Saturday, 13 August 2016

War Rocket Review: Restrospective Series

The "restrospective" series is for older games that have never gained traction for some reason or other; or perhaps once-great titles now OOP.

With War Rocket, it's hard to see how it could gain much traction in the first place.  It's well-finished but quirky starships are designed to evoke Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon but have more in common with Futurama.  Dunno about you, but I suspect people wanting to paint miniatures so they can pretend to be Kiff and Zapp Brannigan to be fairly limited.  The sort of thing that might catch the imagination of those of a quirky nature (I bet it went down big on Lead Adventure Forum) but is unlikely to have widespread appeal.

 I think War Rocket was trying to evoke Buck Rogers but the minis remind me more of Futurama...

Anyway, let's look at the game itself:

The Shiny
It's a slim, readable 75 pages.  The comic-style B&W illustrations do a lot more to promote the Buck Rogers vibe than the minis themselves.  There are good references and rules summaries. 

Activation & Stats
The stats are simple - in fact the stats for an entire fleet (i.e. all 4 ship classes) can be noted on a single page.  Speed, Defence, and Weapon (range/arc/firepower). 

1. Determine move order - move in order of slowest->fastest (break ties with d10 roll)
2. Rockets with a "delayed action" do all actions - both move and fire - now
3. Actually move rockets from #1
4. Place hit markers next to targets in range/arc of any weapons
5. Check damage - d10 roll on table
6. Remove any stun tokens from last turn
7. Take any special actions/may take a Delayed action token if qualified

Any rocket that takes no actions in one turn may take a "delayed action" turn that allows it to act with all actions (move/shoot/special) before enemies. Regard it as a overwatch-y sort of mechanic; you forfeit actions now in order to act first next turn.

I always think "Planet Express" but I do think the minis look very well finished and produced...

You may not move at all - and a stunned rocket cannot move.  This seems a little weird in space - most space games allow for "some" inertia.  Now all 4 factions have their own unique movement mechanics.  I think this is an interesting idea to give flavour, but I'm a bit dubious about balance - we all know how well different movement worked in BFG *cough* Eldar *cough.*   Two factions are similar (Empire being just unwieldy Galacteers) but the saucers of the Zenithians and the pulse jets of the Valkeeri offer different movement styles. 

Only one weapon type?  Really?
Whilst I found movement interesting, the attack mechanics left me scratching my head.  If the aim was to reduce record keeping I wonder why they came up with the quirky shooting mechanic which seems designed to maximise the number of needless tokens/dice on the table.

Basically, your ship has a "firepower" rating which denotes how many hit tokens you can place on a target(s) within range/arc.  You count up the combined hit tokens on any given ship and cross-reference it with the target defence on a table.  A d10 roll determines if the ship is stunned (miss a turn) or destroyed. 

Whilst I approve of the lack of hitpoints, the whole system is weird and does nothing that couldn't be achieved by a more vanilla, less token-y system.  Remember the article I did on "why your great idea may not be great?"  I have a feeling this falls into that category.

Also, I'm not sold on tracking your stun from turn to turn (the "delayed action" kinda confuses things).

Terrain, Scenarios, Customisation & Stuff
There are rules for asteroids, wormholes and nebulae, and 9 scenarios.   There are special rules for ramming, docking, minefields and boarding combat, along with freighters, space stations and gun emplacements. 

There are some customization options - which mostly involve slight boosts to speed or firepower, or similar - as well as "defects" which reduce the same.  This gives some interest to the otherwise bland fleet lineups, (oh wait, I lied - there are torpedoes as a special optional extra, but they act just like kamikaze rockets, and you can lay mines - but there isn't a whole lot of unique or interesting stuff)

A quick recap:
 + Little recording, relatively fast play
+ Different movement types for different races gives flavour
+ Easy to use rulebook
+ Range of terrain, scenarios

- Weird shooting rules
- Only 4 classes of ship per faction - pretty bland
- Only 1 weapon type/not a lot of customisation options/no shipbuilder
- No campaign rules
- Pulp minis are very niche and Futurama-y

War Rocket is both a niche and somewhat limited product. It seemed simple, quirky and fun, but I couldn't see it being more than a one-trick pony with limited shelf life. Lack of more than one meaningful weapon type, limiting the four races to to four similar simplistic classes (class 1 to 4), and limited customization/no shipbuilder tends to focus players on the minis and universe provided - which does not appeal to everyone.  Different movement systems and the delayed action idea was the most interesting, though the shooting mechanics seemed weird.  Whilst the minis look well-produced, aiming the game squarely at Futurama-style pulp automatically put a low cap on the potential audience.  Given that X-Wing has since become the current best-selling miniatures game, and at the time it came out, Silent Death had not had any challengers since the early 90s,  I'd put War Rocket down as a missed opportunity.  

Recommended: Not particularly, not unless you really love the ships. I don't see it being a long-term gaming staple and after a few playtests I shelved them, and decided against getting the minis (only the Zenithian saucers had even vague appeal anyway).  I was optomistic about this game - but found this game (and minis) just struck the wrong notes for me.*

(*Which is weird, for someone who avidly collects Quar - the very definition of wargaming quirky...)

Friday, 12 August 2016

Rezolution Review (Restrospective Review Series))

The "retrospective" series is a look at "what might have beens" - rulesets that have fallen by the wayside, that had either interesting mechanics or serve as a cautionary tale.

I merely regard Rezolution as a little unlucky; launched in 2004, it had little time to gain traction before Infinity burst onto the scene in 2005.  With its innovative (and as-yet-uncluttered) rules and gorgeous minatures, Infinity stood out from Rezolution's more conventional rules, dreary cyberpunk/Bladerunner tropes and some decidedly ugly sculpts.

Though ill-fated and doomed against its more glamorous rival, Rezolution was not necessarily a bad game.  Let's take a look....

The Shiny
A 200-page softcover, with plenty of art and the obligatory colour centrefold of minis. However the use of a grey background made it both more drab and harder to read then was necessary.

Mechanics & Stats
Most stats were rolling 2d6 + stat to beat a target number (similar to Warmachine).  However Rezolution also used opposed rolls (2d6+stat vs 2d6+stat).  Damage rolls worked a little differently - each dice was compared individually against the TN, with each success doing damage.
There was an exploding d6 rule (any 6 roll allowed another dice to be rolled and added to the total) as well as critical successes (boxcars) and failures (snake eyes).

Stats included Move, Ranged Combat, Close Combat, Size+Agility (i.e. how hard it is to hit), and Body (a mix of Toughness and Strength used for both mitigating damage and dealing melee damage).
Other stats include Nerve (willpower, morale, psychic defence), Hacking, Craft (psychic potential) and Reputation (determines initiative).  Sadly, the models also had hitpoints which regular readers know how much I love (i.e. not at all) 

Rezolution had poor models and unlucky timing; arriving shortly before Infinity's meteoric rise in the same genre...

Activation & Movement
Units could be independents or as teams (with typical coherency rules; out of coherency troops are suppressed).  Activation is alternate movement, with the players rolling contested Reputation rolls to see who initially chooses to start.  To elaborate:
1. Control Phase - initiative roll, any effects/morale/forced moves/hacking
2. Players take turns moving and then taking an action with their model (hack, shoot etc)

Movement rules are pretty standard for most skirmish (run, jump, hide, spot, climb etc) with units able to "hack into the grid" in the control phase and open blast doors, hijack security systems, download data etc.

Of interest is the ability for leaders to order others to "hold" actions for later (i.e. overwatch/reactions), concentrate fire, prioritize targets etc.  Also rules for guard patrols which would be handy for scenarios.

Shooting & Melee
Shooting is an opposed action - 2d6+Shooting stat vs target's 2d6+Size/Agility stat. At the time, opposed rolls weren't that common and it was an interesting feature.  Also, targets attacked from the rear could not add their size/agility stat and could merely use the base 2d6 - making flanking appealing.  Automatic weapons could engage multiple targets as well as using "suppressive fire" - all models inside a 90d arc having to test morale or be suppressed (but no damage being inflicted).  Any model taking hit(s) is also must pass a morale test or be suppressed.

Melee works in a similar manner; only any hits force a morale test that may result in the model fleeing in panic.  Models can also parry (adding bonuses to opposed rolls but forfeiting the ability to inflict damage if they win.)  Rear attacks are even more deadly - besides the loss of the stat in the opposed roll, all damage is doubled.

Hacking, Telepathy & Morale
You can hack into various systems (either remotely or having to jack in) either automatically or with an opposed test.  For example, you can directly attack hardwired opponents, injuring them with a Hack duel.

Morale tests are taken with any hits or suppressive fire, when leaders die or a certain % of allies are lost. Troops that fail a test are suppressed (cannot move) and failing a second test when suppressed results in them fleeing panicked.  Telepathic attacks are Craft+2d6 vs Nerve+2d6; nerve (morale) tests are required to shake off the telepathic effect.

Scenarios & Stuff
Besides the usual deathmatch, asssassinate etc there are quite an extensive range of objective-based missions such as hacking generators, extracting data, escort missions etc.

The "army lists" or "codexes" comprise the remaining 130 or so pages, and it is here you find craft (psyker) powers and special rules.  These include fireballs, blink teleportation, stun/distract, terror, choke and more.  There is also ~50 special abilities - with the usual traits like acrobatic, beserk, marksman, martial arts and stealth as well as race specific traits such as the feed and drain of the vampiric Dravani aliens.

Oh - about the armies - there are the aforementioned vampiric alien Dravani, techno Yakuza, SWAT-like CSO and the independent Ronin.  Sadly, the models for most of them are rather uninspired and some are downright misshapen. 

Rezolution (hitpoints aside) is not a bad ruleset, although its innovation has since been overtaken.
I enjoyed the games I played "back in the day."  The mechanics are decent and the scenarios are varied and interesting.  The fugly minis are probably the major drawback. Rezolution's more conventional simplicity actually compares more favourably with Infinity nowdays as the latter has acquired hundreds of complex special rules over its various expansions, though the simplified Infinity quickstart rules are still a much better option, and there are a few cheaper indie sci fi rules which also edge it out.  Of the rulebook itself, I find the dark grey background rather dreary and annoying to read.

Despite it's relative obscurity, it's still in print and the minis are available; there's an expansion, Outbreak which includes the Vatacina faction (nuns and robots) as well as campaign rules.

Recommended?:  No, not really. While a decent ruleset, it wasn't the #1 in its day, and it hasn't evolved at all since then; it's too setting-specific for generic cyberpunk, and the minis for the setting do not measure up well to contemporaries.

PS: Any votes for the next "retrospective" review?  Some thoughts are:
Cutlass! (pirate skirmish), Daimyo (WFBish samurai), AE: Bounty (sci fi skirmish); Legends of the High Seas/Old West (LOTR skirmish variants for eras); War Rocket (space dogfights), Wargods of Aegyptus (WFBish with a Egyptian theme) but I'm open to other obscure rulesets which have faded away - anyone remember Vor and Warzone, for instance?

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Hard West (PC) - Weird West Strategy, and the "Luck" Mechanic

Weird West X-Com? Sounds like a winner.  This wasn't originally intended as a review of the game - although I perhaps should explain it is not a X-Com clone; whilst being squad-turn based strategy, it's different at the strategic level.

I bet I wasn't the only one to think "not-Deadlands on PC!"  As usual, stupid Blogger won't allow me to link to any decent Youtube trailers - bet it has something to do with ad revenue....

The gritty graphic novel style visuals of Hard West are superior and it has a  tighter story to it; whilst you can unlock weapons and cards to boost your characters stats and confer special abilities, and your characters can suffer injuries/gain buffs from battle scars, it has neither the depth of levelling, resource management nor randomness of X-Com - i.e. Hard West is prettier, more focussed and has better story at the price of being less customizable and replayable.  It's not about building bases and super soldiers but more about nursing your party through a series of linked scenarios, with text choose-your-own adventure random events to add flavour.   Despite surface similarities, it's not an X-Com clone; Hard West definitely feels like it own game.

Anyway, what interested me (besides the Wild West-with-demons-and-undead) and what prompted this post, was the luck mechanic. 

Basically, besides the normal health bar, you are protected by luck as well.  Luck is a resource which acts as your pool for evading attacks as well as triggering special abilities. Your luck usually starts at 100%, but is reduced each time you avoid a shot.

I'm not totally sure, but this is how I think it works....

1. If an attack misses you, it reduces your luck. (The amount lost depends on the initial hit chance - a shot with 60% chance to hit reduces your Luck 60%)

2. Luck is used to help evade. If your "Luck" is higher than their to-hit chance, you automatically evade (i.e. enemy shoots at you with 50% chance to hit, and you have 70% luck - the shot will miss and you only have 20% luck next turn)

3. Luck is also used to trigger special abilities.  Triggering a special ability or attack reduces it by a fixed amount (typically -50)

4. If you are hit and take damage, your Luck is replenished (not sure how much)

I.e. Cowboy Bob shoots at Frank the Ruster; with a 40% chance to hit.  Frank has 70% luck.  As the hit chance is lower than the luck,  Bob misses and Frank loses 40% of his luck score.  His Luck is -40% and is now 30%.   Another shot at 40% to hit would likely hit (as it exceeds the 30% luck score).  As he has taken damage, his luck will replenish (I'm not sure how much).  

I find this interesting from a wargame perspective; in-game after I dodge a few hits I tend to pull back to cover as I know my "luck" is running out.  It can also be used for special actions (like "fanning" a pistol to spray multiple shots) and abilities.  It adds a lot of decision points.  I feel a similar mechanic could almost be used to replace a health bar.  (In fact, I guess this is a little like a more sophisticated version of Fate in LOTR - in LOTR, heroes could spend Fate points to roll saves against damage, but each roll reduces  their Fate score... eventually the hero will run out of Fate aka saving throws..)

Anyway, it got me thinking about the use of "luck" as a resource, "pushing" your luck, and similar mechanics in wargames...

The second interesting thing in Hard West is the cards.  They are playing cards that confer passive stat boosts and/or special abilities.  A "10" might add +5 aim, and a Ace might add +10 luck.  If your character can arrange your cards in a poker hand, you can get additional boosts, say two pairs gives +10 defence.  Some give special abilities that trigger when you spend "Luck" - i.e. a 9 of diamonds allows you to exchange health with an ally at a cost of -50 luck to activate.

I think the key "take away" thought for this is the idea of a "hand" of special abilities or stats.  I think a limited "hand" makes sense for campaign games; you perhaps have a total of 5 special abilities or stat boosts which you can mix-and-match.  This cap on total power prevents mismatches between characters and wabands - an experienced character cannot be ridiculously more powerful than a mid-rank character in-game, (they both only get a combination of any 5 new skills or stat increases) but a more experienced does have access to a much wider range of abilities when assembling his "hand", and can create more powerful combinations of cards as well as being able to min-max more effectively and more easily get bonuses for specific combinations.

Anyway, I do recommend Hard West - both as a fun, turn based tactical game and as an interesting source of wargaming inspiration for both game design mechanics and as a reason to dig out those Malifaux and wild west minis....

Sunday, 7 August 2016

PC Games - STALKER, Mount & Blade Review

I dislike pen-and-paper RPGs but play online/PC ones quite extensively.   The problem with MMOs is that most attempt to copy Warcraft and offer a bland experience, but occasionally RPGS (often, but not always, single player affairs aimed at PC only) offer something new.

The stupid blogger link system won't let me open any trailers via the Youtube link, so here's a music video which may give you an idea. 

This is great wargaming inspiration - the setting is the devastated Cheronbyl radiation zone. Exploring the ruins, avoiding wild animals, mutants, bandits and fellow explorers (stalkers).  There's a story with lots of quests and secrets to unlock, but besides the moody atmospheric world (which is divided into 3 "open world" stages), there are two main points that make it stand out:

(+) You feel like you are part of a living, breathing world.  Many games you know the NPCs are standing around like dummies, waiting for you "the chosen one" to walk up and initiate a dialogue option.  In STALKER, NPCs move around the map; you may come across random battles between bandits and stalkers - they act independently of you.  

(+) There are no stats to "level up."  You can improve your gear, and your personal knowledge and aiming skill, but you'll never have a level 50 character effortlessly 1-shotting a level 2 mutant boar.  You need to actually be able to aim, FPS-style, instead of just tabbing or reaching for function keys.  If you can't aim down iron sights, you're screwed, no matter what uber weapons you own.  Gear makes a difference - getting my first night vision goggles and starlight scopes made me feel able to explore at night, rather than fleeing indoors the moment dusk began to fall.  When I traded my rusty AK-47 and PPH pistol for a silenced SVD and a SPAS shotgun, I felt more comfortable initiating fights.

Conclusion:  With its moody, creepily atmospheric maps, STALKER:Pripyat has a real survival feel.  Having player skill and knowledge instead of relying on your "level" gives a real feeling of achievement.  As "gearing up" is the only other way to improve, discovering a cache of ammo for that rare sniper rifle is an exciting find.   If you like it, the  original, STALKER:Shadow of Chernoybl is less polished but much more hardcore - you'll find yourself dying far more, and establishing food and ammo caches all over the map in a vain attempt to stay alive.  The main downside to this series - it's single player, and the graphics are not exactly cutting edge.

M&B has a bazillion mods - from LOTR to ACW, Napoleonic.  There are two official mods - for the viking era and the "Fire & Sword" Polish/Lithuanian era.   Again, the example video is horrible but ****ing Blogger must only allow you to link to paid Youtube sites.

This RPG is an acquired taste, but offers a unique gaming experience.  Most RPGs offer "freedom of choice" but you really end up with only 3 endings - the good, the bad, and the neutral ones.  So you are "free" but only really have 3 options.   Other open ended sandbox games (like Grand Theft Auto) which have no real objective, tends to results in players mindlessly blowing stuff up or grinding for weapons, without purpose.  In short, most game offer either the illusion of choice (whilst funnelling you into only 3 actual results) or meaningless choice (you have total freedom, but no meaningful impact on the game world). 

(+)  Mount & Blade is I think is unique in that it is a "meaningful sandbox."  Every decision you make alters the game.  You decide what your own "ending" will be - and you can change your mind as you go. There is a huge world map to explore, which you move in real-time as a "party" icon.  You can visit (and raid) castles and villages, encounter raiding war parties and bandits as well as peaceful (but lucrative) caravans.  Once you enter a location, you switch to over-the-shoulder cam and can organise your troops (up to 200) in a freewheeling fight - a bit like the way the Total War series works.  There half a dozen factions, each with more than a dozen noblemen - each with their own armies and agendas.  Some are cunning and treacherous, some are noble and honest.  Befriending some may along you against others.  Factions periodically declare war on each other, further muddying the waters.

Social skills actually matter. In most RPGs I eschew these - why stat up a boring "conversation" skill which is only rarely useful, when you can sneak in and steal what you want or simply kill them and loot it off their corpse?   In M&B, I carefully cultivate relationships, and care about how persuasive I am.  Have only a 20-man war band, but covet that castle?  Fine, if you're persuasive and popular you might talk three other barons each with 100 men to help you out in the fight.  And then you might come out on top when you divide up the spoils.  You might marry into the king's family - or get elected field marshall of a faction.  I once won a war for my faction by incarcerating every noble on the other side in my dungeons - leaving them leaderless.  

Found the pretender to the throne? Why not instigate a civil war? The new king should be grateful. Want to become king yourself? It'll take many battles and much manoeuvrings to get there - but then you'll need to stay there and keep everyone happy (or at least, the people who matter.)

(+) The combat is very good.  Mount and Blade's ability to direct sword thrusts and slashes with a flick of the mouse has ruined me for all other RPG combat.  The ability to feint, and direct your blows is originally awkward (i.e. you miss a lot, as you are used to being able to simply spam buttons rather than think about where you are hitting and timing your swings) but soon feels fluid and natural.  Mounted combat is also a staple (rather than being added as an afterthought); although feels a bit overpowered at times - horse archers are impossible to pin down and knight tend to flatten anything in their path. 

A word of warning:
Mount & Blade: Warband is very much a "diamond in the rough."  The graphics are....   ..."old school" is to put it kindly.  The game seems very empty.  Cut scenes are non-existent.  If you are used to the game leading you by the hand (Mass Effect-style) and you want to be told a story, you will hate it. In Mount & Blade, you have freedom to create your own story.  You have to decide what you want to be, and work towards it.  NPCs do not run up to you hailing you as the Chosen One and offering you quests.  There is no helpful arrow towards the next quest or waypoint.  There is no epic overarching story.  You start as a random warrior with a rusty sword (prey for every bandit group) and you work your way up to be whatever you want.  You can leave a mark on the open world, through your battles and relationships and land holdings - and your ending will actually be what you decide it will be.  

If you are tired of "vanilla" RPGs and MMOs, I think STALKER and M&B are well worth a look.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Starport Scum - Review

Starport Scum arrived in my inbox a few days ago and I have been fiddling with it off and on ever since.  An RPG-lite/narrative campaign wargame hybrid in the same vein as 2HW's 5150, it reaches for the "feel" of old school Rogue Trader and early RPGs whilst using newer mechanics.  A essentially simple ruleset, it is not aimed at the competitive crowd, but is well supported by a "build it yourself" toolkit and extensive tables for generating background and narrative.

It’s a PDF, so shiny factor is capped. Easy enough to read, but plain text pdf with little illustrations.  Art occurs as a random afterthought.  It’s easy to read as a regular Word document but it's evident you’re buying it for the content, not the polish.

It nails its colours to the mast early on in the rulebook: - you can’t complain as you know what you are getting: It’s a RPG lite or  wargame with RPG elements –  a game system with ways to create linked campaigns; generating backgrounds and stories to make battles interesting.  It’s about stories, and progressing with characters – not for competitive pick up games.

The fact a GM (while not required) is suggested gives you a broad hint as to the style of game, as does the fact it’s core rules are only 10 pages long, and the traits, gadgets, campaign rules and RPG-y stuff cover 70, of which about 30 are tables for randomly generating background and events. 

The intro gives ideas and advice for scales (6mm, 15mm, 28mm) and scenery.  While helpful, I’d perhaps relegate this to a modeling section at the end as it’s already 10 pages into an 80+ page book without the rules themselves in sight.   Honestly, most people buying indie wargames are familiar with the basics.
I'd like to play around a bit more with the hit percentages (5s and 6s hit, the amount of dice vary) and look at the lethality % as I'm not sure my limited playtime was representative. 
Disclaimer: As with most of my more recent reviews (in the "I have toddlers" era), this is me pushing minis around, tossing die and looking at rules with a critical eye, not an exhaustive series of test sessions.

There are regular goons (grunts) – usually in squads of 3-5; bruisers (better stats) aces  (have special rule or two as well as detailed background) and heroes (many special abilities, cinematically tougher).  There is no fixed coherency rules for squads but bonus movement encourages you to stick within 2” of each other in the traditional manner.

It's alternative activation, with players taking turns activating individuals or squads, but with a twist -  a player can hold (hand his turn over to another player) or “push” by trying to retain the initiative.  It’s an opposed roll, with modifiers for  leadership, casualties taken so far etc.  I used tokens to track activation and initiative.

An active mini may make one action (move, or fire, etc). Goons (and bruisers) may activate together as a squad if in coherency.  Heroes and aces act independently.  

Maximum movement is variable – 1D6” movement for isolated goons/bruisers; aces roll 2d6 and choose the highest; heroes roll 3d6 and choose the highest. 
However grunts in coherency get to roll 3d6 and  can move the middle amount, which gets rid of the rather “swingy” 1d6 – thus encouraging you to keep goons in fire teams.  Note you can move any distance up to the movement – i.e. your ace rolls a 2 and a 4 – thus he can move any distance up to 4” – he doesn’t have to move exactly 4”.   The variable movement shows the better combat awareness, morale and reactions of heroes, and perhaps grunts freezing up etc.  Pinned troops ignore/discard any 5s or 6s which I thought was a clever idea, and a 'swift' character might add +1 to any dice rolls.

There are rules for climbing, breaching, dragging pinned allies etc, but my favourite was the “run, you fools!’ rule enabling extra movement dice to be rolled and bonuses added to the best roll. This is effectively a renamed “sprint” action but it results in the character being pinned afterwards (i.e. exhausted, drained stamina) which offers an interesting decision point.

Characters roll 2d6 (+ extra dice for aces and heroes) ; squads also get 2d6 but can get a bonus for extra members (i.e. one goon fires, the rest support him – a bit like Infinity).  Hits are scored on 5s and 6s.  If more ‘1’s than hits are rolled, it’s a fumble and enemies get a free reaction shot in return (there is an optional fumble table for more cinematic possibilities).  A single hit pins the enemy, and 2+ hits do damage.

If the target has armour, at long range or is in cover etc it may roll various amounts of dice to “save” damage – each 5 or 6 negating a hit. 
If 2 or more hits remain, most characters go down, and heroes are wounded.
If 3 or more hits remain, heroes are downed and everyone else dies messily.  This gruesome death impacts activation and morale.

A character who is pinned removes 1 dice from action pools (such as firing) and also discards any 5s and 6s on movement dice.  Pins stack, but not on heroes.  Squads may elect to spray-and-pray - each hit is assigned to a different target, closest first – which means lots of pins on a bunch of foes rather than one guy copping it in the neck.  Individuals may "unload" with a similar suppressive effect.

I was a bit confused by the “hard to spot” rule – from a difficult-to-see character emerging from cover? – the firer needed a 3+ or 5+ to engage depending on whether it started its turn in the open or not.  Whilst I like the idea (troops running around a corner surprising enemies, etc) I wasn’t sure exactly how or when this would be implemented.  For those of us without a GM, clarity is important. There are familiar blast weapon rules (using a 2” AoE) with a table of cinematic fumbles on a 1 roll.

Melee combat works similar to shooting – the attacker rolls 2+ d6 scoring hits on 5s and 6s.  Again, if more 1’s than hits are rolled it is a fumble and the defender gets to strike back; other wise he is pushed back, pinned (1 hit) or damaged (2+ hits), and the defender can use armour to save hits.  The pushed back/pushed +pinned/downed reminds me of LOTR for some reason. 

There are rules for combat without minatures, but we’ll leave this to the RPG nerds.  I mean, we’re wargamers – playing with cool toys while making pew-pew noises is the whole point.

If anyone is downed (or dies gruesomely) your test morale; add up modifiers (such as casualties etc) to create a Fear score – if you roll equal or under it on 1d6, your morale drops from Okay to Rattled to Bottling Out (everyone legs it).

The weapons and gear section  did not have exhaustive lists like I expected; it is more a toolbox to allow you to stat out models by simply looking at their weapon.  Weapons are presumed to be “basic” (i.e. normal rifle/SMG firing semi auto or short bursts) with “tags” or special rules such as
“penetrating” – remove an armour save dice
“heavy” – cannot move and fire
“AoE” – have 2” blast radius
“weak” -1 dice if pool has 3 or more
These effects may have conditions attached to them.  E.g. “weak long range” might mean -1 dice at over 12”.
There isn’t a detailed weapon list (though there is one in the campaign section 40 pages later) – this is more a toolbox for designing your own and statting up random models by eyeballing them.

I’m not sure if I’m totally sold on this approach as it’s very much a special rules > stats thing.  It tries to be elegant and consistent  and perhaps it suits a game with a RPG vibe, but I personally find it vaguely irritating.   I can see why it is done this way – to provide a way to quickly turn a verbal description of the weapon of a random mini into rules: i.e. “I think this plasma rifle should not be able to move and fire – so I’ll call it HEAVY but I think it would have an AOE blast and it would ignore armour so let’s call it PIERCING as well. I think the damage would drop off quickly so let’s say it’s WEAK (-1 dice) at RANGE (beyond 12”).”

These are deployed instead of firing. Like weapons, they have a “what” and a “how” i.e. they may OBSCURE – the what -  and have SET UP (takes a turn to deploy) and DISTANCE (can be placed up to 12” away) – the how. You can see the intent is to provide a toolbox to translate a verbal description of something into in-game rules.  Drugs are interesting as not many games mention these and combat boosting drugs can act like a boost or “space magic” giving various effect. – they follow the same mechanics.

To generally do tasks, roll 2d6s  (more for heroes, etc) and if a 5 or 6 is rolled, you do the thing.  Complicated tasks might need 2 successes; dangerous ones might have penalties for failure.  There are also tables for resolving social situations and solving problems, undoing/unlocking things. It’s sensible as it covers most RPG stuff whilst being reasonably simple and straightforward. 

Traits are just special rules, that allow dice roll bonuses, or to automatically succeed or even attempt an unusual or difficult task. I.e. a sharpshooter might bet +1 to shooting when stationary; a hacker might be able to attempt to break into security when a normal character cannot.

Consistent with weapon and gadget traits, you have a “what”  (effect) and a “how” (when/how).  For example the effect (hacker) might have to be (static ) and within 12”range (12”) to function.  As usual, there are example of how to build your own traits rather than an exhaustive list. (Though there is a sample list of ~40 traits later in the rules)

There are a dozen or so example alien races which fit most sci fi tropes. 
There are tables (I predicted this) for random group composition, as well as three (!) for establishing backgrounds as well as starting gear and assigning traits.  There’s a sample list of 40 traits which you may prefer to default to if you don’t want to create your own. 

As usual there are random generation tables for establishing the narrative, tables for determining your next adventure, tables for injuries, rules for leveling up (basically, if you take out a superior opponent you gain a level i.e. a goon that takes out an ace becomes a bruiser) or gains a trait.  There are tables for recruiting, for world events to create a “backdrop”, a table for randomizing battles, and even a table for adding complications to battles.

There are 8 or so missions, each of which come with (naturally) their own table. 
Missions have various “HEAT” levels which is the size of the enemy force relevant to the player group.  High heat will bring more numerous and more powerful opponents – low heat means you will outnumber and outclass your opposition.   There are tables to detail your opponents, and establish any special weapons.  There are tables for the loot your gain, and any bounties on opponents.  There are rules (and tables, naturally) for barter and exotic items.

There’s a list of common weapons and gadgets which is handy and probably should have gone near the design-your-own section. There is also a list of random NPC monsters which probably belongs back in the “alien races” section? – these scary beasts may be part of the mission or act as their own side (no rules for random movement though?)  There’s a table for casual encounters (and one for space variants) and people you might meet, as well as a quest system for linking encounters.

We like tables – do you like tables, too?  At this point, the table mania becomes evident: there is a section merely comprising of useful tables for “fleshing out” the game world – they cover corporations, political groups, factions, patrons, worlds, space stations, colonies, local and sector problems, conspiracies, paranormal powers, and even local news headlines. 

My Random Thoughts
I know intent was to make a toolbox, and show “how” rather than tell “use this”  but I suspect many would prefer better lists of weapons and gear. I think it would help to shift the design-your-own section to later in book – keeping  core rules as “how” to play only, not how to build the weapon/gadget.  Overall, I wasn’t sold on the layout –  some things are not where I feel they belong – the reading experience was a bit random and RPG-y  - so you have to hunt around a bit. It’s only 80 pages but lack of art makes it quite dense.  Given it’s “toolbox” nature, there’s quite a bit of pre-game prep – like Battlefield:MMW, it took a while to get playing.

I’m not saying you can’t use it for space fantasy blob monsters, (I don’t dismiss it as “Vietnam in Space”) but I felt there is a definite leaning towards human 15mm sci fi of the harder Traveller/Firefly variety.   It harks back to the Laserburn and Rogue Trader era and while using different mechanics has a similar “vibe.” 

Coincidentally, the alternative activation-with-chance-to-retain-initiative and the only-one-action-per-turn mechanics mirror some game design articles I've recently done on the subject.

For me, it is a direct competitor to the Two Hour Wargames 5150 series; without the solo-friendly  2HW reaction mechanics but a heck of a lot more accessible in general and far easier to understand and use.    

Wow, that was a wall of text.  To summarise some key thoughts:

+ Lots of tables to describe everything from local headlines and politics to the specific weapons on a given NPC
+ Dig up and stat out your old random minis
+ Has old-school RPG feel to it
+ Focus on narrative – fits the 2HW genre while being easier to play
+ Actual rules are easy and simple to remember; ideal for this genre; rules themselves quite solid
+ I particularly liked the activation, gruesome deaths, coherency, and “flee you fools” rules

-/+ Toolbox > Lists (shows how you might, rather than tells how you must) may may appeal to some, but turn off others
-/+ Emphasis on descriptive special rules may/may not be your cup of tea
-/+ Very loose; it could be a oral RPG as much as a wargame

- Layout and art a bit sub-optimal; it’s a bit disorganised
- Though not at all necessary, you’ll probably need a GM to get the best out of it; not all situations were clear
- Fairly unstructured - if you’re not creative, you may not enjoy it; it’s not ideal for “pick up and play” and does not even attempt balance or a points system

You’ll like it: If you enjoy narrative to make games meaningful, are a bit of a RPGer, and found the 2HW games a bit incomprehensible. If you’d like to dig out old minis, and like the idea of a rules set being a toolbox for making adventures rather than a way to compete with randoms you meet at the club.  If you are a scenario guy rather than a metagame-the-points-system guy.

You’ll hate it: If you want a balanced pick up game to play with friends, with tight, competitive rules, where every possibility and situation is catered to in the rules.  If you don’t like traits, special rules, or fussing about before or after the game. If you prefer rules to have neat, prescriptive lists rather than Pirate Code "guidelines".

Recommended:  Yes.  I think Starport Scum has a definite “flavor” which will appeal to some and not others; but it is quite clear  from the start about what it is trying to be – a RPG-wargame hybrid for creating narratives rather than a competitive points-based pickup rules set.  It compares favourably with its closest competitor (5150) as it is much more accessible. 

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Vampire: The Masquerade V20 - A Wargamer's View

I've already discussed how the World of Darkness seems ripe for skirmish wargaming, and I thought I'd have a specific look at Vampire the Masquerade as it's currently $5 for the 20th anniversary edition at Wargame Vault.    Note - I'm a wargamer with 0 interest and experience in pen-and-paper RPGs. So if you are looking for a review on how good an RPG it is, I recommend you go elsewhere.  I'm merely interested in how it can be adapted to/used as wargaming inspiration.

The Shiny
It's a pdf so there's a limit on how nice it is.  The art is mostly good, albeit inconsistent (though it veers between stylish and childish), though the white background is a bit glare-y on a laptop screen. It's 530 pages - so printing it out will fell a small sized forest.  The index at the end is pretty thorough and consistently got me what I was looking for.

Why Vampires?
Whilst vampire minis are usually fantasy-centric (there's surprisingly few dedicated "modern" vampire minis) it is simple enough to convert normal human minis to vampires merely with a careful paintjob or maybe a head swap (I am eyeing some of my Mantic ghoul spare heads). 

In V:tM there is a reason for combat (sects, covens or clans battling each other over centuries, even millennia) and it occurs at skirmish wargaming scale as it is covert in nature (vampires hiding their existence from humans).  So lots of covert-ops skirmish material.  There are fleshed out backgrounds for the 13 different clans, from the Followers of Set (who protect secret places and hunt hidden knowledge) to bestial Gangrel, to the Giovanni (who control banking).  Vampires are territorial about their domains.  Thus there are plenty of motive and background for battles.

The vampires range from fledglings not much stronger or more capable than humans, to vampire elders with immense and terrifying powers.   There is crossover potential with other WoD staples - werewolves (which in combat tend to outclass younger vampires handily) and human mages (who are fragile mortals but wield potent magic).


The vampires from Underworld and Blade owe a lot to the World of Darkness.
Character Creation
The more relevant physical stats (strength-dexterity-stamina-health) would work fine for wargames, although social skills (charisma, appearance, manipulation) and mental skills (perception, intelligence, wits) would certainly be culled or amalgamated for a wargame.  Injury stages (hurt/injured/wounded/mauled/crippled) with negative modifiers make sense, as a vampire would be a multi-wound model in most wargames.  Both willpower and a "blood pool" provides resource management systems.
There are ~30 core special rules (talents, skills and knowledge). Vampires can start out at different power levels which fits with Necromunda-style campaign games (juves, gangers, leaders).

This is vampire "magic" - the special powers that make them unique.  New vampires may have three or so powers.  Some disciplines are innate, some require willpower or blood.  These include:
*Animism (controlling animals)
*Auspex (out of body/perception/psychic assault/predictive reactions)
*Celerity (speed/reflexes/wall run)
*Chimersty (illusions)
*Demenation (fear/madness)
*Dominate (paralyse/possess/control others)
*Fortitude (toughness)
*Necromancy (control undead - quite a list of powers, many require rituals to cast)
*Potence (strength, super jump)
*Presence (awe, fear, paralysing gaze)
*Protean (night vision, claws, mist form, shapeshifting)
*Quietus (poison blood, explode target's brain, etc)
*Serpentis (snake powers)
*Visscitude (blood, bat form)

This is blood magic or vampire sorcery.  Powers include:
Boiling victim's blood, animate objects or plants, summon elementals, decay/distintegrate, telekinesis, weather control, boosting combat and even projecting consciousness over the net. There are rituals which take longer to prepare or require specific resources but are longer lasting or more powerful, such as warding circles etc.  Whilst vampire sorcerers are fine, to be honest, I thought a lot of these seemed un-vampire-y (I mean, a vampire using water magic?  undead = masters of water? Really?)  You could probably skip this as there are more than enough powers and paranormal abilities in the disciplines section.

Mechanics, Actions and Combat
I'm not going to discuss the game mechanics in depth as they have little wargaming application.  In a nutshell: you generally roll a pool of d10 (the amount of dice varies according to skill) against a target number between 3 and 9 - which varies according to difficulty - a 6 is standard difficulty, a easy or trivial task might be a 3 or 4, and very tricky tasks might be a 8 or 9.  Only one success is needed to pass, but 3 or more successes are a complete success.  Any roll of '0' is an auto success, and any '1' cancels out a success. Whilst you could wargame with them, it would take significant effort and dice chugging.  However, they could be easily adapted to something like Savage Worlds which is very wargame-friendly.  You could adapt V:tM into most generic skirmish games by simply modifying stats or adding in a few distinctive special rules. 

While a key tenet of roleplaying (retaining humanity, struggling against the beast within), the degeneration of morality is of limited use to a wargamer.  The "paths" and ethics a vampire can follow are of interest from a background point of view I suppose but I kinda skipped through this to be honest.

The Others
This gives a background on peripheral groups - witch hunters, the Inquisition, the CIA/NSA, paranormal researchers, crime bosses, cultists and magi of various types, the fae, ghosts, demons (Fallen) well as their traditional werewolf enemies, and a modest bestiary of conventional creatures. 

There are also additonal vampire bloodlines - expansions on the 13 clans - which I presume are gathered from various sourcebooks for the 20th anniversary edition.  Some come with their own disciplines and magics. 

....400 or so pages in, "RPG fatigue" has set in. Every time I think wargames rules are chaotic, bloated and disorganised...   ...I come across a RPG book.  I swear, RPG writers are 99% vivid imagination and 1% practicality and common sense.  Probably because RPGs are the opposite of competitive, and "making it up as you go along" is encouraged, RPG books tend to be chaotic experiences. Protracted reading of RPGs and supplements always gives me a slight tic....

These are humans fed vampire blood, who gain some portion of supernatural power.  They usually are about twice as strong as normal humans, and usually possess low level powers in one vampire discipline possessed by their donor.  In a wargame, these would work well as secondary characters. Like vampires, they can heal and regenerate (using a small blood pool.)   Whilst ghouls tend to be attached to particular vampires, some are independent and others belong to revenant families (in which ghouldom is hereditary). 

The World of Darkness vampires have pretty much set the benchmark for the modern vampires of Blade and Underworld (the latter bearing so many similarities it was sued by White Wolf).
Accordingly, V:tM is a very handy source of vampire background and material. 

Whilst not suited to wargaming with "off the shelf", the list of spells and powers is useful - the 'disciplines' list could be easily adapted to generic Savage Worlds spells, for example. The background gives good inspiration for battles and the small-scale covert-ops battles between rival covens, werewolves, mages, government forces and secret societies seems tailor made for skirmish war gaming.  All in all, V:tM is a very useful vampire "sourcebook" to direct and inspire paranormal wargames.

Recommended: For $5, absolutely.  I've pdfs of Werewolf:The Forsaken, Vampire: The Requiem and Mage: The Awakening.  Of the three, the Vampire books seem to lend themselves most easily to wargaming purposes (the magic system in Mage was a bit too open ended - and you might as well just use any existing wargaming magic system; the Werewolves book was a bit too mystical  - more like shamanistic ghostbusters than actual, you know, werewolves. Vampire is a bit more "tight" - if it's possible to apply that term to a RPG - and has inbuilt reasons to fight battles)

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Game Design #70: Wielding the Axe - or why "great ideas" are not always best for your game

I was flicking though the Delta Vector google group, looking at excellent advice (given to me, and others)....               ....that wasn't taken.
Taking Advice... or not
Isn't there a saying "we ask for criticism when we seek praise?"  When others give that criticism we ask for, are we really listening?   I've been looking through the Delta Vector google group as I do my bi-annual update of my homebrew rules, and re-reading advice others have posted up.  I've deliberately been trying to incorporate others advice in my latest iteration of my own rules, with certain provisos...

....Keep the Goal in Sight
Think very carefully when you implement things in your game that go against your mission statement.  When you have to change your mission statement to accomodate your game as it stands, alarm bells should be ringing.

What's a mission statement? It encapsulates your design philosophy, or basically "what you are trying to achieve with the game."  Writing down your aims before you start writing your rules is a good way to keep on track.  You can hold up any rules or mechanics and ask yourself "does this help achieve my design philosophy?"

If the mechanics no longer fit your design philosophy - you may need to quietly shelve the mechanic or accept you are making a completely new game.   For example, my homebrew "Middleheim" rules started as a large platoon+ skirmish game aimed at 20-50 per side; kinda LOTR:SBG territory.  I intended to use Warmachine dice rolls and Bolt Action activation (not because they were good mechanics to copy, actually it was a bet I made with myself - there's a post about it somewhere).  

After fairly energetic playtesting over a mere week it morphed into a very small scale (5-10 man) skirmish game with strong Infinity and SoBH overtones.   The game I ended up with was not the game I intended to make.  It was a completely different animal.   Once I realised I was drifting in this direction, I drew up new rules for my "big 30-a-side skirmish" game and accepted that "Middleheim" was very much in the RPG-lite Mordheim territory - a different game altogether than my original game design.

If your mechanics don't meet your original design intent - shelve them - or re-draw your mission goals and accept you are making a completely different game.

It's not a bad thing to change your design goals.  I enjoy tinkering with my Middleheim skirmish rules, which are not "improved LOTR" but have radically changed in scale and outlook to fill a Mordheim-sized hole. But you do need to consider carefully the implications when you do.

Who is your audience? What advice is good advice?
Not all advice is good.  Too often people want you to make they game they are too lazy to make - or simply remake their favourite game.  You have to examine the advice - "does this advice help me meet my original design goal?"   If the advice is to put complex Infinity-esque special rules and reactions into your company level game - ask yourself - does this help achieve my design goal? Does this idea suit my genre/the tactics I am aiming to engender?  Sometimes, what others want is wishful thinking or they are riding a particular pet interest or "hobby horse" - they may be trying to push their "clever idea" into your rules - or they can simply be adding to the very "bloat" you want to prevent.
An example that comes to mind is my concept for a tank game; note in the comments how the complexity spirals as everyone puts in what they think is vital to a tank game; you can see even at this stage I am trying to "trim it back."

When given advice, check it against your original design goals.

Your Awesome Idea.... is in the wrong place?
I think there's another saying that goes something like "if you have written something especially clever, witty and ingenious, it should almost certainly should be deleted."  This was referring to writing stories, but applies in a way to wargames.

Do you have an especially clever mechanic, be it for activation, movement, morale etc?  Is there something you think is so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel?  Have you done something no one has ever done before, or in an especially unique and elegant way?  A particular mechanic you have "grafted onto" the system or borrowed from another game is often an indicator. 

Okay, now look at your "cunning idea" more suspiciously.  Would it really wreck your game if you removed it and replaced it with something simpler or more "vanilla?"  Would the game work without it? Can you still achieve your overall Design Goals? I remember seeing something on a PC designer forum, where they dev said "an idea isn't good if you think it is good/useful - it's good if you can prove it is good."  If you can do without it, it's not that good. 

I'm not saying delete all your best ideas and mechanics, but give them critical, objective consideration - and maybe quietly pull them out of your game system and put them to one side for a later game, better suited to their awesomeness. 

Your awesome idea may well be awesome, but it may not belong in the game you are designing.  

Rules Bloat - Wielding the Knife
It's hard to resist the urge to put in every cool mechanic and idea you can think of into your rules.
It's much easier to make a simple system more complex, than to simplify a complex system.
We talk about "elegant" rules but often we are talking about simple solutions to complicated problems. 

It's tough to edit and cut down rules. It's difficult to trim the fat. It's better not to put on the fat in the first place.    As you write, ask yourself "do I really need this rule?"  "is there a simpler way to do this?"  "does it really add so much to the game so to be worth the tradeoff*?"

(*The Tradeoff: I tend to view game design as a tradeoff between "decision points" vs "complexity/resolution".  Basically, a game should give you lots of difficult decisions, whilst being fast to play, logical, consistent and easy to remember with little recording and consulting of rulebooks.

Does the mechanic add enough depth and decisions as to be worth the effort in remembering and implementing it?

An example: in a google group post, my separated-from-birth twin Paul of the Man Cave suggested the detection mechanics in my game of superfast submarine fighters were too complex - could they be reduced from two steps to a single roll?  I was resistant to this - the game's focus revolved around detection and stealth vs superfast noisy dogfights.  The stealth bits were very important to the game. But then I re-examined my stance: did I really need two detection levels?  Would a simplification conflict with my overall game philosophy?  Would it dumb down the game too much?  Actually, no. The extra stage was just something I thought should be there.

Another example: I've always felt LOTR:SBG was very "clean" consistent set of rules, compared to say 40K and especially Warhammer Fantasy of the same era, which at the time LOTR was published had accrued a lot of "bloat" through a miscellany of ideas/concepts over their multiple editions - and LOTR remained quite resilient to bloat over the years - early 2001 to late 2012 LOTR (excluding the Hobbit) were pretty consistent with each other.  (Note 40K fans, I'm using this as a familiar example. I know 6th/7th is awesome etc etc)

Re-using mechanics
I really like the Song of Blades risk-v-reward activation.   
Basically you roll between 1 and 3 dice. Each dice that passes a target (which depends on the unit/soldier's training or Quality) gives you an action (to move, shoot etc).  If you fail twice, your turn is over.   Obviously, if you "play it safe" and roll one dice, you cannot lose your turn.  Whereas rolling 3 is much riskier, but gives the chance of more actions.  

I've borrowed the concept (in d10 format, as I found d6 too limited) for my own skirmish rules.  Now, Ganesha Games has used this mechanic (and it's two-stat system) for about ~30 rules, ranging from robots, horror, napoloenics, kung fu, to ancient naval battles with galleys.  I wonder if anyone has ever wondered if the activation system which worked well for 5-10 man fantasy skirmish just may not be the ideal system for ancient naval battles, or company level ACW*?
(*I can't get on my high horse here - I even found myself using it for a homebrew starfighter game....)

Your awesome idea is not perfect for all games, all genres and all situations. 

It's seductive though.  It's familiar too you, it worked well in the past, it's less work, it likely has a receptive audience - no wonder sequels are popular in Hollywood. 

The Benefits of Distance
This distance applies in two ways, both emotional/mental distance, and through time.

Your are not your own best proofreader. (As anyone who has edited Year 3 story writing classes can attest) Often your mind "fills in" the blanks, completing thoughts and concepts your rules explain poorly.   This is why playtesters and proofreaders are good.  However, your spouse, cousin, or mate from the game club are not your best critics.  Firstly, they may be familiar with your game. They may have been "along for the ride" and also posses the knowledge of where your game is going.  I sometimes think this is where some commercial rules fall down as well.  They have an "in house" group of testers who are familiar with the design goals, and have been involved from early in the process.  They too can "fill in" gaps in your rules, as they instinctively grasp your "intent." The second is friends, mates and family are unlikely to be as critical as they could.  They want you to succeed, they want to encourage you.  They are likely less willing to tell you your mechanics are long winded, obtuse, or simply crap.  If the rule is awesome to you and your mates/family/fellow developers, but seems pointless or confusing to outsiders...   ....that's not a good sign.

The second "distance" is time.  I tend to be a lazy rules writer, and I usually "update" rules during school holidays - usually 6-8 months apart from the last time I went through the rules.  This is handy as it creates a bit of "distance" from the rules.  I re-read it and go "I wrote that rubbish?! What a terrible idea! Man, that is so clunky! Wow, I really deviated from my original plan last holidays..."

I'm not advocating you work this erratically, but maybe setting aside your rules for a few weeks and coming back with "fresh eyes" may be beneficial.  

Get "distance" from your rules; be it emotional distance by sending it to those with no connection to your rules; or time distance by giving yourself a break and coming back.