Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Thoughts on My First Fifth Edition DnD Campaign

Last night I wrapped the twelfth session of my summer-long Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Since one of the players goes back to working nights during the school year, and the rest of us have fairly busy weekend schedules, this game is going to go from almost-weekly to probably one weekend day every six to eight weeks, if it doesn't peter out entirely. Sad, but I'm glad we got in twelve sessions in about fourteen weeks, and I was able to take a four-player party from first to fifth level.

With the regular sessions of the campaign behind me, I wanted to compile some thoughts, in no particular order.

  • 5E is my favorite edition/flavor of D&D thus far. It has now beaten out Castles & Crusades as my favorite "flavor" of D&D, mostly due to the flexibility and depth of the character options, and the very loose, yet well-structured way in which pretty much everything is handled (more on the system below). This edition was easy to pick up for old hands and new players alike (one player had essentially never played a pen-and-paper role-playing game before, while another last played 8+ years ago in college). All seemed to enjoy the system, and had no major complaints as to how the mechanics operated.
  • We had four players who took their characters up through fourth level (the end of the twelfth session saw enough XP to get the party to 5th). The party consisted of a Half-Elven Rogue who took the Assassin path, a Half-Elven Wild Magic Sorcerer, a Human Paladin who took the Oath of Vengeance, and a Human Monk who took Way of the Empty Hand. Upon reaching fourth level and ending one adventure arc, the Monk's player switched characters and began playing a Human Warlock with a pact to a Great Old One. The mix of magic and muscle served us very well, especially in the last four sessions where we had two spell-casters and two melee experts (the Paladin mostly used her limited spell-casting ability to power various "Smites" in melee).
  • I'm glad 5th edition seems to largely set aside the need for multi-classing by allowing variant class paths that enable the use of magic, and has enough race/class combos that you can create a wide blend of magic and non-magical abilities. IIRC, the Barbarian class is the only one that does not have some option or path for casting spells, which makes sense based on the class concept. Everyone else has some way of getting spells if they want.
  • I like the power level of Cantrips in this edition. While the Old-Schoolers might balk at a Magic-User that has unlimited access to a few minor magical abilities, I think it does a good job of letting a spell-caster continue to cast minor spells which still have an effect in the game once their big bombs have all been used. And really, a spell like Light or Fire Bolt isn't breaking the magical bank here. There are probably players who'll find ways of "breaking" cantrips, but so far, I am happy with how they work.
  • I think the decisions made to eliminate a lot of circumstantial modifiers in favor of Advantage and Disadvantage was the right one. I was leery of the idea at first, but after playing for several months, I found it to be pretty straightforward, and it helped eliminate a lot of that "modifier math" that bogs things down right when you want them moving fast and loose. And, I appreciate that such thinking was really applied system wide, keeping the number of "plusses / minuses" to a minimum. From the way skills work to the mechanics of two-weapon fighting, the mechanics become more of a very fast yes/no logic tree, rather than multiple modifiers all stacking on top of one another to arrive at a modifier that might change by +/-1 every round of a combat.
  • I liked how the first two character levels are priced very cheaply, XP-wise. Some DMs might not like it, but I think it lets you put the brakes on throwing first-level characters into the meat grinder too quickly, allowing you to pit them against some very low-powered creatures, of which there are plenty of options. And, if you *do* toss them in the deep end fast, the survivors earn the reward of fast leveling. The biggest complaint I've always heard of D&D is that PCs spend way too much time in the minor leagues, and campaigns end too often before "the good stuff". I think the leveling curve right now works to address this better. I'll note that while it took 12 sessions to get to 5th level for my party, our after-work games were pretty short, maybe only 2 1/2 hours a session, and didn't always have a "big battle", so if those sessions had been longer and more involved, I could easily see the PCs at 6th or 7th at this point.
  • I really appreciated the current system's focus on character - the discussion of and variety of races and sub-races, the many and varied classes, as well as the background options available, and even the "trinket roll" made upon character creation. Every player rolled up a unique trinket, and a couple of them took those trinkets and incorporated them into their backgrounds pretty deeply. For example, the Paladin got a small cage with a dead sprite inside it, and built her Oath of Vengeance around a story which came out of this item. Yes, veteran or more creative players don't necessarily need such things written into the rules, but for more novice players (like we had), it was a great springboard for character development.
  • Also, in general, I was impressed with the quality of the three core rule books, both in terms of production values as well as content. I think they were really well done, especially in comparison to the 4th edition books, which I'm not all that impressed with, at least content-wise. I also like that WotC is taking their time and not spamming us with "splat books" every month. There's already forty years of material out there, and it's better to put out small numbers of great quality resources than flood the market with garbage "option" books. If we want all those things, there's always...THE INTERNET!
In conclusion, this was a fun campaign, and I hope to keep gaming with this group, at least on an irregular basis. One of my players is already prepping to run her debut campaign as a DM with another group of our friends, so I'm eager to try out the rules from the other side of the DM's screen. Also, there's a lot of good compare-and-contrast with the 4th edition campaign I'm currently playing in, which I hope to write about in the not-too-distant future.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

My RPG Publishing Malaise

Thinking back, I have been pondering the notion of "homebrew" role-playing game systems since I started gaming around 1993. I don't remember the specifics, but I do remember getting the "Amazing Engine" universal RPG system from TSR around that time, and it was my first real exposure to what you might consider a "generic" role-playing game system, one that kept a stable core but could be adapted to meet the needs of most any genre.

Later on in college during the mid- to late '90s, I would often pick up interesting one-off RPGs at the local gaming store and read through them, pondering their mechanics and feeling the beginnings of an interest in designing my own game. In fact, around 1999-2000 I did begin serious work on my own simple gaming engine, one I called SCORE (Suitable for Creating the Optimum Role-playing Experience). There were a couple of early versions that used a 2d10 bell-curve, one of which I used to run a 1920s-era horror game that went for a few sessions until I decided to switch setting gears, and baited the party into a TPK (Total Player Kill - I wiped out the entire party).

Eventually this crime against humanity was forgiven, and I ran a couple of fantasy campaigns with a new incarnation of SCORE, one that used a Rolemaster-esque d100 + rating system. Those games actually went quite well, and we had a lot of fun playing right up to around the end of 2002. I still have most of my notes for those games, along with character sheets, and I still think the system works, at least for a game written at the turn of the century. It's not the sort of system I'd use more than a decade later, but I think it worked well enough.

Soon after that game came and went by the wayside, I decided to work on a game with a very strong "Sword & Sorcery" bent, originally named "Legends of Blood and Iron". This game had a lot of good heart, and a lot of flavor to it, but I think mechanically it was a bit of a mess. The world-building portion of the game, and the discussion of what made up a proper S&S campaign, it still I think relevant, and perhaps one day I will dig a few gems out of the work. This was also around the time I found and devoured Ron Edwards' Sorcerer and Sword, a supplement for his Sorcerer RPG. I have no love for the core product, but his supplement is, in my mind, the single best treatise on "Sword & Sorcery" role-playing games I've ever seen.

Over the many intervening years, I have tinkered with a myriad of RPG designs and concepts. I've run a few one-shots here and there to test one mechanic or another, but nothing done with enough time and substance to form any true window into whether or not a specific whole rules set "works" or doesn't work - in short, nor real formal playtesting beyond one or two sessions. I've probably achieved "80%" finished on whatever it is the Tankards & Broadswords RPG might one day be, but that last twenty percent is a real bitch.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder about this RPG publishing malaise. For several years now, the urge to design a game and run a campaign was supplanted by my writing career, which - lets be honest - pays far better than I would ever imagine an RPG might pay. On the other hand, after spending so much cumulative time working towards the nebulous goal of releasing my own RPG - a goal that is easier to achieve than ever, thanks to all the print-on-demand and self-publishing options out there right now - I find it somewhat vexing that I can't approach the goal of writing and publishing an RPG with the same assertiveness that I can approach writing a novel or short story. If I can write a book that gets read by multiple thousands of complete strangers, why can't I write a RPG that might wind up in the hands of - let's be realistic - a few dozen?

Maybe it is because while the majority of readers are just that - readers - who zip through a book once and basically give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down, I find that many - if not most - RPG players are constant rules tinkerers, and obsess over almost any aspect of a game. Only a small handful of readers are ever going to pick over any one of my novels to the degree that MOST gamers would pick over a game. So, I feel, the inevitable level of scrutiny - as well as their natural inclination to say "well, if *I* designed this game, I think XYZ should have been ABC..." - keeps me from pulling the trigger.

I don't know. As I type this, I ponder the writing of a small, specific RPG premise. I think that would be the best way to start. From there, if the idea was interesting and well-received, maybe it'd give me more confidence to tackle a larger, more interesting project. It would be a shame to never have a formal sharing of all this idea fodder, but at the same time, there's a right way and a wrong way to do all that, so I need to pick and choose my battlefield carefully, so to speak.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

My First Game of BOLT ACTION WW2 Miniatures Wargaming

Over two years ago (wow!) I picked up the BOLT ACTION core rules book, several Army Books, and a small force of British Commandos (naturally - new readers, look to the left of this article...). I reviewed the game in the abstract over on the Post Modern Pulp Blog, but I figured an actual game report was best suited to this blog (I'll put a "Hey, take a look" post up over on PMP pointing back here as well).

This past Friday, my friend and fellow author Dan Eldredge and I got together to play out a game of Bolt Action for the first time. Neither of us has had the time to fully paint our armies, and we agreed to not do a full battle report (the shame of a formal bat-rep containing unpainted miniatures would be too much for Dan to bear...), but we had the day to get together and enough miniatures to fight a good-sized battle, so we brought together everything that was assembled and decided to just have a go at it and try out as many of the units and rules as possible.

In short, I fielded a mixed force of British Army and Commando forces, with a bunch of weapons teams, a Daimler armored car, and a Sherman tank. Dan fielded a platoon of Panzergrenadiers in half-tracks, along with several weapon teams, a squad of veteran late-war grenadiers carrying StG 44 assault rifles, and a Tiger tank (yikes!). We played an "Envelopment" scenario, where the attacker (Germans) tries to break through the defender's (British) lines. This seemed well suited to our units, since none of my infantry had transports and I had a ton of weapons teams (mortars, AT rifle, Vickers machine gun, etc.), while Dan had mechanized infantry and a powerful tank. 
British on the near side of the board, Germans on the far side

One immediate difference we noticed between Bolt Action and Warhammer 40K (which we've both played a lot over the years) was the effects of pinning and morale. The more a unit takes fire from enemies, the more they are "pinned", and a pinned unit has to take a morale test in order to do...well...almost anything. A unit can get pinned into utter uselessness without taking a single casualty, a situation in stark comparison to 40K, where many armies have very high morale and many units are Fearless or Stubborn or otherwise ignore various morale situations. The mission began with a bombardment of my lines, and although I only suffered one casualty, many of my units suffered pinning and a couple even broke and ran! This caused me quite a bit of trouble early on, as a number of my units couldn't get into the fight for the first couple of turns (thankfully I had a lot of units, so I wasn't completely hampered in this regard).

Dan's Panzergrenadiers made a bold thrust into the center of my lines, determined to punch through my regular infantry and split my forces. My poor infantry section stood their ground for a short while, before weight of fire from several squads of Germans, as well as their support weapons, caused the unit to suffer too many casualties and eventually break and get wiped out. In Bolt Action, if you lose half a unit's models in a turn, and they fail a morale test, the unit is destroyed. This definitely keeps the tempo of a battle going and prevents tiny remnant units running around ineffectually.

The Poor Bloody Infantry, about a turn away from being wiped from the board. Note the Tiger in the distance...
Once Dan's infantry had punched a hole in my lines, he also managed to immobilize my Sherman with a single shot from his Tiger. I quickly found myself staring into a lot of enemy gun barrels, and decided some audaciousness was in order. So, I turned to my Commandos and sent them into the teeth of the enemy, bayonets and daggers gleaming, Sten guns blazing away. In Bolt Action, an assault is dangerous - the enemy gets to react by firing on the charging unit if they start far enough away - but there is no draw, just victory or death for the attacker. Thankfully for me, Commandos are "Tough Fighters" and excel at the assault, and so I wiped out one of Dan's squads in a flurry of bullets, blades, and bayonets.

An empty shell crater is all that's left of the Panzergrenadier squad, while their mates to the right look away in horror...
At this point, Dan's officer jumps into the half-track and opens fire on my Commandos with its machine gun, and the other infantry squad also opens fire, as does the advancing Tiger tank. Seeing my center forced open yet again, my Forward Artillery Officer calls down a barrage of artillery fire on the German squad (see the white die with the bulls-eye in the photo above). Unfortunately, the blast radius of the barrage is HUGE, and over the next two rounds, a number of units - both friend and foe - are pinned or damaged, and my poor medic and his stretcher-bearer (the bare metal models in the top-right of the above photo) are killed by a heavy howitzer shell!

Determined to press on, Dan drives his Tiger tank through the bombardment zone and tries to get off of my size of the board, since his infantry are so pinned by the bombardment that they're refusing to embark on their transport. With my Sherman immobilized and out of line-of-sight, and my armored car on the other side of the board (he's been sniping at a German MMG unit and the veteran Grenadiers all game), all I've got to deal with the tiger is my lone PIAT anti-tank gunner, who lost his loader and broke and ran in the opening bombardment. He's finally collected himself and lost his pinning penalties, and he moves forward, finally getting within good range for a shot at the Tiger's flank.

Steady hands now, lad! Make it count!
He misses with his first shot due to moving and firing and long range, but the second shot hits. I roll a "5" for damage, enough to cause a penetrating hit, and I get another "5" on the damage table, knocking out the Tiger. With only one infantry squad left, Dan makes a roll to see if the heavily-pinned unit will board its Hanomag half-track, and it fails. At this point, Dan concedes defeat, since he really can't get anyone off my side of the board in the next turn (this was the end of turn 5).

Overall, we both had a lot of fun. The rules move fast once you get the hang of them, and while the game isn't exactingly realistic, there are enough elements that make sense to give it a feeling of completeness and logic. The effects of pinning especially can be very frustrating, but it makes sense that your men aren't just blithely going about their business as shells explode and bullets snap all around them. You also need to make sure you're using your officers' Morale bonuses to their best effect, something I think neither of us paid much attention to during the game.

I'm not sure when we'll have another chance to play, but we're both looking forward to another battle, this time with the game mechanics more firmly understood and a better idea of how the game itself plays out. When we do, I'll be sure to post another report.

Until next time, Cheers!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Tankards and Broadswords Awakens!

So...yeah! It's been a couple of years since I posted, but I'm resurrecting this blog because of a number of developments in the Fantasy / Gaming front going on over here. Many thanks to those of you who've kept me in your feed - comments here are always welcome!

http://amzn.com/B00HNY0H9U In January of last year, I published a Swords & Sorcery novella, Spiders and Flies. It was largely written back in 2001 as an homage to pulpy S&S fantasy fiction a la Robert E. Howard and the like, set in a world I had created as a campaign setting for my SCORE homebrew RPG system. So far, sales have been slow, but I get a nibble now and then, and reviews have been overall very positive, which is quite nice.

The story follows four adventurers as they trek into a nearby desert wasteland in order to plunder the abandoned temple of a mostly-forgotten spider god. As you might guess, things don't go as smoothly as the treasure-hunters anticipated! There's a lot of adventure and bloody violence, and it is a short, quick read of about 20,000 words, enough to entertain you for about a hour's reading pleasure. It is available on Amazon as either an ebook or a paperback.

http://amzn.com/B00L1V2ID4 My friend and fellow author Dan Eldredge has published his second novel, The Grand Masquerade. This is the sequel to his debut work, The Pirates of Alnari, which I posted about two years ago.

If you like brutal, very realistic high-medieval combat, diabolical political intrigue, massive land and sea battles, and plenty of adventure, these books are a must-read. If you combined the coolest aspects of the Game of Thrones books and Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin novels, you'd get this series.

The Grand Masquerade (as well as The Pirates of Alnari) is available in ebook and paperback formats from Amazon. Click on the cover photo to go to the book's Amazon page.

In addition, I've put out two more COMMANDO novels since this blog was active - Operation Cannibal and Operation Dervish. Both are available on Amazon in ebook and paperback formats, and you can find them by clicking on the links provided to the left of this post. There's also my Western novella, Renegade's Revenge, and my '70s era men's adventure novel, San Francisco Slaughter. Both of these are also available on Amazon in ebook and print versions.

Beyond my writing, I've started gaming again. I'm running a 5th Edition Dungeon's & Dragons campaign, and I'm playing in a 4th Edition campaign. All I have to say is, WOW - the differences are enough to give you mental whiplash! More on this to come in more followup posts.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

FREE TODAY: The Pirates of Alnari by Dan Eldredge

Click the Cover to See on Amazon
Click the Cover to See on Amazon
My good friend Dan Eldredge's debut novel is free today on Amazon. If you dig pirates, swordfighting, intrigue, sex and violence, this book is definitely worth your time. Allow me to copy the book's product description from Amazon:
 Martyn and Arycke are two young nobles forced into hiding after experiencing an act of unspeakable violence. They buy passage on the Isalian frigate Selene, but after a bloody battle against two pirate vessels, Martyn and Arycke find themselves shipwrecked castaways along with a beautiful young woman, her ever-watchful grandfather, and the rest of the Selene's crew.
Unfortunately for the survivors, they now find themselves stranded within reach of the pirate city of Alnari. In short order, Martyn and Arycke find themselves fighting for their lives, not only against marauding bands of savage pirates, but mutinous elements within the Selene's own crew.

The shipwrecked survivors are dragged into a maelstrom of vengeance and intrigue, as rival pirate lords maneuver against each other for dominance over Alnari. Martyn, Arycke, and the rest of the Selene's crew will need every ounce of courage, cunning, and strength they possess if they hope to escape alive...

The Pirates of Alnari is a gritty fantasy adventure story filled with bloody naval battles and vicious sword fights, combining the cutthroat political intrigue of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire with the dashing nautical adventures of Patrick O’Brian.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

NANOK Gets a New Cover!

Ander Plana, the artist responsible for the excellent new cover gracing Operation Arrowhead has now provided me with a cover for my pastiche Swords & Sorcery short story, NANOK and the Tower of Sorrows.

Although it was a ton of fun to write, and I think it's a great read for fans of Sword & Sorcery-style fantasy fiction, NANOK hasn't been selling very well, so I decided to make the investment and get a new cover. I think Ander's creation is pretty damn awesome - true to the classic pulp fantasy cover feel, but with a more modern styling. I think he also does a good job of making the cover unique while tying it in to the general layout seen in my Commando covers.

If you have a chance, head over to DeviantArt.com and check out Ander's work - some great stuff (and I'm not just saying that because my commissioned works are there.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Movie Review: The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey (2012)

I went to see this movie with six other people, ranging from die-hard Tolkien fans to those who were tagging along mostly just to see a movie with their friends. At the end of this three-hour adventure, the impressions were unanimously positive, and I can't help but agree.

This movie is very clearly - far more clearly than the book, if you ask me - a prequel to the Lord of the Rings films. A lot of the added material, much of it events that are implied or could have easily happened off-stage in the original story, sets up the relationships between such powerful players as Saruman, Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and even the goofy but nevertheless very wise Radagast. This is the prelude to war, even though the war doesn't come about for another sixty years, and you can see the cunning of Gandalf as he moves his chess pieces onto the board and begins to carefully position them for the battle to come.

I had been wondering before seeing the film how they were going to take a book that was shorter than any of the three LotR novels, and expand it out into three whole movies. I think ultimately they did a serviceable job, although it is clear in some areas that things were done for the sake of making a good show of the story, rather than sticking to the narrative. One good example of this is the battle between the storm giants. I think this was an okay sequence, but at the same time, it could have been skipped or just reduced to "this storm is too much for us, we need to find shelter!". The storm giants are mentioned in passing in the book, but that's it. For the most part, I think that's going to be what we see in the next two films - things mentioned in passing or just touched upon in the book are going to be expanded into their own complete scenes, and we'll have to judge for ourselves whether this is just Peter Jackson playing around in Middle-Earth, or if it ultimately adds to the story in a meaningful way.

One aspect of the film that did actually bother me was the reliance on CG for the orcs and goblins. In the first three films, while there was some CG enhancement and sequences (the huge fights, the Moria goblins spider-climbing along the caverns, etc.), When seen up close and personal it was clear they were extras in costume. In this film, there might have been a bare handful of costumed and made-up extras, but the vast majority of bad guys are either wholly digital, or motion-captured like Gollum. I think it took a little something away from the spirit of the film, but such is the reality of making movies in the 21st century.

Regardless of a few quibbles I have about such things, I think this was an impressive movie, and if the next two films can maintain the standard set by An Unexpected Journey, I think this trilogy will stand tall next to their older siblings.