Tuesday 31 January 2012

Cthulhu Dark Ages - I'd like to give it a good shot

I'm a massive fan of Cthulhu Dark Ages. I love the system, the design, and the fact that I have a great roleplaying game using one of my favourite game engines and periods of history. The Cthulhu part of it is both a bonus cherry on top and an option, as I'm more than happy to drop the Mythos and concentrate on the period, maybe adding my own low-fantasy twist on things.

I came into posession of this wonderful map that I found on the website www.anglo-saxons.net - it's a great little resource for this kind of thing.

I think it's great - it's covering the general period that I want to game in (I'm looking more towards the late ten hundreds so that I can squeeze in some of the First Crusade) and has some very nice names. I'll be making up my own places, of course, but generally I'll set it around the Midlands, near where I live. There's the city of Lichfield marked on this map; that's where I live!

I could easily go beyond the 11th century as the game is so flexible, but this age is pretty good. I've been wondering about doing a Medieval period inspired game and, strangely, it's only kind of struck me recently as to why I don't just do a game set in the Medieval period. I mean, I've been playing in games that emulate the period in a fantasy setting, and recently I've been running a Dragon Warriors campaign that's perfect for that kind of era.

The things is, as much as I love running Dragon Warriors - and long may the game continue - I want to do something a bit deeper, with a bit more detail and system crunch. Dragon Warriors is perfect for the group I have now; 6 players and a very simple, fluid system makes for a fun game that doesn't get bogged down in detail and slow the progress down when you're trying to keep 6 people entertained. If I run a Cthulhu Dark Ages game I'll want 2 or 3 serious roleplayers who want to get into character and enjoy a slightly more complicated system. This way the characters can have a bit more detail and the game can be a lot more focused.

As I type this I'm listening to the 'Robin of Sherwood' soundtrack 'Legend'. As I hear the music I'm reminded why it is I love Dragon Warriors, for the fun stories and high adventure we're creating. If I run this Cthulhu Dark Ages campaign, I think I'll play the 'Game of Thrones' or 'The Pillars of the Earth' soundtracks, instead.

Sunday 29 January 2012

My mission to make the internet explode

I've been perusing the amusing TV Tropes website and I came across this, a long list of the causes of Internet Backdraft for Tabletop Games. For those who don't know, Internet Backdraft is best explained by TV Tropes intro to the topic:

'Poor, innocent, hapless newbie wanders into a forum and wonders aloud if that guy in that show should be with that girl in that show. The forum erupts into flames, igniting all the boards that deal with the show, which ignites whole sections of the Internet into a blazing Inferno.'

So, with this in mind and an evil grin, I've read down the long list of the causes of Internet Backdraft in the tabletop gaming world and I've picked out some of my favourites:

- 'Whether or not Katanas Are Just Better, on the Wizards of the Coast Dungeons & Dragons forum. Even suggesting that a katana should have different D&D stats from a longsword or bastard sword will get you flamed. Katana threads were actually officially banned for a while.'

- 'Try this fun little experiment. Head over to Warhammer forum and start a discussion about which is Warhammer Fantasy Rules Set is better: 7th or 8th edition. Enjoy.'

- 'Try mentioning anything remotely positive about any White Wolf game on a Pen&Paper roleplaying board that favors WotC. If you REALLY want to get a bonfire started, use one or more of the following words: "Deep," "Conflicted," or "Morality System."'

- 'Go to rpg.net and mention ANY Palladium RPG, see how it works out for you.'

GAMMA CON - I'm happy to report...

...that GAMMA CON was a great success!

A very, very successful day with a great turnout and some great gaming. The hall was packed and there was a great atmosphere. I'd like to thank everyone who attended, everyone who helped and, most of all, I'd like to thank my wife Lisa for carrying me through all this. More details and plenty of pictures to come, but right now bed is calling for an after-event coma. Thanks again, everyone, for a brilliant day.

Friday 27 January 2012


Well, tomorrow is the big day. I've got traders, demos, games and interested parties. Paper, pencils, stuff to sell, lots of dice. All I need now is plenty of gamers to come along and just hang out and have some fun. Game or no game, it's all about meeting fellow gamers and expanding the community. Creating friendships, giving the hobby a boost.

It's these little get-togethers that keep the gaming community going, keep the hobby alive. I hope to see plenty of people, veterans and newbies alike.

Sunday 22 January 2012

The best contender for a Dragon Warriors movie yet

Forget the crappy rock music used in the trailer, and ignore the woefully terrible 'Heavy Metal Goes Medieval' tagline that I've seen on some promotion stuff. This is a historically inaccurate but incredibly high-octane flick that ticks all the 'I want to see a movie where dudes beat the shit out of each other with big swords' boxes. Behold IRONCLAD!

It's proper gory and very violent, and it has an air of darkness and brutality about it that really sets a grim tone. Stick some bearded guys throwing spells about in there and you've got a Dragon Warriors movie.

It's very wrong about the seige of Rochester and, if done properly, a movie about that important moment in English history would be all kinds of dramatic. But, in true boy's adventure fashion, the film makers decided to drop all that and go for 'this is what a greatsword can do!' and 'double-headed greataxes are awesome!!!' instead. It's got some great performances and it's worth watching for an amazing speech by King John (played to the hilt by Paul Giamatti). This is a great film and pleases me on so many levels.

Currently, as far as TV shows and movies to inspire a Dragon Warriors game goes, I'm listing the following in order of suitability:

1 - Robin of Sherwood
2 - Ironclad
3 - Black Death
4 - Cadfael
5 - The Name Of The Rose
6 - Arn: The Knight Templar

I'll add to the list as time goes on.

Another Dragon Warriors Movie

I like to find movies that give me inspiration for my games, visually and possibly thematically. This is another movie that sets the tone for me - Arn: The Knight Templar. It's a very good movie, although not as action-packed as the trailer suggests, and has some great characters in it I could use as Dragon Warriors NPCs.

It does drag a little in some places but overall it was an excellent film and I was really impressed with the main character Arn and think he'd make a great NPC.

Check it out. It's a good film. Next on my list is 'Ironclad'. That's in my DVD player right now and is ready to go.

Saturday 21 January 2012

'Story trumps rules'

I was watching my DVD of 'The Gamers: Dorkness Rising' (top movie, if you've not seen it) this week and this line sticks in my head - 'Story trumps rules'.

I agree with this to a certain extent, as in allowing the rules to get in the way of fun or immersion can yank a person out of the emotional involvement a game, but to ignore the rules too much takes away any sense of achievement and can make some people feel that they're just wandering through someone else's story. I thought about it more as I read some D&D forums as they talked about 5th edition, and a lot of the posters are very focused on how the rules work and how they interact with each other. In some cases I get the impression that the rules are considered as not just guidelines but strict, definitive instructions on what the players (and GM) can and can't do.

As a GM I've fudged a few rolls here and there for dramatic licence but I do try and at least stick to the rules in as much as the players don't feel like they're being led around by the nose, or that they feel that their rolls don't mean much in the grand scheme of things. If a GM has a definite idea if where he wants a story to go then the rules can get in the way so no doubt will be more inclined to fudge or ignore. I guess it depends on the kind of game that's being played, or the rules system being used.

Does story trump rules, or is it the other way around? Is there happy balance?

Check this baby out

Spirit Games in Burton is top notch - the sheer amount of games new, old and obscure keeps me browsing for ages. In the middle of a whole load of AD&D and D&D 3.x stuff I found this tucked away:

It's the rules book from the boxed D&D game that TSR released in 1991. Just the rulebook, mind you, not the entire box. Which is a shame, because that would have been amazing. It's basically the rules from the Basic set all in one book so I now have a copy of the original rules that I miss so dearly, all for the bargain price of two English pounds. All that remains now is for me to win the Ebay auction for an original and complete redbox Basic D&D set and I'll be in hog heaven. That is, if hogs liked old roleplaying games.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

So why did I fall out of love with old D&D?

It’s a good question. I picked up the AD&D 2nd Edition rulebooks this week and I’ve spent the last couple of nights reading through them, trying to remember why it was I turned my back on the system way back in 1989/1990. After reading the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide I kind of remember.

First of all I loved looking at the books again. It’s been a hell of a long time and it was nice to go through the musty old pages. I know it was a long time ago but some of the art hasn’t aged well. I was screwing up my face a lot and thinking ‘why did they use that image?’, but then I got to the obvious image of the priestess from Red Sonja on page 80 of the PHB and figured, ‘well, they obviously didn’t give a toss.’ Some of the images are positively atrocious, but some of it was good. A lot of it was trying to do something sadly lacking from much of the art used these days – they were trying to impart a sense of reality.

I’ve addressed this in a previous blog entry, but the art used in modern D&D is far too stylised and cartoonish for me to take it seriously, and that kind of yanks me out of the reality of the game. The art may not be great in these original books but it tried to create atmosphere and didn’t try to impress with razzle-dazzle insanely impossible armour and weapons.

The way it’s written is quite cool, as well. It explains the rules clearly and is well presented, and it gives all kinds of flavour on how to run the game. It includes a lot of rules that are optional, depending on how detailed you want your game to be. You could run it as complicated as you wanted, or as basic as… well… Basic D&D. That’s a nice touch. It’s really well written and at times I could see myself playing it. I certainly remember sitting at a dining table back in 1989 and poring over the book, trying to decide what I wanted to play and how I wanted to play it. Those memories remind me of the music of Van Halen, for some reason, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Weird.

So why did I fall out of love with it? Well, looking at the books I’m sure it was a combination of things but the two main ones are:

1. Weighed down by rules. Yeah, a lot of them were optional but as you go through the book I just felt that I needed all these little extras to make the character better and fell into the trap of using them all. Basic D&D was nice and simple. It just seemed that they had the chance to really smooth out AD&D with the second edition but fell back on the old concepts, relying on those dodgy saving throws and pointless ability-based rules and adjustments – same basic system, just explained better. Not a bad system, by any means, and the fact it lasted so long speaks volumes.

2. The game I was in. I’m not going to name any names, but I was in a couple of different groups and I played semi-regularly so I was gaming with many different people. Anyway, one of the campaign worlds I was in wasn’t great. Ravenloft crossed with Dragonlance. It was a rules-twisting nightmare of a game with powerplayers, system abusers and egoists all vying for domination, and a DM who thought he was the dog’s danglies. I learned a lot from him, like, how not to do it. That didn’t help.

So, is that it? Could I have been turned off from D&D by the rules and the dodgy game I was playing in? Most likely, but I’m sure it must have been something else.

And it was.

AD&D wasn’t giving me what I needed anymore. I was turning to games that were a bit more skill-orientated with characters a little more defined by their capabilities. I started to play Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and the Middle-Earth Roleplaying game where I could see on the sheet how good someone was with a sword or a bow and not wonder how good someone was based on that awful THAC0. AD&D just felt like it was lacking something and was starting to feel somewhat bloated with all the campaign settings, additions and the constant extra bits supplied by Dragon magazine (which, to be fair, I still bought long after I stopped playing the game). I felt like I was constantly playing catch up with it. And that constantly expanding Monster Manual Compendium thingy. Sheesh. I did love the Forgotten Realms setting and would have enjoyed getting into Birthright, mind you.

I don’t think I truly fell out of love with AD&D or D&D in general. I think we grew apart, that there were other, shinier games that attracted my attention, games I was much more compatible with and treated me well. As much fun as I had with D&D I had my best games and most memorable games with WFRP and MERP, powerful dramatic sessions with huge story arcs and detailed characters. Things I never got from D&D.

I had fun with D&D, I know that – after all, I played it for five years – but it never gave me the options I really wanted. It felt like they were bolting on rules and extras to a system that desperately needed a makeover, a makeover it didn’t see until 3rd Edition. That was a game a bit more up my street, and I didn’t even get hold of that until a year ago.

I do miss the game, but I think I miss it in a nostalgic way. As much as I’ve enjoyed reading these AD&D 2nd Edition books and seen areas where I might have enjoyed running it, I don’t think I ever can. It’s a first love kind of thing, an affair that I remember with fondness but can’t go back to. There are rules systems now that I can get much more enjoyment from.

I’m glad I bought them.

I'm not sure this blog post made much sense, to be honest. I blame the vodka.

DRAGON WARRIORS – Gameplay report delayed!

Hi there, sadly, this week's Dragon Warriors game report will be delayed as the Thursday night game has been cancelled. I'll get back on it next week.

So, be here for the next thrilling installment of 'Dragon Warriors' - next week's episode... 'Death on the Frozen Mountain!'

Sunday 15 January 2012

Why did I stop loving old D&D in the first place?

Truthfully, I can't rightfully remember the whole reason, so I fancied having another look at AD&D 2nd Edition to see why it was I fell out of love with D&D for twenty years. You see, I played Basic D&D and then I had a stab at Advanced D&D, and almost immediately stopped playing. AD&D 2nd Edition was so weighed down that the gameplay suffered horrendously, at least in my group. As I couldn't find another group to play Basic D&D I let the game go, and for twenty years didn't give it a glance.

In 2009 my friend Jason started a Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition game and, while it was fun, it felt kind of hollow and was totally geared towards combat. Besides, I'd just come out the other side of World of Warcraft and didn't fancy playing a tabeltop version of it. Then we progressed to Pathfinder and things got much better, and I picked up the 3.0 rules last year and realised that I'd missed out on quite a lot. Recently I've been having a look over the Birthright setting and really enjoying it - it's the kind of setting I think would work well with Dragon Warriors - and it made me wonder what it was about AD&D 2nd Edition that turned me off it.

So, the point of this post - I just got the two AD&D 2nd Edition rulebooks and the Fighter's book off Ebay for a fiver, including postage. Just wanted to gloat about that, to be honest, but also when I get it I'll have a good read and try to put in words why it was I stopped playing the old game for the better part of twenty years.

And what I wouldn't do right now to get the Rules Cyclopedia at a decent price. Anyone want to swap it for Eclipse Phase?

DRAGON WARRIORS – Gameplay report 2

Another session and another good game of Dragon Warriors.

After the night’s festivities the players (minus one, who couldn’t make it that night but we kept his character on hand as a pseudo-hireling) went into the tavern. They purchased rooms for the night and, while one of them inspected the ornately carved fireplace that seemed to move when seen from the corner of the eye, another questioned the father of the girl who had been carried off. He was very drunk after all the drinks of congratulations he had received, but they learned that he was proud and that his daughter was now with God, and that she had been carried away by a beautiful singing angel. Obviously, the townsfolk were seeing the opposite of what the players saw.

The social interaction was handled with two simple rolls. One roll against LOOKS to have the question be taken seriously or to even be acknowledged by the drunk father, and a (hugely modified due to the alcohol) roll against the father’s INTELLIGENCE to see if he was suspicious at all. Everything went swimmingly until the father rolled very low three times in a row and became suspicious of all the questions. The players realised they may have been pushing too far and back off just in time as the father’s friends arrive to take him home.

The next morning the players meet with the blacksmith and he fills them in with what he sees as the truth – while he was repairing the hinges on the door to the Lord’s library he saw a blue-bound book and, being able to read, decided to have a look at the curiosity. He realised that the book was a tome about demons and he saw a similarity between the story and the town. A demon named Alagog took a soul in sacrifice that he could feed upon for 180 days, and in return the people were given bountiful crops, food and wealth. So, intrigued, he did not consume the drugged food or water during one festival and saw the creature for what it was, not an angel but a horror. The blacksmith’s seven-year old daughter has been chosen as the next Festival Queen so he is desperate for help. So desperate he has asked the PCs. As far as he knows there is an abandoned castle atop Crag Peak in the Pagan Mountains and this is the probable place where the demon is taking the sacrifices.

No rolls here – the entire conversation was a roleplaying exercise and, as long as the players weren’t a bother in-game, the adventure could be outlined.

To determine if the Lord of Dungully was involved the players decide to go and introduce themselves and ask to use the library to see if there is any mention of an ancestor they are tracking down in a personal pilgrimage. After failing a LOOKS roll or two, the Lord and his aide become somewhat suspicious of the group, but still allow them access to the library. They discovered the existence of Crag Peak and how to get to it and, as they did this, one of the assassins decided to pilfer the blue book about demons. The pages are blank and, wanting to know more, they head down to the local church.

Stepping over the threshold of the church, the book bursts into flames. Panicked, and damaged by the burning book, the assassin tries to dowse the flames by throwing the tainted book of demons into the font, which is filled with Holy Water.


One huge explosion later, with the stone font shattering into a million pieces and the windows of the church blowing out, the players decide to beat a hasty retreat. They purchase what they need and get out of town.

Up to yet there have been no combats, even though some badly failed rolls in the tavern the night before almost resulted in some brawling. This concerned me a little – would the players become a little bored? The answer was no. As long as they had things to interact with and the story carried on at a decent clip then they seemed satisfied. I did have an encounter sorted for the forest should they decide to travel, but they left the town late and we were out of time before I could introduce it. I did hint at it – the PCs camped for the night in a ditch and a wolf stuck his head out of the bushes as they watched. Thing is, this wolf had the head the size of a horse. I think I’ll save that for next time.

I enjoyed the game – it felt like an introduction to the larger adventure so now I can concentrate on the quest they are on and the trials ahead. They’ve geared up, they have a target and they’re on their way, so all that remains for me to do is give them some decent obstacles.

Rules-wise this game was a little difficult as I had to make modifiers to the rolls of the players depending on how well they roleplayed so there was a lot of adjudication. Once again there was a lot of chatter and messing around at the table but you have to cut through that and concentrate on the moment. They also split the party, which I don’t really mind as long as I only spend a few minutes on each small group, but the volume always rises as the unattended group talk between themselves and over the group I’m working on. That can be annoying and makes people frustrated, not just me but the players trying to be heard, and it gets doubly annoying when a player ‘not there’ butts in with recommendations, advice or just a silly comment. I go with the flow where that’s concerned (I have little choice, frankly) but as long it doesn’t get out of hand then that’s cool. A short, curt ‘No, you’re not there!’ usually does the trick. All in all a fun night with some great moments (exploding fonts are always good fun).

Now they’re in the forest on the way to a village called Pleg as they travel to the Pagan Mountains. Hilarity will no doubt ensue.

Saturday 14 January 2012

Friday 13 January 2012

Here's what I'd do with 5th Edition D&D...

That's the way I'd go - use this with 3.5's three saves, a stripped down combat system with attack roll + modifiers Vs AC, and about a dozen skills with skill roll + modifiers Vs DC. No talents or feats - save those for a supplement - and then concentrate on the gameplay and steer away from complicated combat.

Make it a box set with a book for players and one for DMs, extra book for an adventure and maybe the beginnings of a new gameworld and then go from there. Everything explained clearly and step by step like the original Red Box Basic, and with enough material to get a few games. Let the players get up to about level 10 and everything else is modular. So, drop the three book format, stick it in a pleasant shrink-wrapped box that would look nice on a toy store shelf and make it accessible to fresh gaming blood.

Most of all, pull back the design. Drop the stylised anime batshit insane impractical armour and weapons and try and make it a bit more grounded in reality. Release books for gameworlds, the usual Forgotten Realms and that kind of thing. Go from there.

So, after those changes, the character sheet would look something like this:

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition

I was kind of trying to stay out of this, but let's face it, it's a big deal. The announcement of 5th Edition has stirred up a lot of chatter on the internet.

Only four/five years since 4th came out and they're already talking of a new one? Sorry, but it's always been my opinion that Wizards of the Coast dropped the ball on D&D and became so focused on the competition they thought they were up against from the MMORPG world they ended up emulating it with subscriptions and the like, and throwing it together quickly and sloppily to get it on the shelves, and then marketing it to the wrong crowd. Why try to impress existing gamers? Roleplayers are already roleplaying - we needed fresh blood in the hobby!

I always said, it needs to be on the toystore shelves, in The Entertainer or in W.H.Smiths, or on the shelves in Tesco. It needs to go back to it's roots as a game for kids and the family - Wizards of the Coast just wanted to impress and cater to the existing gamer groups and probably didn't think for one second that they could bring in new blood; at least, that's how I saw it because they did nothing to make it accessible to the beginning gamer, and the Essentials line was just a waste of time.

They need to leave out the old school players who are writing this stuff and who think they know best and bring in sub-30 year old writers who remember how to have fun, with the old-schoolers looking over their shoulders, and have a look at the rules-lite systems and strip the whole thing down to a version of the servicable 3.x Edition and rebuild it. But, make it a hell of a lot simpler and much more accessible to new gamers. The starter box they did in 2010 was a great idea, almost inspired, but it needed to be a simple, basic game for new gamers. And the three core rulebooks? Why? ONE BOOK! With everything in there for new gamers to run game after game after game! All the supplements could be modular.

I don't know, we'll see, I guess. I admit, I had fun with 4e when I played it a couple of years ago. Let's hope they've learned a thing or two over the last few years.

Monday 9 January 2012

The Aim of Game Play

In my early days of playing roleplaying games I was still in the mindset of playing the game to ‘win’. This ‘winning’ took the form of two things, defeating foes and gathering treasure. In general, the entire incentive of playing the game was to garner as much gold and treasure as possible and therefore ‘win’ the game.

But as time goes on you have to ask what is the point of playing to this end. While the initial aim of the game is to win or earn gold there should be more to it than just that. Any in-game rewards do give you a sense of achievement but it’s ultimately hollow as there is nothing you can do with said gold. Playing a boardgame or wargame and winning is remarkably different as you are competing against opponents which, even though you are not physically taking anything from the experience, there is a sense of accomplishment in defeating others.

In a roleplaying game there are no true opponents other than the NPCs or events a GM throws at you, but a GM is representing both the friends and enemies of the players and so cannot be considered a true opponent. The other players in the group are usually working as a team so they are not opponents, either. So where does the satisfaction come from? Is it in the attainment of in-game wealth?

At first, I think the promise of in-game gold and riches and how much you get is a measure of achievement and this is true of both new and experienced gamers. I can easily say that this was what drove me as a new player but the habit has not been lost; when I joined a Pathfinder game last year my main intention was to make as much in-game money as possible and, indeed, there was some dishonesty in the group to get that wealth. This may have been the initial incentive but now we (or, at least, I) have other, more story-driven reasons to quest.

But the truth as I see it these days is this – the incentive to play a roleplaying game is the game itself. When I run games now the original conceit for the reason to be adventuring - that there is gold and glory to be had - has been sidelined unless the game specifically calls for that approach. To me, the reward in playing roleplaying games is the experience, and winning is an enjoyable evening of collaborative storytelling that makes an impression, or a game in which all attendees come away with a sense of satisfaction of a job well done.

It’s the game itself that should drive the experience, not the outcome. Having events making an emotional impression on a person lasts a lot longer than the imaginary gold that has been earned. When my roleplaying friends and I talk about games of old, we never talk about how much money we made.

Sunday 8 January 2012

The Flavour of a Fantasy Roleplaying Game

I've played all kinds of fantasy roleplaying games with all kinds of systems in a variety of settings. I've mostly enjoyed them all but I'm a hard man to please as I have a definitive idea in my head regarding how a fantasy world is suppossed to look. Being from England and having been surrounded by medieval imagery all my life I'm of the pseudo-historical slant, the kind of guy who loves to have magic elves sauntering about the place but wants them to dress realistically.

One of the reasons why I love 'Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay' (1st Edition) and the Magnus Opus Press (soon to be Serpent King Games) 'Dragon Warriors' games so much is the atmosphere they exude. Warhammer was gritty, dark, and felt like a heady mix of high fantasy and dirty, European reality, and Dragon Warriors was a fantasy version of the history I grew up with. On the other side of the coin (and just as enjoyable - don't think I'm belittling anything) is the high fantasy stylised worlds of Dungeons & Dragons and it's ilk, with bikini mail and unfeasible weapons and armour.

I'm sure it'd be easy to play a D&D game as gritty and realistic, even play Dragon Warriors as high fantasy, but the artwork and presentation of the books themselves help to tell me what kind of game I'll be playing. In some ways, you could say the artwork colours my view and even expectations of the game I'm going to play.

Take, for example, the artwork of a selection of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition books:

The artwork is stylised, with larger-than-life images, dynamic poses and in-your-face attitude. The setting is presented as high fantasy, indicating that realism doesn't really matter when you're playing in a game of huge heroes, high magic, insane monsters and talking trees. The covers are positively screaming for you to go apeshit and have fun with it. And indeed I have had fun with it - although I've now moved on to an excellent Pathfinder campaign, which does share some of the look and feel with the above, I still feel there's a huge 'in your FACE!' feel to the imagery and design. There's a great sense of disconnection from reality, that you are this larger-than-life hero. I think that's part of the appeal.

Now let's have a look at some covers for the Dragon Warriors game:

The image on the bottom right is the cover for the unprinted 'Player's Book'

I'd say that these covers were bleak, and much more grounded in reality than the D&D covers (of course, I use the word 'reality' loosely - we are talking about fantasy roleplaying games, here) which presents a totally different gaming atmosphere. I look at these and I think of a living, breathing medieval Europe with the trappings of a fantasy world, a world I can in some way relate to as I recognise the look and feel of the artwork. To be honest, that's my kind of game. I want that sense of pseudo-history.

I wonder if this is something to do with the fact that I'm British? I live in the historical Cathedral City of Lichfield and since childhood I've been bombarded with images, stories and lessons about the medieval period. I know what things are supposed to look like, how things worked, how people dressed. To a certain extent I understand the attitudes. This has no doubt influenced the kind of games I like to run and play in, but doesn't diminish my enjoyment of high-fantasy games. Given the choice, though, I'll take gritty pseudo-history games over bombastic high-fantasy games anytime.

Saturday 7 January 2012

Spotlight - Jon Hodgson, artist

I can't believe that I once turned down an offer from Jon Hodgson, via rpg.net, to post him my newly-acquired copy of the Dragon Warriors core rulebook for him to sign. Incredibly I politely declined. Why? I had already lost two copies of some sought-after books and one I had sent out in the Royal Mail and I was loathe to lose my copy of the book, as it had taken me a while to get hold of it. You may all line yourselves up and kick me up the arse.

This guy is one of my favourite artists. The atmosphere he invokes in his images is remarkable and his work for Dragon Warriors, and now Cubicle 7's new Middle-Earth RPG 'The One Ring' is stunning.

From his website at www.jonhodgson.com -

'At the time of writing Jon Hodgson is in his late 30s and lives in Scotland, UK though he happens to have been born south of the border in England.

His career has spanned art direction, set building, props making, graphic design, story boarding, historical illustration, card game art, board game art, computer games cut scene art, educational illustration and roleplaying game art.

So far in his short career (Ten or so years full time at the last count) Jon has made over 200 pieces of card art for collectable card games, solo illustrated 15 books with 30 plus illustrations each for Warhammer Historical, has provided cover art for some 30 gaming books as well as numerous pieces of packaging art, made illustrations for the biggest roleplaying game in the world - Dungeons and Dragons, as well as for some of the smallest. At one point he was a story boarder for the children's animated show Bob the Builder.

For the last 18 months Jon has been hard at work creating art for the forthcoming “The One Ring” rpg from Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd - a new Lord of the Rings roleplaying game, featuring the art of John Howe, Tomasz Jedrusek and Jon Hodgson.

Jon is also currently art director for Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd.

In 2009 David and Charles/Impact Books published Fantasy Art for Beginners written by Jon, which is available in all good bookshops.

Jon trained as a "fine artist", specialising in abstract painting. Apparently.

Jon uses an Apple iMac, Artrage, Adobe Photoshop, Corel Painter X, a Wacom Intuos 3, and a lot of coffee. As well as pencils and paper, and very occasionally actual real paint.

Selected Clients: The BBC, Accenture, David & Charles, Wizards of The Coast, Games Workshop's various subsidiaries - Black Library, Sabertooth Games, Black Industries, Warhammer Historical, Upper Deck, Paizo, Cubicle 7, Ulisses Spiele, Uhrwerk Verlag, Euromoney Magazine, Digital Artist Magazine, Drumond Park, Red Redemption, Project Quest John Adams Trading, Magnum Opus Press, Mongoose Publishing, Green Ronin, Alderac Entertainment Group, Hot Animation'

Hopefully, Jon will continue to illustrate Dragon Warriors now that he is part of Serpent King Games who are re-releasing the game with new material.

In fact, the guy has a talent I'm horrendously jealous of, so just forget you read this blog entry, yeah? And don't even think of going over to his Deviant Art page.

Friday 6 January 2012

DRAGON WARRIORS – Gameplay report

As I’m running a short Dragon Warriors campaign while my mate Jason takes a break from his ongoing Pathfinder game I thought I’d keep something of a record of what’s going on in the game and how it’s progressing. In this short possibly short-lived series of blogs I'll do a (much shorter than this one) update after the game every Thursday. I’ll cover the story, how the game is going and how the rules dealt with certain situations.

I’ve started the game with all six players creating Knights, Barbarians or Assassins. I’ve excluded magic users for now and will allow access to the magical careers once the game is in progress. The group consists of two of each career. I’m not that fussed about game balance as long as the players are happy with their choices. Character creation was easy and quick – three players had already created their PCs and the other three took about half an hour to create theirs, and even give them basic character backgrounds. The Dragon Warriors character creation system is quick, easy and starts the player of with the very basics, including equipment and money. Unless the group agrees there’s no drawn out shopping for starting equipment. Some groups may find that a little annoying and restrictive but for a quick, simple game like Dragon Warriors it’s perfect. I did toy with the idea of allowing the players to exchange the starting items with a cash equivalent and then let them shop, but decided in the end to give them the basics and then let them shop in-game.

As the game was about to begin I used the optional rules for ‘Fate Points’, which will allow the PCs to change a single roll or cheat death, and the use of the below zero health points critical chart. I’m also trialling a variant of the damage system; in the core rulebook, damage is set at a static score depending on weapon used and there is an optional system that allows for a random damage roll to be made. I’m giving the players the choice; they can either take the set damage score or they can roll per hit. This means if they do choose to roll then they might do more damage, but then they also might do a lot less!

I’m setting my campaign in the Lands of Legend, just a little south of the Pagan Mountains in Ellesland, and I’ve decided to drop the entire ‘party origin’ story. There was no ‘you meet in a tavern’ or ‘you’re all brought before the Lord’ etc. They were simple travellers who had all met up on the road and decided to stick together for mutual protection. The rumours are that there are plenty of barrows, run-down castles, Selentine Empire ruins and caves to be explored and plundered. Sadly, they’ve been beaten to it and they’ve all been emptied. Cold, wet and miserable, they trudge north looking for a town called Dungully. The landscape is blasted and bleak, but as they approach the mountains the land becomes rich and bountiful, like they’ve suddenly stepped into spring.

Along the road they see a cart with a broken wheel, half in the trees, and an injured horse – obviously something is afoot. It’s at this point, after introducing the world, the landscape and the rainy weather, that I ask the players what they want to do.

This first encounter starts some confusion. As I’ve set the scene some of the group have been talking amongst themselves, sometimes loudly. This can be annoying but I’ve learned that waiting for players to be quiet or asking them to listen doesn’t really solve anything. I continue talking to the players that are listening with the intention of letting them benefit from what they learn. Once the players not listening realise they’re missing out they’re a bit more attentive.

A trail leads to a bandit camp, who have obviously just raided the cart and taken two men on it captive, and a fight ensues. I’m not using minis so I quickly sketch out a combat map – in a small clearing with a fire at the centre – so the players have to use their imaginations. The bandits are somewhat weak, being a first encounter for a system shakedown, and easily dispatched. There’s little to no confusion regarding the combat rules, even for those new to the system, and the encounter runs smooth and fast. By the end of it a couple of the PCs are injured but eleven bandits lie dead and the rest flee into the woods. The cash-starved PCs promptly loot the bodies and then free the captives.

As quick and as easy as the fight was, I had three main problems with the combat:

One, the players who were used to minis and a battle mat were a bit lost at the beginning as the entire encounter was played out quickly and easily with nothing but small sketches. They got into the swing of it but their initial instinct was to plan their tactics and move their pieces.

Two, Lots of people shouting over each other to get attention. This is a problem in any game but with the additional job of handling the players new to this game system it got a little loud and frustrating. The trick is not to take that frustration out on anybody, in or out of the game, and handle each situation calmly and quickly. Most of the time the players will accept a quick judgement call from the GM, especially if you keep the action flowing and move away from the problem as fast as you can.

Three, there was immediate party conflict. One of the players spent time picking up dropped coins, as he was low on funds, and when the combat started another player knocked all the money out of his hands and into the river. This resulted in the offended player sauntering to the fight and getting involved in the dying moments, then realising that he had not earned any experience as the others had done the work. It was obviously frustrating for him so I moved the action on quickly and made a mental note to give the player something to do to earn extra points later on.

The freed captives are traveling to Dungully to take part in a huge festival and are so grateful for their lives, and agree to travel with the PCs. Upon arriving at the town after dark they find the place packed, the streets full with drinking and eating, dancing, games and general merrymaking.

This town, and the introduction of the obligatory inn, gives the players a focus, a central area they can use as a marker and a possible place for rest and recuperation. The town is bright and packed with happy, friendly NPCs and the players get into the swing of things by taking part in archery contests, a melee, and a race to climb to the top of a flower-covered wooden pedestal in the town square. Dealing with these different minigames was difficult but fun. All I needed to do was concentrate on one thing at a time and make sure that those not directly involved were also excited about the outcome of the dice rolls, in which I asked for basic attribute rolls, and in extreme circumstances it was a simple case of who rolled closest to ‘1’. I even allowed florins to change hands as bets were made on the outcome, and a couple of the players came away with healthy wins. It all made for a few exciting moments.

All of this was a misdirection of sorts; as they played the minigames, laughed and joked, a young lady, the Queen of the Festival was paraded through the cheering crowds throwing flowers. The players made remarks and joined in. As a result of me trying to give him something to do, the player who had had his money knocked out of his hands became involved with a minigame but was having a bad night with some bad dice rolls. When he yet again lost a competition he elected to punch the NPC who had just beaten him, obviously frustrated by the evening’s play he was having. When he even failed to thump the NPC who staggered back shocked and was about to call the guards, he finally passed a roll and convinced the man he was only joking and then staggered into the crowd. There’s not a lot you can do with frustrated players, especially if they’ve lost out to the other gamers at the table as he had done with experience points, and the best way to deal with them is to let them vent. If he had gotten into a fistfight I may have inserted the idea that the men he was fighting thoroughly deserved a good beating.

During all this one of the Assassin players decided to pick a pocket while the attention of the crowd was on one of the barbarians (with a score of 17 in Looks!) as he regaled them with tales of his deeds. Sadly he failed his roll and the portly merchant caught him and cried out for guards. Flustered, and a bit frustrated that he had been caught, the player opted to stab the innocent NPC he had tried to rob. The other players bawled him out, shocked at the decision, and so the player elected to punch him instead. I’m not entirely sure why he decided to suddenly turn nasty, it was as if he suddenly realised that he was in the middle of a huge pressing crowd and dozens of eyes were watching him – he acted impulsively, maybe even panicked a little, and there were going to be consequences to his actions.

This was the perfect opportunity to introduce an NPC blacksmith who I had intended to bring in later. Seeing that there was going to be trouble and not wanting the game to go too far off track, I threw in the blacksmith – who was desperate for the help of strangers but wouldn’t speak to them in the crowd – and he staggered in and proclaimed the failed pickpocket a drunken bet that the PC had lost, paid the merchant some money and staggered away pretending to be drunk with the PC. ‘If you want to live until morning, do what I do. Do not drink or eat their food. Meet me at my smithy in the morning.’ Adventure hook in place, the blacksmith staggers away. Even though the player’s decision to pickpocket and then assault the NPC was highly questionable it was a good way to bring the NPC in and set the scene that not all was at it seemed. It also enforces the idea that there was something to trust about him, or at least listen to what he has to say. He had not only imparted this information but had also risked exposure to what he knew by helping the PC, stopping a nasty fate befalling the pilferer. That was plenty of situations solved right there – important NPC introduction, the idea that the festival was dangerous, the PC saved from a nasty (and potentially game-stalling) fate, and an adventure hook was delivered. That was something of a lucky break for me.

As the minigames progress a great shout has gone up and people are rhythmically beating drums, blowing whistles and cheering the Festival Queen who has climbed to the top of the pedestal and is raining flowers and money down onto the crowd. The PCs even join in; shouting, banging, calling out lewd remarks that other townsfolk join in with, shouting jokes. The noise reaches a crescendo. It’s now midnight.

Then a huge, bellowing scream is heard from the darkness. A winged shape blots out the stars and talons grab the ecstatic Festival Queen by the shoulders and carry the white-clad maiden into the darkness. There’s a huge rush of air and the crowd fall silent. A moment later a huge cheer goes up and the party continues.

That’s where I ended the session.

I’m not sure if the players saw this coming, getting involved with festivities as they were, and there were a few moments of surprise and then a short discussion about what had happened. Being a large gaming group it’s pointless trying to get a single group reaction to a sudden event and a good thing, too - there were different opinions as to how people felt about it all. A couple were shocked, one was actively indifferent because as far as he was concerned it was their town and they could do what they liked, one now felt obligated to obliterate the entire town. It was a good mix, and with that the game ended.

All in all it was a successful night. In the two hours we fully played we got a lot done and the easy rules helped tremendously with that. The combat with six players and almost twenty mook bandits took probably about fifteen to twenty minutes and everyone seemed to have a good time. I know a couple of the players got frustrated for different reasons, but for the most part they had good reason to be with some of the bad rolls being made.

The Dragon Warriors rules system handled the game really well. I like a good skills system and this game is lacking one, but the general rule of thumb is choose one of the five main attributes and roll against it. It worked for the most part, although I did have to make a couple of spot rulings to keep the game moving, but the simple rules really helped as I didn’t get bogged down in detail and was able to concentrate on the adventure. The players coming from more complicated, tactical-based systems may have missed the lack of detail on the character sheet and may have been a tad confused by the initial mini-and-battle-mat-less combat, but once they got into the flow of the game it worked out fine. For the most part I’m sure they had a good time and, hopefully, they’re looking forward to the next game.

Thursday 5 January 2012

Dragon Warriors - COMPLETED!

Today I recieved a special package from Patriot Games, speedily posted out to me. It was the Dragon Warriors book 'In From The Cold', and why was it a special delivery? Because this book completes my collection of the printed works of the Dragon Warriors RPG.

It's excellent. I've spent the last few weeks searching for this sucker and I think I nabbed the last one from Patriot Games (which is a pretty good online store, I might add, the book was quickly dispatched and well packaged).

It arrived on the very day my new Dragon Warriors campaign started. After playing in a Pathfinder game for the better part of a year I'm back in the GM's seat and I'm having fun with it. I've got six players in the game and the combat was fluid and the game system easy to manage. I think I'll make this my group fantasy RPG game of choice, now, and use the more complicated systems for smaller groups. It's old, it does show some cracks in the rules, but it's great fun.

Monday 2 January 2012

Dragon Warriors movie

Not quite, but it's a good start. I'm starting a new Dragon Warriors campaign on Thursday and I was looking for some visual inspiration. I found this little gem on DVD - Black Death.

It's a pretty good film and has lots of period flavour. I know I'll be playing my Robin of Sherwood DVDs to death as I design the game but this film gives me another, more visceral angle to work from. I can also recommend it as a really good movie.