Wednesday, August 31, 2005


Tony came round again yesterday. I was far too tired to be my usual sparkling self, but we managed to get some more work done on our idea for a new superhero campaign. This one's been simmering away now for a long time, and today we finally started putting some flesh on the bones of our existing concepts.

We didn't get a huge amount done. It was, however, more than enough for the pair of us to realise that the characters behind this new campaign we're working up are surely going to need investors, if not actual partners. This thing is bigger than both of them!

Another thing we got out of the way was a small tweak to Alane. Tony finally got his head around Alane's background a couple of weeks ago, writing up her background on the spot. It eventually struck me sometime Sunday night that an elf brought up from birth in Altdorf would have no common knowledge of her native culture. So Alane's CK: Elves became CK: the Empire.

I did also think about Alane not being able to speak Eltharin, but ruled against this idea. First off, Alane's knowledge of Eltharin had already been a crucial element of a key encounter during 'Through the Drakwald'. And anyway, an elf who is a stranger to her own kind is one thing, but an elf who can't even speak to her own kind? That's just plain dull.

My little Old World: Grundi Smites Again #1

"You're in"
Greimold feared his last moment was upon him when his door burst open amid a clamour of Khazalid curses. The attack he dreaded did not come.

These... adventurers?! Running around with a warrant from Schutzman deputising them to the Middenheim City Watch, to pursue an 'investigation' into Morten's murder? What could the man be thinking of?

By the time Greimold had let them shout themselves down and tell their story, the priest wished the dreaded attack had come after all. Motley and battleworn- well... freaks, frankly- they might've been, but proof of their words was all too horrifyingly easy to come by. The least he could do was make them comfortable while he arranged to accompany them when they reported to Schutzmann soon thereafter.

And so it was that the party returned to make their first report to Captain Ulrich Schutzmann, Midden Marshal of the Middenguard City Watch conveyed by Gunter Greimold, Anointed Priest of Sigmar at the Temple of Middenheim, in the #1 spangly coach-and-pair newly at his personal disposal. Intent on the case's prospect of righteous carnage as they were, I think the PC's barely noticed how much they'd just come up in the world.

Bertholdt certainly felt a lot better in the hands of a competent healer with magic to boot that's for sure.

Schutzmann was inevitably busy when the lowly PC's arrived to report, so they waited with Greimold. Some interaction ensued. They were joined by a famililar face from the Untergard refugee party, one Otwin Beshlager (AoM, p.93) whose backstory slotted him in perfectly. Recovered from his wounds, he'd volunteered for the militia, ended up filling the vacancy for Sergeant of the Watch in Schutzmann's command. Plainly barmy, not much of a conversationalist in the continuing wait IIRC.

Eventually Schutzmann arrives, and the PC's are questioned. Lots of talking in and out of character. Schutzmann testifies with battle scars picked up fighting Skaven during Archeon's siege and even Siegfried- the last holdout- has to agree: Skaven do exist, and they surely murdered Father Morten.

The scent of blood fills PC's nostrils again: they naturally want to hunt these vermin down and kill them. Schutzmann and Greimold are gratified. But first, they insist, the PC's must swear a holy oath not to reveal the horrors they witness, nor to spread loose talk to panic the unwary in this time of ranters, madmen and miracle-hunters. The PC's agree. Alane, Bertholdt, Mordrin and Siegfried all swear an appropriate vow. Grundi just effs and blinds about how much he wants to kill the feckin' Skaven.

Hmm, thinks Schutzmann, a slayer in the making? That's fine he announces. You're in.

Grundi Smites Again
- #2 Bitter dregs of Ulric's Fury!
- On the perils of 'splitting the party'?
- Index:- My little Old World: Ashes of Middenheim

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A rash of enthusiasm...

... for Up Front

Readers who know me might be surprised that I haven't already filled page after page about this great game (or about, y'know... No, no, he's another story).

Up Front (UF), designed by Courtney Allen and published by Avalon Hill in its pre-Hasbro days back in 1983 is, in my opinion, the greatest wargame since chess. Such (possible?) hyperbole aside, it is certainly my desert-island game of choice. With the possible exception of backgammon it is the single game I have played more than any other, ever.

So having announced my fondess for UF in such grandiloquent terms, how can I explain what it is about this game that makes it the WW2 tacsim which comes closest to giving me the same buzz that I get from a good roleplaying session with a favourite PC in the hands of a class GM?

I think I can make a stab at a start by summing up its appeal as:
  1. Sheer playability
  2. Superb authenticity
  3. Groundbreaking design conception
Sheer playability
Well I've already said that this is the most played game ever in my adventure games collection; which amounts to some thousand and more games, most of them over a period of 5/6 years' intensive play right after I'd got it.

This is the game that, back in the days when none of us had day-jobs to worry about, we would literally play for 24 hours or more at a stretch. And that's a gang of us playing winner-stays-on round robin with a single set. Just how many boardgames can you think of that are so compelling that more than half of a group of hardcore gamers there assembled would be willing to sit out all that time just for their game? (Not unlike playing pool in a pub.)

UF is also the only boardgame that's ever reduced me to a heap of hysterical laughter rolling on the floor due to the sheer madness of the play.

More objectively, UF is a game that a smart player can learn in less than half an hour with the help of a good teacher; which you can play in 45-90 minutes once you've mastered the rules- allowing several games in a reasonable evening's gaming. UF was also the first game that gave us what we came to call the 'arcade game' effect - that irresistable desire to have another go because you just know you can do it next time.

You don't have to be a grognard - let alone a WW2 buff - to enjoy UF; you just have to enjoy a supreme tactical challenge and the experience of increasing mastery of a vivid recreation of the problems of squad-level combat in WW2.

Superb authenticity
Sheer damn good fun aside, the authenticity of UF as a simulation of its chosen subject is the single issue that most strongly divides its fans from its detractors (and the latter most certainly outnumber the former I'd have to admit I guess). It's the cardplay that is the kicker here, with the opinions of the nay-sayers most often summed-up under terms like 'floating terrain'.

This arises because everything that happens in a game of UF is driven by an action deck. That's not just doing the obvious things like issing orders, eg. movement, firing and rallying; nor even the use of card-draw action resolution; but also determining the very shape of the battlefield itself, eg. that building out there you're looking for?- well you don't know where it is until you draw a building card from the action deck; and you can't get there without a movement card.

The M:tG generation might find this unexceptional, but I can assure you that those aging fans of hexmaps, CRT's, ZoC's of the 70's school of SPI, GDW, and so on, well a lot of them just didn't get it, so that UF has basically taken on geek cult status amongst grognards. All the same it remains my contention that precisely what UF lacks - ie. the omniscient overview and the omnipotentence of the turn-by-turn counter pushing; well, this is what gives the game its unique feel for that old chestnut of wargames design - the fog of war.

In UF, you know your enemy - your opponent's squad; and you know your mission - the victory conditions; otherwise, well you can have a pretty good idea of what's out there, but you're not sure where it is, how long it'll take you to get there, nor even how well-prepared the enemy will be in the face of your plan. And even if you do figure that out, you can't be sure how well your men will perform, if their morale will hold, or if there'll be enough of them left once you've closed with the enemy for you to be able to achieve your objective.

On top of this psychology provided by the action deck, UF also enjoys some neat games mechanics demonstrating a painstaking study of its subject. The best features of the mechanics aside from the cardplay are the morale and shooting rules.

Morale is handled by the by now familiar 2-state: good order and pinned. Pinned men can't move or fire, which hampers and slows down the rest of their group (fireteam).

Firepower works as volume fire against morale instead of individual direct fire conducted man-to-man, which was the typical mechanic back in UF's day. Basic infantry weapons are richly rendered, with simple rules reflecting the differences between rifles, SMG, and MG's, and between, say, the bolt-action, semi-automatic and fully automatic versions of the former. Actual fire attacks are executed via action card draws, with some simple and neat mechanics which work out to give an excellent feel for the effects of cover, and for the difference between sporadic fire that keeps your men's heads down, and sustained bursts that gun them down in droves.

Around this core of fire and movement are many other neat rules: infiltration and close combat; weapons malfunctions and repairs; special weapons, eg. the dreaded flamethrower; pillboxes, minefields, ordnance, and tanks.

The tank rules are really nice, smoothly presenting them in a form appropriate to their power at this level of combat, which includes their vulnerablities too naturally enough. Even something as complex as the difference between solid and shaped-charge AT munitions is presented with rules so subtle that you might not even notice what's going on.

All in all then, I would be very surprised if someone could present a sustainable case that UF is a poor simulation of its chosen subject, even if the game was to remain not to their taste.

Groundbreaking design conception
The use of cardplay to control and to resolve actions wasn't pioneered by UF. Avalon Hill's Gunslinger is but one example of a game that uses cards for both these purposes. What marks UF out from the other examples with which I am familiar is the integration of these functions into a single deck (Gunslinger gives each player their own - fixed - set of action cards, and uses a separate resolution deck). More than that too is the integration of the battlefield itself into the very same deck (Gunslinger uses the familar board and counters).

It is this integration of space and time on the battlefield into a seamless whole via the medium of the action deck that was unique to UF. The overall effect was to give the game a definite viewpoint analagous to that of a PC in an rpg. I mean, tabletop military simulation games had hitherto presented a viewpoint that was, by and large, totally unreal: that of the top-down map view.

This is something that was just about credible in the days of Napoleon and hilltop generalship on the field of battle. Even then the lie of the land would typically give the lie to this perspective. In the 20th century this viewpoint basically could and did not exist. What UF confronted then was a deeply rooted trend in simulationist gaming where the players' viewpoints in practice represented some nebulous notion of the staff and the command structure, not the generals themselves as so fondly imagined by grognards everywhere.

In UF, the players represent the platoon commanders (they have to: if they were actually on the table, then their death would be an immediate defeat, surely?), located somewhere just off the table. The effect of the cards is to distill into an easy playable form the way in which they would receive information and give orders about a situation they basically cannot see, and over which they have limited control.

It has to be said that Allen himself wasn't completely responsible for the design innovations that he was using here. The simple fact that UF was billed as the "Squad Leader card game" tells us that he owed a debt to John Hill's trailblazing work on the idea of modelling the effects of a given thing (or set of things if those things all have the same overall effect) instead of modelling each particular way in which that effect is delivered. I happen to believe that Hill's work also influenced George MacDonald and Steve Peterson - whose similarly groundbreaking rpg Champions used the same approach to the modelling of comicbook superpowers.

I also happen to believe that this posited parallel influence is more than merely fortuitous. What I mean here is that what underpins the levels of abstraction that make the UF action deck such a joyous gaming engine is exactly the principle Allen developed from Hill's work, ie. model effect and not mechanism.

In this case though Allen went further than just reducing the effects of a variety of different weapons to a single unified mechanic, as had Hill. In UF, Allen went on to model the 'effect' of the squad level action on the platoon leader existing in a location separate from the action the game actually plays out, and vice versa. In other words the uncertainties of the action deck are a mechanism to model the effects of the distance between leader and led, with the resultant communications lag and general lack of specific information.

What made this so exciting at the time was the sense that this was a design concern - that of adequately modelling a single and definite viewpoint - which we were all convinced was a direct product of the advent, in the preceding decade, of the rpg.

And that's it:- Up Front: great game; fine simulation; and tacsim schwerpunkt of the post-D&D history of adventure gaming.

"Take fire 10!"

- A rash of enthusiasm for Memoir'44, Part 1: Another hymn of praise to cardplay

Monday, August 29, 2005

My little Old World: clearing the cludge

And so it continues: less GM's crunch for the sake of Andy's 4th wall; more story! Well I worked bloody hard getting this session ready, and harder even keeping it rolling, so I'm a bit reluctant to write a narrative that makes the PC's the sole heroes of the day. The GM's gloats must be heard!

I guess I would have to start with my satisfaction at the way my cast of characters just sprang to life. I've run the party through 'Pretty Things', 'A Rough Night at the Leaping Frog', 'Through the Drakwald'- 6 sessions; and 2 days in the 'Ashes of Middenheim- 2 sessions. The game has become a murder mystery with no comb... no: no real combat [eh! ;)] since they hit the big city. The pace is really hotting up, as witness the way the passage of time has become very much more compressed.

The basic play aids provided by the GM's pack has made this easy: with some photocopying and a bit of paperwork, I have all the NPC's, goonsquads and other assorted riff-raff written up on the NPC and combat record sheets, so that they can be called on at a moment's notice- that's outlaws, greenskins, wolves, and mutants to consider just those found in the GM's pack. The cast of pre-generated NPC's from those past scenarios must run to a couple of dozen at least, and I've barely scratched the surface of those yet.

All of this effort brought us to last-week's cliffhanger, in which a hardened and somewhat ruthless party of adventures better known for the inter-species spectacle they present than for their exploits charged into the chamber of Father Greimold, Priest of Sigmar.

Thrust unexpectedly into the Middenheim Anointment succession by the untimely death of old Morten, Greimold is only the 2nd NPC I've had to create from scratch, and the first was just the inevitable trial run. Doing the whole dice thing, working out his career path, and toting up those advances was time consuming, but it proved well worthwhile- giving me an NPC whose real depth added a whole new dimension to the already rich material hiding behind the deceptively simple plot of the opening of AoM.

One thing I can say with confidence about the new careers system is that it in no way constrains the richness of WFRP. It strikes me that a lot of talk about this ignores the first great merit of the WFRP careers system- that is, the very first thing your first ever game gives that you never forget: how amazingly quickly and easily you got great characters who just leapt up at you demanding to be played; whose sheer diversity moreover focussed everyone's attention perfectly on exploring the Old World, if only to find out why such misbegotten wretches, maniacs, shill merchants, thugs and well-heeled riff-raff, or what have you, would've spent more than 5 minutes in each others' company in the first place!

Just as with every other revision for the new edition, the careers system in WFRP2 does everything 1st ed. did and does it better, faster, and more systematically. Not only has WFRP2 already leapt up the ranks of most successful GW 2nd editions of all time, but the big crunch of the Storm of Chaos is just such a great backdrop against which to play the revival of this classic rpg.

And the support looks a lot better to me than it seems to to quite a lot of other people. The thing about these new releases is that they are not being produced for the sake of the old fans, but to succeed among a whole new generation of roleplayers, who approach this geek we do from across the gulf of the roleplaying wasteland of the 90's. It has to be said that from this point of view, the WFRP line looks very good.

The books are accessible by virtue of good writing; of not being weighty tomes; of having well laid out contents, and enjoy working indexes. They are well-designed playaids too. I mean, after 8 weeks of play, I still have AoM, most of PV and the imminent Spires of Altdorf at my disposal; all the monstrous diversions a rich bestiary can provide; not to mention all the hooks I can dig out from past sessions and the PC's backstories...

And the beauty of this? It's all pregenerated (well, OK, not the PC's relatives, though those could be found pregenerated if you wanted). All those NPC's and goons plus all of the monsters: with a bit of paperwork all there to be used straight out of the books- which look like they can easily just keep on coming; and a new 3-volume megascenario rolling out? This is epic fantasy roleplaying the way WFRP does best. ;)

Prologue: Getting to Middenheim
- A Rash of Enthusiasm...: the colour of Magic!
- Blogging my WFRP campaign: introducing the party.
- My little Old World: at the gates of Middenheim.
- My little Old World: mission accomplished?
- Index:- My little Old World: Ashes of Middenheim

My little Old World: The PC's

Here is the party that has stuck together since the Strutting Cock.

1. Tony
Alane: elven witch born under the Witchling Star and with the unusual background of having been brought up in Altdorf by a human wizard who couldn't save the mother from her horrible fate. A bit nutso with the winds of magic already. A 1 FP PC.

2. Andy
Bertholdt: puny mincing scribe from yokel-land with an untranslated dwarven chapbook and a taste for not suffering from old injuries so much of the time. Gotten close to too many FP for comfort.

3. Donald
Mordrin: dwarven runerunner with a shady family, a taste for the pipe, and a much cooler temperament than he first gave reason to expect.

4. Antony
Grundi: aging coachman whose life changed forever the day he first smote with Ulric's Fury and clove a mutant near in two. Mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Also owns a blunderbuss. Another 1 FP PC.

5. Brian
Siegfried: murdering lowlife trash with pretentions to the petty nobility. Has a heart of gold though, big girl's blouse that he is. The 'Greased Goat'. Lost the first FP.

Some of the highpoints of the previous games include:
1. That "party of adventurers?!" spending the first Geheimnisnacht since the Storm of Chaos passed camped out in the wild near Sylvania, surrounded by outlaws, greenskins, wolfs, and who knows what else?
2. Bertholdt missing his birthday during a troubled night of bloody multiple murder at the Leaping Frog.
3. The magic system.
4. Fortune points.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

On reflection...

Here's another one I prepared earlier since today is the WFRP game (and some Flashing Blades too perhaps; we'll see eh?).

A train-journey back west yesterday gave me time to read HERO:GC more thoroughly, so I just thought I'd put up some remarks beyond first impressions.

Where to start, where to start? Seriously: I have comments to make about several aspects of this book, and faced with the choice between knitting the different ideas together into a coherent exposition, or ravelling them up into an even greater fankle, I find myself wondering which thread to lay down first.

At the beginning then. For all my gripes (does HERO have more gripes/GM than other rpg's I wonder?), HERO remains one of my favourite rpgs, and without doubt still the best rpg system out there. When all is said and done, this game has never looked better than it does in this edition. I have more HERO5 product on my gaming shelves than any other rpg; more, in fact, than any game ever except 40K (that's 15 books at 27cm wide btw).

Galactic Champions is definitely one of the more disappointing HERO5 supplements I have bought. What are my reasons for this? I think in essence they are twofold:
1. As much as I like superheroing in HERO, I'm not at all sure that I think that HERO is the best system for playing cosmic level games.
2. I'm not a great fan of HERO background material- the Champions 3000 universe in this case.
I'll take each in turn.

Cosmic-powered HEROes?
The underlying coherence of the HERO system means that one thing that cannot be said is that cosmic power levels break the system per se. No, my criticism is not directed there. Ironically enough it is directed at one of my favourite features of the 1d6/5pts core of the mechanics- big handfuls of dice. I have long been a fan of the idea that big dice pools are a good way of giving players a feel for high powered characters.

I mean, faced with a choice, and all things being equal, I'd always rather roll to hit then roll 14d6 for a martial strike, than roll 1d20 to resolve everything in one handy dice roll. I like that particular crunch. The problem with cosmic powered HEROes is, well consider Bulletproof, from the Champions 3000 team (HERO:GC, pp.47-50). With 70rPD/ED, this guy can soak 20 average Nd6 (23 SE Nd6). So we're talking about 30d6 before your attacks can start troubling this guy.

This makes perfect sense at the power level in question, but well: I know for sure that I'd always rather roll a 30d6 megapool for CC in 40K than for effect in HERO, especially GM'ing. This is a simple matter of how the different piles of dice generate results. This dicepool overload leads to, IMO, one of the poorer design decisions in the crunchy part of HERO:GC- Firedancer (op. cit, pp.52-54), an energy projector with 6 (count them- 6!) RKA (2-6d6), a 2d6KA damage shield, no normal attacks at all and... a 15pt (common, strong) CVK. WTF?!

OK, OK. It has to be said that this howler aside, Firedancer is a fine example of rpg superhero design that showcases nicely the strengths of HERO, those same old virtues of the days of yore. I could go on about this CVK thing with all the invective at my disposal, but it all boils down to this: as GM, I doubt I would consider ever letting a PC with nothing but KA take any CVK at all. It's just plain dumb, because the 'exceptional circumstances' which such a player would've had to plead to try to get this by me would inevitably have a habit of turning up all the damn time, or I wouldn't be doing my job properly as GM.

Looking at Firedancer as an NPC then, I have to conclude that all her KA are there to make life easier for the GM, by shrinking her dice pool, and also perhaps to make her, well, a bit more, erm... frightening? I mean, at this level, PC's expect to soak 20-30 normal BOD on a bad day, so that KA keep them honest, so to speak.

What I am describing here is a situation in which the system's logic is fine, but the dice required to exercise it in practice just get silly, so silly that, well, Firedancer has a CVK... No, to be more precise: a 4-colour cosmic energy projector with CVK (a perfectly reasonable character conception) is designed with a suite of RKA because this is:
1. easier for the GM to manage in play
2. a more genuine challenge to the PC's according to the system's logic in any case.
Cosmically powered superheroics, in other words, would seem to pose serious challenges to HERO's longstanding and justly maintained claim to be the genre simulation non pareil on its home turf- the comicbook superhero genre.

The Champions Universe
This is a place I've never 'been'. I joined an existing, and ongoing superhero universe when I first took to Champions, and as GM have always most liked the game because it gave me the system with which I could most thoroughly design my own universes. So what I know of the Champions universe I am essentially learning from HERO5.

And it seems a perfectly good universe to me. It has all the classic elements I've enjoyed adventuring in in other GM's universes, or designing into my own. It shows all the signs of being lovingly developed through years of actual play, as opposed, that is, to being sucked out of someone's thumb for the sake of another new setting.

Now at this point I could get all litcrit on Darren Watt's ass, but that would be to mis-state my point entirely. Meantime, any readers who are able could do worse than test what I'm on about by comparing the colour text in WFRP2:OWB and HERO5:HSB. The WFRP stuff strikes me as being better written frankly. More importantly though, its structure and layout make it, well, much more vivid and accessible, therefore a better bestiary, score it how you will.

Forget systems snobbery here: you can strip out all the mechanics crunch from the 2 bestiaries not to mention any lingering nonsense about generic versus particular in terms of setting, all of that conceptual nonsense. Grammer, clarity of exposition, lah-de-bloody dah, all of that can be ignored, all the commonplaces of effective technical exposition, etc, etc. At the end of the day, the Old World Bestiary snaps, crackles, pops, rocks and freakin' rolls; the HERO System Bestiary?- HERO's best yet for sure, but colour... honestly?- a good chunterin' fizz.

With which I certainly intend monstrously to smack my PC's just asap mark you! ;)

Saturday, August 27, 2005

A sensible decision

I've taken to hanging out on the BI forums since I started GM'ing WFRP, and by and large I've found it to be an enjoyable and helpful place. It's been hell getting into them for a couple of weeks though, with server timeouts stopping access perhaps as much as 50% of time. Not good.

So, it is with some satisfaction that I tried to visit the forums yesterday only to find the following message:

Due to the problems our forum has been experiencing of late, caused by sheer level of traffic, we are temporarily disabling it.

We will be investigating either fixing the system or installing a newer more reliable system.

Please accept our apologies for the break in service and we thankyou for your patience.

The Black Industries Team

Good choice lads. Far better IMO to irk us for a wee while as we wait for a more servicable forum, than irritate us constantly with a forum we can't get to regularly. And given the great success of WFRP2, this is a problem we would all have 'hoped' would get worse. Just in case anyone associated with the decision-making process at play here might be reading this (if only, eh?!), I would recommend 2 formats both of which I have found to be ideal for games-related efora:

1. Invision Power Board
- as used by the Bolter and Chainsword.

2. vBulletin
- as used by HERO.

If someone at BI to whom this information might be useful is reading this, then you probably don't need me to tell you this anyway! Just thought I'd put it up anyhoo, because those are my favourite bulletin board formats at the moment in any case.


Well, like I said, I spent the afternoon in Dundee having a pleasant time just hanging around.

Various minor chores notwithstanding, as ever my first port of call was the local GW. This has become something of a ritual of mine in recent years- visiting the GW store wherever go, just to see what the locals are up to, and maybe to have an excuse to shell out some mullah on yet more product from the good old money-suckers.

Today’s visit started off pleasantly enough, espying as I did on my entry a familiar face from the Glasgow store. We said hello and, as I was informed of the various staff reshuffles of late, I found myself thinking that I was listening to the ‘last week’ prologue of an over-the-top soap. I even got a laugh as I aired this notion, which was gratifying.

I lashed out on the new White Dwarf, and a copy of Darkness Rising: A complete history of the Storm of Chaos. This last product is truly amazing, the sort of thing that serves to confirm the wisdom of my long-standing faith in the essential merits of GW as a games company. I will say no more just now because I intend to prepare a proper review just as soon as I can.

My next port of call thereafter was the pub next door (coffee and orange juice I can assure you!), where I began to digest my purchases, and where I began to form the already intimated high opinion of DR. This place is called The Old Horseshoe Inn, and what a place it is! What I mean to say is that it could be a set from the Old World, from Dumas’ France, or from anywhere similar. Not only does it have a balcony level around the walls, but it even has a chandelier from which you could swing during the brawl that any GM would inevitably want to stage in such a place should he introduce a group of PC’s to it as regulars. Maybe I’ll go back sometime with a camera and take pictures.

From the Old Horseshoe I headed up to Highlander Games (98 Annfield Place). I’d been there once before, and was looking forward to another visit.

Highlander Games is what you might call a FLGS from the ‘old school’: small enough to be cramped, especially when you consider the 2 gaming tables set out in the middle of the narrow floor space. At the same time though, it carries a stock of games of all kinds which, while small in keeping with the size of the shop itself, is sufficiently wide to ensure that there will be something there to satisfy all but the most esoteric of gaming tastes.

I reintroduced myself to Gary, the proprietor, and we had a nice chat. Still buzzing from his recent trip to GenCon, Gary proved to be a fund of interesting information. I would think that, if he proves to be as good a businessman as he is obviously a passionate gamer, then the future of the gaming community in this particular neck of the Scottish woods is bright indeed.

Of course, I spent some money, getting hold of a copy of the HERO supplement Galactic Champions, by Darren Watts. Exactly as I said about HERO:UM, this is a systematic and detailed treatment of its subject- in this case, hi-powered cosmic superheroes. Although a much shorter book (a ‘mere’ 150 pages), this book strikes me as being immediately more useful to a HERO superhero GM. Why? Simply because it at least has some pre-generated heroes and villains. OK, so these are all in the range that makes them hi-powered or invincible in the face of the average HERO superhero, but then that’s the power-level that this book is about.

In the same curate’s egg are the illustrations. As ever with HERO, an unkind reviewer could call these ‘workmanlike’. Me, I think that a lot of them suffer from the same overly generic nature that made me feel unhappy with HERO:UM. At the same time, there are many images in this book that any GM could find inspirational for individual characters, or as prototypes for xeno-species. Good material in other words.

All of which brings me to my major gripe about this product, one which is true of pretty much any HERO product I have ever seen, namely the presentation of characters, and other systems material. What you get with HERO:GC is a set of characters presented as a bastard fusion of design and playing information; points values and playing information in the same specs sheets in other words. I don’t like this.

HERO being the kind of system that it is, I have long believed that material of this kind should be presented in 2 distinct formats:
1. Points-crunching design specs to reveal the inner workings of the objects presented
2. GM-friendly playsheets presenting the ‘delivery end’ of the same objects in a format appropriate to easy reference in the heat of play.
It is my opinion that, by presenting a hybrid of these 2 formats, HERO books, as they are currently designed, give us the worst of both worlds. That is to say: the design specs are less than fully detailed, while the numbers needed for play are less than adequately accessible.

Still, as ever with HERO product, HERO:GC is a superior treatise on its subject the perusal of which should be of value to players of any game embracing this topic.

More than just giving me this product at a small discount, Gary also gave me a freebie: Anachronism: The Greatest Game in History, a sample of a new game he’d picked up at GenCon. Published by TriKing, and sponsored by the History Channel(!), this is a game of man-to-man combat between heroic characters from real history- Myamoto Musashi and Beowulf in the sample Gary gave me.

At first glance, this game combines the best elements of cardplay mechanics introduced by CCG’s, without the burden of the marketing device (I must here note that, any merits of the particular games aside, I regard the collectible marketing device as the single biggest scourge on the gaming industry today; but that‘s just my opinion). Basically you buy ‘warrior packs’, each containing a warrior card and 4 support cards. Buy more packs, and you have more support cards with which to customise your warriors. The big ‘but’ is that these packs are not random.

Anyhoo, without trying it out a few times, there is really nothing more that I can say about this game other than that the cards are very nice (“best elements of card play”), and that this game really ought to be a nice little tactical nugget to fill in the odd gap in between other games, if not becoming a serious challenge in its own right.

So, my second visit to Highlander Games proved to be very enjoyable. I hope to be able to report on an actual game played there sometime soon. In the meantime, if you are in the area, pop in and say hello. You should find yourself made welcome.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Sweet freakin' jebus!

I'm spending a couple of days visiting my folks in Arbroath on the east coast. I've taken today as a day out in Dundee, where I grew up. I left this city over 20 years ago, and I have to say that I'm satisfied that I don't live here anymore. I could've said 'glad', but that would've been to overstate the case. In any event, there is now and always has been a certain pleasure in returning to the haunts of my childhood and youth, and seeing how they've changed. This is all the more so since the changes that present themselves to me all seem for the better.

As if that nostalgia rush wasn't enough, this post also marks... well, the culmination of a notion that has haunted me since I first read Gibson's cyberpunk classics in the early/mid 80's.

I mean, your (not so) humble scribe sits here in front of a computer in Debenham's ecafe in the old Overgait centre in Dundee (the oldest mall of my acquaintance; one that has, btw, been reinvented in recent years into a space which I dream of hiring for a HAF (Huge As F***) party, or similar event).

OK, so I'm not reporting in from some exotic location of the sort that might feature in a novel, TV series, or movie. But I am now a roving correspondent for RD/KA! in a way that finally begins to realise the dreams opened up by Gibson and his associates during the cyberpunk revolution that reinvented SF in the mid 80's. All that's missing is neural jacking and VR interfaces.

This is exciting stuff.

Meanwhile, naturally enough, I have spent my afternoon visiting the local gaming emporia, renewing acquaintances, spending money on neat stuff, and enjoying a good liquid gloat.

But more of that anon when I'm not paying 50p/10mins for my cyberspace access. Meanwhile: hoo hah, but doesn't this ICT s**t just rock!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

WFRP rocks- it’s official!

Congratulations are due to Black Library and Green Ronin for the great success enjoyed by WFRP2 in the ENnie awards at GenCon this year.

Winning Best Production Values and Best Game for WFRP2, and Best Adversary/Monster Product for the OWB, Black Industries scooped gold in all 3 categories in which it was nominated. This strikes me as pretty good going for a game in its first year of publication. Chris Pramas, T.S. Luikart, and Ian Sturrock in particular must be feeling pretty pleased with themselves, and rightly so. Their writing impressed me immediately I delved into their winning works and, given the fun WFRP2 has given me already, well, I’m pleased for them.

I can think of one person who might just be feeling a little bit peeved though, and that’s Ryan Dancey. Regular readers might remember my remarks re. the hysteria occasioned by his review of WFRP2. In a comment I posted elsewhere at the time, I said of the WFRP2 review:
“I thought that the review was fair, balanced and favourable. It was opinionated to be sure- perhaps even ignorant in places; but the reviewer stated and argued his opinions while at the same time giving the product a 4/5 points favourable review."
I don’t impute this peevishness because of anything Mr. Dancey said about WFRP2, and the fact that it won the big prize. No, I say this because of the review he also posted about the OWB.

It turns out that this review of the OWB- a book about which I wrote my own first impressions here was where Mr. Dancey’s opinionated and ignorant chickens came home to roost.

Here are some choice quotes from the review.
“If you are looking for more "flavor" material to help you understand the Warhammer Fantasy world, then the first half of this book will be helpful. If you can figure out for yourself why demons, orcs, skaven, dragons, ogres, and vampires are evil and should be killed & looted, you may wonder what you're supposed to do with 65 pages of average or below-average quality, stream of conscious, intentionally error-riddled fiction.”
The chickens are heading home already. Mr. Dancey is entitled not to share my high opinion of the great value of all this material to a WFRP GM. Even so: what are people going to be buying the OWB for if it’s not more "flavor" material to help you understand the Warhammer Fantasy world? Is someone really likely to buy the OWB to convert its contents for another system, d20 say?
“The Warhammer World is a very classic fantasy property. Once the Games Workshop content is excluded … the other monsters are primarily based on common European myths and legends… The reader may find this completely appropriate given the roots of the Old World setting, or boring repetition of materials already covered by a hundred other products, depending on the reader's perspective.”
Erm, are we here being told that a new edition of a venerable and much-loved frpg (or any other game for that matter, eg. a modern period rpg with the inevitable weapons lists already covered by a hundred other products) isn’t allowed to present familiar material in terms of its own rules? Surely not? (The chickens are airborne btw.)
“There are, unfortunately, a number of things missing from this book that would have improved it substantially.. .That material would be:
1. Treasure tables and guidelines for determining what can be looted from the bodies and lairs of the monsters 2. Information on organizational structures and warbands larger than individual creatures
3. "How to make a monster" rules to allow GMs to either create new critters or easily import monsters from other sources (i.e. D20)
4. Monsterous magic items”
The chickens have landed! Look, it’s one thing to review a new core rpg product in a way that says to players of other games (the main game in town in this case) that here is a game they might find useful (gamers being the inveterate systems tinkerers that we are), or that you might even want to play.

It’s another thing entirely to review a supporting product for that same system entirely from the standpoint of whether it repeats material already extant in the games those people are already playing (ie. D&D/d20); whether it is written to conform to the way those games are played; or whether it facilitates conversion to those games. Clearly, from that perspective- ie. as a d20 sourcebook (as opposed that is, to a key part of a WFRP2 GM's library)- the WFRP2 OWB deserved the measly 2 stars awarded it by Mr. Dancey. Thank goodness then for the WFRP players who thought it deserved 5 stars and more.

Of course, Mr. Dancey might well share the satisfaction of many gamers at the Gold award given to OWB. But if he gave more than 2 stars to any other product eligible in that particular category, then I think dissatisfaction with the result can fairly be asserted, even if the suggestion of peevishness is an imputation too far.

Finally, I’d just like to add my own note of congratulations to the guys at HERO for Villainy Amok’s silver in the Best Adventure category. Well done all concerned.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Four-colour friends

Paid a visit to my local Forbidden Planet today (Old Fart Aside (OFA): I can remember when ‘Forbidden Planet International’ was just the small SF bookshop near the university in Edinburgh). Anyhoo, I visited my local branch to catch up with my order and to pick up a TPB. The money I spent would’ve paid for a decent-sized rpg hardback, which, let’s face it, is really quite steep for an afternoon’s reading. But what the heck, I just love comics.

I mean, I really love them. There was a time back in the 80’s when, for one reason or another, I found myself reading fewer books than I was used to, something which made me start to feel stupid. Fortunately for me this period coincided with the glory days of the early 80’s comics renaissance, when a swathe of new writers and publishers finally brought Anglophone comics up to speed with their continental counterparts, as a medium adults didn’t have to be embarrassed about enjoying.

These comics saved my intelligence. Seriously. Well, OK, there might just be a dash of hyperbole there, but it is certainly true that witnessing a medium familiar from my childhood rising to new heights was a thrilling and enriching experience. I discovered new ways of telling stories not to mention new kinds of stories, and learned about form, motion, and colour; lessons which have stood me in good stead as a gamer in a variety of ways.

I dropped out of comics reading in the late 80’s, and I no longer have the collection I amassed in those glory days. In the past few years though, I have returned to this medium I love so much. I don’t want this piece to turn into an analysis of the medium itself, or a treatise on the state up the industry, so without further ado, here are the highlights of today's pickup.

The Legend of Grimjack, Vol.2
Quite by accident I recently discovered that this 80’s classic from the First Comics stable has been revived by IDW and that they were also republishing the original stories in TPB format. Volume 1 reprinted the backup shorts that featured in Starslayer. Volume 2 presents issues 1-7 of Grimjack itself.

What a delight this stuff is! When I first read Grimjack I knew next to nothing about the hardboiled detective genre that was one of writer John Ostrander’s big inspirations for this character (heck, I probably hadn‘t even read Chandler at that point!). This didn’t stop me enjoying this great comic, over and over again. Returning to it many years later, I am much more aware of where Ostrander got a lot of his moves. This hasn’t stopped me enjoying these stories all over again.

Ostrander’s stories are as gutsy and gritty as ever. The dialogue is still snappy and smart. The characters are still as quirky and engaging as before. Timothy Truman’s early artwork is as lush as ever, bringing Grimjack’s Cynosure to life with feeling and a wealth of detail. Everything is as fresh as ever, even the jokes, which can still make you laugh out loud. In a world of limited edition chocolate bars and ice-cream (WTF?!); where what topped yesterday’s contrived list is tomorrow’s classic; this is the real McCoy, and well worth the price of admission.

The Authority: Revolution, ##10-11
Warren Ellis is one of the biggest names in comics to come out of Britain since Alan Moore, and justly so. The Authority by DC-Wildstorm is one of his best-known and most controversial series, featuring a bunch of very hi-powered anarchist superheroes who decide that it’s not enough to save humanity from alien menaces, God, and so on; they set out to save humanity from itself, or its leaders, to be more precise. Personally I love this kind of stuff, but it has been known to induce hysterical ravings in those of a certain cast of mind (literally frothing I suspect, but that doesn’t come across on the internet).

It is fair to say that the series has had a chequered history since Ellis left the helm, but that’s not unusual in comics. And it certainly doesn’t help that the essential premise tends to undermine the nature of a continuing series: basically the most powerful beings on earth will either win, and that’s that, or lose, and ditto. Still, many of the problems inherent in this, not to mention those aspects of the series that have most offended some of its most vocal critics, are exactly what this 12-part sequence has been all about.

I’m not going to recapitulate the previous 9 issues, nor even go into detail about these 2 either. But sufficeth to say that the Authority have had to face up to the consequences of their actions; an old villain has reappeared; and familiar characters have been transformed beyond recognition in ##1-9. What I read today brought everything together to set up the final confrontation, and guess what? It’s the Midnighter versus everyone else.

Now when the Midnighter says to the entire Authority: “I know how to kill you… All of you. You’ve already lost, you just don’t know it yet,” I for one am quite prepared to believe him. Sure, there are some flaws in this comic, and it’s still not as good as it was when Ellis was writing it (smart of him to get out before his premise imploded, wasn’t it?). But what the heck, this is a superhero comic, so I’m prepared to make allowances. And anyway: the Midnighter versus the Authority? THIS IS WHAT WE WANT!

Conan and the Jewels of Gwahlur, ##1-3
Like so many others, I read the Conan stories of Howard and his imitators as a teenager, most of which I enjoyed, and some of which I really loved. I later came across the Marvel adaptions, which I also liked. So, looking for a fantasy comic today because I’ve started GM’ing WFRP, I asked what was available and found the Dark Horse Comics Conan is all there is.

I picked up a bargain 3-for-2 bundle giving the entire story of Conan and the Jewels of Gwahlur, with script and art by P. Craig Russell. Neat, I thought: I’ve liked Russell’s artwork since I read some of his interpretation of classical myths back in the 80’s; and I’ve reread Howard’s original version of the story only recently.

This comic has a lot to recommend it. The adaption is a good one, handling well the transition from Howard’s text to the comics medium. Artwork aside, this is mostly done through the use of narrative text boxes, which is a more sensible approach to my mind than having Conan become the narrator, or trying to detail all the plot in the artwork. The overall effect is of an illustrated version of Howard’s text rather than the completely different story that often results when prose fiction is adapted for the movies.

The artwork is also nice. Russell’s draughtsmanship is nicely precise, and evocative of the sumptuous and mysterious setting of the world of Conan. Russell also does a nice line in the nubile maidens who regularly appear in Conan stories. The colouring is delicately done too, in naturalistic pastel tones, which work well.

If all this is good, then unfortunately the artwork is the source of the comic's greatest weakness. Why? Simple: Russell’s Conan is unconvincing to my eye. He looks far too slim and youthful to me, nothing like the barrel-chested barbarian of my memories. This is a shame, because in pretty much every other respect I found this to be a creditable adaption of this legendary swords and sorcery character by a comics creator whose work I was pleased to catch up with again.

I would heartily recommend all these to comics readers everywhere, and to GM’s looking for some neat ideas to inflict upon their players. Good reading everyone.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Getting over that first crestline

Well, at the risk of getting just a little too fond of my own belly button fluff, it's been 11 days now since I launched JMcL63 into the blogsphere with RD/KA!, and the inevitable moment has arrived. No, not my first retrospective, but that moment when the first flush of creative enthusiasm wanes, when the effort of maintaining a daily output confronts me with the fear of a descent into ever more idle wittering. When the going gets tough...

What's going down at GW?

As many astute gamers and other observers long suspected, GW could not ride high forever on the tide of the LotR sales that were generated by the interest in the Jackson movie trilogy. As of earlier this month this is no longer speculation, with GW reporting a 10% drop in world sales and a 30% drop in profits. GW management reported:
"For the last two years we have been concerned that, for Games workshop, the Lord of the Rings business might create a bubble effect which might not be sustainable, but we have to confess that we underestimated the impact which this would have on our sales and profits in the last quarter of this financial year,"
The upshot of this is that GW is left with a (by all accounts) good game which is an expensive licence whose very terms prevent the company from fully integrating the LotR line into the hobby they have built around their 2 main Warhammer lines. For better or worse the company is committed to the LotR licence, as Jervis Johnson confirmed in a Q&A at GenCon this year:
Q: With Lord of the Rings bubble burst (how long do you have the license for?), and sales dying down, is there any intention to, say, switch it with a Specialist Game?
A: The license lasts until at least 2010, and we may be able to extend that. No, we have no intentions of switching. The core of Games Workshop is Army books and toy soldiers, and they do that quite well, and sell well. They will keep Lord of the Rings as a core system.

Q: Are you obligated to carry Lord of the Rings/have you paid off the license?
A: Keeping it is up to us, I think we've paid the license money back. Lord of the Rings still brings in about 20% of the Games Workshop turnover.
In the face of this and a serious fall in their stock price- precipitous in the spring of 2005 in fact (60% down on its January 2005 value- itself a 5-year highpoint- leaving it at around the level at which the stock value had plateaued from mid-2003 to early 2004) GW management remain sanguine:
"We see this as a temporary reduction in sales for a business which has proven its growth credentials over many years, credentials we expect to re-establish," the report said. "We are therefore not taking short-term actions on our cost base which would prejudice our ability to grow in the long term."
Reading the icv2 article, I would have to imagine that GW's strategy for recovering from this miscalculation will include one or more of:
1. rebuilding LotR sales
2. growing their direct/online sales
3. expanding their US/Canadian retail chains.

How viable these are in strictly economic terms I simply cannot say. But is has to be noted that there is anecdotal evidence from the online GW gamers' community that LotR is unpopular enough amongst the company's loyal WFB and 40K customers to compound the problems the very structure of the LotR licence already creates in integrating the LotR line fully with the flagship Warhammer lines. So if recovery of LotR sales cannot be taken be for granted, apparently nor can be the crossover of customers from the LotR line to GW's own brands.

Noting in passing the possibility that there might turn out to be a contradiction between trying to grow direct/online sales and the GW retail chain simultaneously in the US/Canada, the question also has to be asked whether the strategy that gave GW its huge British retail chain can work in these markets.

The 90's recession in the gaming industry made GW pretty much the only game in town when it was pursuing this domestic hegemony. Paradoxically though, this very success has revived the independent ttg industry by creating a demand for product other than GW's. This is compounded by the more recent revival of the rpg market under the similar market leadership of WotC and its d20 OGL. This suggests the very real possibility that the US/Canadian independent retail sector might not just roll over and die the way the British shops did in the 90's.

I would suggest that the figures here speak for themselves: GW has 81 US and Canadian stores, over and against 798 accounts with which they deal. Even if none of the other ttg producers can stand alone and compete directly with GW, what reason is there to believe that this entire sector of the market will simply collapse essentially overnight? In the simple terms of the consumer demand for their product, my answer would have to be none at all.

This might seem like a very bold statement from an economic ignoramus like myself, but it has to be noted that GW appear increasingly their own worst enemy in this respect. The release of the 4th edition of 40K has been plagued by issues of poor editing and proofing, issues that were ripped wide open by the online 40K community within weeks- if not days- of the new line's release.

And then there is the simple fact that their recent price hikes have shocked even their most dedicated fan base to the core, generating resentment of a kind I, for one, don't remember even from the 25% increase with which we were lamped when they introduced the new lead-free white metal some years back.

Meanwhile, as if one hand didn't know what the other was doing, GW has been unusually generous in other ways this year: a bumper spring sale at the Black Library (BL); the extension of the free postage offer at their online store; and the offer of a free copy of the new LotR rulebook if you buy one of the current LotR boxed sets. Without being snide, it simply has to be said that longstanding GW customers know exactly how rare such largesse has been in recent years.

And as if the gouge, a stock-clearance, pushing the mail order/online sales, and trying to prop up the new 3rd leg of their product line with giveaways weren't startling enough, there has recently come the news that GW UK's direct sales and stores are all to have their opening hours cut next month (the day after the free postage offer expires at direct sales btw). This belt-tightening move has all the hallmarks of desperate measures in the face of the incapacity of the Warhammer lines to make up the shortfall caused by the drop-off in LotR sales.

I wouldn't like to overstate this: but all of this does tend to give the lie to the statement already cited above, that:
"We are therefore not taking short-term actions on our cost base which would prejudice our ability to grow in the long term."
What conclusions do I draw from all of this then? Frankly, I have to be very careful in drawing any particular conclusions at all, so inexperienced am I in these matters. I certainly wouldn't want to start crying wolf with ominous portents. But consider what we have here:
1. self-confessed, erm... fallibility
2. an increasing tendency to alienate loyal customers
3. the possibility of sheer self-deception in the face of it all.

If these are true features of the management responsible for the declining sales, falling profits, and plummeting share values, then I feel I am justified in concluding that something's just got to give, hmm?

Monday, August 22, 2005

My little Old World

So the conundrum of how to write this RD/KA! feature is revived, this time thanks to one of my players, fer goodness sake!

This two-part riddle is simple in essence:
1. I can't be bothered writing a narrative summary of the events of the last gaming session. And that's it really. I can dress the issue up in as much fancy rhetoric as I want, but that's what it comes down to in the end: whatever I'm going to write about my newly regular roleplaying session, one thing I really just don't want to get into is telling my version of my players' story.
2. Andy P. (Berthold's player) complained to me in the pub during our short after-game drinking bout that he didn't like reading my previous account of our last session (and on my computer mark you- he didn't even have the decency to get his own copy!) because it threatened to 'break down the 4th wall'.

WTF?! I mean, Andy has already boggled me with his fondness for the Alabama 3, but this application of Brechtian terminology would have had me reaching for my anti-pretension gun were it not for the fact that I know that the player voicing these opinions is the last person from whom I have to fear an outbreak of all that is worst in roleplaying.

Even as I write this I find myself thinking that probably I should be gratified that a few short months of my GMing of the Old World- not to mention my short-lived ezine- has had such an impact on the sensibilities of my good friend Andy, a dyed in the wool ttg-er. Even so, a little voice at the back of my head won't stop reminding me to 'beware the dark side'.

One line I suppose I could take is that he doth protest too much. I mean, Andy is now and always will be far, far more knowledgable than I am about the Old World. He is a veritable walking encyclopedia of all things Warhammer, which is one of the reasons I was so pleased when he wanted to join in my game. My confidence that he would be a valuable asset instead of one of those oh-so-irritating know-it-all players has been borne out by experience, one of those things that makes a GM want to invoke all those higher forces in which he doesn't believe just because it has been such a boon. Where does all this leave the '4th wall' though I wonder?

And then he comes up with this?!

Like I said, if I really believed that the combination of 8 roleplaying sessions and a few blog entries had raised my WFRP campaign to the level of Brechtian epic stagecraft, then I would be stuka-ing the Forge as the Next Big Thing; that, or burning my rpg collection as the spawn of all the darkest hells of my worst solipsistic nightmares. But sanity will prevail, even in the throes of a still fresh dose of that unique joy that is GMing a strong roleplaying group that continues to go in all the right directions despite all your own frailties.

And let's be quite clear about this: I am a gamer, not a roleplayer. I will never tire of the particular pleasure that is sitting down opposite a worthy opponent, laying down the smack, and reminding them that they underestimate you at their peril. All the same, no matter how sweet the victory- and that includes those all-too-rare (and therefore all the sweeter) moments when my very own space marines have actually decided to be as heroic in 'reality' as they have always been in my own imagination; even then, sheer victory- howsoever sweet it might be- simply cannot compare with the utter thrill of the way roleplaying can get inside you, grab your guts, and just twist.

There is just nothing like it.

And what I have been rediscovering lately is that this thrill is just as great for the GM as it is for the PC's.

All of which is all very well no doubt, but it brings me no closer to finding a fix for the spanner that Andy has thrown into my blogging works.

I could, I guess, gloat over the way in which a classic bit of D&D-esque 'do your own thing' GMing left Andy's Berthold trekking alone all the way across Middenheim to deliver the icon of Sigmar to the temple of the same cult according to the the dying wishes of Father Dietrich from 'Through the Drakwald' (the true dwarf aside, the rest of the party were on a shopping trip). Also possible are: waxing lyrical about how entertaining it was to see the other players' reactions to missing out on the 25gc reward for this; enthusing about how this put Berthold in the frame as a potential fall-guy for the murder of Father Morten; or sheer raptures at the simple fact that Andy's decision to keep Berthold's possession of said icon a secret from the other PC's had set him up for all this.

Alternatively I could just explain the delights of watching 2 dwarfs madly cursing in Khazalid in the vilest possible terms as the presence of Skaven impressed itself upon them, and the impact their fury had upon the closing sequence of the session.

I might even suggest my own pleasure at the simple way I handled this opening phase of the investigation: I just went round my players in turn according to where they sat, asking them what they were doing- a device employed for the simple purpose of stopping them all talking over each other, thus ensuring that each player got a fair share of the action.

But even as I type this, I find myself wondering if, should Andy read it, might he see the '4th wall' shimmering to the point of translucence, so that everything will therefore all come tumbling down? Time will tell I guess. ;)

Prologue: Getting to Middenheim
- A Rash of Enthusiasm...: the colour of Magic!
- Blogging my WFRP campaign: introducing the party.
- My little Old World: at the gates of Middenheim.
- My little Old World: clearing the cludge: the GM gloats.
- Index:- My little Old World: Ashes of Middenheim

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Too much of a good thing?

I'll be running my WFRP game today, so here's one I prepared earlier.

Hit town yesterday afternoon in search of mundane things like soap, and popped into my local GW to pick up a copy of WFB's Storm of Chaos. I don't play WFB (got more than enough miniatures to work on without starting a whole new army-building game for goodness sake!). I'd been thinking about getting this ever since I started running WFRP in its new post Storm of Chaos (SoC) incarnation. I was finally persuaded by a reply I got on the Black Industry (BI) forums to a thread (NB. BI forums long since defunct, so I've edited out the dead link) I started asking for more information about Middenheim.

As ever with GW product, this is a very nice book, with lots of colour text and some really nice illustrations, including some beautifully painted miniatures. Some of the illustrations were already familiar to me from the WFRP2 book Ashes of Middenheim (AoH). Others- specifically 2 maps and a lovely 2-page spread painting of Middenheim at the height of Archaon's seige were exactly what I was looking for.

Now it comes as no surprise to me that GW WFB army books contain stuff not in the WFRP2 books. In fact, I have long reckoned that it is one of the secrets of WFRP's success that it the rpg of a successful ttg, so to speak, something I believe that contributes to the Old World's richness, and to the sense of it being a real, happening place. I'm also really pleased that it seems that one of the things GW are doing with WFRP2 is reintegrating the timelines of these 2 versions of their first great trademark product.

So it really doesn't bother me one bit that GW would appear to be setting up their WFRP2 product line so that the WFB army books complement the rpg background material. I mean, I'm really looking forward to seeing how this pans out with the upcoming 40K rpg, me being a big space marine fan and all.

It's just that, well, I do mind more than a teensy bit when something as important to a book like AoM as a proper concrete image of a city as imposing as Middenheim is absent even from the cover. As I said in my BI post, I came away from reading the AoM material with a completely wrong impression of the place.

I'd've bought WFB:SoC sooner or later for the extra background material, which I found worthwhile. But I wish I hadn't had to buy it for something that I should already have had when I bought WFRP:AoM is all.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

My little Old World

Right, having tried and failed to get a grasp of what my Old World blog would be about last time, I've now got the idea that what I should do is not to tell the story of the session as such. Instead I'm going to explain what I was trying to do with the session, and why (well, as much as I can explain without giving too much away to any of my players who might be reading this). I'm hoping that this will help me clarify my goals and my methods, and that it will be more useful to other roleplaying readers than a pseudo-narrative approach.

My main plan for last Sunday was to make a bit of an event of the final approach to Middenheim. I mean, on their journey up the Old Forest Road from Wurtbad, the party had passed through Talabheim on 'the wing'; ie. they were heading for Middenheim and, knowing nothing about Talabheim, I certainly wasn't going to let them linger there and make life difficult for me. My players were quite happy with this thankfully.

All the same, I realised that I was slightly unhappy with the way in which a city as imposing as Talabheim had just been 'bounced' in the way that it had been. So I was determined to make more of the arrival at Middenheim, all the more so when I dug up some pictures of what it looks like from a distance.

So I decided on the following:

1. the area around Middenheim would be ravaged by the armies of the SoC, giving me the chance thickly to lay on descriptions of the wasteland, burnt areas of the Drakwald, and so on;

2. the party's approach to the city would be policed by the Middenheim militia, to keep out undesirables, recruit (ie. conscript) the able-bodied for the clean-up/repair efforts;

3. the bulk of the action would take place around a campfire as the entire party pulled an all-night guard on their last night in the open before they reached Middenheim; this would give the players more time to get into their characters; allow me to play out some scenes giving me practice in the use of NPC's; and let me play up the consequences of the fate of Granny Moescher after the previous session, and other aspects of the PCs' relations with the refugees from Untergard.

To this end I decided upon the following key scenes/incidents:

1. an encounter with a party of Middenheim militia who would stop the refugee convey in its tracks and order them to camp out nearby;

2. some of the orphans would wake up crying for Granny in the middle of the night;

3. a group of militia would arrive warning the Untergard party of the presence of wolves in the area that night (this warning proved superfluous at that point), which would be handled as classic wandering monsters (ie. random dice rolls to see if they turned up and in what numbers);

4. I would have Captain Schiller smoke a pipe to play on Mordrin's desire for one, then have the dwarf gifted with a cheap pipe as a mark of gratitude on the part of the people of Untergard;

5. an NPC last seen in the Strutting Cock (I'd put the pregenerated PC's from the GM's pack into the inn the night the PC's were there just to bring the place to life; they were obviously heading out on a major journey) would make an appearance as one of the militiamen.

I came up with 2 main instruments for working all this up:

1. the use of Captain Schiller, whose veteran status made it easy for me to use him to suggest things to the players that they knew made sense, and which they were happy for their PC's to go along with;

2. the use of tests to dramatise the encounter with Maglyn Beyer from the GM's pack.

I have to admit to being quite pleased with how I handled this last bit. This all came down to Perception tests to see if the PC's recognised Beyer; a WP test to see if Beyer could conceal his reaction to seeing the PC's again; then more Per tests to see if PC's noticed this. This point of all this was to have an idea of why Beyer would react in the way he did, but not to overscript this reaction, to use dice rolls to give the players the feeling of something happening that is as important as an exchange of blows. It worked. Not the most advanced of GMing techniques perhaps, but satisfying for a rusty GM reviving old skills.

And that's about it really. The session wasn't the best I'd run, but it held together, the players enjoyed it, and it moved things on while developing the atmosphere and the sense of a character-driven narrative. I'll just have to pay more attention to preparation in future if I want to keep weaving the rich tapestry that the Old World offers.

PS. Bl***y Internet Explorer! Firefox is my default browser now, and it supports bullet points exactly as does blogger. But IE doesn't, so I've had to go back and manually configure my lists so that this entry looks readable. Sheesh!

Prologue: Getting to Middenheim
- A Rash of Enthusiasm...: the colour of Magic!
- Blogging my WFRP campaign: introducing the party.
- My little Old World: mission accomplished?
- My little Old World: clearing the cludge: the GM gloats.
- Index:- My little Old World: Ashes of Middenheim

Friday, August 19, 2005

Stop Press!

This is hot news that isn't hot as such really (it's dated 22/7/05). Just been browsing the Days of Wonder site, where I came across this truly awesome news: Days of Wonder are planning not 1, not 2, but 3 (count them: 3!!) expansions for the utterly irresistable instant classic Memoir'44. That's a general expansion, a Russian Front expansion, and a new mapboard. These will all be released next month. This news had your humble scribe shrieking like a valley girl at the mall I can tell you!

Gamers and the internet? Gah!

I despair of gamers sometimes, I really do.

There has never been a better time to be a gamer. Never. Having taken an unsuspecting world by storm in the mid/late 70's, the modern gaming hobby we know and love has suffered trials and tribulations, but is now stronger than ever. On top of all the great games of all kinds being played by more and more people, we also have ICT: the most powerful technology that everyday bozos like ourselves have ever had at our fingertips.

More than that, I have a theory that it is this very ICT which actually makes rpgs capable of being what they really are. Let me put that another way: I believe that rpgs are one of the great popular cultural advances since rock and roll, a true sign of our times; and that it is the same ICT technology that makes this blog possible that will allow this still youthful cultural phenomenon to fully mature. That might seem an odd thing to say about 'pencil and paper' rpgs, but it is a theory of mine all the same.

So I have been really, really irritated by the 'debate' occasioned by Ryan Dancey's review of WFRP2 to which I referred the other day: 3 days of hysteria demonstrating all that is worst about life in cyberspace; including a 44-page thread of 438(!) posts at RPGnet, a place whose name can still send shivers down my spine when I think of the images- of Hammer horror peasant mobs armed with sharp farm implements and torches- conjured up by their past reactions to people trying to talk about the HERO system. I am not going to bother surveying this material here; check it out if you dare, but don't send me your therapy bills, because you have been warned!

Here though, are some choice remarks made in reply to Dancey's original review on itself (got to find a fix for that URL problem)
"what a load of rot. games workshop have NEVER had anything to do with TSR. WFRP is NOTHING like D&D. NEXT TIME YOU THINK ABOUT DOING A REVIEW, DON''T! you have no idea what your on about!"

This anonymous poster clearly hasn't been reading his White Dwarfs, which have [the rest of this post got lost somehow?!]. ;)

Thursday, August 18, 2005


Just time to get a short entry done and posted before the midnight deadline for Thursday 18th (British summer time).

I've been fairly busy on the rpg front lately. Alane's player came round Tuesday and we did some work on a HERO character he'd been wanting to make up. Also, the usual roleplayers' fish stories apart, we discussed what we are going to do to get some action going in the superhero world in which we started sharing GMing when we first got to know each other as roleplayers. We've got some ideas to which we're both looking forward.

We also both paid a visit to our FLGS, where he got himself a Reaper mini representing what will probably turn out to be a somewhat more advanced version of Alane than he is currently playing. I, of course, lashed out on some HERO product, this time getting my hands on a copy of The Ultimate Mystic, by Dean Shomshak, which should prove timely since the superhero said player is running is a technomage.

The Ultimate Mystic is too big and dense (224 pages of closely spaced text) for me to have more than a vague impression of its contents in such a short space of time, but as ever with recent HERO product, I am impressed with the thoroughness of the work done, if not entirely persuaded by the underlying approach of the overall package.

One thing I do immediately like about HERO:UM is that it doesn't recapitulate the magic section from Steve Long's monumental Fantasy HERO (a book that should be bought and read by any and every fantasy roleplayer, be they GM or PC, no matter which system and/or setting you are playing). What we are given instead is an account of the place of the magical, the mystical and the supernatural in the realms of reality, mythology and fiction, with a welter of tips on how to handle this background material using the HERO system.

So what are my caveats? Hmm, that's hard to explain. I think it's probably that there is something just a little too generic about this stuff, a perception that has been heightened by the cleverness of the way that the OWB was put together for WFRP2. That's all I can say at the moment.

Apart from all of that, I am very pleased to read "The Pipes of the Old World", on a blog called 'TheUruguayanGamer' by one RPGpundit. This is something... Well, just read for yourself (NB. check for the 18th August entry). This is a nice wee piece of work, and one which I'm sure my pipesmoking dwarf will come to appreciate at least as much as myself. Nice stuff.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

...AND WE LIKED IT!!! (aka first filler)

Well, I've been busy doing things other than sitting bashing away at the keyboard, leaving me with nothing new for my blog. So in time-honoured tradition, here's something from the files. In this case it's an entertaining rant that was posted to me a few years ago (not by its author, who remains unfortunately anonymous to me). Several years old this rant might be, but out of date? I suspect not.

OK. I've been reading all this balderdash and hooey about you people not "not likin' this" and "not wantin' that." Well, you guys today got it made! If it weren't for us "old-timers" you guys wouldn't know a Dungeon Masters Guide if it broke into your house and stole all your Rush albums! Here's what it was like back in my day:

We didn't have FANCY, SPECKLEY, SWIRLY DICE back in the old days. Our dice were PLAIN and they were BLUE! If you threw the 12-sider too hard, IT EXPLODED! Then you had to buy another Expert Level Set to get anotherone! And we COULDN'T EVEN READ THE NUMBERS on our dice! We had to COLOR them with a CRAYON for crying out loud! We had Cruddy, Blue, Exploding, Crayon-Coated Dice - AND WE LIKED IT!!!

Our MONSTER MANUAL was BLACK & WHITE for Pete's sakes! We had to COLOR in all those pictures! And we didn't know what color things were back then- we HAD TO USE OUR IMAGINATIONS! God forbid if we used all our Red Crayon on our dice! Then all of our monsters had Orange Eyes! And what kind of crazy ecosystem was represented on the cover of that thing anyhow? They had every monster in the food chain living together in perfect harmony! We had Colorless Monsters that lived together peacefully - AND WE LIKED IT!!!

Then there was that DUNGEON MASTERS GUIDE! It had that SCARY BIG DEMON LOOKING THING on the cover! And everytime your Mom saw it SCARED THE BEJEEZUS out of her and she would RIP IT UP or THROW IT AWAY or sell it to your best friend at a garage sale for $1.25! We had to buy the same book over and over again cause our Moms threw it out - AND WE LIKED IT!!!

And, don't get me started about SOURCE MATERIAL! We didn't have "Complete This" and "Player's Option" that! We didn't have any Core Rules for the Computer-thing-a-ma-jig! All we had was some CRAPPY INTELLIVISION GAME.

All of our dungeons were drawn on graph paper! All of our rooms were 10' x 10'. But (and this is where we got you young fellers BEAT) ALL of our dungeon rooms were FILLED WITH TREASURE! Heck, all you had to do back then was BREAK DOWN THE DOOR, KILL THE MONSTER, and TAKE THE TREASURE! We didn't have PLOT LINES or CAMPAIGN WORLDS or STORYLINES to bog us down! There was MOUNTAINS of TREASURE! Heaps of it!!! You know why you don't find treasure in every room in your silly dungeons and modules anymore? CAUSE WE TOOK IT ALL! HA! AND YOU CAN'T HAVE IT! We had plotless, storyless, 10 foot by 10 foot dungeon rooms FILLED WITH TREASURE, AND WE LIKED IT!!! ow you all are complaining about the quality of a "Dungeons and Dragons" movie! Oh My Stars and Garters! Count your sheep lucky that you get a MOVING PICTURE! We had a cartoon with a Unicorn that shot a laser beam from his horn, and an 8-year-old barbarian...AND WE LIKED IT!!!

Finally, you guys with your "LEAD FREE" miniatures! I had to get a new puppy every month because of the things I grew up painting! Heck, now I feed my dog Vrock entire Warhammer Armies cause they're nothing but 28 millimeters of cheap scrap metal and plastic! We had lethal, cancer-causing miniatures that killed our pets, AND WE LIKED IT!!!

And d'y'know? We did. ;)

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Ryan Dancey published a lengthy 4-star review of WFRP2 over on (you'll have to copy and paste to read the piece I'm afraid- the complete url screws with my layout and I haven't figured out a fix yet*) which has occasioned some controversy because he suggests that WFRP2 learned some lessons from d20. Given that Chris Pramas had done a whack of d20 work before taking on the revision of WFRP, it would be a bit surprising if he hadn't carried some lessons across in the process, don't you think?

Oh, and I got myself the WFRP Old World Bestiary yesterday. Behind the familiar glossy production values lurk all the horrors with which fans of WFB will be familiar. That, and a brilliantly conceived and well executed idea of how to present a monster manual. The book is split into 2 sections, one of which (the bit with the games mechanics in it) is GM's eyes only. The other bit is presented as a banned book from the old world, written by one Odric of Wurtbad on an epic 50-year trek to catalogue all the horrors of the Old World.

This section is further subdivided as:
  • Common View: the more or less ignorant commonplace opinions of all sorts of people.
  • The Scholar's Eye: more detailed knowledge from a surprising variety of informed sources.
  • Our Own Words: the opinions of the creatures themselves.
The overall impression is of a wealth of detail, with each kind of creature presented in easily digestable snippets that you can read in great chunks, or which you can dip into.

The various creatures appear in a variety of guises because of the 3 basic views, while all the different voices also give you actual characters who you could flesh out and use in play if you wished. There is something clever going on here it seems to me. I don't know how original it is, but it is certainly the first rpg monster book that has made me laugh out loud.

To give an example: Wurtbad (remember the redoubtable Odric?) is tucked into the SE corner of the map for 'Pretty Things', the scenario in the GM's pack. So: making the not untypical purchase for a new system- the core rules, a screen, and a monster book; an alert GM could actually make Odric and his book part of his storyline. I know that this example isn't about the care and feeding of monsters, but if the rest of the book is half as clever as that little touch, well then it will be very good indeed.

* 11/04/09. I did eventually learn how to code URL embeds; I'm still tidying up nearly 5 years later. ;)

Blogging my WFRP campaign

Out of papers and hungover I set out to write my first 'At the table' report, about Sunday's WFRP. This is just too much to take. I need to go out in search of supplies...

Meanwhile readers who are interested can follow these links:
A wee bit of hunting around and you will find some of my earlier comments about the Old World, WFRP2, and my own campaign.

Sunday's session was the 7th I have run since WFRP2 inspired me to rally a new roleplaying group to get my GM's teeth into, and part 6 of my Old World campaign (I ran the opening of 'A Fistful of Credits' from Bill King's Waste World Lite as a 1-shot tryout of the quickstart). IIRC this is already my single longest consistent run as GM in 25 years as a roleplayer. So writing this first piece about this game is a bit of a thrill for me, all the more so since the game is going great guns.

At the same time, I find myself clueless about how to proceed. Why? Mostly because I'm not really all that sure what a feature like this should be for. I mean, a boardgame or ttg battle report can introduce gamers to interesting mechanics and crucial tactical conundrums of the game that is their subject, as well as providing an entertaining account of some gamers having fun playing an actual game.

There is milage in this approach to a roleplaying recount no doubt, but the kicker is the story element. I mean, I can tell you what the players and their PC's said and did; I could even write it as a credible piece of narrative prose; but that would still miss the point I feel, because, in the end, it's not my story to tell, it's theirs.

I'm not going to labour these points. They are just some random musings on what I'm trying to offer my readers in this feature.

So, this group started with 2 PC's
  • Grundi: the oldest member of the party (played by the youngest player, a neat twist!), a talkative dwarven coachman with an unusual gait
  • Alane: that elven witch, and- it turned out- the 2nd oldest member of the party
Meeting on the road south out of Gersdorf, they happened on the Strutting Cock inn, where they met the hapless captive whose plaintive cries distracted them as they crossed the yard towards the front door. Long story short: they did the right thing, and in the process made some friends and helped someone get a job and a new home for his family.

Joining this unlikely pair next time were (by age again)
  • Mordrin: hotheaded young runerunner played by a widely acknowledged real-life dwarf
  • Siegfried: human thief from Middenland
  • Dieter: human roadwarden from the Reikland
  • Berthold: human scribe from Stirland
Together this party rescued young Gretel and returned her to her keeper; spent a rough night in the Leaping Frog; then, hitting the road to Middenheim so that Siegfried could visit his old mum, found themselves guarding a refugee train from Untergard on that same road.

Through these 4 sessions our group bonded and began to develop its dynamics very nicely; the players began to get into their characters; and I started to get to grips with the Old World and with the tricks and trials of GM'ing. I enthused with friends and on appropriate places on the net about how much fun I was having. All was well and good. Then I had to cancel a session for Worldcon and my players turned up for their next session with bonus xp up for grabs if they had read my new blog (20 in all were handed out IIRC). And so here I find myself still trying to figure out what it is I really want to say about Sunday's game to open another new feature of RD/KA!

I mean to say: this particular corner of cyberspace is not going to be a campaign resource base for myself and my players- a Yahoo or similar group is much more suitable for that purpose it seems to me. Nor do I intend this blog to create some kind of online environment in which me and my players can do game- blogs might be good for that kind of thing, but so also should be bulletin boards, and there is already one devoted to WFRP, so that base seems to be covered right now.

So even though I hope that my players will be regular readers of RD/KA!, what I am trying to do here is to give my account of what happened in a refugee camp one night in sight of the shattered city of Middenheim amid the carnage of the aftermath of the Storm of Chaos. Not just that: I am trying to turn that account into something that will be of use to roleplaying readers, be they GM or PC, and whether or not they're actually playing WFRP. I have to say that I'm finding it difficult to get a handle on this!

Well, at least I got something written about the game, even if it's not the first 'At the table' report that I was aiming for.

Prologue: Getting to Middenheim
- A Rash of Enthusiasm...: the colour of Magic!
- My little Old World: at the gates of Middenheim.
- My little Old World: mission accomplished?
- My little Old World: clearing the cludge: the GM gloats.
- Index:- My little Old World: Ashes of Middenheim