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?

Getting Sinister in Saltmarsh, Pt. 1

When I moved back from Austin, one of the things I wanted to do was get a family RPG campaign going. Our long running game night only sometimes actually features games anymore (long story), and I could tell from various comments that Kate found it frustrating to spend so much time around gamers without getting to roleplay regularly. I tried to get something going with a Dragon Age game last year, but I we only played a few times. I was writing all the adventure material and since this was Dragon Age, it started feeling like an extension of work. I wanted this to be about the family just getting together and having fun, so I decided to take a different approach. Kate had heard endless discussions about D&D at game night, but her actual experience with it was limited. I was looking for a game with a lot of pre-written adventures anyway, so I decided to go all the way and run an AD&D game set in Greyhawk. Might as well give the girl a proper education!

With just Nicole and Kate playing, this was going to be a small party, so I had them create 3rd level characters. Nicole made a paladin and Kate an elf ranger/thief (yes, I bent the rules for her). I created a NPC cleric of Procan as a support character, so the party would at least be a trio. To open the campaign I choose Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, a classic adventure that I had actually never run before. I dug out my DMG II (from 3rd Edition) because it had a write up of Saltmarsh. Most of it was useable, though I dialed the year back to 576. My plan was to keep them in and around Saltmarsh for at least a couple of levels, so the town info would be useful.

Spoilers for Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh follow! Do not read on if you plan to play this module.

At the start of the first session, I told them they had traveled to Seaton at the behest of Saltmarsh’s Alchemists’ Guild to find and acquire some rare ingredients. The day before their arrival, a squadron of ships will yellow sails had raided the town. Hundreds of prisoners were taken and many buildings burned (including the shops they were to visit). The game picked up with the PCs at the Alchemists’ Guild, explaining why the raid had prevented them from completing the mission. The head of the guild said not to worry about it because something more important had come up. He found a letter indicating that an alchemist from the area named Turnbull had a copy of a rare text called Ye Secret of Ye Philosopher’s Stone. The man had disappeared 20 years ago and his ghost was said to haunt his dilapidated mansion. Would the PCs venture inside and try to find the book?

The module makes much of how you have to play up that the house may be haunted. I tried to do so, telling them local legends of the ghost of the “Mad Alchemist.” After they took the mission, I had the NPC cleric ask, “Do you think it’s really haunted?” Nicole and Kate both scoffed immediately, which made me laugh. Kate, so jaded at 16. Nicole quipped, “If I ran a thieves’ guild, I’d hide it in a supposedly haunted house.” I said nothing in reply.

The trio then went to the mansion to investigate. I thought the upper levels needed a bit of jazzing up so I added an encounter in the dining room. They came upon a table and next to each place setting was a severed hand. Kate asked if any of the hands had rings; I said yes. When she entered to loot the rings, the hands (in fact, crawling claws) leaped up off the table to try to strangle them. That was fun. Later they freed Ned the assassin and let him tag along for a little while. Right before he was about to get his clothes back, Nicole hit him with detect evil and the jig was up. They sent him packing wearing only his underwear.

In the basement they avoided the rot grubs by burning the dead body in plate mail straight away. I added the detail that the armor was engraved with symbols of Pelor. Nicole is playing a paladin of Mayaheine (yes, GH nerds, I’m bending the timeline slightly) so I thought it’d be suitable armor for her. Kate then found the secret door and got the drop on Jebbric, the smuggler inside. They interrogated him and tied him up. They then found the book they had been sent for and smashed the smugglers’ ring operating in the caves under the mansion. They turned four prisoners over the Saltmarsh watch, but let the one who gave them information go. Jebbric promised to straighten up. They then returned to the Alchemists’ Guild for their reward. So ended session 1.

Overall, it was a really fun time. Kate, who is soft-hearted in real life, was all about the ducats in Greyhawk. She took meticulous notes on every item of value they found in the house and tallied everything at session’s end. I can see some future adventures involving her thief side. Other possible hooks include the escaped assassin, the plate mail of Pelor, and the raiders that attacked Seaton.

We played session 2 last night. I’ll try to write that up later this week.

The Highlights of My Year

2011 wasn’t the worst of years, but it wasn’t the best either. It was up and down, sweet and sour. I started the year living in Austin and working a day job at Vigil Games as lead writer on the Warhammer 40K MMO. I’m ending it back in Seattle with my family and I’m pretty damn happy to have reunited with Nik and Kate on a permanent basis. I don’t want to dwell on the negative so here are the top 5 other highlights of the year.

1. Kate’s Birthday

I wrote about this a few weeks ago so I won’t go on about it, but the most joyous event of the year had to be Kate’s surprise 16th birthday party. I often feel like it’s my job to apologize to Kate for how disappointing the world is, so it was awesome to see how happy our girl was with her party and all the friends who came out for it.

2. Brazil

In May I flew to Curitiba to be a guest at World RPG Con. This was my first (but hopefully not my last) trip to Brazil, and my first time south of the equator as well. I had a great time, though as usual with big trips like this I wish I could have stayed longer. The con was small but the organizers and attendees were super enthusiastic and they made me feel so welcome. I met many excellent gamers and had the chance to actually hang out with Steve Jackson (the other American game designer guest) for the first time.

The day after the con we got to ride the Curitiba-Paranaguá Railroad. It was a three and a half hour, 116 kilometer trip through the rain forested highlands to the coast. The route went through 13 tunnels and over 30 bridges, and the whole trip was in a vintage Italian train from the 60s. Then we had a huge seafood feast in Paranaguá, followed by more sightseeing by bus before the drive back to Curitiba. All in all, pretty awesome.

3. Seattle: The Returning

I moved back to Seattle in August. Nicole flew down to Austin, we loaded up a truck with the help of friends, and then it was a five day ride through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. I’ve mentioned my happiness about getting back with my family, but here I’m talking about the trip itself. When I moved down, I had a fixed deadline so it was four days of hard driving and nothing else. This time Nicole and I had no schedule we had to keep to so we decided to be more casual. I’m glad we did.

Our first stop was at Reaper Miniatures in Denton, TX. Ed Pugh and Ron Hawkins gave us a thorough tour of their facility. They have a really impressive operation going on there and it was cool to see it. We probably spent too much time swapping game industry stories, but hey, how often are we getting to Denton? When it was time for us to move on, they gifted Nicole with some out of production Mousling miniatures, which made her squee with delight.

Next we stopped at the Kansas Cosmosphere & Space Center in Hutchinson. It’s a really unlikely place for a museum dedicated to rocketry and space flight it’s quite well done. Apparently NASA wanted to get rid of a bunch of stuff back in the 70s, so Hutchinson said, “Give it to us and we’ll make a museum!” The history is well presented and they have some great artifacts, including the lovingly restored capsule from Apollo 13. Worth a stop if you find yourself in Kansas.

In Denver we stopped to have lunch with college pal Pat Brown at the Buckhorn Exchange. We worked out the meet up over Facebook on my phone while we cruised down the interstate. Thanks, technology. Pat recommended an over the top gourmet shop outside town so we had to pop in there as well. They had a huge room full of cheese that was essentially a giant refrigerator. The store keeps coats on hand in case you get cold, but after Texas I enjoyed it in there. Cheese and other goodies we got there made our dinner in the hotel later that night.

As we rode through Wyoming, I thought we were done with stops. Then I noticed on the map that the highway went right by Little Big Horn in Montana. Turns out you can get from the highway to the hill where Custer died in less than 10 minutes. Clearly we had to do it.

4. Dragon Age, Set 2

Professionally speaking, the highlight of the year for me was the release of Set 2 for Dragon Age. It took way longer to get done than I figured, but I’m pleased with the result. The release made me feel great for an hour or two. Then someone asked, “So when is Set 3 coming out?” Oh, gamers. 🙂

5. Steve Ignorant: The Last Supper

I’m ending my list with a bit of punk rock. I did not get to a lot of shows in Austin because I lived in north, north Austin and had neither license nor car. So when German band the Spermbirds came to America for the first time to play South by Southwest, I ended up missing their show. When I heard that Steve Ignorant was bringing his Last Supper show to Emo’s, I determined that I would be there. Thanks to pal Donna Prior, who agreed to drive and come to the show with me despite the music not exactly being her thing, I got my wish.

Steve Ignorant was the singer for Crass, an uncompromising British punk band of the 70s and 80s that went the Sex Pistols one better by taking their anarchism very seriously indeed. They became a hugely influential band, and ran a record label that put out lots of other anarcho-punk bands. Crass broke up in the mid-80s and I never had a chance to see them. I think they only got to America once and then briefly. A couple of years ago Steve Ignorant decided to put on a show called The Last Supper. Basically, he wanted to perform those old songs a final time as “a celebration of what Crass meant” to him.

So this was not a Crass reunion per se, but Steve singing songs from ’77 to ’84 backed by musicians from bands like Conflict, Killing Joke, and the English Dogs. I’m sure a lot of people saw the whole thing as a cynical endeavor but I don’t give a shit: it was awesome. Steve was into it, the band was tight, and hearing those classic songs live was a treat. The real surprise of the night was the performance of many songs from Penis Envy, Crass’s feminist statement on which Eve Libertine handled most of the vocals. A younger singer named Carol Hodge sang the Penis Envy songs and she killed it. She was fierce and delivered those songs with conviction and energy. It was the icing on my punk rock cake.

Originally published on LiveJournal on December 31, 2011. 

A Chronicle of Ice and Fire

I haven’t been doing any regular roleplaying since getting back to Seattle, as weekly game night at our place long ago devolved into eat, drink, and bullshit night during which boardgaming sometimes happens. And hey, that’s fun too but it wasn’t scratching my itch. Jon Leitheusser, Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds developer, was nice enough to invite me to join his group, so this week I trekked down to Renton for a kickoff session of A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying (abbreviated SIFRP).

When people ask me at cons and such how SIFRP captures the flavor of the books, the first thing I tell them about is the house system and the campaign framework it provides. Before you make your character, you sit down as a group and generate a minor noble house. This is the glue that will hold the campaign together. All the PCs are members or retainers of the house, so you have both individual goals and group goals as the house engages in the game of thrones. It gives a real reason for your characters to work together, so you aren’t just a random collection of mercenary sociopaths (though if you want that, I suppose you could run a chronicle in which the PCs join the Brave Companions).

So Tuesday night Jon, Seth, Jason, James (by Skype), and I got together to generate a house and start character creation for the chronicle. We decided to roll up a couple of houses and pick the one we liked best. Houses have seven attributes (Defense, Influence, Lands, Law, Population, Power, and Wealth). You establish starting stats based on its location in Westeros and these can be modified in several ways throughout the process. You then get to make a certain number of rolls on the historical events table, which both modifies the attributes and gives you seeds to develop important events in the house’s past. Once the final attributes are determined, you can then spend resources to determine details of your holdings. When you’re done, you should have a good starting point for your house and an idea of where Player Characters can fit within it.

The first house we generated was in the Westerlands. That meant Lannisters, which I don’t think any of us were too keen on. Nonetheless, we went through the process so everyone could see how it worked. We ended up with a new house created after Robert’s Rebellion. We had small holdings in the hills with a hall near a river that passed through our territory. We had a lot of money (because hey, Lannisters) which we figured came from river tolls and our two mines. I had a feeling we weren’t going to stick with this house, so I suggested we skip detailing our banner house and military forces. We felt there were hooks here we could certainly use but overall it wasn’t what we were looking for.

The second house was in the Iron Islands and it was clear pretty quickly that this one would win out over the Westerlands house. Jon’s roll of 1 also meant we were an ancient house dating back to the Age of Heroes. This gave us a lot of rolls on the historical events table and plenty of stuff to work with for our house history. Our house was founded by treachery, for example, and other events made it clear it had had its ups and downs: defeat, victory, ascent, scandal, decline, favor. I suggested that defeat be the most recent event and we tie that to the Greyjoy Rebellion. With our resources were able to secure our own island and a small castle, but its dominant terrain was wetlands. We decided the house controlled a bigger, better island in the past, but in a period of decline we lost it to our rivals. As Ironmen we naturally opted for veteran warhips and raiders, as well as some sailors and a garrison for the castle. We brought in an artisan we we could have castle-forged steel, and used other resources so James could play the house’s heir.

At some point we decided that one of our ancient ancestors slew a sea dragon (or perhaps stole the credit for the deed, if we opt to make that the founding treachery). With that in mind, I suggested that we become House Greenscale and that our motto be “Cold Seas, Cold Blood.” We almost went with Seth’s suggestion of Highrock (he thought that’d be funny considering our wetlands) but Jon countered that it’d be a better name for the castle. We all agreed and so we became House Greenscale of Castle Highrock.

We still have some work to do fleshing out the history of the house, but this gave us a good framework to start creating our characters. Clearly court adventures and tournaments are not going to be our forte. We are a house of Viking raiders looking to revive our ancient glories. I’m working on my character now and will try to post something more when I flesh him out. I enjoyed the house creation session and I’m looking forward to getting the game going. Cold Seas, Cold Blood!

Originally posted on LiveJournal on December 1, 2011. 

Gaming and Punk: Crossing the Streams

It isn’t often that my punk rock life and my gaming life come together but it happened this week.

The story begins in the early 90s, when I was living in NYC and helping to run ABC No Rio, a non-profit punk club and arts center. ABC was full of characters and one of the most colorful was Donny the Punk. Although he was a long time member of the NY punk scene, that’s not how Donny got his nickname. No, he got it the old fashioned way, by being gang raped repeatedly in prison in the 1970s. This obviously had a huge impact on his life, and he later was the president of Stop Prisoner Rape. We did an art show once at ABC based on his jailhouse experiences. It was powerful stuff. You can read more about Donny’s harrowing story on Wikipedia:

So one day Donny and I were talking at ABC and he asked me what I was up to. This was in my early days of RPG freelancing and explaining roleplaying games to my punk friends was often a challenge. But Donny lit up and said, “Oh, gaming! I used to design wargames for SPI.”  SPI, of course, was one of the major wargame companies of the 1970s and the big rival of Avalon Hill.

Donny then proceeded to tell me how he had designed a game in which all the commanders were named after people from punk bands, which I found quite amusing. No one at SPI, of course, had a clue. I just can’t see SPI founder Jim Dunnigan rocking out to The Clash, Dead Boys, or Richard Hell and the Voidoids.

I always remembered that story but not the name of the game. Donny passed away (a victim of AIDS) in 1996 so I never had a chance to ask him again. Looking over his bio, I’m curious to know when and how he ended up doing design and development work for SPI. He did spend some time in the military but was kicked out for “homosexual involvement.” Then he was a Quaker for much of the 70s. All in all, a pretty unlikely candidate for a wargame designer.

For 20 odd years our conversation about gaming remained a personal story I shared with few people. How many punks play wargames after all? Then yesterday I got an e-mail from my friend Crazy Todd. He provided this link and said, “This will amuse you.”

Turned out someone on Boardgame Geek was looking at a SPI game called Cityfight: Modern Combat in an Urban Environment from 1979. He had noticed that many of the commanders were named after old punks (Strummer, Pursey, Foxton, Bators, etc.). This was Donny’s game I had heard about all those years before! Of course, I had to say something and I was delighted to discover that there were a number of old punk wargamers on BGG. The majority seemed to be Canadian, which may or may not be indicative of something (it did make me think of my Canuck pals at Fiery Dragon, who published a number of wargames over the last 10 years).

Now I’m watching a copy of Cityfight on eBay. Clearly I must own this unique piece of punk and gaming history. Pogo on, Donny.

Originally posted on LiveJournal on October 29, 2011. 

Vigil 40K Tournament

We’re making a Warhammer 40,000 MMO at Vigil so it’s no surprise that the company includes players of the original game. In fact, it’s the only minis game anyone at Vigil plays (which initially made me feel that bringing down all those WWI and WWII armies was perhaps futile). The company has a game night every Thursday and 40K is usually on the agenda. To encourage people to play more and to get the competitive juices flowing, we’ve also just started a company wide tournament. It’s going to be four rounds, double elimination, and Vigil is providing minis as prizes for the top finishers.

My original plan was to play Salamander Space Marines. Having seen the way folks play at Vigil (lots of HTH, expensive heroes and monstrous creatures), it seemed like a good choice. When we had a kickoff meeting and I saw on the whiteboard that 75% of the armies were either Space Marine or Chaos Space Marine, I knew I’d have to be true to my roots and play Imperial Guard though. No one else at Vigil plays IG and most of them haven’t been playing long enough to even recognize my Praetorian troops. I brought back a few things with me on my recent trip to Seattle (including my Hydra flak tank, which I assembled like 8 years ago but have never fielded) and made a 1500 point army tonight. The list can’t change once the tourney starts, so I had to put something together that could handle a variety of opponents. Hopefully, I have chosen wisely.

My first game is Thursday vs. (surprise, surprise) Chaos Space Marines. My opponent is using the favorite tricks of Vigil CSM players: demon prince, sorcerer with lash of submission, and a greater demon. The key will be using my superior numbers to concentrate firepower on his assault units before they get into my battle line. This can be challenging in 40K, which is why shooty armies like Imperial Guard and Tau are a lot less popular than the HTH armies.

I’m not worried about losing the tournament. This is all for fun and when you wargame you need to cultivate being a good loser. My only concern is the tourney rules themselves. Right now they state that tied games have to be replayed until there is a winner. I argued that there should be a system for determining who wins in case of a tie but I’m not the organizer. The first round mission is Capture and Control, in which ties are quite common due to the rules for seizing objectives. Sure enough, the first three games played have all been ties. One battle was re-fought and resulted in…another tie. If this continues, I will lobby for a rules change. Otherwise, this tourney will never end. While I do appreciate the idea of motivating people to play more often, if we’re still playing the first round a month from now everyone will lose steam.

Praetorians, prepare for battle!

Originally published on LiveJournal on February 2, 2011.

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.