Tuesday 28 August 2018

What if the monsters are adventurers too?

In an earlier post, I noted that the "numbers appearing" in OD&D's monster descriptions are very high - running into the hundreds in many cases. That's great when monsters live in tribes. But what if they operate in much smaller gangs? What if they're essentially adventuring parties?

Let's take "dungeon ecology". Having a vast area of subterranean ruins peopled by one or more tribes of humanoid monsters gets us into "number appearing" territory. That suggests the Mines of Moria as a default: large numbers of orcs (or whatever) that you definitely don't want to meet all at once, or at all if you can help it. Any small groups encountered are likely to be guards or scouts - and, unless extreme care is exercised, will probably summon more of their kind. There's excellent potential for the adventure as a chase - get in, get what you're after (treasure, knowledge, passage under the mountains) and get out.

But move away from the tribal model, and you get something different: a defined group of antagonists who become proper villains rather than faceless mooks. Rather than Moria, you get something more like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Or Kill Bill without the faceless minions.

There's a lot to be said for that. It's closer to the way a lot of RuneQuest games played out (because broos, trolls or tusk riders tended to be a lot tougher than the average PC), and it implies that the PCs aren't Achilles-style heroes who can cut down enemies by the barracks-ful.

Miniatures-based games incline towards this sort of play, for two reasons. First, the wargaming 'what you see is what you get' principle helps you to individualise monsters. Second, with many monster types, you won't have that many miniatures available.

Let's take this group of orcs. I painted them up to experiment with Spooktalker's method of just painting the jet-black skin black of a fire giant, without any highlights.

The one with the red band round his helmet looks more intelligent (and a little more human than the rest). So he's clearly the leader. Could he be a sorcerer? Probably. And why is he holding a relatively crude cudgel when he's got an ornate two-handed sword on his back. Perhaps it's a magic cudgel.

That gets us started. Let's give him three spells from the 1st-3rd-level list in The Black Hack: Fireball, Sleep and Magic Mouth. Sleep, especially, makes him very dangerous - and presents opportunities for the orcs to capture the PCs. Let's give him 3 hit dice, 6 armour points, a two-handed sword and a magic club that, if not parried, causes a CON save or 1d3 turns of unconsciousness - but just once per encounter (whether or not the save is made). We'll call it Brimir's Bludgeon. And we'll call him Ithrak. He carries a small amount of stolen gold and silver jewellery, all of which is of fine workmanship - demonstrating an unusual discernment for a monster. This includes two amulets which match the shields of Zrakil and Athrog (see below). He also has the Livre of Argumand, a spellbook written in a demonic tongue and bound in demon-hide. This contains the three spells he knows and several others he has yet to decipher. If the players meet him on subsequent occasions, he will may have learned more spells. Ithrak is driven by a desire to acquire more sorcerous powers.

What about the big guy roaring at the sky? (He's a Gremlin Miniatures orc and a shameless rip-off of Aly Morrison's superb Baron Brightgore miniature.) Let's call him Braalu. He also wields a mace despite having a two-handed sword, so let's add provide a reason for that. What could it be? How about a thunderclap effect on the first impact of each encounter that causes a WIS save for all foes within earshot or a turn of flight. But let's also say that each week of owning the mace drains a point of INT, permanently, to a minimum of 3. For every four points lost, the owner loses a language. Braalu has long since lost the power of speech, although he still responds to Ithrak's commands. Let's otherwise make him a 2nd-level fighter with high hit points and give him the berserker rule (disadvantage when parrying his attacks in The Black Hack). Braalu is driven by bloodlust, a resentful awareness of his descent into near-animal intelligence, and loyalty to Ithrak.

The top-knotted hobgoblin with the mace has an appointment with a Biostrip bath, so let's ignore him. But the savage-looking fellow with the horned helmet, axe and knife is fierce and heavily armoured. We'll give him 8 armour points and two attacks. He's a 3rd-level fighter otherwise and is Ithrak's lieutenant, now that Braalu has lost most of his mind. We'll call him Gathrak. He's even cleverer than Ithrak, though he knows no sorcery, and exceptionally ambitious. But he's clever enough to hide it well. He will, however, be perfectly happy to deal a deathblow to Ithrak if the opportunity presents itself. And he's cunning enough to present himself as a peacemaker to the PCs if such a situation arises. He's also Ithrak's brother and an enthusiastic torturer. And he's an excellent tracker, by scent. He carries little on his person but his weapons, a small kit of torture devices and a carved demonic idol about half a foot high. Gathrak is driven by a desire to obtain Ithrak's sorcerous powers.

The other two, Zrakil with the spear and Athrog with the sword, are ordinary orcs, though large and physically robust (maximum hit points). But Ithrak has bound a minor demon into each of their shields. This compels them to fight by his side and to use the armour points from their shields to protect him rather than them. Each shield is controlled by a corresponding amulet that Ithrak wears around his neck. Carrying the shield while you wear its amulet bestows no benefit. Gathrak knows how the magic works and covets the amulets. Zrakil and Athrog have 6 armour points each of their own, plus the 4 each that they will bestow on the amulet-wearer from their shields. NB: if Athrog or Zrakil is slain and someone else takes their shields, the armour points will immediately replenish themselves - and the shield-bearer will be compelled to put them at Ithrak's disposal even if trying to attack him. Zrakil and Athrog are driven by fear of their leaders and hatred of living things (including their leaders).

Actually, Athrog and Zrakil should be flanking Ithrak, not Braalu.

Ithrak's band will often be accompanied by other humanoids - or even humans - that they have pressed into service. Even  Zrakil and Athrog lord it over these unfortunates.

Who are they? Some might remember tales of the wizard Argumand, who bred a race of ebon-skinned, fire-eyed orcs to serve him. A few might recall whispers that he was eventually devoured by these treacherous servants.

Where are they? They might have established themselves in some ruin or isolated manor. If they have been there long, they will have underlings, guards and half-orc whelps. But they may also be abroad, seeking sorcerous knowledge and a temporary slaking of the thirst for violence that throbs in their black hearts.

What do they want? Whatever the PCs are after!

Sunday 26 August 2018

The case for miniatures in RPGs

When I got back into gaming a few years ago, the thing that struck me as strangest about contemporary RPGs was the assumption that you play D&D with miniatures and a grid.

We never did that when I was a kid. Yes, we sometimes had miniatures on the table, but they were used for convenience (marching order, formations in combat and various tactical situations) and were mostly ignored altogether. We almost never used any scenery that wasn't improvised on the spot ("This d4 is the pillar with the prisoner chained to it"), and we certainly didn't use a grid. The occasional book with pictures of Chessex mapping paper pointed to some absurd platonic ideal.

I can think of a single Dragon Warriors one-off that I ran that used entirely painted miniatures with a tower and floorplans (the tower was from the Citadel mighty fortress, with old Citadel dungeon floorplans representing each level and the cellar). But that was a late-stage exception.

And I think I can safely say that none of us every paid the slightest heed to the movement stats in whichever game we were playing (RuneQuest, AD&D, Dragon Warriors, Call of Cthulhu, whatever). We assumed humans could outrun things that were more sluggish, and we assumed that fast things (e.g orcs - I tended to enforce a certain Tolkien purism on this) would catch you sooner or later. 

Since resuming RPGs with kids, family and old friends, though, I've used miniatures about half the time. Holiday games are always 'theatre of the mind' - a term that we never used as kids, because it was the default. So too have been the classic Dragon Warriors scenarios and Dungeon World homebrew games we've run through. One-off dungeon-crawls for lots of kids are done with miniatures and commercially produced tiles, however, and our Whitehack campaigns this year and last have used miniatures (15mm last year, 28mm this). The one-offs I've run for my old gaming friends have been a bit of both (miniatures for Tales of Blades and Heroes, which requires them; theatre of the mind for Heroquest Glorantha and Dungeon World; and miniatures again for Whitehack). 

I added some thoughts on the use of miniatures on noism's blog last year, when I was generally veering away from their use:
I increasingly think that they're a constraining factor in all kinds of ways: cramping scales by limiting things to the size of the tabletop; limiting the GM's imagination to the available models (even if subliminally and irrationally); and entailing a huge amount of NPCs and stuff (e.g. for a fight in a crowded marketplace). 
Noism's comment that miniatures are a "straightjacket for the imagination" was exactly how I felt. 
But since then, I've grown a bit fonder of their use. There are lots of problems, of course.  
First, miniatures cramp scales by limiting encounter spaces to the available tabletop. It would be hard to do Tolkien’s Moria, with its vast chambers and 50-foot chasms, on the average dinner table – let alone a city square, a castle courtyard or a section of steppe. To do such things in 28mm scale, you need a lot of space.

Miniatures also have a pernicious tendency to limit the GM’s imagination. If you have an owlbear model, you’ll probably use it in your game. But if you’re using miniatures yet lack a scorpion man, you’re unlikely to write one in. Owning only 10 hobgoblin models militates against the inclusion of 50 in a subterranean barracks – limiting the range of challenges for high-level PCs. Most of my childhood games featured orcs, for the simple reason that I had lots of them. I still do, and they’ve been overrepresented in recent games for that reason.

You can (and should!) fight that tendency, of course. But then there’s the problem of identification. Yes, the players know that the owlbear is actually a scorpion man. But it still looks awfully like an owlbear. Nicely painted goblins might not convince as gnolls – and they certainly won’t do as the town guard. The potential for confusion grows when you field a combination of proxies: “This werewolf’s the black knight – and that ogre’s actually the wizard’s henchman”. 

It’s also hard to escape the thought if you’re going to use miniatures, you should do it properly – not only by having appropriate figures for PCs, NPCs and monsters, but also by having them all painted. That’s a huge amount of time on top of writing and running the games themselves.

Finally, miniatures make every encounter look like a fight. Cerebral challenges become physical. Place an ogre miniature outside the stronghold gate, and players will want to kill him. Thoughts of sneaking past, distracting or persuading will dwindle or vanish.

And yet ...

The greatest excitement I've ever generated at the table was with this:

 The coiled section, to the left, was the floor of an entire room; the PCs stumbled into it after spending miles in a huge earth tunnel. There was a gallery above it, which some of them had climbed onto before one of them decided to fire an ancient energy weapon into the slowly pulsating rubbery mass over which they were clambering - at which point, the room was replaced by a pit of loose earth and the rearing worm was placed on the table. We were using 15mm miniatures, so my home-made purple worm was fairly sizeable. The shrieking took some time to subside.

My son drew this on his character sheet after the session:

Now, you can get similar effects through description alone. But the sheer fun of that encounter would be hard to replicate without props (the closest I've come in 'theatre of the mind' was in a Dungeon World game in which the players realised that the bone-walled 'dungeon' they were exploring was actually the skeleton of a vast landwhale - and the reason the walls were shaking was because a lich was in the process of reanimating it.

And miniatures do help when kids are involved and when there are lots of players of whatever age. The physical constraints of models and maps can be limiting, but they can also stimulate the imagination - especially if you make a conscious effort to escape from two dimensions. The purple worm was a one-off, but the best reusable dungeon room I've created is the 'pudding gallery' in my Devil-Warrens megadungeon. This is a gallery on the first level of the dungeon that opens onto the second level below.

The first level is patrolled by kobolds, who guard themselves with a variety of traps. A clue for the players - which none have yet picked up on - is that one section of the gallery has collapsed; the opposite section turns into a sliding ramp when the kobolds pull a lever; the collapsed bit is the remains of an identical trap. And so some of the players end up being plunged into the second level; the room below the gallery has three slow-moving but deadly black puddings.

Above ...

I've run this room three or four times, for both kid and adult players (one party found the remains of the other), and it's worked well each time. But it would be much harder to make work in 'theatre of the mind', because visualising it is a little hard, and the intricacy of movement - on the gallery, over the trapped sections, in the room below - is hard to keep track of otherwise. The first time I used it, I placed the level-two floorplan the wrong way round; none of the players realised that the rubble was in the wrong place, but I had to radically redesign and 'canonise' the second level before the next session, given the way that the doors opened!

And below (at least when the rubble and statue line up properly ...)
Each time PCs have come through this section of the dungeon, we've had really good, memorable encounters - firefights with kobolds and their pet scorpions (which, to the horror of the players, were quite capable of jumping the gap in the gallery) above, and the terror of the puddings below. Best of all, perhaps, was when the kids' PCs revisited the dungeon to find that their hapless adult counterparts had released the puddings into the upper levels, so that rather than trying to climb back up, they needed to lower themselves down into the second level.

Miniatures can also help to turn the most humdrum location into something exciting. Below are the floorplans I drew for the lair of Brug and Brag, an ettin (though I didn't call him that; ettin in my games is simply a synonym for giant - and who's to say how many heads a giant or ogre might have?)

Forget five-room dungeons - this is a two-room dungeon, albeit with an intervening pit. Yet the encounter with Brug and Brag and his servants turned into a really exciting tactical session, which I think would have been harder to achieve without maps and models. I'd planned it as a quick interlude in a forest adventure, but it ended up as a dramatic climax in its own right.

After killing Brug and Brag's hound and henchman, the PCs rolled the barrels to form a barrier on one side of the pit and sniped at the giant from that side as he hurled rocks at them. Some of them sneaked carefully into the pit during the firefight to surprise him while others distracted him with taunts. It turned into much more of a set-piece than I'd expected - and the 'reveal' of Brug and Brag was a nice surprise; until the miniature was placed after the pit had been crossed, the PCs assumed that they were dealing with two creatures.

Brug (and Brag)

Of course, most of the problems with miniature use persist. And I think all sessions, even the most focused dungeon-crawls, should have lengthy episodes of conversation with NPCs. It helps to have miniatures for obviously helpful or neutral NPCs as well as potential foes, as this defuses the 'we must kill it' tendency.

The problem of scale is still there, but recent visits to ruins (including Vindolanda and Norham Castle, neither of which I had been to since school) reminded me that a real-life 'dungeon' would be cramped and 'tight' in the way that many RPG dungeons aren't. The constraints of miniatures and - yes - a grid can actually be helpful here.

Increasingly, I think that miniatures can be a help, but it's terrain or scenery that can become a hindrance. These days, I just hand-draw floorplans onto card or paper, which allows for much more variation than any commercial dungeon tiles or geomorphs, and - crucially - allows strict line of site to be preserved (things that can't be seen by the player don't go on the table). This often breaks down with commercial floorplans, especially in cave systems. But I also use three-dimensional props, ranging from ancient bits of Fantasy Forge or Grendel resin scenery to carved foam to painted blocks or cardboard.

As long as you're not expecting it all to match like some Golden Demon diorama, it can be liberating and creative - allowing a better sense of space than you could easily achieve through description. It works through a combination of the specific - the hand-drawn plans - and the semi-abstract: blocks and boxes used for elevations and impressionstic staircases that accommodate miniatures but don't pretend to model the stairs accurately. There's lots of inspiration to be had here from the likes of Matakishi and Runehammer. And don't their games look fun?

Impressionistic steps
Also, I've finally come to embrace movement rates - especially for chases involving black puddings or gelatinous cubes or the like. The first time PCs found themselves plunging down from the pudding gallery, the tension in a chase down a narrow corridor was greatly heightened by the fact that the players didn't know what the corridor would open into and whether there would be room for some 5" vs 3" manoeuvres when it did. The eventual escape - by a square or two on the grid - felt all the more hard won for the frantic movement-rate maths that had preceded it.

The old wargaming principle of 'what you see is what you get' is also a great help when it comes to statting up monsters. There's very rarely a reason not to run with whatever combo of weapons is shown on a miniature, which cuts down bookkeeping considerably.

And there's something else too. Even if you have a lot of miniatures (and as a result of deeply misspent youth, I have), big encounter groups of monsters are often out of reach. I might manage to muster a hundred or so of my livid-skinned cave goblins (see the top of this post), but players will soon tire of them. So with humanoid monsters, the use of miniatures suggests a slightly different way of thinking: monster bands as NPC parties, with named individuals, various quirks and plenty of personality. And that is no bad thing, I think - though it's probably something for another post.

Friday 24 August 2018

More BLUE-NOSED fiends!

Two more Chronicle hobgoblins and one more Nack Tryber (with the crossbow).

Like Beowulf's dragon (or Smaug) missing a cup, I am painfully aware that I have a bareheaded version of the two-handed swordsman somewhere. But where?

A couple more thoughts on The Dolorous Stroke: mortal wounds and asymmetry

After our brief try-out of The Dolorous Stroke the other night, a couple of other thoughts occurred to me. The first was the phrase "mortal wound".

This was an absolute staple of my childhood reading in epics and myths. But I haven't heard it used for years - and not once, I think, since I got back into gaming. Why? I suspect it's because most wargames and RPGs don't really cater for the idea of a mortally wounded warrior who staggers around the battlefield taking out a few more foes before succumbing to his injuries.

And that's a real shame. It's such a huge part of the stories that inspired fantasy gaming in the first place. There are lots of epic and mythological examples. Take Cuchulain, for example:

Then Lugaid threw the spear, and it went through and through Cuchulain's body, and he knew he had got his deadly wound; and his bowels came out on the cushions of the chariot, and his only horse went away from him, the Black Sainglain, with half the harness hanging from his neck, and left his master, the king of the heroes of Ireland, to die upon the plain of Muirthemne. Then Cuchulain said: "There is great desire on me to go to that lake beyond, and to get a drink from it."
"We will give you leave to do that," they said, "if you will come back to us after."
"I will bid you come for me if I am not able to come back myself," said Cuchulain.
Then he gathered up his bowels into his body, and he went down to the lake. He drank a drink and he washed himself, and he returned back again to his death, and he called to his enemies to come and meet him. 
There was a pillar-stone west of the lake, and his eye lit on it, and he went to the pillar-stone, and he tied himself to it with his breast-belt, the way he would not meet his death lying down, but would meet it standing up. Then his enemies came round about him, but they were in dread of going close to him, for they were not sure but he might be still alive.

And then there's Boromir (whose death has a distinct echo of Cuchulain's):

Then Boromir had come leaping through the trees. He had made them fight. He slew many of them and the rest fled. But they had not gone far on the way back when they were attacked again, by a hundred Orcs at least, some of them very large, and they shot a rain of arrows: always at Boromir. Boromir had blown his great horn till the woods rang, and at first the Orcs had been dismayed and had drawn back; but when no answer but the echoes came, they had attacked more fierce than ever. Pippin did not remember much more. His last memory was of Boromir leaning against a tree, plucking out an arrow; then darkness fell suddenly.

When Aragorn finds Boromir, he "was pierced by many black-feathered arrows" and had killed four of the very large goblins of Isengard, so he clearly fought on after receiving his mortal wounds (he killed some of the big Orcs who shot him dead, as other of their kind later boast).

Anyway, The Dolorous Stroke is the first game I can recall playing that has mortal wounds worked in as an integral part - disembowellments, bleeding out and other grisly and prolonged exits. I'm sure there are others - actually, RuneQuest may well have some rules for this, though I think the character is generally incapacitated at that point - but they've never come up in any game I've played in.

So, if you think that fantasy wargames should attempt to emulate epic, myth and the better sort of fantasy literature, that's a huge point in The Dolorous Stroke's favour.

The second point that occurred to me was how welcome the lack of points values is. All the best skirmish games I've played have involved asymmetrical forces. Our family-favourite scenario for Song of Blades and Heroes is a last-stand scenario that pits five elven archers (around 500 points) against at least 1,500 points of monsters. It's worked brilliantly every time we've played it. So any game that encourages asymmetrical games is to be applauded.

Militaristic, orange-skinned ape-men with BLUE NOSES!

Or, if you really must, AD&D-style hobgoblins.

I've got a warband of these on the go, using pre-slotta-based Chronicle hobgoblins, Acropolis "Nack Trybe" goblin and Dixon bakemono goblins.

All of these miniatures are fairly crude by contemporary standards, so I haven't tried anything fancy with the paintjobs. Indeed, I've used fewer highlights than I normally would.

Rather than just pick out the noses in blue, I gave them blue around the mouth too. That's to emphasise the simian nature of their faces and because many of the Chronicle ones have nose-guards on their helmets.

My daughter's cuddly golden monkey was also an influence here, as was a memory of noism's post about Yoon-Suin goblins (which also features golden monkeys). These chaps are distinctly less cuddly, though.

I have various other painted Chronicle hobgoblins kicking around. I painted up one of them to join this experimental orcs (using the black-no-highlights technique that Spooktalker uses to amazing effect here), but he's destined for the Biostrip now (he's the one with the topknot on the left). I have a duplicate of the Nack Trybe goblin on the left, so he won't need to be stripped. 

The chaps below, on the other hand, are all headed for the Biostrip. I painted them a couple of years ago, and they've done a fair bit of service in our domestic skirmish games, but I think they'll look better with a weirder colour scheme. I do like the checked cloak, though, so may replicate that on the blue-nosed version.

I also have another four or five Nack Trybe types to add. What I don't have - yet - is the tusked chief, which happens to be based on a quick sketch I did when I was a kid (I was paid in Acropolis goblins and Citadel gnolls/great goblins, a transaction that looks a better deal with every passing day ...). But I see that he's still available from the Baggage Train, so I'll add him to the pile too. Once upon a time, I had a nicely painted version, but he vanished to some charity shop or other many moons ago, I believe.

When I say that these miniatures are relatively crude, I don't mean that pejoratively. I think Nick Lund, the Chronicle sculptor, had a certain genius that often makes his miniatures look absolutely marvellous on the tabletop, whatever their technical limitations. He did some more sophisticated stuff for Citadel (like his slotta-based black orcs, which I'm painting up as "winter orcs" - see below) and then some cruder stuff for Grenadier (like the black orcs with the red and yellow shields above), but there's something about the way the miniatures occupy space that makes them look so much better on the table than any number of more technically sophisticated equivalents.

His ogres are marvellous - great chunks of brutality:

Some of the Acropolis stuff by Paul Henni (who did the massive Ugruck goblins) and Colin Hamilton (who did the smaller goblins, including the Nack Trybe) has a similar power. I really like this Ugruck, for example; he often features as an ogre or troll in our games:

And the goblin khan on the left below is a marvellous miniatures. I have several of him and his ilk kicking around. And that raises another question. Should the orange hobgoblins get some goblins to boss around? And if so, should they have blue noses

Wednesday 22 August 2018

First thoughts on The Dolorous Stroke

After buying The Dolorous Stroke last night and having a skim through the rules this lunchtime, I was planning a quick playtest tonight, laying out decks of cards while the kids brushed their teeth before a bedtime story. But when they arrived and saw the start of a little battle underway, we decided that Greenwitch would wait until tomorrow. Instead, we played a little three-person skirmish.

All we did was fight, which is not really what these rules are designed for; indeed, there are several interesting pages on designing scenarios and . But it was an enjoyable session all the same.

Why did I buy the rules? Well, the author's blog is great, I'd enjoyed her discussion of the game in embryo and it was partially inspired by the superb Gardens of Hecate miniature blog, which is one of the very best things on the internet. It's also got a great title.

And the PDF cost only around four quid for more than a hundred pages. The rules are nicely laid out and illustrated with tasteful copyright-free black-and-white illustrations (Gustave Doré, Henry Justice Ford and the like). They're well written and edited (I spotted the odd typo, but by the standard of games rules, they're pretty 'clean', which is always welcome).

The game's inspiration is chivalric romance - Le Morte D'Arthur, Orlando Furioso - and fiction inspired by it. There's some boxed text scattered through the rules presenting an alternative chivalric world, but that's not really central to the game. You could use it for pretty much any sort of medieval-fantasy set-up. One minor quibble: the black background for the background text probably isn't the printer-friendliest thing. On the other hand, there's not much of it.

There are magic rules. I haven't yet read through those; I generally leave magic until last - or leave it out all together. And there's a bestiary. This struck me as just about right for the assumed setting, with dragons of various sorts, undead, ghouls, fairies of various sorts and giants. One odd note is the inclusion of huorns in the fairy section - the Tolkien reference is strangely discordant.

Most immediately interesting is the action/combat system. This uses alternative actions, one per character, and combines the use of polyhedral dice with playing cards to track bleeding and wounds.

To test this out, we played a little three-way encounter in some gloomy chamber between two knights from the sample characters (dismounted and re-armed to suit the miniatures we used) and a goblin.

Each character needs a full deck of cards, which gives an idea of how small-scale these encounters are meant to be. With three decks in the house (thanks to a quick Amazon order today), we were just about OK for this. You separate your character's deck into the four suites, with hearts representing blood (effectively hit points) and clubs being drawn for wounds. Each weapon type has a different profile; swords are easier to hit with than axes, but axes have a slightly greater chance of causing a serious wound; spears are easier to wield than either, but less likely to pierce armour and with a lesser chance of a serious wound. And the wound types differ too; a mace can give you head trauma or smashed ribs; a spear can run you through, puncture a lung or pierce your heart. Other wounds cause extra bleeding or limit movement.

Combat's dynamic, with the winner of each exchange forcing the losers back before any damage is worked out. This can force the loser to spend an action to get back into the fray - or allow the winner to withdraw. Fighting is perhaps a bit Warhammerish, in that there's a roll to hit, a roll to wound and then a card draw for damage, but with three miniatures on the table rather than 300 or so, it's much less onerous.

Our little skirmish rolled merrily back and forth across the chamber. In the end, my daughter's axe-wielding green knight triumphed - but with only one card left in his blood bank. She'd played him well by keeping him out of combat for several turns when mangled guts would have cost him blood with each action. That allowed the goblin and the blue knight to slog it out, until the goblin was eventually slain.

So how was it? Here's a brief list of what I liked and I didn't. Note: these are first impressions after skimming the book and playing only a brief fight in a game that's clearly designed for much more.


  • The wounds system is terrifically elegant. Serious wounds can be disabling or life-threatening without immediately putting the character out of action. There's still room for sweeping an opponent's head from his shoulders, but it's a rarity. 
  • The dynamism of combat. My hackles rose when I read the phrase "locked in combat", as I think a good skirmish game should have lots of opportunity for disengagement. Well, this has that after every combat round - and ample room for decision-making around it. If one knight is besting another, he'll typically drive him across the table - which is as it should be.
  • Cards as hit points ("blood") is elegant - and the dual-track approach enhances the wounds system.
  • Weapon differentiation. This is nicely done. You can see why most soldiers would carry a spear. And there are nice tactical approaches available through weaponry: a knight might choose to switch to a battle-axe to deal with peasant rabble (who he'll probably best with a d6 through his superior Prowess stat, allowing him to exploit the axe's superior damage), then switch back to his sword for a more worthy opponent.
  • The gradual, attritional nature of combat. This matches the source material well - and gives a good impression of armoured knights succumbing to many small wounds and the occasional grave one. And it also avoids the "only a flesh wound" amputees that you'd sometimes get in RuneQuest 2.
  • The game's clear scope for non-combat objectives, which the dynamic combat facilitates.
  • The Trapped rule: we didn't actually play this, but it looks good and might have led to at least one round going differently.
  • Fighting defensively with shields and bucklers: again, we didn't use this, but it looks good.
  • All the stuff on scenario design.
  • The narrative-focused, cooperative aspect - great stuff!

Dislikes (and perhaps some workarounds?)

  • One deck of cards per character limits the number of models on the table to the number of card decks in the house. That's quite a severe limit for most people, I'd imagine. Cards are cheap, but you also need space to lay out four suites. Workaround 1: I'm going to try using some one-hit rabble who simply go down if wounded. You could have lots on the table without any cards at all. Allow a group of them to move as a single action (like skirmishers in Brent Spivey's Havoc) and they might add a different flavour. Above those, you could have monsters who don't bleed but are killed if they receive a club-suite wound. Then you'd need just one 'monster deck' for all such creatures on the table. Workaround 2: Many games won't need the virtue or willpower decks (diamonds and spades). So for a less psychological game, you could split each full deck and use diamonds and spades for a second character's blood and wounds. That would at least allow our next game to have six characters!
  • I'd be inclined to drop the Toughness stat. Workaround: either just use strength plus armour for defence or have a single armour stat (3 unarmoured, 4 in a gambeson, 5 in mail, 6 in plate, + 1 each for shield and helmet; monsters armoured as current defence stat). One less number to keep track of - and Strength could be used against falling damage, etc.
  • The biggest complaint from tonight's players concerned the number of ties. With three players, we had ties in initiative rolls virtually every turn. Rather than toss coins, we just rerolled. This favoured the character with the highest Wits stat, of course, but dice and cards and coins seemed a bit much. Workaround: I'd be very tempted to just keep the players activating in the same order. The Delay action allows for some tactical flexibility anyway (with a risk/reward mechanism built in), and it would certainly make for a faster game. 
  • No one-handed spears? Workaround: In line with my Whitehack hack, I'd be inclined to reduce spears' finesse to d8 if wielded one-handed; during the game, my goblin lost his left arm, which meant that he had to drop his spear entirely.
  • Sometimes characters are invulnerable. The wounded goblin drew his dagger, but was completely incapable of wounding a knight with it (he theoretically would have been if the knight had become Trapped, but that wouldn't have arisen in this situation). Workaround: give daggers d6 Armour Penetration - like throwing knives! A hefty poignard is surely more capable of finding a chink than a fist. Or perhaps the d4 is just a typo, as the throwing-knife stat might suggest.
  • Huorns. Hmm ...

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the next game - and to trying out other rules. For our next session, I'll probably have the players cooperating initially in trying to rescue some grail-type thing from a nest of monsters. I'll try out my insta-death and wounds-only workarounds to allow the knights to face a much larger number of foes.

One approving note from the kids: "This game is really gruesome!".

Wargames vs RPGs: RuneQuest, The Fantasy Trip and The Dolorous Stroke

I got into RuneQuest when I was at primary school. A friend's older brother had it, his younger brother inherited his books, and I asked for the rules for my next birthday. And that led to many glorious encounters, though very little in the way of campaigns; characters were very short-lived, and fights often ended badly.

In retrospect and despite all the glories of its setting, RuneQuest probably functioned for us as much as a brilliant skirmish wargame as an RPG. The roleplaying happened before the fighting - and then the fighting typically ended things. 

A year or two ago, a Lead Adventurer Forum regular, LeadAsbestos, noted that he'd often used RuneQuest simply as a low-figure skirmish game. My son and I tried out RQ2 in that way a while back and had a pretty good session pitting one crested dragonewt against a few trollkin. 

In the past, the big problem with RuneQuest was generating NPCs and monsters, as this took almost as long as creating PCs from scratch. So we tended to use stat blocks from scenarios (those Rainbow Mounds trollkin from Apple Lane must have been slaughtered again and again and again ...) and from FANGS, a supplement consisting of nothing but pre-generated monsters, many of whom were much more powerful than starting PCs. 

These days, though, there are automatic generators for NPCs (or at least for Mythras, the non-Chaosium incarnation of the RQ system). So statting up a few broo or dragonewts for a quick skirmish has never been easier. That's something I intend to do shortly, once I've properly digested the Mythras rules. 

The Fantasy Trip is another example of the way RPGs and skirmish games can intersect, with game being derived from the Melee microgame (I seem to dimly remember playing it; certainly, those plastic-boxed board games were in vogue at lunchtime when I was at primary school: Car Wars and Ogre in particular).

Then there's Song of Blades and Heroes and its mechanically similar RPG version, Tales of Blades and Heroes, which is great for one-off, miniature-based games and certainly enlivens combat. I've never played Savage Worlds, but I gather it performs the skirmish and RPG roles well.

It's probably true, though, that most RPG combat systems don't make for great skirmish games, because the fights are too long - too much hit-point attrition - or insufficiently tactical without GM input. Or because they're too complex. Song of Blades certainly handles 12 broo vs 5 adventurers much more smoothly than RuneQuest. And D&D-type systems can get a bit boring in symmetrical fights (two groups of three third-level fighters facing off, for example).

Conversely, most good skirmish systems aren't that great for RPGs, because they're too realistic - death can come too suddenly - or insufficiently flexible to allow for the creative ploys a group of D&D players might come up with (spilling oil on the floor, shouting "look behind you!", feigning death or whatever).

Anyway, I've been thinking about this today because I bought The Dolorous Stroke last night. It's a new skirmish game with RPGish elements from Emmy Allen, whose blog is trove of delights (add-on duelling systems for D&D, tables of hideous wounds, discussion of Machen's The White People ...). The kids and I have just given it a run-through, on which I shall report shortly.

Tuesday 21 August 2018

What's in a name? Hobgoblins, grumkins and snarks

Less orangey than some ...

Giving monsters names gets in the way. To build on my last post, while "militaristic, orange-skinned, blue-nosed ape-man" is a bit of a mouthful, it works much better in games than "hobgoblin".

Not that hobgoblin isn't evocative: it's just that in everyday English and with normal people, hobgoblin doesn't evoke militaristic, orange-skinned, blue-nosed ape-men. Nor should it; I'd hate to think of Gygaxian imagery intruding into A Midsummer Night's Dream: 

Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck, You do their work, and they shall have good luck

Not really Shakespearian ...
And David Sutherland's classic samurai-hobgoblins aren't really appropriate in Bunyan either:

Hobgoblin, nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit

The hobgoblins of Dragon Warriors fit much better, of course; they're Bunyan hobgoblins rather than Shakespearian ones, because by Bunyan's time, the word had shifted from connoting a friendly or domestic spirit to suggesting a more malevolent one. But they're certainly folkloric hobgoblins. Old Ned in The Elven Crystals doesn't need much description because he's a capricious fairy who abducts innkeepers' daughters (and doubtless daunts the spirits of pilgrims when he can). So call him a hobgoblin and be done with it.

Now, in generic D&D, "hobgoblin" works if everyone's familiar with the old Gygaxian tropes. But doesn't that familiarity breed a certain amount of contempt? Isn't it often - dare I say? - boring? 

That's why I find tribe more interesting than species when it comes to humanoids. What scraps of anthropology I've picked up over the years suggests that pretty much any tribal people will call themselves something that means The People or The Folk. Translate that into the tongue of your blue-nosed orange apes or your greenish pig-folk or your pallid cave dwellers, and you've got the 'race' name. (Tolkien understood this; the Uruk-hai translates, pretty much, as the Orc-folk.) And then for the particular clan or sub-tribe are in the area, you can have your Marrow Suckers or Slow Killers or whatever. 

I find that approach much more evocative than hobgoblins. But there's more. Going with gonzo descriptions and a tribal approach to names frees up the folkloric terms to solve the "grumkin and snark" problem. The what? Remember Tyrion Lannister dismissing talk of the Others/White Walkers as "grumkins and snarks" in A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones

Here's the problem. If you use up your mythic and folkloric terms for real-world things, you rob your setting of the unknown, the weird and the eerie. Then, instead of hobgoblin or ghost, you have to turn to the equivalent of grumkins and snarks to fill in. And that's less than satisfying: I think George Martin would have been better served by having Tyrion talk of goblins and elves or something. 

But if the uplands are colonised by blue-nosed orange ape-men who call themselves Ar Urtog ("The People") and belong to the Marrow Sucker clan, then NPCs are freed up to spread rumours of ghosts, hobgoblins and devils in them thar hills ...

Monday 20 August 2018

The Old Weird

Just an ordinary Joe ...

Something I'm going to be doing is running a D&Dish game (Into the Odd) for people who've never played RPGs before. Actually, I've done that few times recently, but it was either incremental, with new players introduced gradually to an ongoing campaign, or the players were well versed in RPG tropes (through wargames or video games).

This time, though, all (or all but one) of the players won't have played RPGs at all. And nor do they have much of a sense of D&D's flavour. None of them know what a mind flayer or a rust monster is.

That got me thinking about just how strange many canonical D&D monsters are. We're going to be using miniatures (as I have many) and floorplans (which I will draw), so I've been casting about for some genuinely weird and surprising beasties, given Into the Odd's typically unique and disquieting monsters. But now that I think about it, I'm not sure I need to.

I have in miniature an owlbear, a rust monster, a carrion crawler, a huge purple worm, a shoggoth, black puddings and various other staples of the Monster Manual. And most of those are quite peculiar enough, both appearance-wise and mechanically, to give the players a genuine taste of the weird.

And even common-or-garden D&D humanoids are pretty strange. Hyena-people? Tiny horned dog-men? Militaristic apemen who happen to be bright orange with blue noses?*

You'll hate my guts ...

Or what about a skinny green giant with blank, black eyes that reflect no light and body parts that craw back together when hacked apart? And whose intestines try to strangle you when you spill them from its belly?

Weird enough? I think so.

Rust never sleeps.

*It's interesting how much weirder folklore-derived D&D monsters seem if you don't use their names. Hobgoblin and troll are among my favourite words, yet outside RPG circles, their connotations have very little in common with those that they have in D&D.

Sunday 19 August 2018

Another Oddventurer

Here's the second PC miniature for my Into the Odd project. Two down, 58 to go - or 118 if I'm going to cover both sexes.

This one's relatively slight, though, which helps on two fronts: the character with this starting package (sword, pistol, modern armour, sense nearby unearthly beings) has but one hit point; and the figure's sufficiently androgynous, given the build and armour, that it could represent a male or female PC.

This was a simple kitbash with a Perry foot-knight body and head and arms from Perry Zulu War British soldiers. The paintjob is pretty rough: I've had more success with Perry knights using painted armour, as below:

I might neaten up the adventurer late, but he/she will do for now. Onwards ...

Thursday 16 August 2018

Green Men

In the depths of the Blackwold dwell greater dangers than Jacks-in-the-Green. That the Green Men bear kinship to the Jacks is undoubted: that tale is told in their mossy hides, tawny eyes and fear of iron. Yet they far outstrip the Jacks in stature and are more brutish both in body and in mind.

Some say that the Jacks-in-the-Green will, for mischief or malice, force the spirits of forest beasts - boars, bears, wild wolves - to inhabit the corpses of warriors lain for long ages in the ancient barrows of the Blackwold. Newborn and ancient, human and beast, these children of the fae rampage through the forest, howling in rage at the contradictions that compose them.

For others, the Green Men are the shades of the barrow-folk, grown bestial and wild over the centuries that they have raged against the Iron Folk who usurped them. In this telling, the Jacks are their children: ghosts only now, the extinction of ancient lines and the source of all the Green Men's grief and rage.

Yet others say simply that the Blackwold breeds monsters to guard its deepest secrets. The forest does not surrender its treasures willingly and births the Green Men being to protect them. 

Reason with them? They speak only the beast-tongues of the forest: one might sooner treat with a she-bear. Keep to the trail, shun the wildest parts of the woods and - when you must - trust in iron.

Rustling in hauberks of brazen leaves, bellowing like beasts, the Blackwold's wilderness made flesh: they come!

Wednesday 8 August 2018

Ten RPG principles that I like

Having read and played various RPG systems over the past month, I thought I'd jot down some of the rule principles that I really like. Why? Who knows - but these are the things that occur to me, even if some of them are slightly contradictory.

1. Stats should matter.
A strength of 12 should be significantly better than a strength of 11. So I prefer systems that use the stats themselves, rather than modifiers derived from them. That's the major strike against Dungeon World for me. I've no quarrel with systems that just have modifiers as stats. The "roll equal or under" or "roll under" systems of Whitehack, The Black Hack and Into the Odd handle provide a great way of using the character sheet to the full. I like the Mythras/RQ system of adding stats together to get raw percentage abilities too.

2. Shields should matter.
I've rambled on about this extensively, but for me it's a crucial part of making an ancient/medieval combat system feel realistic. Shields should be sufficiently useful that the choice of a two-handed weapon presents a risk/reward dilemma - unless the character is decked out in full plate like a fifteenth-century man-at-arms. Shields are cumbersome, of course, so there should also be risk/reward decisions on whether to attempt climbs or leaps with them.

3. Encumbrance should matter.
As I've said before, no one would fight with a backpack on if they could help it. Carrying stuff is a pain, and should also involve risk/reward, tactical and resource-management decisions. If you're looting a dragon's hoard, you're probably going to have to leave some of your gear behind so that you can carry more plunder. Now, most games have fairly detailed encumbrance systems - but so, so many of them get ignored or forgotten in practice. Encumbrance can only matter if the system is clear and up-front. Major props to The Black Hack here.

4. Hit points work best as a barometer of fatigue and morale
Hit points are obviously an abstraction and are probably best kept that way. For all my RuneQuest bias, I increasingly feel that the erosion of hit points in a specific location is actually quite unrealistic.  In real life, the accumulation of cuts and bruises to a limb in successive combats wouldn't be equivalent to getting that limb gradually sawn off - but that's how it can go in RQ and similar systems. So, perversely, the more abstract systems can often give a more realistic feel than the "gritty" ones.

Now, obviously, what applies to limbs also applies to whole bodies - unless hit points are blood loss, I suppose. For that reason, treating falling hit points as representing increasing fatigue or flagging morale seems the most sensible approach to me. "Fatigue" can incorporate all sorts of minor wounds too, of course. But the Into the Odd approach - where STR starts to fall and saves are required once HP are gone - handles this very well. The Fantasy Trip's STR as HP does a similar thing, of course. And The Black Hack's table of out-of-action results is good too. With Whitehack, we always roll a saving throw (vs death!) when HP fall below zero - I forget whether that's the official approach or not - with precisely zero representing unconsciousness.

5. Weapon damage should be swingy.
Now that I think of it, a fatigue/morale approach to HP makes this one less crucial, but I don't really like the idea of minimum damage above 1 HP. In Whitehack, I rule that one-handed weapons do 1d6, spears, longswords and battleaxes do 1d8 when wielded in two hands and dedicated two-handed weapons (greatswords, poleaxes, halberds) do 1d10. So players get an incentive to use big, nasty weapons, but they're not guaranteed a lot of damage (a poleaxe is a thoroughly nasty weapon, but it could still just scratch you as a one-handed warhammer might, if you managed to get largely out of its way).

6. Damage by character class is a good thing ...
At the same time, I think there's a lot to be said for abandoning weapon damage in favour of character-class damage - as The Black Hack does (I think the concept has been around for aeons, though). I like the idea that a trained fighter armed with a dagger is a lot more deadly than a pasty scholar armed with the same. And even if you give that pasty scholar a poleaxe, the trained fighter with the dagger is still likely to cause more grievous wounds if they go head to head.

7. But character classes are a bad thing.
This is the RQ player's classic sneer. But I do think character classes are, by and large, a terrible idea. Whitehack has the best presentation of them I've seen, as the Strong/Deft/Wise classes are so flexible (you might well have all three represented by knights in a party, for example). I've always loathed class-based weapon restrictions, though. While RPGs don't generally do a great job in emulating fantasy literature (and books based on RPGs merit their own circle in Hell), stuff like wizards being unable to wield swords, battleaxes or maces is just abominable. The same objections I had in primary school still hold up: um, Gandalf? Elric? Jagreen Lern? The Witch-King? Thulsa Doom if we throw in film references - and so on. And don't get me started on clerics not using swords (Templars, Hospitallers, Teutonic Knights, Friar Tuck ...).

8. Stats can benefit from condensing (or correlating).
I've always been suspicious of WIS and INT. And I'm more than a little cautious about STR and CON - which is why I like the Fantasy Trip/Into the Odd STR-as-HP approach. More on that here. After all, DEX seems to cover a wider span than STR and CON (and SIZ in RQ): actual dexterity, agility, speed of thought, reaction time ...

Into the Odd, with just three stats, scores highly here.

9. Skill systems are a bore.
OK, there are exceptions here. RuneQuest handles this sort of thing pretty well. But on the whole, I think it's smoother and slicker to just rely on stats. Whitehack, with its groups system (write down your vocation/species/affiliation next to a stat or two and tell us why this means you're good at whatever you're trying to do) is really elegant here.

10. Magic isn't to be trusted
I don't like magic as technology. But I do like technology as magic (Into the Odd's arcana; ancient energy weapons; that sort of thing). And there's something about "magic systems" that I don't really like (least of all in fiction!). I'm generally inclined for magic to be something that players only access through artefacts (made by dwarves or whatever) and is otherwise wielded against them but not by them. But Whitehack does handle things well by allowing spells to be negotiated with the GM in advance and by having them cost hit points. That latter point is very simple, elegant and powerful, I think: if you must cast spells, they should come at a corporeal price.

High-tech weaponry in Whitehack

One of the big successes in the Whitehack campaign I ran for my kids and their friends last year was the judicious introduction of high-tech firearms. These were discovered in the wreckage of a spaceship underneath Dragonfell - so named for a fiery "dragon" that plummeted into the side of the mountain centuries before.

The revelation that the dragon was actually a spaceship prompted equal measures of delight and outrage ("This was meant to be a fantasy game!"), but what really got the players going was the discover of three long, metallic staves that could be manipulated to fire destructive bolts of energy.

The mechanics for this were very simple: the weapons did 1d20 damage. I like to keep weapon damage in a one-to-whatever range (i.e. a single die) whenever possible; I'm not a huge fan of "1d8 + 3" or whatever, so I'm highly sympathetic to Dungeon World/The Black Hack-style damage by class - even though I'm not that keen on character classes otherwise. The swingy d20 meant that a monster might just be grazed (though alarmed) by the energy beam. It also meant that there was a reasonable chance of obliterating a five-hit-dice monster in a single blast. The players loved that.

What they didn't love so much was the revelation that each weapon had only six shots. Boom! Boom! Click, click, click ...

By the time they discovered this, all three energy weapons had been used fairly heavily. But they hadn't been keeping track of the shots. I had, of course. That led to some great tension, especially as the bad news came when they were far away from Dragonfell.

In our current Whitehack campaign, energy weapons have yet to feature, though Dragonfell is on the map. In time, we may find out whether the players have learned the lesson of using powerful weaponry sparingly.

Sunday 5 August 2018

The People of the Roots

I kitbashed these rootlings this afternoon. They'll come in handy for Into the Odd, I think, inhabiting the caverns beneath the roots of some monstrous trees. I plan to make at least a dozen.