Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Return to Castle Frobozz, Part II

The second part of the story actually misses an interlude (unfortunately lost to time), wherein the first band (including Pavel and Winfred) find a dastardly machine room, battle some hooting blue-painted cavemen (one of whom is beguiled by a charming spell), lose a hireling and promptly disappear down a chute. These two continue to have adventures in the Netherdeep, meeting a disgustingly hirsute Ogre bandit-sultan who makes his living by raiding the caravans that ply the underground highways, learning more about Princess Velouria's descent into the deeps, and delving deeper into the earth to discover a mining outpost run by the Evil Men of Kau'kawthar (along with their demon-worshipping, werespider Drow allies). Meanwhile, the remaining party (and the hirelings of the aforementioned duo) are left in the dungeon proper, where they murder another player character (after a week of his inactivity) and discover the entrance to a muck-filled Troglodyte burrow...

See also Part I.

After bravely tiptoeing past a sleeping dragon and losing track of original party leaders, the troupe of dungeon delvers blunders forth into further and greater peril veiled within the Glittering Cavern...

Your eyes adjust to the grandeur of this cavern, set with a canopy of shadowy stalactites, glittering minerals and faintly luminescent lichens and moss. This gallery extends far to the west, and features several distinct zones. To the Southwest, natural stairs climb up the cave wall to a cliff overlooking the chamber. To the West, the terrain descends into a dell of bulbous, mammoth mushrooms. To the Northwest stands a plateau of splendent, shimmering pools amidst a thick forest of stalagmites.


There is a BARREL here.

TOECUTTER immediately trots over and inspects the barrel, oblivious to the natural wonders around him.

Prying open the lid reveals around 20 gallons of dried apples, halved.

SCUNTHORPE reaches in the barrel and grabs a couple halves of apple. After tossing one to ZUGG, he bites into his half. "Those mushrooms don't look very inviting, but if we have any chance of meeting up with the others, we must venture down. But a view of what's to come would be helpfull" At that, SCUNTHORPE begins towards the stairs SW, tossing the half eaten apple aside.

TOECUTTER looks mildly dissapointed for a second; he then fills a small sack full of dried apples and begins to follow SCUNTHORPE down the stairs.

Buried halfway down the barrel of apples is a gnarly twig, singed at one point with a leather wrapped handle on the other.

TOECUTTER pockets the backscratcher before leaving.

• TOECUTTER gains 100 xp! [Haha, this amuses me]

From this vantage point, much of the southern Glittering Cavern opens up before you to the shadowy illumination of your torch. Below you, a veritable forest of towering mushrooms wobble intermittently to the north. To the west of this vale, a shimmering, cerulean light can be seen. To the northeast, stairs descend down into the Eastern Glittering Cavern. The narrow ledge where you stand is slick from the condensation of this damp chamber, making footing treacherous. The wall is marked with deep gouges and cuts. At the very end of the tapering ridge lies a small opening in the cave wall.

The exits are IN or NORTHEAST.

There is a SHANE here.

Jealously eyeing the stick TOECUTTER just picked up, SCUNTHORPE comments "Good find, me thinks that's a wand." And at studying the wall says "These gouges speak of grand fight that took place here. I would guess horrible creatures from below were literally clawing their way through this passage. If true, there's likely something of value through there, and something nasty waiting below. But I still feel the best way to find the others is to continue down. What say you, party?"

Snapping out of his hypnotic stupor, SWALKHI replies, "I says I don't like the notion of mucking about under a mushroom forest -- I say we follow that shimmer to the west."

Before moving on from the Narrow Precipice, SCUNTHORPE pauses for a moment to study the other members of his party. "DONIVAN. SHANE. What say YOU? You have been following blindly and dumbly since you joined this quest." At that, with a quickness no one would have expected from the spell-caster, he spins around to the back of SHANE and draws his dagger to the mercenary's throat. "I suspect you to be a construct of evil. Give me any indication that I am wrong and you will have my apologies, otherwise you will have the taste of my blade in the back of your throat."

[What follows next is a pause both awkward and long (a full week out of game).]

"Just as I thought, I release your cursed spirit." The words were still rolling off SCUNTHORPE's tongue as his dagger slid through SHANE's throat. As the body falls limp to the ground, SCUNTHORPE shouts "DONIVAN!" as he turns and forces his body against the cave wall. SCUNTHORPE holds the point of his blade firm against his chest. "Will anyone speak up and prevent me from releasing this one as well?"

TOECUTTER enthusiastically munches on a couple of apple halves as this all goes on. "Not to interrupt a good murder spree or anyfing, guv," he says mid bite, "but is 'at really nessesary?"

SCUNTHORPE pulls back from DONIVAN at TOECUTTER's words, and sheaths his dagger. "Oh my, I believe these caverns are starting to play with my head." He looks down at SHANE, "Don't think he'll be forgiving me, but perhaps we should leave this incident behind us. ZOTT, AUGUST, EVANDER, you're not too outraged by my actions to continue on this quest, are you?"

"Oi boss," says ZOTT, "AUGUST is dead, right?" EVANDER and ZOTT eye SCUNTHORPE nervously...

Looking rather embarrassed, SCUNTHORPE allows "Of course. These caverns are most certainly affecting me detrimentally."

"Right... s'pose SHANE won't miss this now..." TOECUTTER removes SHANE's Plate Armor and dons it, careful to wipe up the blood. He also takes SHANE's rations and coins. He drops his own Leather.

SCUNTHORPE peers into the opening in the wall. "For my own sanity, it is time I moved on." At that, he goes IN.

TOECUTTER follows SCUNTHORPE (for lack of anything better to do. Also, I think SCUNTHORPE has the light).

Spears hoisting thick proto-human skulls stake the entrance to this natural cavern. Deep scratches in the wall trickle with water from above, gleaming in the torchlight. Against the western wall looms a large, hideous idol: a squat, toad-like creature with its left eye shut and a gaping grin lined with serrated teeth. The open right eye is a gaping socket, damaged and cut around the lid. The false god holds out its left hand, upon which someone has placed a golden rock. The cave continues deeper to the SOUTHWEST.

The exits are OUT or SOUTHWEST.

There is a SCUNTHORPE, a DONIVAN, a SWALKHI and a TOECUTTER here. There is an IDOL here.

SCUNTHORPE cautiously approaches the idol for a better look, making sure to watch his step. He tries to look into the statue's mouth, and also at the golden rock.

There is a shallow space within the toothy maw, perhaps large enough to fit a single hand... The hole apparently continues deeper, down the IDOL's throat. The golden rock has apparently been placed here recently, judging by the lack of slime and cave lichen on the stone. It looks to be the texture and shape of a piece of shale, perhaps a pound in weight, only it has been somehow transfigured into gold.

SCUNTHORPE steps to the side of the statue, well out of way of it's mouth. He pulls a gold coin of his own out, and quickly as possible attempts to snatch the rock away, replacing it with the coin.

SCUNTHORPE gains GOLDEN ROCK. Somewhere in the distance, a giant boulder is released and nearly crushes a man in a hat.

SCUNTHORPE, after seeing nothing happened, pockets the GOLDEN ROCK along with his gold coin. He searches the ground for rock, and once found places it in the idol's hand.

The IDOL continues to give its listless, meaningless stare at the interlopers. The rock remains... rocky.

SCUNTHORPE picks up the rock, and places it into the idol's mouth. He also tried to place the Golden Rock in the empty eye socket.

Other than the continued humiliation of this blasphemous icon, nothing outré appears to happen.

Mildly disturbed by the looming shadows and statue of what might be an eldritch god from beyond space and time, TOECUTTER lights up his own torch. He then investigates the scratches in the walls, trying to determine if they are natural or... something else.

From his years in the Greyhawk sewers, TOECUTTER instantly recognizes these to be claw marks. Maybe a territorial sign, or a count of some gruesome deed?

SCUNTHORPE shrugs his shoulders, giving up on the frustrating IDOL. He continues on down the cave to the SOUTHWEST.

TOECUTTER readies his club for a fight; he then follows the (probably mad) mage into the darkness.

A stinking green haze curls about the floor of this room, barely concealing the muck-filled depressions and clusters of variously shaped and sized eggs. Every surface of this choking cavern is covered in an acidic filmy substance which burns the skin but doesn't seem to impede the vibrantly coloured colonies of algea that cling tenaciously to every crevice. Tip-toeing around the narrow spans between craters leads to the centerpiece of the room, a single massive egg that bobs lazily in a hole filled with slimy water. To the East, a low opening leads into darkness. To the South is a winding tunnel. The passage to the Northeast leads back to the Idol.

The exits are NORTHEAST, EAST and SOUTH.

There is a SCUNTHORPE, a DONIVAN, a SWALKHI and a TOECUTTER here. There is a GIANT EGG here.

Suddenly, two shapes on the ceiling start to form. Dropping down before you reveals two gruesome Troglodytes! The foul creatures charge at you, surprising you with their assault!

Surprise is 1d6: 1, Initiative is 1d6: 1

Round 1!
The party is surprised, and will go last (for the rest of the battle)!
• An odious Troglodyte slashes at SWALKHI (2d6-2: 4) with its claws, slashing him for (1d6-1: 0) damage! [No damage, but the scrape may become infected if a barber-surgeon doesn't tend to it soon.]
• A toothy Troglodyte snaps at DONIVAN (2d6-2: 8) with its maw, but gnaws futily at his leather jerkin!

The PC's may now act...

SCUNTHORPE lets out an audible shriek at the appearance, and appears stunned for a moment. Fortunately for him, his retainers are quick to act.
ZUGG throws a dart at the odious Troglodyte (2d6-1: 9), which slides off the creature's slimy scales!
ZOTT slashes at the toothy Troglodyte (2d6-1: 7), but is repelled by the creatures foul stench!
EVANDER backs up his friend and attacks the toothy one (2d6-1: 7), but jabs ineffectively at the creature's spongy carapace!
---i don't know what weapons they carry, could you please put in the rolls for me? [They are spearmen, if I recall.]

TOECUTTER shoves past the mage and bashes the odious Trog [2d6: 8], but the attack bounces of the creatures lumpy hide!

Round 2!
• An odious Troglodyte turns on ZOTT, slashing at him (2d6-2: 8) with its claws, but is parried by the able spearmen.
• A toothy Troglodyte charges at ZUGG, snapping at him (2d6-2: 3) and sinking its fangs into the Neanderthal for (1d6-1: 5) damage! ZUGG goes down!

The PC's may now act...

Annoyed, TOECUTTER strikes the odious trog again [2d6: 9], grazing the Troglodytes bulbous shoulder ineffectually.

SCUNTHORPE tells his men to "Hold Fast!" ZOTT obeys and strikes at the toothy Troglodyte (2d6-1: 9), as does EVANDER (2d6-1: 9), but are repulsed by the monster's stench!

Round 3!
• An odious Troglodyte claws at ZOTT (2d6-2: 5), connecting with his neck for (1d6-1: 1) damage! Blood sprays out of the poor hireling's neck as he hits the ground unconscious!
• A toothy Troglodyte advances on EVANDER, flailing with its razor sharp talons (2d6-2: 2) and howling madly. The young spearmen is caught across the chest for (1d6-1: 4) damage, and falls to the ground unconscious!

The PC's may now act...

SCUNTHORPE firmly grips his staff with both hands, and swings it at the toothy Troglodyte (2d6: 10), who easily avoids it. He calls out to TOECUTTER, "The wand! Use the wand!"

"The wot?" (Yep, the mage is bonkers!) TOECUTTER swings yet again at the odious trog [2d6: 7], but is driven back by the creature's fetor! [Time for a plan B, I think!]

Round 4!
• An odious Troglodyte turns on DONIVAN (2d6-2: 0), sinking his fangs into the little halfling's backpack for (1d6-1: 0) damage! [The Troglodyte looks surprised to not have delicious halfling flesh in his gullet, as the contents of DONIVAN's pack start to spill out over the floor.]
• A toothy Troglodyte claws at SWALKHI (2d6-2: 8), but is parried by the able dwarf!
• An iron spike falls out of DONIVAN's backpack onto the floor!

The PC's may now act...

"The gnarled stick you found in the barrel of apples. Me thinks it's a magic item," SCUNTHORPE replies as he swings wildly with his staff (2d6: 10), easily missing the toothy Troglodyte.

"Yer daft - 'at's a backscratcher if I ever saw one!" TOECUTTER clubs the odious trog [2d6: 4] for [1d6: 3] damage, and maneuvers to fall back next round! The creature is momentarily dazed by the blow, but comes to and continues its attack.

Round 5!
• An odious Troglodyte turns instead against TOECUTTER (2d6-2: 6), raking its claws across his armour.
• A toothy Troglodyte continues his assault on SWALKHI (2d6-2: 4), grabbing his shoulders and chomping into his head for (1d6-1: 1) damage!

The PC's may now act...

"Ugh. Dwarves!" SCUNTHORPE explains in exasperation as he looks over his fallen retinue and strikes out at the toothy Troglodye with his staff (2d6: 7), but swings wide!

"RIGHT! Get off tha li'l one, ya git!" TOECUTTER tries to distract toothy troglodyte with a blow to the melon [2d6: 3] for [1d6: 5] damage, buying time for SWALKHI to get out of the way! TOECUTTER's cudgel bashes the slimy lizard's noggin in, causing its rubbery hide to collapse to the cave floor with a wobble! (BAM!!! -J) [Bam indeed!]

Round 5!
An odious Troglodyte looks in shock at its fallen submissive (2d6: 5) and howls in primal rage at TOECUTTER!

• An odious Troglodyte claws at TOECUTTER (2d6-2: 3), but is desperately held at bay by TOECUTTER's shield!

The PC's may now act...

TOECUTTER grins ferally and counterattacks [2d6: 7], but his swing is batted aside by the furious Trog. [Should I wait a little more for Scunthorpe?]

SCUNTHORPE jabs at the remaining Troglodyte ineffectively with his staff (2d6: 9).

Round 6!
• An odious Troglodyte continues to claw futily at TOECUTTER (2d6-2: 5) from behind his shield.

The PC's may now act...

"Offa my kit!!!" TOECUTTER bashes the trog with his shield edge [2d6: 5] for [1d6: 4] damage! The odious Troglodyte takes the shield-bash in its maw, stumbling back with fewer teeth before collapsing to the ground unconscious.

SCUNTHORPE flails at the Troglodyte with his staff (2d6: 11), but swings wide as the creature staggers back and falls.

The enemy has been defeated! The PC's may now bind other characters' wounds (restoring d6-1 hits, once per injured person), explore the room further or otherwise act.
• TOECUTTER gains 400 xp!

SCUNTHORPE , although unharmed from the battle, looks quite dejected at the cost of it. He kneels by each of his fallen retinue one by one, to bind their wounds. First ZUGG for 1d6: 4, then ZOTT for 1d6: 3, and finally EVANDER, healing him for 1d6: 2. (oops, forgot about the -1. it is corrected on their character sheets)

SCUNTHORPE then turns his attention to the fallen foes, searching them over thoroughly.

The Troglodytes have nothing but slime and offal on them. The brained Troglodyte is quite dead, but the odious Troglodyte is still breathing.

TOECUTTER pokes his head (and torch) into the opening to the east, hoping for a better view.

The light from the torch reflects off a thick fog in the eastern chamber. The party will have to effect ingress to establish a more accurate survey.

"Hey, fellow," SCUNTHORPE says to TOECUTTER, "if your aim is not to use that back-scratcher, as you call it, perhaps you would care to sell it. Name your price."

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Labyrinth Lord Character Sheet

A quick update, I have created a completely derivative Labyrinth Lord character record sheet, which can be found here. Many thanks to Mike from Fear No Darkness for the original design (which merges the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Colouring Album with the original Basic D&D character sheet). My sole contribution to this excellent sheet is to replace the low-resolution images with vectors (years in the printing industry has made me a pixel snob), as well as to remove some extra information on the reverse of the sheet and to add another doodle from the colouring book. I've slapped the Labyrinth Lord moniker on top of the first page in preparation for an upcoming campaign, but this could be easily modified if you are playing the original game.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Weighing Wealth, Weighing Words

At my table, I have preferred a simple encumbrance system based on the ancient stone weight measurement, where one stone is equivalent to 14lbs. Recently I noticed that the Adventurer Conqueror King System also prefers measuring by stone (albeit at a slightly different conversion—the historical stone changed in value over time), which inspired me to flesh out my encumbrance system in more detail.

Like others before me, I prefer to keep a ratio of 1,000 coins to one stone, so that there are 72 coins per pound (incidentally, I do not use pounds for any measurements in the game). This is closer to ancient treasure caches like the Frome Hoard and steers clear of the implied chunky coins of Dungeons & Dragons. From this basis, I permit each character to lift up to their Strength characteristic in stones, which comports closely in effect to later editions of the game (so that an average Strength 11 allows one to carry 154 lbs). However, moving at any more than a shuffle requires that the carried weight also not exceed the character's Constitution (representing their stamina). Furthermore, acting carefully (such as climbing, walking along an edge or fighting) requires that the load also does not exceed the character's Dexterity. To maintain balance, the hero has the option to drop everything in hand or risk falling otherwise. Thus, a character with Strength 12, Constitution 9 and Dexterity 14 could carry 12 stones, but could only move normally if this burden was reduced to 9 stones (the lowest of Strength and Constitution). Likewise, the hero could only fight if the burden was 9 stones (as acting carefully takes the lowest of all three scores).

Within this system, I tend to handwave equipment weights. I generally rule that light adventuring gear (clothes, a bedroll, backpack, candle and so on) only weighs two stones, while more extensive gear (torches, iron spikes, rope and so on) would increase this to three stones. Each weapon and all of its ammunition (beyond a dagger) is one stone each, as is a shield. Armour is typically one (AC 8 to 7), two (AC 6 to 5) or three stones in weight (AC 4 to 3). As mentioned earlier, each bag of 1,000 coins is another stone of weight. Everything else is made up on the spot, perhaps using Vornheim's syllable-counting system for heavy items (i.e., a "chest of trea-sure" could be four stones).

Addendum: While developing the system I had informally used at my table, I noticed that these same rules might be used to cover something entirely different as well: the tense diplomacy and maneuvering of social interactions. Here, a player will make a reaction roll of 2d6, modified by any Charisma adjustment. The referee then listens to the player's attempt to roleplay the encounter and secretly rolls a polyhedral die based on the roleplaying and the hidden disposition of the other party (normally a d6, but this could be a d4 for an accommodating stranger or a d8 or worse for a hostile group). Adding this disposition die to the adjusted reaction roll, the referee compares the sum to the speaker's Charisma score: if the result does not exceed the score, the party is not immediately hostile. Then, if the player attempts to maneuver or trick the non-player characters, this same value is similarly compared to the Intelligence of the spokesperson to see if he or she gives away the ruse. Finally, if this sum also does not exceed the Wisdom of the speaker, the player can pick up some subtle hint in the opponent's speech that gives clues to something they did not intend to reveal (but only if the Charisma eased the first contact and the player did not fail an attempt to trick or deceive the opponents). In this way, such a tense encounter would be based on both the roleplaying attempt and the scores of the character, so that each party would have a spokesperson. At the same time, such encounters would always be a gamble because the players only had half of the information and the disposition die result that completed the negotiation score would be hidden.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Thieves' Guilds of Minaria

The poor thief has been the subject of many debates and contentions since his incipient introduction in Supplement I: Greyhawk. The most common complaint falls upon the low starting ability of the thief class. It is true, with most special abilities starting at 10% to 15% chance of success, the thief can hardly feel "special," but is instead discouraged from risking his neck on his dubious skill set. In fact, these scores only improve to an even 50% somewhere around 7th level in most editions of Dungeons & Dragons, when the thief's fighter and magic-user compatriots are well on their way to obtaining the defining features of those classes. The other common grievance is that the thief class is either unnecessary or even inimical to a proper Dungeons & Dragons play experience. When the thief was introduced to Original Dungeons & Dragons, he largely co-opted and made exclusive certain adventuring abilities that all dungeon-delvers had previously shared. Common skills such as climbing, trap-finding and lock-picking were suddenly the sole prerogative of the doughty thief, who seemingly had no other function in the game than to encompass all of the competencies once enjoyed by the original adventurers. Instead of stealing treasure, thieves had stolen adventuring proficiency from the other characters.

Feeling the acute loss of fundamental dungeoneering capabilities, some referees qualified these "new" thief skills with the superlative: as Robert Fisher suggests, perhaps all classes can move quietly, but only thieves can move utterly silently. Yet, this approach does not address basic skills like lock-picking or trap-finding—talents that adventurers previously benefited from but were now bereft of. It also did not confront the relatively low chances of success of novice thieves, which rendered their skills prohibitively futile. Other house rules diminished the great difficulty of these dice rolls by granting significant bonuses for easier challenges—a rusted lock or a crude trap door, perhaps. This latter method only solved the clumsy low-level thief by effectively ignoring the rulebook, creating a balanced skill progression where a thief always faced challenges relative to his skill and therefore had comparable chances of success regardless of level (perhaps the very antithesis of early Dungeons & Dragons).

So what is to be done about these dual problems—the loss of common adventuring abilities from other characters and the relatively ineffective ability of the low-level thief? In Minaria, thieves are a vital part of the party, and any party that enters the dungeon without at least one or two in tow is in severe danger. Of course, any character has the same ability to explore the tricks and traps of the mythic underworld—I listen to their descriptions, look at their character sheet and then let them try their luck on a single polyhedral die (perhaps 3 in 8, or 5 in 12, or 2 in 6 and so on). I will even let the player pick her favorite lucky die and then adjudicate the odds for that die type. This approach demands that the referee give a clear description of the terrain and the player gives a clear description of her action, but this action is open to any and all characters (thieves included). However, if the players cannot figure out the trap by asking questions, or if they get a close guess but botch the roll, only the thief has a second layer of defense. Here, the thief's training and skill competency kicks in, and after failing the earlier attempt the thief can make a free, back-up saving roll on the Thieves' Abilities table. These bonus odds are on top of the regular effort, and are a second chance that can rescue the party regardless of whether they have figured out the trap. Played a different way, the party can skip the initial roleplaying and just have the thief roll the ability check. If this is successful, the trap is automatically described and bypassed and the adventure continues without pause. If this fails, the party must take a closer look at the trap and roleplay their attempt to manually disarm it.

At later levels, when thief skills become very high, it is likely the party will increasingly rely on the latter method—making initial recourse to the thief skill to see if the roleplay element can be dispensed with and more exciting parts of the dungeon can be accessed more quickly. At earlier levels, however, the party will enjoy the grittiness of dealing with traps and tricks more directly. Still, all characters should have a chance to open locks, remove traps, pick pockets, move silently, climb sheer surfaces and hide in shadows, at least when they describe a reasonable strategy and have character scores to support it. When the dice turn against such dungeon-delvers, however, thieves have a second chance to catch their fall. Sometimes, the narrated attempt will be unreasonable, and the referee will simply have to say No. Even when such practical constraints limit normal classes, though, thieves should still get their chance to snatch victory from defeat. By allowing thief skills to operate like an extra safety net for dashing heroics, thief characters are encouraged, not discouraged, from using their abilities.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Money-Changers of Minaria

Dealing with coin has always been one of the most utilitarian exercises in any Dungeons & Dragons campaign. It is a necessary evil that all referees and players engage in to translate conquest into capital. It is also one of the facets of the game that most stretches the imagination and suspension of disbelief, raising thorny questions like "why should all coins have a constant universal value across the entire expanse of the Known World?", "why are coins always evenly divisible into lesser or greater coinages?" or "why should these ancient coins from the dungeon still have currency back in the town?" The implication is that the fantasy setting has achieved what took Europe to the last years of the 20th century to figure out—a stable, universal currency system.

Of course, there are many different ways that game designers have tried to complicate the picture. Medieval fantasy markets might be tempered by inflation tables, availability charts or conversion rates. A referee might declare that each kingdom has its own coin mint and may not accept coinage from opposing lands. Applying any of these methods in an actual campaign quickly proves both highly complex and ultimately ineffective. It misses the point, after all. We are still dealing with the unholy triumvirate: Copper, Silver and Gold pieces. (Or is it the gruesome five: Copper, Silver, Electrum, Gold and Platinum?) No matter what additional layer of complexity you add to your campaign economy, you are still dealing with the universal basic building blocks of wealth, which convert dungeon triumphs to points of abstracted "cash" or "wealth."

In Minaria, everything works a little differently. You don't delve into the earth to plumb it for copper pieces and gold coins. Instead, you emerge (battered and shaken) with 1,350 coins from the lost Cisterian empire. Or perhaps you return from the Bugbear lair with the Duke's own personal treasure—some 560 shiny pieces of lucre. Here we find no generic points of wealth, but coinage with a story attached to it. As the greater part of Minarian society operates on barter, the heroes will need to find a buyer for their precious take, which is to say that the coins themselves do not necessarily hold inherent value as currency. Inn-keepers and armourers can do little with such moneys as they rarely take payments in specie, and flashing strange coinage around would likely raise the immediate and unwanted attention of the local Duke or Baron. Rather, the protagonists are well-advised to seek a local money-changer; someone who will buy the storied cache in exchange for credit in the local town, city or region. Once the heroes have successfully laundered their fortune, they will have full financing for their extravagant lifestyle and material acquisitions. For example, the players return with 800 tarnished silver coins of southern Kushite origin. After some negotiating, the major money-lender in the city agrees to purchase half of them for 220gp in credit, good throughout the province. This credit advance is probably in the form of some local currency (or perhaps a standing tab, or even an endorsed cheque)—a detail that is given a considerable amount of handwavium to gloss over the trivialities. Importantly, however, this credit does not carry over into different regions, meaning the protagonists would be wise to only sell what they need to of their hard-won treasure.

What does this actually do differently than the traditional copper piece, silver piece and gold piece system? Firstly, it introduces a level of mystery when the treasure chest is opened and the gleaming treasure trove is seen for the first time. Secondly, it further requires a little haggling when it comes time to pawn the riches off (which allows more referee control and even future adventures, if the party decides to sell the coins at a neighboring kingdom instead of locally). Thirdly, it gives each treasure a story of how it got there (and certainly the Baron will demand his coins back after the party recovers them from the sunken wreck). Finally, it ties wealth to the locale, without requiring the referee to adumbrate an entire global economy to explain why.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Return to Castle Frobozz, Part I

Perusing the archives of Erelhei Cinlu today, I have discovered that the reports on the death of one of my online campaigns have been greatly exaggerated! So as to share these broken fragments with the wider readership, I have elected to publish them here. They will not always make perfect sense, mind you—there are certainly pieces missing from the puzzle. But with a bit of imagination, one should be able to trace the tale of these doomed underground intruders. So begins...

And so our story begins with the two dusty pilgrims, Pavel and Winfred, huddled in the dark corner of the Outs Inn of Greyhawk, early one autumn morning. Faces beset with dark looks, the wayfarers glower down into their cold, greasy gruel. They are alone in the tavern this morning - a silent ceasefire exists between them which has even scared off the normally jovial Hrothgar from his perennial post at the bar.

Oh what cruel fate! Only a couple days ago, the travelers were finishing the last leg of what had been a lovely pilgrimage. Certainly the ancient ruins had their distinctive allure, and all had looked forward keenly to seeing the fabled walls of Greyhawk - rumored to be the oldest settlement in the Known World, and once the high seat of the famed Emperor Ygg Son-of-Arne. But it was the company these two grim wanderers now mourned; had it only been two days since seeing that bright gem, Princess Velouria?

Certainly the motley group of pilgrims found it unconventional to be accompanied by such royalty at first, but soon the young and beautiful princess had won each and every traveller's heart with her peerless melodious singing and other winsome affections. By the end of the journey, the troupe had already begun to set upon each other with challenges and dares to prove themselves before her lashful eyes.

But tragedy struck that final night, just shy of the gates of Greyhawk, when a mysterious figure attacked the caravan. Clad all in black, the transgressor knight, who went only by the moniker "The Dark Lord", defeated the tourists one by one, until only he remained standing. Sweeping up the princess from the bed of daffodils she had daintily feinted into, the Dark Lord gave the woe smitten party one more severe reproach before vanishing in a puff of smoke.

Two days later, all that remained of the band now sat mutely in this bar; the hours of quarreling and lamenting long since passed. Of the other companions, some had gone mad with distress and dispersed in random directions, while still others had vowed to rescue the fair maiden and headed up the thick forested mountain towards the mysterious fog-decked Castle Frobozz, which the Dark Lord had indicated was his home. Of this last group, none had returned and, by all legends of the Castle, no return should be expected either.

Perhaps all is lost, and there is nothing left but to return home in shame. Surely, the chance for adventure, reward and glory is behind you now, and even worse - a chance at the fair damsel's hand! But what is this note here, stamped in a strange seal, that flutters lightly on the table? Was that here when you came down this morning? Has it always been here?

Of all the establishments in Greyhawk, the Outs Inn is notable for achieving the most impressive amount of grim and dreck. Normally deserted, this dilapidated watering hole would be considered abandoned if not for the stalwart presence of its owner, Hrothgar the Dwarf. Despite the bleak setting, the curious creature is surprisingly friendly and outgoing, and happily welcomes you to "the finest" (and, indeed, only) "tavern outside the city walls!"

Exits are UP or OUT.

There is a NOTE here, there is a HROTHGAR here.

PAVEL stops a moment from eating his slop. He notices the note. He notices WINFRED noticing the note. He tries to grab it first.

WINFRED groggily rubs his eyes, trying to shake the effects of the previous night's ales. He notices a note on the table and wonders if perhaps it was misplaced and there would be a reward for its delivery. He looks to his coin purse, noting he has only four gold remaining. In the moment of distraction PAVEL grabs the note.

Admiring the strange seal once more, PAVEL notices the stylistic "A", embossed in the shape of a warped star with a flaming pillar in the middle. Breaking open the parchment causes the seal to crumble into several pieces. Within is a short poem followed by a crudely drawn map:

"The fog recedes,
the true treasure of the dungeon,
it is yet to be won,
to it a winding path leads…"

The map roughly shows an ascent up the eastern side of the mountain, upon which sits the gloomy Castle Frobozz from which none return. The path stops halfway up the mountain at a circular symbol.

WINFRED looks up at the sound of the seal on the note being broken. “Friend Pavel,” he begins, craning his neck to get a look at the note, “ the unfortunate events that have transpired on this pilgrimage have clearly worn on us both. Let us start our friendship anew with the search for... whatever it is that note you have here is about. Two honorable men such as ourselves traveling together shall surely overcome challenges that one alone could not.”

PAVEL gazes across the horizon of the letter at his friend. It's a cold stare. He glances down at the letter, "You better take a look at this then," he says tossing the letter across the table. Scowling, he heaves some slop into his mouth and continues with his breakfast.

WINFRED looks the note over. "Strange," he mutters. "Hrothgar, did you by chance see who left this note here?"

Having failed at being inconspicuous, the wrinkly dwarf looks up from his work of wiping down a single swath of the otherwise grimy bar.

"Nae, boppins!" he replies, before hopping down from his stool. You trace the peak of his bent felt cap bobbing behind the bar until the puppet finally appears around the side. He pads up to the table, bells clinking on his soft shoes, draws close and palms the note in his stubby fingers. You can't help but notice that the foul homunculi stinks worse than the docks on Yob's Day, a festival dedicated to the rotten fish-god worshipped by the inbred peasants of this area.

Pulling out a pair of (likely pilfered) spectacles, HROTHGAR pretends to read meaningfully for a moment, before his beady eyes settle on the crudely drawn map and grow wide with fear.

"Well ta first part is a recipe, methinks. Yep, butter'd chicken." it says, licking its slimy lips. "But ta second part, that'd be a map of the Castle Frobz. No'uns ever come back from that fog I tell you! It eats men alive! If only for a chance at the castle gates, the treasures indwelled are said to be beyond imagination!"

The scurrilous tramp goes on to do what dwarves perhaps do best, and tells a mesmerizing tale of spectacular riches and wealth that would make a sultan swoon; seas of golden coin, ruby encrusted pillars, the finest jewelry and ornaments and priceless works of art abound. Half the morning must have passed before you snap out of the charm (coins still dancing in your mind); the drizzly weather outside gives no indication, but you can judge the lapse by your gruel, which has separated into thin tinny water with fatty solids that float near the top. Your stomach grumbles in protest, as the loathsome wretch concludes "But this I've never seen, a passage up the eastern slope? B'ware young boppins, those hills are rumored to be full of nasty warrens."

Recalling your childhood lessons that dwarves indeed live under mounds of dirt, you decide to take such a warning with some thoughtfulness.

With the conclusion of the dwarf's tale WINFRED collects his things. "Perhaps it is time we moved on Pavel," he whispers in a hushed voice, "I doubt this dwarf will be of any help."

WINFRED goes OUT and takes a look around.

PAVEL nods, "I will be needing some supplies I suppose. We may also want to recruit a peasant to carry our goods and absorb any arrows destined for our chests." He gets up from his table, leaving a few coppers on the table and follows WINFRED OUT.

As the PAVEL exits, HROTHGAR pads up to him and stuffs a small, leather bag into his hands. "If ye are thinkin' of going to Frobz, take this, I beg ye! Me mutter told me to use it if I ever came across a deep creature; but dun'nae use it on anything else! Only the deep ones!" Opening the pouch reveals a handful of granola.

PAVEL appreciates the gesture and nods to HROTHGAR on his way out.

Waiting until PAVEL and WINFRED have left, SCUNTHORPE approaches HROTHGAR, and says "A couple more pints for me and my friend," pointing to SWALKHI in the corner. "You've got a fine establishment here."

SWALKHI walks up to HROTHGAR and SCUNTHORPE. "Aye, sir -- good to see a brother dwarf with his own establishment in such a far flung land. Are there more of our folk hereab

The road here is well worked by wagon wheel and foot traffic alike, so that deep ruts have formed in the slop and filled with the morning's rain. This is western road that leads from Greyhawk out to the lands of Westmark. Before you stands the shabby Outs Inn, run down from years of neglect. To your EAST lies the Western Gate of Greyhawk. To the NORTHWEST, the road climbs up into the thick pine forests and disappears around bends in the brambles.

Exits are IN, EAST or NORTHWEST.

There is a SIGN here, there is a GROUP of MERCENARIES here, there is a CONDOTTIERE here.

PAVEL nods to the MERCENARIES, tipping his hat to them as he approaches.

"Allo guv'nah!" the broad mustachioed CONDOTTIERE says, stepping forward and pumping PAVEL's hand mercilessly. "My Landsers are the best in the business! We've just come arrived with the caravans from Westmark. The pikes of the Black Band are the sharpest in the Known World, and for a modest fee they can shore up your battle lines!"

WINFRED reads the sign.


WINFRED turns from the sign and approaches the MERCENARIES as well. "So my good man, how much is it to hire one of your pikes?"

"Merely 5 coin a delve or per week, whichever comes first! Payable in full ahead of time to my persons, of course," replies the CONDOTTIERE.

"Are they hardy men for that price?" asks PAVEL. "We're going to the castle Frobozz. We don't want no turn-coats adventuring with us."

"These lads are Westmarks finest!" cries the CONDOTTIERE, "I haven't heard of this Castle Frobozz, but I can attest no member of the Black Band has ever turned heel while their charismatic captain still stands. Treat them well, pay me promptly, and you can be assured of their service."

WINFRED turns to talk to PAVEL out of earshot of the mercenaries. "I am willing to hire one of them, or rather I would be if I weren't so short on gold at the moment," he says looking slightly embarrassed. "I you could lend me a gold coin I will gladly repay it at the first opportunity. If there's even a fraction of the treasure HROTHGAR claims we'll need help to carry it all."

PAVEL waves off WINFRED's concerns. "It is of no consequence, friend. I was planning on hiring two or three. Three would leave me tight to purchase rations for the journey."

"Hire however many you feel would work best, PAVEL. You will be reimbursed for your trouble from the treasure." WINFRED purchases 4 days rations.

PAVEL returns to the CONDOTTIERE and requests the services of three mercenaries, and is granted the service of young AUGUST, ZOTT and EVANDER. PAVEL purchases 10 days worth of dried trail rations for the road. "I believe we have what we need. Unless there is anything else that you require, WINFRED, I suggest we make haste."

WINFRED finishes his purchases. "I'm ready when you are."

PAVEL nods and leaves NORTHWEST with WINFRED.

The thick pine trees converge on the Westmark Road here, veiling the way in an eery silence and gloom. Down the hill to the EAST, the rotting patched roof of the Outs Inn is visible; a thin silvery line of smoke drifting lazily from its badly leaning brick chimney. Beyond that, the grand City of Greyhawk unfolds on the narrow escarpment overlooking the wind licked Great Sea.

To the WEST, the road continues deeper through the forested hills to the sundry counties of Westmark. To the NORTH, the crumbling remnants of a decrepit bridgehead over a small stream mark the beginnings of the Old Castle Track which leads to the haunted Castle Frobozz. A menacing fog looms that way. To the NORTHEAST, a barely noticeable deer path leeds across the stream and around the eastern face of the mountainside.


PAVEL remembers the map and points out the deer path. "I believe that is the direction we want to go."

WINFRED also remembers the map. "Yes, I do believe you are correct, PAVEL."

PAVEL heads towards the deer path, leaving NORTHEAST.

The forested mountainside tumbles down into a sheer precipice here, dropping hundreds of feet into a distant estuary below. An old deer trail clings tenuously to the fringe of the rocky crag, leading SOUTHWEST down the face of the mountain or ascending WEST directly up the heavily forested slope. From this vantage point, the eastern ends of the Known World open up before you, revealing distant squalls out at sea and the wooded wilderness of the mountainous Eastmark seaboard.

Exits are SOUTHWEST or WEST.


A small grotto cuts into the mountainside here; a low entrance leading down into the darkness of the earth. Before the portal, a small dragon is curled up on a pile of dirt, leaves and bones. The glint of tarnished golden treasures gleam dimly from the refuse. There is an air of melancholy here. An old deer path leads EAST down the mountainside. To all sides, the menacing fog looms, yet strangely does not reach the trail or cavern opening.

Exits are IN or EAST.

There is a DRAGON here, there is a TREASURE HOARD here, there is a DONIVAN here.

PAVEL halts and raises his fist above his head, signaling everyone to be silent. He waves over WINFRED and points to the DRAGON. Carefully, PAVEL whispers into WINFRED's ear, "Know ye much about dragons, friend? This looks to be the route by which the map wishes us to enter the castle."

WINFRED nods. "Lets try to get by as silently as possible."

Approaching the dragon reveals that the wyrm is apparently midst forty winks, and slumbers peacefully on its precious take. It is a lissome creature, with slender features covered in brilliant emerald scales, perhaps the weight of a horse and some half dozen paces long from nose to tail's tip.

DONIVAN peers out from the underbrush at the two adventurers he has been following since he overheard them talking of treasure while hiring mercenaries near the city gates.

[Assuming Pavel and Winfred continue past the dragon down into the earth, follow below. Otherwise, continue here as normal.]

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

There is a PAVEL and a WINFRED here.

PAVEL takes out a torch and his flint and steel from his back-back. He lights the torch, being mindful to keep an eye over his shoulder towards the direction of the dragon.

To Be Continued...

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Border Fortress

After a grueling finals and end to a long semester, I am slowly reemerging in a Boston reformed by summer leaves and flowers. The transformation seemed to happen over night, with flowering trees blooming to fill the parks and pathways. As a reward to treat myself for a difficult year of study, I decided to conspicuously indulge in this:

Outer packaging of the 1988 Mighty Fortress set.

Now, I have heard everything from accolades praising the 1988 edition of Warhammer Siege to bitter complains about complexity. Certainly, no one claims it is a simple game—it is designed as a full expansion of the original Warhammer Fantasy Battle rules and features both the complete freedom of game mechanics for every imaginable situation as well as the extensive book keeping that this would require. With all of the detail, even though most of it is optional and modular, one can be forgiven for missing things, and I suspect that Warhammer Siege is a game you learn as you play: an experience that gets better with time.

To be fair to Warhammer Siege, it is worth addressing seemingly the most common complaint: that artillery appears to quickly demolish the stronghold walls with little hope for the stalwart defenders. Many first time players have lamented their one and only experience with the game resulting in these catastrophic results. The underlying problem here seems to be the imprudent deployment of massive doomsday devices in the arsenal of the besiegers, particularly the 10-man siege weapons. These apocalypse weapons would have been equivalent to the historical Tsar Cannon or other medieval and Renaissance "super guns."

Complete contents.

The main problem here is that the default wall described in Warhammer Siege is for the lowly "border fortress"—a common, lesser castle often found in the Border Princes. These meager strongholds are cobbled together between the first few harsh winters on the frontier, when a would-be robber baron struggles to establish a foothold in the wilderness. With sparse resources and only unskilled labourers, those bandit kings who do not freeze to death in a half-completed castle before the frost subsides are only able to manage provisional, precarious fortifications to stake their claim. To the desperate outposts and colonies in the barrens, even these ramshackle fortresses are formidable symbols of frontier authority and power—at least until a new warlord arrives. Yet, in relation to these backwoods bulwarks, the most massive cannons in the history of the Old World are incomparable adversaries. The calibre of such ordnance would likely be as thick as the very walls of the border fortress. While such improbable batteries are designed to break down the mightiest citadels and bastions in the world, the lowly border fort hardly stands a chance against such awesome power.

The different plastic pieces—gate and two types of doors, trapdoors and ladders.

It is notable that the two previous siege games that reported disastrous results both explicitly lacked a critical component to any Warhammer Fantasy Battle game—the gamemaster. A decent referee would have readily spotted this incongruous matchup and adjusted the scenario to account for it. For example, a good competitor to a standard "border fortress" (which has a default 10 wounds or "defence points") would be the 5-man cannon (cannons are rated from the smallest 3-man culverin to the largest 10-man bombard). Such an artillery piece would chip away at a battlement and would cause a breach after 12 direct hits (several cannons working in conjunction would make even shorter work). A scenario featuring heavier ordnance would demand thicker walls, however. After all, as the Warhammer Siege rules suggest, the normal Toughness and defence point values "are standard for a typical Border Fortress," but "you may wish to vary this slightly" for mightier castles (Warhammer Siege, 35). Against a 10-man cannon, a gamemaster may increase the defence value of the walls to as high as 45 points, requiring an average of 4 successful hits to cause a breach.

All in all, Warhammer Siege has a lot to offer players who are looking for new kinds of scenarios to add depth to a campaign. It is worth exploring the true gems in this rules expansion, but I will leave that task to a later date. For now, I leave you with these photos to give you a sense of the scale and contents of the Mighty Fortress set. I found this item to be a great purchase—made from dense styrofoam sections that do not chip and can be rearranged into many different castle plans. Along with my recent find of a mint condition Warhammer Townscapes, I will have my hands full this summer building a complete Warhammer world for our local games.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Dynamic Combat in Warhammer

As my recent article on lethality creep suggests, and as Gaj's ongoing dramatic battle miniseries evidences, Oldhammer battles often consist of a gritty back-and-forth slugfest of smashing skulls and splintering armour. When the enemy is driven to rout by the press of steel, a friendly regiment can always swoop in, flying the banner to steady their nerves and rally them to return to the fight. Indeed, rallying and returning to seek vengeance on their adversaries is a frequent occurrence on the Oldhammer battlefields.

While this grit and gore is no doubt part of what makes the Oldhammer experience so unique, with every sword strike keeping you at the edge of your seat and each slain foe a small victory, the difficult odds of overcoming an enemy warrior may seem to produce a mêlée that is very static. Certainly, compared to the boosted lethality of later editions, fewer warriors fall to the swath of swords each round and each lost combatant means one less retaliation. So, when every blow counts, what keeps these gritty back-and-forth slugfests so dynamic? The difficulty in overcoming an enemy means that it is certainly feasible that a round of mêlée produces no casualties. Are there still interesting and tactical choices to make, even when the dice turn their back on you? Let's take a look at a few rules in Warhammer Fantasy Battle 3rd Edition to explore the options:

I Challenge You!
No doubt a mainstay of many Warhammer games, the challenge between opposing champions is a dramatic and stirring event. There is inherent risk and uncertainty associated with challenges, as the player is often stepping into the unknown and likely does not know exactly what he is getting into. Is that merely a regiment leader, or a major hero? Are their dangerous magical weapons involved? As models in Oldhammer can only wound adjacent base to base enemies, a powerful combat character is very much wasted on fighting mere fodder, and is best employed for more heroic tasks, including monster slaying and challenges. Matched with a fitting opponent, the warrior hero comes into his own. Refusing a challenge, on the other hand, will cause a cowardly champion to shrink back into the rear ranks and lose all respect he had earned from his regiment. The enemy is then given the chance to cut through the regiment in search of the abject and craven champion hiding amongst the fallen comrades. Challenges allow a hero to contribute more towards the combat results than from regular fighting, particularly against opponents with multiple wounds, and represent an interesting and fun sub-game of pitting your magical weapons and skills against the opponent.

Seize Their Banner!
The regiment standard is a symbol of the regiment's pride and origins. Unlike the aesthetic promoted in later versions of Warhammer, the diverse banners found in old dioramas seem to indicate that each unit is not only a separate component of the army, but comes from a different region, has a different background and perhaps even a different culture. While Newhammer armies tend to have a unified colour scheme of one or two tones that gives the army a general sense of uniformity, Oldhammer regiments are heterogenous, as found in the diversity of their banners which have a lot of individual character and personality. Seizing the enemy's standard is capturing the symbol of their mettle and everything they are fighting for, whether hearth and home or gold and glory. In combat, the regiment standard bobs up and down with the fray, acting as a beacon to summon the regiment's courage and compelling them to make a stand. The rules for capturing the enemy standard in Warhammer 3rd Edition are thus quite exciting and action-packed, as a regiment will fight tooth and bone to retain their icon in the mad scramble for the banner. In game terms, the death of the standard bearer (which is unfortunately fairly common, as the poor fellow has to stand in the front rank) means that the enemy may make a dive to the trodden mud to recover the fallen banner. The result is an immediate second round of combat (literally doubling the action for the round), which could end in the regiment retrieving its colours and chasing off the dismayed enemy, the pennant being crushed into the turf and lost in the confusion or the enemy capturing the standard and sending the regiment to flight (earning a slaughter of free strikes as they rout). A regiment that has lost its standard will remain sullen and demoralized for the rest of the battle, significantly increasing their penchant to retire from the battlefield.

Push Them Back!
Of course, battles can always be won even without causing excess casualties. All things equal, a regiment that has momentum, either carrying forward the impact of a charge or seizing impetus from the changing tides of previous rounds of combat, will overcome their foes. When this happens, the enemy is forced to step back under the press of steel and is forced backwards two inches. While this may not seem like a significant parcel of the battlefield, gaining ground incrementally allows the attacker much more maneuvering room for supporting regiments in the rear while further constraining and compacting the enemy position. Furthermore, while outflanking a phalanx can be extremely difficult, as the battle line is both very wide and is often flanked by powerful cavalry to intercept the enemy maneuver, pushing back the enemy center offers a critical strategy to breaking up stalwart battle lines. After a turn or two of pressing the enemy regiment to give ground, the attacker will have inflicted the quarter unit strength of casualties needed to force a rout test. When the enemy is put to flight, the attacker is now usually four inches deep into enemy lines and, restraining pursuit, is perfectly situated to immediately reform and charge directly into the flank of a central column of the enemy battle line. Needless to say, the resulting panic test can unfold the entire formation. When fighting regiments in isolation of a larger military formation, pushing back also provides other tactical choices. Should the victors leave their trenches to chase off the enemy for good? Should the winning regiment lose some of its cohesion to surround and mob the losers? Are there advantages to expanding the frontage, or would it be better to retain a rank bonus? All of these questions depend on battlefield conditions and can make for interesting decisions for the player.

As we have seen, even with the gritty and uncompromising combat of Oldhammer, there can still be compelling tactical decisions for the player when the dice fail. Exploring all of the options in Oldhammer combat truly helps provide for a dynamic and immersive experience, hearkening back to the roleplaying roots of the game. Importantly, these details allow combat to remain bloody even if it is tough fought, without artificially boosting mêlée lethality to spiral out of control and ultimately devalue the individual dice rolls into a sort of game of statistics and averages. The current tournament atmosphere of more recent editions of Warhammer is a testament to these latter-day changes to the structure of the game, where buckets of dice replace strategic thinking and certain "army builds" are presumed to reign over other, inferior ones. By taking serious the full body of game mechanics in older editions, sometimes dismissed as unnecessary and overly complicated "crunch," there are certain avenues to inject narrative and choice back into a game that some may feel has become entirely too determinate and therefore too prescriptive in its playstyle.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Designing a Battlefield

There has been a lot of good buzz lately on designing scenarios and dioramas to push the Oldhammer ethos into new environs and player communities. Orlygg has offered a very good analysis of "old-style" and "new-style" wargaming tables, following up on Nico's unearthing of early Warhammer tables from the mid-1980's. The contrast between the old and the new, to my eye, is very reminiscent of nearly canonical theory of "combat as sport vs. combat as war" between past and present versions of Dungeons & Dragons. Wargaming tables from the past are covered with interesting and detailed terrain, and there is little difference between a historical wargaming table and a fantasy one. The goal of these battlefields is simulation. Modern tables simply feature a relatively flat plane with obstacles sprinkled evenly across it. In the latter, terrain "pieces" are discrete and atomized elements that have clearly delineated boundaries, set in a "neutral zone" of open ground. The goal of modern tables is to present a "balanced" playing field to compete with opposing army "builds." The former, traditional, table design is much more organic, with terrain blending together in uneven and visually impressive ways.

This got me thinking, how should an intrepid would-be Oldhammerer like myself go about building a proper "old-school" Warhammer table? Even more pressing, what does immersive battlefield design entail? For the former, I have decided that I am officially opposed to modular table design, despite some extremely impressive entries into that genre. I had come to the decision that an old-school board really needs more loving attention than a random layout could possibly provide. Rather, a good table rested on the latter—on proper battlefield design, so that I began to think about what a battlefield geography should do for a game.

This is not to say, of course, that a big open battlefield is to be avoided. Indeed, this sort of battlefield design allows for nice long battle lines to form up, which are visually impressive and can make for a fun game as the hordes crash into each other and force their way through the ranks. While this is one style of game, interspersing terrain settings throughout the battlefield will break up such tactics and allow for other play styles. What should be avoided, I feel, is treating the battlefield as a mere obstacle course, where terrain features are lone particles flecked onto an empty plane with little care for telling individual stories.


Also, No.

Terrain should not be an obstruction, best sidestepped and avoided during the game. It should be something that draws you into the game, giving you interesting stories to tell. Each little pocket of the battlefield should have its own character and plot. How would the battle have been different if the armies had intercepted each other at the old abandoned mill rather than in the forest clearing? If the armies had climbed the brambled hill to the old stone tower, would they have found the recluse warlock that is rumoured to live there? There should be enough places to explore on the battlefield that a single game could have developed very differently if the generals had chose to fight it out over different locales. In this way, the battlefield is actually a handful of smaller adventures, and each area is richly and naturally embellished with loving care and attention to detail. Instead of mere empty spaces between blobs of forests or hills, each locale should feel sheltered and unique.

Let's take a look at the story being told over a classic Oldhammer table:

Notice the many areas that might be exploited: the village on the right, the hedgerows, the forest behind them, the mill in the center, the riverbanks and bridge, the open fields, the ruined monastery on the left and the burying ground. Even for a fairly open table, there are a lot of possible scenarios that might play out. Such as...

In the main field, the battle is joined.

Over by the bridge, Skeletons and Orcs advance on the mill.

Orcs and Goblins attempt to seize the ruined monastery...

... and are quickly put to route.

The interesting thing is that a small army could have equally benefitted from this table as a large one. To achieve this effect, I would recommend developing each location on the table with care, giving it a natural and immersive feel before moving on or even thinking about another part of the battlefield. Instead of just throwing down a few buildings for a town, try putting a lone cottage on a hill, surrounding it with shadowy boughs, flanking it with a small fenced-in field and a path leading away to a clearing in the forest. Add a small stream and a footbridge to allow a second route into the farmstead and think about putting a peasant or two tending to their daily work. This way, when the Orc regiment marches by, it is not merely advancing past an unimportant and nondescript quadrant of a flat board. The peasants will rush to defend their homes, the Orcs will become stymied in the brook and the area will take on an interesting part of the story that will be told about this battle.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Alcoholism in Warhammer Fantasy Battle

First introduced in Warhammer Fantasy Battle 2nd Edition, the special rules for alcoholism only managed to sneak into one campaign module (Tragedy of McDeath, 1986) before disappearing from the game thereafter. Admittedly, the rules were someone clumsy—they simply punished the player by penalizing the drunken unit with lower characteristics. Nevertheless, in the spirit of Oldhammer, I've drawn up a quick treatment of these forgotten special rules for use with the 3rd Edition that is a little more random and fun. Enjoy!

Alcoholism: If the scenario calls for it, one or more units in your army has been 'at the bottle' and is well and truly drunk. Throughout the fight, they will continue to drink from whatever alcohol they carry with them. At the beginning of each turn, take a Will Power test. If the unit fails, they have become well and truly drunk and will react randomly according to the table below. If the Will Power test is passed, then they have managed to hold their liquor for now, and there is no effect for the turn.

Roll 1d6 each time the Will Power test is failed:
1-2 Until the beginning of the next turn, unit is subject to a failed Stupidity test.
3-4 Until the beginning of the next turn, unit is subject to a failed Saga Animosity test against the nearest visible unit (friend or foe) to its front.
5-6 Unit will spend the turn moving towards the closest known building in search of more alcohol (or otherwise, the table edge). If they reach the building, they will spend the entire next turn trashing the place and turning it upside down to find any hidden stores.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Unsaved Wounds by Edition: Lethality Creep in Warhammer

Although I have the rules, I have admittedly not played a game of Warhammer Fantasy Battle 8th Edition yet. However, while following online discussions of the game and perusing the new system, I noticed an interesting trend. Units had, across the board, become much more lethal in this edition, with myriad special rules to allow more and more attack rolls.

To be sure, Warhammer has always been known as a "bucket of dice" game, although I have never seen this as a particular fault. The average attack in 3rd Edition, for instance, must roll to hit (an average of 2 in 6) and then to wound (3 in 6) before the opponent can make a saving throw for armour. It might be seen as much quicker to simply allow the attacker a 1 in 6 odds of mortally striking his opponent (which has the same odds as the two previous rolls), yet the rather simple and elegant mechanic of requiring multiple layers of dice rolling allows the game designer to subtly tweak the odds. For instance, a 3 in 6 chance to hit and to wound (or 25% chance to mortally strike) cannot possibly be represented on a single six-sided die roll.

But the recent disturbing trend seemed to force these elegant mechanics to their extremes. By significantly boosting the number of attack dice being rolled, the difference between subtle modifiers to one layer of rolls or another became blurred. The 8th Edition in particular has a number of rules to this effect, whether allowing two ranks of models to strike in melee, or a third with 30+ models in the unit (a "horde"), or an additional further rank with spears or double attacks from additional hand weapons. It soon became quite possible to levy 40 attack dice in one round of melee. Similarly with missiles, archers could now fire in two ranks or half of every subsequent rank for volley fire. An archer regiment arranged in four ranks and ten files could roll 30 attack dice in this manner.

With a sneaking suspicion, I then looked back at previous editions of Warhammer and found that this is not at all a new development. In fact, units have been creeping in lethality since the very first version of the game. I decided to graph the number of unsaved wounds a unit might inflict if arrayed in three ranks and six files (a number that simply made the math much easier). I gave the units a 5+ save and either two-handed weapons, additional hand weapons or spears and crunched the numbers against an identical foe (ignoring initiative, charging bonus and so on). This is what I got:

As you can probably see, lethality has been increasing regularly across the different editions. Some pairs of editions worked very similarly, and more or less represented minor incremental updates on the previous rules (as with 2nd and 3rd, 4th and 5th and 6th and 7th). What's the take away of all this? A cynic might assume Games Workshop has been tinkering with the system over time to make larger and larger armies more necessary. Another option is that perhaps the game designers have been trying to reduce the time it takes to play an average game of Warhammer, making it more accessible for those with a busy schedule. I suspect both of these answers tell part of the story.

Importantly, this trend very much changes the style of game from older editions to newer. In my mind, Oldhammer is very much a detailed, gritty warband skirmish game. Newhammer, perhaps a mass-battle game in 28mm scale. Something that might support this are the changes starting in 4th Edition to radically increase the lethality of combat resolution, a rule change that greatly compounded the general trend in boosted attacks. Here, the leadership of the losing side in a round of combat is almost reduced to nothing, making an average leadership role nearly impossible. Losing combat by only three points, for instance, means a human regiment will flee 83% of the time, whereas there was no such modifier in 3rd Edition and the same human squad would have a better chance of sticking to the combat than fleeing (nearly four times better odds to remain). Furthermore, units that did flee were entirely wiped out, whereas in 3rd Edition they would merely suffer three or four further casualties from the rout. The result was that 3rd Edition warbands, when they did flee, could easily expect to return to the battle later. Later editions made these units much more expendable, resulting in much faster games but perhaps less character and narrative to the warriors fighting the battle.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Grande Review, Part IV

(See also Part I, II and III)

Dwarfs: Tales are still told in the echoing Dwarven halls of the lost grandeur of the old empire. Before the rise of man in the wild lands below, the Dwarfs ruled a mighty imperium that connected the great halls and underground cities across the formidable Worlds Edge mountains. These bulwarks were once thought to be the invincible holds of the Dwarven kings, yet one by one they fell to foes, disease, greed and arrogance. The final blow fell on the stubborn Dwarfs as their realm was overwhelmed from below by an intractable enemy—untold legions of Night Goblins swarming their networks and tunnels, cracking the very foundation of their kingdom with reckless and incessant burrowing. Today, the descendants and scions of this glorious realm still style themselves as Imperial Dwarfs, the fading successors to a crumbling empire. These stalwart heirs still march the overgrown cobbled highways and make pilgrimage to the hallowed halls of their ancestors, looking down upon those Dwarfs that long ago conceded defeat and settled their communities amongst the kingdoms of humankind. For the Imperial Dwarfs, defending the last redoubts of their forefathers is a matter of stubborn pride set against impossible odds. Dwarf armies are typically lead by powerful clan lords, but Dwarven host might also be supported by a Gnome hero or self-taught Dwarf wizard, who can further bind monstrous and ethereal hosts to serve the contingent. The core of the Dwarven warband is made up of various formations of heavy infantry shock troops, ranging from the elite Hammerers to the the veteraned Longbeards and battle-hardened Clansmen. Regular Dwarf Warriors fill out the battle lines, and are supported by ranks of Crossbowmen and Thunderers, wielding the deadly Dwarven arquebuses. Specialist troops include berserk Slayers, who wade into battle with frenzied abandon, as well as Sappers and auxiliary units of Gnome Warriors. While Dwarfs are not natural wizards, retaining only half the magical energies that other sorcerers wield with ease, Dwarven hosts can bring to bear the overwhelming firepower of Dwarven artillery batteries, comprised of numerous bolt-throwers, catapults, cannons and other engines of war. Typical to their rigid views on military strategy, Dwarfs lack skirmishers and cavalry, yet they can depend on Halfling and Old Worlder allies, as well as Old Worlder, Norse and Ogre mercenaries to bring tactical flexibility to the battlefield.

The Slann: Aeons ago, long before the reckoning of man, the world was presided over by a highly advanced race known as the Slann. These amphibian custodians came from the stars to refashion the planet for reasons now consigned to the oblivion, although the rare remaining tablets buried in the steamy jungles of Lustria tell fragments of that story. When the batrachian spacefarers originally discovered the roughly geoid earth, they encountered a developed civilization of lizard people, which they subsequently drove underground with overwhelming firepower and technological superiority. The Slann then used magnetic tethers to pull the world closer to the sun, anchoring it with dual warp-gates, black holes torn into the firmament, over each polar region. With the terrain now inhospitable to previous life, the new stewards set about a program of atmospheric reform and geographic rebalancing, following a model they had employed throughout the thousandfold star systems glittering in the night sky. Here, the Slann developed myriad races and species for research or maintenance work. When their star empire finally fell with the complete collapse of the warp-gate network, the Slann on this world were developing several extremely powerful and dangerous projects. A millennia after their arrival, the catastrophic downfall of the Slann was to stem from a problem long appreciated by their sages, but one which they were eventually unable to overcome—while their interstellar network depended on the chaotic dimension of the warp, the alternate realm inexplicably harbored some formless intelligence, which proved more malignant as its power was probed. After the event, remaining Slann settlers quickly descended into barbarism, striking unspeakable bargains with the malevolent psyches that spilled forth from the polar gates. Retreating to their laboratories in the southern jungle continent, the once vaunted race of spacefarers soon lost mastery and even memory of their fabled technologies, which were left to rust and rot in the humid climes. Today, servitor races of slave eunuchs and genetically-engineered all-female Amazons continue to work menial tasks and tend to the forgotten instruments, while client tribes of Pygmies and tribute legions of Lizardmen now fill the ranks of the opulent and fattened descendants of the Slann. Although their primitivism and barbarism has reduced the Slann to pre-metallurgy armaments, the core of their war parties are made up of a dizzying array of fearsome shock warriors drawn from the Slann braves of satellite villages in thrall to the nearby city-state. These vassal warriors include the formidable Bull Slann Riders, mounted on bloodthirsty Cold One reptiles, as well as the frenzied Warrior Priests, devoted to the mystical deities worshipped by the superstitious Slann. Auxiliary regiments are pressed into service from the lesser savage tribes from the deepest parts of the jungle, serving as skirmishing missile troops, scouts and levy fodder alongside lobotomized human eunuch slaves, tamed troglodytes and Lizardmen tribute warriors. While the Slann lack artillery, they can call on Slann animal handlers driving dangerous jungle creatures forward into combat and consecrated War Altars replete with the fetishes and burning incense of the city-state deities. Slann armies have excellent access to skirmishers from the more barbaric tribes of the inner jungle and can call on Pygmy allies as well. Due to countless blood-stained centuries of sacrifices and dark bargains with Chaos daemons, as well as the remnants of their technocratic history, the Slann have unlimited access to magic, which they can further employ to bind hosts of jungle monsters to their will.

Undead: From forgotten crypts and forlorn mausoleums, the history of the civilizations of the world is ancient indeed. Now lost to time, countless societies rose and fell in the wilderness throughout the long and listless ages of man and more unspeakable creatures, taking with them all of their secrets and revelations. For those ambitious and reckless few, these moldering ossuaries are treasure troves of powerful lore, concealing the answer to the oldest predicament known to humankind—death. Many necromancers thus start down their path of destruction innocently enough, drawn to a misunderstood formula scrawled in the corners of an incomplete magical text or nagging suspicions about a master sorcerer's unfinished work. The result is often much the same, however—a kind of withered undeath in the disemboweled husk of a liche with little memory or love for the life it once knew. When they march forth from their sunken sepulchers to punish the living, Undead armies are headed by powerful wizards who have mastered the necromantic arts, whether Necromancers, Liches or Vampires. While the mindless, rotting legions must remain close to these sorcerers, more independent units can be lead by the spectres of fallen heroes, raised to once more haunt the battlefield. While all of these soulless corpses are immune to human fear and other frailties, the ever-tenuous hold of magic over their animated bones can be disrupted by defeat in combat, causing unpredictable results ranging from the return of more living dead to a complete collapse of the magical fabric that binds them. As Undead armies are raised slowly and painstakingly from the necropolises of forgotten civilizations beyond the frontier, the bulk of these foul legions are typically ancient skeletons, who ride into battle on skeletal steeds or creaking chariots, or might march as a phalanx bristling with spears, great weapons or armed with bows, crossbows and arquebuses. Common rabble is made up of cowardly Ghouls as well as Zombies who, with a faint glimmer of memories still whirling in their rotting brains, can be forced into a rout if threatened by the press of steel. Flammable mummies make up the core of the Undead heavy infantry, while giant Carrion birds cloak the sun and undead catapults pelt the enemy position. At the center of these undead hordes is invariably the Plague Cart, slowly plodding across the battlefield and sowing fear in the enemy while bolstering the threads of magic that hold the rotting army together. On occasion, allied contingents of Chaos or Dark Elves might be seen marching alongside the armies of the Undead, while hosts of monsters or spectres may be enthralled by the more powerful necromancers.


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