Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Beastly Behaviour

In the last session of The Enemy Within II: Freddy's Revenge the player-characters resolved to meet up with the witch hunter Adele Ketzenblum after pursuing her for weeks. The two dwarves Thorek and Magnar also resolved to not get into any more unnecessary drinking competitions -- although they'd argue over the proper definition of "unnecessary" -- before the important meeting, so that they'd be at their best if things went wrong. Alas for the party, the meeting with Ketzenblum did go a bit wrong as they let the less-than-charming Magnar do the talking. Again. I'm not sure what Magnar's exact Fellowship score is but it only just scrapes into double figures and both Rudiger and Aelric are much better speakers, although I can understand why the latter, a skull-faced mutant elf wizard, was reluctant to talk to Ketzenblum, given her profession. On the plus side, the meeting didn't turn violent, but it was clear that the party did not make a friend.

The party returned to Professor von Oppenheim to tell him about their success at the temple of Ulric, and the somewhat addled academic revealed that the ritual he expected to perform -- and that Aelric expected to result in the complete destruction of Middenheim -- was a bit more complicated than the party thought and that there was list of requirements for success, including acquiring a number of fresh wolf pelts and a quantity of powdered minotaur horn.

While this discussion was going on in von Oppenheim's study, the two dwarves headed to the college canteen for an eating competition, since they were banned from drinking while on the job. After a good few rounds of thick bread and hearty stew Magnar ended up with a stomach ache and Thorek ended up with vomit in his beard -- and across the canteen -- but also with the respect of the student body, if not the caretakers.

Rudiger knew that according to Middenheim custom the party would have to kill and skin the wolves themselves but Magnar and Aelric thought they might be able to get away with buying the powdered minotaur horn. They found a halfling market trader who claimed to have some for sale but her ruse was discovered and after some persuasion from Magnar -- it says "Intimidate" on his sheet -- she agreed to crush the horn for them if they brought one to her. This did leave the player-characters with the small problem of finding a minotaur and convincing him to give up part of his head.

Ranald seemed to smile on them -- as he would later on -- as they not only found a trader who spoke of a woodsman he'd met outside Middenheim who said he'd seen a minotaur accompanied by a tribe of beastmen, but they also found a hunter named Jost who agreed to both help them find a wolf pack and take them to the woodsman's hut.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay doesn't have a simple metric for determining the strength of an encounter -- there is something of a vague and half-hearted attempt in the monster book for the second edition -- but you can sort of guess and wolves shouldn't be much of a challenge to a group of characters as experienced as this party, and so it proved to be. Sort of. Killing the wolves wasn't a problem but making sure that everyone -- including a reluctant von Oppenheim -- each killed one was more difficult. As a result the last of the pack was chased around the forest as the two dwarves sprinted on their stubby little legs in an attempt to tackle it; given that both are former Blood Bowl players, one would think they'd be better at such activities.

The beastmen were more of a challenge. The party found the woodsman's hut burned to the ground and the woodsman himself eviscerated and hanging from a tree -- this was my little bit of Christmas cheer -- so Jost refused to go any further and returned to the city with von Oppenheim. The beastmen had shown no attempts to be stealthy so even the untrained party had no trouble following their trail to what seemed to be an ancient elven temple deep in the woods. The creatures of Chaos had defiled the place in the name of their dark gods by erecting some sort of altar or shrine made from offal and bones and were camping nearby; the minotaur was chained to the temple itself for some reason.

Rather than ponder the religious significance of the beastmen's odd living arrangements the party assaulted them. Or rather Thorek did. Regular readers will remember that the trollslayer also blundered into the undead-infested tomb and the skaven lair; the other members of the party are considering investing in some heavy chains for the impulsive dwarf.

Thorek was of course spotted and the rest of the party rushed to his aid. Rudiger dived into cover and Aelric held back as a voice only he could hear seemed to be urging him to stay away from the temple; the language was unknown even to him but the meaning was clear and the elf thought it might have something to do with the iron ring he'd found in the aforementioned tomb. Perhaps Thorek should get one.

The battle at the temple was the biggest fight we've had in WFRP2 so far but it was smooth and uncomplicated, even with a shaman, a chieftain, two squads of beastmen -- one of which arrived part of the way through the battle -- running around, and the minotaur too, although he wasn't doing as much running. We're not playing with the alternate initiative system any more as the players didn't like it but it would have been interesting to see how it would have worked on such a scale. After the game, the players all said that they felt genuine peril during the battle but as Ranald smiled on them again and I rolled a 90 or above for almost every attack their characters were never in much danger; the minotaur turned out to be a mutant with a magical third eye that inflicted a crippling malaise on a few of the party members and Thorek was mauled by the beastman chief -- almost losing his arm -- but they made it through the fight without too much trouble.

Poddo Bayleaf, the party's loyal barber-surgeon, was not so lucky and was spotted hanging around at the back unguarded, so a couple of beastman skirmishers started chopping him into pieces until he ran off in a panic. After the battle the party found him cowering under a bush and he soon lost himself in the cheerful work of slicing and sewing. Aelric and Magnar destroyed the altar of bones and Rudiger discovered a secret compartment in the temple pool; it contained a number of scrolls but the water got in and ruined them before Aelric could examine them.

Next time, the party returns to Middenheim for the all-important ritual -- assuming they are not waylaid before then -- and we see if Aelric's doom-mongering proves to be accurate. The death clock is ticking for Thorek at least, as the trollslayer is now out of Fate Points.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Battle-Axes and Bureaucracy

The previous session of The Enemy Within II: Money Never Sleeps ended in a cliffhanger as a band of marauders led by a HeroQuest Chaos warrior ambushed the party on their way to Middenheim. The group had heard stories of a vast Chaos horde rampaging through the northern half of the Empire and had seen Averheim's preparations for the war, but this was the first time they'd seen the face of the enemy. It wasn't long before they were kicking in the face of the enemy too.

Some very poor rolling on my part led to the marauders being somewhat less than effective as the dwarves soaked up the few attacks that did land and Rudiger and the elves danced about causing damage to the unwashed savages. Aside from a brief panic when the warrior spotted Aelric alone and unguarded at the edge of the fight and charged him, the most nerve-wracking aspect of the battle for the party was that the warrior's helmet was ruined by one of the wizard's lightning bolts and so wasn't able to be looted.

If you've read any Mark Millar comics it was akin to the limp resolution to one of his cliffhangers, except at least I wasn't doing it on purpose.

After that, the group arrived in Middenheim and were more upset about paying the one crown gate toll -- despite having the marauders' horses to sell for forty crowns each -- than anything else they'd run into so far in the campaign. Capitalist dogs, every one of them.

Once within the fortified city the party split up. Rudiger began investigating less-than-legal job opportunities in the city, while the dwarves rented a forge and spent a couple of days modifying the warrior's armour to fit Magnar, and Aelric headed off to the academic district to see if the not-at-all mysterious iron ring he'd found in the undead-infested barrow had any unusual properties. Rudiger made contact with a one-eyed fellow called Olaf, who promised to keep him in mind if anything lucrative came up, while the elf wizard played a series of chess games against the barman of a student pub -- his victories netting the party a one-off group Fortune Point -- and wandered about the Collegium Theologica, after a while bumping into Robertus von Oppenheim.

Von Oppenheim was the academic that they'd been sent to meet regarding the skaven bell clapper but before they discussed such unimportant matters Aelric asked the professor to examine the iron ring. In return von Oppenheim asked the party to organise a meeting with the priests of Ulric so that he could get access to the sacred flame of their temple in order to conduct his experiment on the clapper. The professor -- not much of a people person -- had been writing letters to the clergy but had not received any response to his requests; upon arriving at the temple and having to convince a corpulent clerk to arrange an interview with a young priest in order to arrange an appointment to access the flame, the party could see why, suspecting that Ulric was perhaps also the god of needless bureaucracy and that the letters were probably stacked on a desk somewhere in the depths of the building.

The group had some other business in the city. Back in Averheim, Aelric had been forced to sell an ancient elven heirloom and had heard it had made its way to Middenheim in the hands of one Johann Scheune, a name that seemed familiar to Magnar for some reason he couldn't quite place; they decided to not bother with that tantalising plot hook and instead went looking for the witch hunter Adele Ketzenblum, last spotted outside Talabheim, and a possible source of information on the party's apparent nemesis, the Black Hood. Ketzenblum herself proved as elusive as ever but the group did discover that she was presiding over a trial at the temple of Verena the next morning and made plans to return the following day, assuming the two dwarves didn't get too hammered -- ho ho -- in the meantime.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

It Shouldn't Be a Surprise; The Game Is Called Warhammer After All

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay has a reputation for favouring investigation over combat so it felt a bit odd when my group's most recent session of The Enemy Within II: The Quickening was more or less fighting from start to finish. Part of this was the result of unlucky dice rolls but part of it was because these players seem to go out of their way to get into fights sometimes. Too much Pathfinder, I suspect.

Rudiger had just graduated from thief to tomb robber so on their way to Middenheim on a mission for Luminary Mauer -- to destroy the tainted bell clapper they found in the skaven lair -- the party decided to stop off in a part of western Stirland known to be scattered with the burial mounds of the ancient Styrigen tribal kings. This expedition went much as expected; traps sent piles of rocks bouncing off Magnar's tough skull to no effect and Thorek went around smashing burial urns and sending clouds of corpse dust into the air and into everyone's lungs, so now everyone is worried that they've contracted some kind of tomb rot.

Ho ho. As if.

The barrow was of course infested with the undead. The party faced only wights and skeletons but most large or supernatural monsters cause fear in WFRP, which can be quite dangerous as a character affected is paralysed and unable to flee or defend themselves, let alone attack. The griffon at the garden party and the large skaven mutant both proved to be tough opponents for this very reason but the risen inhabitants of the barrow didn't make much of an impression on the party and didn't last long. Alas for the tomb raiders, bashing skeletons wasn't as lucrative as they'd hoped and so with only minor loot to show for their troubles -- some old swords, a bag of Reman coins, a couple of bits of not-mysterious-at-all jewellery -- they returned to the road and headed for Middenheim.

They stopped off at a coaching inn and while most of the group retired to bed the two dwarves decided to have a drinking competition in which the loser would be the first one to fall unconscious. It was something of a draw and as such, the two toughest fighters in the party were out of action when a skaven assassin sneaked into the player-characters' room during the night to steal the artefact. Drandruel leaped through the small bedroom window and across a few metres of open space, to land on the narrow top of the inn's surrounding wall right next to the fleeing thief, a feat so implausible that the other player-characters were as surprised as the skaven. With Rudiger and Aelric in support, the rat man did not get far -- by "not get far" I mean "was blasted into atoms by Aelric's magic" -- and the bell clapper was recovered. Meanwhile, the dwarves dreamed of gold under the mountains as they snored in sticky puddles of their own vomit.

The rest of the session was made up of random encounters along the road to Middenheim. The Enemy Within II: Havana Nights is written for the third edition of WFRP but I've been running it in the second edition of the game and it's been easy to convert as there isn't a great deal of rules material in the adventures. The main exceptions are the little bits about travelling between cities; there's all sorts of stuff about building dice pools and counting symbols and the like but I simplified it into:

On the Road Again: Half-Arsed Travel Encounters in WFRP2

For each leg of the journey the party should make a single roll against a value chosen based on their method of travel. If the party are travelling by foot, then they should use Toughness or Navigate; Ride or Drive if travelling by coach or wagon; Ride if on horseback; Row if using a boat; or Navigate or Outdoor Survival if avoiding the roads and going cross-country. It's not an exhaustive list and I tend to let them use any skill they like if they can make a good argument for it being appropriate in the context. The difficulty of the roll should be modified by conditions so for example if the road is in poor repair there may be a -10 penalty.

The key bit is that one roll is made for the entire party so the player-characters should choose the highest value among the lot of them if they want to succeed. My group missed out on a sub-quest that would have given them a carriage and a professional driver for the trip so had to rely on their own resources and skills.

If the roll succeeds then that leg of the journey goes without a hitch but if it fails then the trip has been rough and tiring and each member of the party is at -10 to all rolls until they have rested. If the roll succeeds by 10 or more -- we call this a "raise" because Savage Worlds has corrupted us -- then the party has a friendly encounter but if it's failed by 10 or more then there is a less friendly encounter.

My players fumbled every travelling roll except for one -- meeting a group of Strigoni travellers -- and even that turned a bit ugly when they started bullying an old lady for being a stereotype. At another point, they were assaulted by a giant spider -- and this time the fear effect was more, er, effective -- but managed to get rid of it before it could harm anyone except for their plucky halfing surgeon, Poddo Bayleaf, who got poisoned and was rigid with paralysis for hours.

The last roll of the evening was one more travelling test to cover the last stretch of road before Middenheim and relative safety. Of course they fluffed this roll too and we ended the session with a band of mounted marauders bursting from the trees, led by a platemail-clad warrior of Chaos.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Random Skull Face

Last time on The Enemy Within 2: The Enemy Within Takes Manhattan the player-characters solved the mystery of the missing people of Averheim but were too beaten and bruised to deal with the apparent culprits, a trio of skaven, so the rat men escaped into the sewers beneath the city. As Aelric the wizard-in-training recovered under the watchful -- and expensive -- eyes of the sisters of Shallya he researched possible sources of the tome of magic he needed to progress in his studies; he identified a handful of other wizards in the city but the party decided against trying to rob them and instead focussed on rumours of an abandoned wizard's tower a day's travel from the city walls.

When Aelric and Thorek the trollslayer had both recovered from their injuries the party searched for traces of the Black Hood, the new crime boss in town; it had not escaped their notice that the skaven they faced had been wearing black cloaks. They started by trying to get retired racketeer Frederick Grosz's gang on side, only to discover that the Hood had already recruited the ruffians and had given them instructions to kill the party. Grosz'z former gang of lowly street thugs were no match for the player-characters but in the confusion of the fight the leader of the group -- and the only link back to the Black Hood -- was decapitated by Aelric's wild magic.

Frustrated, the party decided to head to the abandoned tower of the wizard Johannes Pappenheimer. There they ran into a group of bandits using the ruin as a hideout but made as short work of them as they did the gangsters back in Averheim, although the bandit leader got a lucky hit in on the otherwise near-invulnerable Magnar -- an invocation of Ulric's Fury for about twenty points of damage -- and the idea of searching the cellars of the tower for the wizard's belongings with the dwarf so weakened had them all spooked, so they chose to return to Averheim and resume the search when rested and better prepared.

A day later they arrived at the gates of Averheim to hear the sound of bells and streets thronged with people. While they were away news had reached the city that raiders from the northern wastes had swept through Kislev -- Warhammer Russia, more or less -- and had broken into the northern part of the Empire. The Emperor was raising an army to fight the barbarians and there was great excitement in Averheim with many young men signing up for the front; with no desire to fight, the player-characters decided to lie low and hope that no one noticed them. A letter on Aelric's doormat from captain of the Averheim garrison Marcus Baerfaust requesting their presence suggested that such subterfuge was already too late.

The party rested and the next morning Aelric woke up feeling quite unwell, his face feeling prickly and hot. Looking in the mirror he discovered that all the flesh had fallen from his face leaving a hideous skeletal visage; his scream brought the rest of the group upstairs and insanity points were handed out to one and all.

Back when they were running around the sewers looking for rat men Aelric had picked up a tainted throwing star with his bare hands and failed the Toughness roll to resist corruption; his body had been warping ever since but only that morning had his mutation blossomed. In the spirit of fairness I had Ben roll his own mutation for Aelric and he could have spent a Fate point to avoid his, er, fate, but he was quite sporting and decided to keep his new face.

After that shock and the subsequent discomfort of watching Aelric trying to eat breakfast, the party went shopping. They bought a decorative mask for the wizard -- they think they can pass it off either as an odd elven custom, noble fashion, or weird wizard stuff -- and secured the ongoing services of Poddo Bayleaf, a halfling barber-surgeon with perhaps more enthusiasm than experience, but also cheap, keen, and oblivious to the inherent dangers of hanging around with the player-characters. With their plucky new assistant in tow they then returned to the tower for the most underwhelming battle ever. The cellar of the tower was swamped in magical energy, clear to Aelric's witchsight but palpable even to the less aethyrically attuned members of the party, the source a secret room emanating a dull pink glow. The room seemed to be Pappenheimer's secret study, complete with a workbench covered in magical paraphernalia and a bookshelf of musty tomes. Oh, and a magic circle holding some sort of daemon.

Aelric sneaked into the room to grab one of the books but before he could say "don't disturb the magic circle lest you release the daemon within" Magnar disturbed the circle and released the daemon within. The brief panic that ensued was somewhat unnecessary as the daemon failed to slap Aelric to death then was smashed into a pulpy pink goo by one blow from the trollslayer. There was a chance that the thing would either explode or multiply upon death but neither happened, to my great disappointment.

With a grimoire of celestial magic in their possession the party returned to Averheim and went to see both Baerfaust and the wizard Konrad Mauer to ask them for help in tracking down the Black Hood. To their surprise Baerfaust asked them to help him find the mysterious villain, sending them to talk to the witch hunter Adele Ketzenblum, while Mauer knew next to nothing but did give them the job of taking the corrupted bell clapper the skaven had fashioned to Middenheim for cleansing or destruction. By a curious coincidence -- and nothing to do with soft railroading -- it turned out that Ketzenblum had left Averheim and was heading for Talabheim, which just so happened to be on the way to Middenheim.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Chainmail Burqas and Sewer Elves

(For a suitably comedic look at the campaign so far from a player's perspective have a look at Stuart's blog.)

After a brief break for a bit of Savage Worlds we returned to The Enemy Within II: The Wrath of The Enemy Within last week, picking up in the aftermath of the worst garden party ever. Both dwarves had been dragged off to the temple of Shallya for emergency treatment, leaving the thief Rudiger Adler and the elves Aelric Shadowstar and Drandruel to investigate the scene of the crime. Some good and clever investigation turned up a number of clues including a possible connection between the wound that enraged the rampaging griffon and the bodies found at the docks, and an unusual throwing star that gave Aelric a sickly feeling deep in his stomach when he touched it.

There was an interesting clash between player and character knowledge at this point as a couple of the players suspected the involvement of skaven but in the setting most people consider the rat men to be an urban legend; to the considerable credit of my players they kept to what their characters would have known and it was made a bit easier for them by having two dwarves in the party -- dwarves being well aware of the existence of the skaven, Magnar describing them to an incredulous Aelric as "light and agile, like elves, but living in sewers" -- and by the wizard Konrad Mauer identifying the throwing star as a weapon used by the creatures.

Things moved fast after that. With Thorek and Magnar out of immediate danger the party put their clues together and decided that there was something fishy going on at the docks. Ho ho. Their investigations brought them to a certain building on the waterfront and that is where things started to go wrong. Thorek blundered into a trap and set off an alarm, forcing the party to think fast and abandon a more stealthy approach, then he decided to run off and circle around to assault the building from the other direction. By himself.

This may seem like a rather stupid thing to do and perhaps it is, but Thorek is a trollslayer, dedicated to dying in glorious combat with some fearsome beast, so it is also rather in character.

Inside the building the party found a skaven sorcerer who waved his little claws in elaborate patterns in the air and vanished in a puff of green smoke. They also found a seven foot tall skaven mutant who -- alas for them -- did not vanish.

The Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay rules on fear are quite brutal and both dwarves found themselves frozen to the spot as the frenzied giant bipedal rat launched itself at them. Everything went a bit chaotic -- small "c" -- as the trollslayer was smashed into a pulp for the second time in as many days, Aelric got his ribs crushed by the mutant and then punctured a lung when trying to clamber over a wall to safety, and Rudiger had a brief rooftop battle with a third skaven before diving off the roof wuxia-style and nipping inside the building -- while the mutant was busy trying to eat Aelric -- to loot the skaven lair. Magnar, clad almost head to toe in heavy mail as he is, walked out of the fight without a scratch.

The player-characters' assault occurred in the morning so a crowd soon gathered and the skaven fled into the docks' dense tangle of twittens and ginnels. Inside the rats' lair the player-characters found the remains of most of the missing people -- although Rudiger's brother was not among the bodies -- the gold plaque stolen from the aforementioned garden party, and an odd silver bell clapper that gave off the same eerie vibes as the jade mask from the party; when later presented to Mauer, the wizard suggested that the two artefacts may somehow have been the same object.

That's where we left it, at the end of the first book of the campaign. It has gone quite fast, with three chapters being completed in four sessions but the structure of the campaign changes in the next book so it's difficult to predict if that will be just as swift. Before we get to that there are some loose ends to tie up and once again there are two members of the party in serious need of healing; in Pathfinder what happens is we kick the door down, kill all the monsters inside, then steal their stuff. In WFRP what happens is the door gets kicked down, the monsters kick the player-characters down, the player-characters steal the monsters' stuff, then they run away. I love it.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Zombie Titan

I have been meaning to mention both of these snippets for a while but I'm rubbish at promoting myself, so that's why I'm only now announcing that I was asked to get involved in Nerd Titan's Halloween gaming article. The request came as a bit of a surprise and I suspect I missed the point a little with my contribution but the rest of the article is good stuff and well worth reading.

The other bit of news isn't late because the book isn't out yet, so I can still tell you that the Borderline Press anthology Zombre is available for order right now. My contribution to the book is a single page so I feel like I can promote it without the embarrassment of promoting myself. I haven't seen any of the stories from the anthology but I know some of the names of the writers and artists involved and they're a talented bunch so I'm sure it'll be a good book and a bargain at £12.95.

Friday, November 01, 2013


The best thing about the first Thor film was the relationship between Thor and Loki. Everyone knows now how good Tom Hiddleston was as the trickster god but I think Chris Hemsworth's performance in the lead role was rather overlooked; Thor's love for his brother and anguish over his betrayal seemed genuine and that was what made the emotional core of the film work for me. The rest of the film, all the fighting and the swooshy cosmic stuff and the shiny Asgard gubbins was all good, but it played second fiddle to the central family dynamic and the strong performances that made the characters seem real, despite being spangly space gods.

Thor: The Dark World is even better than the first film because that core relationship between Thor and Loki is still there and is still as convincing as before, but all the other bits and pieces are much improved. For some reason -- probably the UK filming, if I'm honest, as it's been a long time since we were the first choice location for blockbuster movies -- I was concerned that this movie would seem cheap in comparison to Marvel Avengers Assemble An Unecessarily Long Title For No Explicable Reason or the first Thor but the new film looks spectacular. Everything looks bigger, better, more colourful and more, er, well it's difficult to explain. Thor 2: Thor Harder doesn't look like Jack Kirby's Thor or Walt Simonson's Thor, but it has that same sort of feel to it, of wild invention and big ideas thrown at the screen; it's the best bits of Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Hellboy 2 shoved in a blender and made into a delicious visual smoothie. Some boring old fuddie-duddies might quibble over the scifi dark elves and how they're not much like Simonson's but I rather liked them with their funky cloaked B-Wings, Krull-esque laser guns, and impassive porcelain masks.

The Jane Foster Gang is as fluffy and unimportant as it was the first time around but the light comedy moments the group of dysfunctional scientists provide are a good contrast to the more earnest Asgardian drama elsewhere; sometimes that contrast is a bit jarring but it's a film about a big space Viking hitting cyber-elves in the face with a magic hammer so I can forgive some inconsistency in tone and it's easier to forgive when the jokes are in fact funny. I was a bit disappointed that early hints of an impending confrontation between Jane and Sif fizzle away to nothing, and despite some initial promise, Christopher Eccleston is little more than a bloke in a rubber suit for most of the film; it's so disheartening to see him being mediocre in all these post-Doctor Who genre productions when he was so good as the Doctor.

Anyway, weak villain aside, Thor II: The Final Thursday is not only much better than I thought it would be, but is quite a bit better than the first film too. I wasn't grinning like an idiot or jumping in my chair like I was while watching Whatever The Avengers Film Is Called This Week but I was not only entertained but often impressed. I give the film four lightning-licked Mjolnirs out of five.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Nan Tuck's Ghost

I was hoping to have this ready yesterday but I was ill and ended up cowering on the sofa for the entire evening. So I'm sorry that it's a little bit late but here's my Halloween offering for 2013: Nan Tuck's Ghost. It's a short adventure that should only take one evening to complete and is almost system neutral; there's one bit that mentions mechanics used in Call of Cthulhu, D&D, and Savage Worlds, but that's more an attempt to be helpful than anything.

Let me know how you get on with the adventure. I suspect it will be quite deadly; when I played it there was only one surviving player-character and that's because they weren't present for the grisly finale. Have fun!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Grim and Perilous Initiative

The second edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay ditches the Initiative statistic used in the tabletop wargame and the first edition of the rpg; instead it introduces a mechanic that suggests that someone noticed that the book was going to press without rules for deciding turn order. It's a bit half-hearted to say the least so in The Enemy Within we're using a system that I stole from the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game. It goes a little something like this:

  1. Each player rolls 1d10 and adds the result to the first digit of their character's Agility statistic; the GM does the same for each unique non-player-character or group.
  2. Whoever got the highest total goes first; ties are decided by the highest Agility score or an opposed Agility test if scores match. When when their turn is finished they decide who goes next; this doesn't have to be one of their allies.
  3. Repeat step 2 until every character and group has had a turn; whoever goes last chooses the character or group that goes first next turn.

Players can spend a Fortune Point to interrupt the turn order and if the GM wishes to interrupt a player, he or she must award that player a Fortune Point. I must admit that I'm not sure what effect this has on the Delay combat action; I suspect it will replace that option but it's not come up in the game yet.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

My RPG Person Profile

Zak's latest idea looks useful, so here goes.

I'm currently running (at home): The Enemy Within for third edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, only I'm running it in the second edition. You can read session summaries here.

Tabletop RPGs I'm currently playing (at home) include: Nothing; we just finished a big Pathfinder campaign and we only meet once a week so I'm not playing anything right now. Once The Enemy Within is done I'll get to play for a bit again.

I'm currently running (online): Nothing. There was a plan to run some Rogue Trader on G+ but I ran out of time and courage.

Tabletop RPGs I'm currently playing (online) include: Nothing. I haven't played online in ages. I'd love to get back into it.

I would especially like to play: 13th Age; I bought it ages ago but haven't had a chance to play it yet.

...but would also try: Almost anything.

I live in: Brighton, on England's sometimes-sunny coast.

2 or 3 well-known RPG products other people made that I like: The AD&D2 Monstrous Manual, Vornheim, pre-100 White Dwarf.

2 or 3 novels I like: Dracula, The War of the Worlds, Wuthering Heights. I need to read some more recent books.

2 or 3 movies I like: Halloween, My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke.

Best place to find me on-line: Here most of the time or Google+ on occasion.

I will read almost anything on tabletop RPGs if it's: got at least one good idea.

I really do not want to hear about: how rule system X is the best rule system ever and is perfect for anything and all other rules systems are inferior in every possible way.

I think dead orc babies are: a good indication that some angry orc parents are coming your way soon.

Games I'm in are like: a cultural cliché. We drink a lot of tea.

Free RPG Content I made is available here: under the stuff you can use tag on this blog or under the same tag on my older blog. I also wrote two One Page Dungeon winners.

You can buy RPG stuff I made here: I did the art for Death Love Doom and some of the art in The B/X Companion and The Complete B/X Adventurer and a few of the later issues of Fight On! but everything I've written is so far available for free.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Worst Garden Party Ever

My prediction from the last session was a bit off; Rudiger Adler did not get shot. In fact, he didn't suffer a single injury, but then again all the player-characters did this session was provide security for a noble's garden party, and how dangerous can that be?

Last time, the party got in a scuffle while protecting Clothilde von Alptraum as part of a scheme to draw out some bandits; draw them out they did, and discovered that at least one band seemed to be made up of members of the Averheim city guard, or perhaps the roadwardens; the text of the adventure is a bit unclear on the name of the organisation, which is not ideal in an investigative scenario.

One of the bandits was captured alive -- another escaped, which should keep the player-characters on their toes -- and was taken back to the von Alptraum manor house, where the dwarf Magnar attempted -- torture having been forbidden by Clothilde -- to intimidate him into telling them why he was carrying equipment belonging to the city guard and who he was working for. Alas, Magnar fumbled the interrogation and all he managed to get from the prisoner was a sneer.

Returning to Averheim, the party discovered that their work for the bureaucrat Curd Weiss had been observed by Weiss' employer, Graf Friedrich von Kaufman and, pleased with their success, the Graf met with them to offer them another job. He was planning a garden party for some of his friends and contacts, in order to show off some items acquired in an expedition he'd funded to the Southlands - the Warhammer equivalent of sub-Saharan Africa -- and because of all these rumours of corrupt city guardsman he asked the party to provide security at the event. They would be joined by two other hirelings: the trollslayer Thorek and wood elf Dran Durel.

Aelric was overjoyed to be invited to a high society gathering but crestfallen when he discovered that he was to be hired muscle; this didn't stop him trying his best to ingratiate himself with the assembled nobility. Magnar noted that the party was taking place on the central lawn of a menagerie -- featuring a griffon, a rhinox, and a giant spider, amongst others -- and set about arranging defences. One could argue that Magnar was being paranoid but this is a role-playing game, so of course the monsters were going to get loose.

First though, the nobles had to engage in petty arguments with one another., and Claudia Leitdorf -- a potential heir to the throne of Averland -- excused herself from the party with "a headache". Soon after, an unnamed witch hunter turned up -- worrying Aelric enough that for the first time in the event he kept a low profile -- and caused a great deal of distress for the Light Wizard Mauer, Captain Baerfaust of the city guard, and von Kaufman himself, before leaving in as abrupt manner as she arrived. Baerfaust left the party in the witch hunter's wake and Mauer left after a blistering row with von Kaufman over some of the artefacts brought back from overseas.

To break the tension somewhat, Amalie, one of the ladies-in-waiting, suggested a game of hide-and-seek in the nearby hedge maze; Magnar again assumed the worst and insisted on following her into the maze and standing guard, although she did at least manage to convince the taciturn dwarf to stay quiet and hide around a corner so he wouldn't spoil the game.

The griffon somehow got out of its cage -- surprise! -- and plunged into the maze looking for its dinner. There was also a great explosion -- this came as more of a surprise -- and von Kaufman's exhibit of exotic treasures was engulfed in a cloud of acrid smoke. Magnar stayed where he was while Rudiger and Thorek rushed into the maze to attempt to rescue the people within. Meanwhile, Aelric and Dran Durel set about rescuing those caught in the explosion.

Once again we were reminded that Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is not Pathfinder as the griffon almost killed Magnar and Thorek -- only the expenditure of Fate Points saved the two dwarfs -- but Rudiger managed to escape unscathed through the perspicacious decision to hide and crawl away when he saw the trollslayer cartwheeling through the air, blood and fluids spewing from his open belly.

Baerfaust's guardsmen arrived at last -- having been barred from the event by von Kaufman -- and finished off the griffon, and although von Kaufman's falconer and another noble's jester had been eaten by the beast, and Clothilde's bodyguard was killed in the explosion, the Graf thanked the player-characters for doing their best to save everyone.

This chapter had its challenges as a lot of it involved non-player-characters talking to each other, and there's always a danger with that of excluding the players; I hope I managed to avoid the worst of that although it did feel at times as if I was performing a one man show. The maze set-piece is also tricky as it's a bit clumsy and slow as written; I decided to make it a bit more abstract in order to speed it up and I think it worked a bit better.

Next time: the aftermath of the party and further investigations into the identity of the Black Hood.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Rain Rain Go Away

Last time, the elf Aelric Shadowstar, the dwarf Magnar, and the human rogue Rudiger Adler mooched around Averheim's dock district, looking for the plot. In doing so they uncovered gossip about subjects as diverse as a new crime boss, possible war in the north, and a hunchbacked mutant stalking the docks. They also beat up a teenage pickpocket and discovered the body of a murdered criminal; they decided to keep watch near the corpse in the hope that the killer would return, which would have been a good idea had they not spent the evening getting drunk. As a result they each closed their eyes -- just for a little bit, mind you -- only to wake up a few hours later, covered in morning dew, curled up next to a murder victim, and with a small crowd looking on.

This is why we love Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

At some point Aelric remembered he had the use of an actual house, with proper doors and windows and everything, so the party stopped sleeping wherever they happened to collapse and after a night in relative luxury they returned to the docks to find that cheerful busker-cum-informant Ute had gone missing like so many before; they almost seemed upset by this but I couldn't tell if it was because they liked her or because they'd lost a resource. While looking into this latest disappearance the party stumbled upon another dead gangster, this time getting the CSI treatment from Light Wizard Konrad Mauer, who was being played by William Hartnell's Doctor Who.

After spending the past few days mixing with the lower classes, Aelric was quite pleased to meet Mauer who -- as both a wizard and a noble -- was almost as good as an elf. Mauer confirmed their suspicions that there was some sort of magic involved in the killings and also seemed quite taken with Adler's theory of a mutant scorpion man running around Averheim.

Soon after they met the bureaucrat Curd Weiss, who gave them a job; to discover the location of a goods wagon that had gone missing somewhere just outside the city. Off they went, bumping into a Strigany pedlar -- and I suspect, contemplating robbing him -- and just after lunch discovering wheel tracks leading off the road into a copse sheltered among some light hills. Suspecting that they had found the missing wagon, Adler and Magnar tried to sneak up for a better look. Magnar succeeded. Adler got three arrows in the face.

This is why we love Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

Aelric's horse got a stray arrow in the rump so it decided to go home with or without the dwarf and the human target. Upon returning to Averheim the party failed to convince Weiss to send an army after the bandit snipers but did somehow manage to command a higher fee for their services; perhaps Weiss felt sorry for Adler, sitting there with bandages wrapped around his head like a citizen of Nehekhara. He also gave them another job, to escort a noble to her country mansion as part of an elaborate plan to draw some bandits into a trap.

The next day the player-characters met Clothilde von Alptraum and accompanied her and her wizened bodyguard and coachman into the countryside. Of course they were ambushed and of course Adler got beaten up again, but in the end the bandits were vanquished by the adventurers. During the looting that followed Adler discovered that the criminals may have been members of the Averheim city guard. Dun-dun-dunnnn!

Or something.

Now that we've got past the somewhat awkward introduction The Enemy Within II: Electric Booglaoo is flowing a bit better and the players are getting more involved, coming up with all sorts of theories about what's going on in Averheim and who might be behind it all. Adler's obsession with the Mutant Scorpion Man™ was a particular highlight, as was his unfortunate encounter with the first group of bandits; I have to admit to being a bit surprised at the players' retreat but that's perhaps a result of months of playing Pathfinder, where we tore through all opposition without blinking. WFRP is quite a different game and seeing Adler go into critical condition in the first couple of rounds of combat brought that home.

There's a lot of meeting-and-greeting in this new version of The Enemy Within -- again in stark contrast to Pathfinder -- but the players seem to be enjoying it and I'm keen to find out what they think of the many characters they've encountered; already Magnar is working with Konrad Mauer and Aelric is keen to forge links with everyone, as long as they are of the right class, of course.

Next time: some stuff happens and Adler probably gets shot again.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Enemy Within II: Enemy Withiner

With Pathfinder behind us until we have a mental lapse and decide we want to do some more swords and mathery, my group started playing The (New) Enemy Within yesterday with me taking on the GM duties. It's a strong campaign with lots of interesting twists and turns and some exciting set pieces so I think it will be a lot of fun, but it's got a bit of a clumsy beginning, an odd mix of railroad -- you must investigate the disappearances at the docks! -- and sandbox -- here are four billion clues and NPCs; you sort through them! -- but with a little bit of effort and a sporting approach from my players -- recognising that if they don't pursue the thread there won't be a campaign to play -- things seem to have got off to a good start.

The campaign was written for the third edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay but we're playing it with the second edition and I've been converting things on the fly; so far this hasn't been a problem as the book is rather light on actual rules and for a game full of funny dice and odd resolution mechanics, WFRP3 is quite easy to convert back to the earlier edition. Behold!

Quick and Dirty WFRP3 to WFRP2 Conversions:

As a general rule of thumb, multiply a WFRP3 statistic by ten to get the WFRP2 value, use Strength for Weapon Skill and Agility for Ballistic Skill, use Soak Value as Armour Points, and transfer Wounds over as they are. Skills and talents aren't an exact match but you should be able to get close enough; it may be that the resulting WFRP2 character will have abilities they shouldn't have by standard construction rules but I don't tend to worry about that sort of thing.

We play again on Friday; the player-characters have picked up some clues and have a number of theories about the disappearances, and have even made a new friend. As might be expected, I ended the game session with the cheerful news that said friend has gone missing.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Stop That Carrion

We did it. At long last we finished a campaign.

After almost two years the finale of Carrion Crown was a bit of an anti-climax as instead of the party fighting the big villain in a dramatic set piece battle atop his evil tower, my necromancer magic jarred him from a distance and had him fling himself over the edge.

Still, at least we got cake.

Pictured is our special celebratory Carrion Cake -- dark chocolate and strawberry with an icing sugar crowned skull motif -- and the victorious sort-of-heroes. From left to right: Tarion, the half-elf ranger/thief; Sir Erodel, the paladin/sorcerer/dragon; Norman, Nicodemus' butler and musketeer; Erodel's cleric henchman, not given a name because of church bureaucracy; Nicodemus Eldritch, monster hunter and necromancer; Veniticus, beefy cleric of Abadar; and 12939, Nicodemus' alchemical golem.

It would be sensible -- after staggering our way to the end of a long campaign -- to have a bit of a breather and play some shorter games, to cleanse the palate as it were.

It would appear that we're not sensible.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Staggering Insanity of Fourteenth-Level Pathfinder

Round one. The flying red tentacled thing, the flying white dragon, and the giant berserker are the player-characters. The group hanging around in the doorway at the left hand side of the picture are their henchmen and followers. Everything else is a monster to be bashed.

The end of round one:

That's about six seconds of in-game time.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Full Of Beans

Just over a month ago The Guardian published a list of Brighton's top budget restaurants; I would second the recommendations for Iydea, Pompoko, and Pizzaface but I've not been to the rest -- or I have been but so long ago my experience is probably not relevant -- so I can't offer any insight there. Aside from La Choza. We're not very good at Mexican food here in Britain, no doubt due to the lack of a significant immigrant population, so that's something I've missed since moving back here. La Choza is quite good -- and not only by low British standards -- but it is a bit Guardiany, if you know what I mean.

About five minutes away, in a part of town that's a little rougher around the edges and not at all the sort of place that Guardian writers go, is Los Taquitos. The décor isn't anywhere near as precise and considered as that as La Choza's and the place does feel a little bit like a late-night burger or kebab shop -- a number of which can be found nearby -- but if you want a good burrito at a good price, Los Taquitos is the place to go.

I'm by no means an expert, but to me Italian food is better the more basic and rustic it is -- the very idea of fancy Italian food baffles me a little -- and I suspect that this has more than a little to do with a chance encounter I had with a young Italian couple in Paris many years ago, who were proponents of huge pans of cheap and cheerful home-made sauce sloshed all over big plates of pasta. I feel much the same way about Mexican food, which may well be unfair to the cuisine of Mexico, but seems right to me -- again, I'm no expert -- and that's the kind of approach you get at Los Taquitos. I've only had the vegetarian options but they've been excellent in both flavour and value; I tend to go for the vegetarian chilli burrito, which is huge, about £4.50, and is the tastiest I've had in this country.

This isn't a restaurant review -- not being able to try two-thirds of the menu means I'm not qualified for that -- but more of a recommendation. It's in a bit of an odd part of Brighton but if you like Mexican food, then you must make the effort to visit Los Taquitos, because it's ace.

Friday, August 30, 2013

On the Edge

I haven't read Edge in ages. It always took itself a bit too seriously for my liking, the video game equivalent of the pretentious hi-fi magazine, and then they gave Halo 2 ten out of ten and that was about it for me.

As such I missed out on their Minecraft cover in 2011, but as it's the magazine's twentieth anniversary this year they've been reprinting some of their favourites, and as a result I spotted this in the library at work this morning.

Now one might argue that Minecraft and Dungeons and Dragons don't have that much in common but I still like the homage, perhaps because of my long-standing fondness for the 1983 Red Box.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Finishing Line

I am without doubt laying a curse on it by writing this, but my gaming group is -- after delays and personnel changes -- about three sessions away from finishing the Carrion Crown campaign "adventure path" we started almost two years ago. This may not seem worthy of note, until one realises that my current group seems to have a distinct inability to finish games; in the time I've been part of the group we have started and abandoned at least four large-scale campaigns, with two others that are supposed to be there for us to pick up when we're not playing anything else, but if we're honest those are dead too.

This scrapheap of abandoned adventures isn't a bad thing in itself -- sometimes a game just doesn't work for whatever reason and it could be worse to plough on when no one's enjoying it -- but it has become something of a joke in our group so it will be nice if we can finish Carrion Crown, assuming that I haven't now ruined our chances.

I don't know if campaign abandonment is a common issue; mxyzplk at Geek Related seems to run through three or four campaigns a year but he may be an exception. My original gaming group didn't really go for long-term play but we did sort of finish a sandbox style Shadowrun campaign -- I say "sort of" because we played until our GM +Timothy Coxon went to university but there was no neat, plotted end -- and we played Dungeoneer until we broke the system, but I'm not sure that counts. I did manage to finish Horror On the Orient Express with the group but by the time we got to the end the players I had were not the same players who started it, so I'm not sure that counts either.

I seem to have the most personal success with Call of Cthulhu -- perhaps ironic given its dual reputation as being deadly for player-characters and being rubbish for campaign play -- as one of the few campaigns my current group has completed is Tatters of the King; it wasn't a conventional finish as the players missed half of the campaign, but they did defeat the cultists and save the world so I'm counting it.

So when Carrion Crown ends in a few weeks -- again, assuming I haven't scuppered it -- and our GM Ben takes a break from running games to do stuff like move house and study for a master's degree I should perhaps run something for Call of Cthulhu, because there's a likelihood we might finish it; indeed, I will be getting and running Eternal Lies at some point. First though, I'm going to have a go at running the new version of The Enemy Within for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay; I reckon WFRP is close enough to Call of Cthulhu that we've got a fair chance of getting to the end.

Friday, August 09, 2013

The Fantastic Iron Man

From today's Torygraph:

The US Federal Appeals Court ruled yesterday that the heirs of comic book artist Jack Kirby had no rights to characters such as the Fantastic Four (pictured) and the Hulk and which are now owned by Marvel Entertainment, a Walt Disney subsidiary.

Well, you can forgive them for not knowing who Iron Man is, I suppose. He's quite an obscure character after all.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Stolen Years

Last week I received a note asking how Horror Among Thieves is going; it turns out that it's been a whole year since the Indiegogo campaign funded. That's a bit embarrassing, as I'd intended to have it completed by Christmas and it's clear that I am not ready for even semi-professional publishing.

The good news is that I handed in the text of the adventure to James in May, along with almost all of the maps and art; I have a couple of final images to draw and I'm working on those now. We want to include some bonus adventures as a gift to those who helped fund the adventure and who have been waiting for so long; the adventures are written but I'm not happy with the format, so they'll need a bit of revision. It may be that the adventure is released without them and they get sent out as backer exclusive pdfs later.

Oh, and after going back and forth on the cover image James and I decided to go back to the original idea and as a result we've changed the title of the adventure to Forgive Us. I do love a good pun but the new title does fit a bit better and is more LotFPey.

I'm sorry that Forgive Us has taken so long. It is on its way and I hope it will be worth the wait.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Masters of the 13th Age

Over at the Tower of Zenopus I left the following comment:

The other major thing you'd have to tweak for your own setting is the Icons. The good thing is that although the game makes heavy use of the Icons, they are themselves referred to in generic terms; the game refers to the "Lich King" but this could be Vecna, Azalin, Nagash, Sauron or Skeletor. It needn't even be a lich king if you didn't want it to be; there's an article on Rob Heinsoo's blog about using 13th Age to run a Shadowrun game and using corporations in place of Icons.

Now I have this bonkers idea -- bonkers because there's no way my group would play it -- to run a Masters of the Universe campaign using 13th Age. There are a couple of approaches one can take with adapting a setting to 13th Age and its Icons; in some cases a straight swap might be possible, but I don't think there's any harm in coming up with new roles if the standard ones don't fit without becoming meaningless.

Skeletor is an easy one, because of course he's the Lich King, a fallen skull-faced wizard desperate to discover the Sorceress' secrets and conquer Eternia. He is allied with or opposed to Hordak depending on the day of the week and has a mysterious connection to the Eternian Royal Family.

The Sorceress is a magician allied with the Royal Family, but is also somewhat aloof and has her own agenda. She could be a straight swap for the Archmage or the Priestess, but I'd probably lean towards the Archmage to make her a bit more unpredictable.

Hordak is a cyborg skeletal pig man with an army of robots and a bat fetish, so isn't a neat fit with any of the existing 13th Age Icons and I'd probably create a new role for him, opposed to the Royal Family and allied -- sometimes -- with Skeletor. He's also stuck on another planet most of the time, and that's an interesting contrast with the more active Icons.

The Eternian Royal Family fit well in the Emperor role, standing for civilisation and order in a chaotic world. As such, King Randor and Queen Marlena have much in common with the Sorceress as they all strive to keep the world safe. As an extra complication, the Queen knows that her son is also the Sorceress' champion He-Man, but Randor does not, because he's a Dad and Dads are rubbish at knowing what's going on with their kids.

King Hiss would seem to be a good fit for the Orc Lord role, an ancient force of chaos and destruction returned to the world and seeking to overturn civilisation. He works with Skeletor or Hordak in rare circumstances but the alliances soon break due to mutual distrust. Although Hiss does not know the Sorceress, her magic is the same as that which banished him aeons ago so he considers her an enemy.

Zodac is another who doesn't fit in with the standard 13th Age Icons as he's concerned with balance and neutrality. The closest 13th Age gets to that is the High Druid, but she's all woodcraft and lentils and Zodac's more ray guns and floating chairs and ripping off Jack Kirby. Neutral alignments can be a bit naff in D&D but I think that the way 13th Age makes alignment more a matter of association with actual personalities gives neutrality more potential; it's difficult to play a character who strives to maintain a balance between abstract moral concepts but it's easier when those concepts are embodied in other characters with their own personalities and goals. So Zodac is in, as an observer and secretive manipulator of the other Icons.

There's one notable omission up there. I've left out He-Man because while he is somewhat iconic -- what with his name being in the title of the cartoon and everything -- he doesn't seem to be much of an independent operator with his own goals; rather he serves either the Sorceress or the Royal Family, or both. I suppose one could create a role for him but it doesn't seem in keeping for Icons to be subservient to each other and as much as he is the most powerful man in the universe, he is also a bit of a lackey. Also, with He-Man off stage it means that there is more for the players to do.

I've also stopped at six Icons, in part because the setting is not quite rich enough to support the full thirteen, but also because I suspect 13th Age's Icon system is flexible enough to work with a lesser number and all this nostalgic waffling is -- in a way -- supposed to be a proof of concept.

Now all I need is for someone to play it.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

You've Been Framed

There have been plenty of computer games based on comics properties over the years but not too many that have emulated the comics medium itself. 1988's Batman: The Caped Crusader is one notable exception:

Sega's Comix Zone for the Mega Drive is a more sophisticated version of what Batman was getting at:

Perhaps we were waiting for the right technology to come along; 2013 will see the release of Framed from Loveshack Entertainment. What's most interesting to me about Framed is that unlike the earlier games, the medium of comics isn't only a stylistic element but is fundamental to the core game mechanics:

From the look of it, Framed seems to be a sort of action-puzzle hybrid in a similar vein to the original Lemmings titles, but the parameters of the game are not yet clear; there's no time limit shown in the concept video, nor is there any indication of whether the player can only work with what's there at the start or if they can bring in new panels. It may turn out that Framed is going to be a stylish but casual amusement rather than a true brain-busting puzzler but even if that turns out to be the case, as a fan of comics and computer games I applaud the concept and I'm keen to see more as the game develops.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Beautiful Destruction

I have been excited about seeing Pacific Rim since it was first announced, and after what has seemed like an endless wait I saw it yesterday.

The short review is that I loved it and it lived up to almost all of my high and unreasonable expectations. It is probably going to bomb at the box office and that's an injustice so I recommend that you go and see it.

It's not a perfect film -- this is the longer review now, by the way -- but my quibbles were few. The lead actors are a bit flat; they often are in action films but in Pacific Rim it's exacerbated by a bunch of supporting actors who have far more charisma. It's no accident that they put Idris Elba in the trailers.

I was also a bit disappointed that the climax of the film is almost identical to that of one of the biggest titles of last year. Pacific Rim has been in production for so long that the similarity was perhaps unavoidable, and it's not a bad climax, but it is a bit of a shame as the comparisons probably won't be in the newer film's favour.

That's it for the things I didn't like, and one of them isn't really a problem with the film itself.

Pacific Rim's greatest strength -- and alas, I think the source of most of the complaints from other reviewers -- is that it is not pretentious. The trailers promised giant robots punching giant monsters and that's just what the film delivers. It would be easy to get this wrong -- the recent Transformers films are an excellent example -- but Guillermo Del Toro and his team work hard to make this the best robots-punching-monsters film they can.

The characters are simple, yes, but they are believable, as a result of good use of archetypes. The awkward English scientist, the brash Australian, and the dour Russians are all action movie clichés but that's all they need to be to make the story work. You could add a bunch of wrinkles to them but they'd be just as unnecessary as they would have been in Aliens and if you're going to argue that Aliens is a bad action film then you're some kind of dangerous lunatic.

That said, a good action movie gets away with thin characterisation because the action sequences carry the film and that's true of Pacific Rim. Del Toro has always had a good eye for a combat sequence -- Blade II may have had its problems but the fights were spectacular -- and he brings that approach to the all important monster-punching bits, with excellent choreography and pacing; every fight has a twist or revelation that gives it a bit of a kick and transforms -- pun intended -- the battle. There were a handful of moments where I wanted to cheer at the audacity of what was happening on screen.

Also important is a sense of scale, something that both Cloverfield and the American Godzilla fumbled and Pacific Rim gets spot on. I have heard that the 3D version mucks this up, in effect growing the viewer to the size of the monsters and robots and robbing the film of some of its more striking visuals. I saw it in the more sensible format -- as Del Toro intended -- and it was gorgeous; the Hong Kong sequence is a particular highlight, all neon and lashing rain and titans battling in the middle of it all. There's an odd sort of elegance to the film, a sense of beautiful destruction.

The design work is excellent. The artists have taken a simple approach, resulting in clear, almost iconic shapes; each monster and robot has a clean and distinctive silhouette and I could draw a reasonable likeness of the larger members of the Pacific Rim cast from memory right now but I'd struggle to do the same with the spiky jumbles of the Transformers films, and those are characters I've been following for decades. I suppose one positive aspect of the film's potential failure is that the action figures will soon be heading for the clearance shelves and I can pick them all up for half price.

There have been some indifferent and even negative reviews of the film but I think those reviewers are perhaps looking for too much. Right from the start Pacific Rim set out what it was going to be about and more than lives up to that initial promise. It's a very honest film and I don't think it's been given enough credit for that honesty. Of course it's okay to want more from one's entertainment -- I have often been a critic of products that play it safe and in its own way the film does push boundaries, at least in the sense that no one in the West has made a film like it before -- but there's also something to be said for unpretentious quality and Pacific Rim has heaps of that. You might pooh-pooh the broad idea of a giant monster movie but you can't say that Pacific Rim isn't an excellent example of the genre.

Also, Kanye West liked it and if that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is.

(2022: Crikey, the Kanye West thing didn't age well, did it? I still like Pacific Rim, whatever the racist says.)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


I love this:

My PSN name is kelvingreen should you fancy some cooperative Castle Crashing.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

1st Impressions of the 13th Age

I was aware of role-playing games as a child -- I'd played the multiplayer version of Fighting Fantasy once or twice, I'd seen mentions of more complex games in magazines, and adverts for the 1983 Dungeons and Dragons red box were omnipresent in the Marvel UK comics I devoured each week -- but my proper introduction to the hobby came in the mid-90's when a friend -- noting my interest in the orcs-with-guns of Warhammer 40,000 -- suggested that I might like Shadowrun. For the next few years I played all sorts of games and was introduced to those that remain my favourites to this day, but for whatever reason we played D&D itself only once or twice.

After a brief break during which I got a useless degree and moved to Minnesota, I returned to the land of my birth and -- remembering a thriving gaming culture in Brighton -- got in touch with the local gamers. There I met new friends and formed a new group, one that still meets to play once a week -- well, almost -- and that gave me my first proper experience of D&D. At the time The Game had just appeared in a brand spanking new fourth edition so we played that until we realised it was rubbish and moved on to other things; we settled on Pathfinder and aside from short breaks to play the odd bit of Call of Cthulhu or Cold City it's been the group's main game, so I've gone from almost never playing D&D to playing one version of it to the near exclusion of everything else.

It's fine. I quite like the idea of D&D and we do have fun, which is the point after all, but Pathfinder is far from my favourite iteration of the venerable role-playing game. It's a bit too complicated for my liking, with rules for almost everything, and I prefer a looser, lighter system; something like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, for example. The problem is that for some members of the group games like LotFP are a bit too simple, too much of an overcompensation; what we need is something in the middle, not too complex but with enough moving parts to keep everyone interested.

All of which brings me at long last to 13th Age.

Bear in mind that I've not played it yet -- I've been waiting for my printed copy to arrive before I do that -- but I have spent the past couple of days reading the pdf and I like it a lot, which is odd as it has much in common with D&D4 and I hated that.

D&D4 seemed to be all about combat so there were lots of rules and mechanics for hitting things, and while there was an attempt to deal with other aspects of play it all seemed a bit of an afterthought. There was also a sense that while packed with options, the combat rules were not designed as well as they seemed, as fights were interminable trials that went on almost as long as the three introductory paragraphs at the start of this review. 13th Age takes a similar approach but does it better; there's an admission that combat is an important part of the game so there are lots of tricks and tweaks, but there's also an acknowledgement that stabbing monsters should be fun so those tricks and tweaks are diverse and interesting and no two work in the same way. 13th Age also introduces the Escalation Die -- although I'm certain I saw an almost identical idea cropping up on one of the old-school gaming blogs a couple of years ago -- a simple way of emulating the increasing tension of battle, sort of like the Limit Breaks of the Final Fantasy games.

A 13th Age fight starts just like any other fight in any other d20 game, but with the second round the six-sided Escalation Die comes into play. It starts at 1 and the player-characters -- and some opponents -- get to add 1 to their attack rolls; if the fight continues into another round then the Die is turned to 2, the bonuses increase to match and so it goes until the Die gets to 6. If the player-characters dawdle or are too cautious then there's a chance that the Die might reset to 0, and some abilities are triggered by the Die's current value, all of which results in a combat system that rewards action and avoids a sense of grinding. It's a fun and elegant mechanic with lots of potential -- I'd also use it to trigger reinforcements or for environmental effects like lightning strikes during a rain-soaked rooftop battle -- and I'm keen to try it out.

13th Age has good rules for sticking sharp things into the soft bits of one's enemies but the authors haven't forgotten that there is more to role-playing games -- even D&D derivatives -- than violence and have taken an interesting approach by more or less bolting an abstract story game on to the side. I must admit that it's not the smoothest join and it does feel a bit like two very different games rubbing together, but it's a better approach than trying to squash the non-combat aspects of the game into combat-based mechanics as D&D4 did. It does mean that players have to make a mental switch between Fighting Mode and Story Mode but that's not a bad thing; unified mechanics can be convenient, but they are not a good in themselves.

I am most fond of the One Unique Thing and Backgrounds concepts. The former is something that's chosen in character generation and is an aspect of the character that sets them apart from every other character in the world; it's the kind of freeform idea I like and because it should have no mechanical benefit it should remain more or less immune to abuse. Backgrounds are 13th Age's replacement for skill lists and are also quite loose and liberal; a character might have "Soldier +3" as a background, so they could get a +3 bonus to anything a soldier might be good at, from devising battlefield tactics to polishing boots to a bright shine. Perhaps the player might be more specific and go for "Veteran of the Dwarf Wars +3" and so their character could also get a bonus when talking to other veterans of the conflict or remembering the name of a particular dwarven officer. I can imagine that some players might find the background system a bit too loose and woolly to be comfortable but I like the flexibility of it.

I am not so sure about 13th Age's other big innovation, the Icons, but I think that's because I've not yet seen how they work in play. Instead of fitting into a traditional alignment system 13th Age characters are associated with one or more of the powerful non-player-characters of the setting. These NPCs are sketched out in vague terms so that they can be developed to fit individual campaigns -- home-made or published; the Lich King, for example, could be Bob the Necromancer or he could be Vecna -- but there's enough detail on their goals, status, and relationships with each other that a network is formed and then the player-characters fit into that network depending on how they spend points at character generation. One player-character might have a close, positive relationship to the Orc Lord, and would thus lean towards supporting barbarism and chaos but with none of the baggage associated with writing "Chaotic Neutral" at the top of their sheet. This part I like, if only because it should stop endless arguments about whether Lawful Good characters can butcher orc children; the bit I have some difficulty with is the mechanical aspect in which a character's relationship to an Icon is turned into a roll for various story effects.

I'm quite happy with the idea of rolling Icon dice at the end of a session as a sort of impromptu scenario generator for next time, but I'm not sure about some of the other uses, such as rolling during the game to see if the random assassin who just stabbed you might have been sent by the Dwarf King; I'm all for emergent story in my games and I love a bit of swingy randomness but even so this approach seems a bit too arbitrary at first glance. All that said, I'm not sure I've understood the subtleties of the system and I suspect that it might work better in play.

13th Age does lots of other things that I like. Monster statistics are condensed to an almost Basic D&D bareness while still offering plenty of tactical options. The game's approach to magic items is wondrous -- pun intended -- with items having a sort of communal ego so that the more enchanted objects a character carries the more those objects will be able to exert control over the character's actions. The authors have also improved on D&D4's lacklustre ritual system by making combat magic the instant-gratification poor cousin of more powerful sorcery; acid arrow is a short, focussed burst of damage suitable for those occasions when an orc is trying to eat one's face, but given the luxury of time a ritual magician can get creative with the acid to burn through locks or poison a water supply or anything else they can imagine. Experience points have been dumped in favour of an encounter-based progression system in which characters can claim small improvements as they rise to the next level; it's similar in some ways to how Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay handles character growth, and as I love WFRP that's a thumbs-up. 13th Age is full of little treasures like this and so it ticks a lot of boxes for me.

The book looks quite good, or at least the electronic version does. The layout is clear and the art is attractive, if a bit generic, but then 13th Age is competing with D&D and Pathfinder as a generic fantasy role-playing game so that's fitting in a way that an idiosyncratic Planescape-type approach to the visuals perhaps would not. The writing is at times unclear, as if the authors assume that the audience is familiar with some of the new concepts already -- it took me a while to figure out how feats worked, for example, and I'm still not sure I've got it right -- but it's also light-hearted and witty, with plenty of friendly sidebars explaining the thinking behind the rules. I'm a firm believer in moving away from the dry textbook approach and making game books interesting and fun to read -- everyone should read Small But Vicious Dog as soon as possible, even if they never play it -- so it's good to see that in something as high profile as 13th Age.

I don't know if 13th Age is the version of D&D that everyone in my group will like, and I won't know until we've put it through its paces, but from what I've read it looks promising. It's not so complicated that it makes my brain hurt but it is full of options that should make games fun and unpredictable. I have high hopes.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

By The Horns

This is another piece for Legendary Realms Terrain. When one sees a minotaur in fantasy art -- in particular Dungeons & Dragons-related art -- they tend to be bulky bruiser types. I've tried to go for something a bit more athletic here.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

False Alarm

I saw this on Games Workshop's web site yesterday:

It is safe to say that I was somewhat excited. Rumours have been circulating of late -- as they often do -- that GW are going to release a limited edition game this year and that said game would be either Blood Bowl or Warhammer Quest. While I love Blood Bowl to bits I already own two sets, but I never got to own Warhammer Quest, so when I saw the logo on the site I was about ready to pay right then and there.

Alas, there is no deluxe big boxed set on the way -- yet -- but there is an iPad version.

I suspect that this means that there won't be a tabletop release on the way after all.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Quickie Film Reviews: Dragon Wars (2007)

Godzilla plus Dragonball Z plus Lord of the Rings plus the crappy Transformers, not as good as the first three but better than the latter.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Love Hurts

My theory is that Hurt is the Ninth Doctor, the one who ended the Time War, and because of his actions the others would like to forget about him and count Eccleston's incarnation as the Ninth. Sort of like Pope John XX only with time travel.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Thieving Thursday III

Here's where I am with Horror Among Thieves. Almost there.

Cover - done.
p1-3 - Introduction/Norwich 1625 - done.
p4 - Norwich map - still to do.
p5 - about the Tenebrous Hand - done.
p6 - Tenebrous Hand headquarters map - done.
p7 - Unexpected Visitors - art almost done, text done.
p8-9 - The Dog & Bastard - maps done, text done.
p10 - The House on Cow Hill - maps done, text done.
p11 - "Dear Christina" handout - done, but I'm not happy with it; my handwriting's not the right look for a letter from 1625.
p12 - The Warehouse - maps done, text done.
p13 - The Scribe - maps done, text done.
p14 - The Potter - maps done, text done.
p15 - The Butcher - maps done, text done.
p16 - mutant dog picture - done, but I think I should take another pass at it.
p17-18 - The Carpenter - maps done, text done.
p19 - "Forgive us" art - done.
p20- The House on Willow Lane - maps done, text done.
p21 - The Casket - art done, text done.
p22 - The Courtyard - maps done, text done.
p23 - The Secret Cellar - maps done, text done.
p24-25 - The Vaults - maps done, text done.
p26-27 - treasure table - art done, text done.
p28-29 - The Things in the Vaults - art almost done, text done.
p30-31 - The Brotherhood of Pus - maps done, text done.

pXX - "Death and Taxes" bonus adventure - needs a rewrite.
pXX - "In Heaven, Everything is Fine" bonus adventure - needs a rewrite.