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!".


  1. Well written review of a ruleset Im very interested in. The author referred to GWs Inquisitor as her main influence, which strukc me as great, since this is also in my opinion one of the most underrated rulesets on the market. Storytelling, non-competitive wargaming is something, Im really interested in!

    1. Thanks!

      I don't know Inquisitor at all, other than the Blanche illustrations, as it was after/before my time, but I've heard very good things about it.

      Yes: my son, when we started playing Song of Blades when he was six, said that games were "like a little film". I always think that's a pretty good description of what a wargame should produce.

    2. SoBH actually got me bakc into miniature wargaming after a break of several years. I particularly like the cinematic approach: There is stuff going on beneath your control. Thereby it feels more like a real melee than many ultra-detailed systems.

      The Dolorous Stroke also builds upon this idea (I finally bought it), but does add a whole new level of detail. I do like it. Especially because it is DIFFERENT from most other games I know. Im keen to use my Rackham models

  2. you mentioned you used stats for sample characters, I'm curious which ones you ended up using?
    I might nick your idea of coming up with a way to run 'cannon fodder' characters in the system, to allow larger games.

    1. We used Sir Godric and Sir Mors (both dismounted), but with the weapons on the miniatures we had to hand. So Sir Godric had an arming sword and Sir Mors got a battleaxe. And then I played a goblin from the bestiary, with a spear and a knife.

      I think the 'cannon fodder' thing (which I pinched from Song of Blades/Fistful of Kungfu) should work quite well. It also reduces the 'time to table', which I always reckon is an important consideration for any game. I find that the skirmish games we end up playing the most are the ones that take the least mental effort to set up. Song of Blades usually wins in that respect, or Battlesworn (in which all characters are set archetypes).

      I was pleasantly surprised at how little time TDS took to set up, using the sample characters. But it would obviously have taken a fair bit longer with three characters each, just in the laying out and shuffling of cards. We'll probably play again tomorrow, and I'm thinking of giving each main character a few minions (one hit only) and a slightly doughtier squire (death on wounds only).

      I started a thread on the game on Lead Adventure forum too:

      Congratulations on it, by the way - really interesting and original! The way wounds and weapons work is tremendous. As I mentioned on the LAF thread, I'm thinking about porting that into other skirmish games to give heroes a bit more colour: I think it might work especially well if mashed up with a larger-scale game like Dragon Rampant, in which a hero is usually just a single-figure unit of elite foot or whatever.

    2. I'm currently brainstorming ideas for a more large-scale system that I can make cross-compatible with it. So you can have a fight with maybe 5 or 6 units of ten or so fighters, as well as a couple of heroic PCs from TDS. It's still a rough sketch and might not work in practice, but it's on the pile of things to make.

    3. Sounds good. I suppose scaling the heroism's the tricky bit, though you'd have a nice sliding scale of that through the TDS stats.

      Assuming a fairly epic level of heroism, you could have unit inflicting regular damage on heroes and heroes dishing out a different set of club-suite "wounds" when facing units. So, perhaps the low cards would be a certain number of casualties while the higher ones could be various degrees of retreat on top of casualties: falling back in good order; routing in various stages of disarray; and scattering in different directions.

    4. Perhaps instead of differentiating by weapon for massed combat, you'd differentiate by grade of hero. So the 6-9 damage spread could range from merely killing the odd grunt and forcing temporary retreats at one end to wholesale slaughter and sending survivors screaming from the field at the other. That'd give you a sliding scale of battlefield heroics from (say) Conan or Boromir at one end to Cuchulain or Achilles at the other.

    5. In the meantime, I've written this: which you might find interesting.

    6. Looks good! We didn't manage to get our second game (The Chapel Dolorous - to be followed by La Via Dolorosa, perhaps?) played today, but will give those a spin soon.

  3. Thanks for writing about this...Hadn't heard of the game, and I'm always eager to see new fantasy skirmish rules.

  4. Quite an inspiring report indeed. I am really looking forward to playing this.

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  6. Sounds great, I shall have a look on these rules.