Friday, 27 July 2018


I've just been attacked by this thing (a hornet - or frelon hereabouts).

It's imprisoned now and has been moved some distance away. It will probably be dead by dawn: a necessity, I'm afraid, as these things can be quite dangerous and release 'attack pheromones' if swatted. Its repeated jabbing of its prison walls with its sting was quite a sight.

The encounter struck me as a reasonably interesting one in RPG terms: the PC (me) lost initiative in most of the initial rounds, as the hornet either charged into me or flew out of range before I could act for the first few minutes. Also, with children and others upstairs, I didn't want either to escape (and risk letting it into other parts of the house) or to try to kill it (and risk the attack hormones and the fellow frelons they might summon; I have past experience with these fiends.)

With freedom to just belt it with a newspaper, the encounter would have been considerably shorter and much less nerve-racking. And, in RPG terms, much less exciting: when your only options are to imprison or evict your foe, things get considerably more spicy.

Of course, in a game, it would have been a giant hornet. But even at conventional size, its unrelenting aggression was a reminder that not all encountered beings need a sympathetic backstory and a shot at redemption. Sometimes monsters are just monsters.

This nocturnal visitor was much more welcome.

Edit: as the beast was still alive and much subdued this morning, I gave it parole over the garden wall. It hasn't returned (yet).

Monday, 23 July 2018

Into the Odd - first game and thoughts

Under the bridge ...
Last night, I ran a short game  of Into the Odd - just a simple scenario involving the rescue of a kidnapped child from a star cult. The players ranged in age from 7 to 77.

After a wrong turn involving a bomb, a bear trap and some very distressed bystanders, the PCs managed to do just enough to effect the rescue.

We all enjoyed the game. The character-creation system manages to be swift and, er, characterful, which is no mean achievement. Everyone was ready to go in five minutes. And the setting's Dickensian flavour prompted a great set of names: Slugga the Pyrotechnist, the Professor (a nod to Conrad's The Secret Agent), 'Little' Dorrit (actually six feet tall) and Bacon. That tells a tale of its own, I think: it's rare for an RPG party to have such congruent names, especially if that party has been rolled up on the spot.

The combat system's terrific. As you always almost take damage if you get into a fight, there's a RuneQuest-ish sense of danger about getting stuck in. That means that caution, cunning and cajolery come into play far more than in standard D&D-type games. Fights are best avoided - or conducted from positions of overwhelming superiority (peppering a hapless lone cultist with musket balls, for example).

There are a few areas in the rules where you need to apply common sense. I ruled that reloading a firearm took a whole turn, so pistols and muskets were essentially single-use items in each combat encounter. The list of starting packages implies this, as many characters will be equipped with both a gun and a melee weapon. I also assumed that a character armed with a brace of pistols could choose to fire both for d8 damage or use each in successive rounds for d6. I imagine virtually all GMs would do the same.

I found NPC stats very easy to handle on the fly. At one point, we had an encounter with six cultists, so I simply gave them hit points of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. With STR, DEX and WIS assumed at 10 each, there was very little book-keeping.

We didn't use any arcana, but bombs were thrown and rockets fired. One player now has designs on creating a sort of Heath Robinson one-use flight pack from rockets. I've told him that it'll need a DEX check to avoid being caught in the blast, but he's determined to give it a go ...

Later this week, we'll have a go at The Iron Coral, the introductory adventure in the rulebook.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Into the Odd - and a project

I've been looking at various simple, D&D-derived rulesets recently. Whitehack is, and will probably remain, my go-to for long-running campaigns; the rules have enough sophistication to support considerable intricacy and range, and can also be elaborated on (for more detailed combat for example). But for one-offs and side-projects, I'm planning to run a bit of Into the Odd, a brilliantly atmospheric game with rules neatly packed into a single page of the PDF.

We played our first session tonight and greatly enjoyed it. The game has lots of novel features that make it run very smoothly. For instance, characters always hit in combat. So there's no roll to hit, just a roll to damage. Once hit points are whittled down, characters take damage to their strength score - and have to save against it to stay operational. So combat is likely to be short and decisive; Chris McDowall, the author, has blogged about the implications of that here.

Another great feature of the game is the way starting characters are created. You roll for just three stats (strength, dexterity and willpower: STR, DEX and WIL) and hit points (1D6). Then you cross-reference your highest stat and your hit points to find out what equipment you start with. Characters with low hit points and stats generally get better stuff. The results are glorious: just a few items of gear and the odd physical trait, but rich in atmosphere (and begging to be soundtracked by Tom Waits). Here are a couple of examples from the book:

  • "Pistol, bomb, shovel, glowing eyes"
  • "Halberd, fake pistol, artificial lung"

There are 60 possible results (if two characters end up with the same, the second shifts left or right on the table to get a different set). The entire character-creation process takes about a minute.

As I'll be running the game with at least three different groups in the coming months, it occurred to me that there's an intriguing project here: kitbashing, converting and painting up a miniature for each of the possible starting combinations. The results would be perfect for one-offs (and games with high PC mortality, which Into the Odd seems to be), as players could be handed the appropriate miniatures as soon as their characters are created.

Painting 60 miniatures is a tallish order, of course (and that's before getting into male and female variants of each). I've got a one-off game coming up next month, so I'll have the players roll two or three characters each in advance and then get to work on those, matching each miniature's sex and other specifications to each player's wishes. To begin with, I've ordered a couple of sprues of Warlord Games' "pike and shotte" miniatures to get a supply of arms with flintlock pistols and the odd spare musket: muskets, pistols and swords are the most common weapons on the tables.

The adventurer miniatures created in this way will also work as NPCs for our Whitehack games: militias and watchmen in particular, I think. And our Whitehack PC miniatures (e.g. a pistol-toting lizardman) could well feature as Into the Odd baddies. Win/win, then.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

How I handle humanoids ...

As a haughty RuneQuest player in my youth, I looked on D&D with a certain disdain: chiefly for the incoherence of its bestiaries. I've since come to view that aspect of the game much more fondly, but I think there's still a problem. If you take the Monster Manual and the Fiend Folio and Monster Manual II and whatever their modern offshoots may be, you've got heaps of creatures that appear to fill exactly the same ecological niche and are scarcely differentiated in appearance: norkers just look like angry, underdressed snirfneblin, after all.

Where does it all stem from?

Well, one source, I think, is that line in The Hobbit where Gandalf talks about the slopes of the Grey Mountains being "simply stiff with goblins, hobgoblins and orcs" of the worst description. Now, what Tolkien's doing here is indulging in a rhetorical trope of repetition: in this case, calling the same thing by several names. "Goblins, hobgoblins and orcs", if we follow Tolkien's own notes, simply means "goblins, big goblins and goblins".

That sort of repetitio is perfectly suited to a children's book. We might imagine Gandalf talking about somewhere else being "simply stiff with bandits, brigands and footpads of the worst description". If he did so, he wouldn't really be describing three separate classes of criminal, but just peppering his description with synonyms for elegance and effect.

Tolkien (or Gandalf) loves that sort of effect. Later in The Hobbit, we get "they ride upon wolves, and the wargs are in their train". But we can be pretty sure (from when we first learn of orc/warg cooperation) that all the wolves involved are wargs.

A second source is, of course, the original set of D&D booklets. The bare-bones descriptions of humanoid monsters seem to map fairly well onto the titles for character-class levels. So, just as we have "veteran/warrior/swordsman/hero ...", we have "kobold/goblin/orc/hobgoblin/gnoll ...".

And just as the fighting-man titles are often synonyms, the humanoid names are pretty much exactly synonyms: kobold and goblin share a common root and are also German/English translations of each other; goblin and orc are synonyms according to Tolkien; hobgoblin is just a variation of goblin that at different times meant a small goblin or a particularly fearsome one; and gnoll is a misspelling of gnole, about which all we can say is that it's an evil creature of some type.

I'd suggest that the multiplication of humanoid types in later forms of D&D comes from this initial distinguishing of synonyms. There's a kind of nerdy impulse in doing this sort of thing; Tolkien succumbed to it himself, with the character of Gandalf arising from the question of what a "wand elf" (Gandalfr) was doing in the Edda's list of dwarf names. Of course, dwarfs and elves often seem to cross over in the Edda, with "dark elves" and "black elves" most likely being synonyms for "dwarfs". But that doesn't please a certain sort of systematising mind.

In the original D&D booklets, there's at least the ghost of the suggestion that the different names are fairly loose characterisations based on size and might. A goblin king and his bodyguards "fight as hobgoblins"; hobgoblin heavies fight as ogres; and gnoll leaders are trolls in statistical terms.

That's the way I like to go in my games - to the extent that pretty much all humanoids get referred to as "goblins" or "orcs" indiscriminately. The distinctions are between tribe rather than type; so that the pale cave goblins of the mountains range from dwarfish creatures to towering ogre-sized beasts; and members of the blue-grey Black Skull tribe are generally somewhat smaller than man-size, but feature both tiny imps and hulking brutes.

I think it's simply more evocative to have the players talk about "that huge bastard" or "those little wretches" than picking out some humanoid sub-type from an exhaustive taxonomy. Or even better, "Black Skulls!" and "Bloody Tusks!".

This approach also allows me to get plenty of variety in tactics, motives and appearance without requiring the players (or me) to commit all the subtypes to memory. It creates a world in which heraldry is more important than hit dice. And that, I think, is just as it should be.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Dwarfs are villains ...

... or at least they should be a great deal more.

Dwarfs in Norse myth and Germanic folklore tend to be surly at best and downright wicked at worst.

They issue curses, lust for goddesses, betray heroes, resemble corpses and turn to stone.

They murder sages, work magic, commit fratricide and become dragons.

They are black elves and dark elves and groan before their stone doors.

They are the maggots of Ymir and, through the works of George MacDonald, as much the ancestors of Tolkien's orcs as any folkloric goblin.

These things make them much more interesting than short, brawny Scotsmen or half-sized Vikings.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

No one fights with a backpack on ...

A bit overladen for fighting ...

I've rambled on about encumbrance in RPGs before, but I'm going to do it again.

In our most recent Whitehack session, the loot-laden PCs were attacked by bestial inhabitants of the Blackwold Forest. They had camped out and had secreted much of their stuff in trees. When the encounter began, only those on watch were (lightly) armoured and none had their other stuff on their person. And when battle broke out, the PCs' manoeuvres left their loot vulnerable to theft; sure enough, a hairy, dwarf-like creature ran off with some of the booty.

Once the beast-people were slain, the chase led the PCs to the lair of the ettin Brug and Brag, whose ogre henchmen they had previously dispatched; the hairy creature was another of the ettin's servants.

I'm making two points here. First, PCs shouldn't want to fight loaded down with all their equipment if they can possibly help it. Second, the placement of gear and plunder leads to plenty of options for story-telling.

Let's take the first point. No one in their right mind would engage in hand-to-hand combat with a rucksack on. The first thing you'd do would be to dump it (a free action, I'd suggest). I'm suspicious of "backpacks" in a medieval-ish setting in the first place, but my players have all bought them from the equipment list already, so hey ho. In future campaigns, I might insist they stick to sacks. In any case, anyone trying to fight with a pack full of stuff should be at -3 to hit and damage (with a minimum of 1). I think the damage reduction is realistic here; it's really hard to get a good swing with a weapon if there's something heavy on your back.

Nor would someone sleep with their armour on, unless it was just a gambeson or something like that (I think padded jacks and gambesons are what most RPGs really mean when they say "leather armour"). Recovery should be impaired for any character who does so, and lack of sleep/comfort might impose a -1 penalty on all actions and tests for the remainder of the day (cumulative for each successive night).

What about the second point? Well, as our last session showed, stuff that's not being carried is vulnerable to being snatched.

This has interesting implications. It gives the PCs something to defend. The most obvious stratagem would be to dump their stuff in one spot and form a ring around it. That's interesting, because it potentially limits their tactical options. They've got to stay in one place, and you can't have an archer or a magician picking off the enemy from behind more heavily armoured friends if they're facing the wrong way.

It also raises the possibility of the PCs being driven back from their gear. Whitehack gives characters in "the Strong" class (i.e. fighters) the option of driving foes back in combat. I give this to certain monsters too, as it creates more dynamic and interesting tabletop melees. The more movement the better: static fights can be terribly boring, especially in D&D-style d20 systems, which lack the colourful skewerings and leg-loppings of Runequest and its ilk. So the dumping of backpacks can serve as a reminder to keep combat dynamic.

Imagine a band of orcs charging into a room. If there's a burly chieftain at the front (almost man-size, perhaps ...), he might well be able drive one or more of the PCs out of their line, creating a breach into which his followers could pour - and allowing back-rankers to make off with the PCs' stuff.

If the PCs survive, they've then got a motive to raid the orcish quarters. Perhaps all the assailants except a few imps were slain. But there are probably plenty of bigger and nastier orcs waiting back at base.

It's also easy to envisage scenarios where the PCs do the driving back and then pursue their routing foes. But what if some dungeon scavenger has devoured their stuff in the meantime, before retreating to its lair?

And when the PCs cut their losses and decide not to bother retrieving the carved wooden totems they recovered from the beastmen? Why, they might discover that those offer protection from the demons that patrol the lower reaches, and so are well worth retrieving after all.

Essentially, penalising PCs for fighting with their packs on is an engine for separating players from their stuff. And that, it seems to me, should be a crucial part of a dungeon-crawling game. In our campaign, the Drinker has passed through the hands of three PCs, two of whom have died. It was the object of the party's last raid on the Devil Warrens, as they were paid to retrieve it. Little do they know that it's now in the hands of a very nasty NPC indeed ...

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Rogue Planet, Mayhem and Havoc

I painted up these portly gents for a spot of Rogue Planet this week. A friend and I managed a couple of games on Tuesday night, first pitting his space marines and inquisitor against my motley alien pirates and then deploying my freshly painted rotters and some demons and beasts against the marines.

Not having played the game for at least a year, I was a little rusty on the Rogue Planet rules. We missed out a few things, including the option to take default action points and the penalties from multiple opponents in melee. And we were probably both a little hesitant in using counter-actions in the acting player's turn: interceptions, opportunity fire and so on. We did master the counter-charge, though, which resulted in plenty of collisions between monsters and machines.

Anyway, the evening whetted my appetite for more Rogue Planet. There's a great deal about the game that's fresh and liberating: unmeasured movement (as in Ganesha's terrific Battlesworn, another ruleset to which we periodically return); the freedom to build whatever units you wish to deploy; and the innovative use of miniatures, whether as "pawns" that represent a hero's abilities and endurance, or "groups" that allow the same stat line to be presented in radically different ways.

I can't think of any ruleset that matches Rogue Planet's ability to make you look at a collection of miniatures and dream up imaginative ways of deploying them on the table. The simplest way to do this is by designating them as pawns - hit points for a leader that also provide special abilities while they remain on the table. So, that huge alien beast could be an intimidator (reducing the opponent's command-and-control ability), that ferocious-looking mercenary could be a brute (enhancing the leader's combat ability) and that odd, striped vaguely dog-like thing could be a pet (allowing the leader to make instantaneous attacks on enemy forces anywhere on the table).

The game's also fast. This week's Rogue Planet session was a re-match after my first game of 40K since at least the early 90s. But we managed to get a couple of games in in far less time than the 40K game took, despite our lack of familiarity with the rules.

My son remembers the rules fondly - as a frenzy of charging lizardmen and dinosaurs, chiefly - so we'll aim to get in a game or two this weekend, if the good weather allows.

Other Bombshell games
Rogue Planet is one of several excellent wargames written by Brent Spivey of Bombshell games. The other two that we have are Mayhem (fantasy massed battles) and Havoc (fantasy skirmishes).

Mayhem is the one we've played the most. I have a couple of 10mm armies in progress for it, but we've generally played it with 28mm Hordes of the Things units doubled up. Mayhem units are squares, so two 60 x 30 HotT bases do the trick nicely. Like Rogue Planet, the game is innovative and quick to play.

The Achilles heel of both rulesets, however, is the build-your-own-unit aspect. I'm all for this in principle, as I dislike prescriptive rulesets that allow you to field only highly specific troop types (usually tied to a certain range of miniatures). My rule of thumb for any fantasy game is that it should allow you to field a goblin mounted on a giant lizard (or a dwarf on a giant bird, or a beastman on a giant beetle, or whatever ...). If not, then it's probably not for me. Both Mayhem and Rogue Planet certainly cater for goblin lizard riders.

The problem, though, is that it requires a little bit of work to stat up such units - and that there's little in the way of baselines to work with. That doesn't make the game itself any less satisfying - but it does require an hour or two's work to draw up two sets of rival forces.

This is a minor complaint, of course. And there are plenty of statted-up forces floating around on the net, as well as an app with Warmaster/Warhammer troop types rendered in Mayhem terms. But the absence of a sample lists does mean that we tend to play both Mayhem and Rogue Planet less often than they merit.

Here, I'd make a comparison with another excellent wargame, Ganesha Games' Song of Blades and Heroes. This is the skirmish game that got me back into all this malarkey when I bought it for my son's sixth birthday almost four years ago. We haven't looked back, and the RPG fires were swiftly rekindled. Song of Blades also allows you to stat up any model as you see fit, which is great. So goblins on lizards are no problem at all. But it does contain a handy list of non-prescriptive profiles. So you can look at the orc profile of Quality 4, Combat 3 and then make your particularly vicious and cunning-looking orc Quality 3 (lower is better) and Combat 4 (higher is better). And then you can layer on special rules as you see fit: Savage, Heavy Armour, etc. There's a handy warband generator on the Ganesha site, so you can have a printable roster sheet ready in a couple of minutes.

This "time to table" aspect is crucial in how often we play a given game. So I'm going to make an effort to preserve our Rogue Planet profiles so that they can be reused quickly - perhaps going to far as to print cards for each model or unit that we use. With the "time to table" problem solved, I think the game will get the playing time it deserves.

Havoc is the earliest Bombshell ruleset, I think, and the one we've played least. This isn't because it's a bad game; the one or two times we played it, we thought it very good. But the rulebook is thick and impenetrable. It could also do with a good proofread and edit. This isn't a problem with Mayhem or Rogue Planet; judging by the acknowledgements, Mrs Spivey deserves the credit here.

But Havoc does get round the "time to table" problem by having a list of preset profiles. You can still field a lizard with a goblin rider, but you'll use the profile for "rider" or whatever. And an orc with spear and shield will be identical, rules-wise, to a dwarf thus armed.

I don't mind that at all. It's a system that works very well in massed-battle games like Hordes of the Things, where a "warband" element might be large goblins or burly barbarians or excitable elves; the flavour of the army comes from the combination of the unit types rather than their individual powers. From memory, Havoc caters better slightly better to ancient and Renaissance-type profiles rather than high medieval; I don't think you can easily fit in a poleaxe-armed, plate-armoured man-at-arms of the Wars of the Roses sort, for example, as users of two-handed weapons are deemed to be lightly armoured like landsknechts or Dacian falx-wielders.

In essence, Havoc has what Mayhem and Rogue Planet need in its standard profiles. Mayhem and Rogue Planet have what Havoc needs, both in their brevity and clarity and (to a lesser extent) their ability to cater for any sort of profile.

Anyway, my experiences of playing both Mayhem and Rogue Planet have been sufficiently good to make the effort of force creation well worth it. If Bombshell were to produce a cleaned-up and stripped-down Havoc, I'd pounce on it like a half-starved polecat.