Thursday, 30 December 2010

What's in a Name?

Presenting, for your enjoyment or utility or both, one hundred words pulled from Blogger's comment verification system. If you're ever stuck for a name for a corrupt wizard, a decadent city or an exotic island, just roll a d100 on the the table and you're done. It's a bare bones file, with no fancy formatting, but one day I might tart it up a bit or even expand it to a d1000 table.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Blood Bowl (Nintendo DS)

Games Workshop's Warhammer is a juggernaut of a franchise. Its runaway success has changed the company from a single hobby shop in Hammersmith to an international corporation, and the game has expanded beyond the tabletop into board games, role-playing games, video games, MMORPGs, novels, comics, and even, in the latter stages of 2010, a straight-to-dvd film, although reviews haven't been too good on that last one.

Warhammer is the company's core product, but there's also a horde of lesser games, lost to the mists of time and commanding high prices on eBay, stuff like Chainsaw Warrior and Lost Patrol. Somewhere in between is a middle tier of games that have never been huge money-spinners, but have remained popular enough to remain in production, on and off, throughout the company's life. Blood Bowl is one of these, a Warhammer-ised version of American football, with orcs and goblins beating seven shades out of dwarves and elves, and with maybe a touchdown or two thrown in. In the game, players take it in turns to advance their teams up the pitch, seize the ball, and through applied brutality, agile footwork, or dead-eye accuracy, attempt to get the ball into the end zone to score. Their chances of doing so are modified by their teams' skills and statistics as well as a significant amount of luck, as generated by the rolling of dice.

In 2009, Blood Bowl was released to a number of video game platforms, including this DS version. It lacks the 3D environment of the PC and console releases, opting for a isometric viewpoint; while some may view this as a negative, and it does at first glance seem like a retrograde move back to the 16-bit era and a waste of the DS' capabilities, the viewpoint works in the game's favour, allowing for a wider field -- pun intended -- of vision, as befits what is, after all, a game of strategy.

Similarly, the lack of a real-time mode turns out to be a missing feature which is not missed, as the end result is something which is more or less a straight translation of the board game into electronic form. The original board game is strong enough that 3D graphics and arcade-style gameplay are not improvements but unnecessary distractions, and for whatever reason they were removed from the DS edition, it has resulted in a better game. The fidelity to the source material also means that those players who want a quick game of Blood Bowl, but can't find an opponent or don't have the space to set up the board, can instead whip out the DS and indulge. There is also a rudimentary local multiplayer option, as well as a "hot seat" mode, which may be a misnomer on a portable system.

All that said, some features are indeed missed, such as the wilder players and options some of the teams bring along with them, and while eight types of team are included it is disappointing that evocative races such as the dark elves and undead have been overlooked. It is possible however that only those familiar with the original game will miss these bells and whistles, as the core gameplay offers plenty of complexity to keep strategic thinkers happy. On the other hand, those same strategic thinkers may not be quite as happy with the difficulty of the game; while the single-player mode will prove a challenge due to an aggressive CPU, the AI does on occasion seem to engage in some wild and hare-brained schemes, such as sending players to the far corners of the pitch to await passes which are never likely to come, or withdrawing strong blockers from the front lines, and so on.

The game benefits from good graphics, with good designs and smooth animation, although it would have been nice to have some variation in how the players moved. There are some neat cut scenes during the game, with the referee stepping in to conduct the opening coin toss and adjudicate fouls, and so on, and there are is a brief appearance from the game's commentators, familiar to those who have played the board game. Perhaps the most important cut scene of all is that which plays when a touchdown is scored, and alas this is the most disappointing, with dodgy-looking cheerleaders and no variation in the animation at all; it would have been a neat touch to have included burly orc cheerleaders, ethereal elven cheerleaders, bearded dwarven cheerleaders, and so on. The game also lacks much in the way of music, with only one or two tunes in evidence, although perhaps a wise move to shun in-game music, which could have become annoying with individual matches taking up to an hour to play.

This lack of polish can sometimes be an annoyance, but the game survives. There are some glitches in the code that may prove to be a more fatal issue. Outside a match, the game can sometimes take a long time to move between screens, which could be put down to loading times were it not for the simple fact that Blood Bowl is a cartridge-based title. At times, the game can lock up during these pauses, necessitating a restart and the subsequent loss of data, most annoying during a league game where a team has built up money and experience over a season. Other editions have been fixed by updates, and a new version of the game was released in 2010, but neither have made it to the DS alas.

All in all, Blood Bowl on the DS is a very basic game, and the lack of features and polish can be a bit disappointing at times. That said, the core gameplay is strong, a faithful adaptation of a great board game and at the end of the day, it's the gameplay that matters most.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

What a Carrion

Last night, we wrapped up the Pathfinder one-off we started last week, with the player-characters successful in rooting out the cult activities in Carrion Hill and defeating the eldritch abomination the cult had summoned.

As I mentioned before, I found the Pathfinder ruleset to be far less intimidating to run than I had anticipated, but even so I think it's too bitty -- in the sense that it has a lot of working parts -- for my liking, and if I were to run a D&D variant again in the future, I think it is likely to be something a bit more loose and interpretative like Swords & Wizardry or Labyrinth Lord. The move in D&D3 -- and thus Pathfinder -- to codify everything has I think led to a situation where exploitation of the rules has become more possible, rather than less; a good example of this is the idea of an optimum character build, something which is almost unknown in earlier editions. I don't begrudge the playing of the system in this way -- indeed my monk in Ben's game is an example, with his five attacks a round and his inability to be hit -- but I do wonder if the game as a whole is unbalanced in loading all this on the players' side. Much as I hate to admit it, but the Unmentionable Edition is perhaps more robust in this regard.

I'm sure it is possible to head off the exploits and level the playing field, but I suspect it takes a familiarity with the game that I am never likely to have, and that it would be easier to achieve in a simpler system. We shall see, as I have already been asked to run something under Swords & Wizardry.

I also wonder if these issues would have been as prevalent if the adventure had been better. I was quite impressed by Carrion Hill as I read through it, as it has a clever time-sensitive element as well as a neat modular structure reminiscent -- perhaps deliberately -- of the classic Masks of Nyarlathotep. The players are thrown into a situation, but can tackle the next sections in any order they please, which in turn can affect the climax of the scenario. The problems arose in the details, and these only became apparent in play.

The adventure suffers from a lot of glaring bottlenecks in the plotting. For example, the vital clue which lets the players know what to do next and unlocks that modular structure is written in Aklo, a language most characters are unlikely to have, and which is not even represented among the included pre-generated characters; the party got around this by having the cleric spam Comprehend Languages for a whole day, but that led to them falling afoul -- if only a little -- of the time limit. On a similar note, there are far too many sections where high skill values in Knowledge (Arcana) and Disable Device are required to progress, which can end the scenario right there and then unless the GM fudges things. The scenario more or less demands that a wizard and a rogue are in the party, but nowhere is this mentioned, and again the pre-generated characters don't measure up and are unlikely to hit the numbers required.

Furthermore, nonsensical situations abound and only exacerbate the bottlenecks. A building with an epic-level lock on the front door is bad enough, but for the same building to be made of thick stone, to have no windows and for the doors to be made of the same thick stone stretches credibility. Is this a fortress, perhaps? Or a gold depository? No, it's a brick factory. The whole adventure seems to be designed in this negative, passive-aggressive fashion, where everything is there to hinder the players, as if this were not a game, as the whole point of it was not for people to have fun. That said, some faults lean in the players' favour, such as the villain who occupies a room too small for the whole party to enter, which would be fine if he were a close-quarters fighter rather than a magician. Or the big final monster of the scenario, which is so big that by the rules as written it should not be able to get out of the first location, let alone get close enough to the player-characters to menace them at the climax.

I have bought two of Paizo's adventures. One was so awful that I knew it from a read through, but Carrion Hill surprised me. If I am to use their scenario materials again, it will be as a source of ideas rather than something to be run as is, as the convenience of a pre-written adventure is outweighed by the poor writing.

Saturday, 11 December 2010


With our regular Pathfinder campaign paused in order to give GM Ben a bit of time to recharge, we've been taking the opportunity to try some new games. Last week Stuart blessed us with another excellent Cold City scenario -- it remains a brilliant game -- and last night I picked up the baton and ran a one-off Pathfinder scenario, as Ben had mentioned that he was keen on seeing what it was like to play the game from the other side of the GM screen. I picked Paizo's Carrion Hill, as all my games seem to turn into Call of Cthulhu at some point, and this gave me an excuse.

I think I ended up running the thing by default, as no one else was in a position to volunteer, and I have to admit I was a bit concerned. My tastes in game design are for more simple rulesets, not the five hundred page monster that is the Pathfinder rpg, but I think it turned out okay. While the game does seem to have a rule for everything, in most cases you can get away with picking a target number, and getting the players to roll a d20 and add the result to whatever ability you just decided on a fraction of a second before.

One might think that having a prepared scenario helped, but I've discovered that Carrion Hill, which seemed so strong on a read through, has some real problems. I won't go into them now, as we're only half way through and I don't want to spoil anything for next week, but suffice to say that it has some serious design flaws, some of which a half decent editor should have spotted.

All that said, my first attempt at running the game didn't seem to be as huge a disaster as I'd imagined it would be, but I'm still not sure it gave Ben the experience he wanted! He has been nudging me into running Swords and Wizardry or Runequest though, both of which are much more my kind of thing, so we'll see what, if anything, happens on that front.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Ministry of Blades : The Madness of Angels, episode 2

Dr Pleasant is introduced; Prentiss chases a burglar.


18th November 2010.

Dramatis Personae

Lady Antonia deVore - a Heavily-armed Aristocrat.
Captain Benson Curruthers - a Military Policeman.
Doctor Zephaniah Pleasant - a Sinister Surgeon.
Miss April Sharpe - a Self-taught Inventor.
Jack Prentiss - a Dodgy Pedestrian.
The Chief Verger of St Paul’s Cathedral.
The Foreman of Burland’s Contractors.
Mrs Geffey, a Worried Wife.
Mrs Bodie, an Unconcerned Wife.
The Very Reverend Greenfield's Valet.


The team descended to the central area under the dome, where they found a tall, dark figure waiting somewhat impatiently. Introducing himself as Dr Zephaniah Pleasant, another Ministry agent, he demanded to know why he had been dragged out of bed at such an ungodly hour. While Marsh ducked out into the streets to pursue some leads of his own, Curruthers brought him up to date on the mystery and their discoveries so far. Pleasant requested access to the body and proceeded to carry out a more thorough examination; although he was able to learn little new, he was able to confirm the others’ suspicions.

The team decided it would be helpful to examine the Dean’s office. Taken upstairs to the west wing of the building, they found a smart but somewhat sterile room. A detailed examination of the furniture and window frames and a search for secret panels discovered little of interest. Musing that he would have kept anything of interest at home, Curruthers realised that the key in the pocket book was for the front door of a house. Deciding to investigate this later, they asked the Chief Verger about the works in the roof.

The Verger took them to the Records Office, situated in the Chapterhouse nearby, where he pulled out a ledger and tracked down the works order for the job. As the office of the contractor was close by, they headed there first. Upon arriving, they found the foreman looking rather annoyed: it seemed three of his workmen had failed to report in this morning, and while he expected this kind of behaviour from Bill and Charlie Bodie, he thought better of the senior mason, Martin Geffey. It didn’t take long for the team, posing as a Metropolitan Police investigative team, to discover that these were the workers from the Cathedral project and to obtain their addresses. They moved on to Geffey’s address, a decent, if small, terraced house in the East End, where they found his wife beside herself with worry: he had failed to return home last night and she was worried something had happened to him. Asked if he ever stayed late at the pub, she told them that he was not a heavy drinker and was devoted to his family. Mrs Bodie, meanwhile, wife of Charlie and daughter-in-law of William, was completely unworried; while both men had failed to come home, this was hardly unusual and she was much happier when they weren't cluttering the place up.

The team decided to move on and investigate the victim’s private residence in Islington. Once more presenting themselves as members of the Met, they were admitted by his valet, who they questioned with care, discovering that the staff were very upset by the news. He agreed to let them examine the Dean’s study, leaving them to take their time. Carrying out a thorough search of the room, they turned up a bundle of personal letters, a series of personal journals, a collection of reference works on the study of the angelic hierarchies (from several different traditions) and a pair of hefty looking tomes in Hebrew. Miss Sharpe tried her Detecteronatron again, detecting a faint aura around the Hebrew works, which Dr Pleasant now took an interest in.

After they had searched for half an hour or so, several of them heard noises from upstairs, not unlike furniture being moved. Curruthers reacted immediately, heading out and up the stairs at the double. He found the door to the room above closed and knocked, listening for a response. He heard the sound of footfalls, moving away from the door, and tried to open the door, planning to give chase. Unfortunately, the door was locked but Prentiss, currently standing idle, was looking out of the window and saw a pair of boots descending from above. Wrenching the window open as their owner dropped past him, he sprang out to give chase…

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Savage Eberron: Bards

In my Savage Eberron game earlier this year, Manoj played a half-ogre bard. At the time I did not have access to any official rules for bards in Savage Worlds, so I made some up; since then I've got hold of the Fantasy Companion, which has the Troubadour Professional Edge, but I prefer my version, as it's a bit simpler.

Bards are arcane spellcasters, and follow all standard rules for Arcane Background (Magic), with the following exceptions:
  • A bard's arcane skill is Perform (Spirit), and this skill may also be used for mundane performances. A bard's Charisma modifier may be added to skill rolls for both mundane and arcane purposes.
  • A bard may only cast spells through the playing of a musical instrument, singing a song, orating an epic poem, performing a dance, and so on. If the bard cannot perform this action, they cannot cast the spell.
  • All spells are available to the bard, as long as they could plausibly be cast through one of the above methods. For example, an inspiring song might have the same effect as Boost/Lower Trait, but it is more difficult to explain how dancing could generate a Barrier. Common sense and GM discretion apply.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Absolutely Nothing!

Yesterday Stuart posted some musings about wargaming, and it got me thinking about the fine art of pushing little tin lead white metal soldiers about a table.

As a teenager I did a fair bit of wargaming, although it was all of the Games Workshop variety, aside from one afternoon playing The War Machine mass combat rules from the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. I have a poor head for tactics, one that borders on the comedic -- some of my opponents might say moronic -- so I was never much good at these games; I won my first game of Warhammer Fantasy Battle with a bold undead cavalry charge and thrashed a GW staff member at a display game of the then-new Epic 40,000, but aside from a long unbeaten run at Warhammer 40,000 -- because Genestealers were very, very broken in the first two editions -- that was the extent of my success as a general. Even so I still had great fun playing, before rising costs and rules changes -- in the case of 40K a combination of both, with the increase in the basic army size in the third edition -- pushed me out of the hobby.

Also, if I'm honest, I'm rubbish at the painting. I have a smidegeon of artistic talent, but I can't transfer that to the painting of figures to save my life. My neon pink Genestealer Cult is an embarrassment to this day.

So that's why I don't play these games any more, despite there being a sizeable community of tabletop wargamers here in Brighton. I'd love to play, but I can't afford an army and even if I could, it would look like a four-year-old painted it. A blind four-year-old. With no hands.

Even so, Stuart's post woke my long-dormant love of wargames, and so I did some poking around. Even after being out of the hobby for over a decade, I knew enough to know that Warmachine is a popular alternative to the Nottingham hegemony, and I've seen some of the models in use in our various role-playing game campaigns, so I know that they're well designed bits of kit. The game is based around small warbands -- just like the Warhammers back in the day -- which might make the painting a bit less painful for me, and the game's emphasis on the mechanised warjacks with infantry as support reminded me of the Workshop's Space Marine, my favourite of all their wargames, despite being no more successful at it than anything else.

Then I saw the cost of the models, comparable to GW's pricing but for even less stuff, and that killed my interest in Warmachine. Maybe if I win the lottery. In the meantime, the world is spared my neon pink Cygnar warjacks.

So that was that, but then for some reason the Dreaded and Unmentionable D&D4 popped into my head, perhaps because it's often criticised as a wargame masquerading as an rpg. I don't think that's entirely fair, as it's more that the strong emphasis on the combat system makes it very easy to ignore everything else, but it did get me wondering about what could happen if one embraced that criticism and played D&D4 as a wargame.

The first step would be to create an interesting battlefield, with lots of environmental features to add some tactical flexibility to the game. Pits, areas of difficult terrain, things to climb on, and so on, nothing too unfamiliar to the average wargamer. After that's done, there seem to be two options:

  • Classic Mode in which one -- or more -- player creates a party of heroes and pits them against a monstrous force. This would be D&D4 as written, more or less, only there'd be no plot or role-playing, as the emphasis would be on the battle, which has the handy side-effect of heading off the problem of the fight taking up the entire session, as so often used to happen.
  • Total War in which the players decide on an XP budget as described in the DMG, then buy monsters -- which need not be actual bug-eyed beasties -- and set them against each other. This version would feel much more like a traditional wargame.
I don't know how exciting it would be, or if D&D4's mechanics are too involved and complex for a wargame, but based on my experience of it, I don't see why it shouldn't work. This is more or less what the Dungeon Delves book does, after all, it's just less honest about it.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Musings & thinking ahead to the next campaign!

Setting search
I am wondering what setting I’d at some point like to run some non-generic fantasy in. As much as I am enjoying Kingmaker, it is a generic-quasi-Greyhawk setting (magical Europe)…. And in that respect it feels limited/ limiting… and even non-magical…. (no worries to those playing it - it is still a blast - I am just aware that I need to also slowly plan ahead - it is How I Am ;)
But what next (as in in 2+ years time)…. Various settings interest me:

  • Shattered world concept – SW have a setting for it ‘sundered skies’ – but it is not quite what I am after (don’t like linear paths to start with)

  • Swords and Sorcery concept – ala Conan/ Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, with low magic (Iron Heroes perhaps?)

Post-apocalyptic world – taking some of the ideas from Dark Sun – but in a different political setup.

  • Steampunk – early age – ala Defoe (the comic) meets New Crobuzon from Mieville’s work (but I am aware an rpg is apparently been made for this). Iron Kingdoms d20 has some classes and gear which could be nicked for this purpose.

1600s Europeala Solomon Kane (but not a replica of that) – Gothicblack powder weapons, clockwork, think Sleepy Hollow.

Party concept
I also have another conundrum –what kind of adventuring party concept? I like to set up a game, in liaison with the Team, as to what kind of party angle they would like a stab at, as well as what kind of game….. Having made the guys I game with play good pcs, and with Stuart chomping at the bit to play more of a ‘grey’ moral pc, (ala the anti-heroes of old, as well as Conan/ Fafhrd being heroes who were also pursuing self interest)… I am keen to have a party set up which captures those possibilities…..

Thus possible party structures:
  1. Mercenaries - like Conan was for part of his career - in the sense they are members of a merc group, have a code of honour, are not evil, but neither are they good - but certainly would be united against the hordes of chaos etc. Could be any pc classes & pure sandbox - although they could seek out missions (for money), as well as developing their own ways of making hard cash - works in low magic S&S/gothic/planar settings OR
  2. Thieves Guild - they could start off as lowly scum in the city's Thieves' Guild - and the first arc is them rising to mediocrity in the ranks: rogue, fighter, ranger, wizard/ sorcerer - play it out like GTA - with missions, as well as with sandbox - think the Sopranos meets Fafhrd & Grey Mouser here - works in an urban adventure setting - and events could see them having to leave it for a while.....(eg falling out with their bosses).... works in gothic/ S&S/ planar settings OR
  3. Witch Hunters – they could be members of a religious order & hangers on: inquisitor, paladin, cleric/cavalier, wizard and rogue/ranger - again like GTA - a mix of sandbox and missions from your bosses. Think Van Helsing & Solomon Kane here - works in the gothic/ planar setting
Obviously some party concepts may work better in a certain campaign. Here's one example:

Witch-hunter setting/ campaign - fleshing it out a little
Reasons for joining the witch hunters: personal gain, joy in hunting, with one party member possibly playing the role of a believer in the cause, but also believing in using whatever tools (eg other pcs despite their greed), and methods they can (since they can rationalise anything in their warped ethical code)

Style of game....thus you have a party moving through the countryside, like in The Witchfinder General, hunting down trouble - for gain (honour, gold, power, women's favour, fear of locals, etc). It could also be part urban - Gothing up Ptolus for example - its backdrop of the Spire, and all the undead in the graveyards is a perfect backdrop for a Gothic witch hunter game for d20.

Development. Of course - as pcs progress, the game could explore how the pcs develop - or otherwise - a broader perspective - eg morality etc - but initially - for 5 levels or so – the game could encourage them to act it out as immoral basterds doing pursuing self interest in the name of their gawd.

Technology levels: I am thinking the backdrop would be airships, guns, etc - but these would add flavour initially - rather than being the centre of attention, eg the party could have either a pc or maybe better npc arcane mechanik in their mercenary band who helps upgrade gear - so long as the pcs get them the resources they need to do the work on their portable workshop inside their steam-wagon. Defoe is of interest here - with the zombie-apocalypse as the backdrop, and the famous scientists of the day pressing fast-forward on the tech levels as they try to create better guns and tech to beat the zombie hordes - applying ideas from Deadlands to 1669 England.

System: either
Pathfinder – with classes such as the new ones from the APG: inquisitor, alchemist, cavalier (?)… as well as old ones: paladin, cleric, rogue – with tech levels – I prefer those of 1600AD-ish for this ..

could be the other setting/ system for this game of course. 3e or 2e this is the question!!

Plenty of loose ends here - assuming I stick with this concept:
  • what system? WFRP (2e/3e) or Pathfinder (I know there are others - but these will do for me)
  • tech levels: Solomon Kane of 1600 - black powder only; or the more souped up stuff from Defoe, or even New Crobuzon, with trains..... Renaissance/ just pre-industrialisation/ industrialisation - all of these choices have profound consequences!!what world? Do I modify/ modernise an existing one - what would happen to it if.... (advantages - people may be familiar with it, eg WFRP - but in an industrial age, so some things would be strange), or start from stratch? (won't upset people, but involves more work!) This partly depends on 'what system'.
  • What world? Do I want to modify/modernise a familiar world - what would it look like with these new technologies/ if a zombie-apocalypse happened etc or create a new one from scratch? Each has stengths and weaknesses.
  • Is this the game I want to run? (ie I still need to explore the other ideas as well!

More musings another time. Time to bust a groove now and do some work!