Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Picturing D&D

I've kinda missed the boat here. A few weeks ago, for no reason at all that I could see, people started talking about D&D art. You know, what should be on the cover of boxed sets, Player's Handbooks, etc. Anyway, at the time I meant to say this:

This is one of my favourite D&D pictures, and should be on the D&D Basic Set[*1]:

FIRST, it shows a party of adventurers, rather than a lone hero. SECOND, they are posing for a... camera? In other words, this group of adventurers have anachronistic attitudes, like PCs played by late 20th/early 21st century Westerners. Third, there is a small treasure horde, because D&D adventures are about collecting wealth. THIRD, that Dragon is poxy. It is not all RAGHHHH! and AWESUM!, but nevertheless there is tremendous fun to be had in navigating a perilous world, surviving (perhaps) and growing as characters (in terms of personality and history, as well as in power). Playing D&D involves playing low-level characters - indeed it is likely that most D&D play is low-level - and so at least some of the art should reflect that[*2].

But I am a bit of a heretic anyway - I like 2nd Edition AD&D - it sits just behind Basic and ahead of 1st Edition AD&D in my official D&D rankings. I like quite a lot of the art. I like the structured, ordered presentation of rules and procedures. I even have a reasonable appreciation for 'kits'! I don't like the advice for Dungeon Masters (some in the Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide is truly awful), but I can live with that - that's advice, not rules of procedures.

[*1]Of course, not if you want to sell lots of copies. Just if you want to sell a copy to gits like me, who stubbornly reject heroism, glamour, etc. ;-)
[*2]Or you could make low-level D&D like mid-level D&D like high-level D&D, just with inflating numbers...

Thursday, 10 July 2014

On the nature of Chaos

"The traits which characterise the Chaos Powers are insanity, violence, ambition, greed, and others of a kind which are often felt to typify the worst of human nature. But this is not wholly the case, and Chaos Powers also exist which typify fellowship, charity, law, and other redeeming characteristics. Indeed, no Chaos Power is wholly one sided, for no human or other creature is wholly good or evil, and likewise neither are their shadow-selves. For example, along with violence and bloodshed Khorne has inherited a warrior's sense of  honour and moral virtue. Nurgle may typify decay and disease, but he also embodies the human hope and energy that defies the inevitable" (Realm of Chaos: The Lost and the Damned, (1990) p.7)

The idea that Nurgle does not just represent disease and decay, but is also the embodiment of hope, defiance, and stoicism is repeated through the book. The same is true for the other Powers. The Powers of Chaos, it makes clear, are the product of the combined energies of the shadow-selves of the dead, which retain their most powerful mental traits and flow together to create whirlpools in the Realm of Chaos, and these whirlpools are the Chaos Powers.   

"The four Great Powers of Chaos represent the four largest and most powerful of these many co-joined entities. They are so large that they have achieved a coherent consciousness and will, a mind formed from the collective emotions and beliefs of the countless myriads of shadow-selves that comprise it.

Other Chaos Powers sometimes achieve temporary consciousness, but their existence is less stable because they are smaller; they may be likened to slumbering gods whose dreams sometimes achieve a passing solidity and who will perhaps one day awake to full awareness."

This is much more interesting, to me, than the view of Chaos presented in WFRP2e's Tome of Corruption (2006), which answers the question of why people might worship Nurgle with the, 'Hopeless despair' - the very opposite of the human virtues that Nurgle is taken to embody in Realms of Chaos.

And consider this;

"At this time [the Great War against Chaos] many Chaos Champions took up arms alongside the daemonic forces of their Patron Powers, but others flocked to help the human defenders against the Chaos Hordes. Such is the nature of the Chaos Powers that such willful independence by Champions often amuses rather than angers them, and may even lead to a Power rewarding his Champion for providing good entertainment. In this way, Chaos Champions and their warbands fought on both sides in the Great War against Chaos, both for and against the human nations. Although the presence of Chaos Champions in their ranks may have caused the human defenders some trepidation and even mistrust, their aid was still welcomed at a time when survival hung momentarily in the balance" (Realm of Chaos: The Lost and the Damned, p. 9).


Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Worst. Module. Introduction. Ever.

I've been looking through some old adventures in my cupboard, particularly those that are poorly regarded, with a view seeing what I can 'rehabilite'. But when on page 4 of a book you find the following lines introducing an adventure... 

"[Adventure X] is a race against time - but the exact times and dates have actually been kept vague. Role-playing should always be about creating an exciting story: not just problem solving or beating the clock. [...] If the GM can impress on the players that there is no time to waste, and then create a persistent and mounting sense of urgency without actually keeping track of the exact number of days until the [climax], the adventure will stay exciting and tense. [...] Players may feel their characters are being 'railroaded'; forced from encounter to encounter with little choice in the matter; but you should make them feel that this is because Fate has forced them into this path, not the adventure writers of the GM's style of refereeing."

Obviously the title is hyperbole, but these lines epitomise what I really do dislike in many published adventures, even those who are not as explicit as this in their assumptions of what constitutes a role-playing *game*. I would argue that if you set the scenario up as a race against time, and then proceed to absolutely invalidate every single decision that the players take (and the actions taken by the PCs) vis-a-vis this 'race', the best part of the game is an illusion. 

With regard to a conversation I have been having elsewhere: I have no problem limiting player choices*. The game world naturally limits choice. And sometimes it is a useful GMing technique to present possible choices to the players, gamebook fashion. But I really hate invalidating player choices by rendering those choices meaningless. This doesn't mean that the world is fixed - if the players know nothing of the plans and plots of the villains of the world they can remain in an indeterminate state, waiting for the PCs to encounter them. But once the players and making decisions, and the PCs are taking action, with regard to these villainous plots, the *game* is having these choices and actions have consequences.

This module suggests that the vast majority of what the players choose to do over the weeks it would take to play this adventure ought to have no real consequence. Having played in these kind of games, even the merest suspicion that this is going on is an enthusiasm-killer. But when I have found myself employing techniques such as these as a GM I have felt that I have cheated myself. I don't want to 'tell a story', I want to play a game.

Anyway, guesses as to the year, the system, the adventure itself?

*Addendum - ten minutes after 'publishing' this post I realised that I'd forgotten to say that player choices are also limited by the social contract that ought to bind people when they are playing a 'fantasy adventure game' (or 'horror investigation game', etc.). YOU are playing an 'adventurer' (or 'investigator'), and the player choices you make should not be made to prevent adventuresome things from happening. Yes, your PC might want to settle down to a farm, but you as a player have a 'contract' with the GM and the other players to play a fantasy adventure game for three hours that evening. I've seen criticisms of (presumably hypothetical) sandbox games in which the (imagined) campaign devolves in non-adventuring. If this isn't what the group wants, it is a result of people breaking the social contract, and correcting this shouldn't necessitate introducing heavily-plotted railroads.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Oh, damn you Devlan Mud!

Enjoying painting at 15mm has improved my 25/28mm technique. As I chug my way through the Saxons, I've started reading the Oldhammer blogs a lot more regularly. And I can't escape the whispers of the old lead scattered all over the house, hidden in a box in bubblewrap here, in a storage case there, soaking in Dettol... where? So, beguiled by the faint cries of 'yo ho ho', 'avast!' and 'aaarh!', I cracked open a box and dragged out of shore-party of Long Drong's Pirate Slayers. Not sure what I'll use these for. Singly based minis for Songs of Blades and Heroes? A Warband/Shooter unit for HotTHammer? Anyway, this post isn't about that.

When, a few years ago, I painted my first miniature after a gap of umpteen years, my disposable income gave me access to a far wider range of paints than I ever did back in the day. And I could buy inks, and washes, and all kinds of other stuff. And proper brushes! But the washes were a great help to a [re-]learning painter. A good wash, typically of Devlan Mud, added depth, a bit of 'realistic' grime, and, at times, covered mistakes. But it has got to the point where I think that Devlan Mud, and my other favourite, Ogryn Flesh, are concealing, rather than enhancing my painting. What do you think?  

This is a Pirate Slayer I have nearly finished. I haven't used any washes on this guy.

This is the Slayer I finished the day before. While I like his polka dot bandana, the Ogryn Flesh wask on the skin, the red wash on the beard, and the Devlan Mud on the guns and scabbards and the rest have really flattened the miniature. Where, in the past, slapping a wash on was my final stage, looking at this guy I feel I have to set the brush to him again.

Or, of course, the problem could be that after staring at little Dwarf Pirates for a few hours you lose your sense of perspective... Which do you prefer, snazzy headscarf notwithstanding?

Monday, 23 June 2014

Oldhammer 40K: One More Ork

Painting in 15mm has revitalised my interest in miniature painting. But I have to paint 40 Saxon spearmen before I have finished that contingent of the army - plus 14 irregulars for the two 'horde' elements, two skimishers, and the four housecarls that that make up the general's element. I'm 20 spearmen in, and need a break. So what is in the lead-pile? 

A Rogue Trader-era Ork...

He is meant to be part of this gang of old metal space-greenies... which I last put to the brush TWO YEARS AGO!

(I have found a great new place to photograph my minis - on top of the microwave directly underneath an LED downlighter. This usually has the mundane but essential task of illuminating the kitchen worktop to help my late-night sandwich making, but it serves quite well here.)

After painting 15mm tall realistically proportioned little men, this guy was a breeze.

As you can see, he's a bit lighter than his buddies, but then he is prone to walking about topless, and who knows what the effects on light from a red giant does to an Ork's complexion. Maybe he just needs a green wash... and possibly a touch of metallic paints - the earlier models were painted when I used metallic paints more heavily.

I'll be back at the Saxons the next time the paints come out. That's THE hobby project (not just for this month, but for the summer), and I know 'the game' that I will be playing with my Saxons and Vikings. By contrast, I'm not sure what I'll actually use these guys for. I don't think that I have the stomach for current 40K, and I while I have Rogue Trader - and leaf through the book regularly - I'd expect that I'd find it too fiddly these days. I am taken with adapting (or stealing an existing adaptation of) one of the Songs of Blades and Heroes variants for some real quick-play skimishing, but not sure if I'll have the players.

But he was fun to paint... Orks, and Orcs, are easy!  

Sunday, 22 June 2014

A month of DBA #7 - mighty empires or petty kingdoms

I'm getting a bit carried away here, but as I slowly work my way through the two armies that arrived in a small padded envelope I have the opportunity to think ahead. Painting in 15mm has rekindled my enthusiasm for miniature gaming - and coupled with the fast-play rulesets that I have now had time to read through I can imagine playing very regularly, rather than the very irregularly that had been the case with 6ftx4ft Warhammer Fantasy Battle gaming. The economies of scale, time and well, cash, means that regular gaming is simply a much more realistic proposition for gamers with kids and all the rest of that grown up bumpf.

Nothing worse than a convert, eh? None of the experience that renders one critical, even jaundiced...

Even so, browsing around the Fanaticus site I found an adaptation of Games Workshop's Mighty Empires to DBA rules. Fantastic, cos look what I have sitting in my cupboard:

(Dreadfleet is still in shrinkwrap - that's the power of bad reviews. Most of those copies of Sociology are still in their wrappers - that's the power of e-journals.)

I never played Mighty Empires as a campaign architecture for WFB. I couldn't fathom the amount of time that would require. But Mighty Empires as a system for adding depth to a DBA/HotT campaign? Now that would work, wouldn't it? [That's half a rhetorical question, and half a question looking for an answer - playing electronically, via DBA online is not necessarily a good simulation of the practicalities of playing.]  Depending on the level of aggression, I would imagine that you could easily play out a couple of years of a campaign over an evening. And in an age of digital cameras, taking a record of the arrangement of all the oversized hexes, and the location of the units, settlements and counters is straightforward. Back in the day, if you wanted to pack the game away and continue later you would have needed to laboriously note down the locations on paper, or take a roll of film down to Boots.

So I was thinking of a Mighty Empires DBA 'Petty Kingdoms' game, with armies representing the Welsh/British, the Saxons, the Picts, the Irish, maybe the Vikings and Franks - depending on player interest - all on some fictionalised hex map of the not-quite British Isles. Fictionalised, as I'm thinking that I'd get greater player buy-in if the game it set up to maximise gaming fun, rather than historical accuracy. But once we go fictionalised, couldn't we (shouldn't we) add in some mythical/legendary elements?

And that is the point at which I came across Steven Balagan's excellently prepared DBA/HotT lists for Britain AD600. I'm perfectly willing to stretch the time period by a couple of hundred years to accommodate this only pseudo-historical game. Steven's lists include suggestions for the incorporation of HotT elements - Gods, Heroes, Magicians and Clerics, Behemoths and Beasts, Lurkers and Sneakers, into appropriately themed 'historical' lists. Hopefully that will at least address some of the criticism from D, who complained that historical wargaming wasn't as 'open' as fantasy.

Or, of course, we could just do 15mm HotT 'Warhammer' using Mighty Empires. The Demonworld miniatures from Ral Partha look just about ideal.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

RuneQuest 6 for Free! (and some thoughts on player competency)

RuneQuest 6 is a masterpiece. In my judgement, it is just too much system for the group that I play with, and for our play-style, but I can't help but admire the elegance of the system, the quality of the writing, and the physical book itself – I own the hardcover with slipcase. I also own Monster Island, the Book of Quests, and will no doubt continue to buy RQ6 stuff almost as quickly as the Design Mechanism can churn it out. I am very much looking forward to Mythic Britain.

 RQ6 is too much for our group, I said. BUT…

But RuneQuest Essentials has now been released as a FREE resource. You can get it directly from the Design Mechanism HERE. 200 or so pages containing, well, everything that a player needs to play competently. Perhaps this summer, when D is back in town and we are able to put some time into face-to-face play, we could reconsider RQ6. I still, as always, worry that book-keeping crunch and systems with too many moving parts are enemies of the kind of freedom that I value in roleplaying games, which is why B/X and its derivatives are my go-to games. And it'll have to jostle for position with some other games demanding my attention for our summer game (WFRP1e, Classic Traveller, etc. etc.). BUT...
But I have more to say on the subject of player competency. I tend to shy away from games that require any great degree of system mastery on the part of the players in order for them to play 'well'. It is one of the reasons that I don't like later D&Ds – it appeared to me that understanding the system was essential if a player was to make good choices, from character creation to the 'synergistic' use of feats, powers, and magic. I prefer systems in which the players can make effective choices on the part of their characters without needing any deep understanding of the mechanics that will be used to resolve the actions. Of course, you can’t avoid some system 'intrusion', but the system would ideally be one that a new player could sit down at the table and grok in their first session. D100 games, with their intuitive roll-under mechanism expressed as a percentage, are good for this. At least until you get to magic - and magic is the barrier to ‘player competency’ in almost all fantasy RPGs as it often cannot be understood simply by reference to real life and the [non-mechanical] ‘fiction’. Which is one reason, beyond the aesthetic, why I prefer relatively low-magic games...

Now, magic in RQ6 contains more moving parts than my usual system of choice. But that is a player competency issue I expect and just have to live with. My worry re: player competency in RQ6 is the admittedly beautiful combat system. Will a character with a low score in their Combat Style, but controlled by an experienced player, beat a character with a high score controlled by a novice? Yes, or at least he has a chance. In a D&Dish game a high skill fighter (as defined by level) has the same chance of beating a low skill fighter regardless of the players involved. This might sound like a bad thing, but it is not. It is part of the ‘simulation’ of the world – the player choices with regard to his or her character are not about what type of stroke to make with your sword, or what part of your body the shield will cover. The level 5 fighter knows this, and he knows it better than the level 1 fighter - and this competency is abstracted into the mechanics of D&D combat. The choices that a player makes are about when to engage in combat, on what terms, in what circumstances, etc. The larger-scale decisions, the strategic decisions, are the province of the players, and these can be made in the context of the game world, requiring little system mastery.

But the more granular the decision making is, the more it will expose the mechanics, and thus it will require greater system mastery in order to play 'well'. In RQ6 the experienced player will have a better understanding of which Special Effects to apply in which circumstances. he or she will understand how these Special Effects interact with Resistance Skills and the Combat Action cycle/economy. For a skill-based game - which traditionally default to the character sheet to deal with the question of player/character competency - this creates a curious ‘break’ in the conceptualisation of player skill. So you don't need to actually be a great diplomat, as you have Oratory and Influence Skills of over 100%. Sure, you might need to know when to apply these skills, but those decisions are taken at the strategic level, and the level of system mastery required is little more than; "oh, my character is a master orator, so I'll get up on the steps of the forum and try to incite the crowd with tales of the debauchery of the noble classes", i.e. playing well comes down to engaging with the game world, not engaging with the system.  

All that said, despite my worry that the granularity of the system is such that player decisions are being taken at the ‘wrong’ level, the combat system is a fantastic game in its own right, and the Special Effect system produces some lovely, easy to narrate battles. And it is FREE, so cheap at twice the price!