Sunday, 19 November 2017

Interview - Sarah Newton of Mindjammer Press

There's a new Kickstarter in town - Capharnaum - The Roleplaying Game.

Sarah Newton at Mindjammer Press is bringing us the English version of 'a fantasy roleplaying game set in an imaginary Arabia-like world. It borrows from the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights, as well as semitic legends and the ancient and mediaeval epics. Capharnaum doesn't aim to be a historical game, but a heroic one, a flamboyant refraction of historical, cultural, and mythical themes, filled with light and thrilling adventure!'

As of this post the Kickstarter is still ongoing, so get over there now and have a look!

To get some further insight into Capharnaum I caught up Sarah and asked her what we can expect to see from this exciting new game.

Welcome back to the site, Sarah! So, what have you been up to recently in the tabletop RPG world? How's things in the industry?

Thanks very much indeed, Jonathan – it’s great to be back! Well, my life over the past 2 years, as I’m sure you can imagine, has been very much focussed on delivering all the cool books we were able to unlock in the Mindjammer Kickstarter of late 2013! We now have thirteen physical products in the line, which is just an amazing tribute to the power of Kickstarter and our fantastic backers – and the last of those are just about to go out to backers this Wednesday 22 Nov 2017, leaving us with 3 PDFs and some digital support products to release during the course of next year. It’s been a hectic and creative couple of years – very inspiring!

The one thing the Kickstarter did which I should have expected and maybe didn’t enough was take up pretty much all of my time! I’ve been to relatively few conventions since the Kickstarter ended – I’ve made Dragonmeet and UK Games Expo in the UK, and Les Utopiales, La Comédie du Livre, and Au-Delà du Dragon in France, but I haven’t made it to GenCon for several years, and am really missing it! Learning from the experience, I’m hoping to remedy that!

So, tell us more about your newest project Capharnaum, the game of 'Fantastic Arabian Nights adventure in a world of deserts, dragons, and crusaders'. It sounds amazing!

It is! I found out about Capharnaum back in 2009 when I picked up the frankly beautiful first edition core book at the Paris Games Fair, and I immediately wanted to do an English-language version. It was just begging for it: this deep, massive, and compelling setting, with some wonderful supplements, epic game-play, and sensational production values. I just felt its potential. It took several years to get the conditions just right to be able to do this, but the French publisher, Studio Deadcrows, and ourselves came to an agreement in 2015 / 2016 to get cracking on a joint project, to bring Mindjammer to the French-language market, and Capharnaum to the English-language one – and now that the Mindjammer kickstarter has completed its physical deliverables, we find ourselves finally able to do so!

What was the attraction to this game and genre?

I love good world-building, and Capharnaum has it in spades. You really have to see it. The designers, François Cedelle and Raphael Bardas, explained to me that, after 9/11, they wanted a game that showed the depth and awesomeness of Middle Eastern cultures, but also did so in a way in which the games you played would transcend historical and cultural conflicts and try to build something new, something which broke the chains of history and transcended its limitations. You know me – with Mindjammer, and indeed pretty much everything I write, it’s all about going beyond, breaking down barriers, achieving our potential, whether as an individual, culture, or species – and what François and Raphael said just totally resonated with me. It’s so ambitious, and yet so timely.

So, Capharnaum is a game in which the societal and cultural norm is a fantasy version of Arabian and Middle Eastern culture. It’s a vast world – as big as our own – with analogues of major historical lands, including those such as fantasy versions of mediaeval Europe – dark age Germania, mediaeval France, early renaissance Spain – and ancient world “fallen empires” such as ancient Greece and Rome, all of the playable homelands for your characters. But the focus of the campaign, at least to begin with, is a peninsula called Jazirat, which resembles in many ways pre-Islamic Arabia, say about 500-600AD. That’s the cultural norm, that’s the land the game calls “home”, and all your mediaeval knights, dark age Viking barbarians, ancient world hoplites and oracles – well, they’re all foreigners, visitors to Jazirat, with their own agendas. They’re the “other”. I don’t really know a game which takes that decision, and then follows it through with such panache, depth, and such an obvious love of the subject matter.

A key point of the setting is the freedom. Capharnaum has religion and cultural conflicts, but, while they echo those of our own world, they’re not the same. There’s no Christianity, no Islam, no Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Greek or Roman gods. Instead, you have the god-hero Jason Quartered, the martyred warrior, and his Quarterian Crusaders; you have Jazirat and its One Thousand and One Gods; you have the Chiromancers of ancient Agalanthia. These provide hooks for intrigue, adventure, and conflict which are similar to those of our own history, but you don’t have that worry of cultural sensitivity or historical accuracy – you have the freedom to improvise, to make the whole world and setting your own. There’s a lot of depth there for when you want it, but on the other hand the game setting is immediately understandable and accessible. It feels familiar, but there’s so much to explore.

That freedom is also reflected in the characters you play. In this fantastic refraction of our own world, many people are wedded to cultures and world-views in deadly conflict. Not so your characters. Each character in Capharnaum bears a birthmark on their back in the shape of a dragon’s claw: the Dragon-Mark. In the cosmos of Capharnaum, dragons are a big deal: they’re mysterious, semi-divine entities, perhaps servitors of the gods, perhaps even their progenitors and manipulators. In any case, the dragons – or maybe a dragon – is keeping an eye on your character. You have the potential to become a mythic hero; you’re marked for a special, unknown destiny. You find you have more in common with other Dragon-Marked, regardless of their origins: and, once again, transcending cultural boundaries and ancient conflicts, your adventuring party is multicultural, diverse, trying to figure out your fate, how you’re supposed to – or how you want to – change the world. It’s like you’re Sinbad, Scheherezade, Ronan, Heracles, Circe, all banded together at the start of their heroic story arcs, searching for their destiny. What will you do? What will you become? How will you change the world? I mean, as a campaign concept, how cool is that?

I also loved the rules system. I’ve been working with Fate for several years, and for me my perfect system is one which is lightweight and elegant, quick to learn, but one which is also very scalable, and with a huge amount of depth and sophistication which comes out in play and with increasing system mastery. Capharnaum is like that, but it’s more traditional than Fate, it doesn’t have those narrative, meta-elements. I find French game systems have a really solid core, but they’re also expert at integrating genre-specific elements which bring out the flavour of the setting they’re designed for. Capharnaum is no exception. You’ll find it more traditional than Fate, but with some very satisfying touches which are really crunchy, fun, and really “pop” during play. It’s fast, intuitive, but also deep and explorational, and we’re incorporating all the streamlining and polish of the new 2nd edition of the French game. The magic system in particular is worth the price of the book alone: it’s an improvisational system which works. In some ways it reminds me of what we were doing with LEGENDS OF ANGLERRE for Fate 3rd edition, but without the Fate-y side. It works on an assembly of philosophical / linguistic components called “Sacred Words” and “Elements” – you can “Create Fire”, “Transform a Person into a Camel”, or “Destroy Flesh”, for example – but the improvisational aspect is supported by concrete game effects which stop the whole thing falling into arbitrary handwaviness. It’s really nice.

What can we expect to see in the final book? The system basics, or the full game and setting with all the bells and whistles?

It’s the full game and setting with all the bells and whistles. It’s going to be at least 400 pages in two-column layout with good-sized font. It’s a gorgeous book, incidentally – top quality art, spectacular maps (I’m a major map nerd, so these were just a must-have!), the initial offering has 16 colour panels which are lovely, and we’re hoping the Kickstarter will let us produce the whole book in full colour throughout (at the moment it’s a two-tone effect, a sort of desert sepia, which looks genre-appropriate and very attractive, but I dream of colour artwork all the way!). Most of the core book is setting material – gazetteers, histories, cultural descriptions, and lots of information on the “paths” which characters can follow on their road to greatness – the Capharnaum equivalent of secret societies, cults, guilds, legions, what-have-you. The rules part of the book is probably less than 100 pages, and it’s very quick to grasp. There’s a solid foundational bestiary of 20 very flavoursome beasts native to Jazirat, and even an introductory adventure. It really is everything you need. It’s kind of a principle here at Mindjammer Press: my interest is getting the setting and its rules in your hands, and then exploring the world with campaigns and more detail which I hope will be exciting enough for you to want them. For us, the model of releasing the core system over multiple books isn’t the right one, it’s not how I want to work.

That said, the supplements for Capharnaum are fantastic! There’s a complete Bestiary – that’s the nearest the system comes to a “second rules book”. It expands the core book bestiary hugely, by delving into the cultural depths of Jazirat, into the demons and spiritual entities of the land, and then going overseas, with the critters you can find in other lands. It’s also very readable in its own right: that’s one of the things I love about Capharnaum, all the books are a damn fine read, even without playing them (although we hope you’ll do that too!). I’ve taken a great deal of time to make sure the writing in the book is the best it can be. The initial translation has been done by José Luis Porfirio (QIN, KURO, FINAL CONFLICT: XCORP, SHAYO) – we already have the core book ready to go for a swift delivery in March/April 2018 – but I’m also a French speaker, and I’ve edited, restructured, rewritten, and even added to and changed things here and there so it’s a very smooth read and also conveys the setting and material effectively.

So, in addition to the Capharnaum core book and Bestiary, we have a player’s guide, a screen, two scenario packs, an atlas, and then this massive, world-spanning, globe-shattering, epic campaign which can provide the whole framework for your play in Capharnaum. That’s one big book – we think it’ll be a good 300 pages in English version – and can plug in beginning, intermediate, and even advanced characters, and also gives room for GM detours, sub-campaigns, and other scenarios along the way. And we have lots of other surprises along the way in the Kickstarter as we start to unlock stretch goals…

What kind of support will the game receive in the future?

That’s one of the lovely things about the deal we have with Studio Deadcrows. Our license lets us publish original material. That’s why we’re asking backers and the RPG gaming community to really jump on board with Capharnaum. It’s not a closed, finite product, but the beginning of a fantastic new game and setting in the English-language RPG world. Please jump in on the Kickstarter and help us unlock the core book and its series of stretch goals. Mindjammer Press is committed to Capharnaum as our fantasy-historical RPG – it has everything I’ve ever dreamed of in a historical-themed game, from history and politics, military campaigns, spiritual, magical and mythical exploration, and then a whole transcendent, mystical, and apotheosis-based set of themes which can take you just about anywhere you want to go. We’ve bubbling with ideas we’d love to bring you!

What else do you have in the pipeline? What else is on the horizon for Mindjammer Press?

One of the things I’ve learned from the Mindjammer Kickstarter is that my own big, personal challenge is to correctly balance my own creative writing with the need to manage the business side. We’re very cautiously expanding: Jason Juta is now deeply embedded as our art director and layout guru; David Donachie is our webmaster and an awesome writer of campaign and setting material; we have John Snead representing us in the States, and also as a great writer; and we have Paul Mitchener and Graham Spearing in the UK / Europe, not only as top writers but also as community developers, convention outreach, and organised gaming. That’s really filling out the feeling that Mindjammer Press is becoming a production studio, working hand-in-glove with Chris Birch and his fantastic team at Modiphius Entertainment, who provide us with the “front-end” – distribution, marketing, store sales and convention sales presence, and of course Kickstarter consultancy!

All that means that I’m able to devote a significant chunk of my time to writing and development – I feel that’s where my own strengths lie. I’m writing all the time, and also working with other writers, to produce our new material. In 2018, we have an ongoing production schedule for Mindjammer which should take us into 2019, and some exciting plans for Mindjammer’s 10th anniversary (hasn’t that gone quickly!); also, I’m supervising the whole Capharnaum effort, making sure everything’s effectively translated, edited, worded, and produced to the standards we need to maintain after Mindjammer and as part of the Modiphius family. But I’ve also earmarked that vital time to spend planning and working on our next big project after Capharnaum, The Chronicles of Future Earth RPG, which we’re hoping to Kickstart in the first half of 2018 for delivery twelve months from now.

Thank you again for the opportunity to appear on the site, and thanks to everyone out there for reading! Do please drop by at the Capharnaum Kickstarter page and help us take the adventure still further!

Sarah Newton is an award-winning RPG and fiction writer and co-director of Mindjammer Press. Her credits include MINDJAMMER – THE ROLEPLAYING GAME, ACHTUNG! CTHULHU, LEGENDS OF ANGLERRE, THE CHRONICLES OF FUTURE EARTH, and more. You can find her online at www.facebook.com/shairasu, on Twitter at @sarahjnewton, and at her website and Meme Machine blog at sarahnewtonwriter.com. Mindjammer Press can be found online at www.mindjammerpress.com, and you can check out and support the Kickstarter campaign for the new RPG “CAPHARNAUM – TALES OF THE DRAGON-MARKED” at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/328469751/capharnaum-the-roleplaying-game.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Knowing your gaming world

Planet by bogdancoYou should never count on being able to run a fully successful game in a setting you love, because people may see it differently than you do.

A game I have always wanted to run a proper campaign for is Star Trek, set in either the current Next Generation era, post-Dominion War, or the classic movie era around the time of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - I like the atmosphere of the Next Generation setting and the adventure-come-combat of Trek II, and even Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. I like me some Star Trek and I love the idea of adventuring in the setting. I’ve even taken the character sheet and some of the rules of Task Force Games ‘Prime Directive’ and converted them to West End Games D6 System, utilising the rules of the first edition of ‘Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game’. It’s a great game and plays really well, but my problem is that I like Star Trek but know little about the larger setting and how it fully operates and only take my cues from the films and TV shows. Gaming with players who know more about it than I do – true Trek aficionados – proved difficult as the slightest detail I got wrong was corrected and ideas were formed using words and terminology I didn’t have the slightest clue about. In these cases I let the dice decide but on a failed roll there was a long conversation, almost an argument, as to how they as Federation characters and members of Star Fleet would know how to do that or would have access to certain kinds of equipment. A basic case of Player knowledge versus Character Knowledge with not much chance of an amicable settlement because the player knew so much more about Star Trek than I did.

I had the same problem as a player in a Middle-Earth Role Playing game. It was set during the War of the Ring and we were Gondorian soldiers scouting the north and I knew the GM was wrong about the location of The Lonely Mountain. I can’t remember why it made so much difference to the game, maybe it didn’t, but the GM did not want to hear my corrections. He even had me roll to see what my PC did know, and when I failed the roll he told me that as far as my character was concerned it was where he said it was. I remember being incredibly annoyed and a bit flustered about it and my argument at the time was, ‘But I’ve been reading Tolkien for more than a decade!’

Certain settings are easier than others. I used to run a lot of games in the Fighting Fantasy world of Allansia and I knew that world inside out thanks to the book 'Titan: the Fighting Fantasy World' so any new players to the setting would get a basic crash course in the history of the world and their race, if it called for it, and then I could run smooth, effective games because I could narrate without the need to stop and refer to books or notes. I was confident in my knowledge and that confidence can make for a much more comfortable game for everyone involved.

Some settings aren't that bothered about dead-on accuracy and exist for the fun of it. Playing in the Star Wars universe is easy. Everyone knows where they stand. Good guys are heroes, bad guys are villains, and nobody cares how things work or where things are – they’re just there and they do what you need them to do and with no defined ‘this is how it all hangs together’ you can pretty much wing because, hey – everyone loves Star Wars. It’s all about adventure on a pulp scale.

But a richer setting, such as Star Trek or Middle-Earth, has so much more detail and history that parts of that can affect gameplay, or at least people’s perceptions of it. These settings can be several things at once – adventure, combat, exploration, character driven, emotional, intriguing, mysterious, lots of things – and in some cases a player’s view of the setting will be vastly different to how someone else views it. Attitudes to how the game should be played will differ, and the amount that a single person knows about the setting will differ from the amount another knows, and these levels of knowledge might bring about disagreements. How do I know that a PC can get out of trouble with the Andorians on the planet Flexagarble VII by using an inverted tri-phase resonator on the transponders they use for the transporter room? What does that even mean? How do I know that the player isn’t simply making it up – like I did just then - knowing that I know far less than he does about the setting?

These days I leave it to the dice. Unless there’s something specific in the rules that addresses this particular problem, a ruling that’ll give me something to make a decision about how to handle the situation no matter what the player has to say about it, then I’ll just match what they want to do to with the closest skill on their sheet and ask them to roll, maybe modify it depending on how plausible their argument sounds. That has to be the fairest way so that everyone comes away without feeling cheated. In these possible situations I’ll make sure this kind of ruling is going to be implemented before the game starts so that everyone knows where they stand. I realise they know more than me but I have to make rulings based on what sounds plausible and not based on what some random character in Season 5 Episode 4 did or said, or what it says in Book 3 on Page 244 Paragraph 2 of The Epic series. I don’t know these things and the players should have respect for that, the same way I’ll have respect for their breadth of knowledge by making modifiers to rolls depending on how they make their case.

It’s certainly better than simply saying or hearing, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, you can’t do that’.

Originally posted February 2012

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Interview - Joseph A. McCullough of Osprey Games

Frostgrave: Ghost ArchipelagoFrostgrave: Ghost Archipelago hit the shelves recently, promising us more fun, frolics and combat in the world of Frostgrave. This time, however, the cold of Felstad has been swapped out for the sun of the south, with new heroes to create and crews to command.

I spoke to Joseph McCullough, the designer and writer of the award-winning Frostgrave games, to find out more about the Lost Isles...

So, how did you come up with the idea for Frostgrave: Ghost Archipelago? Did Felstad get too cold for you and you felt you needed a warmer climate?

Phil Smith, the Head of Osprey Games, asked me to think about writing a supplement for Frostgrave that took the game to a new setting. At first I was reluctant because I thought that would essentially just be a new list of monsters, and a bit of window-dressing for scenarios. If I was going to do it, I wanted to do something that gave players a somewhat different game experience. At the same time, I was starting to feel that my imagination needed a break from the Frozen City, just to give me a little space to refuel.

Was it a long design period? It’s been more than two years since Frostgrave, so how long have you been working on this?

The actual writing didn’t take that long, about a month. Partly this is because most of the core rules of the game are just slightly updated and modified Frostgrave rules. Partly this is because I had mentally been working on the game for several months before that. Then, of course, you have editing and play-testing afterward. I suppose from the point I made up my mind to do it, to turning in a complete manuscript to Osprey, it was about ten months.

Frostgrave: Ghost Archipelago is not a simple add-on to the original rulebook and is a complete game in itself, so what changes or additions did you make to make this stand out?

Well, like I said, I wanted to give players something new, something that significantly changed the game. I figured the biggest change I could make was to take wizards out of the central role, but if I was going to do that, I needed some suitably heroic figure to take their place. Thus out of my thoughts on the setting grew the Heritors, these sort of low-level superheroes who have inherited their powers from their ancestors who drank from a magic pool somewhere in the Ghost Archipelago. I liked the way the protagonists and the setting became linked. In game terms, the use of Heritor Abilities has a much more risk/reward system than magic does in Frostgrave. Also, the game tends to focus more on hand-to-hand combat than does Frostgrave.

Can Ghost Archipelago be used with the original Frostgrave? Can they be mixed up at all, such as having Heritors visit the Frozen City?

Absolutely. I didn’t write the two games to specifically be balanced with one another. In truth, I think that would be a fool’s errand. There are just too many possible combinations of wizard spells and Heritor abilities to try to balance them all against one another. That said, I think most people will generally get a good game out of a wizard vs. Heritor match-up.

This new book, as well as the others before it, hint at a much larger world. The specifics of that world are never divulged, and I’ve asked about the possibility of the world being fully uncovered before. Are you sticking with the enigmatic ‘here be dragons’ idea, keeping the larger setting vague and mysterious?

I’m afraid so! In truth, the more I write about the world (and now a few other people in novels), the more it slowly takes shape and becomes defined. So, over time we will see more and more of it, but there will still always be a large chunk that is never explained. I have no intention of writing a gazetteer or drawing a map of the world. That said, there is nothing to stop players from drawing their own maps and dropping the Frozen City in it.

What kind of support can we expect for the new rulebook? Will there be new scenarios, characters and beasts? And will there still be the same level of support for the original Frostgrave?

Osprey has said that they would like to support the game to the same level as the original. I’ve already turned in the manuscript for the first supplement, The Lost Colossus which will be out in February along with a load of new miniatures. This is a big campaign book, where the Hertiors are racing around the archipelago in search of the pieces of a giant statue that exploded long ago.

I’ve always liked the fact that the game made the characters quite personal, and that after a few levels you could get quite attached to certain creations. Will we ever see a tabletop roleplaying game, using similar stats and mechanics?

I don’t know. Certainly I’m a role-player at heart, and I think we will see more and more bits that will aid players who want to push the game in a more RPG direction, but at what point does something stop being a miniatures game and become an RPG?

Frostgrave: Ghost Archipelago is available now.

The Ghost Archipelago has returned. A vast island chain, covered in the ruins of ancient civilizations, the Archipelago appears every few centuries, far out in the southern ocean. At such times, pirates, adventurers, wizards, and legendary heroes all descend upon the islands in the hopes of finding lost treasures and powerful artefacts. A few, drawn by the blood of their ancestors, search for the fabled Crystal Pool, whose waters grant abilities far beyond those of normal men. It is only the bravest, however, who venture into the islands, for they are filled with numerous deadly threats. Cannibal tribes, sorcerous snake-men, and poisonous water-beasts all inhabit the island ruins, guarding their treasure hordes and setting traps for the unwary.

In this new wargame, set in the world of Frostgrave, players take on the role of Heritors, mighty warriors whose ancestors drank from the Crystal Pool. These Heritors lead their small, handpicked teams of spellcasters, rogues, and treasure hunters into the ever-shifting labyrinth of the Ghost Archipelago. Using the same rules system as Frostgrave, this standalone wargame focuses on heroes who draw on the power in their blood to perform nigh-impossible feats of strength and agility. This game also includes 30 spells drawn from five schools of magic, a host of soldier types, challenging scenarios, treasure tables, and a full bestiary of the most common creatures that inhabit the Lost Isles.

Joseph A. McCullough is the author of several non-fiction books including A Pocket History of Ireland, Zombies: A Hunter's Guide, and Dragonslayers: From Beowulf to St. George. In addition, his fantasy short stories have appeared in various books and magazines such as Black Gate, Lords of Swords, and Adventure Mystery Tales. He is also the creator of the wargame, Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City, and co-wrote The Grey Mountains, a supplement for the Middle-Earth Role-Playing game. His continued ramblings can be read at: http://therenaissancetroll.blogspot.co.uk

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Life Rolls On - what a character's scores might mean

Swordsman 3 by Firkin
Bralbuck. He likes
stripey trousers.
Do any other players take into consideration how much the numbers that are rolled for stats mean beyond the scores and benefits/penalties they give? I mean, do you consider why the character you're designing has ended up with those particular values in those particular stats? When I do design a detailed PC I try to imagine why the character ended up with such scores and then try to give them a bit of background to explain them.

Let's say I'm rolling a Dragon Warriors character (3D6 in each stat) - there must be a reason why my PC has such numbers. Let's call him Bralbuck.

STRENGTH 11 - Bralbuck is of average build. He never really stood out in the place where he grew up, but he wasn't exactly a weakling. To get in such good shape perhaps he grew up in a community where physical work was required, such as a helping hand in a castle or on a farm.

REFLEXES 15 - He was quick, though. Quick on is feet with speedy reactions. Perhaps his job required him to be nimble, such as looking after sheep or doing a lot of climbing, or perhaps he was practised in avoiding beatings from bullies or particularly nasty peers.

INTELLIGENCE 9 - His education wasn't up to much, so perhaps he is of a peasant or serf class.

PSYCHIC TALENT 9 - Where he comes from there's not much call for magic. Maybe the Church has dominion and does not approve of such practises.

LOOKS 13 - He's a good looking fellow, which probably resulted in some jealousy from other less blessed people which resulted in the beatings and the increased reflexes.

So, going by the numbers, here's Bralbuck's history:

'I grew up in Cornumbria in a small farming village called Break Beacon. We were one of many such villages under the so-called "protection" of a noble to the north who returned from the Crusades when I was just a boy, glowing with fierce piety. His devotion to the True Faith was so strong that within weeks of his return those of a magical disposition found themselves burned at the stake or imprisoned. My father remembers a time when magic users would aid the farms and villages with their crops and cattle. Now any who come to these lands are chased away or arrested. He has told me of some of the wonderous things they used to do and I imagine, sometimes, of weaving my own spells.

My father was a good man and cared for his family well, but he and my mother were not from Cornumbria. They had travelled from Ereworn in search of a new life; the people here were accepting but my parents always felt like outsiders. Because of this growing up was sometimes difficult - the local thugs would single me out and chase me down, and more than once I suffered a beating. I had to learn quickly to be quick on my feet. All this left me with little chance for an education; I rose and fell with the sun working on my father's farm so the opportunities afforded to those of a higher rank passed me by.

I got through my childhood and early manhood relatively unscathed, but always I dreamed of something more. I loved my father and mother dearly, and I loved the friends I had made, but there was always something in me that yearned to see beyond the hills and the fields that surrounded us. My father always said that I would one day feel this, this wanderlust, this need to break free of the bonds of servitude and travel in search of adventure. It was why he left Ereworn, after all, and he had told me of some of the adventures he had on his journey.

I thought this feeling nothing but a fancy, until one day a Knight came riding through the village...'

Sunday, 12 November 2017

RPG Review: ZWEIHÄNDER – Grim & Perilous RPG

Image result for zweihander kickstarter
Cover by Dejan Mandic
ZWEIHÄNDER – Grim & Perilous RPG

By Daniel Fox

Released by Grim & Perilous Studios

From the game:

‘ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG is an OSR, retro-clone spiritual successor to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay first and second editions, an unrepentant heartbreaker released under Creative Commons License Share-Alike.

Using the classical D100 system, with ZWEIHÄNDER RPG you will create grim characters, write perilous adventures and build low fantasy & dark fantasy campaigns. These rules are perfectly suitable to run Renaissance and medieval-styled adventures, too. You can also use this book to craft homebrew stories set in the works of Andrzej Sapkowski, George R.R. Martin, Glen Cook, Scott Lynch and other ‘grimdark’-inspired worlds.

This all-in-one game includes most of what you need to play: a character creation guide, game mastery rules and a bestiary brimming with creatures both fair & foul. All that’s left to gather are a few friends, pencils and a handful of dice.

ZWEIHÄNDER awaits, and the fate of your grim & perilous tale hangs in the balance!’

I’m not generally a fan of heartbreaker roleplaying games. When I’ve sat down to read them I’ve always had this little voice in the back of my head telling me that what I’m about to experience is, quite simply, the game I already own with material added by some house rules, and some changes or additions to address the writer’s vision of how the game should have been. It’s not a fair way to approach books such as these, I know, but it’s always a nagging doubt that sits there and skews my view of the game.

In all honesty, I pretty much ignored ZWEIHÄNDER when it first came up on my Warhammer radar. It was a few changes by gamers who loved the old-school Warhammer RPG, a fan edit of the game, nothing more than a few house rules thrown out into the ether to attract attention. However, the more it hung around the more it intrigued me, and when the Kickstarter began I then began to give it more than casual attention.

Actually, I was probably even more purposefully ignorant of this project than I have been with any other OSR-style game of this type. You see, I’m a huge Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st Edition fan. Huge. It is, without doubt, my favourite roleplaying game of them all. I bought the re-released softback in the late 1980s and I have had countless hours of adventures in this world. Even after 2nd Edition came out, with much cleaner and balanced rules, I still went back to the 1st Edition. It was unbalanced, with arguably the worst and most unmanageble magic system ever put into a rulebook, and it took quite a bit of work to get a handle on the rules (for myself, at any rate).

It was clunky and annoying at times, but, by the Blood God, I loved it. It wasn’t my first gaming system, and there have been better ones since then, but it’s the one that made the biggest impact on me creatively. And this was because the rulebook not only oozed atmosphere, it had everything I needed to run roleplaying games for years. The book had a wonderful dark-but-fun feel to it that was very me, and it contained full rules for everything, world details, a full bestiary and an adventure. It was everything I could have wanted in a single, weighty volume.

So, when someone on the internet has a go at creating their own version of it and not not only aims to redo what has come before but also create a full game in the ‘spirit’ of old Warhammer? Well… they’d better bring their A-game, because for 30 years I’ve not needed anything else for my Warhammer FRP games but that 1st Edition rulebook.

The more I read about ZWEIHÄNDER the more intrigued I became. I didn’t know much about the changes, but the artwork that started to appear was wonderful and really evocative of the setting as well as the original rulebook. Still, that wasn’t enough to sway me – after all, all they could do was emulate the Warhammer rules, so it wasn’t really Warhammer, was it? Unless I could travel the Reik avoiding that death, have a beer in Altdorf and headbutt mutants in the face in the Border Princes then what was the point?

But then I read more, and then I started to read the feedback from the early access Beta version of the rules. And my curiosity turned into suprise, then excitement. Then I started asking questions and before I knew what was happening a copy was being winged to me and it landed on my desk with an almighty thump. And I stared at it long and hard. Then I slowly opened the book and, with a deep nervous breath, I got stuck in.

The damn thing is huge! Huge I tell you! A single volume of almost 700 pages, hardback, with a full-colour cover and a black-and-white interior. It was so heavy the delivery man who dropped it off has been sending me his physiotherapy bills. Calling it ZWEIHÄNDER is accurate; you could wield this tome with two hands and beat someone to death with it.

It’s a gorgeous book, with a nice red page-marking ribbon that just about sticks out at the bottom. This is the version with the Kickstarter edition cover; in the dank sewers of some dark place, a mage summons fire, a hammer-wielding warrior takes a swing at some rat-men, a scarred elf attacks a larger rat, a soldier aims a musket and a dwarf attends to a wounded fellow, all while being guarded by a small but vicious dog. It’s action packed and a lot of fun, really getting across the action-packed darkness of the setting.

Cover by Jussi Alarauhio
The Drivethrurpg print-on-demand has a different cover depicting four grim soldiers posing, as if for a photograph, all watching you, the reader, with accusing eyes. In all honesty, I prefer the Drivethrurpg print-on-demand cover. As fun as the Kickstarter one is, I feel the POD cover is much more atmospheric and it appeals to me more. Either way, each cover has wonderful art, the Kickstarter cover is by Dejan Mandic (who also does the interior art) and the POD is by Jussi Alarauhio.

And the interior art – wow. Dejan Mandic has produced some amazing work that captures the atmosphere of the game wonderfully. The number of illustrations is staggering, from small page-fillers to depictions of races, monsters and careers, to full-page chapter introductions and images. It’s all done in an old-fashioned way and it suits the book perfectly, meeting the design halfway between old-school 1980s goodness and modern design choices with evocative borders and layout. It’s fully black-and-white but that only adds to the grimness. It’s excellent stuff and throughout it looks great, and the use of a single artist keeps the atmosphere constant.

It’s a wonderful book, and it’s bound so that it can be left open where you need it without any fear of pages falling out or the spine cracking open.

Everything I expect to find in a Warhammer RPG is here – races (Human, Dwarf, Gnome, Halfling Ogre and Elf), archetypes (Academic, Commoner, Knave, Ranger, Socialite and Warrior), and then  professions which I won’t list here because, like WFRP’s careers, there’s a lot of them. It’s all well balanced and characters are much more likely to be much more equal. In original WFRP, the career system gave some players better characters than others, sometimes by a long margin. I never really cared that much for game balance – it’s part of WFRP’s appeal for me – but this makes things much more balanced and will make players feel they’re much more competent within the group.

The main attributes are Combat, Brawn, Agility, Perception, Intelligence, Willpower and Fellowship, each represented by percentile scores. These scores reflect skills, which can be increased up to three ten percent increments, so up to 30% can be added to a skill as the character advances. Different professions open up different skill opportunities, and talents give characters special abilites they can pull out if needed. The skills have been tidied up and slightly reduced in number, so there’s a huge choice to be made but they’re fairly distributed between characters and professions.

All skills are percentile based – roll under to succeed – with modifications for difficulty and with different results representing different levels and effects of success or failure. Combat is fast and brutal, as it should be in a game like this, with lasting effects. You can contract diseases, go mad, and there’s a corruption scale that determines how you lean towards order or chaos, which is adjusted as play progresses and determined by what happens to the player, how they react to certain things and how they act. Leaning too far in either direction can result in disorders or benefits. The magic system is much better, a vast improvement on 1st Edition – but, to be fair, that wouldn’t be hard. The grimoire of spells is impressive with different schools of magic to choose from, and it’s easy and quick to use, although by the nature of the game the chances are that if anyone found out that you could cast spells you’d be strung up by the neck and everything you owned would be burned.

A huge section on game mastery helps with running games, but this is more of a set of extras to help with different situations, including overland travel, rewards for players, social intrigue and campaign ideas. There’s a large section on extra combat rules in here; I’m not sure why, they would have been better served in the combat section, even if they are optional. The huge bestiary is excellent and the adventure ‘A Bitter Harvest’ is a good introduction to the game as well as the dark fantasy genre as a whole. The appendix at the back is more than welcome, especially with a book this size.

As with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st Edition, everything you need to run a dark fantasy game, in the Warhammer world or any other grim setting, is here. Whether you establish your own setting or use an existing one, these rules will have you covered with minimal adjustments to the rules. The magic section may need looking at depending on the setting, but otherwise it’s a solid system that will serve a dark game exceptionally well.

So - I’ve read the book, and I’ve run some players through an adventure of my own design, with ancient devils, broken pacts, serious political problems and some straight-forward in-your-face combat. How did I get on with it? More importantly, how did the game make me feel?

What hit me square in the face with the book is the writing; the book is almost 700 pages and the text dominates the pages. It’s well written and everything is fully explained. And when I say fully explained, I mean there’s a level of detail here that some might find a little annoying. You could say that it’s overwritten, with examples and explanations of sometimes obvious things that you may have done without. It does tell me that the writers were passionate about what they were doing, and that excitement is there on the page for everyone to see, but when you’re trying to pinpoint a rule or simply get to the point it takes time. If you’re in the middle of the game that can be a problem as it slows things down, so it’s best to make sure you’ve read the book cover to cover and highlighted the areas you’ll need regularly. As it’s such a big book, that can take a lot of time. This isn’t the sort of game that you can get into quickly; from cold, learning the rules and prepping for a game will take a lot of work.

Character creation was fun but I opted to allow my players to choose from the tables. Each part of character creation, from sex to skills, has a random table and you are able to roll randomly for pretty much everything. That can make for some fun characters if you’re playing on the edge, but my players wanted to make characters they could enjoy. There are a lot of choices for players to make during generation, and this alone took us an evening’s session. I don’t mnd that; it gives the group a chance to really think about their character and we can work out a group dynamic. Like I said earlier – this is the kind of game that requires a lot of time, mainly to digest the book and prep an adventure. You can’t really hand the book to the players and say ‘crack on’, and let them create characters off their own back because that’s an entire section of the book that will have to be read by every player individually. An evening of character creation is the best route to take, I feel.

The adventure I designed was easy to set up – I didn’t have to worry about scaling the threats or designing new stats, I could take the details I need straight from the book. I just marked the page number of the creature on my design and referred to it as game progressed, and I lifted NPCs from the introductory adventure. I have had plenty of experience in adventure design so this part was easy for me, and with the level of detail in the book it was even more of a doddle.

The adventure itself was fun, but the there was a little conflict between player expectations and the game in action. There were four players, two had not played Warhammer before and the other two had experience, and it was a little easier to run the game for the new players than it was the experienced ones. During combat especially, there were assumptions made by the Warhammer players as to what rolls were made and what they meant. I had to stop play a couple of times because I went with the flow and didn’t realise that I had made judgements based on the old rulebook and not ZWEIHÄNDER. That’s not a fault of the book, but if you are an old-school Warhammer player then make sure that you’re playing ZWEIHÄNDER! It got a little confusing, but after some backtracking and corrections we were back on course; the fault was mine.

There were a few times I had to reference the book as we played but this didn’t impact play too much. I had already marked what I needed so, as I mentioned earlier, it’s best to make sure you’ve done your pre-game prep. In fact, I was happy with the way it played out for the new players. They were experienced gamers but new to this system, so after a few rolls and an encounter they got used to the system and the game progressed at a nice clip even with the pause for my ‘those aren’t the rules!’ gaff.

Combat was fun and suitably brutal – a little too much for one player who almost bit the big one in the first fight! - and the unpredictable nature of the system left us all a little breathless. The low chances to hit were a little frustrating and some of the combat resulted in a series of rolls that resulted in nothing at all, but that’s the nature of the system and it added to the fun, especially when a lucky hit by one of the players pretty much ended the fight with a single roll. Not so much for the player who got hit right before that roll; he lost an ear and spent the rest of the game nodding during character conversations, and then ending with a ‘What?’ He’ll live, with the Crop Ear drawback.

All in all it was a successful game, and the ZWEIHÄNDER rules handled the action really well. The players felt they had control over their character’s design and creation, and they felt they had some control over the game itself even with beginner’s stats. The book, options and the adventure itself recreated the dark fantasy genre really well – I set it in a horror version of Europe, on the border of the Ottoman Empire - so all in all it was a successful evening. Well, two evenings if you include the character creation session. With four players and an equal number of foes we managed to resolve a combat encounter in half an hour to forty minutes; the adventure had three combat encounters and the rest was social interaction and investigating, and the entire evening’s play came in at five hours. It would most likely have been less if there hadn’t been any confusion about the rules but that wasn’t the game’s fault, it was ours as a group. As the GM it was an excellent game to run, and the players enjoyed it.

So… the big question is; would I use this Warhammer heartbreaker in a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game?

No, I wouldn’t. That’s not a reflection on this book, it would handle a WFRP game exceptionally well as the content is simply Warhammer with adjustments. It would be easy to say it’s WFRP with the serial numbers filed off, but that would be a disservice to the game. It’s an unashamed Warhammer heartbreaker after all, so those comparisons are inevitable, but whether you want to use it for Warhammer or any other dark fantasy world it’s perfectly suited. It is, however, Warhammer at it’s heart.

I wouldn’t use it because I’ve been using Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st Edition for more than a quarter of a century, and that game is woven into my Old World in a way that makes it pointless in me trying to use any other system. In many ways all of the consecutive percentile rules after 1st Edition have been better; including ZWEIHÄNDER as I think that, despite the rulebook’s complexity, it’s a much more fluid and balanced system. However, as a Warhammer grognard I simply see no reason to use a new game system for my campaigns. That might seem to be a rather nostalgia-influenced blinkered view on my part, but if the shirt fits...

Would I use ZWEIHÄNDER for other dark fantasy games? Absolutely 100% without a doubt. Here I have an excellent set of rules designed for miserable, grim, down-and-dirty fantasy roleplaying. I can take out or adjust certain sections depending on the world I’m running, and the rules are familiar enough for me to be comfortable in running a game of that genre while keeping it seperate and identifiable from my WFRP games. I have tried to use the WFRP 1st Edition rules for other worlds, but they ended up being the same WFRP games in different clothing. ZWEIHÄNDER is far enough removed to help me run other games in other worlds more identifiable and unique.

ZWEIHÄNDER is now my go-to system for dark fantasy games. In fact, I’m looking at creating my own world and also using an existing one. My own world is a discussion for another time, but the established world I’m looking at is Robert E. Howard’s ‘Solomon Kane’. I do love the original stories but I was quite taken by the Michael J. Bassett movie from 2009 (I said at the time that it was the greatest Warhammer movie never made) so the imagery from that film makes for an excellent background. Adventuring across the world with rapier and flintlock would make for a  great campaign, with enough dark gods and raving badguys to keep players on their toes. ZWEIHÄNDER’s system makes the game edgy, dangerous and somewhat unpredictable, so that’s perfect for a game where the players are kept on the edge of death and madness. I’m basically going to run my campaign as horror action games with a Call of Cthulhu-type angle of danger. I’m sure ZWEIHÄNDER will handle that easily.

It’s big, it’s a heavy read and prep time will take a while. It’s not new-player friendly and you’ll need to have some experience with roleplaying to get the most out of it, it’s a little disjointed in parts and, yes, it’s overwritten, but ZWEIHÄNDER is an incredibly satisfying game of excellent quality, and the sheer darkness, joy and excitement for the history of the system and the genre are literally crawling off the page to get under your skin. There is very little in this book that can’t fail to inspire GMs and gaming groups, and with some investment of time and effort the end result is a rewarding experience that, once the campaign gets going and everyone is on the same page, will result in many satisfying campaigns for many months and even years. All in this one, single volume.

And that’s the very thing I loved the most about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st Edition. ZWEIHÄNDER has done the legacy proud.

Image result for zweihander kickstarter

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Some tips on describing combat in a roleplaying game

man fighting death by AJGame mechanics and rules are all well and good – after all, they decide what you can and can’t do and if you do or don’t succeed. Most role-playing games don’t work without them. Asking for the players to make dice rolls is a regular occurrence, especially when the players get involved in combat of one form or another. In fact, in a lot of games, any conflict is most likely where the most amounts of dice rolling is going to take place. You’re probably going to be rolling dice to decide on hits, parries, dodges, damage and any other number of eventualities that happen during combat. In high adventure games this is a certainty.

But with all this combat comes a slight problem, and that problem is this – when fighting the battles, the game sometimes changes from a detailed narrative to simple number crunching and bookkeeping. The combat becomes the game; i.e. the rules mechanics are continually the forefront of the chatter as the conflict is decided.

So, after a long time detailing the game world with eloquent narrative, detailed descriptions and interesting NPC/PC conversation, the game suddenly shifts into numbers and tables, dice rolls and results. ‘Rules-speak’ replaces ‘Game-speak’ – this can stall the otherworldly atmosphere you’ve created.

How to avoid this?

Rely on the game

Many games already have their own detailed combat tables but these tables describe the effects of combat and not the actual event itself. Certain games, such as Rolemaster or Warhammer Fantasy Role-play, have random descriptions that describe small slices up to amputations, head ringing blows up to concussions, even beheadings if the roll is high enough. At first this sounds great – finding out what kind of damage you have done can be exciting as the fight progresses, but once the characters are of a certain skill then only a few of the higher-end critical descriptions apply. There are only so many times you can read out the same entry for every foe slain.

To counter this, change the description slightly. Some descriptions are simple, at any rate such as ‘Cut deeply into arm, +5 hits’ or ‘Shot to head, +10 hits, stunned 2 rounds’, so they’ll be easy to build upon. If the description calls for a beheading, just tone it down to a throat-cut. If an arm is lost, then make it a hand, or lop it off at the elbow, or at the bicep. As long as the effect of the wound is the same as it is written on the table, the details of how it happened do not need to be repeated.

For example, taking the entries above, lets say a PC hits a foe in the arm and rolls the ‘Cut deeply into arm, +5 hits’ description. As well as explaining the effects (if it is in your house rules to detail the condition of enemies in combat) you could say, ‘your sword cuts into his upper arm and he howls in pain – fresh blood splashes down your blade and stains the carpet scarlet’. A little bit of narrative helps visualise the combat and also helps to prevent the encounter from turning into a dice-fest.

Now, lets take the second entry ‘Shot to head, +10 hits, stunned 2 rounds’, and let’s say it is the PC that has been hit. As well as detailing the effects of the critical, you could add ‘the bullet slams into your left temple and for a moment there is bright light and pain, the blood pounds in your ears and the room spins out of focus’. At this point, the player has no control over what happens to his character so you have free licence to describe the incident as you wish.

Remember - don’t go overboard with your descriptions. Combat, depending on the situation, can be fast and furious. Simple one- or two-line descriptions as in the examples above are all you’ll need. Long-winded details such as ‘your sword swings with a flash of steel like lightning, cutting through the armour of your foe and then into the flesh, followed by a scream as the wound bites deep, the enemy staggering backwards from the pain and the shock, the blood splashing…’ and so on will slow the game down. Also, in a long combat, you won’t be able to keep the narrative going before you start to repeat yourself and then the effect will be lost.

Of course, you can’t always rely on the game to supply the details of the combat.

Gamesmaster’s control

Combat is ultimately under the direct control of the GM. The players, for their part, can describe the tactical moves the PC’s are making but the results of their decisions, the description of the fight and the movement of the NPC’s is controlled by the GM. Each player makes their dice rolls to determine their success – it’s up to the GM to describe the results of these rolls.

a) Initial Confrontation

When the PC’s and the intended threat first face off, the GM must describe the environment and the reaction of the NPC’s. A lot of encounters might begin with numbers, weapons, who looks like they’re in charge etc, and then the battle commences with surgical precision. ‘They look like a threat, lets fight them’ kind of thing. By adding a little description to the encounter, such as what is in the immediate vicinity of the characters and the appearance and the emotional reaction of the NPC’s, the GM can already begin to add detail to the encounter.

For example, let’s say three PC’s have wandered into an Orc camp. There are two ways the GM can describe the initial encounter:

The straight report – ‘You find yourselves walking into a small clearing where five roughly-dressed Orcs are camped. There’s a fire in the middle, and the Orcs see you, gather their weapons and attack.’ This is a straightforward way of beginning the fight. It gives details of the vicinity and the rough appearance of the Orcs, and the fact that the PC’s should get ready to defend themselves.

The detailed report – ‘You crash through the thick vegetation to find yourselves in a small clearing. A blazing fire burns in the centre and silhouettes five figures standing casually by it – Orcs. They are dressed in a variety of rusted breastplates and broken chain mail, dirty and unkempt, and as you appear they turn to face you. There’s a moment of shock as they stare at you, evidently not expecting company, and as the shock fades they draw their rusted swords and run forward, faces contorted with rage’. As the combat is not yet joined then you can afford the long description. What this longer detail tells the PC’s is that the clearing was well hidden, the Orcs are not expecting trouble (an advantage they could capitalise on) and that they aren’t very well prepared for trouble, what with their mess of armour and old weapons. Although some of this detail will not aid the PC’s in the fight, it gives the encounter a sense of identity and helps imprint the visualisation of the scene in the player’s mind.

b) Conflict

When battle is joined the GM has to think fast. Not only are they responsible for the actual mechanics of the fight, they must also quickly insert little snippets of detail to bring the combat to life. There’s no need to detail every tiny moment of the fight, but small sentences during combat, with larger descriptions inserted to heighten the more important parts of the fight.

For example, PC #1 hits Orc #1 with his sword. The rolls dictate that the PC hit the Orc, that the Orc tried to parry but failed, and the blade hit the Orc in the chest, robbing him of three quarters of his hit points. The GM could, to speed things up, simply describe the results of the rolls. Preferably, they will go into more detail determined by the drama of the moment.

So, if the PC hits an Orc foot soldier as part of the ongoing fight, the GM could say ‘you swing your sword (perhaps even miming the move) and cut down at the Orc, who lifts his blade to intercept but fails, and you slice him across his chest, sending him staggering and howling’. This is enough. You could go into detail regarding the arc of the sword, the flash of steel, the ripping of armour, the spray of blood, the face of the enemy… this is all very good, but you must remember that combat, in most cases, is fast and bloody. Describe the action but don’t dwell on it unless the player is impressed with what they have done.

On the other side of the coin, lets say the PC has hit the Orc Chief, or is cutting down the last Orc of the fight. Then the GM can add a bit more detail as this is obviously an important part of the conflict. It is here that you can wave you arms about, contort your face, howl as the enemy does – ‘You swing your sword overhead, hacking down at the Orc Chief (mime the action here) who, already wounded, tries to lift his sword to intercept but he reacts weakly (mime here). Your sword slashes him down the chest, slicing armour, cloth and flesh (indicate the body area where he has been struck on you r own body), and he staggers back, his faced shocked and pained (contort your face) and he crashes onto his back and lays still’. As this moment is a dramatic moment, either the defeat of an important NPC or the end of the battle, then the GM can go into a bit more detail to represent the turning point or the winding down of the conflict. Physical representation by miming the moves or expressing the features of the NPC’s add an extra dimension and helps the PC’s visualise the fight.

c) Resolution

The fight is over – for better or worse. Now it’s time to wind things down, let the PC’s catch their breath. If your descriptions have been enough to help visualise the fight and the combat has been fast enough then the players will be emotionally tired. It’s time to gather your wits and review the situation. Who’s injured? Who’s dead? What has been broken, or lost? Describe the blood, splattered ground, the pain of wounds, the sweat, the tears, the deep breaths of exertion. Don’t just run the fight – you’ve described the initial encounter and detailed the fight but your job is not over yet.

For example, let’s say the PC’s are victorious but one of their number is seriously wounded. Describe the scene after the fight, with Orc corpses littering the clearing. Maybe one has fallen dead on the fire and is cooking with an acrid stench. Their blood will stain the ground, the weapons and the PC’s. Any wounds suffered will slowly be realised as the adrenalin wears off – cuts and grazes and slices and gashes will bleed and ache, limbs will ache with exertion, heads will hurt with the shock of it all. The badly wounded PC might be crying out in pain, clutching a badly mangled limb, crying for help. This will be up to the players to act out, but the GM should make them aware of their injuries and their state.

On the other hand, the GM might be of the ‘high adventure’ ilk. Perhaps the game is played with an abandon, so that when the enemy is defeated the PC’s all walk from the fight with puffed-out chests and a knee-slapping bravado. Still – that’s a group preference and not considered in this article.

Player control

a) Initial Confrontation

Using the examples under the Gamesmaster’s control heading, the players can have a hand in the description of the fight by actually narrating their actions instead of the GM. This solves two things – 1, the GM has some of the work taken off them as the players shoulder some of the action and 2, it gives the players more sense of control over their PC’s.

So for example, let’s say the three PC’s have just burst through the foliage to see the five Orcs. Instead of the player simply saying ‘I draw my sword and attack’, he could add a bit of detail, such as ‘I stop and stare, shocked (mimes a surprised look), and grab hold of my sword’. This is a small detail but every little bit can help to the final image of the encounter. Remember, the player will be reacting to the GM’s description. Be careful, mind – don’t interrupt the GM as he sets up the scene with premature descriptions. This can disrupt the flow of the narrative. Wait until the GM pauses for input or asks you your response before deciding on a course of action

b) Conflict

The GM might be of the ilk that describes the combat and the players roll the dice – although this takes the pressure off the player, it’s always best to add your own little bit of narrative. Instead of saying ‘I hit the Orc with my sword’, embellish it a little. Say ‘I swing my sword overhead (mime the action if necessary) and cut down at it’. If you parry a blow, mime the action and say ‘I’ll knock his sword away with a clang!’ or something. Try not to simply roll the dice and say ‘I got him’. Roll the dice and say ‘I slash at him (mime the action) with a roar – argh! – and throw my weight behind it’.

Again, be careful not to go overboard with your descriptions. Detailed narrative of the intricacies of holding a sword, the rippling of muscles and a slow motion slash might be entertaining to you, but there are other players and a GM to consider and bullet-time miming might slow things down a bit. Also, don’t go over the top with the physical manoeuvres your PC might attempt. Back flipping over the enemy, landing square behind him and pirouetting into a slice might sound great but when you barely scratch him with your attack, or the GM adds all kinds of modifiers to the dice roll for the action, you’ll soon realise to keep it simple. Unless the action has a tactical advantage or it is part of the PC’s fighting skills then leave it out and concentrate on what you can do.

c) Resolution

So, the fight is over. The enemy lie dead, but what wounds have you suffered? How do you feel? How long did the fight last? It’s all well and god looking at your character sheet and noting that you’ve taken several hits, but how do those hits physically manifest themselves? Act the part of a wounded person – that slice across the arm might count for five hit points, but it’s still a slice across the arm. You’re in pain. You’re hurt. Five Orcs just tried to slice you up – you’ll be trembling from the encounter, and as the adrenalin wears off you might get the shakes or cold flushes, depending on the demeanour of your character. You might be the stoic type, bind your wounds with a grimace and do your best to appear defiant. You might collapse under the strain and want to be left alone for a while. If you’re badly injured, you might need help, writhing in agony. The point is, act out the aftermath, role-play the condition of your character. That loss of hit points means something, the stats of your character mean something, the attitude of your character means something and it can all be used to describe how your character acts after a major fight. It adds a dimension of reality to the whole proceedings and can be very rewarding.

Different kinds of combat

Below are several short ideas of descriptive things to remember when running certain types of combat.

Fist and kicks
The slap of flesh, the shock of impacts, the thump of fists, the grunts of pain, the bruising, cuts and scrapes, the dizzying blows, the winding punches, the staggering falls, the crash of furniture, the cracking of bones.

Hand weapons
The clash/ring/flash/gong/rattle of steel, the swoosh of swinging weapons, the cries of pain, the fear of expression, the splash of blood, the stench of offal, the slipperiness of the ground, the ache of bones, the slicing of flesh, the cutting of limbs, the white light of stuns, the roar of anguish and defiance.

Missile weapons
The crack/bang/explosion of weapons, the swoosh of arrows, the shock of impact, the surprise of being hit, the penetration of missiles, spraying of blood, the sharp pains, the splinter of bones, the screams of agony, the tenseness of aiming, the clouds of dust of near hits, the whistle of bullets and shells.

Energy weapons
The flash of light, the screech of energy, the heat of near hits, the melting of flesh/bone/metal, the cries of pain, the crash of explosions, the smell of burning, the haze of smoke, blinding bright light, the hiss of decompression, the shouts of conflict.

Vehicle combat
The screeching of tyres, the roar of engines, the thump of impacts, the crash of metal, the speed of aircraft, the spiralling of star fields, the brightness of explosions, the thump of concussion, the shaking of vehicles, the cries of shock/anguish/surprise, the blare of horns, the wailing of sirens.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

A Frostgrave Scenario - The Well of Liars

Photo courtesy of & (c)
The Lunar Games Society
Although I’ve created this for Frostgrave it can be used as an encounter for most roleplaying games, especially if you enjoy using miniatures. If you’d like to see more of these one-shot encounters just let me know.

This is my first go at creating a proper Frostgrave scenario. The games I have been involved in have been the published ones with a few custom maps created on the fly. I’ve watched some huge battles take place with four players at my local gaming club, so if you do have more than two players up for this then just increase the table size.

The Well of Liars is a deep hole in the ground where, if the carvings on the walls are to be believed, liars and cheats were tossed in and kept alive by powerful magic. Now the magic has faded and the dead are climbing from the well…

SET UP

This can be played on a 3 by 3 table. It is mostly barren with a 2-inch circular well in the very centre. Each corner and half-way point between each corner of the table needs to be numbered in order, so there should be eight in total. You can place small amounts of scenery, such as fallen columns or boulders, but there needs to be a clear line of sight from the well to the number on the edge of the board.

Four treasure tokens should be placed randomly within 3 inches of the well.

SPECIAL RULES

Every round, during the Creature Phase, a skeleton will emerge from the well and run at full speed in a random direction. Roll 1D20 and halve the result, rounding up.  The number rolled is the number at the edge of the board the skeleton will run towards. If a 9 or 10 is rolled, the skeleton remains at the well and the D20 is rolled during the Creature Phase in the next round. Another skeleton will emerge if there is one still at the well or not, and will need to be rolled for independently.

The skeletons will ignore the player’s warbands in an attempt to escape the horrors of the well; however, if they come within 2 inches of any player’s model they will attack. If the player breaks combat the skeleton will not pursue and continue on their flight to the edge of the board.

With players trying to get to the treasure and fend off the skeletons, it should make for an interesting game!

TREASURE AND EXPERIENCE

Treasure and experience is as standard Frostgrave rules.

Disclaimer: This is a fan-created scenario designed for fun. It is in no way endorsed or supported by Osprey Publishing. Frostgrave is copyrighted by the relevant owners and no infringement is intended.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

In Memory of Burgen Beerswiller, Basic D&D Dwarf Level 2

A part of me died, once, on Thursday 21st February, 2013. This highlighted my frustration regarding one of the drawbacks of low-level character investment.

Burgen Beerswiller, a Basic D&D dwarf created on the 27th September 2012, fell under the sword of a particularly nasty hobgoblin whilst trying to clear out a subterranean temple. After 28 kills, attaining level 2 and winning the favour of the locals and the Lord of the region, donating his gold to the local church to fund the rebuilding of a church to St Cuthbert to help bring a failing market town back to prominence and fighting a pitched battle to save a small village, he bought the farm during a random nondescript encounter in a corridor.

I was pissed off with it at the time. Obviously I took a chance with him in what was obviously a dangerous dungeon and threw myself into combat - as I always did - and he fell to three consecutive bad die rolls and a very lucky critical roll so I'm fine with that part of the game as that's the nature of it. Sometimes luck simply isn't on your side.

On the other hand, I'd invested quite a lot into this character. He was gruff but polite, he was gracious to the unfortunate and quite understanding (for a dwarf) and he had a great story arc on the go, so to play him for five months only to have him die an ignoble death with no resolution to the few plots he had become involved in, and even helped to create, leaves me with a huge sense of frustration and playing any other character to continue his quests won't bring me the same sense of satisfaction I would have enjoyed had I completed them with Burgen, the character I created with the intention of experiencing these adventures.

This is one of the drawbacks of this kind of Basic D&D game, in any game where death is a couple of dodgy die rolls away. While I enjoy playing in high-adventure heroic campaigns, where death is dodgeable and major wounds are a minor distraction, it can be a little underwhelming as the danger and sense of risk isn't there. Yes, it's fun defeating the evil overlord in an amazing way but without that sense of death looming over you it can sometimes feel hollow, turning the game into just a shared storytelling experience that might not suit all the gamers at the table. On the other hand, with these high adventure games you can invest time and effort into the character and really develop them, enhancing the roleplaying experience and really watching an epic saga unfold.

The mortality rate of high-risk games such as Basic D&D pretty much scuppers this kind of gaming, and even if you've played a PC for several months there's always the risk of a horrible random death, as is what happened with Burgen. In some ways I got overconfident with him as he'd rolled high for both of his two levels of hit points and I was quite capable of taking a couple of serious hits, and I was used to high-adventure games where the heroes would get stuck in, so it was inevitable that he'd meet a fate such as this. I think what upsets me the most about the death of Burgen is the fact that I had invested so much into him, and the overconfidence meant that I was quite happy to create a history and personality for him as well as make plans for his future in the game. Now all that work and all those ideas feel like a waste of time.

The ongoing problem with this, of course, is that I created a new level one cleric, and straight away I'd given him a past, a personality and a modus operandi... straight away I've invested creativity in a character that might die in his first encounter, but that's the way I game and I can't help myself, and besides - it's called a roleplaying game for a reason. My playing piece is called a character, after all, and if I regarded it as anything else then I might as well be using the boot out of Monopoly.

Not only that, but there may have come a time when my new character, Brother Sagart of the Church of St Cuthbert, would no doubt have continued where Burgen left off so that the DM could continue his adventure, but the downside of this is that it will always feel like Burgen's adventure and this character is just filling in. I won't have the same level of emotional involvement in the game as at the back of my mind I'll be thinking 'this is what Burgen should have been doing - you know, that dead dwarf you played for five months'.

I love the sense of risk, danger and adventure in Basic D&D. It's what gives it it's edge and it's sense of excitement. On the flipside, I'm wary about investing too much time in a PC for fear of wasting my time, which does make the characters simple playing pieces, rolling off the PC production line to give me a chance to roll some dice with my friends.

Originally posted February 2013

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Frostgrave: Ghost Archipelago

Frostgrave: Ghost ArchipelagoIt's available, and it looks fantastic.

I've yet to get my hands on a copy of this - I devoured Frostgrave when it first came out and got hold of all the print books, as well as interview author Joseph McCullough - and I love the setting and the rules system. I had gotten back in to tabletop wargaming with Mantic's Kings of War (1st Edition) years ago, and as much as I enjoyed that I was looking for something a little more focused, with fewer models; I'm not that into models, and as much as I like them I never had the painting skill - or patience - to be any good. In fact, I'd just dip my already assembled figures in red paint and say 'They're mine'. I used to play Blood Angels a lot.

It's a stand-alone game in the same world as Frostgrave - an excellent setting with a vague background. I did try to push Joseph for more details at this year's UK Games Expo but he's keeping it tight to his chest, and quite right too. The mysterious background of Frostgrave is what gives it it's power, and the small details that come out make it quite compelling.

I also wanted to see if I could use the rules for a roleplaying game set in the world and have players roleplay out certain encounters, using the rules for the general combat. It was still a skirmish game at heart, but I added a few skills and social mechanics to flesh it out. It was fun - it certainly wasn't perfect - but first and foremost this is a wargame and at that it excels.

The setting is great for some really melodramatic roleplaying, especially if the players are wizards; why do they feel the need to enter this dangerous city? What drove them there, what are they looking for, what are they trying to prove? What do they hope to do with whatever they discover outside the city?

And if they play a warband member, that opens up all kinds of new possibilities. Why risk themselves for the ego of a wizard? Are they going into the city for any other reasons, personal reasons? How bad was life for them away from the city that they felt the need to face almost certain death?

It'd make for some great gaming sessions, especially if each of the players have their own secrets that may sometimes clash with the goals of other players...

Anyway, I'm looking forward to Ghost Archipelago. With another swathe of excellent art by Dmitry and Kate Burmak, this looks to be another winner.

'The Ghost Archipelago has returned. A vast island chain, covered in the ruins of ancient civilizations, the Archipelago appears every few centuries, far out in the southern ocean. At such times, pirates, adventurers, wizards, and legendary heroes all descend upon the islands in the hopes of finding lost treasures and powerful artefacts. A few, drawn by the blood of their ancestors, search for the fabled Crystal Pool, whose waters grant abilities far beyond those of normal men. It is only the bravest, however, who venture into the islands, for they are filled with numerous deadly threats. Cannibal tribes, sorcerous snake-men, and poisonous water-beasts all inhabit the island ruins, guarding their treasure hordes and setting traps for the unwary.

In this new wargame, set in the world of Frostgrave, players take on the role of Heritors, mighty warriors whose ancestors drank from the Crystal Pool. These Heritors lead their small, handpicked teams of spellcasters, rogues, and treasure hunters into the ever-shifting labyrinth of the Ghost Archipelago. Using the same rules system as Frostgrave, this standalone wargame focuses on heroes who draw on the power in their blood to perform nigh-impossible feats of strength and agility. This game also includes 30 spells drawn from five schools of magic, a host of soldier types, challenging scenarios, treasure tables, and a full bestiary of the most common creatures that inhabit the Lost Isles.'

Monday, 6 November 2017

Could you get a long RPG campaign from Introductory Fighting Fantasy?

Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2nd Edition is designed for long-term campaigning, that much is sure. The rules are designed to allow growth and improvement to a player's hero, and that's great.

But could the basic version of the game, Fighting Fantasy: the Introductory Roleplaying game also get this treatment? The characters are only really good for short-term and not really designed for long-term games spread out over weeks and months. You could do that, with no discernable improvement to the characters, but it'd have to be a compelling story, and one of the things a lot of players like is growth for their character that's not only reflected in the story they tell but also in the stats on the sheet improving.

I've had a little success with this in my basic Fighting Fantasy games - I was going to use the acronym 'BFF games', but that has all kinds of other meanings.

I made a few really rough notes - I'm not even sure that most of the changes work that well - and I'm sharing them below. None of this is official, of course, and Advanced Fighting Fantasy is your best call for campaigning in Titan.

CHARACTER CREATION:

All PCs start with SKILL 6, STAMINA 24 and LUCK 6. These are the standard skill levels of all untrained heroes.

Of course, you’ll want to be able to change those abilities to make sure that your PC is different from the rest, to make the hero unique so that you are playng a character that you feel comfortable playing.

To increase SKILL or LUCK by 1 point, the player must reduce STAMINA by 3 points.

If they want to be able to use MAGIC, they add the MAGIC SKILL at 6, and points are spent the same way. Then use the MAGIC rules in The Riddling Reaver.

EXAMPLES: SKILL 9, STAMINA 9, LUCK 8 - SKILL 7, STAMINA 9, LUCK 8, MAGIC SKILL 8

When making SKILL or LUCK rolls, instead of the roll-under mechanic set a target number of 15 and this is what they need to roll on 2D6 plus their score, plus any SPECIAL SKILL scores. Lower the target number for easier situations, say down to 10, raise it for more difficult situations, say 20. Double 1s are always a failure, and double 6s are always a success.

SPECIAL SKILLS:

Each player is given 3 points to spend on SPECIAL SKILLS.

When making a roll where the SPECIAL SKILL can be used, also add this score to the SKILL score.

They can choose to spend these points in any of the following skills – no more than 2 points in a single skill. Whatever SPECIAL SKILLS the player wants they can choose.

For a bit of fun, and for those who like to live on the edge, you can roll a random SPECIAL SKILL -  roll 3D6, results are cumulative.

3 - 1-handed weapon
4 - 2-handed weapon
5 - Bow
6 - Crossbow
7 - Polarm
8 - Thrown
9 - Ride
10 - Swim
11 - Climb
12 - Bargain
13 - Command
14 - Sneak
15 - Artisan
16 - Sleight of Hand
17 - Lore
18 - Hand-to-Hand

DAMAGE:

Damage - for a hit, roll 1D3 for hand to hand, add 1 for single handed weapons and normal bows, and add 2 for double handed weapons and bigger bows. They also get a +1 to damage for every 10 points they have in STAMINA.

ARMOUR:

Armour was a number that reduced damage by that score, but any round-winning rolls of Double 6 were a critical and negated all armour.

When hit, roll a D6, and roll equal to or less than the Armour Score to succeed. A shield can be used with any armour and the score is added to the armour score, but two-handed weapons can't be used. If the roll is successful, the damage is reduced by the Armour Score.

Shield: 1
Leather: 1
Chain: 2
Scale: 3
Plate: 4

ADVANCEMENT:

After every session players get a single Experience Point, with an extra one for good roleplaying or defeating the bad guy, and they can spend these on Special Skills. They have to earn enough points to match the total number that Special Skill is on - including the SKILL score - and then they can increase it by 1 point. So, if you have SKILL 8 and a Special Skill of Bows at 1, then that means you have to spend 9 Experience points to get Bows up to 2.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

I had problems with AD&D 2nd Edition

Image result for AD&D 2nd editionI played a lot of Basic D&D in the 1980s and then went on to AD&D 2nd Edition. I enjoyed Basic D&D but I could never fully get my head around AD&D. My first opinion of it was that it was too complicated but that was to be expected, coming from Basic D&D as I did. I played it for about a year and during that time I slowly changed from simply disliking it to outright hating it. It just didn't work for me.

That obviously stayed with me for a long, long time, and I was kind of stuck in that unjustifiably negative viewpoint no matter how much I wanted to play the game; I was getting excited about settings such as Birthright and Spelljammer, but then refusing to follow up on those feelings because it was AD&D 2nd Edition, and AD&D 2nd Edition sucked. Honestly, what an idiot.

I found this letter I wrote and posted to DRAGON magazine way back in the late 1990s, before 3rd Edition was announced. Even back then I still had a bee in my bonnet about AD&D 2nd Edition after a whole decade. I had obviously given up on the game late 1980s after playing in a particularly bad campaign, which no doubt unjustly soured my view of AD&D 2nd Edition, but I obviously couldn't get past my myopic 'this game is bad!' viewpoint.

I'm going to assume the letter was never published - I stopped reading DRAGON magazine around the same time I wrote the letter.

My only conclusions about this letter is that firstly I obviously knew naff all about WotC's take over of TSR, and secondly I was an opinionated little git with a massive corn cob up my butt about nothing.


JONATHAN HICKS

(My address)

ENGLAND

Dear Dragon,

I have noticed a trend recently for players to continually discuss the necessities of certain rules and rule applications during a game. From what I can tell from the sort of enquiries you get in your regular SAGE ADVICE feature, there are a lot of players and referees who need clarification on how certain aspects of the rules system works. I am sure that this goes for other games, and not just the AD&D genre.

This worries me. I get the impression that more people are worried about the adjudication and interpretation of the system instead of the actual game itself. This leads me to conclude that there are many gamers out there who haven’t bought their games to role-play, but to take part in an elaborate wargame.

I think this stems from the old days of dungeon-bashing, when a wicked referee would design a cruel dungeon to pit his friends against, and not care about how the players would react in a role-play situation. I would like to think that the game has come a long way since then, but it appears not. Although I understand that many new gamers will treat the game in such a way, and this column helps them along the road to becoming a better role-player, it does not encourage any of the players to optionalise or find a way around the ruling to make everyone happy. I get the impression that the whole game is on ‘hold’ whilst the enquirer waits for an answer to the question.

In fact, the whole of DRAGON magazine is fundamentally the same. It appears to be a monthly book of charts and tables to add on to an already overbearing and outdated role-playing game. There are new characters and creatures, but they lack depth and just appear to be another monster with a long list of statistics and abilities. They have histories, sure, but these are just to make them appear more of an individual than the last monster or character.

You have to remember that yours is probably the only major international magazine on the shelves, with every other magazine either folding after several months or not even getting the kind of exposure you do. Personally, I think it’s time for you to change. I know that a lot of your readers will stand and cry ‘there is no need to change! Everything’s fine, and the magazine is just right for us! We will keep it that way!’ Remember, TSR are not their own company anymore now that WotC have taken them over, which, considering that TSR were supposed to be the biggest role-playing company around, does not bode well for the gaming industry as a whole. Now that other big companies have gone (such as Games Designers Workshop and West End Games), I think that Dragon magazine should reconsider it’s duty as ‘The World’s Most Popular Role-Playing Magazine’ and start to include other games for it’s major articles, and not just the AD&D game, which may be the original role-playing game but is now also the most stagnant.

AD&D was an inspirational game but now it’s time for a change. Keep the Statistics, such as Strength and Charisma, but lose the saving throws, which seem very contrived, and introduce a better skill system, maybe something based around the skill check roll or the percentile skill roll. This will broaden the abilities and scope of the game and make it a hell of a lot easier to understand. I don’t actually play the AD&D game anymore, I haven’t played it since the second edition came out, but I have continued to buy Dragon because I still like the nostalgic feeling I get when I read it. Now I am very disillusioned with the magazine, because all it does now is repeat itself.

I understand that this letter will probably not get printed; after all, it is not exactly a letter of praise, but my intention is not to offend or be unsupportive of your future. It is to make the readers think a little more about role-playing as a whole, and not just the AD&D game, and if they support the entire hobby as they support TSR, then the role-playing world will get the boost it needs to grow once more.

My final message is this - it’s time for a change, Dragon. Maybe you should shed your scales and start again.

Thanks for your time,

JONATHAN HICKS



This post originally published Sept 2011

Saturday, 4 November 2017

My Original Star Wars RPG designs from 1987/1988

30 years. Wow.

So, for your viewing pleasure, here are some of my first ever game designs for West End Games Star Wars: the Roleplaying Game, from way back in 1987/1988.


This one is very first map I drew in 1987, the day after I bought my copy of Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game. I wanted my own Rebel base, and I created a small one on an idyllic world of boating ponds and woodland walks. It was designed as a retreat, a place where player characters could go to rest and recuperate, pick up missions and generally hang out.


These two were created in 1988, and the image on the left is a downed starship being used as an outpost. At first it was controlled by smugglers, but after being outed the Rebels used it as a small strike base deep in the Mid-rim territories. I remember liking to idea of it but don't remember getting much use out of it.

The crash site on the right is a downed Star Destroyer, the impact of the mighty starship hitting the ground devastated the land for miles around, but the crash also bought trade and industry as the locals used it as place of interest and melted parts of the destroyer down to use - they were a pre-industrial race and they needed the metals for their own wars. By this time, the Empire and other scavengers had already taken what they could and left the rest to rot.


Finally, another Rebel base on the left and a space station on the right. The base was a complicated warren of abandoned tunnels and caves in what was one of many single towers of land on an otherwise ocean world, and as the world had no natural resources of note it was ignored by the Empire. What the Rebels didn't know is that the original inhabitants of the world were returning, and they wanted their homes back...

The research station was created for a standard 'trapped on a station with killer aliens' game. You know... Aliens. It is much larger than you can see in the picture, but the game was pretty derivative and didn't really go anywhere. I always liked the design, though.

You know, I might use all of these again. The 1980s were a great time to be a tabletop roleplayer.

This post originally published 17-12-2015