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Against The Odds

A Year in Gaming – A Review of 2018

I think it’s correct this last year has been something of a roller-coaster. There’s been a lot of ups and downs for me personally, and it is safe to say I’m very much in a better place – literally – than earlier this year. I moved out from my flat in Albert Street, which is going on the market next month. There’s a lot of baggage I had attached regarding that place, and I’m feeling far better away from it!

Conventions & Events

Anyway… I didn’t make the UK Games Expo or Conpulsion this year. Both would have taken a serious toll on me this time, given the way things were. The amount of personal stress and anxiety I was suffering was sending me off the deep end. Since then, I’ve become far more clear-headed and remain firmly grounded in this reality.

That said, I’ve been busy in a few other realities! I ran a few demo games of the Conan RPG and Achtung! Cthulhu at Red Dice Games as part of Free RPG Day. I had a lot of fun – as did the players, plus I caught up with a few old acquaintances during the day.

Tabletop Scotland was a blast. I didn’t feel the same sense of mental pressure that I’ve felt at other gaming conventions, possibly since it’s the first year to run. I’ve heard nothing but positive feedback about the event which takes place in Perth. It’s on again from 24th – 25th August 2019. I’d have loved to have caught up with more folks but it was such a fun weekend, running Infinity RPG, Mutant Chronicles and Achtung! Cthulhu – all of which were well-received and gave much-needed feedback and new ideas.

Dragonmeet (earlier this month) was really busy for me. Again, I still didn’t manage to catch up with everyone I wanted to. I may try and make it more of an extended trip next year and spend a bit of time pottering about London, and catching up with folks beforehand.

Writing

Much of my time this year has been involved in writing for the Infinity RPG. As well as writing a sizeable chunk of material for the Infinity GM Guide, I’ve also been responsible for outlining and writing the massive forthcoming Infinity: Shadow Affairs Campaign book. It’s been a fairly deep-dive into the Infinity lore for me, but I’ve hit the ground running, just like my character (yes, that’s me on p.488 of the Infinity core book!). As a result of my work upon that, there’s a fair amount of work I’ve done on the forthcoming Paradiso source book too. Looking forward to seeing both of those in print. More on Infinity later…

I’ve also been heavily involved in converting Achtung! Cthulhu to the 7th Edition of the Call of Cthulhu rule-set, notably both the Investigator’s and Keeper’s Guide. I’ve also been responsible for a chapter of the new Achtung! Cthulhu 2d20 rule set, running several demos at Dragonmeet a few weeks ago. Lotta fun running that, along with the post-apocalyptic Devil’s Run game (which went a bit off-piste, but I enjoyed it). .

Mutant Chronicles has taken a bit of a back seat, although I’ve done some work towards some of the Siege of the Citadel, and converted some of the Dark Soul’s creatures to and from the game’s rules. Compiling the Mutant Chronicles Universal Index (plus the errata and timeline) were very useful in getting me up to speed in that respect. The Mutant Chronicles Universe is still very much alive. More on that later, too….

New for 2019…

As is my custom for this annual post, I’m trying to set out some clear goals (writing and otherwise) for myself over the next year. To be honest, quite a few have been carried over from previous years. So I guess that makes them traditional.

This year, I’d like to actually play some tabletop games of Infinity and Achtung! Cthulhu Skirmish/Tactics – I’ve got a number of the starter sets (including the Combined Army one) like Red Veil for Infinity, and a load of miniatures for both now. I’d like to get back to painting miniatures again. Quite likely I’ll post any work in progress here. Aside from various discussions involving Dettol and airbrushes, techniques don’t look to have changed that much – I went to Wonderland earlier in the month and bought Milliput. Looks exactly the same, too.

I’ve a pile of the RAFM Kickstarter minis for Call of Cthulhu, and also the Battletech starter set. My Cthulhutech/Battletech mecha mash-up is still a pipe-dream right now, but there is a good place to start! In the past, the size of my old flat and lack of time (and application!) meant that I had no room or inclination to paint. That given, we’re considering a summer-house (or shed!) although we also have two outdoor 10×10 cellars that might easily be converted to a workshop/painting studio given a little work. They are pretty damp though…

Writing and gaming goals

Board gaming is also something I’d like to get into again. Games like Siege of the Citadel, Thunderbirds, Burning Suns, and Legends Untold are all on my hit-list to play. I’m avoiding X-Wing and other Star Wars games as their miniatures are hideously expensive. Got to admit though, I would like to have a go of whoever produces a new version of Talisman, Fantasy flight or not. Deep Madness also looks like it might be worth a look – I missed both the Kickstarters but it looks terrifyingly fun, and not as bulky as Cthulhu Wars… famous last words, perhaps.

My flat’s painter/decorator has also asked me to run a Pathfinder game for him and a group of his gaming group. I also got my dentist back into board-gaming, and quite a few folk at my work have expressed an interest. Yeah, you’ve read that right. I’m thinking I’ll go for the classic Rise of the Runelords campaign, or a least getting them started upon it. It’s been a while since I ran Pathfinder.

In the process, I’ve also considered combining my former sandbox (ahem!) Sands of Time Pathfinder setting and Against the Odds into a single setting, for use with the Conan 2d20 RPG rules – I’m quite keen on consolidating them in that rule-set, as Conan’s low-magic rules really make the setting far more dark (no fireballs, but lots of sinister necromancy!).

Regarding my RPG freelancing I’ve a number of writing projects for Achtung! Cthulhu (inc. the 2d20 version), Mutant Chronicles and Infinity RPG in the pipeline, plus a few other projects I can’t talk about yet. Infinity’s Shadow Affairs and Paradiso took a huge chunk of my time last year, but it was well worth it. Looking forward to seeing the hard-copy, after it gets approved. I recently acquired Kult, the latest edition, using my points from the Modiphius store. This horror RPG comes from the same origins as the Mutant Chronicles and uses certain aspects in both. I may plunder it for some scenario ideas…

Speaking of aspects, it’s no secret that Modiphius are now publishing Vampire: The Masquerade after recent events required a realignment of White Wolf’s material (to put it mildly). Something I’ve been considering for some time is a source book for Edinburgh that can be used with horror RPGs. It’d be a fair bit of work and system free, but would collate Edinburgh ghost stories, places like Shrub Hill and the Heart of Midlothian, individuals like Burke and Hare, and Edinburgh setting across the eras (including references to the Dresden Files, Necroscope and other Brian Lumley material): provisionally entitled “Edinburgh by night”. I’d be interested in working with any writer on that – not a solo project!

To be honest my workload and events such as moving flat have caused me to neglect a lot of the Edinburgh Gaming scene (and page), and I hope to rectify that in the New Year. ORC Edinburgh continues to expand, although the lack of a central venue means it’s difficult for me to keep track of the games that are going on, and harder still to encourage new players to try something other than D&D. Attracting players to non-D&D games is something of side-project – games like Star Trek Adventures, Infinity and wh40k  may provide a little insight, provided I have time. A few one-off (one-shots) games in a regular venue might be the way forward – that seems to be a major sticking point – with a experienced GM (like me, I guess) of some traditional RPGs may fire up the creativity of would-be GMs.

The Open Saturdays group are continuing to run some unusual RPGs of interest, such as Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA), Night Forest, etc. so that’s also a good alternative for those bemoaning the lack of non-D&D games. ORC once had a tradition of a lot of one-shot games, but the dispersal across “time and space” for want of a better term has been problematic (i.e. location and scheduling). Something towards that may require something other than my efforts though.

With that in mind, I’m seriously thinking of channelling my energies into creating an Edinburgh branch of The Role Play Haven, a non-profit Community Interest Company – possibly as a replacement to ORC. I’ve been asked to look into creating a Scottish branch and it would solve a lot of ORC’s existing problems. Notably in organisation, charity funding and more of a community feel regarding reserving possible venues. It’d have a central pot for funding venue bookings and locations, and also cover GDPR and a more formal structure, along with a membership fee. I’ll need to take a good look at how to implement it: a more organised structure and paid membership fee requires something of paradigm shift for ORC members. Pitching games is also something new. All requires careful consideration…

Away-days

Given my other half’s ownership of the 5-star Craster Tower apartment, I’m considering weekend RPG away-day sessions. Spend the weekend in an elegant 1,000-year old haunted tower, in the middle of rural Northumberland and  the only other building nearby is a pub… This would be great for some intensive weekend gaming (RPGs or LARPS). Given the decor, definitely a good option for murder-mystery weekends too. It’s close to Alnwick and the LNER East Coast line rail links and the A1. I know its a thing/fad to game in an unusual place. Will be interesting to trial a weekend one this year 🙂 – it wouldn’t be cheap, but there’s plenty of castles and ruins, Newcastle, Holy Island etc. and coastal walks nearby for those who want a break from gaming.

And finally…

I’m hoping to blog more a lot more this year. Ongoing painting work may well help with that. Provided I can secure the space required for work-in-progress shots, as such. I intend to get the cellar areas re-purposed and usable for something at least.

I’m also always available for advice, writing gigs, and general geek-related discussion. Use my Contact Me page or send me a message on the ORC website.

RIGHT ON COMMANDER!!! Turn to 400.

It’s the end of 2012 today, so Happy New Year from here in Edinburgh! I’ve been heavily involved in Kickstarter this year. More than I should be, if I’m honest. Maybe it’s nostalgia as the year’s end approaches, but there’s a number of projects that hearken back to the old days for me.

ELITE: Dangerous is one of these. Back in 1984, my family got a BBC model computer. I scrimped and saved the £14.95 for floppy disk version of Acornsoft’s Elite game. It’s long ago enough that I can still remember that utilities was the most expensive thing I’d ever bought at that time – it was the 80s and was 11! I’ve a lot of memories regarding the heavily detailed faux-leather manual, Robert Holdstock’s Dark Wheel novella (a sequel to follow the following year, which didn’t appear), and struggling with the ship recognition chart (usually in the middle of combat!). I remember breaking the Voltmace joystick from heavy use, leaning on the fire button! When I went around to a friend’s for tea (the taper version which took 10 minutes to load from tape), we’d take turns piloting the Cobra Mk.3, and inevitably shooting our own missiles that the other had just launched! Since the BBC I used to have is now long gone, I’ve not played since – although I did finally reach the giddy heights of the Elite eventually. I’ve a lot of fond memories, but didn’t have an Amiga to play the sequels. So I’m happy to hear that Elite is back, in the form of Elite: Dangerous, now 90% funded on Kickstarter (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1461411552/elite-dangerous). There’s only a few days to go but I’d love to see this game made.

Another bit of nostalgia is the Fighting Fantasy series. This series is the main reason why I am an RPGer, and Jonathan Green, one of the authors is putting together a book on the series Fighting Fantasy: You are the Hero, it looks at the history of FF (as Fighting Fantasy was called), and will involve interviews with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (both wrote Fighting Fantasy and, Jackson the companion series, Sorcery!). They are also known for founding Games Workshop, Eidos Interactive (Livingstone), and  F.I.S.T. (Jackson). It’s been 30 years since the Warlock of Firetop Mountain came out. Scary stuff. When I look at some of the RPGs on offer we’ve a long way since then. Should be interesting to see what their take is on the way the gaming landscape has changed.

I’ve also been receiving twitter messages from @SynnibarrInvictus (don’t bother trying to follow it, the account has been removed for some reason). Apparently that car crash of an RPG has reached its funding goal and will now be re-released as Synnibarr Invictus. AW, HELL, NO!!! – that is all.

Happy New Year everyone.

D&D4e – A Watch Upon the Border

I’ve always been someone who adapts to circumstances as they happen, but hate being an early adopter! Working in IT, I always wait until the first service pack is released before upgrading an Operating System (OS) and I tend to carry that over to gaming rules-sets as well. I’ll freely admit that Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition (4e) hasn’t really fired my imagination as previous editions have done, although Ashes of Freedom was originally a 4e setting.

Looking back now I can see where I went wrong with games like Against the Odds and season 1 of Ashes of Freedom (I run campaigns for a year usually then take a break, similar to the format used by TV). I was trying to shoehorn a rules-set into a campaign setting, not the other way around. 4e is heavily combat-orientated, designed largely with the power-gaming “Munchkin” player in mind or so I’d thought – similar to most computer RPGs. I’ve decided to give 4e a second look. As part of a drive to get more folk participating in ORC Edinburgh‘s activities, I’ve decided to run a short mini-campaign, possibly to get some would-be GMs fired up to run their own games too. It is probably going to focus on a group of low-level PCs stationed on the border between Volkrania and the Eastlands.

It will be called “A Watch Upon the Border”. Most likely it will feature pre-generated characters (from Essentials/PHB), although those first in will have a choice. It will focus on adventures in the east of Volkrania, the Ashes of Freedom setting, but will take place some years before; between the end of the Orcgate War and the Purge of Fire. The PCs will be low level, but there will be plot hooks aplenty that I can work in as the stage is set for future events in AoF. Player-wise, I’d be looking for 4-6 players. It’s only going to be a short campaign but by using pre-gens it means anyone can pop in and play. The forum thread I’ve created at ORC Edinburgh can be found at http://orcedinburgh.co.uk/forum/Games–Players-Wanted/13411-d-d4e-border-watch.

One of the biggest problems for me in the past has also been the miniatures and terrain – and that’s expensive! However I think I’ll be able to muddle through with the miniatures I have, and an improvised “battlemat”. The miniatures I ordered as part of the Reaper Miniatures Kickstarter (Vampire level) won’t be here until next year. However, I’m also investing in the Legendary Realms Terrain Kickstarter as well – their stuff is very nice. There’s another reason too: Legendary Realms is the Official (TM) 🙂 scenery of The Secret Fire RPG, a game I worked upon last year, both in development and playtesting. Look out for the Demons supplement I wrote coming out soon from Secret Fire Games!

[amazon asin=0786956216&template=thumbnail&chan=default]

The Art of “Winging it”

Improvisation isn’t really an art as such but it can work extremely well when your players go off on one of those tangents that they love to do so often… and I know some players love doing it to games. The secret is: don’t let them know that you’re winging it. Or give them enough rope to hang themselves. Whatever works 🙂

Some of my most fun games have been run off a few notes and maps, and both myself and the players have enjoyed them immensely. It’s actually quite straightforward to run an improvised game, although you paradoxically need to plan ahead to a certain extent. Make sure that you’ve got a pile of stock NPCs or monsters to use and that you’ve a few encounters that you can throw in to break things up.

Among the improvisation techniques I’ve used, the application of “imminent peril” is probably one of the best. It puts PCs in a situation where they have to keep moving as they are being chased or are up against the clock. It worked very well in my first game of Ashes of Freedom as the group are pursued across Volkrania by the Mandragora, trying to avoid their forces and warn the capital. Encounters with heavily armed patrols and unrelenting attacks meant that the PCs (and players!) had little time to rest. The game was almost entirely improvised – as long as you’ve got the stats for some stock characters/encounters you (and your players) can have a great time!

Another of my favourites is the total improv(isation) campaign – all your plot is centred upon the PC actions and their consequences. This can be hugely difficult to plan for obvious reasons, so its pretty heavy work for the GM and can be difficult to run. Take away the toys. PCs thrown in prison or going undercover are not going to have much more than their own wits to help them out. Against the Odds was built upon this premise, with the group being escaped prisoners: no armour, food, weapons, or gear. The players would have to rely on their wits and creativity – particularly since they escaped into an area known as the Hellswamp. I’d planned to make the campaign about toppling the ruler, and creating a resistance force/rebellion.

Superhero/spy games are a great fun to improvise in, where you can wing it freely and give the players free rein as it were. I remember playing in a Marvel Superheroes game many years ago that basically focussed on us opposing the robotic Sentinels (long before the X-Men movies!). Oh, the elaborate schemes we came up with…

Anyway here’s some basic thoughts when improvising:

  • Be consistent – treat anything you improvise as part of the game “canon” from that point on. Keep some NPC names and stats pregenerated.
  • Let your players create their own encounter -“This looks like a great place for an ambush!” or “There’s going to be undead” 🙂
  • Don’t railroad the players – gentle encouragement is better than forcing them back onto the original plot.
  • Keep your cool – don’t get discouraged or annoyed when the players do something unexpected.
  • Adapt the ideas into your game. In Ashes of Freedom, a chariot race originally intended as a background actually provided a number of sessions that were fun!
  • Roll with it – enjoy yourself! If your players ignore the dungeon you’ve spent weeks designing and decide to go on an ocean cruise let them do so. Then maroon them on a mysterious desert island. With non-euclidean geometry.
  • Don’t be too “out there” with your improvisations – try and keep the flavour of your game intact. Humorous side quests can be fun – in moderation.
  • Don’t indulge individual players too much – remember, RPGs are social games.  Give each player enough of their own air time, returning to individuals afterwards.

D&D – the Version Wars!

I’ve been playing D&D for over 20 years in its various editions, from 1st Edition AD&D Dragonlance at school, to my own 4th ed. Against the Odds. Over time, each edition has developed its’ little faults: from bad marketing to an over-abundance of rules. Not to mention some god-awful changes in the system: I’ve heard this referred to as the Version Wars – they’re on par with Kirk vs. Picard…

1st edition was pretty basic – it still has a huge following among those that first picked it up in whatever generation they were born in, leading to many OSR games now being released. I remember seeing the rulebooks in John Menzies (along with the Fiend Folio, produced by the then UK branch of TSR). Without 1st ed, there would have been no Games Workshop – and the tabletop gaming world would have been very different. GW may now be a monolithic money-grabber, but its owes its’ roots to D&D. I think there’s maybe a little too much nostalgia for 1e, and a lot of games produced since are trying to capture the feel of it: production values have changed since Gygax’s golden era. People expect more for their money and costs for books have gone up! Would I run a 1st ed or OSR game? Probably not: it’s like being given a zx81 and then expected to install Halo upon it. I don’t suffer from the nostalgia attributed to it. Dragonlance was good, yet it was gorram linear (and hasn’t worn well) – no deviation from the plot allowed. It could be argued that a lot of 1st edition was the same: kill the monster, steal its treasure.

2nd edition had a lot of possibilities and works for me, for reasons I’ll mention later. However it also fell in the 90s to the CCG phenomenon that was Wizards of the Coast. AD&D worked up until the point where TSR was taken over – after which they seemed to produce a lot of sub-standard adventures and supplements. They had too many product lines and settings and I guess this is what lead to the development of 3.5. The Forgotten Realms, Planescape, Dark Sun, Greyhawk (oddly neglected), Red Death, etc. – all were run off as production lines (and often shut down after a few years). However the system itself works, despite the whole silly fear of THAC0, I think it works better than 3.5 (THAC0 is easier to work out than OB in MERP for example). There’s also another reason I like 2nd Ed. – the Core Rules CD & Expansion. This was brilliant and years ahead of its time.: customisable and easy to export, a character generator, mapping tools, searchable  rulebooks, monster builder. And it worked – you could even export the content, bearing in mind that the OGL was still many years away too. The Dragon Magazine archive was also useful, although maybe misguided – contributors to the early magazines should have got something for it. 2nd Ed. functions well as a toolkit – the game and classes work, there’s little complexity, and you can build a fantastic game out of it. Also, the characters are balanced and you don’t need to worry about the munchkin factor to any great extent. No Feats or Powers make the game a lot more balanced, and also a lot more challenging. Rather than tweaking  stats or attacks, you can get on with what makes your character different without overpowering the game.

3rd edition (and its +1 3.5 version) are where WotC dropped the ball in my opinion. Designed for the new generation of PC role-players, they had the opportunity to change the game such that it  could work well. Non-weapon proficiencies were dropped in favour of skills, THAC0 disappeared and became Attack Bonus. Some of the core races and classes disappeared. Yet Hit Points (HP) remained unchanged – I’ve never understood why. Wound levels, such as those found in The Secret Fire work far better than some arbitrary number, and very few modern games use the process of experience levels to gain more (Call of Cthulhu certainly doesn’t!). It always feels like the game was created and any feedback ignored – the playtest list for D&D3.0 was huge, but I suspect many of those on it were WotC sycophants, or those looking to get a free game. Certainly it didn’t seem playtested (you can read my post about playtesting here), although it did have high production values! If it worked so well, why was 3.5 brought out so quickly? I know its still popular at ORC, but I’m not a big fan of how it became a collection of splat books designed to give munchkin players less opportunity to use their imagination (feats, skill ranks etc). 3.5 also saw the release of the OGL (Open Gaming License) which probably re-invigorated the RPG hobby – but also saw the release of a lot of rubbish and the occasional gem e.g. Pathfinder. And don’t get me started on the whole E-tools debacle.

4th edition is a strange beast to me. It often feels like its been dumbed down (likely at Hasbro’s insistence), yet has some ideas that obviously didn’t make it to 3rd ed: the “bloodied” concept for example.However for me, it’s less of a boardgame and more of a wargame. None of the Powers are designed to help roleplaying: all deal with combat or support combat in some way – none actually help you roleplay your PC any better! AND I’m a  bit miffed about the Dragonborn – who just resemble my own Mandragora way too much, and make me wonder who came up with them (probably sour grapes on my part)… The system itself is geared toward combat and encounters which is fine if you’d like to play that style of game, but I like my players and PCs to be able to get involved in investigation, politics and other stuff. Sales of D&D have largely stagnated yet it remains popular. One wonders whether the increased focus on miniatures and the battlemat are an attempt to break into Games Workshop’s territory of “hobby gaming”. Hasbro would obviously like a piece of that action. And one idiot who ripped off a digital edition cost most of their fans who would have bought the PDF editions of old modules and books when they pulled them.

5th editon? – Well, we’ll see it maybe in the next two years or more. I don’t hold out much hope of it being any improvement though and will likely be more wargame than RPG. It’s also likely to be marketed for the console generation and younger gamer groups – I read somewhere that most people won’t read more than 500 words these days. D&D is also pugged heavily on some of the webcomics like Penny Arcade and PVPonline.

So why do I return to (A)D&D? It’s like that cheeseburger that you know you shouldn’t eat – the one with bacon, cheese and a HUGE portion of chips (that’s French fries to the Yanks out there). It’s bad for you and you know it, yet sometimes you just get a craving for it! If I don’t like the newer version I can always go back to the old.