their characters have a map of the setting, and then let them work through it, with surprises coming from secret doors, treasure and - of course - inhabitants. The Black Hack looks ideal for that.

There are whispers, too, of demand for a one-off RPG session in my office. The Black Hack might just cater for that too ....

Wednesday 20 June 2018

More experiments in speed painting: GW and Ral Partha orcs

I'm always on the lookout for speed-painting techniques for miniatures. The Whitehack campaign I'm running for my kids and their friends benefits from a steady supply of new monsters - especially ones that the players haven't seen. I'd rather have hundreds of reasonably painted miniatures than a few well-painted ones - and I'm conscious that the gap between my "well-painted" and "decent" is narrow.

My usual speed-painting techniques involve drybrushing and "tinting" - either with washes or thinned-down layers of paint - plus a bit of highlighting on top. I set out some tutorials here and here and here. But I've long been interested in just using washes. So I found this YouTube tutorial interesting.

I've since applied the techniques to a batch of GW plastic orcs that I'm going to base up for Hordes of the Things. This is a very quick way to do an army: a standard HotT force has 24 points of troops, with an "element" (warband, blades, spears, shooters, beasts, knights, etc.) typically counting for 2 points. Heroes and magicians are double, but can only make up half your force in total. So 12 elements of troops is a full side - and such is the bulk of these GW models that they go just two to an element.

I was quite pleased with how the wash technique worked. I'm not a huge fan of these GW orcs, but they are allowing me to create a huge (72 or 96-point) army very quickly. A few individually based miniatures allow the horde to be used in games that require those, too. So these will work in Dragon Rampant or Saga (or in RPGs: I'm not averse to using multi-based hordes in those).

The washes work quite well with these big and cartoony GW plastics, I think, as there are lots of deep recesses to create shadows and large details such as tusks that create contrasting accents when painted normally. But I've also been applying them to miniatures at the opposite end of the 25/28mm scale: the superb Ral Partha orcs by Tom Meier and Jeff Wilhelm. The oldest of the Meier orcs, the "giant goblins" and their smaller kin, were first released in the late 70s.

The problem with painting these miniatures is that they're so finely modelled and delicately detailed that traditional painting methods tend to obscure their finer points (unless you're John Blanche, of course). I suspect that's why there are very few nicely painted examples on the web. But painting them with washes allows the detail to shine through, giving a reasonable result. In other words, I'm surrendering as a painter and letting Messrs Meier and Wilhelm take over.

This technique is also very fast. I'm rapidly creating a good-sized orc horde for Whitehack. I have dozens of painted orcs already, of course (Citadel, Chronicle, Oathmark, etc.). But I feel that our Whitehack campaign is due an invasion by the Black Skull tribe - a hardy breed, if smaller than the cave goblins and pig-faced orcs that have already featured. 

Sunday 3 June 2018

Going somewhere, Solo? Star Wars bounces back.

I took the kids to see Solo with low expectations. We left the cinema elated, after the best Star Wars film since the 80s.

This was a surprise - a shock, even. For the most part, the films released since Return of the Jedi have been a succession of disappointments. Rogue One was an exception, but even it suffered from a garbled plot, especially in its early stages.

Three things distinguish Solo from the dismal catalogue that preceded it. The first is the quality of its script. Its plot is coherent and clear - even as it takes in a succession of twists, reversals and double-crosses. You always know what's going on, and you never have to reach for an extravagant justification for some unlikely action. The dialogue is fine; it bounces along like that of the original trilogy. And the characters are good: clear archetypes that give the actors something to get their teeth into, which is just what this sort of film needs. When Star Wars attempts complex characters, it ends up with brow-furrowed blandness. There's none of that here.

Second, the film steals from the best. Its main influences appear to be Westerns and cinematic classics like Casablanca and Le Salaire de la Peur - not other Star Wars films and the awful weight of geeky expectations. After the turgid Force-warblings of The Last Jedi, that's tremendously refreshing. The original Star Wars cheerfully plundered cinema's riches (especially the films of Akira Kurosawa and John Ford); with Solo, the series goes back to picking the pockets of the great rather than pompously cannibalising itself. Yes, there are innumerable nods to other films in the series, but they're deftly done and don't feel forced.

Third, Solo is light-hearted in a way that works. Unlike The Last Jedi, the humour fits the mood of the film. The jokes work because they don't undermine the setting (as Poe Dameron's prank call to Hux did last time out). Solo's tone is similar to the first couple of Indiana Jones films - and that's entirely appropriate. At the same time, this is a caper film in which sympathetic characters die and in which the horrors of an oppressive universe are clearly shown - whether it's the Dickensian street life of Corellia, the grimness of the slave-planet where the all-important fuel is produced or the finale's traumatised shanty-town with its mutilated inhabitants. The balance is maintained - and that's infinitely preferable to any amount of droning on about balance in the Force.

Indeed, I don't think the Force or jedis are ever mentioned in Solo, and that's also refreshing. A light dusting of cod-mysticism is all very well in Star Wars films: a training montage here, a spot of telekinetic strangulation there. But once you get into its deeper cosmological meanderings, it gets very tedious indeed. The Force's absence from Solo is welcome relief.

And Solo looks great too. It shows us backwater planets, grimy saloons and dusty townships. And it populates these enclaves with a tremendous range of squirming, grunting and growling entities. That's exactly what's needed from a series whose spiritual heart has always been Mos Eisley.

And on that note, we get not one but two nods to the first film's showdown with Greedo. Han shoots first, of course.