Thursday, January 19, 2006

General gamism

The emperor's new clothes? The state of roleplaying theory #1
This is a subject I have mostly avoided here at RD/KA!, which is perhaps a bit odd, since I was partly inspired to start this blog by another blogger's remarks on this very subject, namely RPGpundit. The pundit's pithy and often scatalogical comments on this and other gaming and non-gaming topics can be found at TheUruguayanGamer.

Also, particularly dedicated readers might remember that my inaugural post here at RD/KA! made reference to the roleplaying theory of Ron Edwards and The Forge. At the time I commented favourably on Edwards' ideas, although later visits to The Forge forum changed that opinion a bit. Readers who know me as opinionated with a fondness for theorising might therefore be surprised that I have had so little to say about ideas which are anathema to me.

Whatever the reason, having checked this stuff out, I decided to leave it alone. Instead I turned my attention to keeping my WFRP campaign rolling and to maintaining this blog.

Recently though a post by RPGpundit- on the topic of The Forge forums, and an email a friend sent me about an article by games designer Rebecca Borgstrom have conspired to change that studied indifference. Since then the idea has been burrowing away that I should venture forth with my opinions on this stuff.

Before going on to comment further I should make a few points. First: I amn't trying to suggest that absolutely everything said by people I refer to directly or indirectly is simple rubbish. I am quite prepared to accept that there are useful insights to be found even if I might disagree strongly with people's overall theoretical framework, or with key premises of their thinking. Second: I wouldn't like people to think that I am sweeping everyone I disagree with into a single camp, the better to criticise them. It's far too early for me to make sweeping generalisations like that. Third: there is no way that I can here do more than scratch the surface of the various theories out there these days. Anything more would be to leap to conclusions by way of sweeping generalisations.

With that in mind, what I am going to do in this article is make 3 basic points:
  1. This line of theorising is, in essence, not really all that novel
  2. It is based on a false premise
  3. Its exponents make ridiculous false assertions that undermine the credibilty of their wider theorising.
Not quite the next big thing
To pre-empt my next point: a key underlying idea widespread across roleplaying theorising is that roleplaying is an artform. AFAIK, this idea was introduced to the rpg industry with the publication of White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade in 1991. Its history thereafter can perhaps be judged by the fact that noted games designer and writer Robin D. Laws referred to rpg's as 'the hidden art' in an essay 'The Hidden Art: Slouching Towards A Critical Framework for RPGs', dated 1995.

The precise history of this concept in the rpg community and industry would need more research, but these examples suggest that it first came to real prominence in the 1990's. Even then, and taking the publication of V:tM as a dateline, the idea that roleplaying is art was then already more than a decade old.

I first encountered the idea in 1982. Back then it didn't have a section of the rpg industry and associated names to give it credibility. When I encountered the idea it was thankfully the outlook of just one person, with perhaps a few hangers-on. Already well established in the local student roleplaying circles (so the idea predates my own encounter with it), this person was essentially a dysfunctional roleplayer.

In my own experience, this person was: an air-time hog; a player of favourites quite willing to screw over other players' characters to make the designated hero of the piece look good (even when the player of said PC was absent); and a petulant egotist with no qualms about actively sabotaging someone else's game it was deemed of no interest. On the few occasions when this person and I discussed roleplaying in general I soon became aware that we were talking across an intellectual gulf whose nature I couldn't fathom. It was only when I learned that this person believed that roleplaying is art that I came to understand the nature of this gulf.

Now I'll freely admit that my experiences of this first encounter with the idea that roleplaying is art hardly amount to a refutation of the idea. That's not the point yet in any case. These reminiscences aim to put the history of the idea itself in some kind of context. Back in the early 80's, the idea was very easy to ignore because it was the outlook of just one person. Since then it has become established in the roleplaying industry; it has been adopted and propagated by a bevvy of the current generation of industry names; and it seems to enjoy a certain cachet, as the outlook of the hip and trendy 'alternative' roleplayer.

I could put forward several suggestions about the whys and wherefores of this development. Here I will restrict myself to just 2. First, and most obviously I would suggest, is the success of White Wolf. Whatever else you might think about this (which is surely a subject in its own right), one thing it did was show that there was a market for roleplaying product advocating the elevation of a gaming hobby to the level of art.

White Wolf aside, I would suggest that the rise of the internet has also been significant. This has surely made it much easier for proponents of the roleplaying as art theories to publish their ideas and to win an audience for them, while at the same time ennabling the formation of communities dedicated to pursuing these theories. For example, Ron Edwards' GNS model was developed through his participation in an online discussion group.

For whatever reasons then, the idea that roleplaying is an artform has surely become predominant among those who think about rpg design in the abstract; as opposed, that is, to thinking in terms of the nuts and bolts of systems design, or of better ways to present backgrounds, and so on. What I have tried to do here is to point out that the idea that roleplaying is art is almost as old as rpgs themselves. As a result of this, whatever particular insights this kind of thinking might enjoy, one thing its proponents cannot claim is that this idea is somehow novel or radical.

Of course, people who disagree with me here could turn this very point against me, arguing that the fact that the idea that roleplaying is art is as old as rpgs means that the idea is both true and useful, and therefore here to stay. But, as any familiarity with history shows, bad thinking can be very persistent. As for the truth and utility of the artistic conception of roleplaying, I'll return to those just as soon as I can.

The emperor's new clothes? The state of roleplaying theory
- #2: A funny thing happened on my way to this article
- Roleplaying as art? Not for me
- It's art Jim, but not as we know it!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

My little Old World: Chaos Without, Corruption Within #2

Mutants, madness, and more mysteries
Head bowed and supported by his hands, Father Ranulf, Priest of Ulric sat in his office in the Temple of Ulric in Middenheim. His mind nearly numb with horror at the fate that had befallen his old friend Father Odo, Ranulf struggled against the grief that threatened to overwhelm him. Maintaining a manly front wasn't Ranulf's concern. Not at all. Rather he knew that, if he were to be wracked with the sobs which roiled in his chest, then he would draw deep into his lungs the smell of the ichorous blood that still stained the floor of his office. Ranulf shuddered at the thought.

The smell wasn't unknown to Father Ranulf. He had grown familar with it when Archaon's army had besieged Middenheim earlier that year. And he could still remember how its unnatural sweetness had hung in the air for weeks after the siege had been broken.

When will it ever end Ranulf asked himself. He was too wise to believe that victory in a single military campaign, however great, could ever be enough to defeat Chaos. Yet he had allowed himself to believe that the victory against Archaon would bring a serious respite. It seemed he had been wrong because now, mere months after the breaking of the siege, it seemed that there was a plot afoot.

Ranulf's thoughts turned to their unlikely allies against this plot. Such a disparate bunch of no-marks, and yet they had proved their worth in recovering the brass skull from Kazron Gorespite's tomb. Captain Schutzmann clearly hadn't overestimated them.

Stirring himself, Father Ranulf prepared to return to his duties. First on his agenda was a service, something to soothe shattered nerves, to restore calm to the Temple. His thoughts turned again to the adventurers. Everyone had to hope that their resourcefulness hadn't exhausted itself, because if the mood in the Temple of Ulric was anything to go by, Middenheim was teetering on a knife-edge. A mass outbreak of the sort that had happened in the Temple might be just the thing to push the city over the edge.


After 5 more days struggling through the Drakwald, the enlarged party found itself back on the Little Drakwald Road, heading east to Sotturm. The brass skull was strangely well behaved throughout this time, with the result that the PC's had little difficulty in keeping it hidden from the 3 Witch Hunters. Eventually they arrived back at Middenheim late in the evening of Konigstag, 27th Kaldezeit, a just waning Mannslieb lighting their way across the wasteland surrounding the city.

Approaching the city, the PC's were intent on delivering their burden to the Temple of Ulric without delay. The Witch Hunters were content to fade into the background, going so far as to ask the party to remain discreet about the Ordo Fidelis' role in the events in the Drakwald. This suited the PC's very nicely. Then they were struck by concern at the thought of traipsing through the streets of the city with such a dangerous artefact in their possession.

A solution quickly presented itself: Alane, their elvish wizard companion. Her knowledge of magic was a comforting thought in this situation. So it was that the party and the Witch Hunters parted company in the wasteland just south of Middenheim. The latter entered the city up the southern viaduct as per usual. The party chose to detour so as to enter the city via the eastern viaduct, from whence it was a short journey to the Frieburg- and the Guild of Wizards and Alchemists, where Alane was employed, and thence to the Temple of Ulric in the neighbouring Ulricsmund.

Alane was duly collected from her work at the Guild- Grundi waiting outside with the brass skull in case its powers were detected by the wizards inside; Berthold- still suffering from his Galloping Trots- was dropped off at the Temple of Sigmar; and the party were soon in Father Ranulf's office in the Temple of Ulric.

Father Ranulf was delighted to see the returned adventurers, and more delighted still to hear that they had successfully completed their mission. The brass skull was unveiled and a young initiate gingerly locked it in a brass-bound iron chest inscribed with runes. Father Ranulf assured the PC's that this would be sufficient to inhibit the skull's powers.

Siegfried then unveiled the long lost banner of the Knights of the White Wolf. The priest was very impressed by this, and decided that celebrations of the party's success were overdue. He offered the party wine, which was duly accepted by all the PC's. Father Odo asked for water. Father Ranulf poured wine for all, then watched while Siegfried guzzled down what was left in the jug. The initiate was sent for Odo's water, and for more wine.

Once everybody had their drinks, Father Ranulf proposed a toast to the party's success, going on to tell of how Deputy High Priest Liebnitz would be well pleased with their efforts. The priest had just moved on to the matter of a reward when his words were interrupted as Father Odo fell to the floor in violent convulsions. As everyone watched, the old priest's body began to twist and grow with a hideous cracking of bones and sinew. His face twisted, his arms elongated into 2 long clawed tentacles, his body covered in pustules and pink and purple scales: in moments something truly inhuman and the size of a small cow had replaced the wizened old priest on the floor.

So horrifying was the monstrosity that half the party stood stock still in fear as it lurched to its feet and attacked. Nonetheless the fight was short and swift, as the creature proved far less dangerous than its hideous appearance suggested. It was certainly no match for a party of seasoned adventurers. Soon the creature lay dead on the floor, oozing ichor from its gaping wounds.

Father Ranulf was horrified. The PC's immediately leapt to the conclusion that this was the brass skull's powers at work. Siegfreid insisted that Father Ranulf open the iron chest. The priest complied, and there the skull was, exactly where it had been left. Alane used her magical sense on both the remains of what had been Father Odo and on the chest. She confirmed that the emanations from the brass skull were effectively muffled by the chest. And she detected faint traces of magic from the dead creature which, she said, were of a different hue than those given off by the skull.

As these deliberations proceeded Mordin had been lugging the dead monstrosity out of the way of the door. The door freed, the young dwarf began to haul the corpse out of the door. Questioned as to his intentions he said that he was taking the thing off to be burned in the Sacred Flame of Ulric. Siegfried suggested that this might not be the best of ideas.

Siegfried had no sooner spoken than shouting and screaming was heard elsewhere in the temple. Mordrin immediately stepped into the corridor to see what was going on, quickly followed by Father Ranulf and the rest of the party. The priest headed off down the corridor, with the PC's hot on his heels.

Moments later everyone arrived in the temple kitchens, where they beheld a mass of temple staff. Some were running around in blind panic, others were fleeing, others still were pressing in on some unidentifiable victims in the centre of a large ruckus. As the party watched, a figure broke free of the melee and made for a door on the far side of the kitchen. The fleeing figure was human, although sticking out of its shoulders were a small pair of feathery wings which flapped feebly as the man ran through the door and out of sight.

Alane and Mordrin immediately set out in pursuit of the fleeing human. Back in the kitchen Grundi and Seigfried stood nonplussed for a moment or two before plunging into the press of bodies from which the winged human had appeared. Pulling bodies aside the pair reached the centre of the melee. Before them they beheld 2 temple servants. One had a kitchen knife fused to his right arm; the other's face was blotched with maroon sores oozing foul-smelling pus.

Out in the corridor the fleeing bewinged servant had disappeared round one of the many corners visible from the door of the kitchen. Realising that a temple servant would know his way around much better than themselves, Alane and Mordrin prepared themselves for a systematic search. They had barely begun before they heard the sound of screams off up a corridor. Running to the sound of the tumult, they saw the mutated servant disappear through a door.

Back in the kitchen the mutated servants and Grundi and Seigfried stood eyeing each other up for a few moments. Grundi felt a swell of pity for 2 hapless victims of forces beyond their ken. Siegfried felt only righteous rage at the sight of 2 abominations in the face of Ulric: he drew his sword and attacked. One mutant- he with the hideous face- dodged past the PC's and made for the door. He escaped despite Grundi's best efforts to stop him, running off faster than the dwarf could match. The other servant defended himself against Siegfried's attack.

Alane and Mordrin purued their quarry into a room where they saw him struggling to open a window on the far wall. Closing in, Grundi wrestled with him to bring him down, while Alane tried in vain to put him into a magical sleep. With surprising strength and dexterity, the hapless servant pushed his way past the PC's and disappeared back the way he'd come.

As Seigfried and the knife-handed mutant traded blows, Grundi tried to intervene to persuade the servant to surrender. Somehow Grundi's words prevailed, and Siegfried and the mutated servant paused in their exchange of blows. The servant looked the dwarf and his human assailant in the eye then, pausing only to aim a blow at Grundi on his way past, made for the door.

The bewinged servant put on a startling burst of speed as he fled and it was all Alane and Mordrin could do to keep up with him. Eventually though he tired, and Grundi tried to bring him down with a flying tackle. This failed, but the PC's were soon close enough to the servant to engage him in another wrestling match. Grappling and magical sleep spells again proved futile, so Grundi resorted to his fists while Alane tried her quarterstaff on the mutant. The servant still wouldn't give up: he broke free again, and ran off down the corridor, only to stop short when his way forward was blocked by a group of temple staff led by Father Ranulf.

Siegfried had no difficulty in catching up with the knife-handed mutant and their melee resumed. Even with his unusual weapon the servant was no match for a ruthless hardened fighter, and Seigfried soon lopped his right arm off at the shoulder. Knowing that the man didn't have long to live, Siegfried headed out the door to see where the 3rd mutant had gone. Sick at heart in the face of all this pointless violence, Grundi paused for a few moments, hoping perhaps to save the servant's life. The man tottered forward drunkenly for a moment or two, then collapsed. Grundi realised it was all over and followed Siegfried out into the corridor.

Hemmed-in on both sides, the bewinged mutant still wouldn't give up. He turned and wrestled his way past Alane and Mordin with another surprising display of strength and agility. Then he hot-footed it back the way he'd came. Alane tried to fell him with a magic dart to no avail.

Running through the temple corridors, Grundi and Siegfried came upon a small mob pummelling on the 3rd mutant, who hadn't got far. A look passed between the 2 PC's as if too ask, well then? The pair shrugged at each other and continued on their way, leaving the hapless servant to his fate. They turned a corner to see the bewinged mutant disappear through a door hotly pursued by the rest of the party, Father Ranulf, and other temple staff.

The servant's run of startling luck continued inside the room, perhaps because the window was half-open from his previous efforts. He was out the window and running into the night before anyone could stop him. In one fluid move Grundi pulled out and loaded his crossbow and sent a bolt after the fleeing figure. It missed. There was one last chance: Alane sent a magic dart after him. The firey dart hit him right in the back of his head. There was a small puff of light as his hair flared up in flames and he went flying to land on the ground, where he lay unmoving.

Father Ranulf sent a couple of servants out to bring the body in. The mutant who had tried so desperately to escape looked strangely pathetic lying there on the floor. Father Ranulf raised his hammer high above his head. A few voices were raised that keeping the servant alive to interrogate him might be sensible, but they lacked conviction, and the priest brought the hammer down on the mutant's head, crushing its face into a pulp of blood and bone fragments. The stumpy little wings twitched twice, then became still as the servant died.

The mayhem in the kitchen was beginning to calm down, so Father Ranulf and the party made for the priest's office. The PC's were still convinced that the brass skull had been responsible for this. Father Ranulf asked, if so, how was it that this hadn't happened through all the days in the Drakwald, but had instead happened when the skull was safely locked away? This question gave the party pause for thought.

The wisdom of the priest's words became clear once they had returned to his office. He had set to work tidying up the mess caused by the fight with the mutated Father Odo. Mordrin decided to help. When the dwarf went to pick up the jug from which Father Odo had drunk, he noticed the water that splashed out of the jug was giving off a faint green luminescence. Alane's magical sense confirmed that this was giving off a magical aura with the same hue as she had detected in the corpse of the monster Father Odo had become.

Events started to come together in people's minds at this point. Everyone made haste to the temple's well and sure enough, it too was giving off a magical emanation. By now the PC's were sure they knew what had happened, so, pausing only to explain where he was going, Mordrin headed off to get word to Captain Schutzmann about the poisoned well.

Father Ranulf realised that Deputy High Priest Liebnitz had to be informed of what had happened. An initiative was sent to the Liebnitz's rooms, returning shortly with a summons to see the Deputy High Priest. Ranulf left 2 temple guards with instructions to let no one drink from the well until explicit instructions were given otherwise, then off everyone went.

Once seated in Liebnitz's office, Siegfried began by bringing out the beastman-headed helmet that had been found in the tomb back in the Drakwald. Liebnitz identified this as the helmet of Graf Manfred von Torrlichelm, a Master of the Knights Panther killed in battle with the Chaos Champion Kazron Gorespittle some 2 centuries ago, in the days of Magnus the Pious. He was delighted with the recovery of this valuable relic, and thanked the PC's for returning it.

The Deputy High Priest then turned his attention to that night's events. Talk passed back and forth, with the normally voluble Siegfried strangely quiet, so awe-stricken was he to be in the presence of such a high-ranking member of the cult of Ulric. Liebnitz flinched visibly at the mention of the green glow found in the water Father Odo had drunk, and the conclusion that the well had been poisoned was soon confirmed.

The question then posed itself: who had poisoned the well, and to what end? The suspicion was soon raised that the events in the temple that night were part of a plan aimed at the city's wells in general. Noting the party's reputation with Commander Schutzmann, Liebnitz instructed the party to pursue the poisoners. He asked them not to spread word of their activities too widely among the City Watch.

At this point Siegfried piped up to inform the Deputy High Priest that their companion was already on his way to inform Commander Schutzmann about the night's events. If Liebnitz had started at the reference to the green glow, he positively blanched at this. losing his composure completely for a moment or two. Liebnitz quickly regained control of himself. Schutzmann was a good man he said, and could be relied upon not to spread news that might panic the populace. Other members of the Watch might not be so sensible the Deputy High Priest warned the PC's.

Liebnitz concluded by instructing the party to keep an inconspicuous watch on the city's wells, to act in the face of any suspicious action, and to deal with any perpetrators they might find, with all finality. The PC's once again felt the weight of the fate of Middenheim on their shoulders. As they took this on board, they wondered what might be the consequences of Mordrin's mission to alert the City Watch.

Chaos Without, Corruption Within
- #1 More by luck than judgement?
- Index:- My little Old World: Ashes of Middenheim

Monday, January 16, 2006

My little Old World: Chaos Without, Corruption Within #1

More by luck than judgement?
Matthais Hoffer, Witch Hunter of the Ordo Fidelis, felt like kicking himself. How could he- a veteran of several military campaigns and even more actions against the servants of chaos- have fallen for such a dumb line as the one that glib Siegfried had put past him? Hoffer wondered if Jacob and Ulrich would ever let him live it down.

Who were these people anyway Matthais asked himself? They seemed to live in a bubble of startling coincidence and the sheer dumb luck of fools. First Kroen reappears in Middenheim after near a year's unexplained absence, only to wind up dead while the news was still fresh. Then this ragtag bunch of adventurers start asking around about the death. And now it turns out that not only were they working for Schutzmann tracking down Morten's murderer, but they had actually escorted Kroen and the rest of the Untergard refugees on their journey to Middenheim. That was already more coincidences than Hoffer cared to put down to sheer accident.

More annoying still, this bunch had sworn a holy oath to Schutzmann and Greimold to conceal the identity of Morten's- and presumably therefore also Kroen's- killers. And they had kept it too. To cap it all they had proceeded to deliver the artefact- whatever that was- to the Temple of Ulric without giving away a single clue about its nature.

Matthais Hoffer was a man utterly devoid of humour. Even black irony was alien to his nature. His mission left him no time for such luxuries. No, Hoffer lived by cold hard facts and brutal penetrating suspicion. Occasionally he did allow himself the odd moment of consolation. He took one now in his conviction that these deceitful upstarts were at least loyal servants of goodness. Too smart by half- which might prove their undoing- but not slaves to darkness.


Father Odo restrained, the brass skull secured, the party settled in for the rest of the night. Seigfreid was still brooding so he was awake when, on Grundi's watch, the quiet was shattered by the sound of Grundi's horse neighing and whinnying and thrashing around in extreme distress. The pair went to investigate and sure enough, there was the brass skull again, grinning at the horse from atop a boulder.

The poor creature was beside itself with terror. Grundi's efforts to calm it proved fruitless and it broke free of its tether and disappeared into the night. Fortunately it didn't go far in the thick forest and Grundi was able to catch up with it soon enough.

The brass skull's antics had everyone well and truly spooked by now. Siegfried decided that enough was enough. Grabbing a cloak, he picked the skull up and perched it on a rock. He spent the rest of the night sitting staring at the back of the skull to make sure it didn't get up to any more tricks.

The party roused itself at dawn. When it came time to set off, Siegfried wrapped the skull in his cloak and carried it in front of him as if in a sack. The journey back through the Drakwald continued, with the PC's taking turns to carry the skull.

Berthold went down with a case of the Galloping Trots. This slowed the party's pace down a bit, as he had to keep disappearing into the undergrowth every couple of hours.

Siegfreid decided to try to reassure Father Odo that his murderous intentions had been misconstrued. He kept it up for several days, bringing all his eloquence to bear on the aging priest's feelings. But Odo was having none of it, so eventually Siegfreid gave up, and left the old man to his own devices.

In the middle of the afternoon five days out from the tomb, the brass skull suddenly took it on itself to start shrieking and wailing in a shrill, high pitched tone. The sound was muffled by the cloak the skull was wrapped in, but it was still sufficient to shatter the peace of the forest, and to carry a long way.

This was too much for Grundi, who was carrying it at the time. Shut up, shut up, shut up bellowed the dwarf, banging the skull repeatedly off a tree trunk. This took some chips out of the bark, but otherwise had no effect.

The party pressed on. They hadn't been going for long when the skull's wailing was answered by an animalisitic bellow from deep in the woods behind the party. The PC's looked around. This was no place to be caught in a fight they realised. So on they went. looking for a site where they could prepare themselves to meet whatever it was that the skull had brought upon them.

About half an hour later they found a clearing at the foot of a small hill. There was a rocky outcrop on the slope of the hill offering a good vantage point from which to attack anything that crossed the clearing. Odo and the indisposed Berthold- with the skull in his care- themselves in the lee of the crest of the hill, while the others took their positions atop the rocky outcrop and prepared their weapons.

Time passed painfully slowly as the PC's waited, listening to the howling get nearer and nearer. The howling stopped. The waiting continued. Suddenly 5 beastmen broke through the treeline and sprinted howling across the clearing. The PC's let fly with their missile weapons- including Grundi's infamous blunderbuss- to little apparent effect.

Before the PC's knew where they were at, the beastmen were scrambling up the outcrop and hand-to-hand combat was joined. Two beastmen reached the top of the outcrop in a flash and laid into Grundi. Seigfried came to his aid. Meanwhile Mordrin rained blows down on the head of a beastman still below him.

Moments later the remaining 3 beastmen also reached the top of the outcrop, and everyone was in the thick of it. The PC's gave a good account of themselves. Grundi crushed the leg of one beastmen leaving it to topple helplessly backwards down the outcrop. Seigfried repeated Grundi's trick, only to slash the beastman's belly right through to the spine with his backswing, leaving an explosion of entrails trailing through the air as the creature fell to earth. Mordrin too was giving a good account of himself.

As beastmen blood, guts and limbs seemed to be flying everywhere, it looked for a moment as if victory was in sight, only for this glimpse of hope to be overshadowed by the sight of 5 more beastmen charging in from the left flank. A chill gripped the PC's as they feared their dooms were upon them.

Once again things happened quickly here. Siegfried ran over to tell Berthold that he and Father Odo should make their escape on the horse. Then he veered off and ran round the side of the outcrop to try to draw some of the reinforcements away from Grundi and Mordrin. The 5 beastmen split into 2 groups: 2 went after the horse, the others pursued Seigfried.

Siegfried was injured near to death by this time. He turned to face his pursuers, determined to sell himself dearly. To his surprise he saw 3 men in heavy armour appear from behind the beastmen's flank. One- wielding a mighty 2-handed axe- went to join the dwarfs, one went to the aid of Berthold and Odo, and the other- armed with a greatsword- closed in on the beastmen which were by now closing in for the kill.

Briefly worried about the newcomers' intentions, the PC's were relieved to see them wade into the beastmen, and awestruck by their display of martial prowess. Swinging their great weapons in mighty arcs they rained blow after blow on the beastmen. Grundi had by this time run round the base of the outcrop to come to Seigfried's aid, and with his help the beastmen were soon put to flight.

That's only worth half quipped Mordrin, as the brawny axe-wielder finished off the last of the group which had made the first assault. The man looked down on the dwarf with an expression of mixed amusement and amazement.

Everyone paused to catch their breath and regain their composure. The 3rd figure reappeared leading the horse with Berthold and Odo safe and sound. Siegfreid introduced himself as Constable Seigfried of the Middenheim City Watch, the other PC's as fellow watchmen, and Father Odo of the Temple of Ulric in Middenheim. The tall man with the greatsword introduced himself as Matthais Hoffer, and his companions as Jacob Bauer and Ulrich Fischer.

The newcomers soon proved to be skilled with more than just arms, as Fischer capably bandaged the PC's wounds and Hoffer invoked Sigmar's Grace to heal Seigfried's more serious injuries.

Then the interrogation began; gently to be sure, but an interrogation it was all the same, because the 3 men were Witch Hunters of the Ordo Fidelis, of whose grim repuation the PC's had first heard in assocation with the peculiar burial of Gerhard Gismore Kroen during the Morten murder case so many months ago. It turned out that the Witch Hunters knew of the party's interest in Kroen, which gave them an interest in the party. Learning something of the party's mission, they had resolved to track the party though the Drakwald to ensure no ill fate befell them. The PC's were duly grateful for this.

Hoffer plied the PC's with question after question until he had the whole story: from their journey from Untergard, through their deputisation by Schutzmann, up to their mission for Father Ranulf. The party told Hoffer that they had tracked down and 'dealt with' the murderers, but refused to say more, preferring to honour the oath of secrecy they explained they had sworn.

Hoffer showed some incredulity in the face of this story, but he was gradually persuaded of its truth.

Talk then passed to their mission for Father Ranulf. Hoffer was interested in the artefact of which there had been mention. Fearful of the Witch Hunters' reaction to those in possession of an icon of Khorne, the party preferred not to give anything away. When asked outright where the artefact was, Siegfried was able truthfully to say that they didn't have it- because Berthold had had to leave it behind when he fled for safety on the horse.

By this time Seigfried in fact had the icon hidden under his feet. Fischer meanwhile was keeping him under careful observation. With the aid of a minor diversion provided when Grundi passed him his backpack, Siegfried's hands proved faster than Fischer's eye, and he was able to hide the icon without the Witch Hunters realising.

The artefact still had to be found before everyone could leave, so a search of the area was begun. After a few minutes, Siegfried exclaimed out loud, and made for his pack. Rummaging inside, he pulled out the tattered banner of the Knights of the White Wolf found in the tomb's trophy room. Here it is he cried.

Hoffer was sceptical, a lost war banner hardly being a potential threat to the city of Middenheim as he pointed out. Amazingly, the cock-and-bull story Seigfried spun was enough to convince the Witch Hunter [rolled a 99 for his test against Seigfried's Charm!], and the matter rested there.

Preparations to move on began, with the Witch Hunters intent on escorting the party back to Middenheim.

Chaos Without, Corruption Within
- #2 Mutants, madness, and more mysteries
- Index:- My little Old World: Ashes of Middenheim

Sunday, January 15, 2006

My little Old World

The GM's reflections
Neither a lament nor confessions: that's already an improvement!

I was really nervous about last Sunday's game. There were 2 reasons for this. Regular readers will already be familiar with one. I really felt like calling the day off as the appointed time loomed, but I'd told everyone it was on, and Brian in particular had been expecting us to restart a week later. So I felt I couldn't let everyone down. Well, not until I started GM'ing the session at least.

The other reason for my nerves was the scenario. In case you don't know, I'm running The Ashes of Middenheim, part 1 of the 3-part WFRP2 campaign Paths of the Damned. After the 'it was all just a terrible dream' detour of late last year, I'd been pretty pleased to get the party back to Middenheim so that we could get stuck into the 2nd part of the campaign. Then came the holiday break, and I spent a couple of weeks reading through the material.

I've read quite a lot of complaints about AoM on the BI forums. These could be summed up as the campaign being a boringly linear MacGuffin-hunt overly dependent on combat and railroading. At the time I felt that people were missing the point: AoM is designed for novice GM's new to WFRP, not for the diehard fans with years of roleplaying- in the Old World and elsewhere- under their belts. I stand by this, but all the same, I experienced a sinking feeling as I read and reread the material I was going to be GM'ing next.

The first thing that bugged me was the set-up: the PC's are called to visit a priest of Ulric; introduced to a blind old geezer who's having dreams about daemons and lots of blood; and told that these are portents of the presence of a powerful chaos artefact that the PC's must retrieve to prevent it falling into the wrong hands. Oh yes, and thanks to the dreams, the aging blind priest is a psychic tracker who can home in on the location of this daemonic icon.

The thing is, the Old World being what it is, it struck me that the sensible thing to do in that situation would be to call in the witch hunters and have the old guy carted off to the thumbscrews and the stake. Not to go marching off into the depths of a forest known for being infested with beastmen hordes, not to mention the remnants of Archaon's chaos horde only recently defeated in the siege of Middenheim, and with only a blind man as your guide.

The prospect of another journey through the Drakwald forest didn't appeal to me too much either: I'd come to grief too many times for comfort mismanaging long journeys last year. The thing is you see, the Old World is supposed to be a dangerous place. The Empire that is the centre of human civilisation is rife with outlaws and similar lowlives. And the Drakwald is infamous as a centre of beastmen and similar horrors. So the idea of parties of PC's making uneventful journeys lasting weeks or more sits rather uncomfortably with me. I'm getting over it now I guess, but painful memories were still too fresh as I read this part of AoM over the holidays.

And even if I didn't screw up the journey through the Drakwald with another random ambush, what were the party facing when they arrived at the scene? A goddam dungeon bash. OK, OK, it was just a small dungeon- a tomb in a burial mound in fact, but it was still an underground complex with monsters magically appearing from nowhere, secret doors, traps, and so on. My players would never buy this I thought, even if they did manage to get in at all.

Manage to get in at all? Was I planning another perfectly executed off-the-cuff ambush after all? Not at all. Its just that the burial mound was guarded by a Minotaur. This thing was a complete bastard I can tell you. I fully expected it to kill 2 PC's easy. Not only that, if the party didn't get the drop on it, the damn thing was going to blow a big horn, and then there'd be a 1/10 chance of reinforcements arriving each 10 rounds (including while the party searched for an entrance into the burial mound; struggled to open it; and then delved into it- that's a lot of rolls). These could be anything from a few puny beastmen, through a few more not so puny, right up to another fricken Minotaur.

Maybe I was getting soft, I don't know, but there was no way I was going to have a bunch of over-powered bouncers waste half the party before they even got in for the main event. I mean, I had a downward spiral some 2 months long to turn around. Jeopardy was fine, but death at the hands of these monsters wasn't. As I racked my brains for some way to make the damn scene work, I imagined the fate of some poor players, playing their 3rd or 4th session perhaps, encountering this scene played straight. It must've happened, and I'll bet the carnage was dreadful to behold.

In the end, I just decided to make life simple for us all, and I dropped the Minotaur altogether. So what if I was making life easy on the PC's? I certainly was in no position to get up on any kind of high horse.

The funny thing is, it all worked rather well I reckon. There were some problems to be sure, not the least of which being that I wasn't very expressive. I had 1 NPC I could use to generate dialogue, and I'd had the idea to have him babble with increasing intensity as he got closer to the tomb. I was only able to put this across in 3rd person unfortunately. And the players were a bit restless themselves and I feared that we'd end up with more banter than anything else in the end.

Still, as the party made its final approach to the burial mound, different PC's stepped forward to fulfil the roles that their dangerous situation required. Between my descriptions and the players' questions we managed to make the surroundings fairly vivid, despite my attention to the full range of the senses being a bit weak. And as each obstacle and puzzle presented itself, it was noteworthy how everyone fell into place as a team, while at the same time beginning to express their character. Nothing fancy, just good old fashioned task and trial driven roleplaying, with some smart tactics bringing the players the sweet taste of victory.

There's still plenty of basic spadework to be done no doubt. I haven't done enough work to get the players to flesh out their PC's characters and backgrounds in a way that I can use as reference for adding details that will draw each character more fully into the world. Our pre and post-session chats haven't been thorough-going enough for us to have established a sufficient consensus about what each of us is looking for; although long since no longer strangers we're still largely unknown to each other as roleplayers in other words.

All the same: after all my worries beforehand, there was something really striking about last Sunday. We played through the simplest example of indisputably the most classic adventure- the dungeon bash. In the course of this all the PC's had to step forward to play their parts, and in so doing, they each became more individual precisely because they were becoming more of a team. Perhaps Ashes of Middenheim isn't so bad after all, eh?

The Shrine in the Forest
- #1 Dangerous dreams and buckets of blood
- #2 Undead, dead and living dread
- Index:- My little Old World: Ashes of Middenheim

Friday, January 13, 2006

Alter-ego or ego-altering?

Checking out some other gamers' blogs found at Matt Forbeck's the other night I came across one of those 'What kind of... are you?' quizzes on Anthony Ragan's Public Secrets: from the files of the IrishSpy. Deep in the throes of getting to grips with Green Ronin's most excellent Mutants & Masterminds 2nd edition, this was one I wasn't going to pass up on. And would you believe it, I'm:


Iron Man
Green Lantern
The Flash
Wonder Woman
You are intelligent, witty,
a bit geeky and have great
power and responsibility.
Click here to take the Superhero Personality Test

Turning out as one of my favourite comicbook superheroes means I have to give this test my seal of approval.

The tagline's good too. I'll leave the 'intelligent' and 'witty' for others to judge (I can hear 'half-' echoing through the ether even as I type). But: 'geeky'?- well, more than a bit I'd say; and 'great power and responsibility'?- most definitely. I'm a WFRP GM after all, which means that I've got one of the most lethal rpg combat systems going at my disposal in a classic setting of underpowered PC's facing pointless death in dirty corners. Oh, the burden.

Anthony Ragan is the author of Sigmar's Heirs, the rather nice WFRP supplement I reviewed last year. And he was Spiderman too. That would be spooky if I was superstitious, or if it was summertime and I wasn't taking my medication.

I can't be unalloyed in my praise for this test though. Why? Because Batman came at the bottom of my list, and he's the closest in there to my archetypal roleplaying superhero, my primary projection. Bit of an oddity there, but that's another story.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

My little Old World: the Shrine in the Forest #2

Undead, dead and living dread
With the chamber secure it was the work of a few moments for Siegfried to find another hollow skull to open the door that Mordrin had missed. A narrow passage lay ahead.

Blunderbuss to the fore, Grundi scouted ahead again. Sneaking forward, he saw a statue of the Blood God on his brass throne, surrounded by piles of bones. Entering the chamber, the dwarf had barely had time to look left and right before he heard the rattle of bones. Looking round he saw bones rolling together to form an arm, a torso, legs; then a pair of skeletons lurched upright and began to advance towards him brandishing rusty swords.

Grundi retreated hastily. The skeletons followed relentlessly. And the party again demonstrated a grasp of tactics painfully learned. Everyone formed up around the exit from the passage. Meanwhile, like the automata they were, the skeletons advanced up the corridor. BOOM! Grundi's blunderbuss ripped through them. With no way out of the passage the 2 skeletons, and the 2 which followed them, were picked off one-by-one with little difficulty, and again the party tasted sweet victory.

Celebrations were cut short by the sound of stone scraping on stone from the chamber ahead. Nerves already stretched tight by the horrors faced so far were tautened just that bit further by the thought that luck might yet run out. Advancing, the party spied 2 doors. Turning left they found a room full of tattered and decaying trophies of war. Several valuable relics were found as the PC's rummaged through the detritus. Everyone resolved on returning them to their rightful owners, although Grundi had to be talked out of taking the beastman-headed helmet of a long-dead Master of the Knights Panther so that he could wear it himself.

And so it was that in the very last room in the tomb in the forest that the party found what they had come so far in search of: a large, polished black sarcophagus resting in yet another pool of blood. The pool was too wide for the PC's to be able to reach the lid of the sarcophagus to lift it clear, and by now everyone was deeply suspicious of any blood dedicated to the Blood God. A plan was quickly formed.

Siegfried took Grundi's blunderbuss (not without some grumbling on the aging dwarf's part it has to be said) and headed for the front entrance to stand guard. The rest of the party set to work fetching rubble from the fountain and other rubbish to lay out 2 platforms so that the dwarfs could get close enough to the sarcophagus to exericse leverage without testing the properties of the blood in the pool. Berthold meanwhile stood ready with a crossbow, to welcome anything that might appear out of the sarcophagus when it was opened.

The sarcophagus lid was very heavy; the dwarfs' footing was unsteady; their levers were crude: it was very hard work cracking open the lid so that it could be pulled off. Eventually though it slid with a liquid crash into the pool of blood. The PC's breathed a sigh of relief when nothing more dramatic happened. Looking inside the sarcophagus, they saw the dead Chaos Champion in a full suit of plate mail decorated in the black and red of the Blood God's devotees. He had a huge greatsword and a shield as well as the brass skull on a chain round his neck that the party had come all this way to recover.

Displaying a prudent regard for their souls everyone ignored the warrior's armour and weapons. Demonstrating the caution of an experienced adventurer, Mordrin hooked the skull amulet on the end of a rusty sword, and patiently worked the chain over the dead warrior's helmet. As he pulled it free Mordrin found the revolting icon to be unexpectedly heavy, and he almost dropped it. Retrieved, the brass skull was carefully removed and wrapped up in a tattered old banner from the trophy room without anyone touching it.

Dusk was drawing down as Berthold, Grundi and Mordrin rejoined Siegfried outside. The party took stock, and decided that this was no place to linger through the night. Without further ado they slung Father Odo over the back of Grundi's horse and set out for the journey back to Middenheim.

The party pressed on through the night, hoping to keep going until daylight. But forced-marching through a dense, dark forest was too much for Berthold, and they eventually had to stop after midnight. Prudence dictated a cold camp. Siegfried took the first watch, which passed uneventfully. He went to awaken Mordrin. Passing his companions asleep on the ground, Siegfreid spotted a gleam by someone's bedroll. To his amazement, it was the brass skull, which seemed to stare malevolently at the young man as he wondered how on earth the thing had got there.

Mordrin took on his watch, while Seigfried lay brooding, sleep a long way off. Time passed as it does in the night. Alert to the sounds of the forest, Mordrin was startled by the sound of restlessness and muttering from Father Odo, who had been asleep. The old priest had got to his feet. Mordrin went to find out what was going on. The blind priest ignored the dwarf and began to make a beeline for the sleeping Berthold, who was guarding the brass skull. Seigfried tried to intervene, but was brushed aside.

The next thing everyone knew, Odo had grabbed the Khornate icon and was wrestling with Berthold for its possession. Seemly entranced the old man was unrelenting. He was grabbed, he broke free. He was knocked down, he got up. He was punched and pummelled with the hilt of a dagger to no avail. Horrified and fearful, Siegfried was on the verge of slitting Odo's throat when the venerable father finally awoke.

The old man was evidently confused and afraid, and awakening from his trance to hear people discussing killing him or tying him up did nothing to settle his nerves. In the end the party chose simply to bind his hands so that he couldn't get up to any more tricks, or wander off. Although blind, Odo could evidently recognise voices, and he was obviously scared by the sound of Seigfreid's voice. The PC's noticed this, but no one seemed to give the priest's feelings much consideration. They had worries of their own.

The Shrine in the Forest
- #1 Dangerous dreams and buckets of blood
- The GM's reflections
- Index:- My little Old World: Ashes of Middenheim

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

My little Old World: the Shrine in the Forest #1

Dangerous dreams and buckets of blood
So, with the 'festive' season out of the way, we finally got back to WFRP Sunday last. The party had returned to Middenheim the last session we played before Christmas. They proceeded to get themselves jobs: Alane got herself a job as an assistant researcher at the Guild of Wizards and Alchemists; Berthold became a scribe at the Temple of Sigmar; and Grundi, Mordrin and Siegfried signed up for a 6-month stint with the city watch.

Our intrepid bunch had barely settled in though before they received a call to visit Father Ranulf at the Temple of Ulric. There they met Ranulf and a blind old priest named Father Odo. Odo, it turned out, was possessed with terrible dreams of a servant of the Chaos god Khorne, and of a powerful icon of Khorne which had been laid to rest with this blood-soaked figure. Ranulf explained to the party that this icon had to be retrieved so that it could be made safe, and that they were just the people for the job.

With cries of horror and barely concealed reluctance, the party agreed. Leaves of absence were obtained. Preparations for the journey were made. Portents of doom were shared. And that was where we left things at the end of last year.

When the time came to depart for the journey into the Drakwald with the blind Father Odo as a guide Alane was strangely absent [her player couldn't make it]. Undaunted, the party set off. Their journey began by retracing the road to Delberz they'd taken only weeks before. Turning east at Sotturm, they eventually left the road at the village of Fintel.

Without even a path to follow, the party made slow going through the thick forest. The dull journey was enlivened only by the ravings of Father Odo, who was gripped by terrible dreams each night, and who was little better than a babbling loon during the day. At least the PC's had reason to be thankful to the Graf Todbringer, whose efforts to hunt down the beastmen and other hideous survivors of the siege of Middenheim were surely responsible for there being no dangerous incidents on the journey.

During the 10th night in the Drakwald Father Odo's dreams were more vivid and frightening than ever. He awoke with the news that they were almost upon the evil site that was their destination. Those were the last sensible words he said that day, as he went on to babble more constantly than ever.

The party marched on. Early in the afternoon they noticed the forest thinning around them. Recent adventures having taught them the wisdom of caution, the PC's decided not to march blindly forward: Siegfried went ahead to scout out the area. He found the great stone atop its mound that Father Odo had described from his nightmares. There were no signs of life.

Mordrin being the only PC without a missile weapon, it was decided that he would go forward to investigate while the others covered him from the edge of the clearing. Approaching the mound, Mordrin found the cold remains of campfires, and what looked like a large cooking pit filled with human and other bones left over from a meal that someone- or something- appeared to have enjoyed. Perched atop a mound of skulls and bones and covered in evil scribblings, the great stone towered over the mound, several times the height of a man.

The young dwarf made a cautious circuit of the mound and found nothing. So he started to kick about among the bones. Seeing no signs of immediate danger, the rest of the party were by this time moving to join him. They arrived just in time to witness Mordrin finding the entrance to the mound's interior by the simple expedient of falling half into it. Leaving Grundi on guard with his blunderbuss, Berthold, Mordrin and Seigfried set to work to clear the entranceway so that they could find a way inside.

The skulls and bones cleared away, the party found themselves staring at a great stone door decorated with a carving of the Blood God on his brass throne atop a mountain of skulls. No doubt some of the PC's wished they could be somewhere else at that moment- anywhere, doing anything other than trying to find a way into this evil site. There was nothing for it though, so the dwarfs and Berthold set to levering the huge lump of stone open. It took them quite some time, but they managed it eventually.

Inside they saw a passage sloping gently downwards into the darkness. Before entering the burial mound, the party had to decide what to do with Father Odo, whose babbling verged on hysteria as he was led towards the entrance, and who showed extreme reluctance to go inside. Afraid that the deranged old priest might wander off into the forest all alone, the PC's discussed the possibility of tying the man up. More humane voices prevailed though, and he was left sitting beside Grundi's horse at the edge of the clearing.

Making their way cautiously down the entrance passage the party found themselves surrounded by carvings of gruesome battle scenes and of the Blood God. Evil images leered at them from all sides as the light of their lantern flickered along the walls. Fortunately the passage was short, so that they didn't have much time to brood on their surroundings.

Finding themselves at a T-junction, they went left first. There was nothing to see there, so they went right. Grundi was leading the way because no one wanted to get in front of his blunderbuss. And so it was that he heard a creak from his left just in time to hit the deck as several spears sprang out from the wall at just the height where his head had been moments before. As a thief, Siegfried knew the form here. He began to peer closely at the walls. Sure enough, he soon found a hollow skull among the carvings on the wall. A quick push, and a concealed door slid open.

Beyond, the corridor sloped inwards to a 5-way junction. Leading the way as ever, Grundi turned left and advanced to investigate the new corridor. He had hardly gone a few yards before he heard a strange slurping shuffling. Looking up he saw a humanoid figure advancing towards him, leaving disturbing misty vapours behind its strangely shimmering body as it shambled forward. Grundi promptly turned round and retreated, only to discover that there was another one of these mysterious creatures moving up the opposite corridor.

Again, the PC's showed that they had learned the lessons of bitter experience. Looking around they soon noticed that the junction behind them gave room for 3 to stand in line abreast. They eagerly siezed at the opportunity for the advantage of bringing superior numbers to bear, and moved into position. Berthold too was delighted with the manoeuvre, since it left him standing behind the line holding the lantern.

All eyes were on Grundi as he stood ready with his blunderbuss, waiting for the foes to appear at the junction. He was in luck, and both the creatures arrived at the same moment. BOOM! The blunderbuss' shrapnel tore into the monsters, cutting huge holes right through their blood red mockeries of the human form. The party watched aghast as tendrils formed and the wounds knitted themselves together again, although they took comfort from the fact that the creatures looked more ragged than they had all the same.

Battle was joined. The PC's were relieved to discover that the monsters were no more immune to their weapons than they had been to Grundi's blunderbuss. Grundi though was horrified to see one of the dripping red tendrils with which the blood creatures attacked pass right through his attempted parry, and mortified to feel its cold, soul-sucking touch.

As the combatants traded blows Siegfried had a plan. Shouting at Berthold to cover him, he pulled out of the line and rummaged in his pack for a flask of oil and a bandage. Meanwhile Berthold moved forward. Then everything happened all at once. Siegfried splashed the oil on one of the bloody tomb-guardians. The other monster was finally destroyed by the others, exploding in a fountain of blood that drenched everyone nearby. Seigfried lit his bandage and lashed out at his target. Fortune was with him, and flames engulfed the monster's shoulder. The party had barely had time to savour their glee before the flames roared across the creature's chest, and it imploded to land on the floor in a loud splash.

Savouring their victory, the PC's paused to reorganise before investigating the chamber ahead: a large triangular room with a fountain in its centre, pouring blood into a pool from the mouths of 4 skulls.

Grundi led the way as ever. No sooner had he set foot in the chamber but he heard the sound of stone scraping on stone. He stepped smartly backwards out of the room. As the party watched they saw the top of the fountain start to rotate, and it was soon spraying blood around the room. Not keen on marching into this, the PC's stood and watched for a long few minutes before the spinning skulls wounds down and the fountain returned to its normal gory gushing into the pool.

The PC's stood looking at each other wondering what to do. They noticed that the blood in the chamber was running away from them, towards the far wall. After a few minutes it was clear that it was draining away too. Mordrin took matters into his own hands. Holding his shield above his head to offer a measure of protection from another shower of blood, he ran into the room and crouched beside the pool at the base of the fountain. This turned out to be the eye of the storm when the spinning fountain began to fill the room a 2nd time.

A quick circuit of the pool convinced Mordrin that there was nothing of particular interest there. Nothing ventured he decided. Again using his shield for protection, he made a circuit of the room checking the walls for a secret door, to no avail. In the process he was liberally splashed despite his best efforts with his shield. He felt his flesh sear, a sensation echoed in the recesses of his mind.

All his best efforts foiled the young dwarf battled with rising frustration. In the end he surrendered to his emotions, and laid about the fountain with his axe. This oldest of solutions proved adequate to the task. Soon enough the fountain was smashed to bits and the blood in the pool was spilling out across the floor. Dripping with blood, Mordrin flashed a triumphant grin and a manically gleaming eye at his companions.

The Shrine in the Forest
- #2 Undead, dead and living dread
- The GM's reflections
- Index:- My little Old World: Ashes of Middenheim

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

A rash of enthusiasm...

... For Space Hulk

Part 3. Tactics, tactics, tactics!
If the timer and blips rules gave the players of Space Hulk a point-of-view from which to play, the rest of the rules brought the premise vividly to life and made the game a thrilling challenge. Given the importance I have already attributed to the timer rule, it's hardly a stretch that I would see the simplicity of the action and resolution systems as important here. This simplicity made sure that the timer rule brought tension and excitement to the challenges of the game, instead of being experienced as a punitive burden.

Beyond the rules, I would also have to say that the board itself was a key element of what made the game so good. There might've been a certain implausibility to all those narrow corridors and tiny rooms- especially in the Dark Millenium, where everything was always on a grand scale; but their effect on the game was simply excellent. I guess at the most obvious level, a more open board would've made for pretty dull play in a game where only one player had ranged weaponry. But the tight confines of the Space Hulk board created a fascinating set of tactial problems for players.

These problems arose from the way in which the maze of the board broke your forces up into discrete groups, and forced them down certain definite lines of advance. As a result of this, corners and junctions became key points around which entire strategies could hinge.

The AP rules were also crucial here, breaking movement through the hulk down into bounds requiring careful judgement. The effect was that every single action counted, especially for the Terminators. Games could be won or lost as much by a misspent AP as by the fortunes of the dice.

The combination of the impact of the tight confines of the board and the strictures of the AP system placed a high premium on carefully planned advances. Moving your pieces in the wrong order could have terrible consequences. One badly placed Terminator could block a corridor, backing up the rest of his squad and leaving them open for a vicious Stealer counterattack. One misplaced blip could be caught out by a Terminator, and subjected to involuntary conversion so that it turned out to be a single Stealer instead of the 3 on which the player had been relying.

A variety of tactics had to be developed to deal with these challenges. The most obvious one was straight out of all the classic textbooks: paying attention to your flanks and rear. The maze-like nature of the board meant that there was always a chance that your opponent might hit you in or get round your flanks. Terminators had to be stationed to cover likely avenues with overwatch fire. Blips and/or Stealers had to lurk in suitable locations to deny easy access.

Apart from these basics, each specific feature of the board- doors, corners, corridors, rooms- posed its own problems for each side. For Stealers the mission usually involved stopping the Terminators achieving some objective, so the problems these features posed were all about lurking and swarming, building a force sufficiently big to swamp the Terminators with numbers. For the Terminators, typically on the offensive, these features were often intermediate objectives to be taken on the way to fulfilling their mission.

Doors for example. These were very useful to Stealer players. Blips couldn't enter a Terminator's LOS, and could only convert before moving. So a standard Terminator tactic was to fire on the move, trying to blow as many doors as possible. The hope here was to open up long fire lanes that would slow down Stealer infiltration of the hulk- only a single Stealer at a time could cross the firelane, and it might go down to overwatch.

The Stealer response to this was 'doorkeepers': get to the door first, and open it (this tactic only worked if the door was on some kind of corner btw). Next turn, the 'doorkeeper' would close the door, maybe moving off to let another Stealer/blip take its place. Now LOS was blocked and blips could move at will. Then a 2nd 'doorkeeper' would open the door to keep it safe for next turn.

Then there were corners and corridors. As a Stealer player you'd usually have a bug or blip or two lurking off side corridors, round corners, and so on, just waiting for an unwary, careless or just plain unlucky Terminator to get too close. Smart Terminators would hold back of course, but sooner or later someone would have to take the corner or shoot the corridor ('shooting' a corridor meant charging up a short corridor to clear the area ahead).

By the time you were sending your Terminator in you'd know exactly the minimum AP- including additional CP- required to get up there and clear the area. But often you'd have to get your heavy flamer up there too, to block off the corridor ahead and prevent the Stealer reinforcements just round the corner from swarming in to leave the next guy in line to have to do it all over again. A lot of the tensest dice rolling of my gaming career has come from those situations!

Sometimes too you couldn't hold back like that. Then there'd be nothing for it but to send a few Terminators in close, set them into overwatch, and hope that they'd take enough Stealers with them for you to clear the position next turn. Truly grim stuff!

One of my favourites to come out of this spiral of tactic and counter-tactic was one we called the Dance of Death. Often there'd be a position where you'd have a lone Stealer just round a corner with a Terminator on overwatch 5 squares away. That would give you 1 attack, but only after you'd been shot at 5 times. Not great odds. But then someone noticed the rule that overwatch fire was mandatory, and that it was per action, not per AP spent. Stealers could make a 90 degree turn for 0AP, and so it began: move a Stealer out further away- overwatch; free turn- overwatch; sidle- overwatch; free turn... and so on, hoping for that jam that would let the first Stealer get in for its attack.

You could lose a lot of Stealers that way if you were unlucky, sometimes blowing a whole position, but what the heck: we figured that was how the hivemind worked anyway.

Another trick we mastered was the art of packing more than 9 bugs into a 3x3 room- clinging to the walls and ceiling in other words. This all had to do with the logic of involuntary blip conversion. You set your blips up just right and then left them there waiting for a Terminator to come through the door. The first blip would convert. Its Stealer(s) would be killed, revealing more blips, which would convert, and so on. This was a lot of fun, and a handy way of stopping powerful characters.

By the time my regular hulking stopped we were also beginning to get into the intricacies of board design. This was because we'd noticed a lot of the published missions made it easy for the Terminators to interdict Stealer entry areas, or had too many long straight corridors that made good swarming and lurking too difficult for the Stealers. Naturally enough, not wanting to make life too easy for the Terminators we decided to change this around.

By way of a conclusion
The range of tactical problems and solutions and the spiral of measure and counter-measure I've sketched out here should go some way to underlining why Space Hulk deserves its classic status. Simple basic elements giving rise to complex gameplay is a hallmark of classic games, as is immense replay value. Second edition Space Hulk- with the addition of the missing timer and CP rules from 1st edition- enjoys these in spades.

Space Hulk is also a game offering the satisfaction of mastery as a reward for serious play. For me, one of the great experiences of my years' gaming has been found at the Space Hulk table. It was the sense of my Terminators as a finely honed team, poised and ready to spring into action at a moment's notice. It was a wonderful feeling, and is probably about as close as I've come in boardgaming to that feeling of being possessed by a favourite roleplaying character.

This hymn of praise to a modern classic would be a bit academic if it wasn't for one thing. The last time I went to Games Day UK, a couple of years ago, I made a point of going to the Fanatic stand to ask why GW weren't supporting Space Hulk with their Specialist Games line which supports other old games like Blood Bowl and Necromunda. I was passed down the line to Jervis Johnson.

We had a nice chat, and he explained to me what I've already explained about margins and so on. He also told me that he hoped that GW might- just might, he stressed- want to launch a boardgames division in the future. Space Hulk could have a place there he suggested, although as a proper boardgame, and not a boardgame/miniatures game crossoever. I have to say I think this would be rather cool. Games like Memoir'44 and Settlers of Catan show the kind of thing GW could do with WFB and 40K.

So if you've never gone hulking before, check out your 40K acquiantances (you must know at least one), and see if you can't get someone to introduce you to Space Hulk (don't forget to use the timer and the CP rules). And then bug GW into making Jervis' dream come true. And then maybe this great game will get another, longer-lived, revival. ;)

- Part 1. In the beginning was the hulk
- Part 2. The timer rule and player point-of-view

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A rash of enthusiasm...

... For Space Hulk

Part 2. The timer rule and player point-of-view
Like I said, I haven't done any serious hulking in quite some time now, but when I was I played the game often enough to put it in at #3 in the 1st division of my most-played games. More than that: I reckon I played Space Hulk more intensely than any other game, including Up Front (believe it or not), because it was pretty much the only game I had for a couple of years or so (my then regular gaming opponent wasn't into Up Front that much). We used to play every other week or more, often for 2 days solid, which amounts to several hundred games.

In that time I came to cherish the riches that lie behind the deceptive simplicity of the game's basic elements. And don't be fooled by that simplicity. Space Hulk is more than just an atmospheric beer'n'pretzel quickie. It is a demanding tactical challenge requiring cool nerves and the ability to think on your feet. In short: it is a feast of riches derived from simple elements after the fashion of the old school of classic games.

There are 2 key levels on which the rules of Space Hulk work to create such a thrilling gaming experience. One is the ease of play enabled by the simple basic elements. The other is (funnily enough) the way that 2 key elements of the rules combine to give the players well defined points-of-view which mean that the game vividly generates the atmosphere of its theme.

Regular readers might remember my previous comments on the matter of creating definite points-of-view in my articles on Up Front and Memoir'44. Space Hulk contrasts interestingly with these games because it is essentially a good old fashioned board and counters game (the models, however pretty, are purely decorative).

The rules that create these points-of-view are the blip rules and the timer rule. Before going on to explain this, I should note- for the benefit of any old timers who were fans of the 1st edition- that although I played the 1st edition a lot, I was always more au fait with the whole Tyranid hivefleet thing than with the classic stealer cult background of the original game. This experience naturally colours my thinking on how these rules work to enforce the points-of-view of the 2 sides in the game.

The way I see it, the time limit rule is fundamental here. I see it as working like this: the stealer player is not subject to a time limit. Thus able to take as much time as desired, the stealer player is put in the position of the hivemind in all its mysterious workings. In contrast to this the time-limited turns of the Terminator player represents the smaller individual minds of humans (even genetically-engineered supersoldier servants of the God Emperor of Man) and their less efficient coordination based on verbal communication. Thus it is stealer player's luxury of time relative to the time-pressures of the Terminator player that enforce the basic points-of-view of each side.

The blip rules pin down the Terminator player's point-of-view by neatly unifying the perspectives of the individual marines with that of their commander, who is off-board (as ever).

Note the rather odd case I am putting forward here: that it is the Terminator player's rule that defines the essential point-of-view of both sides; that this rule defines the players' points-of-view because the stealer player isn't subject to the rule; and that it is a stealer player's rule that finishes off the defintion of the Terminator player's point-of-view. This is all evidence of subtle game design if you ask me.

I have already explained (in the articles linked above) why I believe the advent of a design focus on a clear and definite player point-of-view to be a legacy of the arrival of the rpg. I believe this same pedigree is evident in the case of Space Hulk. It's fairly obvious really, given GW's early days as an rpg importer and publisher. Interestingly enough the original Space Hulk box displayed a logo announcing the game to be a '3D roleplay game'. I have to confess that I thought this to be a bit spurious at the time. With hindsight though I would have to admit that there was more to this than initially met the eye.

Apart from enforcing the players' points-of-view, and generating gut-wrenching tension on the part of the Terminator player, the timer rule also had another important effect. This was to provide a neat solution to one of the perennial problems of games in general: sitting waiting for your turn. This wasn't a problem for the stealer player, who'd never have to wait more than 6 minutes before their turn.

More interestingly though, it wasn't a problem for the Terminator player either, no matter how long the stealer player lingered over their turn. Why? Because as the Terminator player, the key to good play was constant planning while paying close attention to each and every move the stealer player made. Add in overwatch fire and the use of CP in stealer turns, and you had a game in which player involvement was as near constant as possible, a remarkable feat for a classic I-go-U-go turn structure with simple and one-sided rules for interrupting opponents' turns.

- Part 1. In the beginning was the hulk
- Part 3. Tactics, tactics, tactics!

Monday, January 02, 2006

A rash of enthusiasm...

... For Space Hulk

Part 1. In the beginning was the hulk
What with the theme of some of my recent posts, I felt it was time for a burst of untrammelled enthusiasm. Where better to look for inspiration then than this classic game from GW?

Space Hulk was the first 40K game from the GW stable I got into. I was given a copy by a friend and before I knew where I was, I'd been introduced to one of the most exhilarating adrenalin-rushes of tactical skirmish boardgaming I've ever played. Playing it week after week as I did in the days before I could afford to amass a playable army back in the dog days of Rogue Trader and the early days of 2nd edition 40K, it wasn't long before Space Hulk entered the first division of my most played games.

It's been quite some time since I did any serious hulking, but those glory days live vividly in my memories, and Space Hulk is up there with games like Up Front and Memoir'44 as one I'd happily give some serious attention to anywhere, anytime.

A bit of history
Space Hulk was first published in 1989, only 2 years after Rogue Trader- the game that launched GW's Dark Millenium on an unsuspecting universe. Adeptus Titanicus- GW's gothic take on Japanese giant robot combat- had been released only the previous year. These then were the days before GW had come to bestride the gaming industry as the behemoth we know today.

So it has to be said that the publication of Space Hulk was something of an event. It came in a big box reminiscent of the kiddies' games like Mouse Trap which many gamers will have loved in their childhoods. And the Space Hulk box was full of goodies equally reminiscent of those games too: 30 clip-together plastic miniatures; a pile of jigcut board sections in thick card; lots of doors with little stands; a pile of counters of similarly chunky quality; and 2 lavishly illustrated rulebooks.

For those already fond of the style of Rogue Trader this was a real treat. And for anyone else? Well, these were the days when the better typical boardgames came in boxes not much bigger than a coffee-table book, with paper maps and fiddly wee counters. So, like I said: the sight of a product like Space Hulk being released by a British company was big news, a real heads up. Just a pity then that I had to wait 3 years before getting my hands on my own copy. Ah well, these things happen. After all, I didn't learn to play backgammon until my early 20's, and goodness knows how many centuries old the game was by then.

The setting
The premise of Space Hulk was simple, and its inspirations obvious to any fans of SF. Space hulks were giant agglomerations of space wreckage drifting randomly through the galaxies of the Dark Millenium. Some of them were infested with Genestealers- relentless and deadly creatures of chitin and slithering flesh. Their sole purpose was to conquer other species, through infiltration and genetic implantation; a kind of extraterrestrial cuckoo if you like. Genestealers were so dangerous that when a space hulk was sighted in human space, only humanity's supreme warriors could face the threat: Imperial space marines equipped with Terminator armour that made them the equivalent of a pocket walking tank.

And so the game pitted skittering bugs with an instinct for slaughter and a taste for alien genes against genetically-engineered supersoldiers with a pathological hatred of the xeno and a holy imperative to protect their geneseed. This potent cocktail of familiar themes revisited through GW's penchant for pushing the macabre to new extremes proved to be another winner.

The game
The basic game itself was beautifully simple. It was played in predefined scenarios, with specific victory conditions for each side. These were called 'missions', a nice touch immediately setting a certain tone ('mission' has a certain imperative lacking in 'scenario' don't you think?). This was enhanced by the cheerful titles of the missions in the basic set: who could resist playing out missions like 'Suicide Mission', 'Exterminate', or 'Cleanse and Burn'? The Dark Millenium was a grim place, and hulking was its grimmest business, and boy, did you know it!

The mission set-ups were quick and easy: just lay out the board- a maze of narrow corridors and small rooms- as per the mission, set up the doors, assemble your forces, and you were good to go.

Terminators came in squads of 5: a sergeant, a heavy flamer trooper, and 3 others. Standard equipment was a storm bolter and a power fist (nifty names again). The sergeant would have a power sword instead of a powerfist, something you'd be really, really grateful for every now and again. You'd have 1 or 2 squads depending on the scenario. And that would be your lot.

If the Terminators were neat (and they were), it was with the Genestealers (Stealers hereafter) that Space Hulk first got really neat. The thing was, Stealers didn't set up on the board as models, they set up as 'blips'. Conceived to represent the hidden movement of Stealers out of sight, coupled with the effects of the scanners on the Terminators' assault ship feeding data into the marines' HUD's, blips were counters representing an unknown number of Stealers- 1, 2 or 3 in the basic game.

These blips couldn't act as Stealers- eg. attack- until they were 'converted', ie. flipped over and replaced with the appropriate number of Stealer models. The rules governing this meant a major element of the game was the war of manoeuvre: the Stealer player looking for the ideal place to convert his blips so as to launch an attack; the Terminator player trying to catch blips in open sight, thus surprising the unwary Stealers (a.k.a. 'involuntary conversion') and gunning them down before they could react.

As well as sneaking about out of sight, the Stealer player also had the advantage of reinforcements. Every turn he would get a certain number of additional blips- drawn at random- which he could place at certain designated entry points beside the board. So a major tactic for the Stealer player was massing and swarming if he could- ie. was drawing good blips; or using bluff and uncertainty if he had to- ie. was drawing puny blips.

The gameplay was neat and clean. The turn structure was I-go-U-go, and models were activated using action points (AP). Terminators had 4 AP, Stealers 6, and the effects of the AP costs of the various actions was to make Terminators slow and lumbering while Stealers were fast and agile. Close combat was based on rolling d6's, highest winning (ties were a standoff). The Stealers had 3d6 to roll and choose from though, to the Terminators' 1d6, so close combat was very one-sided: Terminators who lasted more than 1 round with a Stealer were heroes; those who killed one were legends!

Of course, the Terminators had those storm bolters, so they were hoping that the bugs wouldn't get that close. Shooting was dead easy: roll 2d6 and pray for 6's. If you missed, roll again, and pray for 5's or 6's this time, unless you were storming forward with moving fire or firing in overwatch. Ah yes, overwatch! This was the core of Terminator tactics (except for the flamers that is). A marine could spend AP to set overwatch. This allowed fire at Stealers once per action conducted in LOS in their own turn. This was normal fire with the added risk that if you rolled a double, your gun jammed. You just had to pray that you'd survive long enough to repair it!

The resulting overwatch corridors gave rise to another of the game's crucial conflicts, with the Terminators trying to lure the Stealers onto their guns to thin down their numbers; or trying to hold in one direction while seeking to break through in another. The narrow corridors- 1 model wide, and the small rooms - only 3x3, were useful here. But the Terminators' greatest friend in this respect was the heavy flamer.

Unlike the storm bolter, which could only shoot at one target at a time, the heavy flamer was a template weapon that could clear entire rooms with a single shot. But because they left an impassible wall of flame on the board during the Stealers' turn, their prime use was in blocking corridors. Cutting off the advance of the main Stealer swarm on one flank while storming forward on the other was the mark of a Terminator commander who knew how best to utilise the combination of heavy flamers and overwatching storm bolters.

The Terminators had another trick up their sleeve: Command Points (CP). Representing the effects of the leaders aboard the assault ship, CP were generated by drawing a chit at the start of each Terminator turn to get a value from 1-6. Counting as extra AP available to spend on any marine, these could be spent at any time- including during the Stealers' turn. Of course you could never rely on them, but they gave the Terminators an added edge, and sometimes more.

The last rule in the basic game applied to the Terminators, and it was as important to their play as the blips rules were to the Stealers, and key to the whole game IMO. This was the timer rule. Terminators had only 3 minutes per squad to take their turn. This was reduced to 2 minutes and 30 seconds if a sergeant had been lost. Once the time was up, that was it, turn over.

And that's about that.

A bit more history
As ever Space Hulk received support in White Dwarf, and its success was sufficient for the release of 2 supplements: Deathwing, and Genestealer (both 1990).

Deathwing introduced a host of new rules: Terminator characters; new weapons; rules for multi-level games and new features of the hulk; rules and points values for DIY scenarios, and for solo play. Genestealer introduced genestealer hybrids- different phases of the Stealer life-cycle; new blips; more weapons; the psychic rules; new wider corridors; and Grey Knights.

In 1992 GW also released Tyranid Attack. This was a bit of an oddity. It was a legacy of GW's collaboration with Milton Bradley, featuring the components of their Space Crusade game, and using a set of stripped-down Space Hulk rules. The genestealers had begun to mutate away from their original concept towards what they are today. This is just one aspect of the wider Tyranid species: a hivemind collective that genetically mutates its various subspecies to meet its various needs as it strives to fulfil its purpose, which isn't that much different from that of the original Stealers- ie. the conquest and destruction of all other lifeforms through the absorption of their biomass and genotypes.

The game itself was set aboard a Tyranid hiveship instead of the corridors and rooms of the space hulks of old. It featured space marine scouts against Tyranid warriors instead of Terminators against Stealers. Tyranid Attack wasn't a huge success, and it, and then the rest of the Space Hulk range soon disappeared from the shelves in GW stores.

That wasn't the end of this great game though. It was rereleased in a brand, spanking new edition in 1996, a game which IMO is up there with Blood Bowl 3rd edition and WFRP2 as the best new editions of any GW game, ever.

Space Hulk 2nd edition contained all the bits familiar from 1st edition, and a bit more. For a start it was in glorious full colour: board sections, counters, rulebooks, the lot (well, OK, there were a few black and white illustrations). There were 18 scenarios compared to the 6 of the 1st edition (reprinted in the 2nd edition), and a total of 14 from the 3 parts of the 1st edition. There were nice new Terminator models that were as good as the existing metal miniatures sculpted by the inimitable Jes Goodwin. Thre was some other chrome, like the new shooting dice. And there were the rules.

With one caveat, the rules of 2nd edition Space Hulk cleaned up a few niggling gaps in the originals, and at the same time made some valuable advances. Terminator AP options were tidied up by allowing firing while turning as well as just while moving forwards or backwards- sensible enough when you think about it. Involuntary blip conversion was tweaked to allow the Terminator player to decide the facing of the Stealers- thus giving you your full and just reward for outmanoeuvring the swarm. The LOS rules were simplified in a way that closed down any possibilty of unfortunate arguments while at the same time reinforcing the claustrophobic feel of the confines of the hulk. The blip deck was brought up to date with new blips- 0, 4, 5, and 6- which had been introduced in the expansions to the first edition.

Most important though IMO was the complete rewriting of the heavy flamer rules. The original rules were that the template covered all of the particular board section into which it was fired. This could be as few as 2 squares, or many as 12- obviously a bit dumb, and something that was houseruled away pronto. The new rules gave a heavy flamer 12 flame markers (plus a reload) which could be fired in a 'chain of fire' in a rather realistic way. The overall effect of these rules was neatly to distinguish killing fire from blocking fire while also stripping out any record keeping when it came to the blocking wall of fire. Playable and clever: I liked it!

So what was this caveat I referred to? Simple: they left out the timer rules for the Terminators. The charge of dumbing down is often levelled at GW in respect of new editions of their games. I'm not usually in agreement with these opinions. I am in this case though. Removing the timer rules gutted the game of one of its key features. Terminators in Space Hulk without the timer is like alcohol-free lager, or decaffinated coffee- it's unnatural in other words. Spending CP in the Stealers' turn was also left out, but that's not so important. Both were houseruled back in in any event.

Despite this high quality, the new edition wasn't universally popular among the fans of the original. The most common complaint I've heard was that there weren't all the expansions the 1st edition enjoyed. This is undeniable. In this respect the new edition fell victim to the corporate policies that had come to rule GW in the days since 1st edition: the game simply didn't have the margins to make it worth the company's while, whether we like it or not.

Beyond that though, it has to be noted that all the extra rules from the expansions to the 1st edition ended up making the game unwieldy. The simple shooting rules had been replaced with tables where you cross-referenced weapon and target type to get the d6 score needed to hit. And then there were the psychic rules. Even fans of the 1st edition are wont to agree that the psychic rules were simply over the top. And that's not to mention all the complications introduced by the arrival of the Chaos Space marines, power armoured marines, and so on, in the pages of White Dwarf.

Against the complainers, I would have to point out that the simple and deadly hi-octane carnage of the original game had got lost under all the chrome. The game needed to be stripped back to its core and reworked; maybe then it could've been re-expanded. Sad to say, when this was done- and done very well indeed IMO- a game like Space Hulk was no longer on GW's agenda. This classic tactical skirmish game had fallen victim to the very corporate policies that had made its revision possible. ;)

- Part 2. The timer rule and player point-of-view
- Part 3. Tactics, tactics, tactics!