Thursday, 29 November 2018

Skaven and Lizardmen

Heirs of the lizardmen?

I was reading Joseph Manola's absorbing posts on the history of Warhammer when a thought struck me about that the Skaven. They weren't the first species to scuttle under the surface of the Old World. No - that was the lizardmen. Here's what the Battle Bestiary for the second edition of Warhammer Fantasy Battle has to say about them:
Lizardmen are curious in that they appear all over the world, wherever there are mountain ranges with deep caverns. Perhaps these are all linked up far below the earth.
By the third edition, lizardmen were still associated with deep caverns and still attacked the underground dwellings of orcs and dwarves from below. But the notion of the global linkage of their lairs had gone. That had now been transferred to the Skaven (introduced to second-edition Warhammer in the Citadel Journal of spring 1986). The third-edition rulebook has this to say:
Skaven are widespread throughout the entire world, but their presence is rarely felt. A web of tunnels crosses from continent to continent, leading to burrowings far below the cities of men, and eventually into the sewers and drains of the cities themselves. 
In the 1986 Citadel Journal, the Skaven's origins are linked to the Slann: they are the descendants of giant rats that gnawed on warpstone in the ruins of Slann civilisation. Their global presence is there from the start, but the idea that their tunnels connect the continents isn't explicitly stated. As far as I know, none of the early material posits the idea that Skaven and lizardmen tunnels might intersect. I suspect one had to be repositioned in the background to make room for the other.

From the third-edition Warhammer Armies book onwards, the lizardmen were reduced from independent subterranean raiders to slaves of the Slann (in those army lists, they appeared only as auxiliaries of the Slann armies). In later editions, they became the Slann armies as the latter went from amphibian warriors to bloated, solitary magicians. And their globe-spanning tunnel network was no more - or was left to the rats.

The original subterranean globe-trotter?

Attraction/repulsion: magic items as NPCs

Following yesterday's post, I was thinking a bit more about the reappearance of the Drinker in our Whitehack campaign. This is a lethal magic sword - d20 damage - but it will attack its wielder's friends or even its wielder if it does not draw the blood of a living foe after being drawn from its scabbard.

When the PCs rediscovered it on the corpse of a knight that was slowly being turned to wood by a sinister giant tree, their reaction was characterised by terror and greed. The PC who had last owned it wanted it back, but when it was clear that finders keepers applied, he was desperate to keep his distance. And when the party was attacked by rootlings a few minutes later, the new owner was sharp enough to realise that the Drinker posed a greater threat to her than to creatures whose veins ran with sap rather than blood. So the sword stayed sheathed in favour of a much less effective weapon.

Like Ollam's Ring, the Drinker is exactly the kind of magical item I want in my campaigns: something that fades in and out of the story like a well-drawn NPC. The competing urges of attraction and repulsion that my players experienced when re-encountering the Drinker are precisely what I want them to feel in the presence of magical power.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Ollam's Ring: more thoughts on magic items

In the two weekend games I ran, there were three 'magic items' for the players to find: an ancient energy weapon, the Drinker and Ollam's Ring. One of the groups of PCs had twice encountered the Drinker before, which led to some amusing squabbles over ownership rights.

Ollam's Ring is a twist on a spell I often allow Wise PCs to use in Whitehack. The spell has a simple formula: the Wise character can turn invisible but suffers 1HP in damage each round (until they pass out, at which point they are no longer invisible, or they stop the spell). I really like this because it offers a good balance of risk and reward.

One of the games I ran last year featured a magic ring with the same power: 1 HP per round for invisibility. Those rounds tick away quickly, so the ring-wearer takes a big risk in using it.

Ollam's Ring is largely the same, but for one important difference: it glows. When not being worn, the ring glows with sufficient light to serve as a lantern - and to shine through clothing. It also shone through the belly of the fishman in which the PCs discovered it.

I was pleased with this. Why? Well, the ring has a prime function: stealth. And it's really, really useful for that when worn - albeit at a high cost in hit points. But when not in use, it achieves the opposite of its prime function, by making the bearer highly conspicuous. It's hard to escape pursuit in a cavern or in a forest at night when you've got an unearthly glow hanging round your neck.

That heightens the risk/reward aspect of the item. It's risk to carry as it's clearly valuable and hard to conceal.  Also - and this is something I really like - it creates the potential for a situation in which a player might want to get rid of it. If you're low on HP and heavily outnumbered, you might well decide that your best bet is to throw Ollam's Ring deep into the forest to draw your pursuers off.

And that's exactly how I want my magical items: ambiguous, treacherous yet alluring. So far in our Whitehack campaign, the Drinker has caused the death of a couple of PCs (directly and indirectly). The last time they found it, the PCs were happy to accept a reward for it, because they knew how dangerous it could be. This time, they appear to have forgotten the hard lesson they learned the first time. We'll see how it turns out ...

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Down in the dungeon - with Whitehack and The Black Hack Second Edition

Although I often run RPGs without miniatures, I find them useful for new players, games with children and - especially - for games with lots of players. The third category often comprises the first two, making miniatures and floorplans especially useful.

Last weekend, I ran two games - the first for first-time players (my colleagues) and the second for my kids and their friends. I used the same scenario: a dungeon-crawl with an intro stolen wholesale from Jack Vance's The Eyes of the Overworld. 

For the first game, we used the second edition of The Black Hack. I loved running this. The player-facing rolls keep everyone involved, and the system's nicely intuitive (basically, everything's a d20 attribute check). I was very impressed with how the new armour system works. The degradation of armour's much easier to track than in the first edition, and gives the players lots of risk/reward decisions to make.

The Whitehack game was a blast too. It remains my favoured version of D&D for campaigns, because it allows a bit more subtlety and because there's a little more parity between players and NPCs. While I love The Black Hacks' dice-burning system for armour, traditional armour class allows you to fiddle around with monsters a bit more. For example, in Whitehack, I occasionally confront the PCs with brass automata who have AC 10 but only a single hit point each. That makes them tricky opponents without being overwhelming, and involves no bookkeeping whatsoever. It might be hard to achieve the same in The Black Hack.

I did, however, import The Black Hack's usage dice into Whitehack. These are very useful for rations,  ammunition and the like. They ensure that resource management and uncertainty remain core parts of the game.

For both weekend sessions, I used hand-drawn floorplans. These are my preferred option for miniature-based RPGs. They're quick to make, they afford much more design freedom than commercial tiles, and they're 'what you see is what you get': if I've drawn a troglodyte hide staked out on the floor of a room, then that's what's there when the PCs enter.

Drawing out the floorplans means that the 'master map' can be very sketchy. I started with a rough scrawl and then drew out a clearer fair copy once the floorplans were finished. The advantage of this approach is that all your effort is visible for the players (and the crudeness of the GM's map makes it almost unintelligible to players should they happen to glimpse it. 

I add 3D terrain where I have it, but I draw it in quickly in case I forget or misplace the scenics:

With ...

... and without
In the second game, we had eight players. The party split up, with two tackling the lower entrance while the rest headed for the orc outpost above. The floorplans were a huge help here, as it was easy to coordinate the action and for the players to visualise (eventually) how the two parts of the complex connected.

Another advantage of floorplans is that they speed things up. It's easy to glance at the table at the end of each turn and work out how far unseen monsters attracted by noise or scent will advanced through the dungeon. And of course it's far faster than drawing out rooms and corridors on a mat as you go. 

Monday, 26 November 2018

An elf

This is an old Grenadier elf by Mark Copplestone. I wanted to try out the simplified painting method I've been using on my Nick Lund orcs on a different designer's miniature. The method involves just base colour and a single highlight for most areas, with a third highlight on the flesh. I cheated here and added another highlight on the leather, though it was the same colour I was using to highlight the trews. 

I'm reasonably pleased with how the elf turned out. Oddly, the two-tone approach seems to work OK on both the 'messy' Lund miniatures and the very 'clean' Copplestone ones. I suspect it might work less well on things that fall in the middle. 

Thursday, 22 November 2018

The Black Hack Second Edition - first thoughts

All tomorrow's party ...

I bought the PDF of The Black Hack's second edition a couple of days ago and am going to be running it tomorrow with some first-time players. It looks terrific.

There are some interesting changes from the first edition of the game, notably with armour. In our first-edition games, armour points (effectively first-line hit points) were a bit of a problem, because they were easily overlooked or forgotten when the dice were flying. The second edition uses a dice pool; you 'burn' a die every time you use an armour point and can then roll them to recover when you have time to rest. That's a big improvement. It also ramps up the effectiveness of armour, shields and helmets, which now stop a blow rather than a point of damage. And it makes a shield highly desirable for an unarmoured fighter, which is just as it should be.

I don't like the rules for two-handed weapons so much. These too have been revised; it used to be that a two-handed weapon added 2 to the attack and defence rolls (making them harder) and to the damage roll (making it higher). Now they add 1d4. None of this sits well with me: there's nothing about a two-handed weapon that makes it harder to hit with - quite the opposite, in fact. Controlling a spear with two hands is much easier than with one, and the same's true of other pole-arms. And parrying with a two-handed weapon is much easier than with a one-handed one, given the greater control and the ability to slide your hands along the hilt or haft.

Presumably, these rules are an attempt to emulate the sort of ludicrously oversized two-handers you see in fantasy illustrations or the 1982 Conan film. If so, fair enough. But for realistic two-handed weapons, they don't work.

Still, they're easily fixed - and the rules explicitly encourage 'hacking'. The Black Hack uses class-based damage: d4 for wizards, d6 for thieves and clerics and a new special rule for warriors. For now, I'm going to leave the special rule (multiple d6 attacks as an option) and use d8 for warriors and one die higher for two-handed weapons (so, d6 for wizards, d8 for thieves/clerics and d10 for warriors). That should work well: the advantage is modest, and the disadvantage comes from not being able to use a shield - a big old deal, especially if you're unarmoured.

That means that the heavily armoured knight will favour a poleaxe or longsword while the lightly armoured skirmisher will want a shield and a one-handed weapon. I also like the option of allowing players with longswords or spears the ability to switch to two-handed use if (for example) their shield die is 'burnt'. Of course, if you switch to two-handed use during a fight, you've dropped your shield, so if you aren't in a position to pick it up at the conclusion of the battle, you've lost it. You might find a new one on a monster's corpse - which could lead to all sorts of interesting heraldry-related difficulties ...

I digress. The main thing about the new rules is that they've made the game even more simple and useable. And the streamlining of the rules is just one aspect of this. The bulk of the new book is taken up with random-generation tables that look tremendously useful.

There are tables for wizard names, for the characteristics and cures of diseases, poisons and drugs, for incidents that incite adventures, and for NPC concepts and adventures. There are settlement generators, hex-map generators and tavern generators. There's a dungeon generator, of course, and monster generators, and a richly flavoured bestiary.

All of this stuff is richly flavoured, quirky and often funny - but not as straight-up comic as the League of Gentlemen-ish Sorrowset adventure that accompanied the first edition. In particular, I love the tables for what the various monsters in the bestiary might be up to when encountered - whether it's a wizard arguing with his shadow or a demon taunting a soul trapped in a bottle. And there's plenty of material to answer one immortal question: "What has it got in its pockets?".

This terrific stuff makes up the bulk of the book - and makes it very easy to generate adventures on the fly. Any D&Dish game would benefit from this, regardless of whether Black Hack rules are used or not. I'll pick up the hardback at some point, as this stuff simply screams to be physically bookmarked.

There are also some nice new elements. I think you can see the influence of Whitehack in the way
 that character backgrounds can now influence game mechanics. And there are panic rules for PCs, which are great. I bought Torchbearer earlier this year, intrigued by its focus on resource-management in dungeon crawling. But I can't imagine I'll ever use it. The Black Hack does all that stuff much more simply.

Whitehack is likely to remain my favourite D&D ruleset for campaigns, given its elegance and greater sophistication (fighting prowess in The Black Hack is largely down to how strong your character is, for example), but the new edition confirms the The Black Hack as the go-to for one-shots. And I imagine I'll be using the tables from The Black Hack an awful lot in our ongoing Whitehack campaign.

The new book costs about a fiver in PDF (US$6). If you run fantasy RPGs, I can't imagine why you wouldn't want it.

A half-orc witch

Ready for a Black Hack game tomorrow: a half-orc from Aly Morrison's slottabased range for Citadel. I generally prefer Aly's solid-based half-orcs, which are grimmer-looking and less comic. But this is a nicely characterful one with a typically expressive Morrison face. And she's the only female in either range.

I painted her in much the same method as my recent Chronicle and Grenadier orcs: black gesso undercoat, base colours and one highlight for everything except the flesh (where there's a wash and a second highlight). I did allow myself an additional highlight on the green shirt, though. 

This method is very quick, so I'm swinging back towards black undercoat as the default. Pebeo black gesso is so solid and fast-drying as an undercoat that it makes the prolonged drying time of white spray seem a real hassle. 

Monday, 19 November 2018

A very big orc and Ushtug the Gut

I forget where this miniature is from. I don't think it's meant to be a 28mm giant, but rather a 90mm (?) orc. I've a vague feeling that it was one of a pair, with the other being a dwarf or elf or something. It may have been produced by a Scottish company in the very early 1990s.

It originally had a sword or axe. I made the club out of Miliput when I first got it. I think I had vague plans to use it as an orcish giant back then. Those plans have finally been realised.

As you can see, it's a big old beast. I painted it very simply, just as I've been painting the Nick Lund orcs. I might add some more detail - stitching, tattoos, stubble - at some point. But then again, it works OK now, so it'll probably stay as is.

I also experimented with painting up one of Eeza Ugezod's Death Commandos: Ushtug the Gut. The Death Commandos were a Citadel/Chronicle boxed set that contained some of Nick Lund's best miniatures. I'd been planning on painting these and the related Chronicle giant black orcs as blue-skinned 'winter orcs', but am now thinking that I might just paint them all to match the Grenadier fellows I've been doing lately. Ushtug is a test case, as I have two of him. I'm pleased with how he turned out and so I'm inclined to tip the blue orc into the Biostrip and do them all like the recent batch. My old red-skinned black orcs are definitely destined for the stripping jar.

One thing about these Lund orcs is that they come in a pleasing variety of sizes. So Ushtug's significantly bigger than the Grenadier orc troopers, but some way behind the giant orcs from that range.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Some very large orcs ...

There was a time when Nick Lund seemed to be in competition with himself to make the 28mm world's largest orcs. And how we juvenile gamers lapped it up!

The biggest Chronicle creation was Eeza Ugezod, who was a bit bigger in his second, Death Commandos incarnation than in his first Regiment of Renown appearance. But these two Grenadier miniatures are bigger still.

This one is about the size of a Chronicle ogre, and he'll make an excellent ogre in D&D (in any case, I like to use the humanoid distinctions to indicate size rather than species).

The chieftain in the horned helmet originally rode in a wolf-drawn chariot. I still have the bits, but my teenage self saw fit to mount some Citadel orcs on the wolves for Hordes of the Things. And there they remain. I have more use for a grumpy chieftain on foot than a chariot-rider.

As you can see, the latest additions tower over their lesser kin:

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

And another three orcs ...

Three more of the old Grenadier orcs. The one on the left is actually a goblin (I refuse to recognise a difference between orc and goblin in any case!), but given his size and air of authority, I think he makes quite a decent half-orc.

Something fishy ...

Some Reaper Bones deep ones. I painted these last night in two hours flat: black gesso undercoat, medium-sea grey for the bodies and buff for the underbellies. Then a drybrush with silver-grey and a glaze of thinned Nightshade GW wash mixed with a bit of GW Camoshade wash. I washed some thinned GW Crimson over the underbellies, put undiluted Nightshade over the spinal scales and in the eye sockets, and sloshed some Camoshade here and there in the recesses. Then it was just a matter of painting the eyes and teeth.

The great thing about the Bones miniatures is that their cheapness and slightly soft detail encourages very fast painting.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018


Half-price hirelings?

This is an intriguing line from the first edition of D&D (Book III, The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, 1974):
"Hired fighters can be men, dwarves or elves. Chaotic characters may wish to employ Orcs; Orc support and upkeep is only half that of a man." (p. 23)
I don't recall ever seeing a PC with orc hirelings in any RPG, but it would add a lot of interest to a campaign. They would fit best into a sort of Mos Eisley setting, in which all kinds of species mingle freely, but many D&D settings end up being that by default, what with all their new-fangled dragon-men and devil-men and whatnot.

So what would the considerations be for a PC with orcish followers? Well, except in the most Mos Eisleyan locales, the henchthings might have trouble getting put up in an inn ("We don't serve their kind!"). And if they did, there would be a fair chance of involvement in a brawl, or worse.

There might be trouble in the wilderness too. If a PC's orcish back-up are carrying the "filthy badges" of one tribe into the territory of another, they could incur all sorts of hostilities. And they'd be likely to draw the ire of elves and dwarves if they passed through their lands.

But there would be advantages too, quite apart from costs. For one thing, orcs see well in the dark. For another, they might well make better infiltrators into monster-held territory than human men-at-arms. And for intimidation purposes - whether in some subterranean lair or in a frightened merchant's townhouse - they're ideal.

So how do you recruit them? Well, some of the orc guards in your typical dungeon might be bullied, bribed or just bored. If you're a half-orc, you might have an 'in'. If you kill their leader, you might almost be expected to take command. And if you can provide opportunities for violence, loot and carousing (as the typical D&D PC can), then why not?

Monday, 5 November 2018

Three more!

Three more quick 'n' dirty orcs painted with my minimalistic two-tone approach.

Some new old orcs and some old old orcs

On a whim, I picked up some of the EM4 plastic orcs - possibly the cheapest 28mm miniatures out there. My main aim was to have a steady supply of miniatures for my kids to practice on, but I quite fancied a crack at them myself. So I've been converting a few and painting up some others. The first three are above.

To get these done quickly, I decided to give myself a sort of Dogme set of rules for these. The basic rule is 'one base colour, one highlight, no shading'. I only allow an additional highlight colour for flesh, to make it stand out a little more. The clothing is done simply with a flat colour and a single highlight. That makes painting them very quick indeed. I also permit myself a single brown wash over armour and leather, and an initial wash over the flesh before I add highlights.

It's worth noting that - despite what the internet says - these miniatures work perfectly well with polystyrene cement. I don't know whether the manufacturers changed the plastic at some point, but there's no need to rely on superglue, as various websites insist you must. I've swapped weapons and  helmets around using GW, Fireforge and Wargames Factory parts, and they all weld on perfectly with polystyrene cement. The three above are unconverted; the next batch will look quite different.

These miniatures were originally designed for the Fantasy Warriors game, which was released by Grenadier as a rival for Warhammer. I never played it, but I did pick up some of the accompanying metal orcs a long time ago. The EM4 purchase encouraged me to dig them out of the leadpile.

The metal orcs were designed by Nick Lund, who also wrote the Fantasy Warriors rules and was previously the owner and designer for Chronicle Miniatures, a company that was bought by Citadel Miniatures/GW in the 80s. The plastics were by Mark Copplestone, but in the style of Nick Lund. And it's a very distinctive style too. There's a marmite quality to the Lund sculpts. Some write them off as hopelessly crude. For me, though, and for many others, they've got a sort of primal power on the tabletop. Like the Perry twins, Lund was exceptionally good at getting a natural dynamism into his poses. And with his monsters and dwarves, he was tremendous at conveying power and brutality.

I see his miniatures as falling into three phases. The first phase consisted of the original Chronicle miniatures, such as his orcs, hobgoblins and kobolds. These are sometimes a little naive, but have a lot of visual impact. They look so brutish that I generally use the orcs as 15mm ogres and the kobolds as gnoll-type things in that scale. The ranges that Citadel produced and advertised were a big advance on the very earliest ones. The ogres and wolfriders are marvellous.

Chronicle black orcs - used as 15mm ogres
In the second phase were the slottabased black orcs and hobgoblins produced at Citadel, including Eeza Ugezod's Death Commandos. These were the best Lund miniatures ever produced, with the early dynamism combined with much sharper detail:

A slottabased black orc
The Fantasy Warriors metals for Grenadier were the third phase. These were largely a step back from the Citadel/Chronicle slottabased miniatures. I suspect this may have been because of the speed they were hammered out at. In particular, the boxed regiment produced for the game was pretty rough. And yet ... many of the blister-packed miniatures are really nice. They're a little rougher than the Citadel ones, but they have all the old charm.

Anyway, I painted up a few of the old FW metals using the same minimalist approach as the plastics. And I've got some more on the way, along with the converted plastics.