Tuesday 24 November 2015

When a RPG campaign begins to go stale...

I've been in this situation a couple of times as a GM: the first time, after more than a year in the campaign, we all realised that the game was losing it's shine and we weren't as committed as we once were, and we let the game fizzle out. Although it was a relief to be able to let it go - too many plot threads and avenues of possibility - there was, much later on, a twinge of regret. Regret at not finishing the campaign, at not resolving certain character arcs, and not giving a proper ending to a game we'd been playing pretty much weekly for over a year.

So, the second time it happened, after nearly two years of campaigning, we realised that the game was starting to become stale but were reluctant to let it finish with a whimper. I asked the players 'If you knew the game was going to end over the next two sessions, in what manner would you like it to end?' After feedback, I then designed a fitting, epic ending that tied up the very few plot threads that I'd allowed to grow. We all agreed that, even though it may not have felt like a full and proper campaign, we had at least given it closure and weren't always having 'Maybe if we'd done this...' conversations.

I feel that properly finishing a campaign is the right thing, but if you have to cap an ending on just to finish up a failing campaign then do so, or that sense of incompleteness can leave a nasty taste and even have a negative effect on your attitude towards the next campaign.

Monday 16 November 2015

Game Review: Frostgrave: Thaw of the Lich Lord

Frostgrave: Thaw of the Lich LordBy Joseph A. McCullough

Published by Osprey Games

“Thaw of the Lich Lord is a complete campaign for Frostgrave that will challenge both new and veteran players. Through a series of linked scenarios, players discover the existence of a new power in the Frozen City, one who was old when the great city was still young, and who saw both its rise and its disastrous fall. Warbands will confront the Lich Lord's minions, race against his agents to seize possession of mysterious artefacts, and brave the perils of Frostgrave in search of his lair. Eventually, they will need to muster all their courage to venture into the depths of the city and face the Lich Lord himself. Not all wizards will seek to stop the Lich Lord, however, and full rules for giving into his corruption and following the dark road to becoming an undead lich are presented for those who crave power and immortality above all else. While the campaign presents many new threats against which wizards and their warbands must test themselves, including an expanded bestiary, it also offers additional resources, such as new henchmen that can be recruited and unique magical treasures that can spell the difference between survival and oblivion.”

Thaw of the Lich Lord is the first of what I hope will be a line of campaigns for the fantasy skirmish game ‘Frostgrave’. These ten linked scenarios, building in difficulty and detail as the players travel through the cold, dark and dangerous streets of Frostgrave, tell a long, doom-laden story about the dreaded Lich Lord, his awakening, and his terrible plans for the city he has been frozen in for more than a thousand years.

To tell you the story of Thaw of the Lich Lord will no doubt ruin some of the surprises within the 64-page book. Suffice to say that from the atmospheric opening scenario, where the warbands have to fight during an ominous eclipse, through to the epic ending, the players will be treated to a story of legendary proportions.

The layout of the book is sharp and well presented. The full-colour glossy pages contain some wonderful photography of the quality miniatures available for the Frostgrave game, but the true wonder of the book is the amazing artwork by Dmitry Burmak. Dmitry’s art is evocative and perfectly captures the style of the Frostgrave setting, and really defines the look and aesthetic of the game. I really like the artwork and it helps set the mood and tone of the game.

The scenarios are what we’ve come to expect from Frostgrave’s easy and simple rules. The first scenario is a page long and they don’t get much longer. Each one tells a different story and as the game progresses the true intentions of the Lich Lord are exposed and the stakes get higher. As I said, I don’t want to ruin the story for potential players but if I had to choose my favourites it would have to be Scenario Two: The Battle on the River. We played this through a couple of times; just you try to run a fight on a frozen, icy river. I also really enjoyed Scenario Six: The House of Longreach, as you need two playing areas to simulate two areas of conflict, and the random magic portals make things incredibly interesting.

Not only does the book give you some great scenarios, you also get some extras for the Frostgrave game. There are new soldiers, the Bard, the Crow Master and the Javelineer, as well as the Pack Mule. New spells fill out the grimoires of the Witch and the Necromancer, and new Treasure gives new items for the warbands to battle over. New creatures for the bestiary include the Banshee, Blood Crow, Death Cultists, frost Wraith, The Ghoul King, Rangifer, Spectre, Wraith Knight, Zombie Troll and the dreaded Lich Lord himself. That’s ten great scenarios and extras for the main game; not bad for £9.99 (RRP).

The writing is functional and to the point – there’s no messing about and after a brief introduction the action begins. Although this is great as it allows players to simply dive into the action, I find it a bit of shame that the overall world of Frostgrave is not only unexplored but unexplained. Perhaps one day I’ll finally read about the rest of the setting and find out why the world is the way it is; I think this is my only peeve with the Frostgrave setting, but no doubt we’ll learn much more as the game goes on.

We played the scenarios over five nights and have already used the extras in our own games, but the one thing I came away with was this; Thaw of the Lich Lord reads and plays more like a tabletop roleplaying campaign than it does a wargame. I’ve played wargame campaigns that detail a situation and the resulting battles but never one that told an ongoing story. It’s a great way to play the game but it also makes me yearn for a Frostgrave RPG - the city is strewn with roleplaying opportunities.

Thaw of the Lich Lord is an excellent addition to the already excellent Frostgrave game. The scenarios are fun and creative, with extra rules here and there which are designed for the singular scenario but can be adapted to your own games, and the extra soldiers, spells, treasure and creatures are useful and quite welcome. Basically, it’s great fun and well worth the asking price. I look forward to seeing what else this game has to offer.

Highly recommended.

Thursday 12 November 2015

It's the end of the world as we know it...

Thinking about it in greater detail, I think I’d go down the post-war apocalypse route for a tabletop roleplaying campaign. Natural disasters would make for a good story and viral outbreaks are fine for that ‘it’s like everyone just disappeared!’ angle, but it doesn’t really lend itself to an exciting setting, in my opinion. Veterans of the original war, the people having to live with the legacy of the conflict and old grudges and hatreds can make for a great game.

I think I’d avoid the zombie apocalypse scenario. It is a great setup – and God knows I’m really enjoying The Walking Dead right now, that’s the zombie thing done right for me – but I can imagine myself getting bored of it after a while. Shuffling zombies, abandoned cities and man’s inhumanity to man is a great tale but I don’t think I could get a long, ongoing campaign out of it. Mad Max falls into that category, too; I adore the setting but I can’t see myself getting a long campaign out of it.

Games Workshop’s old ‘Dark Future’ setting, while not strictly post-apocalyptic, would make for a good game. Factions, points of light in a dying world, cars with heavy ordnance mounted on them – sounds like fun. Other than the primary areas there’s an entire world you could build from that, and things could change as the world slips away into total anarchy.

For variety and scope, the setting of Bethesda’s ‘Fallout’ series hits the right tone for me. It’s sharp and well-defined, the setting has a rich history and the design is fantastic. With supermutants, ghouls, crazy beasts and different factions all vying for power and influence spread across a world that still has plenty of gaps to fill, it’s a prime place for gaming. It also doesn’t take itself too seriously; ‘Mothership Zeta’ is proof of that. It’s gruesome and over-the-top violent and sometimes cartoonish, but the choice and variety the setting gives you enables plenty of scope.

Every post-apocalyptic setting has it’s benefits, and at the end of the day it the tastes of the group, but you have to go with what gives the most options and avenues of adventure. Post-war gives me the options I’m looking for, and I know what my group is like. Any chance to get their hands on any military equipment.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

The End of the World is Nigh!!! ...apparently

After watching ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, catching up with ‘The Walking Dead’ and getting all googly-eyed at the first three hours of ‘Fallout 4’, I’ve realised there’s a genre I haven’t really spent much time in at the roleplaying table; the post-apocalytic.

I wrote a SKETCH game called ‘The 13th Year’ a few years ago after a long stint playing Fallout 3, a game about an alternative atomic-ravaged world after World War 2, but even after playtesting and running a few short games I never got a full campaign on the go, and that surprises me because the post-apocalyptic setting is rich with opportunities for drama, adventure, combat and inventory management.

And I think that could be the core of a post-apocalyptic game; inventory management. Yes, let’s worry about the wild animals, the supermutants and the nuclear fire-breathing ants, but let’s also remember that this is a world after a huge disaster, and we’ve been thrown a thousand years back from our comfortable internet-enabled lives into what could be the end of the world where very little is available. Where’s the next meal coming from? Is that six-legged cat okay to eat? Is the water poisonous, dirty, infected? When will I next be able to change my underwear? Do I use these last three bullets for hunting, or will I need to protect myself? Can that man on the horizon be trusted? Yes, I know they just ate my mates but maybe they’ll trade for some of that spam?

Keeping the players constantly guessing is a must for a game like this, not knowing what threats are around the corner in a possibly morally ambiguous world is a great impetus and almost forces a group to band together, but having them make sure that they write down everything they own, have scavenged and are able to carry or hide is a game in itself. Every drop of water becomes precious, every bullet is something to be treasured and food is a commodity as well as a source of life. You’ll be amazed at how the equipment and inventory lists become the most important thing on the character sheet after a short while in the wastes, and every item on that list can be an adventure in itself. When they need a replacement item, ammunition or fresh supplies, that’s a quest. A mission. An adventure hook that already has the goal and the rewards set up – continued survival.

And what is beyond simply surviving? Building a new community, with new philosophies and laws? How big do want to make it? How will you treat your lawbreakers? Are people with two heads allowed? What would you do, how low would you stoop, to protect the things you own and the places you have built?

The posy-apocalyptic setting has so many possibilities far beyond the window dressing and the reasons why the world has ended. Nuclear war, asteroid impacts, natural upheavals, resulting in mutants, insane petrolheads, zombies or crazy psychic magic powers are the visual and world-building cues and can help create amazing adventures filled with tense, blood-pumping moments of high adventure, but inventory management… that’s where the heart of the post-apocalyptic game lies, and characters can die from a badly managed equipment list just as easily as from a blow to the head from a missile covered in barbed wire.

Wednesday 4 November 2015

Book Review - Halo: Last Light

Inline image 1By Troy Denning

Publisher: Titan Books

Review by Richard Williams

'An original novel set in the Halo Universe and based on the New York Times bestselling video game series!

It is 2553, and the three-decade long Covenant War that defined a generation has suddenly drawn to a close. Yet, in the remotest parts of human space, tensions remain that threaten to overflow into another full-scale conflict. Beneath the surface of the planet Gao lies a vast cavern system renowned for its therapeutic effects and rumored miraculous cures. But now Gao natives are turning up brutally murdered down there—violent acts that happen to coincide with the recent arrival of a UNSC research battalion protected by Spartan Blue Team, led by the renowned Spartan-II Fred-104.

Maverick detective Veta Lopis of the Gao Ministry of Protection is only trying to do her job as the Special Inspector assigned to catch a serial killer—one who is possibly hiding within the Spartan ranks—but she never anticipates the situation spiraling out of control into an all-out crisis. When Gao is revealed to harbor ancient Forerunner technology that could solidify the UNSC’s military supremacy for centuries to come, Insurrection loyalists within the planetary government will do anything—even align with a vicious faction of what remains of the Covenant—to ensure that never happens…'

I tend to approach Halo books with a fair amount of trepidation. Being a Halo fan I get very annoyed by the stories that I think aren't up to scratch and because I'm such a picky bugger that tends to be a lot of them. However, with Last Light, I have found myself pleasantly surprised and enjoyed what I feel is a well plotted, fast paced and authentic Halo story.

Once again the action takes place on a Human colony world and once again the population are straining at Earth's leash with some people working in the shadows to engineer all the reasons the colony would need to declare independence. Thrown into this scenario is a UNSC team working to extract information and a vital artefact from a Forerunner site buried deep beneath the surface. Included in the team are a group of Spartans because it would be commercial suicide not to include them.This could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how much you like settings to mix things up but I think it's safe to say that most Halo fans want some Spartan action. So if you are such a fan then breath a sigh of relief because there is plenty of it and very convincingly written.

There are some familiar faces for long time readers of Halo fiction (which you would expect, I suppose, given the fate of most Spartans prior to the Spartan IV program) and we once again follow Fred-104 and his team as last seen in Halo: Ghosts of Onyx. The other major character being introduced in this book is Veta Lopis who is described on the back of the book as a 'maverick detective'. This was one of the things that led me to believe that I wasn't going to enjoy the book because if there's one character stereo-type that I'm sick to death of it's the maverick detective. I never thought I would long for a plain old goes by the book, wears a suit and carries a standard issue sidearm police procedural kind of character but God help me I do. Why do they always need to carry a gun that isn't regulation? I'm guessing Dirty Harry is to blame but maybe it started before then I'm just not old enough to remember. Anyway, I had my concerns about the maverick detective Veta Lopis. Thankfully she is not even half as annoying a character as I was expecting and by the end even a bit likeable.

There are a couple of things that I didn't like about the book. Firstly this book has clearly been written post-Halo 4 and makes significant and important references to things that I'm pretty sure people wouldn't know about until the events of that game. I'm speaking in relation to knowledge regarding the Forerunners and their terminology for technology and philosophy. More hardcore fans of the series might disagree with me here but I've almost everything Halo and I thought it seemed like it didn't belong in this book.

Also there has been the reusing of characters from other books, as previously mentioned, but sometimes they don't come across how their original authors and creators wrote them and, given the minimal impact these particular characters have on the events of this story, I think Denning might as well have created some bog standard place fillers.

The descriptions of the Halo technology and universe feel right to me and the action is well written so, with those two boxes ticked, I'd think it very hard not to recommend this book to a Halo fan. A fun and enjoyable read that looks set to be part of an ongoing series.

Monday 2 November 2015


On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on www.rpg.net and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

If you're a veteran roleplayer, then you probably know the problem of coming up with new and interesting ideas. If you're new to gaming, then you'll need inspiration. Jonathan Hicks looks at ways to get those creative juices flowing.

It's Sunday evening. There are five people sitting around a table. Four players Bill, Bob, Brenda and Belinda and a Gamesmaster. The atmosphere is quiet and expectant. All eyes are on the GM, waiting for those few words to start the evening's session.

GM: Right. It's evening, and you're speeding towards the town of Boord-um...
BILL: Is this the town from the other week where we killed those bounty hunters?
GM: (Suddenly remembering the PC's had been here before) Yeah... yeah, that's right. The whole place seems to be deserted...
BOB: Like that place we visited where pirates had kidnapped all the people?
GM: (Scrapping the notes he'd made about the evil pirates) Yeah, something like that. There are signs of savage fighting, but no bodies are to be seen...
BRENDA: Servitors.
GM: What?
BRENDA: I bet Servitors killed them all. We visited that space station last month and they'd been attacked, remember? The place looked like this.
GM: (Forgetting his idea about the Servitors) Well... it doesn't look exactly like this, there's more blood. (Starts making notes about giant worms)
BELINDA: Like when those giant worms killed all those colonists on Tedee-um and ate their bodies?
GM: Sort of... but... Oh, I give up.

Well, it happens to us all. We dry up. Sometimes the GM may just need a bit of a break from running games to recharge and re-evaluate their campaign. Sometimes it's because of lack of ideas.
Scenarios and whole campaigns are up to the GM to supply. They must create and breathe life into their NPC's, locations and gaming worlds. Each different character and location must have some form of originality to keep the player's interested. After all, you can only defeat a particular type of arch-villain only so many times. Even pulling the planet back from the brink of destruction can be boring if the players do it every other week.

So where do all these ideas come from? Lets say the average GM runs one game a week, fifty weeks of the year. If that GM has been gaming for five years, that means they would have overseen at least two hundred and fifty games. That's two hundred and fifty original story lines and scenario ideas. Phew! That's some creative genius! Surely the ideas department would have run dry even after the first fifty!

Not at all. A lot of games are very similar in overall plot, but are very different in execution. Fair enough, the game this week may be about investigating another murder, but it's how the murder took place - and for whatever reasons it took place - that make the game original. A number of games can revolve around the same plot device but the events in that game can run in a very different order to resolve a very different situation. This is what keeps the players interested.

But what happens when the plots get thin, the action becomes repetitive and the NPC's sound all the same?


Sit back. Relax. Leave it. Stop designing and running games for a couple of weeks. The reason your drying up may be due to the fact that your just working too hard at it, especially if your GM'ing more than one game a week. That little break may be all you need to get your brain back into gear. You'll be surprised how many ideas just pop into your head when you're thinking about something other than roleplaying. If you need space, then run a couple of published adventures, that's what they are there for. Those scenarios you bought may give you ideas for a sequel in future games.

Also, try playing for a while instead of GM'ing. It can be quite refreshing to sit on the other side of the GM's screen for a change and actually participate in a game. You can watch the other GM run the scenario and think 'if I was running this game I would do this instead of that', and come up with your own ideas. Of course, it's not a good idea to do blatant re-hashes of someone else's scenario.


If the PC's have become quite powerful or they have explored pretty much every inch of the location they are gaming in then it may be time to start a fresh campaign. It can be difficult to come up with new challenges in an already well-used location for high-level characters, and so a change of place and PC's would be a good thing.

If the genre you are using is restricted to one planet then go to another area of that planet, say the tropics or the desert. If you can, change the planet. If your players are regularly planet hopping then take them to another sector of the galaxy. It is quite easy to change the gaming area, and a change of surroundings means a fresh new location for fresh new ideas.

If the players are a bit unsure whether they want to retire their favourite PC then just change the style of the game you are running. If your players are diverting world shattering events then bring them down to earth a touch by making their encounters more personal. It pays to read whatever background the players have written for their characters. Those little notes about PC childhood's and adolescence can spray forth ideas on how to get PC's more involved with the game instead of spending every waking moment battling the forces of Evil.

Vice versa, if the players are doing a lot of adventures that don't mean much in the overall scheme of things then run a huge groundbreaking adventure. Ending a campaign on a high note may make the players more comfortable about retiring their powerful characters.


If you have really bled the game dry then it may be time to change the gaming style. Go from soldiers to smugglers or from smugglers to bounty hunters. Of course, players may be loath to do this. After all, it is them you are entertaining and if one player is unhappy with the setting the game is in then the sessions will suffer. The gaming group will have to come to an absolute decision on how the game is to be played. It may take a little while for the players to get used to a new setting, but a new game may generate new story ideas. If the group is really serious about gaming then a change will not be a problem, but make sure that everyone is comfortable with it.


If your running games for two different groups, then it's not impossible to run the same story for each one, even if they are gaming in two different genres. Designing a setting that virtually any game can use is possible. With a little work you can quite easily adapt the game you designed for your smugglers to be used for your group who want to defeat the alien scourge. It's easier, of course, to run the same game for the two groups, but this may not always be the case. If you design your adventure without restricting it to a particular style, you can quite easily use it for two different sessions, and even save it for future use.


A great source of information and inspiration comes from one huge source that is easily accessible- entertainment. Television, radio, newspapers, the movies, novels... all these mediums can inject ideas. It can be very easy to take a movie plot and 'adapt' it to suit your game, although be careful... it can be quite annoying when one of the players has seen the movie or read the book and second-guesses you. The original movie or book plot can be 'tweaked' sufficiently to keep the players on their toes. It's also fun to take a few ideas and mesh them together. Wouldn't it be fun to run around a Blade Runner type city being hunted by Terminator type robots and avoiding Geiger's Aliens? I bet that's given you a few ideas already, hasn't it?

Even taking dull ideas from dodgy television shows and spicing them up can give you all you need for an evening's play. An edition of the news, giving you current affairs and important information, can inspire scenarios. That middle-east conflict or this political scandal can be easily adapted. The stories are there if you look hard enough.


Communication is a great forte of roleplayers, and so swapping ideas and stories with other GM's is an excellent way of keeping the fires of creativity burning. If you know of a local club then it may be worth going along and talking to other gamers about their experiences and favourite settings, and sharing in their character's exploits may give you the spark you need to start writing a new scenario. Talking to your own players and ascertaining what kind of adventures they enjoy and figuring out their passions... all these factors can contribute to original scenarios. In a lot of cases, as long as the game is done in a particular vein the players will appreciate, it doesn't matter how unoriginal a scenario is. If the players enjoy running around space stations, blowing up the bad guys and escaping in a battered old freighter, fine. As long as they have a goal to aim for they can pretty much do what they want.

So, as you can see, there are quite a few sources and methods to choose from. Even events in everyday life can inspire the GM. A good point to remember... if you communicate your ideas with the players and get their feedback, then you can all settle into a game that everyone will enjoy. The aim of the game, after all, is for everyone in the group to be social and enjoy the evening. At the end of the day it is the sole purpose of roleplaying, and continuous fresh scenarios is a major contributor.