Thursday 31 December 2020

The last lantern-bearer: a mechanism for megadungeon campaigns

He always gets away ...

One thing I want to do in 2021 is get an episodic megadungeon campaign going alongside our daily D&D game. That campaign is inching up into higher levels, with most of the PCs around level six. I envisage the megadungeon game as being dingier, dicier and deadlier - featuring low-level characters with a high chance of mortality. It'll serve as an occasional refresher, an option for when some players can't make it, and a default setting for games with my occasional adult group. Every expedition will be perilous - and players shouldn't expect every character to come back.

That threatens continuity, of course. But I think I've found a way to resolve it: the last lantern-bearer. No matter what happens, he or she gets away to tell the tale - and fall into the employ of the next party. 

A while ago, I mused on the failings of pretty much every RPG encumbrance system I've encountered. Our long Zoom campaign has borne this out. With most of the character sheets out of my sight, the party always seems to be carrying a remarkable amount of stuff. I offset this to some extent with environmental restrictions ("no one wears armour in town/on a ship/in the desert"), yet the sheer volume of items carried continues to thumb its nose at realism. 

The coin-based treasures in older modules makes this worse. Today, I walked a couple of miles into town to obtain £5 in pennies and tuppences: basing for the great many 1/72 miniatures that will feature in this megadungeon. The weight of a mere 400 copper coins was noticeable on the way back - and trudging through the snow with many thousands would have been a struggle, especially if other gear were involved.

All based up and ready for the party ...

That leads to a simple default for the megadungeon campaign. Players carry their own gear, whatever gems and jewellery they can pocket or wear, and about 100 gp (in various metals). Everything else - the looted idols, the stolen artworks, the exquisite temple carpets - goes on the mules. And who tends to those? Why, the lantern-bearers, of course.

Here's how it works. Every party is accompanied by a team of mules or camels, and those are tended by a team of lantern-bearers - probably five or six. They do not usually fight; they do often flee. And at least one of them always gets away.

That sounds arbitrary, and indeed it is. But the concept serves three useful functions. 

First, the lantern-bearers provide a pool of reserve characters. There's nothing new there, of course. But these aren't henchmen. The sole circumstances in which they fight are when PCs die and their gear becomes available (offering, in game terms, the opportunity for the lantern-bearers to become PCs). The assumption is that the lantern-bearers are impecunious local youths. "Well, I guess you'd better put his armour on, son. If you can hold that spear steady, you can earn a share of the loot."

Second, the lantern-bearers remove all the usual encumbrance and lighting concerns. Their main tasks are to steer the mules, which carry the loot, and provide plenty of light. Those concerns are thus lifted from the PCs, leaving them free to concentrate on exploration, larceny and murder: the stuff they really enjoy. Because lantern-bearers don't offer a threat, monsters are likely to deal with the PCs first - and that gives the lantern-bearers ample opportunity to hide or flee (grabbing some light loot, perhaps, placing their lantern on the floor and trusting to the auxiliary torches they generally carry).

Third, the lantern-bearers provide continuity between parties. The problem with really dangerous megadungeons is that the wiping out of a party makes a second foray a little artificial. The players have already been there even though the PCs have not. But a recurring lantern-bearer or two plugs this hole nicely. Now the new party can learn all about the woes of the last one from someone who was there - and lived to tell the tale. It's artificial, sure, this inevitable survival of at least one lantern-bearer (and his inevitable hiring by the next party), but it's much less artificial than having the party learn from their deceased forebears without any connection. And if sessions are intermittent, the meta-gaming conceit can lead to appropriate in-game reminders: "That door, sir! That's the door that swallowed Captain Juras last spring. Be careful, sir, I beg you ...". 

What this allows me to do is to use the mega-dungeon for a series of occasional one-offs that build on each other despite frequent total-party kills. And by making TPKs a very real danger, I'm hoping to keep the players keen for revisiting - and revenge!

Happy Hogmanay!

Saturday 19 December 2020

Zargons of differing dimensions

One of the nice twists in The Lost City module is the cursed scroll in Zargon's lair that turns the reader into a tiny version of the big nasty. Alas, such a fate befell one of the party, with the result that Aust the dashing elf is reduced to a somewhat less elegant form for the foreseeable future. 

My son had the bright idea of using a GW plaguebearer skull as the basis for this; dryad branches formed the basis of the tentacles, with a nineteenth-century British soldier providing the torso. 

The new Zargon has already allowed me to reuse the old one, by casting phantasmal force to intimidate some hobgoblins. No doubt we'll see more of that as the campaign progresses.


Wednesday 9 December 2020

Scratch-built Zargon

As the party got deeper into the Lost City (or at least its above-and-below pyramid), I had to get Zargon ready for them. I knocked this fellow up from Fimo and tinfoil during Saturday's rugby, before adding a bit of Milliput and greenstuff in the evening. I then speed-painted him on Sunday morning while keeping the kids at bay. He made his surprise debut tonight - and we'll find out how the PCs handle him tomorrow ...

(He's also based as a god element for Hordes of the Things.)


Saturday 21 November 2020

Essex goblins and Reaper beasties

Here are a few more miniatures based up for D&D and 'square-base' wargames like Oathmark, Chaos Wars and Chainmail. First up are some antiquated Essex goblins, which I rather like. They remind me of The Princess and the Goblin - from which Tolkien derived his orcs (minus the toeless and sensitive feet). This range clearly owes a debt to Down in the Dungeon.

Next are a couple of Reaper Bones beasties: a werewolf and a yeti. These will serve as a wulver and buggane in Oathmark, and I fancy that our RPG sessions may eventually feature lycanthropes and giant subterranean apes. 

Sunday 25 October 2020

Dwarves, orcs, ogres and an eachy for Oathmark

 Some quick'n'dirty paintjobs to allow these fellows to be swiftly deployed in Oathmark, Chainmail, Chaos Wars and D&D.

Wednesday 14 October 2020

First thoughts on Oathmark

A while back, I put together some orc units for Saga using square bases - something I'd largely avoided since getting back into gaming. I soon found that these figures - on their dark, low, neutral bases, fitted in rather well in RPGs. In our long-running lockdown D&D campaign,  square-based miniatures have become the norm.  They fit unobtrusively onto dungeon floor plans, and they allow figures to be overlapped more readily than GW-style slottabases. And I like the way that impromptu units form up in the dungeon, making it clear who's where in the marching order or melee.

So, as a result of the long and ongoing D&D campaign, I've ended up with large numbers of miniatures based in this way. That got me thinking about rank-and-flank wargames using individually based figures, and we've started to play through some (as documented in my last post). The next one on our list was Ral Partha's Chaos Wars, which looks nicely streamlined. But it requires 12-strong infantry units, so I need to get a few more miniatures painted up first.

That pushed a newer game to the front of the queue: Oathmark. It's published by Osprey and written by Joseph McCullough, the author of Frostgrave. We've played Frostgrave once or twice and quite enjoyed it, though spell-heavy games aren't really my thing. Oathmark, however, looks like it might be.

The game comes as a very nice hardback book with illustrations aplenty. The rules are clear, well written and admirably laid out. This really helps: I feel I've picked up the gist of how to play far more quickly than with most games of this sort. 

We haven't yet played a game; that will come at the weekend. But here's my take on the rules so far.


Oathmark uses a d10-based system. Common checks are done on 2d10 against a stat (taking the best roll); in combat, a d1o is rolled for every fighter in the front rank, capped at five. No buckets of dice, then. 

The game seems to strike a nice balance between the overlong statline of classic Warhammer and the minimalist approach of many mass-battle games, in which a troop type defines everything. Oathmark has a number of set troop types, including 'soldier' (hand weapon, light armour and shield), 'spearman', 'warrior' (a more heavily armoured version of 'soldier'), 'archer' and 'linebreaker' (heavily armoured troops with two-handed weapons), but these are varied by species. As an example, dwarf linebreakers are tougher and better disciplined than their human equivalents, but move more slowly.

The test of the statline will come in play; I'll be interested to see how much the small differences between troop types and species actually matter.

Alongside the statline are special rules. Wild Charge makes troops more likely to both cause and take damage, for example, while Shielding does the opposite. I haven't pored through these rules in detail, but they look to be clear and memorable - important if one is to avoid constant reference to the rulebook in play. 

What about unit sizers? Infantry units consist of 1 to 20 miniatures, with a range of 1 to 10 for cavalry. Frontage is always 5, when numbers allow, and a 10-sided die is rolled in shooting and melee for each figure in the front rank. I like this: it allows larger numbers to count through additional ranks, but it keeps things neat. 

For the same reason, I applaud the use of 25mm frontages for all normal infantry and cavalry. Warhammer's skipping between 20 and 25 for human-sized figures was irritating and untidy; the 20s probably should have been abandoned as were the 15mm frontages (present for heavy infantry in the first edition of Warhammer). That avoids oddities like identically sized and similarly equipped half-orcs and hobgoblins being on differently sized bases. Most monsters are on 50mm squares, which again keeps things tidy. And the uniform infantry and cavalry frontages mean that the odd monster based differently for another game will be easier to accommodate.

Combat is kept tidy too, in a similar way to Dragon Rampant and its ilk. Units fight in distinct clashes that are always one on one, and these result in the separation of the units in various ways at the end of the round. A nice innovation is allowing the victor to choose the outcome of a fight, so that the winners can retire in good order or drive off the losers instead. Every round of combat that causes casualties leads to a morale test; failed morale checks don't cause a rout, but they do make units extremely vulnerable to routing if they're attacked while in a disordered state. All of this looks very promising. 

Morale checks use the Activation stat, which is also used to determine the actions a unit can take. Unlike Dragon Rampant, there's no prospect of forfeiting your turn, but a failure to activate limits the options available to that unit. So more erratic troops - e.g. goblins - will be harder to command, but not cripplingly so. 

I'll wait until we have a game or two under our belts before tackling the magic section. 

Tacit figure scale

This is something that has no effect on the quality of the game one way or another. But I find it interesting nonetheless. The Oathmark rulebook explicitly states that one model equals one man. That's not how the game seems to be designed, though. The  very fact that it's "rank and flank" betrays this: surely the largest permitted unit size of 20 men must really be 200 or 400 men or something similar. After all, it's hard to imagine a 5x2 formation of 10 men having to bother with wheeling and other manoeuvres - or maintaining formation when charged in the flank!

So what seems to be at work here is the same sort of tacit figure scale that Rick Priestley described Warhammer as having: an implicit 1:20 ratio like the historical wargames of that time (WRG, etc.) but one that was never stated outright and which was disregarded for purposes of including standard-bearers, character models and the like. 

In Oathmark, a king is always better fighter than a prince of the same species. That, surely, points to the difference being made by the quality of the bodyguard - all being equal, you'd otherwise expect a prince in his prime to be physically superior to a king! But equally, you'd expect a king's bodyguard to be the best in the realm. So if the 'king' model actually reflects the ruler and his elite household warriors, it all makes sense.

Again, this has no impact on how the game actually plays, but the ostensible 1:1 ratio is an interesting design decision. I wonder if it's simply because younger players tend to dislike the abstraction of figure scales; I remember finding the idea vaguely irksome when I was a kid, though I'm not quite sure why! It doesn't bother me now, so in our games, we'll be assuming that a unit of 20 goblins is actually around 400 mewling little monsters. 

Profiles - and proxy potential

With any fantasy wargame, I'm always keen to see how the various fantastical races are portrayed. Oathmark offers a fairly Tolkienish assumed setting with a strong Dark Ages flavour. The clashes portrayed in the game are assumed to be taking place in "the Marches", about which very little is said. That's just as it should be: unless you're going to write a Glorantha or a Tekumel, you're better leaving room for the players to create the details of the setting. Another laudable design decision, then. 

So Oathmark has dwarves, elves, men and - in a departure from Tolkien - both goblins and orcs. The latter seem to be a subset of the former, though, so it's really just big orcs and small orcs (or big goblins and small goblins). That gives five generic troop types, each of which has profiles for different troop types. There's some variation here: goblins don't get the heavily armoured 'warriors' and 'linebreakers', for example, although orcs do; dwarves lack cavalry; orcs have wolf-riding personalities but no cavalry units.

All in all, there are almost 40 basic cavalry and infantry profiles, aside from characters (champions, leaders and spellcasters), artillery and monsters of various sorts. That abundance of profiles means that it should be fairly easy to find appropriate profiles for most humanoid fantasy models. Beastmen and gnolls, for example, should work fine with the orc profiles, and centaurs should work in one cavalry role or another. Hobgoblins of the disciplined D&D sort could use the orcish or human profiles - or both according to battlefield role, perhaps.

There's room for more subtle substitutions too. I was looking at possibilities for a human army and realised that I had several potential classes of 'linebreaker': Vikings with Dane axes; somewhat anachronistic Fireforge knights in mail and surcoats with two-handed swords; Perry Hundred Years War knights with poleaxes; and Perry Wars of the Roses knights with poleaxes and longswords. The last two of these are much more heavily armoured, of course, but it struck me that with full plate, they might fill the tougher, slower dwarf-linebreaker profile nicely, allowing the earlier-period knights and huscarls to act as the 'human' equivalent. 

There's a good variety of monsters too, with several associated with each of the main races. Giants, ogres and trolls are to be found here, along with some slightly less familiar names plucked from the folklore of the British Isles: the buggane, eachy, knucker and barghest. That's a nice touch: it makes the game a little more evocative even as the setting remains lightly sketched. Again, a commendable decision. There are dragons too, of course, and the basilisk-ish surma makes a guest appearance from Finnish folklore. 

If I have a criticism here, it's that there's no instruction on how to create your own profiles and point costs. I can see, for instance, what the profile for an orc wolfrider should be, but it's not quite clear whether the cost should be just twice that of an orcish soldier. A goblin wolfrider is twice the cost of a goblin soldier, but a bow-armed wolfrider scout is more expensive than two goblin archers. Still, ballpark figures can be worked out easily enough - and, really, who cares whether a fight is fair so long as it's fun?

The campaign system

This may be the jewel in Oathmark's crown - a simple 'kingdom' system that allows players to establish realms and then fight out campaigns with various set actions - deep raids, border skirmishes and the like. Hordes of the Things has a similar schematic campaign system, but Oathmark adds the distinction of having territories required for the fielding of certain troop types. Enemy invasion of one of your territories has an effect on the troops raised from that area.

One other thing that's refreshing about Oathmark is that kingdom set-up is designed to create diverse forces: a goblin king might command some dwarven, elvish or human subjects from his outlying territories, and an elf-queen might have orcs or ogres among her forces.

This is great. Tolkien mentions "wicked dwarves" who sometimes made alliances with goblins. But Oathmark's implied setting reminds me of Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword, published in the same year as The Lord of the Rings. Anderson's troll and elf armies are diverse affairs in which the respective kings command allies, vassals and slaves of other supernatural kindreds. And there's nothing so trite as good and evil: elves and trolls alike are as self-interested as men. 

Oathmark points to something like the world of The Broken Sword: in which rain-lashed crags could be the ramparts of an elf-fortress; and travellers might glimpse the corpses of eldritch beings on some forgotten field. I can't wait to give it a go.

Sunday 11 October 2020

Some more Lund and Copplestone orcs - and thoughts on Warhammer and Chainmail


To take advantage of the extra time afforded by home-working, my son and I have been doing a bit of mid-week wargaming. Our goal is to try out various 'square-base' rulesets and work out which we like best. So far, we've played games of Warhammer (3rd edition) and Chainmail. We've got our sights seton Ral Partha's Chaos Wars, Sword and Spell, AD&D Battlesystem and - the newest of the lot - Oathmark. And we'll also revisit Saga and 'MicroHotT' (Hordes of the Things with individually based figures). 

It was for Saga that I initially started building up a square-based orc force. Since then, I've started using 25mm squares as the default for our daily D&D campaign, simply because the bases work nicely with dungeon floorplans and look a bit less obtrusive on the table. The old Chronicle and Grenadier orcs (metals by Nick Lund; plastics by Mark Copplestone in Lund's style) that I was using for Saga have done plenty of time as the Vile Rune tribe in the Caves of Chaos, and I'm sure the PCs will meet more of that tribe should they ever return from Tekumel, where they're currently adventuring.

If they do, the orcs will have considerably more firepower, as I've recently finished a 12-strong unit of archers. Twelve is the requisite unit size for Chaos Wars, though it will give me a couple of smaller units for more flexible games.

I've also added a couple more warriors and a shaman. I don't much like the shaman miniature, but the warriors are exemplars of the Lund style: brawny, brutish and bristling with aggression:

As with their predecessors, I'm deliberately limiting the techniques I use in painting these. Everything gets a base colour and a wash in Agrax Earthshade, except for the skin, which gets washed in Reikland Flesh. Then everything but skin gets a retouching of base colour and a single layer of highlights. Skin gets a second layer of highlights. Then it's just a question of black-lining and painting in the pentacles on the shield (buff, white, black lines). 

It's a very quick process, and the simple pallet gives the miniatures a certain consistency, despite their orcish irregularity. 

And what about the games? Well, we thought Warhammer was quite fun at first, but it became a bit of a slog as the game wore on. My impression is that the finicky differences in the profiles that I learned and loved as a kid are, ultimately, a bit pointless. Too many of them even out, and it also takes an awful lot of time to cause a kill on most units. In our game, we had lizardmen, beastmen, troglodytes, orcs, hobgoblins and chaos warriors, but all of them were pretty similar on the table: tough, durable infantry. 

One thing that Warhammer lacks, I think, is sufficient differentiation between unit roles. Light infantry are just worse heavy infantry, and the movement penalties don't really balance things out. A unit with heavy armour and shield will move at 6" a turn (assuming reserve move) whereas an entirely unarmoured unit will move 8". But that difference is less striking than it seems, because once they've closed with the enemy and lose the reserve move, the distinction is just a single inch. And the 3:4 ratio is less marked than in other games; in Hordes of the Things, for instance, the ratio between 'blades' and 'warband' is significantly more pronounced at 2:3.

So, while Warhammer ostensibly boasts infinitely more variety in its profiles than HotT, it actually has less striking differences between many of them; many gradations rather than the bold strokes that, in my view, make for a better game. It's not just movement: it's also things like how units react to situations and interact with each other. The rock/paper/scissors aspect that's so successful in other games is largely absent here. By the end of the game, I remembered full well why I found HotT so refreshing as a teenager after a surfeit of Warhammer. 

We both liked Chainmail quite a bit more. We played with similar forces, but we found that Chainmail, with its built-in distinctions between unit types, offered quite a bit more flavour. And it was quicker too, with much more emphasis on manoeuvre and much less on turgid, scrum-like melees. But at the same time, I can see why Warhammer was much more appealing to kids. Chainmail and HotT are both games that you have to play to absorb the flavour. The Warhammer rulebook positively drips with flavour; it's just that it's less in evidence once you get to the table. 

One reason that Chainmail played faster was that kills came much more quickly. I worked out that if two evenly matched forces of human soldiers with light armour and shield fight a round of melee in Warhammer (assuming the previous round has ended in a draw and frontages of four), they're more likely not to cause or suffer casualties than otherwise. My maths could well be faulty, but our experience of play bore it out. In Chaimail, by contrast, your hits aren't going to be nullified by unsuccessful wound rolls or cancelled out by armour saves. 

Warhammer's long statline must take much of the blame here. There are no fewer than three separate ways in which an infantryman can be 'tough' - through Toughness, Wounds or Armour Save - and you also have the prospect of fighters being skilled at hitting but not great at wounding (Weapon Skill versus Strength). All this detail creates a 'wood for the trees' effect, so that stats are cancelling each other out.

The lengthy statline must also take the blame for one of the most boring aspects of our game: the performance of the troglodytes - who are subject to Stupidity and have Intelligence 4. This meant that they were most unlikely to ever act as requested during the game, and indeed they never did anything of consequence other than wander aimlessly around their deployment zone. The problem here is that Warhammer has all those psychological stats demanding to be used. Were those to be replaced with a single Leadership stat, so that the trogs were testing on their higher Ld rather than their lowly Int, the Stupidity rule would add flavour and predictability rather than just rendering a unit useless. I think this may have happened in later editions, but I've never played those.

Where Warhammer did have an edge over Chainmail was in the clarity of its morale rules. Chainmail's calculation takes a bit of getting used to; I can see that it takes plenty of factors into account, and I can imagine that it becomes easy to do after a few games, but it's quite a slog at first. 

Warhammer's personalities worked quite well, I thought, because we avoided the most powerful types. We used no heroes or magicians higher than Level 10, and that kept everything suitably balanced.

We'll certainly give both games at least one more run, but it'll be Chaos Wars or Oathmark next. And for those, more orcs are required ... 

Wednesday 26 August 2020

Tekumel: the Hluss (more or less)

After dallying on the Isle of Dread for some time, our D&D party has finally found itself in Tekumel, by dint of the 'Crimson Gates' (two vast, red stone pinnacles jutting from the sea with a shimmering horizon between them).

Puzzlement at a starless sky and the infernal heat soon gave way to terror, as a Hluss hive-ship attacked them during Monday's game. That session was largely taken up with exchanges of fire and ballista bolts; in yesterday's session, the boarding action began. And so these beasties - scorpion bugs from Irregular Miniatures - made their debut. 

They're not quite right as Hluss - they lack the centaurish tilt to the upper body and are possibly a bit small. I abandoned plans to give them a third eye and weapons in the interests of just getting them done. But they proved sufficiently terrifying: amid the abundant shrieking, much devastation was wreaked with an Eye of Advancing Through Portals applied to the hull of the hive-ship. We concluded with the Eye-wielder grasped by the Hluss queen deep in the bowels of the sinking vessel ...

Wednesday 19 August 2020

Some 1/72 elements for HotT

These are the first instalments in a large Hordes of the Things project. It may eventually lead to the replacement of my 28mm HotT armies with 1/72 equivalents - and the individual rebasing of those 28mm miniatures.

Tuesday 7 July 2020

Tekumel: Thunru'u - "The Eater of Eyes" - and another Hra

The Thunru'u is a nasty creature of the Tekumel Underworld that can serve as a henchthing for nefarious priests and magicians. I made this one by greenstuffing a Reaper Bones flesh golem:

I rather like its "WHAT TIME OF NIGHT DO YOU CALL THIS???" expression:

It's big for the base, but as the beast is going to accompany various human NPCs, it made sense to have it loom vertically rather than horizontally.

I also finished another Hra - this time, a Ral Partha "trill" ("troll", I think - probably a typo; Citadel certainly sold it as a troll in the 80s). I gather that this is the miniature used to represent the Hra in Barker's own games.

Tuesday 30 June 2020

Tekumel: Hra

This Reaper Bones zombie ogre is the first of the Hra I have planned for the campaign. I'm not sure if his bared bones and seeping wounds are quite right for the relentless Tekumelani undead, but he'll do. I have a few more in the pipeline, including the Ral Partha "trill" figure that Professor Barker used in his own games, from what I've read.

Tuesday 23 June 2020

Tekumel: a kitbashed Qol

Here's a quickly kitbashed and hurriedly speed-painted Qol. I didn't bother with the tentacle arms shown in the Tekumel illustrations (but not, as far as I can see, mentioned in the text of EPT, etc.). The tentacles are a wonderfully pulpy touch, though, so I might have a go at greenstuffing some in later versions. I think it's a fool's errand to seek utter consistency in one's snake-mutants, though!