London Swag

It wouldn’t be a trip unless I brought home some books and games. I like to travel light these days, so I can carry everything on, but that’s at odds with my love of books. I could easily have found more to buy, but knowing I’d have to hump it all home constrained me. I suppose that’s a good thing. In any case, here’s what I brought back:

The Afghan Wars, 1839-1919 by T.A. Heathcote: Picked this up at the National Army Museum. I’ve read some about Britain’s colonial wars in Afghanistan, but going to that exhibit made me want to know more.

Atomic Highway by Colin Chapman: Traded with Dom from Cubicle 7 for this. It’s a post-apocalyptic RPG I’ve been wanting to check out.

City of Thieves by Ian Livingstone: Ian brought a bunch of signed Fighting Fantasy books to sell in the charity auction. I won this one.

Crusaders of the Amber Coast by by Paolo Guccione: Another Cubicle 7 trade. This is a RPG sourcebook for BRP on running a campaign during the Baltic Crusades. I had not heard of it before, but I’m always interested in gaming supplements that take on history.

Duty and Honour  by Neil Gow: And speaking of history, there’s Duty and Honour, a RPG in which you play a British soldier during the Napoleonic Wars. Many years ago I contacted Bernard Cornwell’s agent to try to license the Sharpe’s novels, so it didn’t take much to sell me on this.

Hospitallers, The History of the Order of St. John by Jonathan Riley-Smith: Short history of the Hospitallers I got at the Order of St. John’s museum.

Imperial Armor, Volume 9, The Badab Campaign, Part One: The Forge World 40K books are gorgeous but also spendy. I arranged a trade before Dragonmeet with Andrew Kenrick so I could bring this baby home with me. Back in the 90s I wrote a short story for GW, Into the Maelstrom, about Huron and the Red Corsairs, so I was naturally interested in a book all about the Tyrant of Badab’s famous conflict with the Imperium. Now must wait for volume 2.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess by James Raggi: James was nice enough to give me a copy of his fantasy RPG and a bunch of its adventures. I was already curious about this because it seemed to be a game from the Old School Renaissance that was more than a copy of some iteration of D&D. And it’s a boxed set and everyone knows I love boxed sets.

Marlborough’s Wars, Eyewitness Accounts, 1702-1713 by James Falkner: My other purchase at the National Army Museum: This was tries to get at the lgend of Marlborough through the accounts of people who were there. Looks interesting.

Originally published on LiveJournal on December 3, 2010. 

Fuck Wil Wheaton, I Want to Game!

It was 1987 and I was a freshman at New York University. I’m not sure why, but I thought at the time that I might not do much gaming at college. As it happened, however, I stumbled across a game group playing in the lounge of my dorm when returning from a punk rock show at CBGB. I talked to a guy named Sandeep and he invited me to the game the following week. That’s how I joined the Society for Strategic Gaming at NYU (funny name, as we did way more roleplaying than strategic gaming, but there you go).

We played on Sunday nights. We’d have dinner and then rally up around 7 for roleplaying. This was AD&D at first, then other games like Runequest, MERP, Twilight 2000, TORG, WEG’s Star Wars, and especially WFRP. We’d usually end the session between midnight and 1 am and then a group of us would inevitably head off to the Washington Square Restaurant (a nearby 24 hour diner) for food, coffee, and conversation. The hardcore would then return to the dorm at 3 am and play a boardgame. We had nights when we’d start a game of Talisman at that time, finish at 8 in the morning, and then go get breakfast in the cafeteria. Ah, college. Sometimes we even found time to go to class.

This was all just starting in September though and I was getting to know the group. John Footen was trying to run up to a dozen people through the original Dragonlance modules and it was no great surprise that it was bogging down. Nonetheless, it was great to get to game and to make some new friends who shared my geeky interests (and indeed many of these folks are my good friends to this day).

One Sunday we were eating dinner and Chris Keefe (who later did art for Green Ronin) informed me that we’d be starting the game hours late that night. When I asked why, he said, “Star Trek: The Next Generation debuts tonight.” I was not impressed. Surely we could watch it later. Chris said no, the plan was to watch it in the lounge with a big group of people. He added, “Come on, Wil Wheaton is in it, and he was great in Stand By Me.”

“Fuck Wil Wheaton,” I said. “I want to game!”

I lost the argument. We watched Encounter at Farpoint and didn’t start gaming until something like 10 pm. While I would later come to like the show, my response at the time was, “I can’t believe we delayed gaming to watch that bullshit.”

Life, of course, is weird, and I could never have predicted that 20 years after I said, “Fuck Wil Wheaton,” we’d become friends. I think it was at a PAX that we first met, courtesy of our mutual friend Andrew Hackard. As I’m sure you all know, Wil is also a gamer and nerd. Turns out we also like many of the same bands and we are both step-dads, so we had a lot in common. Subsequently, Nicole and I would try to meet up with Wil for a meal when he came to Seattle. We’d talk about trying to game together but it was always hard to coordinate with his travel schedule.

A couple of months ago Wil told me he was going to be at GenCon. Knowing he had enjoyed my Dragon Age RPG, I asked him if he’d like me to run a game at the show. His response was something like, “OMG, YES!” And amazingly, despite the craziness of GenCon, the game actually went off. The group was on the big side but we made it work and the game was really fun. Nicole invented a new maneuver, the Axe Tackle, and that’s been a running gag amongst the players since the game, no doubt to the confusion of many a Twitter user.

Now the Penny Arcade Expo is coming up. Wil, of course, will be here to deliver the blessings of the Omnigeek to his people. Many of the other players from the GenCon session will also be at PAX so naturally the idea of playing more Dragon Age came up. To which I can only respond:

“Fuck yeah, Wil Wheaton, let’s game!”

Originally published on LiveJournal on August 23, 2010. 

GenCon Swag

It’s just not a GenCon if I don’t bring home some new games and such. Sadly, I did not have a whole lot of time to walk the exhibit hall this show. I got in maybe two hours of browsing time across four days. I paid cash money for two games (the minis games AE Bounty and War Rocket). The rest I either traded for or was given by friends. It is good to have friends. Here’s the run down:

AE Bounty: This is a scifi skirmish miniatures game from Darkson Designs. Basically, designer Matt Hope took his system from AE World War II and ported it over to scifi. You have your choice of three types of crew: bounty hunters, mercenaries, and pirates. All are quite customizable, so though the game is designed for Darkson’s minis you can easily use other scifi figs you already own. If you liked Necromunda, you should check this out. It’s a little spendy at $25 for a 98 page digest sized book, but it is color throughout and print on demand color is not cheap. The rules are also more complete than 98 pages might suggest.

Battles of Westeros: This is the first new BattleLore board game that FFG has published since acquiring the line from Days of Wonder. I love BattleLore and I love A Song of Ice and Fire, so this should be a win win. I have not had a chance to play it yet, but a read of rules showed that is more complicated than the original BattleLore game. I will give it a spin and see if that’s for good or ill. Components are of course quite nice.

Duel of the Giants: Paul from Z-man hooked me up with this board game before the exhibit hall even opened. It’s another World War II game from the team that did the groovy Duel in the Dark a couple of years back. This has some similarities to Memoir ’44, but concentrates on Eastern Front tank battles in 1943. Nice components that include 11 plastic tanks (Tigers and T-34s, and their turrets even rotate). It’s like Paul somehow divined that I might enjoy a WWII game. What gave it away?

Fantasy Craft RPG: This is the fantasy port of Spycraft from the fine fellows at Crafty Games. Basically, they have taken the core d20 rules, broken them down into component parts, and reassembled them into a highly customizable system for fantasy roleplaying. The results are quite crunchy, as you’d expect, but everything seems sensible and flexible. If you liked the guts of D&D3 but felt Pathfinder didn’t change enough for your tastes, Fantasy Craft may be what you are looking for.

Icons RPG: Green Ronin stalwart Steve Kenson, who designed Mutants & Masterminds and DC Adventures, decided he had to design a completely different supers game. He was nice enough to hook me up with a copy of the print version from Adamant/Cubicle 7. I haven’t had a chance to dig into it yet, but as I understand it’s a supers riff on FATE. I like Steve’s designs and I like FATE, so I look forward to reading it.

Legend of the Five Rings, Fourth Edition RPG: I remember playing first edition back in my WotC days, so I’m curious to see how it looks ten years later. Physically, it is a beautiful book. The page design drips with Japanese flavor and the art is excellent (you go, pinto). I was also glad to see the book devotes some pages to different ways to play the game (something the first edition sorely needed).

Realms of Cthulhu: This is a Savage Worlds RPG sourcebook from Reality Blurs. I believe I have Sean Preston to thank for it, as I discovered a book with my name on it while packing up our booth at the end of the show. Thanks, Sean. Haven’t done more than flip through it, but I’d presume this is meant for a more pulp style Cthulhu game. That seems best suited for the Savage Worlds rules anyway.

Shattered Empires RPG: Veterans of the d20 era may remember the world of Arcanis from Paradigm Concepts. Those rules were never the best fit for the setting, so Paradigm has taken advantage of the post-d20 environment to launch their own rule set customized for Arcanis. Although labeled as a “Quicklauch,” Shattered Empires is a full RPG and over 200 pages at that. It is perhaps better to think of it as Book 1. Again, haven’t really had a chance to dig into it, but it looks interesting. Thanks to Henry for the hook up.

The Ultimate Unofficial Fan Collector’s Guide to D&D: I believe there are three of these books out now and I got volumes 1 (OD&D and Basic D&D) and 3 (AD&D 1st Edition). Each one breaks out the products from the era, providing a cover shot and fairly comprehensive description (page count, levels covered, authors, etc.). They also include some non-TSR stuff (like Wee Warriors, Metro Detroit Gamers, etc) and checklists at the back. Gamers Rule, the publisher, could use a little help in the graphic design department but overall these appear well-researched and quite handy for those interested in all the nooks and crannies of D&D’s history.

War Rocket: This is a new minis game from a fairly new company, Hydra Miniatures. I know nothing about them but was immediately sold on the concept. War Rocket is advertised as “Space Combat in the Atomic Age.” 1950s-style rockets in a fast paced minis game? I’m there. The rules look easy to pick up. There is not a lot of Starfleet Battles type damage tracking. A rocket is either OK, stunned, or destroyed—that’s it. There are four fleets to choose from and what makes it interesting is that each has rockets with a different mode of movement: flying, thruster, pulse, or saucer. This gives each a different flavor and means they fight differently as well. The graphic presentation of each ship’s stats is quite clever and let’s you see in an instant what your ship can do. I didn’t get any of the minis that go with War Rocket, but I may if I can convince a friend to do the same. This really looks like fun.

So what did I miss? Well, this may be the first GenCon I didn’t bring home any miniatures, though to be fair I wasn’t looking for a whole lot either. I had my eye out for a box of Immortal’s plastic Greek hoplites, but I didn’t find them anywhere. I meant to pick up Red Sands, the new Savage Worlds Space: 1889 book, but didn’t get around to trading with Shane. Always liked the setting but the original rules left a lot to be desired. I would have picked up Blitzkrieg, the first early war book for Flames of War, but it wasn’t out yet. I will be patient until its September release, since I have plenty to keep me busy in the meantime.

Originally published on LiveJournal on August 15, 2010.

Little Men, Big Games: Running Minis Games at Conventions

I started playing miniatures wargames in the early 80s. I got into them as an outgrowth of my roleplaying hobby via the AD&D Battlesystem rules. I had started collecting miniatures for use in my AD&D game and was transfixed by the idea of fighting big battles on the tabletop with armies of toy soldiers. Over the years I have played many different games, from fantasy and scifi to ancients and World War 2. For many years I only played games with my friends but in 1989 I went to my first GenCon and that changed. There I experienced my first big convention games and I have played many more since.

At first I was impressed by the sheer spectacle of the big con game. When you see thousands of painted miniatures on a huge table covered with lovingly detailed terrain, it is a thing of beauty. Too many times, however, the spell created by the big battle was broken once the game actually started. While many game masters succeeded in putting on a great spectacle, too many failed to deliver a fun game. After seeing some of the same problems in convention miniatures games for over 20 years, I decided to write this article and offer some advice to prospective GMs. I hope my fellow miniatures game enthusiasts find it of use.

Design and Playtest

When I was about 12 years old, I “designed” my first wargame scenario. I tried to recreate the Battle of Kursk using Avalon Hill’s classic Squad Leader boardgame (I know, I know; I was 12). In practice this meant setting up four boards and filling them with as many German and Russian tanks as I could. My brother and I tried to play it and of course it was too big and unwieldy to finish. My attempt was a failure but it taught me an important lesson. Designing a good scenario takes more thought that just using everything you have and yet this is a trap many big games fall into.

You want your game to be playable in the allotted time and ideally there should be a decisive result at the end of the game. Before you put every painted unit you can muster onto the table, ask yourself what you really need to make the scenario work. Are you adding more units because the game demands it or because you think it’ll look impressive? Remember that you are not building a diorama here. This is a game that’s your players will be dedicating 4-8 hours of their valuable con time to, so you want to show them a good time.

Now it may not be apparent to you when a game is too big and when it’s just right. That’s what playtesting is for. I have played many con games that clearly were never playtested at all. You should try to find time to run at least one and ideally several playtests of your scenario. It’s also helpful if you test with a similar number of players as you’ll have in the final game. The more players there are in a game the longer each turn will take due to kibitzing, rules questions, and so on, so you’ll get a more realistic result with the correct number of participants. I have seen several GMs shocked when their games did not come close to finishing. They had playtested, but with two players who knew the rules quite well. A con game is a different beast than a home game.

When you run a playtest, there are four key questions you are trying to answer. First, and most importantly, was the game fun for everyone? Second, were all the players engaged in the game from start to finish? Third, did all sides have a reasonable chance of victory? Fourth, was a decisive result achieved in the scenario in the allotted time? If the answer to any of these questions is no, modify the scenario and try another test game if you can.

Prep Work

I will assume for the sake of this article that you have sufficient miniatures and terrain to put on the scenario you’ve designed. So other than playtesting, what else do you need to prepare before the convention?

One oft overlooked detail is writing up an event description for the convention. This is your chance to sell the game to prospective players. You want to describe your scenario and note its interesting or unique features. You should clearly indicate the game’s genre or historical period, the rules set you are using (including edition, if there are several), the length of the session, and the number of players you can accommodate. If you welcome players new to the game, you should note that as well.

Next you should prepare handouts for the players. Most games have some kind of quick reference sheet with key rules and tables. You should have one of these for each player. If you are using house or special rules, prepare copies of those as well. You also want to have a sheet for each player that details his command. This will allow the player to see his forces at a glance and have needed stats at hand. Laminating this reference material is a nice touch but not required.

You should also pack up whatever other accessories the players will need, and bring enough so they don’t have to fight over them. Don’t assume they are going to have anything, even a pencil. Depending on the game, you may need various polyhedral dice, templates (turning, blast, etc.), wound markers, cotton balls, activation tokens, measuring sticks, or playing cards. Packing a spare copy of the rules is also a good idea. Industrious players may want to look at the rules during downtime and you want to keep yours at hand.

Starting the Game

At last the big day arrives and game time approaches. You should find out from the convention organizers when your table will be open for you to begin set up. Some conventions have limited table space, so don’t assume you’re going to have hours to get the game ready. You do want to give yourself as much time as possible to get everything set up, so arrive at your location as early as you can. You don’t want to waste valuable play time finishing something you could have done beforehand.

Once the players arrive, you should identify yourself and the game to make sure everyone is in the right spot. When you are ready to begin, introduce the scenario, tell the players the basics of the set up, and hand out the reference material. If you have inexperienced players, you should give them a brief overview of the rules and run through the turn sequence. You should also let everyone know up front any house or special rules. That’s not the sort of thing you want to spring on people mid-game. Lastly, you need to divide the players amongst the various sides. You should try to accommodate the players if you can. Let friends play together (or against each other!) if that’s what they want.

Commands and Deployment

At this point you need to give each player a command. You should have put these together while designing the scenario. The last thing you want to do is let the players divide up the forces themselves. That’s just asking for chaos right at the start of the game and you don’t have time to waste. The commands should be fairly balanced. Don’t give one player all the elite troops and another the peasant conscripts. I also strongly encourage you to make sure that each command includes at least one unit on the board and near the enemy at the start of the game. In a similar vein, you should think carefully before leaving any troops off the board in reserve. I say these things because one truism about big convention games is that turns can take a long time. If you give a player a command that starts off the board and his troops won’t begin to show up until turn 2 at earliest, for example, that player may be doing nothing for an hour or more. This is not fun. You want all the players engaged in the battle and interested in the results from start to finish.

Some GMs like to hand out commands and then let the players deploy their own forces. Again, I urge caution. If you deploy the various commands in their starting positions, play can start quickly and this greatly increases the odds of the game finishing. If you let the players do it, they’ll have to confab and then all the minis you set out will get picked up and re-deployed. I’ve been in games in which we didn’t start actually playing until an hour and half into the session. I think it’s better to maximize the play time by having the game ready to go when the players show up.

Running the Game

Now at last the game can get underway. Your job during the session is part referee and part traffic director. You need to keep the came going, which means clearly announcing turns and phases so players know what they are supposed to be doing. In the early turns you should make sure that players are handling the basics like movement and formations correctly. I suggest that you oversee all of the actual combat if you can, so it’s done properly and you know how the battle is proceeding.

During a game, you will have to answer many rules questions. You want to be fair but you should also be decisive. Many rules lawyers will try to argue with you and this just bogs things down. Remember that it’s your game and you are perfectly within your rights to make a ruling and end the discussion. You don’t want to waste 10 minutes pulling out rulebooks and referencing minutiae while the other players stare into space. Make a ruling and go, go, go.

As I’m sure is clear, running a convention game can be a bit overwhelming. That’s why I suggest recruiting one or more assistant game masters if you’re going to have more than six players. I’ve been at games with 16 players and one GM and it’s just too much for one person to handle. An assistant game master can answer common rules questions, help resolve combats on one side of the board when you’re doing something else on the other, and so on. Sometimes a group of friends will put on a game together. This is great, but I do suggest that one person take on the roll of lead GM. It’s good to have a final arbiter in such situations. I have been in games in which all the players watched the GMs argue amongst themselves and it isn’t pretty.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully, when play time is running out, a clear victor will have emerged. As a player it’s a drag to put four or six hours into a game and have a total stalemate as the result. Better a hard fought loss than feeling like the entire battle was pointless. One of your jobs as the GM is to decide when the battle is over. The clock will eventually do this for you, but it is often obvious before time that one side has lost. Don’t feel that people have to be rolling dice up to the very last second. Sometimes the best thing to do is call the game. That way you aren’t making players who have clearly lost fight it out to the bitter end. Most players don’t mind an extra half an hour at the trade stands anyway.

When the battle is done, thank everyone for playing. If there’s time, ask them for feedback on the game. You may want to run the same scenario at a different con and feedback from the players is useful for fine tuning. Even if you never run that particularly scenario again, you will certainly learn lessons that will help you put on even better games in the future.

Let’s Have a War

I hope I haven’t scared anyone away from playing or running convention miniatures games. I have played many enjoyable games over the years and look forward to many more in the future. Putting on a big con game is a lot of work, but it can also be quite rewarding. With a little forethought and a dose of common sense, your battle can be both a great spectacle and a great game. So get planning and muster your forces. Let’s have a war…on the tabletop.

Copyright 2010 Chris Pramas

Originally published on LiveJournal on June 7, 2010. Later published in Wargames Illustrated, Issue #279.

Hither and Yon

I have had a hectic couple of weeks. I visited family and friends in New England, had meetings with DC Comics in New York City, enjoyed a game convention in Olympia, and attended my brother-in-law’s medical school graduation in Portland, OR. Along the way I saw a lot of old friends and ate some delicious food, like Maine lobster, New England fried clams, and NY pastrami. At the same time I’ve been trying to keep my fingers in a dozen different pies and work more on Dragon Age. Ironically enough, my most productive work day while traveling did not involve the laptop I lugged everywhere. One day I went to the NY Public Library on 42nd St. and worked in one of the huge, gorgeous galleries there for several hours with nothing more than a notebook and two RPG books. That was old school. I also amused myself by taking a picture of the street signs at 53rd & 3rd. Ramones fans know why.

The convention was Enfilade, the yearly show of the Northwest Historical Miniature Gaming Society. I believe this was my fifth year in attendance and it was fun as always. This is the one con a year I go to strictly to play games. No work, just pushing lead. I gamed for 24 of the 48 hours I was there. By Saturday afternoon I was a little worried because I had played two fun games and two frustrating games and usually I have a better ratio at Enfilade. Luckily, my last two games were good, making it a 4-2 in my favor. I missed Rick, who is my usual compatriot at the show. More friends have begun to attend over the years though, so I had a good time hanging out with Jefferson, Stephen, Randy, Alfonso, and Jason. I think the best thing I played was an Indian Mutiny game using The Sword and the Flame rules. I posted pics from the con on my Facebook page.

Things should be more mellow over the next month, which is good because I have a lot to get done. I am in theory going to Brazil for RPGCon at the beginning of July. I say in theory because I need a visa to get into Brazil and before I can get a visa I need a plane ticket. Since the visa process takes three weeks I need that real soon, but my attempts to sort this out with the con has not produced any results yet. We shall see.

I am certain that I’ll be in Vancouver as the “Honorary Guest of Honor” at Conquest, BC July 9-11. I love Vancouver so I’m sure that’ll be fun.

Suddenly, GenCon is feeling close.

Originally published on LiveJournal on June 3, 2010.