Napoleonic Army: The Decision

This is a follow-up to an article originally written for my patrons in March of last year, which I made public here yesterday. The article ran through the decisions you must make before collecting a Napoleonic army for miniatures gaming. I noted that I’d never collected one in all my years of minis play but hoped to finally do so in the future. Well, that time may be near!

My two biggest stumbling blocks were finding a ruleset I could commit to and ensuring I’d have at least one friend who would join me. Recently, Studio Tomahawk released the Shakos & Bayonets supplement for its Muskets & Tomahawks game. The first edition of M&T was strictly French and Indian War and the American War of Independence. The second edition has been reorganized along the lines of the studio’s other major game, Saga. It now has a core rulebook that covers the whole black powder period and then supplements that provide additional rules and army lists for various conflicts. Shakos & Bayonets covers the Napoleonic Wars.

I already liked Muskets & Tomahawks and played many games of its first edition. One thing that makes collecting a force for M&T more attractive is that it concentrates on small engagements. A typical force is 50 minis or so, which is more achievable for me than a big battle game requiring 300+. Obviously, you won’t be recreating Austerlitz or Waterloo with Shakos & Bayonets. Battles here are raids, reconnaissance expeditions, and other small local affairs. The sort of stuff you see in the early Sharpe’s books.

With rules chosen and the scale thus determined (28mm, my favorite), I needed to figure out which army to play. Shakos & Bayonets provided lists for the Austrians, British and their Portuguese allies, French, Prussians, Russians, and Spanish, plus a more generic one for Minor Powers (of which, there were many in the Napoleonic Wars). Since M&T is a small-scale game, I thought would provide a great opportunity to focus on such an army or sub-faction.  Here are the forces I considered.

Grand Duchy of Warsaw

After the Third Partition of Poland in 1795, Austria, Prussia, and Russia gobbled up its territory and Poland as a sovereign nation ceased to exist. After Napoleon defeated the Prussians, however, the lands Prussia had acquired were ceded to France in 1807. Now Napoleon could have granted independence to the Poles, but instead created a client state called the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Still, this was a step up for the Poles and they were a firm ally of the French until Napoleon’s ultimate defeat at Waterloo. Murawski Miniatures even makes a whole range of 28mm Polish troops, which would make collecting them easy. Honestly, I would probably have gone with the Grand Ducky of Warsaw but for one factor. My friend who is most interested in putting together a Shakos & Bayonets force has chosen the French, and the two were not historical opponents.

King’s German Legion

Another force I considered was the King’s German Legion. This was fully part of the British army but has an interesting story. King George III of the UK was also the Elector of Hanover, a small German state in this period. The French occupied Hanover in 1803 and dissolved the Electorate, so many officers and soldiers made their way to England so they could continue the fight. The KGL proved a formidable fighting force, offering excellent service in the Peninsular campaign, and providing a legendary defense of La Haye Saint (a walled farmhouse compound) in the Battle of Waterloo. I was temped by the KGL but they ended up being my second-place choice.

Black Brunswickers

The Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg was another small German state (German unification would not happen until later in the 19th century). The French occupied it as well, and incorporated it into another client state they created called the Kingdom of Westphalia. Napoleon made his brother Jerome king (ah, nepotism). Anyway, the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg did not take this well. In 1809 he formed a small army variously called Schwarze Schar, Schwarze Legion, or most commonly these days the Black Brunswickers. Our dude the duke wanted vengeance so bad he dressed most of his troops in black and they wore the Totenkopf (death’s head) badge on their caps. They fought with the Austrians in Germany, then made a fighting retreat west when things went wrong. The British fleet brough them back to England and they subsequently fought in the Peninsular and Waterloo campaigns. Pretty interesting, eh? And Perry Miniatures makes a whole 28mm line of Brunswicker minis so again they’d be easy to collect.

I decided against them for two reasons. First, the black uniforms were somewhat of a turnoff. Part of the fun of fielding Napoleonic armies is their colorful uniforms. The more important factor was that the black uniforms and Totenkopf badges were later adopted by Hitler’s SS. Obviously, the Black Brunswickers pre-dated Nasim by over 100 years, but still the association was an uncomfortable one.

Bavarians

Finally, we come to the winner: the Bavarians! At the start of the Napoleonic Wars, Bavaria was part of the relic that was the Holy Roman Empire. They ended up siding with Napoleon, and Austria invaded Bavaria in 1805. After Napoleon’s crushing victory at the Battle of Austerlitz, Bavaria and other German states that supported him were rewarded. Bavaria gained kingdom status and joined the Confederacy of the Rhine, a new alliance that basically destroyed the Holy Roman Empire. They fought with the French through the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. As a result of that debacle, the Bavarians flipped to the allies for 1813 and 1814, joining the Sixth Coalition that defeated Napoleon for the first time and sent him into exile.

The Bavarians had all the things I was looking for. They were something different than the “great powers” of that era, they had colorful uniforms that would stand out on the tabletop, Perry Miniatures and other companies had easily available figures, and crucially they fought both for and against the French. That means I could have historical matchups with a wide variety of opponents.

Decision made at last, I now need to make some sample army lists and decide exactly which figures I need and in what quantity.  

Collecting a Napoleonic Army

A battle at Chris Walton’s place with his beautifully painted miniatures.

This is an article I originally wrote for patrons of my Curated Quarantine series last year. Posting it today because I think I’ve finally worked out what I want to do. More on that later.

If you’ve been reading Curated Quarantine for any length of time, you know that Revolutionary/Napoleonic France is a topic of interest for me. I’ve covered many Napoleonic games during this series. I’ve also noted that for several decades the Napoleonic Wars were the most popular period for historical miniatures gaming. I own many more sets of Napoleonic miniatures rules than I’ve featured here, yet I’ve never collected an army for the period. My play experience has been confined to conventions or games at my buddy Chris Walton’s place, because he painted up complete French and Austrian armies and he periodically hosts battles (or did, before quarantine). So, why don’t I own such an army? Let me break down the decisions you face when you consider collecting a Napoleonic army.

Which Army?

As with any miniatures game, the most important decision to make is what army to collect. The heavyweights are France, Austria, England, Prussia, and Russia. Those are the armies that will give you the most flexibility because they fought in many different campaigns. There are many more armies to choose from though. Germany and Italy were a patchwork of states, and France created new client states as well, such as the Batavian Republic and the Duchy of Warsaw. If you want to do something a little different, you’ve got options like the Portuguese, the Bavarians, and even the Mamelukes from Napoleon’s disastrous Egyptian campaign.

The thing to bear in mind though is that the wars of Revolutionary France and Napoleonic France lasted from 1792 to 1815, from the War of the First Coalition to the War of the Seventh Coalition. This is a long period and one with great change in military affairs. That means that organization, uniforms, and equipment of the armies changed quite a bit. It’s thus not enough to say you want to collect a French army. A Revolutionary French army from 1794 is a much different beast than the Grand Armee that invaded Russian in 1812. You need to pick a period and maybe even a campaign, as troops available in one theater might not be available in another.

Which Rules?

Another key decision is what rules you plan to use for your Napoleonic gaming. There have been literally hundreds published since the 1960s, and these range from the very simple to the mind-bendingly complex. The first thing to determine is what scale of game you are looking for. Games run from the skirmish engagement to the grand tactical. You need to know what size force you are putting together and what one mini is meant to represent. Organizing a skirmish force where one mini = one soldier is different than trying to simulate a brigade where one mini = 33 soldiers. Settling on a ruleset helps make those decisions. Most games let you know what a typical unit is meant to represent and how many figures you need to model it on the table. Many also specify base sizes for various types of troops (infantry, cavalry, artillery, etc.). More modern games are looser about this, but older games often had precise rules for base sizes.

Once you know what sort of game you’re looking for, it’s still quite a job to narrow it down. There are just so many to choose from and new contenders appear regularly. This is really a topic for an entire article on its own, but popular current games include Black Powder (Warlord Games), General de Brigade (Partizan Press), LaSalle (Sam Mustafa), and Sharp Practice (Too Fat Lardies).

Which Scale?

Another important consideration is the scale of your miniatures. Some games are designed for a specific scale, so by choosing the game you are choosing your scale as well. Most games can work at several scales though, so it’s usually something you must consider. 15mm and 28mm are the most popular so they’ll provide the most flexibility. You will find Napoleonic minis at all scales though, from the miniscule 2mm to the classic 54mm toy soldier. 2mm, 6mm, and 10mm figures allow you to make more realistic looking units with many soldiers but lose something in the way of detail. 20mm, 25mm, 28mm, and 54mm model the individual soldier better but are also more expensive and take up more room on the table. While I like 15mm for World War 2 minis because it works well with tanks, I generally prefer 28mm myself.

Which Unit Organization?

The game and scale of miniatures you’ve chosen will dictate the types of units you’ll be building. When you get to the stage of buying the minis, you have to keep this in mind. Basic units of companies, regiments, or brigades will require a different mix of figures. Some companies make this easy by selling units packs. Napoleon at War, a game from 2011, has boxed sets with the correct mix of figures to form a brigade and the appropriate bases. Not all miniatures manufacturers are tied to a specific game system, so more often than not you’ll need to figure this out for yourself.

Who Will You Play With?

Something else to think about is who you hope to play with, and a little planning here can be a big help. If your friends all collect 10mm armies, you will have a problem if you go ahead with a 28mm army. You need at least one opponent interested in the same rules and scale as you, and you’ll want to make sure your forces are compatible too. It’s not helpful if everyone brings a French army to the table.

Your other option is to collect two opposing armies yourself. That way you know you have everything you need to put a game on. Just invite a friend over and you’re good to go. This is the approach Chris Walton took and he’s put on some great looking games. This is obviously a more expensive option, as you’ll be paying for two armies instead of one. More time consuming too if you plan to paint them yourself.

One Day…

As you can see, there are many considerations that go into collecting a Napoleonic army. It’s not as simple as getting into a Warhammer game, for example. It requires you to do research into history, game rules, miniatures lines, and unit organization. I’ve had this idea that I’d one day find the game that really spoke to me, that I’d have an aha moment and say, “Yes, this is the one!” That hasn’t happened, and only a few of my friends are even interested in Napoleonic minis gaming. Maybe when I’m an old man and have completed my transformation into a true grognard, I’ll finally get that army!

Mighty Empires

Today’s game is Mighty Empires (1990) from Games Workshop. It provides a full campaign system for Warhammer Fantasy Battle, but could also be played as a game on its own. You use hex tiles to build out a board (this is 5 years before Settlers of Catan, mind you). Each player then starts with a region under their control, with cities, armies, and so on. You play through years of time, dealing with everything from revenue and recruitment to diplomacy and espionage. There also fun stuff like equinox magic (big honking ritual spells your wizards can cast twice a year) and dragonrage (accidentally finding a nest of dragons with predictable results). If you are using it with WFB, when army banners come into conflict, you break and then play out a full Warhammer game to determine the winner. When used as a campaign system, it provides a rationale for battles and gives each one a context and importance lacking in one off affairs. 

Mighty Empires came out when I was in college. I always remember my friend Bill saying, “My biggest priority this semester is playing Mighty Empires.” School? Whatever. We did, in fact, get a campaign going. The problem for us was that you need to keep the map set up, and we were apartment dwelling New Yorkers with limited space. What we ended up doing was getting a big metal sheet and a bunch of magnets. We glued to magnets onto the tiles, then built out the playing area on the metal sheet. This allowed us to turn the whole thing sideways and lean it against the wall  when it was not in use. My friend Sandeep and I kept it in our tiny Soho apartment. (Yes, it was (barely) possible to get a Soho apartment in 1991 while working a retail job.) I don’t remember whose copy that was (Bill’s probably) but this whole thing was nothing but a memory until just a few years ago. Then I found this copy for a song at the Enfilade bring and buy. I could hardly pass up adding such a piece of my gaming history to my collection.

Note: This is part of an ongoing series called Curated Quarantine I started a couple of months back. Each day I talk about a different game from my collection. Some games are meaningful to me, others are interesting for historical reasons, and occasionally they are just bad. I’m mostly doing this on Twitter (#CuratedQuarantine will pull them up) and Facebook but this entry was long enough I decided to put it up here. My first entry was a single tweet, but as time has gone on they’ve gotten longer and longer. Frickin’ writers, I tell you what.

New 40K on the Way

GW announced that a new edition is on the way, and that was not a big surprise. When a game has as aggressive a release schedule as 40K, over time the rules get bloated and spread out over more and more books. Eventually, a correction is required. Sometimes, that’s a massive rules shake up, as in 3rd and 8th edition. Other times, it’s a close iteration whose main job is to do a big cleanup that addresses the problems revealed over years of play. The latter is where 9th edition 40K is landing. All the current codexes will remain valid, which is nice. They are finally fixing the ridiculous problem of having your 100 ton tank effectively neutralized by a bunch of cheap infantry dancing around it, thank the Emperor. Overall, it sounds good and I’m on board. The only bit I wasn’t psyched about is “more command points.” To me stratagems in 40K 8E are like feats in D&D 3E: a good idea that quickly spun out of control. There are simply way too many of them, and new books keep adding more and more. I’d have liked it if 9th edition trimmed down them down substantially but I can also see why that didn’t happen. It’d be difficulty to both keep all current codexes valid and have big changes in how stratagems and command points work. I do like the sound of the new campaign system though, and it’s nice to see GW continuing its efforts at diversity. Sisters of Battle look to be in the main box alongside Space Marines and Necrons (and feature heavily in the sizzle video), and the cover of the kickoff book of the new novel series features a black Space Marine. It would be cool to see that played up even more in some new Imperial Guard regiments but they’ve been married to the Cadian look for a long time now.

A Bit of Greyhawk Fun

For a variety of reasons, I just haven’t had a chance to play D&D in 3+ years. I think this is the longest I’ve gone since getting into RPGs at age 10. With all the sensible people now sheltering at home, online gaming is booming. Suddenly, I’ve been invited to three different D&D games. People, I think, are reaching for things that are comforting and for many gamers that means going back to their first RPG. Today I’m going to jump in a game with my old college game group, which I’m looking forward to. Spent many an hour around the table with these friends, and we’ve rarely gotten to game since I moved to Seattle.

This campaign has been going for a little bit so I had to make a 5th level character. I thought I’d play a wizard and do something a little different by making him a diviner. Bill, the GM, said I could do what I wanted with his background, as long as he ended up in Ravenloft. I decided to let my Greyhawk flag fly and came up with the following.

Art by Even Amundsen. https://www.artstation.com/mischeviouslittleelf

Torsten Three-Eye

Torsten is a Northman from the World of the Greyhawk, one of the Cruski (known to outsiders as the Ice Barbarians). A cunning boy who seemed to be touched by magic, young Torsten was sent to learn at the feet of Halfdan Hairy-Breeches, a priest of the god Vatun. Halfdan was keeper of a mountain shrine, and there a small community lived in isolation. Vatun, formerly the great god of the northern Suloise, had been imprisoned for nearly 700 years. His priests could not commune with him or receive spells. They prayed that Vatun’s brother, Dalt (God of Portals, Doors, Enclosures, Locks, and Keys), would succeed in freeing their god but they waited in vain.

When Halfdan died, Torsten left the shrine in the hands of other initiates and struck out on his own. He had developed a talent for casting runestones and followed that path into wizardry. He spent many years wandering the lands of the Frost, Ice, and Snow Barbarians, learning magic and trying to divine the fate of Vatun. He pondered on the relationship between Vatun and Dalt. If anyone could break into the prison holding Vatun, surely it was Dalt? Why had he failed for so many centuries? Telchur the Icebrother, the god said to be Vatun’s gaoler, was powerful no doubt but was that explanation really all there was to it?

After mastering divination magic, Torsten had a realization* that Vatun was not completely silent. He could communicate, with those who would listen, through the runestones. It was indirect and imprecise, but Torsten became convinced that Vatun called out to his worshipers. His research indicated that Vatun was imprisoned on a distant demiplane, so Torsten decided to take direct action and leave Greyhawk for the planes.

With the aid of Vatun’s priesthood, Torsten found a portal to Sigil, the City of Doors. From there he began to investigate various demiplanes. After several disappointing trips, including an encounter with a mad wizard on the demiplane of Leonis**, Torsten thought he had a solid lead through a contact in Sigil. Instead he walked into a trap. His contact was an agent of Belial, Archduke of Hell and an ally of Telchur the Icebrother. When he stepped through the portal, he was swallowed up by thick mist and was quickly lost. When he emerged and got his bearings, he realized the terrible truth: he was trapped in the Demiplane of Dread, Ravenloft.

Torsten’s immediate goal is to escape from Ravenloft. From casting his runestones, however, he has come to believe that fate cast him here for a reason. Perhaps the road to Vatun leads through Raveloft.

* The Discovery feature from his Hermit background.

** A little nod to my own D&D book Vortex of Madness.

Blitzkrieg Commander IV: Thanks, Pendraken!

A surprise in yesterday’s mail,

Back in 2004 my friend Rick and I started playing Blitzkrieg Commander, a WW2 miniatures game descended from Rick Priestley’s Warmaster rules. We followed it through a second edition, and through follow-ups Cold War Commander and Future War Commander. Then the games were sold to Pendraken, an English miniatures company, and a third edition was promised.

In 2017 I went to my first (and sadly only) Salute in London. This is the biggest miniatures convention in the UK and a bucket list event for lead heads. One cool thing about the show is that some vendors will let you pre-order things on their websites that you can then pick up at their booths. I took advantage of this to pre-order Blitzkrieg Commander III from Pendraken and some minis from Bad Squiddo (female Viking and Soviet sniper minis, yes please).

I stayed on in England for another ten days or so, visiting the amazing Tank Museum at Bovington among other places. I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to the internet while traveling so I missed the rising criticism of the just-released Blitzkrieg Commander III. There were problems with both the rules and the army lists and the fanbase was pretty salty about it. Pendraken decided they had to address the issues and after running a poll made a stunning announcement: they would fix the game and give everyone who bought BKCIII a free copy of the new edition.

I’m a publisher. I know how much it costs make, print, and ship books. This was a promise that would cost Pendraken $10,000 easily but they were committed to Blitzkrieg Commander having a future.

Yesterday I got an unexpected package in the mail. I thought it might be Saga: Age of Magic but found a copy of Blitzkrieg Commander IV, hot off the presses. I was surprised because I wasn’t even sure if Pendraken had my address, as I’d ordered it for pick-up at Salute. The new edition is full color (thus making the printing even more expansive) and nicely laid out.

Really, I can’t say enough good things about how Pendraken has handled this. It is above and beyond what I could have reasonably expected from a game publisher of their size. So thank you, Pendraken! I look forward to trying out Blizkrieg Commander IV. If you’re interested in checking it out, you can order it here.

Horus Heresy: Choosing a Legion

Horus Heresy
Like many long time Warhammer 40K players, I’ve been enjoying the Horus Heresy books that Forge World is publishing and I’m glad 30K is now supported as an era of play. I have Salamanders and Word Bearers forces for 40K but I’d like to do something different for the Heresy era. I picked up the Battle of Calth game some months ago primarily for the minis (though the game was actually good too, as it turned out). Now I’m pondering what legion to choose for my 30K army.

For the last couple of years, I had been planning to do the Alpha Legion. I like their backstory and iconography, and their Rites of War gives them some cool options. I may go ahead with that but I’m doing my due diligence and looking at other options. These are the other legions I’m considering:

Imperial Fists: A surprise to me actually, but there is a big point in their favor. I really like the look and feel of the breacher squads and the Imperial Fists have a special rule called Resolve of Stone that makes breacher squads sing. The yellow armor isn’t my favorite but I think it could be reasonable if muted. Other Imperial Fist rules are also solid and they have a special knight troop type that are proto Black Templars. I’ve never had much interest in the Fists before but they have become a contender.

Iron Warriors: This legions makes a hell of a gun line with their two unique troop types, the Siege Tyrants and Iron Havocs. 30K Iron Warriors are also completely immune to morale tests caused by shooting, which is killer. And of course you can have giant robot bodyguards in the shape of the Iron Circle. So yeah, super appealing to me and I love the idea of a legion of siege masters. There are only a couple of downsides. First, the Iron Circle models are hellaciously expensive. Second, I have never liked the color scheme of the Iron Warriors. At all. The black and yellow stripes do not do it for me. Now I could just make up a chapter of the legion with a different look, so that could be worked around.

Raven Guard: I like the Raven Guard for many of the same reasons I like the Alpha Legion. They are sneaky and great at infiltrating. They have brutal snipers. They also have access to some unique equipment like the Darkwing pattern Storm Eagle Gunship. The Mor Deythan Strike Squad and Dark Fury Assault Squad models are also badass. Their advantage over the Alpha Legion is that I think they’d be easier to paint. And yes, friends, I’m likely to outsource a lot of the painting, but it’d be nice if it was a paint scheme I could handle for some units and the Alpha Legion teal is tricky. The downside of the Raven Guard is primarily cost. That Darkwing Storm Eagle alone is over $200 and I’m but a humble RPG publisher.

So that’s what I’m looking at. I really need to decide what legion is mine before I start assembling the plastic minis. How I build even basic troops will be colored by that choice.

What to choose? Loyalist or traitor? The galaxy hangs in the balance!

RPG a Day, Part 1

David Chapman started a thing on his blog called RPG a Day. It’s basically an excuse to talk about RPGs so, hey, let’s do that. August is my busiest month of the year, with GenCon and PAX happening. I’m thus going to do this in two parts instead of daily. Part 1 will take me through GenCon.

1st – First RPG Played: Dungeons & Dragons. This was 1979 and I was 10 years old.

2nd – First RPG Gamemastered: D&D again. I cannot not tell you what I ran. Probably a dungeon of my own devising. 

3rd – First RPG Purchased: The original D&D white boxed set. I can’t say I played it though. My brother and I brought it home and tried to make sense of it. There was obviously something cool there but as a 10 year old with no background in wargaming (yet!), how you actually played was unclear to me. We got the Holmes Basic Set and then the AD&D Player’s Handbook in short order and that’s when I really started to play.

4th – Most recent RPG purchase: I backed a Kickstarter from my pals at Pagan Publishing. It’s for Horrors of War, a collection of Call of Cthulhu scenarios set in World War 1. Backing that was a no brainer for a history nerd like me.

5th – Most Old School RPG owned: OD&D white box. I might also add the original Chainmail game. It’s a minis game, not a RPG, but its “fantasy supplement” was the genesis of D&D.

6th – Favourite RPG Never get to play: That’s an easy one: Pendragon. Love that game, but I never have the right group to play it with. 

7th – Most “intellectual” RPG owned: Aria, Canticle of the Monomyth. I think the title says it all.

8th – Favourite character: Finn, my halfling rogue from my friend Bill’s long running AD&D campaign from college. Freeport fans may know him as the Crime Lord of the Eastern District. I decided that he had retired to Freeport after his adventuring days ended. 🙂

9th – Favourite Die / Dice Set: The recently released Dragon Age dice that Q Workshop did for Green Ronin. These are the first custom dice ever done for one of my RPGs, so they’ve got to be my choice!

10th – Favourite tie-in Novel / Game Fiction: The Horus Heresy line of 40K novels is better than it has any right to be. I do worry about it finishing in my lifetime though (30 novels and still going…). 

11th – Weirdest RPG owned: Many options, but I’ll go with Khaotic, a 1994 game from Marquee Press. This was a scifi game with a wacky premise. Player Characters were members of a “jump-team” that projected their minds to an alien planet. The twist is that the entire group inhabits the body of a sort of living war machine. Only one character can control the body at a time though! Much of the game takes place within its mind, as the characters debate about what to do and who gets to control the body. 

12th – Old RPG you still play / read: Well, I recently wrapped up a two year AD&D campaign set in Greyhawk. I started it because I wanted my step-daughter to get a sense of what D&D was like back in the day. One day she was looking through the 2nd edition Monster Manual and she asked me, “Is there a more recent version of this book with better art?” I had to laugh. 

13th – Most Memorable Character Death: I was in college and we were playing the module X2: Castle Amber. I had played it once before, when I was 12 or so, but I didn’t remember much about it. The GM describe the room we had just entered and it seemed familiar. I said, “Hmmm, I think I died in this room.” And then I proceeded to do so again!

14th – Best Convention Purchase: I got copies of the original Greyhawk and Blackmoor books (supplements 1 and 2 for original D&D) for $10 each in the bring and buy area of a con once.

15th – Favourite Convention Game: Before I got into the game industry, I spent four years running an Ars Magica tournament at GenCon. I put a ridiculous amount of work into it each year, but it was worth it.

16th – Game you wish you owned: TSR’s Empire of the Petal Throne RPG from 1975. I never even saw a copy until 1997. I was at a small con in British Columbia and a copy came up for auction. I thought, “This is a small con and maybe no one knows what it is.” I had recently moved to the West Coast and was trying to make a living by freelance writing, so I had little money. I thought I could I could go as high as $50. The bidding started at $20. Before I could even raise my hand, it was up to $200 and ended up going for close to $500. Turns out plenty of other people knew what Tekumel was!

17th – Funniest Game you’ve played: When Nicole and I used to attend DundraCon more regularly, we would play in Steve Long’s Special Violence Task Force game. The PCs were a group of especially violent law enforcement officers from various organizations who teamed up for ridiculous adventures. It was a hoot. This was technically a Hero System game but we barely even rolled dice.

 

Game Night

Note: I wrote this as one of our Ronin Round Tables, a feature we do each Friday on www.greenronin.com. I thought I’d post it here for folks who don’t make it over to the company site frequently. Enjoy. 

In 1999 Nicole and I decided to start hosting a game night at our place to play RPGs. While we’ve moved from that apartment, cycled many friends in and out of the group, and changed the night of the week several times, game night has been going on as close to weekly as we can manage for the last 13 years. It’s a key social activity for us and one that we always try to maintain. Even last year, when I spent 10 months in Austin working on the Warhammer 40K MMO, I Skyped in for at least part of the night to keep that connection. Maintaining a game group is not without its challenges though, and we’ve faced many over the years. I know we’re not alone in this either. How many of these sound familiar to you?

Many Players, One GM
For many years, I ran nearly every RPG on game night. In the early years we played a lot of d20 games, as Green Ronin was one of the leading d20 publishers during that era. I had a long running D&D campaign, ran Freeport adventures, and playtested V for Victory, the World War 2 mini game I designed for Polyhedron Magazine. Later I ran a playtest for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 2nd edition, and even a short-lived Lord of the Rings game when it seemed like we might get to design a LotR game for Games Workshop (not getting to design that game still makes me sad). Later there was Dragon Age, of course, but game night is not all about playtesting. I also ran stuff like a Savage Worlds Day After Ragnarok game and a weird mash-up of Feng Shui, Underground, Delta Green, and Deadlands. Once in a while, someone else would volunteer to run and I’d enjoy just playing, but those campaigns never lasted. We’d do 3 or 4 sessions and then I’d be back in the GM’s chair. I do like to GM but a certain point I started to get burned out. We got another GM when Ray Winninger joined the group, but ultimately Ray decided he preferred running longer sessions on weekends than working within the constraints of a week night that includes dinner and socializing (and hey, Ray, you can start those up again any time!).

Differing Tastes
Some groups have one glorious campaign that lasts for a decade or more but in my experience those games are the exception. Most campaigns seem to last six months or less. That is certainly true of our group. We’ve had maybe two that have lasted longer than a year. Naturally then, a common question is, “What are we playing next?” This isn’t always easy to answer. Tastes vary widely among our group and what we ended up playing was often a matter of compromise. In all our years of game night, I’ve never run one of my very favorite games, Pendragon, because I knew we had players who just wouldn’t be into it. That game requires a group of players who really buy into the setting and concepts, and I didn’t want to frustrate myself by trying to force it on them.

Life Intruding
I look back fondly on my teenage years, when I had way more free time for gaming. Everyone in our group (with the exception of my step-daughter Kate) is a grown up and of course we have all sorts of responsibilities. Almost everyone who has ever been in our group works in either the tabletop or video game industries, so there have been many times that we lose people for months of crunch time. Convention season is another difficult time, as many of us travel for weeks in the summer to attend this con or that. Marc “Sparky” Schmalz, GR’s Director of E-Publishing, also went back to school a couple of years back, which sometimes limits his time. Mitch Gitelman, an old friend who joined the group while I was in down south, is one of the guys behind the recent Shadowrun Returns Kickstarter and we’re pretty sure that’s going to keep him busy. So while we try to meet every week, it isn’t always possible. Sometimes it has seemed like the whole thing will unravel, but we’ve always pulled it back.

Changing Faces
The game industry can be volatile so we’ve had to watch many friends move away for new jobs, but we’ve also filled empty spots with friends who have moved to Seattle for a new gig. Sometimes the same person has done both those things. The most famous example is Bruce Harlick of the old Hero Games crew, who moved here to work on the Matrix MMO, was part of group for many years, and then moved back to California for several other video game jobs (ending with his current gig at Zynga). We still call him “Bruce the Traitor” for leaving us but he’s far from the only one. Jim Bishop left to go work at BioWare, Patrick Swift for a job at Upper Deck and now Cryptozoic, Tim Carroll for a job at Apple, Jess Lebow for a job at Ubisoft (and the distance record by moving to China!) and hell even me for a while when I lived in Austin last year. Every time we gain or lose people, the dynamic changes a little bit. This isn’t always bad, but it’s another thing that makes long term campaigns hard. GR’s webmaster Evan Sass gets bonus points for being the one person outside the household who has stayed with us through thick and thin.

Campaign Failure
For many of the reasons outlined above, we’ve found it harder and harder to maintain campaigns. While the group was originally conceived as RPG focused, a few years ago board and card games started to overtake that. Since the group often varied week to week, depending on who was traveling or crunching or what have you, it seemed better to play games we could finish in a night. And as I mentioned, I was also burning out on GMing and I wanted a break as well. So we’ve ended up playing games like Ticket to Ride, Dixit, Thurn and Taxis, Small World, Formula Dé, Dominion, and recently Miskatonic School for Girls (a Kickstarter that Nicole backed).

As you can see, we’ve had our ups and downs. Some nights we don’t even game at all. Nicole Lindroos, in addition to being Green Ronin’s General Manager, is a fabulous chef, so she always cooks and we drink, talk, and catch up. Those nights are fun too and even if we only talk about gaming (which is pretty much inevitable for us), I’d rather get together than miss a game night. It’s gaming that keeps us bonded together, keeps us coming back week after week to socialize, and keeps our friendships strong. Of course, it’s better when we actually play something but now my step-daughter Kate (who is 16) is part of the group and she’s helping to keep us honest. Last week she basically told us that game night without games was bulllshit and she wanted to play a superhero RPG please. I think we raised that girl right!

Getting Sinister in Saltmarsh, Pt. 2

Once again, this post contains spoilers for Sinister Secret of Salt Marsh. Stop reading now if you intend to play it one day.

When last we left our trio of adventurers, they had braved the dilapidated mansion of the “Mad Alchemist”, discovered it was not actually haunted, and smashed the smuggling ring they found operating in the caves beneath it. I picked things up a few days later, assuming they had spent that time selling their loot in Saltmarsh and turning that into coin. I had prepared a few rumors for them to pick up around town and passed those on.

Then two men came to see them at their inn. One was an older cleric of Pelor and the other a young man with a freshly shaved head and the robes of an acolyte. The latter turned out to be Jebbric, the smuggler they had shown mercy to back in the caves. He took the whole going straight thing seriously and went off to join the Church of Pelor. The older cleric had brought him to the inn so he could pass on some information about the smuggling ring and so fully repudiate his former life. He told them the smugglers were expecting a ship to come in just a couple of days. If they wanted to finish the job of destroying the smuggling ring, they’d want to take care of the ship. Kate thought to ask about the handout from the caves, so Jebbric explained the signaling system the smugglers used. This proved useful later.

I had given them two days so they could make any preparations they might need. The girls seemed pretty unconcerned about attacking a smuggling ship, so rather than prepare, they started chasing down the rumors they had learned. They visited a park and discovered that indeed frogs were croaking in unison in the middle of the night. They talked to some folks about a rash of burglaries that some blamed on Seaton refugees and others on the famous Keoland thief known as the Scarlet Thorn. Finally they went to see the city council and apprise them of the situation. It was agreed that two excisemen from Saltmarsh would answer the signals from the ship and begin to row out. Meanwhile, the adventurers would approach from the opposite side in another boat and board while the smugglers were distracted.

The plan worked out well. Kate slipped onboard first, backstabbing and killing the guard on the forecastle. Then Nicole’s plate armored paladin made too much noise jumping down to the main deck and the alarm was sounded. The NPC cleric took care of the smuggler in the crow’s nest with a well-chosen command spell (“Jump!”). Nicole assaulted the bosun, killing him and sending his body over the rail into the briny deep. Kate had a long duel with the ship’s captain but poor rolls kept her from prevailing. The paladin finally came to her aid and dealt the finishing blow. Kate was not only annoyed at the kill stealing, but also that the bosun had gone over the side before she could loot the body. She asserted that the treasure so lost was coming out of Nicole’s share, which cracked me up.

Descending into deeper into the ship they discovered three smugglers and a wizard playing cards. They should have come up on deck when they heard the fighting, but I totally forgot to do that so I decided that they were a little drunk and too into their card game to investigate the noises above. When I mentioned that one of the card players was a wizard, Kate went nuts. “I dive across the table and stab him!” she exclaimed. They won initiative, so this she did, hitting the wizard with both her weapons. The poor bastard only had 8 hp to start with so she nailed him to his chair before he had a chance to get up, never mind cast a spell. Two smugglers went down the same round and the last surrendered.

Down in the hold they encountered three lizardmen and dispatched them in a few rounds. Then they discovered three things: a pseudodragon in a cage, an aquatic elf chained up in a tiny room, and a cache of weapons that were being smuggled to a lizardman settlement. The pseudodragon is in the module and as it was total Kate bait, I let her bond with it. Their party can certainly use the help. The aquatic elf, Oceanus, explained that he was captured while investigating the connection between the smugglers and the lizardmen. He then agreed to come with them to Saltmarsh and talk to the town council.

We ended the session there. Next time they have to dicker with the council about the fate of the ship they captured, and then decide on a course of action. Are the lizardmen a threat to Saltmash? If so, what’s to be done about it? And what’s up with those frogs in the park? And is the notorious Scarlet Thorn really in Saltmarsh?